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Systematic Arminianism

This is an essay that I wrote way back in 2015, on the Christian doctrine of salvation. My thoughts on the subject in the eight years since then have wandered here and there, however, as I reread this essay today, I was struck by how well it expressed my beliefs. Today, I would not necessarily endorse every single detail of what I wrote here, but I can confidently endorse the views expressed herein as “close enough” to what I believe.

I was raised in a church with roots in the Wesleyan holiness tradition. It wasn’t until I went to college at a large public university, and joined a student ministry with Christians from diverse backgrounds, that I first learned about predestination and eternal security. At first, I was intrigued by these new ideas. It was uncomfortable, but not unpleasant, to try to understand these concepts and to examine their sources in the Bible, and to think about how they applied to our lives.

But then, things started to get weird. I went through a crisis of faith my sophomore year, in which I thought that I had committed the unforgivable sin and had lost my salvation. After I “recommitted my life to Christ”, I realized that I had not actually lost my salvation. As a result, I took a stronger interest in eternal security and this thing called Calvinism. I had some friends who were Calvinists, and some of the scriptures they pointed me to were helpful. They were wonderful, Bible-believing Christians, who “majored on the majors”, always going back to the Bible as the source. As a result, everything they believed and lived was in accord with orthodox Christian belief. On the other hand, when they were arguing against (or ridiculing) Arminianism (of which, I had learned, Wesleyan theology was a variant), they were passionate, uninformed, unfair, confused, and in the case of one common argument, just plain fallacious.

When I went back to my home church to try to get some answers to these arguments, I was disappointed by what I found. Whenever I mentioned Calvinism, I was met with a variety of more-or-less judgey, dismissive responses that seemed to view Calvinism as a heresy at best, or some sort of ominous bogey man at worst. What I was not given was anything of intellectual substance that would answer the arguments of Calvinism, or even lay out the beliefs of Arminian theology in a systematic way.

By that time, this intellectual and spiritual problem had touched my obsessive-compulsive nerve, and I was determined (pun intended) to get to the bottom of it. Literature on Calvinism was abundant and easy to find. A systematic account of the Arminian view of predestination was harder to find. A couple of years ago, in my early thirties, I finally got my hands on Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, by Roger Olson. It has been my main source for systematically tying together the fragments of Wesleyan theology that I had picked up as a teenager in my home church.

I would like to present this essay in the spirit of, “Can’t we all just get along”. As such, I have tried to highlight the areas in which Calvinism and Arminianism are in agreement. The form of Arminianism for which I am arguing is a version of what could be called “old-time” Arminianism, classic Arminianism, Wesleyan Arminianism, moderate Arminianism, or even “Biblical Arminianism”, to distinguish it from the several heresies which have crept underneath the Arminian umbrella in the past few centuries. I will address the five points of Calvinism (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints). However, I am organizing the points of my essay in order from least controversial to most controversial, and giving the points my own names, while retaining the Calvinist labels in parentheses at the beginning of each section.

Atonement (Limited Atonement)

I believe in penal substitutionary atonement. Jesus, who had no sin, neither original sin nor any sinful acts of his own, took the wickedness of all humanity on him, and God the Father punished him in our stead. By dying, he took the punishment for all the sins of humanity. By rising again, he defeated the power of sin and its consequence, death.

In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s justice and mercy are both satisfied. Jesus shows mercy by dying in our place in order to save us, which we could never do ourselves, and he does this regardless of the fact that we have done nothing to deserve it. God the Father exercises justice by punishing the sin of the world. Thus, God’s eternal attributes of justice and mercy are both satisfied, in the context of his relationship with sinful humanity.

As God’s eternal attributes are now in harmony in the context of his relationship with humanity, we as humans are now able to have a loving personal relationship with Him, and be in His holy presence for eternity.

This is the doctrine of the atonement. This is plain, basic, biblical Christianity. Calvinists add the word “limited” to the atonement, which raises the question of what specific limits they have in mind. When the discussion arises, most Calvinists I know of settle on the view that the atonement is “sufficient for all, and efficient only for the elect.”

Let’s look at the alternatives to this view. One alternative is that the atonement is efficient for everyone. This view is known as universalism. While, for all I know, there may be some universalists who call themselves Arminians, this heresy has absolutely no part in Wesleyan theology. The atonement is efficient for those who believe in their heart and confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord. Period.

The other alternative is that the atonement is sufficient only for the elect. This view is known as hypercalvinism. Most self-professed Calvinists agree that this view limits the power and mercy and grace of God. It seems to me that Jesus could not in all faithfulness say, “It is finished” (John 19:30), if the atonement were not sufficient for all.

Having eliminated the alternatives, we are back to the expression, “sufficient for all, and efficient only for the elect.” We might substitute the phrase “those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved”, for the word “elect”, and not change anything, since, according to Calvinism, these are the exact same group of people. So, we end up with the conviction that the atonement is sufficient for all, and efficient only for those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved. This is completely consistent with classic Arminianism.

Wickedness (Total Depravity)

The first man and woman disobeyed God, and “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned – for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” (Romans 5:12-14). Adam was the head of the human race, and as such, his sin was imputed to all his descendants, in exactly the same way that Jesus’ righteousness was imputed to his believers. This is the doctrine of original sin.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). In the Bible, the heart is the deepest, most essential part of a person. Even the deep places of one’s heart contain an incredible amount of wickedness. Calvinists like to say that sin, or depravity, affects every part of a person. It means the same thing.

“All we like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6). “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Isaiah 64:6). “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good. God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 53:1-3). “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). These verses show that everyone on earth is a sinner. All humans, in addition to being corrupted by original sin, have committed sins of their own and are guilty before God. We are unable to save ourselves, just as a man who is sinking in the ocean or falling from the sky cannot “pull himself up by his bootstraps.” This is the biblical doctrine of sin.

Thus far, there is no disagreement between Calvinists and classic Arminians. The apparent disagreement at this point may be due to having some Pelagians running around calling themselves Arminians. As far as I can tell, Pelagians deny the doctrine of original sin and believe they can work their way into salvation, or something like that. I cannot speak for everyone who falls under the Arminian label, but the church I grew up in would certainly never teach such a thing.

The next point in the doctrine of sin is the teaching that man, in his natural state of sin, is unable to respond to the gospel in faith without divine intervention. The denial of this teaching is called semipelagianism, which some Arminians embrace, but I do not.

At this point, I would like to introduce a metaphor. Imagine a man who has been tied up and left in the woods. His hands and feet are tied together, and he cannot get up and move. This man is a sinner, his bonds are sin, and his inability to get up and move is his inability to save himself. More precisely, his bonds are the effects that sin has on his will. Along comes a man, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, who gets him and takes him to the road, where a car (Jesus) is waiting to take them back to town. Some interesting differences between Calvinism and classic Arminianism lie in the details of how the man gets untied and taken back to the car, and we will cover those differences in the section on grace. For now it is sufficient to note that he is tied up and cannot move. He cannot save himself.

Predestination (Unconditional Election)

Calvinists believe that before time began, or from eternity past, God predestined a group of people, consisting of a set of specific individuals, to be saved. Interestingly, Arminians believe this too, although they don’t talk about it much. However, Arminians believe that predestination is based on foreknowledge, and Calvinists believe that predestination is not based on foreknowledge.

The church I grew up in didn’t care much about predestination, so I have been left to fend for myself on this issue. One proof text I might use for predestination being based on foreknowledge, ironically, is a passage that Calvinists like to quote: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30). Here, we see a logical series of events, and the first step in the series is foreknowledge. The second step is predestination. Thus foreknowledge logically precedes predestination.

Some of the confusion at this point has been due to an unfortunate philosophical mistake that has been around for over a thousand years, and that has been popular since the time of Jonathan Edwards. This mistake is known as theological fatalism, and is a statement that if God has foreknowledge of human choices, then those choices logically cannot be free. Thus one must either affirm free will and deny God’s foreknowledge, which results in open theism, or affirm God’s foreknowledge and deny free will, which results in theological determinism. Either way, predestination cannot be based on foreknowledge of free choices.

The good news is that, in the mid-to-late twentieth century, some new developments in modal logic, or the logic of necessity and possibility, enabled a Christian philosopher named Alvin Plantinga to disprove Jonathan Edwards’ argument for theological fatalism and show that foreknowledge is logically compatible with free will. In the past several decades, other Christian philosophers such as Thomas Flint and William Lane Craig have built on Plantinga’s work, and developed more refined theories of foreknowledge and free will. In the past ten years or so, academic theologians have started to use these theories to reinterpret the doctrine of predestination. These very interesting people are known as Molinists.

The most basic solution to the problem of fatalism rests on the idea that the free choice is logically prior to the foreknowledge, even though the foreknowledge is temporally prior to the free choice. This understanding of logical priority allows us to see how foreknowledge can precede predestination. To illustrate, the logical sequence of events, according to Calvinists, is: predestination –> foreknowledge –> (unfree) choice. The logical sequence of events, according to what I might call a Systematic Arminian, is: (free) choice –> foreknowledge –> predestination.

Thus, we see that it is perfectly logical for predestination to be based on foreknowledge, because it is possible for foreknowledge to logically precede predestination, which is in accord with Romans 8:29-30.

Fortunately for me, the people in the church in which I grew up did not care about Jonathan Edwards, and knew nothing about theological fatalism. We just knew that it is obvious, from the Bible, that God has foreknowledge, and it is obvious, from the Bible, that humans have free will. Therefore, God has foreknowledge and humans have free will. Q.E.D.

On the Calvinist view, the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chp. III para. II, essentially states that not only has God decreed everything that shall come to pass, but his decree is specifically not based on foreknowledge. This section of the Westminster Confession offers four proof texts, the strongest of which is Romans 9:10-18:

“…when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls – she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’

“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

This passage, along with the rest of Romans 9, does make a strong case for sovereign election that is not based on foreknowledge. However, a case can be made that Romans 9 is talking about corporate election, rather than individual predestination. The chapter opens with Paul waxing eloquently about his love for his fellow Israelites, who are the stewards of the deep, rich covenant relationship with God. Then he draws a contrast by pointing out that “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” (Romans 9:8). In the bigger picture, the “children of promise” refers to the New Testament church, as opposed to the “children of flesh”, who are the people of Israel. However, Romans 9:7-13 mentions Isaac and Jacob, Abraham’s first and second generation children of promise by physical descent, as examples of children of promise. The election of Isaac and Jacob is an aside in a chapter the main thrust of which is a contrast between Israel and the church, the children of the flesh and the children of promise. Thus the election of Isaac and Jacob is representative of the election of the whole body of Christ.

This is consistent with Arminian theology. Classic Arminians who actually care about such things believe in corporate election of the whole body of Christ, which is not based on foreknowledge, combined with predestination of individual believers, which is based on foreknowledge.

Grace (Irresistible Grace)

Grace is the word for God’s free gifts to us, or his unmerited favor. Our existence is a free gift from God, and thus our existence is by God’s grace. Our lives are a free gift from God, and thus we live by God’s grace. Because of God’s unmerited favor, our lives are not as bad as they could be. We have many blessings and comforts that we take for granted which are free gifts from God that we do not deserve. This is also grace.

All these gifts I just mentioned are examples of a general kind of grace. God showers this grace on all of humanity, just because he is a gracious God. Another, more specific kind of grace, is saving grace. This is the grace that is mentioned in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Saving grace is the free gift of salvation.

Classic Arminians believe in another, in-between kind of grace, called prevenient grace. Prevenient grace frees up the will of a sinner who hears the gospel, so that he can freely choose whether or not to accept the gift of salvation.

Let’s return to the analogy of the man tied up in the woods. The rescuer (Holy Spirit) comes up to the man and unties his hands and feet. This is the act of prevenient grace, which frees his will. The Holy Spirit then leads the man back to the car (Jesus), but the man has the option to turn around and run away instead. Following the Holy Spirit rescuer back to the Jesus car symbolizes his free choice to accept the gift of salvation, while the Holy Spirit is the one actually giving this gift (saving grace) by taking him back to the car. Running away symbolizes the act of freely choosing to reject the gift of salvation. This is the free choice that God foreknows, and upon which this man’s predestination is based.

Salvation is by saving grace, and it is through faith. When a sinner hears the gospel and the Holy Spirit frees his will by prevenient grace, he can then choose to accept the gift of saving grace. The way he accepts this gift is by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. This act of believing is called faith. Thus, there are two actions: the Holy Spirit calls, and the sinner believes. God saves us, and we believe he will save us. This view is called synergism, because it involves a synergy of action by God and action by the convert.

Some Calvinists get confused at this point, because they think that synergistic faith amounts to a type of work. Perhaps the confusion comes from the fact that believing is an action, and Calvinists are used to thinking of faith as a thing that God gives us, for example a seed that He plants in our hearts. But while the word “faith” is a noun, it really just refers to the act of believing. So faith is something we do, but it is still in a different category than works. I just point back to Ephesians 2:8-9 to show that salvation is through faith and not works. If salvation is through faith and not works, then faith cannot be a work. The synergy in synergistic salvation is, “God saves me, and I trust Him to save me.” The synergy is not, “God does most of the work involved in saving me, and I do the little bit of work called ‘faith’.” Faith and works are simply two different categories.

Calvinists believe in monergistic salvation. Monergism comes from the word “mono”, meaning “one”. In Calvinism there is one agent in salvation, God. In our metaphor, the Holy Spirit does not untie the man at first. The man’s will is bound by sin, so he cannot freely choose to believe. He does have saving faith, but God has somehow caused him to have that faith in some sort of process that involves a chain of events tracing back to God’s eternal decree, which does not consult the man himself on the matter. Thus, without untying the man’s will, in an act of irresistible grace, the Holy Spirit rescuer picks the man up and carries him back to the Jesus car. Once they are in the Jesus car, the man is saved. At this time, the Holy Spirit unties him, and his will is free to follow and obey Jesus.

The Molinists add another twist. According to them, the Holy Spirit unties the man, and then picks him up and carries him back toward the car. However, as he is being carried, the man has the ability to struggle and free himself and run away. Or something like that. Molinism is complicated.

Eternal Security (Perseverance of the Saints)

Let’s review what we have covered so far. Jesus died for our sins, because we had wicked hearts, and God had already predestined that we would be saved. One way or another, the Holy Spirit got our poor, wretched, sinful selves into the Jesus car, and we are on our way to town (heaven). Now what? There are basically two views. The first, which I will call eternal security, says that the Holy Spirit locks the doors of the Jesus car (with child locks) and keeps us in the car until we reach our destination. The second view, which I will call apostability (sic), says that the doors of the Jesus car remain unlocked and it is possible for us to struggle free and jump out of the moving car, i.e., to apostasize. I believe in eternal security.

Several Bible passages are relevant to the discussion of eternal security. The one I would like to point out is Ephesians 1:13-14: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” The seal of the Holy Spirit is a stamp of ownership, showing that the believer is God’s possession. He will never let his possession go. The guarantee is like an engagement ring that Jesus gives his bride. The consummation of the marriage will be after the second coming of Christ, and Jesus will not break his engagement.

Another way to look at it is that a Christian has been adopted into God’s family. Once you are a member of the family, you will never not be a member of the family. Even if you try to leave, God will come after you. As a rebellious Christian, your life will be miserable, but you will still be a member of the family, and God will always bring you back.

Several passages of Scripture are often used to argue that it is possible for a Christian to lose their salvation. Most of these passages that are addressed to Christians can be interpreted as warnings to follow God and grow in Christian maturity. They warn that a believer may lose eternal rewards, or that their life will be miserable, if they are not walking with God. Some warning passages may be given explicitly to persuade errant Christians to come back to the fold. However, none of the passages need be interpreted as saying that a true Christian can lose their salvation. The Scriptural evidence for eternal security is stronger than the evidence against it.

Belief in eternal security is more of a Calvinist belief than an Arminian belief, however, some Arminians do believe in eternal security.

Conclusion

In summary, Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead, in order to pay the penalty for our sins and bring us into a love relationship with God. Those who believe in their heart and confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord will be saved. Those who do not, will not. Calvinists can couch this in whatever theological terms they want. I call it the gospel.

There is an incredible amount of wickedness in the deep places of a man’s (or woman’s) heart. We are all sinners, by birth and by deed, and we are unable to save ourselves. The difference between the beliefs of Calvinists and those of classic Arminians on the doctrine of sin are limited to technicalities like supralapsarianism, which I am not getting into here.

Classic Arminians believe in corporate election of the whole body of Christ, which is not based on foreknowledge, in addition to predestination of individuals, which is based on foreknowledge of saving faith. Calvinists believe in a divine decree that determines everything that will happen, including the choice to follow Jesus. The differences have been aggravated over the past few centuries as theological fatalism has driven a wedge between the two sides, but I am optimistic about the future of this debate, as fatalism has now been refuted.

Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that salvation is by grace through faith, and not by works. Classic Arminians believe in an intermediate stage of grace, called prevenient grace, which allows the sinner to make a free choice to believe and be saved. Calvinists believe that the choice to believe and be saved ultimately is not free, and that faith that is freely chosen ultimately amounts to a type of work. There is a real disagreement here. However, the difference is in the metaphysical explanation of what is happening in the spiritual relationship between the Holy Spirit and the heart of the convert. At the level of conscious experience, humans feel both a sense of freedom of choice and a sense of being drawn one way or the other in a way that sometimes overcomes or changes our conscious desires. Both of these experiences are consistent with Scripture.

Calvinists believe that a true believer cannot lose their salvation. Some Arminians believe this, but most Arminians believe that it is possible for a true believer to lose their salvation. I side with the Calvinists on this topic. I believe in eternal security, mainly because of the experience I had in college in which I thought I had lost my salvation, but later realized I had not.

Hopefully, this essay has been helpful to the reader in clarifying some classical Arminian beliefs. Writing it has definitely been helpful to the author.

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