The following is by Dan Chapa of the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA). Since theologically serious alternatives to Calvinism seem to be in short supply these days, SharperIron contacted SEA recently about the possibility of representing classical Arminianism for the SI audience. To learn more about the SEA, see their About Us page.
Arminianism is a summary of our understanding of the Scripture’s teaching on salvation. The name comes from Jacob Arminius, who led 17th century opposition to Calvinism, but the idea stems from Scripture and has deep roots in the early church fathers. Many non-Arminians have mistaken notions about Arminianism—as do many Arminians. This post will define and defend the essential aspects of Arminianism (total depravity, resistible grace, unlimited atonement and conditional election), without critiquing Calvinism.
Both Calvinists and Arminians believe in total depravity—the idea that fallen man requires God’s grace through the beginning, middle and end of the salvation process. Adam’s fall left us unable, of our own strength, to repent and believe or live a life pleasing to God. But total depravity is not utter depravity; the lost don’t commit the worst sins possible on every occasion. Still without God’s grace, sin impacts every aspect of life and we cannot seek God on our own. Rather, He seeks us and enables us to believe.
Arminians may vary on exactly how God’s grace works; but all Arminians hold to the necessity of prevenient grace (grace that comes before conversion that enables us to believe). When God’s grace starts drawing us to conversion, we can choose to say no and reject Christ. God hasn’t predetermined repentance and faith; nothing causes these such that rejection is impossible and we cannot choose otherwise. But believing does not earn or cause salvation; God chooses to have mercy on believers.
Arminians find resistible grace in passages speaking of God’s grace and man’s rejection of it. God is seeking, drawing and inviting mankind to Himself (John 1:9, 4:23, 7:17, 12:32, 16:8; Rom. 2:4, Titus 2:11, Rev. 22:17). In Isaiah 5:4, God asks what more He could have done (showing the sufficiency of His grace) and He invites Israel to judge itself (showing the reasonableness of His requirements). The reasonableness of God’s commands and invitations shows that God treats us as if we can obey Him, which implies that we can, and this harmonizes with our moral intuitions.
In Matthew 11:21, Christ says Tyre and Sidon would have repented if the same works He had done in Chorazin and Bethsaida had been done there. Tyre and Sidon were bywords for sinfulness, so they were neither elect nor regenerate. Yet the same divine works would have brought about repentance in them, showing the fitness of God’s works to bring about repentance and placing the difference in man’s response.
Also, the divine lament passages strongly affirm the resistibility of grace (Ps. 81:13; Luke 13:33-34, 19:41). Some passages plainly say people reject and resist God’s efforts to bring them to Him (Gen. 6:3, Jer. 13:11, Ezek. 24:13, Luke 7:30, Acts 7:51). God hardens hearts by turning over people to their own sinful lusts (Rom. 1:18-28). This implies that God’s grace was softening their hearts and restraining their wickedness. Additionally, the highly controversial Hebrews warning passages (however interpreted) indicate that God’s grace is resistible (Heb. 2:1-3, 3:6-14, 6:4-6, 10:26-29, 12:15). (Most self-identified “Arminians” have held that true believers can forsake Christ and perish as unbelievers, but the earliest formal statement of Arminian theology—the 5 points of the Remonstrants—expressed uncertainty about the point and, conceptually, it is not an essential tenet of Arminian theology.)
Resistible grace often leads to the controversial question of whether faith or regeneration comes first. Some disagreement stems from defining regeneration. Does regeneration include God’s imparting eternal life to us? Does regeneration include God’s enabling belief? Arminians typically answer yes to the first question and no to the second, so naturally we see faith as preceding regeneration. Ephesians 1:13, John 1:12-13, John 5:24-28, Romans 6:2-6, Galatians 3:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18 support this order. Notice the issue is which grace enables man to believe (prevenient grace or regeneration) not the depth of man’s depravity without grace.
Scriptures say we have wills and choose (Deut. 30:19, Josh. 24:15, 1 Cor. 7:37). “Choose” is normally defined as “to select from a number of possible alternatives” and we reject imposing on Scripture definitions of “choose” that either remove essential elements or are stipulated philosophical definitions. God tests us—whether we will obey or not—which implies that at least sometimes obedience is up to us (Exod. 16:4). God promises that we will not be tempted beyond our abilities (1 Cor. 10:13), which implies that we can choose to obey or not. God’s desire to have a relationship with free creatures magnifies His love, and His ability to providentially govern and rule a world with free creatures magnifies His sovereignty.
Christ died for everyone. This is not universalism; the benefits of Christ’s death are conditionally applied, not automatically or necessarily applied. Just as the Passover Lamb was slain and the blood applied, so also we distinguish between Christ’s death and the application of His blood to believers. Christ’s death makes salvation possible for all, and God desires all to believe and be saved through His blood, but only believers are actually cleansed by Christ’s blood.
We see conditionality in the application of Christ’s blood because justification is by faith (Rom. 3:21-26) and because Christ died for some who ultimately perish. Christ said to all the apostles, including Judas, my blood is “shed for you” (Luke 22:21-22). The apostates in Hebrews 10:26-29 were sanctified by Christ’s blood. The false prophets in 2 Peter 2:1 denied the Lord that bought them. 1 John 1:7 and Colossians 1:22-23 plainly teach conditionality in the application of Christ’s blood.
The many passages saying Christ died for the world or all men ground our belief that Christ died for everyone (John 1:29, 3:16-17, 4:42, 6:33, 6:51, 12:47; 1 John 2:1-2, 4:14; 2 Cor. 5:14-19; Heb. 2:9; 1 Tim. 2:4-6, 4:10). While “world” has a broad range of meanings, that range does not include any definition that would avoid the conclusion that Christ died for everyone, nor do we see validity in inventing a specially plead definition of world to avoid unlimited atonement. We see Christ’s sacrifice for all as the foundation of the sincere offer of the gospel to all in that everyone can be saved through what Christ accomplished on the cross.
God gave pre-fallen Adam the ability to obey Him—He wanted Adam to be free to have a relationship with Him. God did not causally determine Adam’s sin such that he couldn’t obey and necessarily fell—such would be inconsistent with God’s holiness and hatred of sin (James 1:13, Jer. 7:31, Ps. 45:7). Thus, Arminians insist that God is not the author of sin, and free will is essential to Arminian theodicy. Our freedom lies between God and sin; otherwise God is ultimately responsible for sin.
In election, God considered man as fallen sinners. God chooses to have mercy (Rom. 9:16). Scripture calls the non-elect vessels of wrath, or appointed to wrath (Rom. 9:22, 1 Thess. 5:9). Now mercy on the one hand, and wrath on the other, presuppose sin. So Arminians view election as fixing the sin problem, rather than seeing the fall as something God planned in order to accomplish His goal of sending His chosen to heaven and the rest to hell.
Election automatically excluded unbelievers. So we see symmetry in some essential respects between election and non-election. Hellfire is a punishment for sins, so rejection is conditional on unbelief and impenitence.
Freely fallen sinners is one starting point in explaining election—God’s amazing love is another. He does not desire the death of the wicked, nor is He willing that any should perish, but rather He wills all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. (Ezek. 33:11, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Tim. 2:4-6). God’s love of the world moved Him to send His Son so that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:16-17). Given man’s fall, the Father chose His Son as the basis and foundation for salvation, and our election is in Him (Matt. 12:18; 1 Pet. 1:20, 2:4; Eph. 1:4).
Just as rejection is conditional, based on sin and impenitence, election to salvation is likewise conditional, not based on works or merit, but based on God’s choice to have mercy on believers. Scripture describes predestination as God’s choosing to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21, 2:7); election is said to be in sanctification and in belief in the truth (1 Pet. 1:2, 2 Thess. 2:13). Conditional election includes God’s plan from before time to save through the gospel. Before the foundation of the world, God, in Christ, chose to glorify Himself by saving believers out of fallen mankind.
While all Arminians agree that election is Christocentric and conditional, Arminians may disagree on whether election is primarily corporate (election of the Church as a group with individuals sharing in the group’s election by faith) or primarily based on God’s foreknowledge of each individual’s faith.
When I was first challenged by a Calvinist friend regarding Romans 9, I couldn’t explain the passage. And since his explanation made sense, I reluctantly accepted Calvinism. Then one night, I was shocked by the warning in Hebrews 10 and decided to devote time to digging into Scripture on the issues. I studied for years and came out of that process an Arminian. It was difficult; Arminian resources were scarce and Arminians scarcer still. SEA fixes all of that, giving us resources and a community in which to build each other up. Space hasn’t permitted a detailed exegesis of each of the passages cited, but much more detail is available on the SEA website.