Feedback: Arminians Limit the Power of the Atonement

This week’s feedback comes in response to the post If Christ Died For All, And All Are Not Saved, Did Christ Die In Vain?  This week’s chosen respondent raises the old accusation that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement.

Question: “See this is why I could never be Armenian.  At least us Calvinists beleive that Christ actually did something on the cross.  We say the atonement was of infinite value and powerful beyond limitations, but the extent of the atonement is limited for the elect.  We say Christ actually secured our salvation at the cross.  You Armenians believe that Christ only makes men ‘savable’ whatever that means.  You believe that Christ died for the whole world, but the whole world isn’t saved.  It you who limits the atonement, you limit it’s power…Why do you say the power is a “non issue”, when you clearly limit the power?”

Answer: Thanks for taking the time to write in.  The accusation that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement is certainly not a new one.  From my experience, it is one of the most common objections to Arminianism, as far as debates about the extent of the atonement go.  Sometimes, those of us within the Arminian (or at least ‘non-Calvinist’) camp ‘shoot ourselves in the foot’ by not defining our beliefs and our use of terms as well as we should, which serves to feed the conception, or more correctly misconception, that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement.

From the outset, I want to make it clear that Calvinists such as yourself are not wrong to charge Arminianism with limiting the atonement in some measure.  In fact, Calvinists are quite right to point out that Arminianism limits the atonement as certainly (but not necessarily in the same way) as does the Calvinist.  I realise that not all Arminians would agree with me on this point.  Notable Arminian Roger Olson, for example, expressly denies that Arminianism limits the atonement in any way.  I have no objection to a Calvinist claiming that Arminianism in some measure limits the atonement.  Indeed, unless we are going to embrace Universalism (the belief that all will be saved), I believe that we must accept at least some measure of limitation.  

What I object to is the assertion that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement. 

I believe that there are two main reasons for the assertion that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement.  The first being an apparent flaw within the Calvinistic view of the atonement whereby they make the atonement and its application the same thing, and the second being a misconception of true Arminian beliefs, and thus a faulty idea of what the logical conclusion of Arminian beliefs are (as stated above, this is sometimes our own fault for not articulating our beliefs and use of terms as well as we should).  For the sake of providing a response to your actual question, my focus will be mainly on correcting the misconception of Arminian beliefs, rather than attempting a full-scale refutation of the Calvinistic view.

First of all, what do Arminians mean when they say that they believe in ‘universal atonement’, ‘unlimited atonement’, or ‘atonement for all’?  Those terms, taken at face-value, may lead many to conclude that Arminians believe in Universalism, the belief that all people will eventually be saved.  This is most certainly not what Arminians mean, however, when they use terms such as above.  What we actually mean, and this is why we should be more careful with our use of terms, is ‘universal provision’, or ‘unlimited provision’.  

Provision and Application

When we use the word provision, we are implicitly making a distinction between the universal provision of the atonement and the individual application of the atonement.  In other words, provision has been made for the whole world through Christ’s death, but the benefits of Christ’s death (specifically salvation) are not received by an individual until such time as they apply the blood.  

We believe that there are good Scriptural precedents for making the distinction between the provision and the application of the atonement.  Five examples shall suffice.  The first three examples are Old Testament types of Christ (later confirmed in the New Testament), the fourth example is how the Apostle Paul describes God as Saviour, and the fifth is how Paul describes a couple of other believers.

The Passover Lamb

The blood of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:6, 21) was provided for all of Israel (Ex. 12:3), without a hint of it being only for an ‘elect’ group within Israel.  But the fact that the blood of the Passover lamb was provided for all Israel didn’t automatically guarantee that all Israel would benefit from it.  The blood became effectual only after it was applied to the door posts (Ex. 12:7, 22); the blood itself didn’t save anyone.  Any Israelite who failed to apply the lamb’s blood to their doorpost would thus have failed to receive any benefit from the death of the Passover lamb, in spite of the fact that they could have, as they were provided for.

It is obvious that even if an Israelite did fail in receiving a benefit from the death of the Passover lamb, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the lamb. The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.

That the Passover Lamb was for all of Israel speaks of provision; that the Passover Lamb saved only those that applied the blood to their doorpost speaks of application.

The Passover Lamb is confirmed in the New Testament as being a legitimate type of Christ, for the Apostle Paul refers to Christ as “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7).

The Serpent in the Wilderness

Because the people of Israel became impatient and complained against God and Moses (Num. 21:4-5), God sent fiery serpents among the people, and the serpents bit the people, so that many people died (Num. 21:6).  When the people acknowledged their sin, they asked Moses to pray to God for them (Num. 21:7). God answered Moses’ prayer, saying,

“‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’  So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Num. 21:8-9)

The bronze serpent was a provision for “everyone” and “anyone”. But the fact that the bronze serpent was provided for all Israel didn’t automatically guarantee that all Israel would benefit from it.  The bronze serpent became effectual only after someone looked at it by faith. The serpent itself didn’t save anyone. Anyone who refused to look by faith at the serpent would thus have failed to receive any benefit from the bronze serpent, in spite of the fact that they could have, as they were provided for.

It is obvious that even if an Israelite did fail in receiving a benefit from the bronze serpent, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the serpent.  The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.

That the serpent was for “everyone” and “anyone” speaks of provision; that it healed only those who looked to it in faith speaks of application.

The serpent in the wilderness is confirmed as a legitimate type of Christ by Jesus Christ Himself, when He drew an explicit comparison between the serpent in the wilderness and His own death (Jn. 3:14).

The Cities of Refuge

The cities of refuge were a provision for the manslayer (Num. 35:9-15). Furthermore, it was a provision for any manslayer – the people of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner (Num. 35:15).  But the fact that the cities of refuge were provided for any manslayer did not automatically guarantee that any manslayer would benefit from them.  The city of refuge was only effective as long as the manslayer entered, and stayed within, the boundaries (Num. 35:26-28).  Any manslayer who refused to either enter in (in the first place), or remain in, the cities of refuge would thus fail to receive any benefit from said cities, in spite of the fact that they could have, as provision was made for them.

It is obvious that even if a manslayer did fail in receiving benefit from the provision of the cities of refuge, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the cities. The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.

That the cities were for any manslayer speaks of provision; that they protected only those who entered and remained within the boundaries speaks of application.

The author to the Hebrews makes reference to the fact that we have fled to Jesus for refuge (6:18).  Even the hyper-Calvinist John Gill explicitly declared 1) that the cities of refuge were each types of Christ, and 2) that Hebrews 6:18 is referring to this fact.

The Saviour of All People, Especially of Those Who Believe

Paul writes that God is “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10).  That God is the Saviour of all people speaks of provision; that God is the Saviour especially of believers speaks of application.

In Christ Before Paul

Paul writes that Andronicus and Junia, his kinsmen and fellow prisoners, “were in Christ before me [Paul]” (Rom. 16:7).  The fact that someone can be “in Christ” before someone else implies that there is a difference between the atonement itself, and the application of that atonement.  

If not, and the atonement and its application are the same thing, then we would have to believe that the elect were actually literally saved at the moment of Christ’s death, a belief which entails the elect being saved, and thus “in Christ”, all at the same time.  This would also entail the elect being born saved, and thus never being “dead in trespasses and sins”, nor “children of wrath” (Cf. Eph. 2:1-3), and therefore, being saved before ever having exercised faith. 

The distinction between the provision and the application of the atonement is therefore deducible from Paul’s description of Andronicus and Junia as being “in Christ” before him.  

As the above examples show, there is indeed a distinction between the atonement and the application of the atonement.  In other words, the atonement is provisional in nature, until such time as it is applied.

Unless the Calvinist is going to affirm that the elect were born saved, then in principle, he must affirm a provisional aspect of the atonement, in some measure at least.

Provision and Intention

Following on from the distinction between the provision of the atonement and an individual’s application of the atonement, it is helpful to recognise the distinction between the provision and intention of the atonement.  As the application of the atonement refers to a human action, namely, an individual’s application of Christ’s blood by looking to Him in faith, the intention of the atonement refers to a Divine action, namely, who God actually intends to save.

When we speak of God’s intentions, two fundamental questions need to be asked:

1) Why did Christ shed His blood in the first place?

2) Who does God intend to save?

At the risk of oversimplification, I believe a very basic answer to the first question would be that Christ shed His blood as a means of providing the redemption of those whom God has intended to save. This then raises the second question, Who does God actually intend to save?  It is my position that even though He desires that all would come to faith and repentance, God has only ever intended to save those who believe (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21, Gal. 3:22, 1 Tim. 4:10). As Richard Baxter said, “it was never the intent of his mind, to pardon and save any that would not by faith and repentance be converted”.

Once again, referring back to the aforementioned Old Testament foreshadows of Christ is helpful.

Just as God intended the blood of the Passover Lamb to be effectual only for those who applied it to their doorposts (Ex. 12), so He intends the blood of Christ (our Passover Lamb, 1 Cor. 5:7) to be effectual only for those who apply the blood.

Just as God intended the serpent in the wilderness, lifted up, to be effectual for those who looked to it in faith (Num. 21), so Christ (our Serpent in the wilderness, Jn. 3:14), lifted up, was only ever intended to be effectual for those who look to Him in faith.

Just as God intended the cities of refuge to be effectual only for those entered, and stayed within, the boundaries (Num. 35), so Christ (our City to whom we have fled for refuge, Heb. 6:18) was only ever intended to be effectual for those who enter into union with, and remain in union with, Him.

Christ’s blood accomplishes exactly what God intended: it saves those who by faith and repentance believe the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21).  Therefore, to say that Arminians limit the power of the atonement is just plain nonsense.  The fact that Christ’s blood does not save every single person without exception, in spite of the fact that provision has been made for every single person, says nothing about the power of the atonement, for 1) God has never intended to save anyone who would not by faith and repentance believe the Gospel, and 2) the atonement accomplishes exactly what God intended, namely, the salvation of those who believe.  

To say that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement amounts to nothing more than saying that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement to being able to achieve exactly what God has intended it to achieve, which is a redundant criticism.  If the atonement accomplishes exactly what God intended, then its power cannot reasonably be said to have been limited in any meaningful sense of the word.

Best regards,

Arminian

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Q&A: If God’s Grace Can Be Resisted, Isn’t the Decisive Factor in Salvation Man’s Choice Instead of God’s?

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST IS CURRENTLY IN THE PROCESS OF BEING REVISED AND UPDATED

Question: If God’s Grace Can Be Resisted, Isn’t the Decisive Factor in Salvation Man’s Choice Instead of God’s?

Answer: In a sense, the decision solely rests on the individual.  The responsibility to repent and accept Christ as Saviour is man’s and man’s alone.  God won’t do our repenting for us.  But it’s important to note that the ability to repent is not inherent to the individual – it is only by God’s grace that we can repent.  As Arminius said,

“No man believes in Christ except he has been previously disposed and prepared, by preventing or preceding grace, to receive life eternal on that condition on which God wills to bestow it, according to the following passage of Scripture: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17 )” 1

So God does the enabling, but if a man wants to be saved, he must personally make use of the fact that he has been enabled by God’s grace, and choose to accept God’s gift of salvation.  The responsibility is on man to enter by the narrow gate, and not by the wide gate (Matt. 7:13-14); the responsibility is on man to seek for glory and honour and immortality in order to receive eternal life (Rom. 2:6-7); the responsibility is on man to sow to the Spirit and not give up in order to reap eternal life (Gal. 6:7-9).

So there is a sense in which the final decision is man’s, but it must be remembered that the decision is not based on man’s inherent ability; it is based on God’s grace, for it is only by the grace of God that man is enabled to respond in the first place. As Roger Olson said,

“The moral ability to respond to the gospel freely – by the graciously freed will – is a free gift of God through Christ to all people in some measure.  It does not mean that anyone can now seek and find God using natural ability alone!  It is a supernatural endowment that can be and usually is rejected or neglected.  According to Arminian theology, because of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit all people are being influenced toward the good; the deadly wound of Adam’s sin is being healed.  And yet their fallen nature is still with them.  This dual reality is analogous to the simul justus et peccator, or the war between flesh and Spirit within every Christian.  The inability to will the good is not merely hypothetical; it is the state of nature in which every person (except Jesus Christ) lives.  But no person is left by God entirely in that state of nature without some measure of grace to rise above it if he or she cooperates with grace by not resisting it.  Arminians agree with Peterson and Williams that ‘without the Holy Spirit there would be no faith and no new birth – in short, no Christians.’” 2

Note especially the last sentence: “without the Holy Spirit there would be no faith and no new birth – in short, no Christians.”  So yes, the final decision to resist or to not resist God’s grace is man’s, but without that grace, the decision couldn’t be made to not resist.  The decision to repent and believe the Gospel is the responsibility of man, but without God’s enabling grace, we cannot make the decision to repent and believe the Gospel. As Arminius said,

“This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.” 3

The fact that human choice plays a vital role in salvation can be illustrated by the words of Jesus when He was dealing with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30).  When the young ruler asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 18) we do not read of Jesus rebuking the young man for having the audacity to presume that he himself could make a decision and inherit eternal life.  Instead, Jesus told him that there was something he could do: sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor (v. 22).  Jesus’ words, of course, were not as much about money as they were about the heart.  The young ruler loved his money, possessions, and the myriad privileges that his position granted him.  So much so that he just couldn’t bear to live without them.  But Jesus was not going to grant the young ruler eternal life while he was proud, self-sufficient, and unwilling to forsake all to follow Christ.  The young ruler needed to humble himself and quite literally forsake everything he owned to follow Christ.  Unwilling to forsake all and make a full commitment to Christ, the young ruler went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions, the passage says.  Noting the young ruler’s unwillingness, Jesus said that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (vv. 24-5). 

The implications of this encounter are clear and undeniable – Jesus is suggesting that salvation is, in some measure at least, tied up in man’s response and commitment to Him and His calling.  Surely if the Calvinistic doctrine of Irresistible Grace were true, then Jesus would never have said that it was harder for rich persons to be saved than poor persons.  Surely their wills would be irresistibly and invincibly bent to faith and conversion upon hearing the effectual call of God.  Surely it would be no harder for a rich person to be saved by God’s monergistic and irresistible call than it would be for any other person.  But of course, what Jesus is suggesting stands in stark contrast to the Calvinist’s doctrine.  Surely there can be no doubt that human choice is vital for salvation.

While human choice is certainly vital for salvation, it does not contribute anything to salvation:

“[I]n and of themselves, people’s choices accomplish nothing. Perhaps the best model is the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. Naaman, the commander of the Aramite army, had leprosy. He asked for help. The prophet Elisha told him to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman initially rejected that notion, complaining about having to bathe in the dirty Jordan River. Finally, after his servants prevailed upon him, he did it, and his leprosy was cleansed. What was it that cleansed Naaman’s leprosy? Was it his dunking himself in the Jordan River seven times? Of course not! He could have dunked himself in the river a thousand times and nothing would have happened. On the other hand, what happened when he did not go bathe? Nothing! God allowed him to suffer the results of his own rebellion. But when Naaman responded obediently to God’s direction through the prophet, Naaman was healed.

So it is with our salvation. Humans do not do anything to earn or deserve salvation. Humans are too sinful in nature to seek God independently or take the initiative in their own salvation. Humans can come to salvation only as they are urged to by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and they are drawn to Christ as He is lifted up in proclamation. Cooperation contributes absolutely nothing to human salvation. God’s grace provides the necessary and sufficient conditions for salvation. However, God in His freedom has sovereignly decided that He will give the gift of salvation to those who believe, who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. So salvation truly is monergistic – only God provides for human salvation, and He alone. Before He does so, He requires humans to respond. If humans do not respond, then He does not save. If humans do respond, He surrounds them with overpowering grace impelling them forward until they come to the point of repentance and faith.” 4

Notes

1 Complete Works of Arminius, Vol. 2, Letter to the Reader, ‘Certain Articles to be Diligently Examined and Weighed’, (On Faith)

2 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p. 155

3 Complete Works of Arminius, Vol. 1, Declaration of the Sentiments, (5)(3)

4 Steve Lemke, “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, p. 159

A Puritan’s (Deluded) Mind

“Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit.” – Prov. 12:17

A Puritan’s (Deluded) Mind

Calvinist C. Matthew McMahon, of A Puritan’s Mind, writes the following with regards to what he thinks Arminius taught:

“Arminius also taught that his “god” can be frustrated by the will of man because men choose their own destiny and that “god” allows them to do what they want to do without interfering.  Not only is this “god” later to be deemed the “god of deism”, but it demonstrates that Arminius’ “god” plans salvation in a way that may not be effectuated. This “god” has offered salvation, but cannot actually bring about the happiness of the creature since man is autonomous and has, as Arminius taught, “a free will.”  This means that man’s neutrality (denying total depravity) in “willing anything” is based on a choice that is never inclined toward good or evil.  Arminius though is very wrong not only about how salvation works, but the nature of man as well.  This “neutrality” is actually a smokescreen.  Not only is everyone born under the fall of Adam totally depraved and sinful, but their wills are never neutral.  Men only have sinful inclinations (Gen. 6:5).  They are not neutral in any choice they ever make.  Neutrality would mean they have an aversion to good or evil, but the Bible teaches men are inherently evil as a result of Adam’s fall and disobedience.  Romans 5:12 emphatically states, “… just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned…” Arminius taught that there was an island of righteousness in every man which was unaffected by the fall and thus able to do “good.” … With Pelagius, Arminius said that all men are inherently free, and have a “free will”.  The fall of Adam has not rendered them incapable of doing good things.” 1

What strikes me is that McMahon constantly uses the term “Arminius taught,” or “Arminius said,” but not once does he quote Arminius, or at least cite his writings to substantiate his claims.  Either McMahon hasn’t done his research and doesn’t know what Arminius actually taught, in which case he has no right to presume to teach others about what Arminius taught, or he has done his research and knows what Arminius taught, in which case he is being dishonest about the issue.  

No other option exists, as McMahon is demonstrably dead wrong about the issue.

Letting Arminius speak for himself:

“In the state of Primitive Innocence, man had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God, and his works and will, as far as was sufficient for the salvation of man and the glory of God; he had a heart imbued with ‘righteousness and true holiness,’ and with a true and saving love of good; and powers abundantly qualified or furnished perfectly to fulfill the law which God had imposed on him.  This admits easily of proof, from the description of the image of God, after which man is said to have been created, (Gen 1:26-27) from the law divinely imposed on him, which had a promise and a threat appended to it, (Gen 2:17) and lastly from the analogous restoration of the same image in Christ Jesus. (Eph 4:24, Col 3:10)

But man was not so confirmed in this state of innocence, as to be incapable of being moved, by the representation presented to him of some good, (whether it was of an inferior kind and relating to this animal life, or of a superior-kind and relating to spiritual life) inordinately and unlawfully to look upon it and to desire it, and of his own spontaneous as well as free motion, and through a preposterous desire for that good, to decline from the obedience which had been prescribed to him.  Nay, having turned away from the light of his own mind and his chief good, which is God, or, at least, having turned towards that chief good not in the manner in which he ought to have done, and besides having turned in mind and heart towards an inferior good, he transgressed the command given to him for life.  By this foul deed, he precipitated himself from that noble and elevated condition into a state of the deepest infelicity, which is under the dominion of sin.  For ‘to whom any one yields himself a servant to obey,’ (Rom 6:16) and ‘of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage,’ and is his regularly assigned slave. (2 Pet 2:19)

In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost.  And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.  For Christ has said, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’  St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: ‘Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty.  But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do Nothing.’  That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man.” 2

Arminius further taught:

“This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him.  Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace.  But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good.  When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.” 3

McMahon is dead wrong.  End of discussion.

Notes

1 McMahon, C. Matthew, The ‘god’ of Arminianism is Not Worshippable

2 Arminius, J., Complete Works of Arminius, Vol. 1, Public Disputations of Arminius, Disputation 11 (On the Free Will of Man and its Powers)

3 Ibid., Declaration of the Sentiments, 5:3

Do Arminians Believe in Total Depravity?

Leading Calvinist John MacArthur asserts that,

“THE contemporary idea today is that there’s some residual good left in the sinner.  As this progression came from Pelagianism to Semi-Pelagianism, and then came down to some contemporary Arminianism, maybe got defined a little more carefully by Wesley, who was a sort of, ah, um, messed up Calvinist, because Wesley wanted to give all the glory to God, but as you well know, but he wanted to find in man some place where man could initiate salvation on his own will… So that the sinner, un-aided by the Holy Spirit, must make the first move.  That’s essentially Arminian theology: The sinner, un-aided, must make the first move.” 1 (Emphasis mine)

Loraine Boettner writes,

“AS we read the works of various Arminian writers, it seems that their first and perhaps most serious error is that they do not give sufficient importance to the sinful rebellion and spiritual separation of the human race from God that occurred in the fall of Adam. Some neglect it altogether, while for others it seems to be a far away event that has little influence in the lives of people today. But unless we insist on the reality of that spiritual separation from God, and the totally disastrous effect that it had on the entire human race, we shall never be able properly to appreciate our real condition or our desperate need of a Redeemer.” 2

Not only does Boettner explicitly say that Arminians “do not give sufficient importance to the sinful rebellion and spiritual separation of the human race from God,” his last sentence is a slap in the face if ever I’ve seen one: Arminians are not able to properly appreciate the need for a Redeemer.

Calvinist duo Steele and Thomas claim that Arminianism teaches that,

“ALTHOUGH human nature was seriously affected by the fall, man has not been left in a state of total spiritual helplessness. God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe, but He does not interfere with man’s freedom. Each sinner possesses a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it. Man’s freedom consists of his ability to choose good over evil in spiritual matters; his will is not enslaved to his sinful nature. The sinner has the power to either cooperate with God’s Spirit and be regenerated or resist God’s grace and perish. The lost sinner needs the Spirit’s assistance, but he does not have to be regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe, for faith is man’s act and precedes the new birth. Faith is the sinner’s gift to God; it is man’s contribution to salvation.” 3

The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) claims,

“TOTAL Depravity is the doctrine that fallen man is completely touched by sin and that he is completely a sinner. He is not as bad as he could be, but in all areas of his being, body, soul, spirit, mind, emotions, etc., he is touched by sin. In that sense he is totally depraved. Because man is depraved, nothing good can come out of him (Rom. 3:10-12) and God must account the righteousness of Christ to him. This righteousness is obtainable only through faith in Christ and what He did on the cross.

Total depravity is generally believed by the Calvinist groups and rejected by the Arminian groups.” 4

William MacLean writes,

“ARMINIANS deny the total depravity of man, in that they hold that the will of man is free and has the ability to choose Christ and the salvation that is in Him.” 5

Despite how convinced the above Calvinists are regarding the beliefs of Arminians, their claims are quite baseless.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth; Arminians wholeheartedly affirm the total depravity of man.

Jacob Arminius writes,

“IN the state of Primitive Innocence, man had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God, and his works and will, as far as was sufficient for the salvation of man and the glory of God; he had a heart imbued with ‘righteousness and true holiness,’ and with a true and saving love of good; and powers abundantly qualified or furnished perfectly to fulfill the law which God had imposed on him.  This admits easily of proof, from the description of the image of God, after which man is said to have been created, (Gen 1:26-27) from the law divinely imposed on him, which had a promise and a threat appended to it, (Gen 2:17) and lastly from the analogous restoration of the same image in Christ Jesus. (Eph 4:24, Col 3:10)

But man was not so confirmed in this state of innocence, as to be incapable of being moved, by the representation presented to him of some good, (whether it was of an inferior kind and relating to this animal life, or of a superior-kind and relating to spiritual life) inordinately and unlawfully to look upon it and to desire it, and of his own spontaneous as well as free motion, and through a preposterous desire for that good, to decline from the obedience which had been prescribed to him.  Nay, having turned away from the light of his own mind and his chief good, which is God, or, at least, having turned towards that chief good not in the manner in which he ought to have done, and besides having turned in mind and heart towards an inferior good, he transgressed the command given to him for life.  By this foul deed, he precipitated himself from that noble and elevated condition into a state of the deepest infelicity, which is under the dominion of sin.  For ‘to whom any one yields himself a servant to obey,’ (Rom 6:16) and ‘of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage,’ and is his regularly assigned slave. (2 Pet 2:19)

In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost.  And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.  For Christ has said, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’  St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: ‘Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty.  But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do Nothing.’  That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man.” 6

Arminius further writes,

“THIS is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him.  Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace.  But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good.  When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.” 7

Dr. Brian Abasciano and Martin Glynn, President and Vice-President respectively8 of the Society of Evangelical Arminians, write thus concerning the depravity of man:

“HUMANITY was created in the image of God, good and upright, but fell from its original sinless state through willful disobedience, leaving humanity sinful, separated from God, and under the sentence of divine condemnation … 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, making every human being fundamentally corrupt at heart … Therefore, human beings are not able to think, will, nor do anything good in and of themselves, including merit favor from God, save ourselves from the judgment and condemnation of God that we deserve for our sin, or even believe the gospel … If anyone is to be saved, God must take the initiative.” 9

The Opinions of the Remonstrants:

“MAN does not have saving faith of himself, nor out of the powers of his free will, since in the state of sin he is able of himself and by himself neither to think, will, or do any good (which would indeed to be saving good, the most prominent of which is saving faith).  It is necessary therefore that by God in Christ through His Holy Spirit he be regenerated and renewed in intellect, affections, will, and in all his powers, so that he might be able to understand, reflect upon, will and carry out the good things which pertain to salvation.  We hold, however, that the grace of God is not only the beginning but also the progression and the completion of every good, so much so that even the regenerate himself is unable to think, will, or do the good, or to resist any temptations to evil, apart from that preceding or prevenient, awakening, following and cooperating grace.  Hence all good works and actions which anyone by cogitation is able to comprehend are to be ascribed to the grace of God… The will in the fallen state, before calling, does not have the power and the freedom to will any saving good.” 10

Roger Olson, author of Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, and Against Calvinism, writes that,

“ARMINIANS together with Calvinists affirm total depravity because of the fall of humanity in Adam and its inherited consequence of a corrupted nature in bondage to sin.  A common myth about Arminianism is that it promotes an optimistic anthropology.” 11

Even Calvinists Peterson and Williams acknowledge that Arminians hold to the doctrine of total depravity:

“ARMINIANS and Calvinists alike believe in total depravity: because of the fall, every aspect of human nature is tainted by sin.” 12

John Wesley, commenting on Genesis 6:5, openly taught that,

“CONCERNING man in his natural state unassisted by the grace of God… every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is still evil, ‘only evil,’ and that ‘continually.'” 13

Arminians thus wholeheartedly affirm the following definition put forth by Calvinist Charles Ryrie:

“BECAUSE of the effects of the fall, that original relationship of fellowship with God was broken and man’s entire nature was polluted.  As a result no one can do anything, even good things, that can gain soteriological merit in God’s sight.  Therefore, we may concisely define total depravity as the unmeritoriousness of man before God because of the corruption of original sin.

The concept of total depravity does not mean (1) that depraved people cannot or do not perform actions that are good in either man’s or God’s sight.  But no such action can gain favor with God for salvation.  Neither does it mean (2) that fallen man has no conscience which judges between good and evil for him.  But that conscience has been affected by the fall so that it cannot be a safe and reliable guide.  Neither does it mean (3) that people indulge in every form of sin or in any sin to the greatest extent possible.

Positively, total depravity means that the corruption has extended to all aspects of man’s nature, to his entire being; and total depravity means that because of that corruption there is nothing man can do to merit saving favor with God.” 14


Notes

1 Sermon: The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing – The Doctrine of Absolute Inability, preached at the Together for the Gospel (T4G) Conference, 2008.  Relevant Time: 31:54 – 33:15

2 Boettner, L., ‘Man’s Totally Helpless Condition,’ in The Reformed Faith

3 Steele, D., Thomas, C., and Quinn, S., The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented (2004: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2nd Ed.), pp. 5-6

4 ‘Total Depravity,’ in the Dictionary of Theology: <http://carm.org/dictionary-total-depravity&gt;

5 MacLean, W., ‘Arminian Errors,’ in the tract Another Gospel

6 Arminius, J., Complete Works of Arminius, Volume 1, Public Disputations of Arminius, Disputation 11 (On the Free Will of Man and its Powers)

7 Ibid. Declaration of the Sentiments, 5:3

8 According to announcement made on 20 July 2011: <http://evangelicalarminians.org/node/1179&gt;

9 Abasciano, B., and Glynn, M., An Outline of the FACTS of Arminianism vs. the TULIP of Calvinism: <http://evangelicalarminians.org/Outline.FACTS-of-Arminianism-vs-the-TULIP-of-Calvinism&gt;

10 The Opinions of the Remonstrants, 1618: The Opinion of the Remonstrants regarding the third and fourth articles, concerning the grace of God and the conversion of man, sections 1, 2, and 4

11 Olson, R., Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (2006: InterVarsity Press), pp.55-6

12 Peterson, R., and Williams, M., Why I Am Not An Arminian (2004: InterVarsity Press), p.163

13 Wesley, J., Sermon XLIV: Original Sin, in The Essential Works of John Wesley (2011: Barbour Publishing Inc.), p.128

14 Ryrie, C., Entry for ‘Depravity, Total,’ in Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2001: Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2nd Edition), p. 337

Do Arminians Believe in the Sovereignty of God?

Do Arminians believe in the sovereignty of God?  If one has only ever read Calvinistic books, the answer would seem to be a no-brainer, for according to most Calvinists, an Arminian is by definition someone who denies God’s sovereignty. For example, notable Calvinist exponent Edwin H. Palmer (1922 – 1980) explicitly declared that “the Arminian denies the sovereignty of God”.1

Funny though it may seem, there are even those who reject the tenets of Calvinism, yet try and take a middle road between Calvinism and Arminianism. These so-called ‘non-Calvinists’ are usually known by the maxim, “I am neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian, but simply a Bible-believer.’  I should know; I used to be one.

Anyhow, these non-Calvinists (who for the most part seem to be nothing more than un-informed Arminians) will sometimes fall into the belief that Arminianism, by definition, entails the denial of God’s sovereignty.  Even the ‘Twentieth-Century Prophet,’ A. W. Tozer fell into this error, saying:

“ANOTHER real problem created by the doctrine of the divine sovereignty has to do with the will of man.  If God rules His universe by His sovereign decrees, how is it possible for man to exercise free choice?  And if he cannot exercise freedom of choice, how can he be held responsible for his conduct?  Is he not a mere puppet whose actions are determined by a behind-the-scenes God who pulls the strings as it pleases Him?

The attempt to answer these questions has divided the Christian church neatly into two camps which have borne the names of two distinguished theologians, Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin. Most Christians are content to get into one camp or the other and deny either sovereignty to God or free will to man.” (Bold emphasis added) 2

The implications are clear: Tozer is saying, among other things, that Arminians deny the sovereignty of God.

Is it, however, accurate to say that Arminians deny the sovereignty of God?  It is my contention that there are only two types of people who could make such a claim: those who have no idea about the issue, and those who are dishonest about the issue.

Contrary to the charges, Arminian theology strongly affirms the sovereignty of God in all things. Arminian scholar Roger Olson3 writes,

“CLASSICAL Arminianism goes far beyond belief in general providence to include affirmation of God’s intimate and direct involvement in every event of nature and history.  The only thing the Arminian view of God’s sovereignty necessarily excludes is God’s authorship of sin and evil.  Faithful followers of Arminius have always believed that God governs the entire universe and all of history.  Nothing at all can happen without God’s permission, and many things are specifically and directly controlled and caused by God.  Even sin and evil do not escape God’s providential governance in classical Arminian theology.  God permits and limits them without willing or causing them.” 4

The point of difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is the definition of sovereignty.  On the Calvinistic view, sovereignty means meticulous control (i.e., theological determinism),5 while on the Arminian view, God’s sovereignty necessarily means His complete freedom and authority (or right) to act any way He so wills.  On this view, God certainly has the freedom and authority to exercise meticulous control over every minute detail (though the Arminian can’t see how this doesn’t necessitate God’s authorship of sin), but He also has the freedom and authority to not exercise meticulous control.  For the Arminian, if God chooses to not exercise meticulous control, that decision is itself a sovereign decision.  As (Arminian) apologist J. P. Holding writes,

“SOME Calvinist commentators point to various passages of specific events such as the selling of Joseph into slavery (Gen. 45-50), the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23), and the military actions of the Assyrians (Is. 10).  And they are not wrong to do so.  Yet one cannot falsely generalize from these particulars and assume that God chooses to exercise His right of sovereignty in the same way for things like the moving of a finger.  Perhaps He does, but perhaps He does not; perhaps He does at some times, but not at others.

Yet to suggest such a thing hardly removes any sovereignty from God, for a simple reason that I have yet to see dealt with by a Calvinist commentator (though I may see it in the future): The decision to do nothing is itself a sovereign decision.” 6

Thus, the Arminian concludes that even if God decides to do nothing in a given scenario, that decision is an exercise of, rather than an abdication of, His sovereignty.  Arminian theologians Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell write,

“NOTE that God is no less sovereign in a world where he chooses to grant his creatures libertarian freedom than he is in a world where he determines everything.  Sovereignty cannot simply be equated with meticulous control.  Rather, sovereignty is the freedom to choose as one will and to accomplish one’s purposes.  If God chooses to create people who are free and to accomplish his purposes through their undetermined choices, it is his sovereign right to do so.  Less control is not the same as less sovereignty if God chooses to have less control.  A perfectly good and wise God will exercise just the amount of control appropriate for the sort of world he chooses to create.” 7

This view is described in terms of ‘divine self-limitation’:

“THE main alternative to this [i.e., Calvinism’s determinism] strong doctrine of God’s sovereignty is divine self-limitation.  First, let it be clearly understood that those who appeal to divine self-limitation and passive permission as the explanation for sin and evil in the omnipotent, creator God’s world do not say God never manipulates historical circumstances to bring about his will.  What God never does is cause evil.  God may and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled.  Such seemed to be the case with Jesus’ crucifixion.” 8

Thus, the Arminian contends that God “could exercise deterministic control, but he has chosen not to do so.”9  He limits Himself.

Olson further writes,

“DOES God govern by meticulously determining the entire course of every life, including moral choices and actions?  Or does God allow humans a realm of freedom of choices and then responds by drawing them into his perfect plan for history’s consummation?  Calvinists (and some other Christians) believe God’s control over human history is always already de facto – fully accomplished in a detailed and deterministic sense; that is, nothing can ever thwart the will of God.  Arminians (and some other Christians) believe God’s control over human history is always already de jure – by right and power if not already completely exercised – but at present only partially de facto.  God can and does exercise control, but not to the exclusion of human liberty and not in such a way as to make him the author of sin and evil.  After all, Jesus taught his disciples to pray ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt 6:10 RSV).  If God’s sovereignty were already completely exercised de facto, why would anyone need to pray for God’s will to be done on earth?  In that case, it would always already be done on earth.  The distinction between God’s sovereignty de facto and de jure is required by the Lord’s Prayer.” 10

Olson further elaborates on the concept of sovereignty de facto and sovereignty de jure:

“EVANGELICAL theologian Stanley Grenz (1950 – 2005) offered a helpful distinction in God’s providence… It is the distinction between ‘sovereignty de facto’ and sovereignty de jure.’  According to Grenz, with whom I agree, due to God’s voluntary self-limitation he is now sovereign de jure (by right) but not yet sovereign de facto (in actuality).  His sovereignty de facto is future.  This reflects the biblical narrative in which Satan is the ‘god of this age’ (2 Cor. 4:4) (where ‘world’ clearly means ‘this present evil age’), and God will defeat him in the coming age to become ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28). The entirety of 1 Corinthians 15 can be interpreted in no other way; it assumes the distinction between God’s sovereign rule de jure now and de facto in the future.  This is not to say, of course, that God is not actually sovereign now at all; it only says that God is allowing his sovereignty to be challenged and his will to be partially thwarted until then.” 11

In reading Dr. Olson’s chapter on Arminianism and the sovereignty of God in Arminian Theology, only one conclusion can be drawn: Arminians (that is, true Arminians, as opposed to semi-Pelagians) strongly affirm God’s sovereignty.  In fact, their affirmation of, and beliefs about, God’s sovereignty are so strong so as to be scarcely weaker than that of Calvinists.  The one exception is the issue of sin and evil, for Arminians believe that if God were to exercise meticulous control and cause everything, then He would be the author of sin (a Biblically untenable position).  It is on this basis (and also on the basis that Arminians believe it is everywhere assumed in Scripture) that the Arminian posits the concept of divine self-limitation.

Quoting notable Arminians such as Arminius, Episcopius, Limborch, Wesley, Pope, et al., Olson is able to conclude that,

“FROM Arminius on, Arminians of the heart, as opposed to those Arminians who veered into deism or later liberal theology, heartily embraced and promoted the concurrence and governance of God, even in the details of history.  But they sought to develop a concept of God’s sovereignty that would avoid making God the author of sin and evil, something they believed Calvinism could not do.  This necessarily involved the idea of God’s voluntary self-limitation in relation to creation for the sake of human liberty.  They believed that this does not detract from God’s sovereign oversight of human decisions and actions; thus God is able to make everything work together for the good in his plan and purpose.  Above all, these Arminians affirmed that nothing can happen apart from God’s permission.  God is sufficiently powerful to stop anything from happening, but he does not always exercise that power, because to do so would be to rob his free and rational creatures, created in his image, of their distinct reality and liberty… Every classical Arminian shares with every classical Calvinist the belief that God is in charge of and governs the entire creation, and will powerfully and perhaps unilaterally bring about the consummation of his plan.” 12

To sum up, I think it would be accurate to say that the Arminian view of God’s sovereignty is just as strong as the Calvinist view, with the one exception being the denial of meticulous determinism, for on the Arminian view, this would seem to necessitate God’s authorship of sin and evil.  The Arminian thus sees God’s reputation and character as being at stake.  In order to rescue God’s character, the Arminian, while holding to a strong view of sovereignty, will posit that God sovereignly limits Himself (He is thus exercising, and not abdicating, His sovereignty).  This is seen in the distinction between sovereignty de facto and sovereignty de jure, where, as Olson says, at the present time, God is allowing His sovereignty to be challenged, and His will to be partially thwarted.

Notes

1 Palmer, Edwin The Five Points of Calvinism (2009: 27th Printing, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI), p. 85
2 Tozer, ‘The Sovereignty of God,’ in The Knowledge of the Holy
3 Dr. Olson is, in my opinion, one of the more articulate representatives of Arminianism in our day.
4 Olson, Roger Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (2006: InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL), p. 116
5 Granted, there are some individual Calvinists who do not necessarily believe in divine determinism, but determinism appears to be the traditional view among Calvinists, being especially affirmed by John Calvin himself.  See also Are Calvinists Determinists?
6 Holding, J. P., ‘On Unconditional Election’ (<http://www.tektonics.org/tulip/ulip.html&gt;)
7 Walls, Jerry and Dongell, Joseph,  Why I Am Not A Calvinist (2004: InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL), p. 145
8 Olson, Roger Against Calvinism (2011: Grand Rapids, MI), p. 99
9 Ibid., p. 101
10 Olson, Arminian Theology, pp. 117-118
11 Olson, Against Calvinism, p. 100
12 Olson, Arminian Theology, pp. 132, 135