Arminius vs. Wesley

In the same way that four-point Calvinists are still considered Calvinists, as much as five-point TULIP Calvinists, whether infra- or supralapsarian, so Wesleyan-Arminians are every bit as Arminian as are classical Arminians. While this brief post is not meant to be an exhaustive examination of the distinguishing marks between the two systems -- and in some ways is meant as a compare and contrast -- I hope it will be helpful for those otherwise unfamiliar with the distinctions of each system, and why there are two main systematic approaches to Arminian theology. My intent is to begin a theological dialogue. Perhaps others will, in time, add to the conversation, noting other points of both agreement and major disagreement.

I want to thank my friend Kevin Jackson from the Wesleyan Arminian site for all of his help with John and Charles Wesley's Wesleyan-Arminian theology. Having studied Arminius since 2006, to the neglect of Wesley, I am indebted to Kevin for his work. (See his post on these distinctions here.) Most of the information here regarding Wesleyan-Arminianism comes from Kevin's site, while the information here regarding classical Arminianism is my own. I have tried as much as is possible to cite our sources. (This post is meant to be objective without arguing the case for one particular system.) I am unaware of any theological disagreements between John and Charles Wesley. Therefore, while I may use John's name primarily, one could also assume that Charles' name should also be included.

If one were to measure the theology of Wesley and Arminius in contradistinction from the Calvinist's TULIP, he or she would discover that they both affirm Total Depravity (and Total Inability, and hence the absolute need for the Holy Spirit's gratuitous work in the heart if a sinner is to be saved, cf. John 16:8-11), Conditional Election, Unlimited Atonement (limited only in application), and Resistible Grace.

Though what I offer in this brief post will not be obvious, Wesley's doctrine of Apostasy is much stronger than that of Arminius. But there are some finer doctrinal disagreements between Wesley (and his followers) and Arminius (and his followers), and they are significant enough to note -- significant enough to warrant the distinguishing between Wesleyan-Arminian and classical Arminian nomenclatures.

Justification by Grace through Faith and the Doctrine of Imputation

Both John Wesley and Jacob Arminius believes that a person is justified before God by His grace through one's faith in Jesus Christ, rejecting the heresy that anyone could be justified by one's own merit or good works. But while Arminius explicitly defends the doctrine of imputation, Wesley defines it differently, vying for the believer ontologically becoming righteous (i.e., righteousness is "imparted" to the believer and he or she becomes righteous, not merely counted as righteous). 

In Arminius's "Disputation on Justification" he writes: "The meritorious cause of justification is Christ through His obedience and righteousness, who may, therefore, be justly called the principal or outwardly moving cause. In His obedience and righteousness, Christ is also the material cause of our justification, so far as God bestows Christ on us for righteousness, and imputes His righteousness and obedience to us. In regard to this two-fold cause, that is, the meritorious and the material, we are said to be constituted righteous [and not ontologically righteous] through the obedience of Christ."1

For Wesley, we are, indeed, justified by grace through faith in Christ, but it is not through justification that we are made ontologically just or righteous. He states that the practical manifestations of being ontologically just and righteous belongs properly to the doctrine of sanctification. (link) Hence we actually become righteous through sanctification, not justification proper. He firmly believes in the imputation of Adam's sin to all his offspring: "Either we must allow the imputation of Adam's sin, whatever difficulties attend it, or renounce justification by Christ, and salvation through the merit of His blood." (link) He is so bold as to write, "If we were not ruined by the first Adam, neither are we recovered by the Second. If the sin of Adam was not imputed to us, neither is the righteousness of Christ." (link)

But, unlike Arminius, in that Christ's righteousness is merely imputed (accounted) to the believer, Wesley holds that we are actually "made righteous by the obedience of Christ." (link) The sense in which Christ's righteousness is imputed to believers is connected with their forgiveness of sin by God. (link) "Inherent" righteousness is not necessarily by an imputed righteousness but "is the fruit of it." (link

The Doctrine of Sanctification

Arminius holds that a born again believer is being progressively sanctified (more and more set apart from the world and unto the service of God) by the work of the Spirit of Christ. Wesley, on the other hand, holds that, while an individual may experience daily growth in one's sanctification, he or she may also experience entire sanctification, which is not to be thought of as sinlessness, but a walking with or in the Lord without deliberate or willful sinning. Wesley writes that sanctified Christians are not, among other unmentionables, "perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination." (link

A sanctified Christian -- indeed, a Methodist -- has attained, among many other unmentionables, the state of being "one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is continually crying, 'Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth whom I desire besides Thee.' My God and my all! 'Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.' He is therefore happy in God; yea, always happy, as having in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life, and over-flowing his soul with peace and joy. Perfect love living now cast out fear, he rejoices evermore. Yea, his joy is full, and all his bones cry out, 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to His abundant mercy, hath begotten me again unto a living hope of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, reserved in heaven for me.'" (link)


Arminius defines sanctification in Luther's Reformed dynamic framework of a sinner-now-believer's salvation: "It is a gracious act of God, by which . . . He purifies [a person] 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." In such a state, which is both positional before God but also practical, Arminius continues, "that, being separated from the life of the world and made conformable to God, [a person] may live the life of God, to the praise of the righteousness and of the glorious grace of God, and to his own salvation."2 (emphasis added) Arminius concludes: "This sanctification is not completed in a single moment; but sin, from whose dominion we have been delivered through the cross and the death of Christ, is weakened more and more by daily . . . losses, 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."3

The Doctrine of Perseverance and Apostasy

Arminius argues that the notion of a regenerate person being capable of falling away from the faith and salvation, or actually falling away, has "always had more supporters in the church of Christ than that which denies its possibility or its actually occurring."4 This belief has never been accounted as heresy in the history of the Church either, he states. He argues that the individual who believes it is impossible for him or her to fall away from faith in Christ, and thus salvation, has no consolation of assurance of salvation should he or she fall into sin or doubt, whereas the person who thinks it is possible to forfeit his or her salvation is not bereft of consolation when enticed by sin or doubt, since the person understands that "he will decline from the faith through no force of Satan, of sin, or of the world, and through no . . . inclination or weakness of his own flesh, unless he willingly and of his own accord yield to temptation, and neglect to work out his salvation [Phil. 2:12-13] in a conscientious manner."5 (emphasis added)

Arminius argues that as long as a person continues to believe in Christ then it is impossible for such a one to fall away.6 He confesses, "But at no period have I asserted, 'that believers do finally decline or fall away from faith or salvation.'"7 For Arminius, the only possibility of someone "losing" his or her salvation is if such a person were to ever stop believing in Christ, for only by faith in Him is anyone justified (Rom. 5:1). Wesley agrees. Commenting on Hebrews 6:6, he writes: "Here is not a supposition, but a plain relation of fact. The apostle here describes the case of those who have cast away both the power and the form of godliness; who have lost both their faith, hope, and love. . . . Of these willful total apostates he declares, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance (though they were renewed once), either to the foundation, or anything built thereon. . . ." (link)

I think for both Arminius and Wesley there is no guarantee that God is going to irresistibly keep people believing in Christ for their salvation, in that God will irresistibly cause them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (which belongs to them, cf. Phil. 2:12-13), though He will work in them to will and to do for His good pleasure should they do their part. After all, the believer was saved by grace through faith, is still being saved by grace through faith, and will be saved by grace through faith in Christ. Should one stop believing in Christ, however, such a one shall not be saved.

Inclusivism vs. Exclusivism

Simply put: Arminius, in my opinion, is an exclusivist,8 while Wesley is an inclusivist. (Kevin Jackson vies for a "hopeful inclusivist," while friend Kyle Blanchette vies for a "probable inclusivist.") By "inclusivist," Kevin Jackson means "one who believes that we are saved only through Jesus; however, it is possible to be saved through Jesus without explicit and/or complete knowledge of him." 

Wesley writes: "But one considerable difficulty still remains: There are very many heathen nations in the world that have no intercourse, either by trade or any other means, with Christians of any kind. Such are the inhabitants of the numerous islands in the South Sea, and probably in all large branches of the ocean. Now, what shall be done for these poor outcasts of men, 'How shall they believe,' saith the Apostle, 'in Him of whom they have not heard and how shall they hear without a preacher?' You may add, 'And how shall they preach, unless they be sent.' Yea, but is not God able to send them? Cannot He raise them up, as it were, out of the stones? And can He ever want [lack] means of sending them? No: Were there no other means, He can 'take them by His Spirit,' as He did Ezekiel (Ezek. 3:12), or by His angel, as He did Philip (Acts 8), and set them down wheresoever it pleaseth Him. Yea, He can find out a thousand ways to foolish man unknown. And He surely will: For heaven and earth may pass away; but His word shall not pass away: He will give His Son 'the uttermost part of the earth for his possession.'" (link)

Arminius, on the other hand, holds to the Reformed notion that only the Gospel is the means by which people can hear and by faith be saved. For example, he argues that the means which God uses in obtaining His goals of declaring His mercy, severity, wisdom, justice, the salvation of believers, and the condemnation of unbelievers, are the Word and the Holy Spirit. God's "calling to the communion of Christ and its benefits" comes primarily "through the word and His Spirit," which is obtained "through repentance and faith; that they may be united in Him, as their Head destined and ordained by God, and may enjoy . . . the participation of His benefits, to the glory of God and to their own salvation."9 Arminius' followers the Remonstrants follow his beliefs on this point.


The Doctrine of Scripture

An interesting note (at least to me) regarding both Wesley and Arminius's conservative doctrine of Scripture is that, though Wesley's Bible contains the Apocrypha, he never quotes from any book contained therein (link), while Arminius does quote from it in many, many places, but maintains that none of its books are to be considered canonical. (See article "The Rule of Christian Faith, Practice, and Hope: John Wesley on the Bible" by Duke Divinity Methodist scholar Randy L. Maddox for further study.) Wesley holds that Scripture is inspired of God, but, according to Kevin Jackson, perhaps is not always exact on "tangential [superficially relevant] matters" (genealogies, for example).

For Wesley, Scripture is "infallibly true," and he reads the Bible because it is "the guide to Christian belief, the guide to Christian behavior, and hope and sustenance for the believer." Commenting on 2 Timothy 3:16, he notes that the Spirit of God "not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires, supernaturally assists, those that read it with earnest prayer. Hence it is so profitable for doctrine, for instruction of the ignorant, for the reproof or conviction of them that are in error or sin, for the correction or amendment of whatever is amiss, and for instructing or training up the children of God in all righteousness." (link) Though he admits to an inexactness on "tangential matters," he still maintains a relatively high view of Scripture. However, Kyle Blanchette qualifies Wesley as a "strong inerrantist," quoting Wesley as confessing, "if there be one error, there might as well be a thousand."

Arminius writes extensively on his doctrine of Scripture. He argues that Scripture is divine because its Author is divine: "For as they are Divine because given by God, not because they are 'received from men;' so they are canonical, and are so called in an active sense because they prescribe a Canon or rule. . . ."10 Each passage in Scripture agrees with all others because of the Divine Spirit who inspired them,11 and they are "of plenary inspiration."12 His doctrine on Scripture is every bit as conservative as any conservative Southern Baptist should ever hope from someone in the Reformed tradition.

The sharpest disagreements I have detected between Wesleyan-Arminianism (the Wesleys) and classical Arminianism (Arminius and the Remonstrants) are the differing views on Inclusivism vs. Exclusivism, the nature of Justification and Imputed Righteousness, and the doctrine of Sanctification; and that is why I brought those respective doctrines into focus here. The doctrine of Inerrancy for some contemporary Wesleyan-Arminians is a point of departure from both Arminius and Wesley.

Also, while some contemporary Wesleyan-Arminians have Open Theist and Emergent-movement sympathies, agree with the ordination of women (e.g., Ben Witherington, Scot McKnight), and embrace the notion of Purgatory (e.g., Jerry Walls, Kyle Blanchette), many classical Arminians reject these theological points and worldviews. How many doctrines one must hold in order to be categorized as one or the other system is not easily answered.

A person may prefer one theologian over the other but nuance his or her theology in one manner or another. The differences are significant enough to call for a distinction but not a separation. These two groups have far more in common than not, and need to remain united for the cause of Christ's salvation offered to all persons, maintaining a combined effort to refute the errors of deterministic Calvinism and defend both the character of God in Christ Jesus and the integrity of His word. May God alone be praised through His Son our Lord Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

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1 Arminius continues: "Faith is the instrumental cause, or act, by which we apprehend Christ proposed to us by God for a propitiation and for righteousness, according to the command and promise of the gospel, in which it is said, 'He who believes shall be justified and saved, and he who believeth not shall be damned.' The form is the gracious reckoning of God, by which he imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, and imputes faith to us for righteousness; that is, he remits our sins to us who are believers, on account of Christ apprehended by faith, and accounts us righteous in him. This estimation or reckoning, has, joined with it, adoption into sons, and the conferring of a right to the inheritance of life eternal." See Jacob Arminius, "Disputation XLVIII. On Justification," The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:406.

2 Arminius, 2:408.

3 Ibid., 2:409-10.

4 Ibid., 2:725.

5 Ibid. 2:726.

6 Ibid., 1:742.

7 Ibid., 1:741.

8 Arminian scholar Roger E. Olson and I do not agree on this point. His proof-text against my thesis of Arminius' exclusivistic approach to salvation is the following quote: "The ordinary means and organ of conversion is the preaching of the Divine word by mortal men, to which therefore all persons are bound; but the Holy Spirit has not so bound Himself to this method, as to be unable to operate in an extraordinary way, without the intervention of human aid, when it seemeth good to Himself." (Works, 2:21) Actually, this quote is not from Arminius at all; it is, as Arminius states, a "saying in very common and frequent use." He then mocks those who insist that the statement has his or his followers' "high approval." He concludes, stating, "no one is converted except by this very word [i.e., the word of the Gospel], and by the meaning of this word, which God sends by men to those communities or nations whom He hath purposed to unite to Himself." (Works, 2:22) 

9 Arminius, 2:395.

10 Ibid., 2:82.

11 Ibid., 2:88.

12 Ibid., 2:94.

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.