What is an Arminian?

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by Roger E. Olson

Contrary to what some critics say, an Arminian is someone who believes that salvation is all of grace and through faith alone without any merit (except, of course, the merits of Christ). An Arminian is also someone who believes, contrary to Calvinism, that the person being saved is enabled by grace to cooperate in his or her salvation without “contributing” anything meritorious to it. In other words, God does all the saving but he won’t save without our consent.

All this is spelled out so clearly in Arminius and Wesley and other classical Arminians that one has to wonder about those who say otherwise. For example, Calvinists and some Lutheran critics who argue that Arminianism makes “man” his own savior. One leader of the “young, restless, Reformed” movement says that according to Arminianism the cross of Jesus Christ doesn’t actually save anyone but only gives people the opportunity to save themselves. That is, of course, pure hogwash.

I have a huge stack of reading notes that I have taken while studying Arminian theology over the past several years. I’ve read at least one book by virtually every Arminian of the last few centuries and I’ve read everything written by Arminius that has been translated into English. (What hasn’t been translated is generally not available outside Holland.) So, just now, I reached into that pile of reading notes and pulled out one Arminian theologian at random to find what he says about salvation.

R. Larry Shelton, a Wesleyan theologian writing on “Initial Salvation: The Redemptive Grace of God in Christ” (in the edited volume A Contemporary Wesleyan Theology: Biblical, Systematic and Practical) writes about fallen humanity. His words echo all classical Arminians including Arminius himself: “[m]an who was created to be in fellowship with God has become alienated from Him and enslaved by evil.” (p. 483) This is hardly “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian,” as critics accuse Arminianism of being. With regard to salvation and grace he writes:

    Every aspect of salvation, from the first awareness of moral need to ultimate consummation in glorification is worked through God’s grace. …[t]here is a cooperation, or synergism, between divine grace and the human will. The Spirit of God does not work irresistibly, but through the concurrence of the free will of individuals. Finally, salvation is all of grace. Although the human will must respond to the offer of grace at every level of spiritual development, the will does not initiate or merit grace or salvation. (p. 485)

Like all classical Arminians (many are not Wesleyans), Shelton emphasizes the concept of prevenient grace – the supernatural grace of God that overcomes depravity and bondage of the will to sin and makes the sinner encountered by the Word of God able to say “yes” to God’s offer of salvation. Without this supernatural, prevenient grace that convicts, illuminates, calls and enables, no human being would be able or willing to say “yes” to God. On this Arminians and Calvinists agree. Where they disagree is about whether the person encountered by the Word of God and inwardly called by God is able to say “no.”

There is much more to Arminianism, of course, but this is the core difference between Calvinism and Arminianism. As one Arminian theologian has said about Calvinism, if it is true, Scripture should say, “By force you were saved through faith….”

Watch this space for more about Calvinism and Arminianism. My next post will talk about my forthcoming book Against Calvinism: Rescuing God’s Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology (Zondervan).

Original post is found on Roger E. Olson.com.