Is the Human Decision to Accept God’s Grace a Meritorious Work?

Is the human decision to accept God’s grace a ‘work’ that we contribute towards our salvation? Roger Olson writes,

“Isn’t the bare human decision to accept and not resist God’s grace and mercy unto salvation a meritorious work?  Arminians respond with a resounding no.  In sum, and by way of preview, classical Arminianism argues that anyone who shows the first inkling or inclination of a good will toward God is already being influenced by grace. Grace is the first cause of genuine free will as liberation from bondage to sin, and grace is the source of anything good.  In its prevenient (going before) form, it is the ‘quickening ray’ Charles Wesley wrote about in his famous Arminian hymn ‘And Can It Be?’  It awakens the prisoner lying helpless in the dungeon of nature’s night and breaks off his chains so that he can rise up and follow Christ.  There is no hint in traditional Arminian theology of salvation by works righteousness; all good is attributed solely to God’s grace…  All that is required for full salvation is a relaxation of the resistant will under the influence of God’s grace so that the person lets go of sin and self-righteousness and allows Christ’s death to become the only foundation for spiritual life.  Was Arminius’s soteriology then synergistic? Yes, but not in the way that is often understood.  Calvinists tend to regard synergism as equal cooperation between God and a human in salvation; thus the human is contributing something crucial and efficacious to salvation.  But this is not Arminius’s synergism. Rather, his is an evangelical synergism that reserves all the power, ability and efficacy in salvation to grace, but allows humans the God-granted ability to resist or not resist it.  The only ‘contribution’ humans make is non-resistance to grace.  This is the same as accepting a gift.  Arminius could not fathom why a gift that must be freely received is no longer a gift, as Calvinists contend.  To explain the ‘concurrence and agreement of divine grace with free will’ he offered an analogy:

To explain the matter I will employ a simile, which yet, I confess is very dissimilar; but its dissimilitude is greatly in favour of my sentiments.  A rich man bestows, on a poor and famishing beggar, alms by which he may be able to maintain himself and his family. Does it cease to be a pure gift, because the beggar extends his hand to receive it?  Can it be said with propriety, that ‘the alms depended partly on the liberality of the Donor, and partly on the liberty of the Receiver,’ though the latter would not have possessed the alms unless he had received it by stretching out his hand? Can it be correctly said, because the beggar is always prepared to receive, that ‘he can have the alms, or not have it, just as he pleases?’  If these assertions cannot be truly made about a beggar who receives alms, how much less can they be made about the gift of faith, for the receiving of which far more acts of Divine Grace are required!

At this point, of course, some Calvinist critics still maintain that Arminius makes the free acceptance of the gift of salvation, including faith, the decisive factor in salvation; so the human act of acceptance, and not God’s grace, becomes the ground of righteousness. No Arminian, including Arminius, will agree with the formula that the person’s mere acceptance of redemption from Christ is ‘the decisive factor’ in salvation. For Arminius, as for all classical Arminians, the decisive factor is the grace of God – from beginning to end. Using Arminius’s analogy of the rich man and the beggar, would it be normal speech to say that the beggar’s acceptance of the rich man’s money was the decisive factor in his family’s survival?  Who would say that? All attention in such a case would focus on the benefactor and not on the poor receiver of benefaction.  We might extend the analogy a bit and suggest that the rich man bestowed the gift in the form of a check, which needs only to be endorsed and deposited in the poor man’s bank account.  What if someone claimed that the act of endorsing the check and depositing it was the decisive factor in the poor man’s family’s survival?  Surely even the Calvinist must see that no reasonable person would say that.  So it is with Arminian evangelical synergism; the bare act of deciding to rely totally on God’s grace for salvation and to accept the gift of eternal life is not the decisive factor in salvation.  That status belongs to God’s grace alone.” 1

J.P. Holding writes,

“And a point I have yet to see explained as well is how making a decision qualifies as a “work.”  The Jews were forbidden to work on the Sabbath; did this prohibit them from thinking or making a decision?  Is there any evidence that the Greek word behind “works” (ergon) ever refers to a thought or a decision?  It seems to me that this is a flawed premise upon which the Calvinistic case rests.” 2

So is the human decision to accept God’s grace a meritorious work that we contribute toward our salvation?  So far, all the evidence is to the contrary, but if making the decision to accept a gift is a work, the burden of proof is on the Calvinists to show how it is.


1 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p. 161-66; According to Olson, the Arminius quote is from ‘The Apology or Defence of James Arminius, D.D.,’ Works [Of Arminius], 2:52

2 Holding, J. P. ‘On Unconditional Election’ (Link)

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