What Do Calvinists Believe about Faith in Arminianism?

Since Calvinists have, historically as well as presently, charged Arminian theology as being "a return to Rome" (J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul), or tantamount to people "saving themselves" by their own free will in "freely" choosing to believe in Christ (James White, A.T.B. McGowan), Calvinists need to be addressed, confronted, and refuted on these two, very significant issues regarding faith in the Arminian tradition. Simply stated: Faith does not save; it does not regenerate or justify anyone; but is a positive, Spirit-initiated response to the grace of God in the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ -- a response that inevitably leads to one trusting in Jesus alone as the atoning sacrifice offered by God the Father, anointed by the Holy Spirit.


"Now to one who works," writes St Paul, "wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to the one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness." (Rom. 4:4-5 NRSV) Q. According to St Paul, for what does his subject "work" in the first section of Romans 4:4? A. The person is attempting to "work" for (merit) his or her salvation. But Paul is proclaiming that the plan of salvation excludes one's works, or merit, vying instead for complete trust in the righteous merit and finished work of Christ alone.

In the gospel, "the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith." (Rom. 1:17) The person who desires to earn salvation by performing good works (e.g. works of the Law) is insisting that Christ's righteous life and atoning death and subsequent resurrection is needless, gratuitous. This notion is blasphemous. 

The apostle informs us that the application of God's righteousness is not effectual or accredited to one who tries to work for salvation (through performing legalistic works of the law) but to the one who trusts solely in Christ (by obeying the Gospel command to trust in Christ), the conclusion of which is that faith in Christ -- i.e., responding to God's grace and trusting in Christ -- is not a work. Faith is opposed to works. However, faith works. In other words, the one who has faith in Christ will perform good works, since the born-again believer is created in Christ Jesus "for good works." (Eph. 2:10) Works cannot initiate grace, nor salvation, but are the consequence of responding to God's grace with trust in Christ.

For certain Calvinists, to suggest that Arminianism promotes a works-oriented salvation -- that Arminians essentially make faith a work (which, according to St Paul is an impossibility, cf. Rom. 4:4, 5, 16) -- or leaves room for boasting (another impossibility, cf. Rom. 3:27), is nothing short of slanderous and displays an ample amount of ignorance on their part regarding Arminian theology proper. Dr. Leroy Forlines writes the following:
Arminians believe that faith is the condition of justification [Rom. 5:1]. Calvinists also believe that faith is the condition of justification. The problem comes ... in Calvinists' claim that regeneration must precede faith and give birth to faith [contrary to Scripture, cf. Col. 2:13]. Since Arminians believe the sinner can believe without first being regenerated, the Calvinists tend to view faith in Arminianism as being a work. Thus they have charged that Arminians believe people are justified by works.1
Though there is a vast difference between the Calvinistic doctrine of God allegedly "giving" His alleged unconditionally elect faith to believe in Christ (faith is not a substance that can be "given," but a response stemming from an individual's inner being); and the Arminian's doctrine of God enabling (John 6:44, 65) or granting (Phil. 1:29) someone to experience a faith-response that trusts in Christ alone for salvation; the latter cannot, in any sense whatsoever, be admitted as being, in nature, a work. Since Arminianism does not advocate salvation by works, and since faith is not a work (Rom. 4:4, 5), then the charge of Arminian theology being "a return to Rome" is nonsensical at best.

Scripture does not make the argument that, in order for faith to not be a work, it must be irresistibly "given" to God's unconditionally elect. Christ Jesus told a crowd of people, "This is the work of God [i.e., the work which is required of God], that you believe in Him whom He has sent." (John 6:29, emphases added) If regeneration precedes faith, and Calvinism is true, then Jesus should have said: "This is the work of God, that He will give you faith to believe in Him whom He has sent." Calvinists, thus, have people saved and regenerated prior to faith in Christ -- or, so that the alleged unconditionally elect will have faith in Christ, as they would state the matter. This is an unbiblical concept.

Scripture does not teach that God saves people in order to give them faith. Scripture teaches that God saves people by regeneration (Titus 3:5), not on the basis of good works (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10; Eph. 2:9; Titus 3:5), but by grace through faith in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:8-9; Col. 2:13). Since in Calvinistic ideology, regeneration must precede faith in the Gospel of Christ, then Calvinists must not truly believe in the power of the Gospel as did St Paul and our early Church fathers (Rom. 1:16, 17).


Moreover, salvation by grace through faith excludes all boasting. The ground of our justification is the person and work of Jesus Christ. Again, Dr. Forlines argues that, in Arminianism, the ground of our justification is
the imputation of the death and righteousness of Christ to the believer's account. The condition of justification is faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in no way whatever gets any consideration as any form of merit that would form the smallest part of the ground of my justification. The only ground of my justification before God is the penal death of Christ and His life of absolute obedience to the Father.2
We believe this summation to be the biblical view of all matters pertaining to salvation by grace through faith in Christ, and such is what Arminianism proper tenaciously holds, regardless of any admission of Calvinists to the contrary.

Hence there is no room or cause for boasting: "But he who boasts is to boast in the Lord." (2 Cor. 10:17). If Arminianism inevitably leads Arminians to boast in their own efforts to save themselves then why do we never -- not once, ever -- find any Arminians boasting? One cannot insist that Arminianism leads one to boast of his or her salvation and at the same time acknowledge that not even one Arminian can be found who boasts of his or her own spiritual fervor, intelligence, or wisdom that effected salvation. Dr. Forlines' conclusion is my own on the matter of boasting:
If when I stand before God He should ask me, "What is your hope of acceptance based on?" I would not mention anything that I have ever done or not done. I would say, "My hope is built on nothing less and nothing more than the death and righteousness of Christ." I would not even say, "I had faith in Christ." When I declared that I was basing my hope of acceptance on the death and righteousness of Christ -- that and that alone would be a manifestation of my faith. . . .3

Who saves whom? Can a person save him- or herself? No, salvation comes only from the LORD (cf. Gen. 49:18; 1 Chron. 16:35; Ps. 18:46; Isa. 12:2; Jer. 3:23; Jonah 2:9; Micah 7:7; Hab. 3:18; Luke 3:6; Acts 4:12; Rom. 1:16; Eph. 1:13; 1 Thess. 5:9; Titus 2:11; 1 Pet. 1:5; Rev. 7:10). Even the complaint against Arminianism, that the theology is, in effect, a method of saving oneself, is a self-refuting argument since no realistic possibility even exists of a person capable of saving oneself; and, since Arminians readily acknowledge this fact, then any and all attempts at suggesting otherwise are entirely futile. This is not only good news for Arminians, and Arminian theology itself, but also, we think, properly represents the Good News of God through Jesus Christ.

If the good news of Christ is the message entailing His laying down His life for the sin of the world (John 1:29; 6:51; 2 Cor. 4:14, 15; 1 John 2:2), so that whoever would trust in Him would be saved (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20) -- since God does not save unbelievers (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13) -- then Arminian theology is the biblical, soteriological option for Christian orthodoxy, not Calvinism.

The Calvinistic complaint against Arminian theology is, typically, predicated upon a false notion that a person must, in and of him- or herself, trust in Christ Jesus. This, however, is to misunderstand and misrepresent Arminianism. Our belief is not so much in free will as it is freed will.

Because of our totally depraved state, which remains incapable of responding in faith, we teach that the Spirit of God (John 16:8-11), coupled with the power of the Gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:16, 17; 10:17), must enlighten such a one if he or she is to be saved. (link) Therefore, the power and grace comes from God, so that He alone must save or no one can be saved; His power and His grace prevents anyone from boasting of salvation since only God can save; and a faith-response leading to trusting in Christ holds nothing in common with Rome on the subject of how an individual is saved.

What shall we conclude, then, with Calvinists who continue to spread misinformation, caricatures, and straw men about Arminian theology? Such Calvinists, as a consequence, lose the privilege of representing Arminianism, assessing and engaging Arminians, and the credibility of debating the theological system. Until those Calvinists possess the ability to rightly represent Arminian theology, then they forfeit the right to construct arguments against it. Until they appropriately claim what we claim, and then make proper arguments, then they do not maintain any authority in debating the significant issues of Arminianism.


1 F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2011), 266.

2 Ibid., 267-68.

3 Ibid., 268.


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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.