The Doctrine of Apostasy: An Arminian Distinctive

What does a "five-point" Arminian believe? He believes that all people are totally depraved and totally incapable of believing in and coming to Christ for salvation without the enabling work of the Holy Spirit; that God has conditionally elected to save the one who will, by grace, trust in Christ (1 Cor. 1:21); that Christ's atonement is proffered to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29), is offered for the life of the world (John 6:51), but only applied individually by grace and effective through faith (Rom. 3:25); that the inner work of the Holy Spirit can be and often is resisted; and that ultimate salvation belongs to the one who perseveres, as God is working within the individual to work out one's salvation (Phil. 2:12, 13), but a person may forfeit that salvation by rejecting his prior faith in Christ (cf. John 8:31; 15:4, 5, 6, 7; Col. 1:23).

What if a professing Arminian denies the last tenet and thinks that the born-again believer will, by the necessary work of the Holy Spirit, endure to the end of one's life in the faith and could (or would) in no sense whatsoever forfeit and thus lose his or her salvation? Can such a one claim to be an Arminian? Is the doctrine of apostasy an Arminian distinctive -- a necessary element aiding to define Arminian doctrine?

Ironically, a similar discussion is rife among Calvinists, but regarding the issue of the atonement. Amyraldians and other "four-point" Calvinists think of the atonement in universal terms provisionally but restrict the application of that atonement to those whom God has unconditionally elected to save. Arminians maintain a similar perspective without advocating the unconditionality of election. But many "five-point" Calvinists, who insist that the atonement was limited in its intent -- purposely provided solely for the unconditionally elect and none others -- tend to tolerate the "four-point" position, allowing such individuals to name themselves Calvinists in spite of their error, even though they resist that position logically and biblically.

Self-avowed five-point Calvinist R.C. Sproul insists that a four-point Calvinist is actually an Arminian! He explains thusly: "When I have talked to people who call themselves four-point Calvinists and have had the opportunity to discuss it with them, I have discovered that they were no-point Calvinists. They thought they believed in total depravity, in unconditional election, in irresistible grace, and in the perseverance of the saints, but they didn't understand these points." (link) But this is not a fair assumption for genuine four-point Calvinists who actually do believe in total depravity (and total inability), unconditional election, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. How are these four-point Calvinists perceived?

Sproul considers four-point Calvinists inconsistent Calvinists: "I think that if a person really understands the other four points and is thinking at all clearly, he must believe in limited atonement because of what Martin Luther called a resistless logic. Still, there are people who live in a happy inconsistency." (link) If God has unconditionally elected to save only some by decree, and must irresistibly draw the unconditionally elect unto Himself via the work of regeneration and the absolute keeping of such in the faith (perseverance) by the constant work of the Holy Spirit, then in what sense can the atonement be considered profitable for the non-elect? What was the atonement ever intended to accomplish for those whom God had not unconditionally elected unto faith and salvation? Hence the charge of logical, philosophical, and biblical inconsistency for the so-called four-point Calvinist.

Interestingly, the charge of inconsistency is also reserved for the so-called "four-point" Arminian, as he or she wrestles with the idea of forfeiting or losing the salvation once granted by rejecting the former faith once held in Christ. But the doctrine of potential but real apostasy is an Arminian distinctive whether or not "four-point" Arminians acknowledge this fact. Arminianism (Wesleyan-Arminianism and other Holiness-oriented advocates, such as Nazarenes, Pentecostals, and Charismatics, are assumed here as well) is notoriously associated with the biblical notion that salvation can be forfeited or lost. What saith Arminius?

During the pastoral and theological career of Arminius, early-on he insists that he does not teach his students that any believer actually does lose his salvation, but he does gradually evolve to questioning the possibility of such a scenario. He carefully writes: "And at one time I certainly did say, with an explanation subjoined to it, 'that it was possible for believers finally to decline or fall away from faith and salvation.' [emphasis original] But at no period have I asserted, 'that believers do finally decline or fall away from faith or salvation.'"1 [emphasis added] The distinction here matters: can believers become unbelievers again and thus forfeit and lose their salvation? That is the question. For, as long as believers continue to believe in Christ, then they cannot forfeit or lose their salvation because salvation graciously depends upon continued faith in Christ. Believers, strictly, cannot forfeit salvation in Christ.

DE OUDE KERK (PARTIAL): ARMINIUS' CHURCH IN HOLLAND

However, what if someone neglects her faith in Christ and relationship to God, and eventually rejects Christ and no longer believes? Can such a one still be saved? According to Arminius, the Remonstrants, and Arminians the answer is no: such a one cannot and will not be saved; such a one has forfeited that salvation because salvation graciously rests on faith in Christ. Moreover, we do not accept as a legitimate claim that such a one was "never really saved to begin with," since

  1. only God could maintain such knowledge regarding one's salvation and, hence, that claim is speculative at best; 
  2. warnings regarding falling away from salvation by rejecting faith in Christ concern only the regenerate believer; and
  3. if someone can only apparently fall away from the faith, thus demonstrating that such a one was "never really saved to begin with," then no one can maintain present assurance of faith -- no one can ever really know that he or she is presently saved because the individual could fall away, thus demonstrating that he or she was "never really saved to begin with," according to such logic.

As for Arminius, though during his lifetime he is not the champion for the cause of the doctrine of apostasy, he maintains beliefs that are incompatible with any semblance of all eternal security positions: "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";2 "On the other hand, if believers fall away from the faith and become unbelievers, it is impossible for them to do otherwise than decline from salvation -- that is, provided they still continue unbelievers";3 "that which affirms it possible for believers to fall away from the faith has always had more supporters in the church of Christ than that which denies its possibility or its actually occurring."4 He also, in an urgent and most pastoral sense, argues:
The persuasion by which any believer assuredly persuades himself that it is impossible for him to decline from the faith, or that, at least, he will not decline from the faith, does not conduce so much to consolation against Despair or against the doubting that is adverse to faith and hope, as it contributes to engender Security, a thing directly opposed to that most salutary fear with which we are commanded to work out our salvation, and which is exceedingly necessary in this scene of temptations.5
How do we assess Arminius, then, since he obviously defends the position that true apostasy is possible for the former believer who renounces his or her faith in Christ? In his correspondence with Calvinist Francis Junius, Arminius clearly defends the doctrine of apostasy, writing: "Wherefore also, even if it be conceded that 'baptism is not to be reiterated' ... yet it does not thence follow that believers cannot totally fall away, either because those who totally fall away may not be entirely restored, or because, if they be restored, they do not require to be baptized a second time."6 Arminius insists that some members of Christ, the Vine, can "die away": "But if they have not borne fruit, then they shall be cut off (John 15:2)." The fault lay not with the Vine but with "the branches themselves." Jesus really made this statement and believers -- those "in Him" -- really can be cut off by God His Father.

Arminius continues: "And in Romans 6 there is an apostolical warning lest believers should live again to sin, when they are in Christ dead to sin; which warning is given in vain if it be impossible that they should henceforth, after their liberation from the dominion of sin [cf. 2 Pet. 2:20], live to it again."7 Numerous passages such as these throughout the Works of Arminius convince most scholars "that Arminius taught that true believers can fall away."8 By 1618, following much study of the scriptures, Arminius' colleagues and successors, the Remonstrants, conclude with the same summation: "True believers can fall from true faith and can fall into such sins as cannot be consistent with true and justifying faith; not only is it possible for this to happen, but it even happens frequently." The doctrine of apostasy, then, becomes an Arminian distinctive through the consensus of Arminius, and the Remonstrants, and subsequently through the Wesleyan-Arminian movement.

From Arminius' theological perspective, all of the soteriological and heavenly blessings that a person can share are found in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Thus the loci of justification, sanctification, regeneration, glorification and ultimate salvation can be experienced in the future solely by union with Christ. This union derives from the grace of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Since Scripture grants warnings about being "cut away" from this union (cf. John 15:1, 2, 3, 4, 5; Acts 13:43; 14:22; Rom. 11:11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24; 2 Cor. 6:1; Col. 1:23; 2:6; 1 Thess. 3:8; 1 Tim. 2:15; 4:16; 2 Tim. 3:14; Heb. 2:1, 2, 3, 4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 8:9; 10:19-39; 12:1-29; 1 John 2:24), then ultimate falling away from future salvation is a real possibility. If Scripture warrants a firm belief in a real possibility of falling away from future salvation, then no amount of proof-texting counter-contextual passages of Scripture are considered preferable, but must be viewed solely and primarily as conditional.

Can the "four-point" Arminian be truly named an Arminian? The answer will differ among Arminians. Some five-point Arminians insist that so-called four-point Arminians are not merely inconsistent theologically, or soteriologically, but are confused Calvinists. I think those in this camp are in the minority. From the Arminians I have encountered, by far the majority of them are willing to accept all four-point Arminians as genuine Arminians, especially given that, in our day, as in the days of Anglican-Arminians John and Charles Wesley, to be called an Arminian maintains the same effect of calling someone a mad dog. (link) Anyone freely willing to cast their lot with mad-dog Arminians is most welcome! Yet, for me, I do hope that four-point Arminians acknowledge the reality that the doctrine of apostasy is an Arminian distinctive; thus rendering them always having to qualify their Arminianism as such: "Yes, I am an Arminian, but I believe in eternal security.

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1 Jacob Arminius "Apology against Thirty-One Defamatory Articles," in The Works of Arminius, the London Edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:741.

2 Ibid., 2:725.

3 Ibid., 1:742.

4 Ibid., 2:725.

5 Ibid., 2:726.

6 Ibid., 3:456-57.

7 Ibid., 3:457.

8 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 172.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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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.