So what is Arminianism? Generally speaking, it’s what Calvinism isn’t (or, if you will, non-Augustinianism). If you’re anything like I was up until a few years ago, you’ve never heard of Jacobus Arminius in your life. When I started to investigate the various doctrines of predestination I found out in a hurry that the school of thought bearing his moniker is accepted and adhered to almost as much as John Calvin’s. Like Mr. Calvin, Arminius (1560 – 1609) rose to prominence during the Protestant reformation era although, because he was born four years before Calvin died, they weren’t contemporaries. However, as were Calvin’s, his beliefs on predestination weren’t original. In a twist of irony, the roots of the Armenian viewpoint can be traced back to the same ancient theologian who inspired Calvin, Augustine of Hippo. It would seem that that revered saint held contrasting views at different times in his life, especially concerning free will. But in A.D. 412 he wrote that God granted humans free will as “an intermediate power, which is able either to incline towards faith, or to turn towards unbelief… God no doubt wishes all men to be saved, but yet not so as to take away from them their liberty of will.” Arminius’ beliefs about predestination were later enhanced by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, so much so that some now call it “Wesleyan Arminianism,” but that’s enough history for now. Let’s just say that many denominations of the Christian religion agree with its principles and move on.
Like Calvinism, there are a lot of variations to what is referred to as Arminianism. What they all have in common, though, is the rejection of the Augustinian concept of true total depravity (bondage of the will), and a belief in significant free will, at least in relation to our ability to accept or turn down the gospel offer of salvation. And, just as there are five points of Calvinism, there are the same number of points for Arminianism. The former has the advantage of an easy-to-remember acronym, TULIP, but the latter doesn’t (unless you find FCUHF catchy!).
Here are the highlighted points of the Arminian approach:
The first F is a steadfast belief in free will or the human ability. While all men and women were seriously affected by our fall from perfection in the garden, the human race hasn’t been sentenced to a state of absolute spiritual helplessness. God has graciously granted each and every sinner the ability to repent of their sins and trust in His only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to redeem their soul. Yet God will not interfere with an individual’s freedom to believe or not to believe the truth. Every person has a free will and his/her eternal destiny depends on how he/she uses it. Their freedom consists of their ability to choose good over evil in spiritual matters because their will isn’t permanently enslaved to their inborn sinful nature. They have the power to either cooperate with the Holy Spirit and be reborn as a new creature or resist God’s grace and perish. We’re all sinners in need of the Holy Spirit’s assistance in order to change, but we don’t have to be transformed before we can cultivate the necessary faith to believe in Christ’s atoning work on the cross. That’s due to God accepting us as we are, stains and all. The exercise of faith is an action we take on our own volition preceding the new birth. Faith is the sinner’s gift to our magnificent creator and our sole contribution to the salvation process.
Free will is indispensable to Arminianism. Free will, in this sense, is sometimes referred to as “the power of opposite choice.” Norman Geisler says, “At a minimum, freedom means the power of contrary choice; that is, an agent is free only if he could have done otherwise.” In addition, a man’s will is only free if the choices he makes are not caused or determined, either directly or indirectly, by an outside force. In no other aspect of life is one’s will more crucial than in the sinner’s decision to either believe in the gospel or ignore its eternal implications. In essence, the reality of genuine free will is a key ingredient in the Arminian system and a vital presumption of the Arminian view of predestination.
The C is for conditional election. This involves the tricky subject of foreknowledge on the part of the great I AM. God chose certain people to be saved before He created the material universe, based upon His foresight that those individuals would respond positively to His knocking on the door of their hearts. He selected only those souls whom He knew would, on their own accord, freely believe the gospel. Thus election was determined by (or conditioned upon) what each man or woman would decide to do about Jesus. The required faith which God foresaw (and upon which He based His choice) wasn’t bestowed by God, nor was it instilled by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. The essential faith is fostered exclusively by one’s willingness to trust in what the Bible has told us about Christ. The whole issue was left up to us (acting as “free agents,” so to speak) as to whether or not we would surrender our wills to God and thereby become one of the elect who’d receive salvation. In other words, the Heavenly Father selected those whom He knew would, of their own free will, choose to believe in Jesus as the promised messiah. Therefore the sinner’s acceptance of the miraculous atonement paid in full by the Son of God is the only criteria used to determine who’ll be with God for all eternity to come.
Whether election is conditional or unconditional is one of the most pronounced differences between Calvinists and Arminians. The Calvinistic camp avows that God predestines believers to go to heaven, just as He predestines unbelievers to go to hell. But Armenians insist that the Father doesn’t predestine anyone to become and remain a believer or to become and remain an unbeliever. This choice is made by each person, and as foreknown by God, it is the factor that conditions the predestination of an individual’s eternal place of residence. They argue that predestination is conditional because salvation itself is conditional. They highlight two verses to solidify their stance. Romans 8:29 reads, “…because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” And, in the opening of 1 Peter, the apostle addresses those who are chosen “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father…”
The next point is U, universal redemption or general atonement. Both terms mean that Christ’s death on the cross and subsequent resurrection made it possible for every person to be saved but His act, in and of itself, didn’t actually secure the salvation of anybody. Although Jesus died for all mankind, only those who believe in Him are saved. Belief is the focus. His sacrifice enabled the Father in heaven to pardon sinners on the condition that they believe, but it didn’t erase the general populace’s sins. Christ’s redemptive power (made available via the shedding of His precious blood) only becomes effective if the individual chooses to accept it.
The gist is this: God has a specific plan for salvation and all the roads to redemption go through Jesus Christ. Prior to creation God had already determined how he would infallibly work out the means by which his children could become righteous in His sight and still retain their independent free will. God’s way of salvation has one fundamental condition (faith in Christ) yet in no way does that negate His sovereignty since God himself is the one who determined that this is how things will be. No one imposed this plan upon Him. Robert Picirilli wrote, “If the sovereign God unconditionally established faith as the condition for salvation (and therefore for election), then His sovereignty is not violated when He requires the condition.” This is not to say that we can earn our way to heaven. No way. Jack Cottrell said, “Since our salvation is accomplished by the work of someone else (Jesus) and since it is offered to us as a free gift, the only thing we can do is accept (believe) God’s Word that this is so and hold out an empty hand to receive the gift. Faith is often identified with this empty hand. It is the exact opposite of merit.”
The H is a statement: the Holy Spirit can be effectually resisted. Like the Calvinists, Armenians posit that there’s a general, outward call to every human being regarding the gospel and an inward call that is the more intimate work of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart. The split of opinion arises due to the fact that Armenians believe the third person of the Trinity does all He can to bring every sinner to salvation. Despite that, because men and women are free to do as they please, they can successfully resist the Holy Spirit’s beckoning. The Holy Spirit cannot regenerate a particular sinner until the individual in question believes that Christ is his/her savior. Faith (man’s contribution) precedes and makes possible the new birth. Thus, the person’s free will limits the Holy Spirit in the application of Christ’s atonement for sin. The Holy Spirit can only draw to Jesus those who allow Him to take complete control of their life. If they reject Christ there’s no way the Holy Spirit will transform them into reborn creatures by force. God’s grace, therefore, isn’t invincible. It can be, and often is, turned down and thwarted by stubborn and prideful human beings.
This indicates that God predestines only the ends and not the means. He predetermines to offer salvation to all believers, but He doesn’t coerce certain unbelievers to become believers and the rest of humanity to remain in their unbelief. The bottom line is this: those who accept Christ through faith do so of their own free choice. Their decision to follow Jesus is not predestined. Arminians point out that the scriptures say nothing whatsoever about people being predestined to believe. At the same time God is never surprised because of His overriding foreknowledge of all that transpires in His universe yesterday, today and tomorrow. The result is that the choosing ones become the chosen ones who are then predestined to receive the blessings of salvation. An Arminian looks at it this way: the goal of election is salvation itself; the means by which that salvation becomes a reality – sanctification and faith – are themselves not predestined.
The last letter is F and it represents falling from grace. Many Arminians have concluded that those who believe and are truly saved nonetheless have the potential to lose their salvation by failing to keep up their faith, not being repentant or declaring allegiance to another God. 2 Peter 1:10 states, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, make every effort to be sure of your calling and election. For by doing this you will never stumble into sin.” I must inject that not all Arminians hold this to be true. Some believe that once a soul has been delivered into the hand of Christ no one and no thing can snatch it away. So the final point is the shakiest and most controversial by far.
As with Calvinism, the Arminian position prompts some hard questions. One large one goes like this: How can God maintain His sovereignty over the universe if He Himself doesn’t cause everything that happens?
Their response centers on the word control. While they aver that God, through His infinite power and knowledge, maintains complete control over everything that goes on, they insist that the word control shouldn’t be equated with causation. God doesn’t sit at a massive panel of buttons, manipulating and micromanaging every event but He does control and oversee the big picture. They use Proverbs 19:21 as an example: “There are many plans in a person’s mind, but it is the counsel of the Lord which will stand.” The inference is that a person’s free will gives them only relative independence since the sovereign God maintains the right and power to intervene in the world’s circumstances in whatever way He chooses. The buck definitely stops at God’s desk.
The concept of the Almighty’s foreknowledge raises questions of its own. One may ask, “Isn’t God less than omniscient if mankind’s free will places Him in the position of being dependent on the whims of His creatures?”
The answer they give is somewhat ambiguous and almost sarcastic. God is, indeed, the great I AM, the alpha and the omega, and He designed the universe exactly the way He wanted it to be. It was God’s sovereign choice to create a universe inhabited by freewill beings whose decisions would, to a great extent, determine the course of His own actions. It is arbitrary, false and downright arrogant to say that such a situation negates divine sovereignty when the situation itself is the result of His sovereignty. God is free to “limit” Himself if He so pleases and it’s not beyond his ability to grant the gift of relative independence to His creatures without losing control over them. To put restrictions on God is the ultimate denial of His supremacy over His creation. This is the true line of demarcation between Calvinists and Arminians. To the former, predestination always precedes foreknowledge; to the latter foreknowledge precedes predestination.
Another objection is this: “If God has foreseen from before the beginning of time every choice that every single person will ever make, then all human choices are fixed or certain and therefore they cannot be considered truly free. Foreknowledge rules out free will by default.”
The Arminian comeback is that foreknowledge does not cause or determine any of the events so foreknown, any more than an observer’s witnessing of present events unfolding before their eyes has any causative influence on those events. In other words, seeing something transpire doesn’t mean making it transpire. Just because we know how the civil war began doesn’t imply that the people involved didn’t have options their free will could’ve taken full advantage of. Why would foreknowledge have necessarily deprived them of the same freedom to choose alternative paths? It’s folly to take causation as a given. R.A. Torrey concluded, “Foreknowledge no more determines a man’s actions than afterknowledge. Knowledge is determined by the fact, not the fact by the knowledge.” In the last analysis Arminians conclude that our finite minds can’t grasp all the implications of God’s unlimited existence and, therefore, we can’t deny God’s foreknowledge simply because we don’t understand it. D. Fisk Harris said, “To say that it cannot be true because we cannot see how God can thus foreknow, is to substitute ignorance for argument.”
I’ll wrap this up as best I can. First, Arminian conditional predestination is a reaffirmation of their insistence that we should be ever-aware of our personal accountability to God. We are solely responsible, as was St. Peter, for whom and what we say Jesus is. We can’t blame God if we don’t end up in paradise. Free will relieves our creator of being called arbitrarily unjust for choosing some for glory while damning others to hellfire. Thus an unbeliever can’t say, “What’s the point? My fate is sealed regardless of what I do.”
Second, conditional predestination should give us peace of mind. To concur that we have absolutely no say in where we’ll spend eternity is a frightening prospect. If that’s the case then all believers have every reason to wonder if they’re saved. If all one can do is wait until after physical death to know if they’ve been adopted by their Heavenly Father as one of his elect then life can be understandably filled with worry and a sense of uneasiness. As Cottrell wrote, “If the reason for choosing one person and not another lies wholly within the secret counsels of God, a person may always be uncertain of his status.”
Arminians feel that their view offers all Christians a great deal of comfort. They assert that one can be assured that they’re among God’s elect because God has revealed the conditions one must meet to be sanctified and everyone can know for certain whether he or she has met those conditions. There’s no mystery. They point to Acts 16:31 as an undeniable confirmation. After an earthquake shook the prison doors off their hinges where Paul and Silas were being held for preaching the good news the panicked jailer asked them what he had to do to find salvation. They told him the simple truth, “…Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved…”