Arminius on Holiness

Sanctification -- that aspect of being set apart, or progressively being made holy -- is, according to sixteenth-century Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius (1559-1609), an act by which "any thing is separated from common use, and is consecrated to divine use."1 By denoting this subject as an act, he indicates an experiential aspect to sanctification, categorizing this progressive inner change as not merely that which is imputed to one's account, like justification, but effects a reality in the thinking and behavior and, thus, mannerisms of a believer.

In other words, the act of sanctification brings about a change to some degree in the object which has been sanctified, or set apart, being made holy. This act of sanctification is also related to the act of regeneration: "Therefore this sanctification consists in these two things: In ... the death of 'the old man, who is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts [cf. Eph. 4:22]:' And in ... the quickening or enlivening of 'the new man, who after God is created in righteousness and the holiness of truth.' [cf. Eph. 4:24; 2:10]"2 Who performs this sanctification?
It is a gracious act of God, by which ... He purifies man who is a sinner, and yet a believer, from the darkness of ignorance, from indwelling sin and from its lusts or desires, and imbues him with the Spirit of knowledge, righteousness and holiness; that, being separated from the life of the world and made conformable to God, man may live the life of God, to the praise of the righteousness and of the glorious grace of God, and to his own salvation.3 (emphases added)
So sanctification is believed to derive from and be the work of God, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. The external means by which God sanctifies a believer is "the word of God," and the internal means is "faith yielded to the word preached: For the word does not sanctify only as it is preached, unless the faith be added by which the hearts of men are purified."4 In this confession, then, Arminius holds that a person is also responsible for yielding to the means God uses for his or her own sanctification -- in that, should one refuse to yield to that work of God, a hindrance to one's sanctification would inevitably result. The grace of sanctification can be resisted.

That aspect of our being that God is sanctifying is, first, "the mind, which is illuminated, the dark clouds of ignorance being driven away: Next ... the inclination or the will, by which it is delivered from the dominion of indwelling sin, and ... is filled with the Spirit of holiness."5 Even though the physical body is not changed by sanctification, because the mind and will are affected, the body can be rightly used and "employed in the service of God."6 (cf. Rom. 12:1-2)

JACOB ARMINIUS (1559-1609)

Arminius admits that God's act of sanctification is "not completed in a single moment," but that "sin, from whose dominion we have been delivered through the cross and the death of Christ, is weakened more and more by daily ... losses [or mortification of the sin nature], and the inner man is day by day renewed more and more, while we carry about with us in our bodies the death of Christ, and the outward man ... is perishing."7 Does the sanctifying act of God, then, guarantee perseverance in the faith and final salvation? This is the question of the ages.

In his work, "On Regeneration and the Regenerate," Arminius insists: "If [King] David had died in the very moment in which he had sinned against Uriah by adultery and murder, he would have been condemned to death eternal."8 Make no mistake about God's attitude toward sin, according to Arminius, "God truly hates the sins of the regenerate and of the elect of God, and indeed so much the more as those who ... have received more benefits from God and a greater power of resisting sin."9 God's spiritual work within a believer, then, does not guarantee that a person will persevere in the faith and finally be saved in the view of Arminius. Yet, he also confesses:
The regenerate are able to perform more true good, and of such as is pleasing to God, than they actually perform, and to omit more evil than they omit: And, therefore, if they do not perform and omit what they ought to do, that must not be ascribed to any decree of God or inefficacy of Divine Grace, but it must be attributed to the negligence of the regenerate themselves.10
While the act of regeneration is the sole work of God, predicated upon one's response to the grace of the Spirit of God by faith in Christ, the act of sanctification is initiated by God, but must be proactively sought and yielded to, by the inward means of the grace of God. This, Arminius and Arminians believe, rightly reflects the theology of the apostle Paul: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Phil. 2:12, 13 emphases added) Note, first, that we are commanded to work -- work out (not for) our salvation. So, we cannot assume that God is going to work our sanctification without any yieldedness or effort of our own.

We know this is true, further, by the admission that God is at work within us, enabling us to will and to work for His good pleasure. We have a part to play in our sanctification -- we have work to do. We are not granted license to presume upon the work or grace of God. Though His work precedes our work, we are still called to this work, and for His glory. He enables us to will and to work -- we are to work toward surrendering our hearts and minds to the Spirit of God; God does not coerce us toward holiness. We are made holy neither by decree nor by efficacy. He enables, we proactively surrender, and the Holy Spirit performs His work.


1 Jacob Arminius, "Disputation XLIX. On the Sanctification of Man," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:408.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 2:409.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 2:409-10.

8 Ibid., 2:725.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 2:724.


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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.