The Golden Idol of Free Will

Calvinist cleric Augustus Toplady (1740-1778), author of the hymn "Rock of Ages" and staunch opponent of the Wesley brothers, constructed a polemic titled "The Golden Idol of Free Will," one of the most misrepresentative writings of Classical Arminian thought and belief on the nature, composition, and effects of free will. Anyone even remotely familiar with the theology of Arminius and his successors the Remonstrants, or the Wesley brothers themselves, will immediately understand, upon reading Toplady's calumnious rhetoric, the sophistry of his arguments, his failure to grasp Arminianism -- the anachronistic theology of the early Church fathers1 -- and his unfortunately inept means at accurately representing Classical Arminian theology on the subject of free will.

Augustus is no less cantankerous than Calvinist fabricator John Owen (1616-1683), explicitly naming Arminians idolaters, worshipers of the false deity of free will. Indeed, I would agree with both of them if it were true -- if Arminians actually did bow their heart to free will, and lay upon themselves and their students and congregation the supremacy of the doctrine of free will. But this concept is as false as the heart of the Deceiver himself, who attempts to smear the godly character, ministry, and biblical doctrines of those who reject the erroneous heterodoxy of Calvinism: i.e., the doctrines of meticulous, exhaustive determinism, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace; for the very suggestion of Toplady is this: if one adhere not to these core tenets, then he or she is an idolater of free will. This reasoning, however, is entirely fallacious and most embarrassing for the Calvinist camp.

Toplady quotes Psalm 115:3 -- "Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases" -- presuming its proper interpretation belongs to Calvinists alone, concluding: "This is not the Arminian idea of God: for our free-willers and our chance-mongers tell us, that God does not do whatsoever He pleases; that there are a great number of things, which God wishes to do, and tugs and strives to do, and yet cannot bring to pass." (link) He is convinced that "all the Arminians upon earth . . . endeavor to defeat the divine intention, and to clog the wheels of divine government." (link) Is he correct? Do Arminians suggest that God does not do whatsoever He pleases? Or is Toplady guilty, as so many Calvinists after him, of distorting Arminianism?

First, Calvinists, in a most ridiculous manner, assume their position, and thereby refute their opposition accordingly. Certainly God can do whatsoever He pleases. But we do not thereby assume that God is pleased to unconditionally elect some people for heaven and the rest for hell (Eph. 1:4); we do not assume that He regenerates His unconditionally elect and grant them faith to believe in Christ, whereby they are passively saved (Eph. 2:8; Col. 2:13); we do not assume that Christ's atonement was intended only for the unconditionally elect, since Scripture explicitly states otherwise (John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 John 2:2). So, Toplady's charge that, in Arminianism, God merely wishes to save all sinners, tugging and striving to do so, but is incapable of bringing about that desire, is merely further proof of his inability to objectively represent and answer Arminianism by its own arguments.

God's intent is not to monergistically bring an alleged, passive sinner unto Himself via regeneration. His Spirit convicts a sinner (John 16:8-11), enables the sinner to freely trust in Christ (John 6:44; 6:65; Phil. 1:29), and brings about his or her regeneration following that faith (John 1:12-13; Col. 2:13). Otherwise Scripture is incorrect in insisting that a person is saved (i.e., regenerated, cf. Titus 3:5) by grace through faith in Christ. If Calvinism were accurate, both sola gratia and sola fide would be gratuitous, and replaced by solus regeneratus.    

Second, Arminius rightly acknowledges God's sovereignty; namely that, "'known unto our God are all His works from the beginning of the world' (Acts 15:18) . . . [and therefore] God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do. . . ."2 God, indeed, does whatever He pleases; and what He pleases to "do" is that which is holy and just: "He exercises a general care over the whole world, and over each of the creatures and their actions and passions, in a manner that is befitting Himself and suitable for His creatures, for their benefit, especially for that of pious men, and for a declaration of the divine perfection."3 Toplady and others would have us believe that Arminianism is opposed to this wonderful truth, but they do so at the cost of their own integrity.

Arminius' followers maintained the same position: "For He not only conserves their natures or properties and powers, but also uses them according to His will, either for the good or punishment of man, especially seen by God denying, removing, transferring, agitating, stopping, repressing, controlling, multiplying, lessening, stretching, or remitting them, etc., either as [an act of] goodness or grace and mercy and longsuffering, or to the contrary, by His revenge or wrath and severity."4 As to chance, the Remonstrants explicitly answer: "Therefore nothing happens anywhere in the entire world rashly or by chance, that is, God either not knowing, or ignoring, or idly observing it, much less looking on, still less altogether reluctantly even unwillingly and not even willing to permit it."

Still, they argue, using very strong statements negating determinism: "For truly there is nothing either good or evil which is fatally or not contingently done by man or by absolute necessity, that is, God either violently compelling their wills to this or that, by offering some irresistible power, some absolute and always efficacious decree (whether you will call it effective or permissive, as some foolishly say), or some other way of acting."5 Even so:
Therefore, through the true providence of God wisely and righteously governing all things in a holy manner, no place is ever left in the world either for the blind fortune and brute rashness of the Epicureans, nor for the unyielding, fatal necessity of the Stoics, Manicheans, or [deterministic] Predestinarians. These two rocks, extremely prejudicial and dangerous indeed in this subject, are especially to be avoided. Furthermore, those who are truly godly, being rightly informed about all these things and patient in whatever adversity, will always give thanks to God in prosperity, and in addition, in the future they will freely and continuously place their greatest hope in God, their most faithful Father.6
But let us not be coy about this argument with Calvinists: the main issue with polemicists like Toplady and Owen (and too many others to name) is not free will7 but their own denial of the Arminian and early Church teaching that God genuinely offers salvation to those who reject His offer, even to those who reject His grace, by their own free will. This concept, so thinks the Calvinist, grants us to boasting in our salvation. In his presumptuous nature, Toplady pits Arminius against Jesus Christ Himself on this very issue: "One great contest, between the religion of Arminius, and the religion of Jesus Christ, is, who shall stand entitled to the praise and glory of a sinner's salvation?" (link)

Mind you, for Calvinists like Toplady (and Owen and too many others to name), Arminianism grants humanity the privilege to boast and glory in salvation because we insist that it is not granted passively, through the act of imposed regeneration. That is the crux of our heated argument: the mode of the receptivity of our salvation. Because Arminians argue that Scripture teaches that one must actively receive salvation by the grace of God through one's faith in Jesus Christ, then we allegedly rob God of His rightful glory and honor in granting us salvation.

This tired old canard has been refuted ad nauseum by Arminians since Arminius himself in the sixteenth century, and yet such is still repeated by Calvinist detractors to this day. Though an individual must be enabled (John 6:44) and granted (John 6:65; Phil. 1:29) the power or ability to believe, one having been freed from his or her bondage to sin in order to freely choose Christ, the actual believing is done by the individual, not by God, nor by any necessity imposed upon one by God (Matt. 9.22, 29; 15.28; Mk. 4.40; Luke 8.25; Acts 14.9; Rom. 1.8; 4.5; 1 Cor. 2.5; 15.14; 2 Cor. 1.24; Eph. 1.15; Phil. 2.17; Col. 1.4; 2.5; 1 Thes. 3.2, 5, 6, 7, 10; Philemon 1:6; Heb. 10.23; 12.2; James 1.3; 2.18; 1 Pet. 1.7, 9, 21; 2 Pet. 1.5; 1 Jn. 5.4; Jude 1:20). God does not believe for us, nor does He "implant faith" in our minds through regeneration. Faith is a response to His grace; and faith is not a work (Rom. 4:4-5). Scripture does not grant us warrant for a Calvinistic belief on this matter in any of its passages. Since Calvinists err egregiously on this matter, shall we declare that they are worshiping the false, Stoic idol of Determinism? Is that which is good for the goose also good for the gander?

Toplady concludes, as did John Owen before him, that "not one grain of Arminianism ever attended a saint to heaven. If those of God's people, who are in the bonds of that iniquity, are not explicitly converted from it, while they live and converse among men," then they will not enter heaven. (link) In short, either Arminians must become Calvinists or they are damned forever to spending eternity in hell. At least anti-Arminians like R.C. Sproul, O.R. Johnston, and J.I. Packer grant that we are "barely saved." Fine: but let us resolve this issue once and for all on two eternal-life-depending truths: 1) If Arminianism is idolatrous, and thus Arminians are idolaters, then God decreed it; this Calvinists cannot deny without betraying their own theology; and 2) If Calvinists are wrong on this issue, and are therefore found guilty of worshiping the idol of Determinism, then they will never enter the kingdom of heaven, but will headlong fall into an eternal fiery pit, along with the Devil and his fallen angels, there to exist for all eternity.      


1 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

2 The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:235, cf. also 2:227; 2:368.

3 Ibid., 2:367.

4 "On the Providence of God, or His Preservation and Government of Things," in The Arminian Confession of 1621, trans. and ed. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2005), 6:2:59.

5 Ibid., 62-63.

6 Ibid., 63.

7 Regarding free will Arminius states: "In this [fallen] state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. The Mind of man, in this state, is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God: . . . To this Darkness of the Mind succeeds the Perverseness of the Affections and of the Heart, according to which it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil. . . . Exactly correspondent to this Darkness of the Mind, and Perverseness of the Heart, is the utter Weakness of all the Powers to perform that which is truly good, and to omit the perpetration of that which is evil, in a due mode and from a due end and cause." See Works, 2:192-193.


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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.