Jacob Arminius and God's Marvelous Grace

Born 10 October 1559, Jakob Harmenszoon, in Oudewater, Holland, Jacob (or the English derivative James) Arminius is known to us as a Reformed theologian of grace. Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall note: "Although grace should not be taken as any sort of 'central dogma' for Arminius," as though the subject of grace defines Arminius' theology in toto, "it is a recurring theme and very important to his theological and indeed pastoral concerns."1 Arminius and Arminians can boast much about the grace of God since we hold that God's grace extends to all persons ever to exist wherever they may live.

For example, we could never confess that the grace of the gospel extends to (is intended for) those whom God has unconditionally elected to save, for the gospel of Christ falls on the ears of those who will never respond in faith toward Him (Matt. 13:18-23). For Arminius, God's call to repentance and salvation is genuine: He intends to save whoever will, by grace, trust in Jesus Christ His Son -- He is not bound to save anyone based upon some foreign concept such as an unconditional decree to efficaciously bring about the salvation of some alleged eternally-foreordained elect. God does not cause the gospel to be proclaimed and, at the same time, deafen the ears of anyone from hearing it. "For it cannot be," writes Arminius, "that God should at the same time will contradictory things, in whatever mode or under whatever distinction His will be considered."2 If He has decreed to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; 1 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 7:25) then He genuinely intends to save those who believe.

The early Arminians, taking their cue from Arminius himself, hold that, with regard to the grace of God calling sinners to repentance, He calls them "with a gracious and serious intention to save and so to bring to faith all those who are called, whether they really believe and are saved or not, and so obstinately refuse to believe and be saved."3 In other words, whether or not the individual comes to faith and is saved by the grace of God, He calls them to repentance, faith, and eternal bliss with Him regardless. Arminius writes:
But, because "known unto our God are all His works from the beginning of the world" (Acts 15:18), and as God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do, this vocation [calling] is likewise instituted and administered according to God's eternal decree: So that what man soever is called in time, was from all eternity predestinated to be called, and to be called in that state, time, place, mode, and with that efficacy, in and with which he was predestinated. . . .4
Not only does the Lord know those who are His (2 Tim. 2:19), but He has also known from all eternity those who would be His (Rom. 8:29). That He extends His grace to those whom He knows will not receive it is of no negative theological or experiential consequence. The very fact that God sheds His grace on those who reject it will testify against them on the Day of Judgment. After all, as I. Howard Marshall argues, the question at issue "is not whether all will be saved but whether God has made provision in Christ for the salvation of all, provided that they believe, and without limiting the potential scope of the death of Christ merely to those whom God knows will believe."5 We recall the Scriptures: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14, emphasis added); "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (John 1:16, emphasis added). We never lack of God's marvelous grace.

When some people explain or describe the grace of God they do so in terms of motion, somewhat narrowed as a verb, as an efficacious causation. We believe this is partial error. Arminius rightly articulates grace "as God's disposition 'to communicate his own good and to love the creatures, not out of merit or of debt, nor that it may add something to God himself; but that it may be well with the one on whom the good is bestowed . . . and who is loved.'"6 God's grace may be witnessed by what He does -- the giving of Jesus Christ, for example -- but that "grace" originates in God's Person, or from His heart, and goodness.

Grace as God's disposition toward undeserving creatures better frames the matter, we think, for the concept of grace as a verb does not always cause a positive effect, and does not properly locate its origin, as a disposition within God Himself. This is why the notion of "irresistible grace" is not only a misnomer but uncharacteristic of God. If we have learned any truth from Scripture we know that God does not irresistibly impose His views, standards, or ways upon anyone (causally bringing about their obedience). People everyday think, say, and behave contrary to God's commands and wishes. Still, God's marvelous grace -- His disposition toward a fallen and rebellious race -- is demonstrated.

Viewing grace as God's merciful heart-disposition toward fallen creatures created in His image grants a fresh perspective of His relationship with us. We understand that "grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17), indicating that God's own heart is known and experienced in and through His one and only Son Jesus Christ, who is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), the "reflection [brightness, NKJV] of God's glory and the exact imprint [image, NKJV] of God's very being" (Heb. 1:3 NRSV). So we can frame the issue of grace as that, whatever good we receive from God, we receive it due to His gracious disposition. With regard to the disciples Luke indicates that "great grace was upon them all" (Acts 4:33). In this vein we see that God's very presence was manifest among them in all goodness, blessing, and strength. He also informs us that Stephen was a man "full of grace and power" (Acts 6:8). We know, then, that the presence and Spirit of God was active in his heart, mind, and evident in his life.

When Barnabas went into Antioch, witnessing "the grace of God" among the believers (Acts 11:23), he knew that God's manifest, grace-dispositioned presence was active among them -- Luke noting the Antioch event as being "the hand of the Lord was with them" (Acts 11:21). Paul and Barnabas urged converts to "continue in the grace of God" (Acts 13:43); they also "testified to the word of [God's] grace by [His] granting signs and wonders to be done through them" (Acts 14:3). God's disposition and palpable presence was undeniable. He was pouring out His very Self and His people were rejoicing, praising Him, and spreading the good news of Christ to all. The grace of God is not an abstract concept, nor a causal force, but is the demonstration of the very heart of God our Creator. Grace is not an activity of God but is the motivation behind all of God's goodness and blessed actions.

That Arminius is known among some circles for advocating free will, as opposed to salvation by grace through faith, is nothing short of tragic. "Rather than elevate 'free will' [in his writings on divine providence], which he only mentions to retain human responsibility for sin and to preserve grace as a genuine gift, he stresses God's concurrence in all things, elevates God's character and love, and emphatically insists upon the [absolute] necessity and primacy of divine grace."7 Thankfully more proper views of Arminius are being advanced today through the likes of Keith Stanglin, J. Matthew Pinson, Thomas McCall, Roger Olson, W. Stephen Gunter, Brian Abasciano, William den Boer, the Society of Evangelical Arminians, Arminian bloggers and others.

After exalting the grace of God, and denying that man has total free will, Arminius concludes: "That teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to Divine Grace; provided he so pleads the cause of Grace as not to inflict an injury on the Justice of God and not to take away the free will to that which is evil."8 (emphasis original) What he made certain to avoid was attributing our evil deeds to any decree of God. A grace-dispositioned God would never decree anyone to commit an evil act, since He not only hates sin, but also "truly hates the sins of the regenerate and of the elect of God."9 God is actively working to bring about a world of righteousness, where the law of love and His marvelous grace -- His very real and tangible, visible, and experienced presence -- will reign in the hearts of men and women everywhere.


1 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 22.

2 Jacob Arminius, "Examination of Perkins's Pamphlet," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 3:318. He continues: "But I affirm that what God says in His commands and promises is of such a kind that He cannot, without contradiction, be said to will or appoint anything contrary to any decree of His." (3:319)

3 The Arminian Confession of 1621, trans. and ed. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2005), 106.

4 Arminius, 2:235.

5 I. Howard Marshall, "Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 56.

6 Stanglin and McCall, 152.

7 Ibid., 139.

8 Arminius, 2:700-01.

9 Ibid., 2:725.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.