Why I Am an Arminian, Part 1 of 2

, posted by SEA

The following paper is meant to be an overview of what I believe with regard to the doctrine of Divine election. The first half, contained in this post, will explain why Arminianism–the rejection of unconditional divine election of specific individuals to salvation–is so often defended only in reaction to the Calvinist position, and will attempt to make a positive, Biblical case for Arminianism, without specific reference to the Calvinist position. The second half of the paper will discuss the Calvinist critique of Arminianism and attempt to respond to that critique from the Arminian point of view. The paper as a whole is merely intended to be an overview, not an exhaustive examination of the issues that surround divine election; a close exegetical study of the Biblical passages that bear upon divine election is necessary to decide upon one position or another.

I should note that I consider the whole controversy something that should be a friendly debate among fellow believers, not a test of orthodoxy.

Introduction: Against Reaction to Calvinism

I. Since the Reformation, what has come to be known as “Calvinism” or Reformed theology has been the fundamental interpretive grid through which the doctrine of election has been historically understood by Protestants. This is to say that the Reformers established a dominant Protestant tradition upholding some form of unconditional divine election of specific individuals to salvation (largely by contrast to the medieval Roman Catholic position). Those that differed from this position, notably Jacobus Arminius, John Wesley, and the traditions that arose from them, did so largely in reaction to a prior Reformed tradition. (For convenience’ sake, this paper will use the terms “Calvinism” and “Reformed” in reference to all Protestant traditions, including Lutheran, that espouse unconditional, particular election to salvation, and Wesleyan and Arminian interchangeably in reference to all Protestant traditions that reject unconditional, particular election.)

II. The result of this is that even today, advocates of an Arminian position find themselves generally arguing defensively–that is to say, attempting to refute established Calvinistic doctrines rather than developing a positive case for an alternative point of view. This is seen most clearly in defenses of the Arminian position that are cast (as rebuttals) within the framework of the “five points” of Calvinism. A number of reasons for the continuing of this situation exist:

  1. For most people who haven’t been specifically taught unconditional, particular election, the possibility of anyone coming to faith through the gospel seems to be the natural understanding of scripture.[See Note 1 below] Therefore, most people never bother to defend Arminianism except when confronting a specific Calvinistic challenge; and so they end up doing so reactively, rather than proactively.
  2. Arminians would hold that their position is an assumption which undergirds scripture (just as the Bible doesn’t defend God’s existence but rather everywhere assumes it) rather than a doctrine to be proven by explicit scriptural statement.
  3. For the above reasons and because of the historical prominence of this question within Reformation debate, the issue of election rises to a greater importance for the Calvinist than for the Arminian. The “five points” are taught within the Reformed tradition, whereas the possibility of anyone who hears the gospel coming to saving faith is simply a working assumption within the Wesleyan tradition.

III. The practical result of this situation is that Calvinism is generally thought to be the only intellectually respectable form of evangelicalism. A defense of the Arminian position needs to be made, but it cannot be made merely in reaction to the Calvinistic position; that is to concede to the opposition the terms of debate. A positive case needs to be made for Arminianism. Two points must be understood regarding the following treatise:

  1. Some of the foundations of such a case will be common to both Calvinistic and Arminian understandings of scripture–so to assert something as essential to the Arminian position is not necessarily to deny that Calvinists may agree; and
  2. Since the immediate point is to build a positive case for Arminianism without reference to Calvinism, some Arminian assertions to which Calvinists have historically responded will need to be laid down without immediate engagement with Reformed criticism. A later section of the paper will be devoted to the Reformed critique of Arminian assertions and to the Arminian response.

[1] This “naive Arminianism” in itself is neither an argument for or against Arminianism: one could argue that the average Christian hasn’t studied the Bible closely enough to recognize the implication of passages dealing with election, or one could argue that Calvinism is a system of interpretation not naturally arising from Scripture but imposed upon it. What the present writer is concerned with here is the practical implication of “natural Arminianism” that Arminianism tends to be taught only in reaction to Calvinism, as opposed to being taught on its own.

The Positive Case for Arminianism

I. The Mercy of God
Arminianism is based in the first instance on an expansive understanding of God’s mercy.

A. Favorably compared with His justice
Throughout Scripture, the theme of the Lord’s mercy is prominent, if not preeminent. Where it is contextually related to the Lord’s justice, it is always treated as more fundamental to God’s character. The seminal scripture in this regard would be Exodus 34.6-7:

The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands [or, “a thousand generations,” cf. Ex. 20.6], and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.

It is difficult to imagine that a comparison of attributes is not intentional. First and overwhelmingly, God identifies Himself with those attributes that stress His mercy, and only subsequently identifies Himself in terms of justice. In contrast to the “third and fourth generation” to which He punishes sin, He stipulates “a thousand” whom He forgives.

The atonement itself is in many ways a triumph of mercy over justice–compelled by His own nature to remain just, God nonetheless finds a way to extend mercy to those who justly deserve death, even at the cost of His own Son (Rom. 4.25). This is not to say that God is not ultimately just, or that His mercy somehow obviates His justice; it is merely to state that where the scriptures bring these two attributes together, mercy is always magnified over justice. It would thus seem to be unbiblical to regard God’s mercy as somehow restricted as compared with His justice.

B. Desire for none to perish/love expressed universally
Scripture notably records God’s desire to see the wicked–spoken of inclusively; i.e., all the wicked–come to salvation: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezek. 33.11; cf. 3.18-19, 13.22); “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3.9); God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2.4). The object of His love is also seen expansively: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son . . . For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him should live” (Jn. 3.16-17). The scope of God’s mercy breaks out of the apparent “covenant community” even in the OT; most clearly in Jonah: “Ninevah has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jon. 4.11). One of clearest and most important doctrines in the NT is the expansion of the covenant people to include those who have been previously excluded; and many references to this expansion read as though it is to encompass potentially everyone (e.g., John 1:7 and scriptures included under heading II).

II. The Scope and Sufficiency of the Atonement
Arminians believe that Jesus’ sacrificial death is sufficient and applicable through faith to all the sins committed by all people in the world.

A. Scriptural indications of atonement for “all people” or “the whole world”
The scope of the atonement is repeatedly cast in inclusive terms: “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2.2); “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Rom. 5.18); “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17.21).

B. Basis for general atonement in the imago dei
Although all people are alike under just condemnation and deserving of death, and although God is not under obligation to save anyone, it is nonetheless true that there is something worthy of redeeming in fallen man; namely, the image of God (Gen. 1.18, 5.1, 9.2; James 3.9). The Genesis 9 and James passages make it abundantly clear that the image has not been lost or destroyed since the Fall, and that it is the possession of the unbeliever as well as the believer. It is often said that the image has been “distorted” or “damaged” by the Fall, but nothing in the scripture says this. Due to human sinfulness, the image is being constantly misused–in C.S. Lewis’s words, every sin is an act of sacrilege–but it nonetheless provides a ground for God’s love for sinful human beings. Moreover, it provides a ground for all human beings to become objects of God’s mercy.

III. The Requirement of Faith
Although Christ’s death is sufficient to atone for all sins, God requires faith on the part of the sinner in order to apply Christ’s atonement to individual sin and thus to save people from damnation.

A. Defining characteristic of redeemed
By far, Christians in the NT are more often identified as “believers” or “those who believe” than with any other term (e.g. John 1.12; 8.31, 11.25-26, 12.44, 46, 14.12, 17.20; Acts 2.44, 4.32, 5.14, 11.17, 15.5; Rom. 3.22, 26, 4.11, 24; 1 Cor. 1.21, 14.22; Gal. 3.7, 9; Eph. 1.19; 1 Thes. 1.7, 2.10, 13; 2 Thes. 1.10; 1 Pet. 2.6-7; 1 Jn. 5.1, 5). The term that is most often used to describe the action of a person coming to salvation in Christ is that such a person “believed” (John 2.11, 23, 4.39, 41, 53, 7.31, 8.30, 10.42, 12.11; Acts 4.4, 8.12, 13, 9.42, 11.21, 13.12, 14.1, 17.12, 34, 18.8). Pistis is recognized as a criterion for inclusion in the covenant people and even as a requirement for salvation: “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness in his name ” (Acts 10.43); “Through him everyone who believes is justified” (Acts 13.39); “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16.31); the Gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom. 1.16). The salvation message continually calls upon the unsaved to “believe” (John 11.15, 20.31). Faith is regarded as instrumental to the salvation process (Luke 7.50, 18.42; Acts 14.27, 15.9; Rom. 3.25, 5.1-2, 9.30). The reason for such an expansive (though not nearly exhaustive) tabulation of the use of pistiV and pisteuw in relation to salvation is to document the clear and consistent identification that the scriptures make between the action of trusting in Christ and the state of being saved; it is much more frequently encountered than the identification made between God’s action of electing people and the state of being saved. The clear implication of such passages is to see faith as 1) possible for all who are confronted with the gospel; and 2) the defining characteristic of the covenant community.

IV. The Order of Salvation
Differences in understanding God’s election of believers leads to differences in understanding the logical order of events by which salvation takes place. In discussing this order, it is important to understand that the terms by which salvation is described refer primarily to aspects of salvation, and not, unless scripture warrants, successive links in a process.

A. Conversion as repentance and faith
What is known as conversion is generally understood to refer to the composite subjective action involving separately repentance–i.e., turning from sin–and faith–i.e., turning toward God. These actions are not sequential, either temporally or logically; they are simultaneous and in fact refer to the same subjective change viewed from different points of view.

B. Regeneration and Justification
Both regeneration and justification refer to objective changes in the being and status of the Christian. Regeneration refers to the “new birth,” the change in nature from death to new life (e.g., John 3.3, 7, 8; 1 Jn. 2.29, 3.9, 4.7, 5.1, 4, 18; 1 Pet. 1.23). The term appears to be a Johannine coinage, picked up infrequently elsewhere, although the concept appears in different form in Paul (e.g. 2 Cor. 5.17). Justification refers to the legal status of the Christian, the change from guilt to righteousness before God, and appears to be a Pauline concept (e.g., Rom. 3.24, 26, 28, 30, 5.1, 8.30, 33; 1 Cor. 6.11; Gal. 2.16-17, 3.8, 24; 1 Tim. 3.16; Tit. 3.7). No scripture clearly relates these two concepts, much less makes one contingent upon the other. The most reasonable assumption to be made is that they refer to the same fundamental spiritual change, viewed from two conceptual frameworks: ontological (regeneration) and legal/moral (justification).

C. Biblically relating conversion to regeneration and justification
Although the above groups of terms cannot be related temporally or causally to one another within each group, scripture does relate one group causally to the other. Specifically, conversion–viewed either as repentance or faith or both–is viewed as the means of apprehending regeneration/justification: “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2.38); “They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household’” (Acts 16.31). This pattern is confirmed by formulae that identify those who believe with those whose sins are forgiven in such a manner as to suggest some kind of causal relationship between the two: “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10.43). Thus, although the ultimate cause of salvation is God’s grace through the sacrifice of Jesus, the immediate cause of that salvation being applied to the individual is that individual’s repentance from sin and faith toward God. Therefore, conversion is logically prior to regeneration and justification.

V. The Role of Election
An emphasis on the expansiveness of God’s mercy, on the sufficiency of the atonement to cover the sins of everyone, and on the necessity of faith on the part of the unregenerate would seem to obviate the biblical witness to the doctrine of divine election. This has historically been the basic criticism of Arminianism. However, when viewed in its biblical context, the doctrine of election is properly understood not to conflict with the above premises.

A. Its relationship to assurance for the believer
It is first necessary to place divine election in the context of providing assurance for the believer. Romans 8.30, in which the salvation process is described as a chain of divine acts leading from predestination to glorification, occurs as part of a ground statement supporting the assertion in v. 28 that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” which itself supports the promises in vv. 18-27 of future glory and the Spirit’s assistance in our weaknesses. Similarly Paul, in Ephesians 1.11, asserts election and predestination only to follow the train of thought out to the “guarantee” of “our inheritance” in v. 14. The basic point in these passages would seem to be that even as God has chosen us, so also he will keep us until the end. The issue of assurance, in turn, mainly addresses itself to those facing the possibility of persecution: the promise is that God will enable them to endure to the end whatever sufferings he permits.

B. Relationship of foreknowledge to predestination
The foregoing discussion of election has not addressed the issue of the criteria of election: on what basis does God predestine those whom he does? Romans 8.29 asserts that “those God foreknew he also predestined,” while Ephesians 1.12 identifies the “we” who were chosen and predestined in v. 11 as those “who were the first to hope in Christ.” In neither case is a causal relationship made from predestination to foreknowledge or to hoping in Christ, but rather, the reverse (especially clear in the Romans passage): predestination is based on foreknowledge, and those who are foreknown are those who hope in Christ. Although Romans 8.29 does not make clear what it is that God foreknows about us that leads to our predestination, Ephesians 1.12 and the preponderance of scriptures indicating the requirement and necessity of faith for salvation indicates that what God foreknows about those whom he predestines is that they will come to faith in Christ. Faith in Christ, thus, appears biblically to be the criterion by which God elects to salvation; in fact, the substance of God’s election would seem to be sovereignly choosing faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice, as opposed to any other criterion of merit, as the criterion for salvation (1 Cor. 1.20-21).

VI. The Necessity of Personal Perseverance
Although the above scriptures give us assurance in Christ, other scriptures make clear that it is also our own responsibility to avoid sin and to remain in a faith relationship with Christ. The alternative to doing so is often explicitly stated as not being saved.

A. Remaining in a faith relationship
The preeminent standard for the assurance of our salvation is to remain in a faith relationship with Christ. Jesus illustrates this clearly in his analogy of the vine and the branches:

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit . . . . If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15.5-6)

Jesus clearly identifies his listeners as “branches,” and the clear implication is that in order to bear fruit and not to wither and be thrown into the fire, one must “remain in” Jesus. The analogy inevitably implies that branches can fail to remain in Christ and that the result of such failure is eschatological destruction. If it is asserted that those who fail to persevere in Christ were never truly believers at all, then what is the point of talking about “remaining” in him? One cannot remain where one never was. Indeed, what is the point of talking about branches? The one who has never been redeemed can hardly be called a “branch” of Jesus, the vine. Even the branch that has fallen away is still called a branch, indicating that it once was “in” the vine. Defenders of eternal security at this point must be reduced to suggesting that Jesus is describing a null category: what would be the case if someone were to fall away, which in fact never occurs because of security in Christ.

Similar arguments may be made about the planting and initial growth of the seed in rocky and thorny ground, Luke 8; and also about Hebrews 6.4-8, 10.26-31, 35-39, and 12.25; Ezekiel 18.24; Matt. 18.21-35 and many other passages. In each case, on the hypothesis of eternal security, the person spoken of as having fallen away must either be supposed never to have believed truly, or the situation must be thought of as hypothetical, a warning against a situation that never actually obtains. In each case, there is a complete lack of textual warrant for such an understanding. In addition, we must also recognize direct imperatives to perseverance such as Galatians 6.9, Ephesians 6.10-18, Jude 21, and Hebrews 10.36. Whatever enablement we may suppose God has granted us by virtue of our salvation, it is still we who are being called upon to persevere ourselves.

B. Works as evidence, although not ground, of salvation
Scripture makes very clear that the ground of salvation is God’s grace through faith in Jesus, and is not human works in any sense (Rom. 3.21-4.25, Gal. 3.1-14). However, it is equally clear that salvation should result in a changed life, and therefore be evidenced by works of righteousness. Although this is most clearly stated in James 2.14-26, suggesting to some a basic conflict between the theologies of James and Paul, one sees in Paul an equally serious concern for the ethical ramifications of salvation, e.g. Romans chs. 12-15; Galatians 5.16-6.10; Ephesians chs. 4-6; Colossians 3.1-4.6, etc. The clear implication of this is that if there is no moral-ethical-behavioral change on the part of one claiming to have received salvation, there is no reason to believe that such a person is saved.

Next: a discussion of the Calvinist critique of Arminianism and an attempt to respond to that critique from the Arminian point of view.

Keith Schooley (comments may be submitted at the original post)