What is Arminianism?

Apparently, there is still, after all these many centuries, some confusion as to what constitutes an Arminian, as Dr. Al Mohler, Calvinist President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, recently demonstrated. So, I thought I would succinctly outline what comprises Arminian theology, thus making reference to who can be considered an Arminian. Who better to ask or reference as to what constitutes an Arminian than an Arminian, such as myself, and an Arminian group, such as the Society of Evangelical Arminians. I also encourage all to read Roger Olson's post "Must One Agree with Arminius to be an Arminian?" I agree with the tenor of his post and conclusions. 

Arminianism

Recently, Dr. Brian J. Abasciano, President of the Society of Evangelical Arminians and author of Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9.1-9: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis, and Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9.10-18: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis, published the FACTS regarding the biblical doctrines of grace, as promoted in classical, evangelical Arminianism. The acronym FACTS represents, in brief, summary form the nature of Arminian soteriology, much as does TULIP for Calvinist soteriology. But, as TULIP is representative of only core soteriological issues within Calvinism, the same can be admitted with regard to FACTS -- the acronym focuses on the core and biblical doctrines of grace in classical Arminian theology, and does not express or expound upon Arminianism in toto.

The outline for FACTS, as is demonstrated on the website of the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA), follows the same pattern as TULIP, by way of answer and defense of biblically sound Arminian theology. Therefore, the first letter addressed in the outline is not the F but the T, for Total Depravity. Briefly, the acronym FACTS represents: Freed to believe, Atonement for all, Conditional election, Total depravity, and Security in Christ. But, since FACTS does not necessarily detail or outline an Arminian theology of God's sovereignty, and given the significance of the topic, as well as the misinformation and misrepresentation on this issue as it relates to Arminianism and as promoted by Calvinists, I will address this concept first.  

Sovereignty of God 

Arminian scholar Roger Olson underscores the fact that Arminius was astonished that anyone would have challenged his Reformed theology on the conception of the sovereignty of God.1 Arminius' doctrine of concurrence -- that a person cannot even sin without God concurring with the sinful desire(s) of the individual, and even sustaining the person while he or she freely commits sin(s) -- would safeguard him and subsequent Arminians from charges of error or heresy. "Our God is in the heavens," admits the Psalmist, "he does whatever he pleases." (Ps. 115:3 NRSV) What pleases this holy God is holiness and justice. Therefore, whatever action God performs (or even decrees), the action is commensurate with His holy and just nature. Hence God would not decree and make necessary sinful acts performed by us sinners. What Arminius, the Remonstrants, and subsequent Arminians reject is determinism, not the sovereignty of God, the two not being synonymous.

The following, briefly-edited five points in the FACTS outline are taken directly from the published FACTS statement on the Society of Evangelical Arminians site: 

Total Depravity 

Humanity was created in the image of God, good and upright, but fell from its original sinless state through willful disobedience, leaving humanity in the state of total depravity, sinful, separated from God, and under the sentence of divine condemnation (Rom 3:23; 6:23; Eph 2:1-3). Total depravity does not mean that human beings are as bad as they could be, but that sin impacts every part of a person's being and that people now have a sinful nature with a natural inclination toward sin. Human beings are fundamentally corrupt at heart. As Scripture tells us, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick" (Jer 17:9; cf. Gen 6:5; Matt 19:17; Luke 11:13).

Indeed, human beings are spiritually dead in sins (Eph 2:1-3; Col 2:13) and are slaves to sin (Rom 6:17-20). The Apostle Paul even says, "I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh" (Rom 7:18) ... In their natural state, human beings are hostile toward God and cannot submit to his Law nor please him (Rom 8:7-8). Thus, human beings are not able to think, will, nor do anything good in and of themselves. We are unable to do anything that merits favor from God and we cannot do anything to save ourselves from the judgment and condemnation of God that we deserve for our sin. We cannot even believe the gospel on our own (John 6:44). If anyone is to be saved, God must take the initiative.

Atonement for All

As observed above, due to total depravity, no one can be saved unless God takes the initiative. The good news is that, since "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16), "his mercy is over all that he has made" (Ps. 135:14), he loves even his enemies (Matt 5:38-43), he "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4), "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9), and he does not take any pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather that they repent of their sins and live (Ezek. 18:23, 33), he has taken the initiative by sending his only Son to die for the sins of the world [John 1:29; 3:16] ...

God has provided for the forgiveness of sins and salvation of every person by the death of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinful humanity. Indeed, by the grace of God Jesus tasted death for everyone (Heb 2:9). As 1 John 2:2 says, "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (NIV). After the statement of 1 Tim 2:4 quoted above, that "God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," the following verses from 1 Timothy continue, "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time" (1 Tim 2:5-6).

Indeed, "the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 11:10), "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim 1:9), "the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world" (1 John 4:14; cf. John 4:42), God is "the Savior of all people" (1 Tim 4:10), Jesus is "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), who "died for the ungodly" (Rom 5:6), and "died for all" (2 Cor 5:14-15) when "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Cor 5:19). Jesus even died for those who reject him and his word, deny him, and perish (Luke 22:17-21; John 12:46-48; Rom 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11; 2 Pet 2:1; Heb 10:29). The provision of atonement has been made for as many as sin, which is all people (Rom 3:22-25; 5:18) ...



Freed to Believe

As we have noted, because human beings are fallen and sinful, they are not able to think, will, nor do anything good in and of themselves, including believe the gospel of Christ ... Therefore, desiring the salvation of all and having provided atonement for all people ..., God continues to take the initiative for the purpose of bringing all people to salvation by calling all people everywhere to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30; cf. Matt 28:18-20), and by enabling those who hear the gospel to respond to it positively in faith.

Unaided by grace, man cannot even choose to please God or to believe the promise of salvation held out in the gospel. As Jesus said in John 6:44, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him." But thanks be to God, Jesus also promised, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). Thus, the Father and the Son draw all people to Jesus, enabling them to come to Jesus in faith. Even though sinful people are blind to the truth of the gospel (2 Cor 4:4), Jesus came into the world of sinful humanity as "the true light, which enlightens everyone" (John 1:9; cf. 12:36), the light about which John the Baptist came to bear witness, "that all might believe through him" (John 1:7) ...

Continuing Jesus' mission to save the world, the Holy Spirit has come to "convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment" (John 16:8). Even though unbelievers "are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart" (Eph 4:18), the Lord opens people's hearts to respond positively to the gospel message (Acts 16:14) and his kindness leads those with hard and impenitent hearts toward repentance (Rom 2:4-5).

In his sovereignty, he has even positioned people for the very purpose, "that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27 NASB). In sum, God calls all people everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, enabling those who hear the gospel to respond to it positively in faith as he draws all people toward faith in Jesus, pierces the darkness of their hearts and minds with the shining of his light, enlightens their minds, communicates his awesome power with the gospel that incites faith, woos them with his kindness, convicts them by his Spirit, opens their hearts to heed his gospel, and positions them to seek him as he is near to each [and every] one [of them, cf. Acts 17:27] ...2

Conditional Election

There are two main views of what the Bible teaches concerning the concept of election unto salvation: that it is either conditional or unconditional. For election to be unconditional means that God's choice of those he will save has nothing to do with them, that there was nothing about them that contributed to God's decision to choose them, which seems to make God's choice of any particular individual as opposed to another arbitrary.

It also implies unconditional and arbitrary reprobation, God's choice of certain individuals to not save but to damn for their sin for no reason having to do with them, which seems to contradict the spirit of numerous passages that emphasize human sin as the reason for divine condemnation as well as God's desire for people to repent and be saved (e.g., Gen 18:25; Deut 7:9, 12; 11:26-28; 30:15; 2 Chron 15:1-2; Ps 145:19; Ezekiel 18:20-24; John 3:16-18 ...). For election to be conditional means that God's choice of those he will save has something to do with them, that part of his reason for choosing them was something about them. Concerning election unto salvation, the Bible teaches that God chooses for salvation those who believe in Jesus Christ [1 Cor. 1:21] and therefore become united to him [Eph. 1:4], making election conditional on faith in Christ.3

Security in Christ

At base, "Security in Christ" means that a person's salvation is secure as long as he is in Christ, that is, as long as he believes/trusts in Christ and therefore remains in faith-union with Christ. The security of salvation should be grounded in Christ, the promises of his word, and our faith-relationship with him rather than in some unknowable divine decree by which God is said to have chosen certain people for salvation unconditionally. An unconditional divine decree that cannot be known until the end of life or time does not provide for assurance of salvation and makes the security of salvation of no value for the confidence of believers.

Arminians differ among themselves on the more specific nature of the security of salvation. There is some question of whether Arminius himself believed in the possibility of apostasy (a word meaning forsaking the faith) for true believers or whether he was undecided about the issue. But most scholars agree that Arminius did believe that true believers can fall away from faith in Christ and therefore salvation. On the other hand, the early Arminians, who were known as the Remonstrants and sided with Arminius in the theological debates of 17th century Holland, were originally undecided about whether true believers could commit apostasy. But they ultimately came to the conclusion that they can. 

Concluding Remarks

As in any theological system there remain adherents who nuance certain positions -- and this is no better demonstrated than within Calvinism (five-point supralapsarian Presbyterian Calvinists; five-point infralapsarian Presbyterian Calvinists; five- and four-point supralapsarian Baptistic Calvinists; five- and four-point infralapsarian Baptistic Calvinists; Classical Calvinists, neo-Calvinists, Charismatic or Third Wave Calvinists, Cessationist Calvinists, hyper-Calvinists) -- the same is true with regard to Arminianism. All Arminians and Wesleyans are in agreement with the doctrines of the sovereignty of God, total depravity (a rejection of which would render one a semi-Pelagian and not an Arminian or classical Wesleyan), conditional election, general atonement for all, and resistible grace (that faith precedes regeneration, as the Bible, so we believe, clearly teaches, cf. John 1:12-13; Col. 2:13; Titus 3:5; 1 John 5:1).

Yet the final point of perseverance among Arminian-minded individuals has been a doctrine of contention. While I think that Arminius and the Remonstrants -- the latter much more explicitly so than the former -- held to conditional perseverance and the possibility of final apostasy and the loss of salvation, others argue for the contrary position. Regardless of this intra-theological debate, what we would refer to as a four-point Arminian is still an Arminian, as much as the five-point Arminian. However, even with such a confession, I will admit that this is not the case historically. In other words, during and following the early seventeenth-century, and especially subsequent to the Synod of Dort (1618-19), an Arminian was a Christian who held to conditional perseverance, and not to a strict form of eternal security.

But let us all agree on this main point: if the relative big tent of Calvinism can include four-point Calvinists -- i.e., those who reject the theoretical error of Limited Atonement -- then the relative big tent of Arminianism can include four-point Arminians who reject conditional perseverance and opt for eternal security.4 Arminianism today does not stand or fall on the issue of perseverance. The same cannot be admitted with regard to the other four points.  

__________

1 "Arminius was puzzled about the accusation that he held corrupt opinions respecting the providence of God, because he went out of his way to affirm it. He even went so far as to say that every human act, including sin, is impossible without God's cooperation! This is simply part of divine concurrence, and Arminius was not willing to regard God as a spectator." See Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 121.

2 We speak of the will of man being freed by grace to emphasize that people do not have a naturally free will when it comes to believing in Jesus, but that God must graciously take action to free our wills if we are going to be able to believe in his Son whom he sent for the salvation of all. When our wills are freed, we can either accept God's saving grace in faith or reject it to our own ruin. In other words, God's saving grace is resistible, which is to say that he dispenses his calling, drawing, and convicting grace (which would bring us to salvation if responded to with faith) in such a way that we may reject it. We become free to believe in Jesus and free to reject him.

The resistibility of God's saving grace is clearly shown in Scripture, as some of the passages already mentioned testify. Indeed, the Bible is sadly filled with examples of people spurning the grace of God offered to them. In Isaiah 5:1-7, God actually indicates that he could not have done anything more to get Israel to produce good fruit. But if irresistible grace is something that God dispenses, then he could have easily provided that and infallibly brought Israel to bear good fruit. Many passages in the Old Testament talk about how God extended his grace to Israel over and over again but they repeatedly resisted and rejected him (e.g., 2 Kgs 17:7-23; Jer 25:3-11; 26:1-9; 35:1-19). 2 Chronicles 36:15-16 mentions that God's persistent reaching out to his people, which was rejected, was motivated by compassion for them. But this could only be if the grace he extended them enabled them to repent and avoid his judgment yet was resistible since they did indeed resist it and suffered God's judgment ...

3 Desiring the salvation of all, providing atonement for all people, and taking the initiative to bring all people to salvation by issuing forth the gospel and enabling those who hear the gospel to respond to it positively in faith . . . God chooses to save those who believe in the gospel/Jesus Christ (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).

This clear and basic biblical truth is tantamount to saying that election unto salvation is conditional on faith. Just as salvation is by faith (e.g., Eph 2:8 -- "For by grace you have been saved through faith"), so election for salvation is by faith, a point brought out explicitly in 2 Thes 2:13 -- "God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth" (NASB; note: "God has chosen you ... through ... faith in the truth" ...). Or as John 14:21 puts it (with the unstated assumption that love of Christ and obedience to his commandments arise from faith), "Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him." Or again, in the words of 1 Cor 8:3, "if anyone loves God, he is known by God."

Moreover, we find various expressions of elect/saved status to be given by faith, i.e., bestowed by God in response to faith. Believers are justified by faith (Rom 3-4; Gal 3), adopted as children of God by faith (John 1:12; Gal 3:26), heirs of God by faith (Rom 4:13-16; Gal 3:24-29; Titus 3:7; cf. Rom 8:16-17), given spiritual life (= regenerated) by faith (John 1:12-13; 3:14-16; John 5:24; 5:39, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Eph 2:4-8 [note that being saved here is equated with being raised to spiritual life etc., and that this is then said to take place by faith]; Col 2:12; 1 Tim 1:16; Tit 3:7), sanctified by faith (Acts 26:18), given the Holy Spirit by faith (John 4:14; 7:38-39; Acts 2:33; Rom 5:1, 5; Eph 1:13-14; Gal. 3:1-6; 3:14), [indwelt] by the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit by faith (with the previous parenthesis, see John 14:15-17; 14:23; 17:20-23; Eph 3:14-17), and united to Christ by faith (John 6:53-57; 14:23; 17:20-23; Eph. 1:13-14; 2; 3:17; Gal. 3:26, 27, 28; Rom 6; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21).

4 The Society of Evangelical Arminians states: "The group is open to both what one might call 4 point Arminians (those who believe that true believers cannot stop believing and so forfeit their salvation) and 5 point Arminians (those who believe that true believers can stop believing and perish), though its basic orientation is 5 point ... in that members of the group are free to argue for the fifth point while arguing against it does not fall within the purview of the group's activity." (link) Also read an on-line dialogue between SEA President Dr. Brian J. Abasciano and J. Matthew Pinson, President of Welch College in Nashville, Tennessee, on this topic (link); as well as another exchange between Dr. Abasciano and an Arminian named Steve at Scot McKnight's site (link).

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

My photo

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.