How Do Arminianism’s Basic Doctrines Compare with Those of Calvinism?

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from 40 Questions About Arminianism
by J. Matthew Pinson

Arminius was a Reformed theologian. Thus he agreed with the vast majority of what Calvin and his followers had taught. However, Arminius represented a strain of thinking in the Reformed churches prior to the Synod of Dort (1618–1619) that had always been broader than Calvinist predestinarianism (see Questions 7–8). In short, he agreed with Calvin and his followers on what it means to be in a state of grace, but he differed from them on how one comes to be in a state of grace. Thus, he agreed with Calvin on the depth of human sin and depravity and on what it means to be redeemed from sin: what Christ did to atone for sin, how that is ap- plied in justification, and how Christians live it out in sanctification and spirituality. Yet he disagreed with Calvin on the details of how one comes to be in a state of grace: the doctrines of particular and resistible grace, and unconditional election.[1] In reality, one could say that full-fledged Arminians are “one-point Calvinists.” Recall the helpful way introduced in the last two chapters to remember the five points of Calvinism articulated at the Synod of Dort: TULIP—“T” for total depravity, “U” for unconditional election, “L” for limited atonement, “I” for irresistible grace, and “P” for perseverance of the saints. Most Calvinist authors have tended to see Arminians as denying all five of these points. However, Arminius strenuously argued for total depravity (see Question 15). Arminians who follow Arminius are fully Augustinian on what it means to be a sinful human being and what it means to be in a state of grace. In agreement with the Augustinian tradition, they affirm the Reformation doctrines of sola gratia and sola fide, wishing, as Arminius averred, to “maintain the greatest possible distance from Pelagianism.”[2] Thus the notion that being an Arminian means being a semi-Pelagian, though often repeated in Calvinist circles, is a myth.[3]

Arminians, however, differ from Calvin on the other four points of Calvinism.[4] Instead of unconditional election, they believe that God sovereignly decreed that election be conditional; that is, God’s election or predestination of a believer to eternal salvation is conditioned on God’s foreknowledge of the believer in union with Christ. Instead of limited atonement, Arminians believe that Christ died for everyone and genuinely desires everyone’s salvation. Instead of irresistible grace, Arminians believe that God, in his own mysterious manner and time, influences everyone with his enabling, calling, and drawing grace, without taking away their ability to resist it. Instead of the certain perseverance of the saints, Arminians believe that, just as divine grace is resistible prior to conversion, it continues to be resistible after conversion, thus making turning away from Christ a possibility.

This chapter and the next one will engage in a simple comparison and contrast of Calvinism and Arminianism. The next chapter will consider the differences between the two systems, while this one will discuss the things they have in common.

Total Depravity and Inability

Calvinism holds that humanity is radically depraved and thus has no natural ability to seek after God. This is why Calvinists say they believe that irresistible grace is necessary: God must, in their view, irresistibly draw to himself those he has unconditionally chosen and regenerate them. Then they will irresistibly be granted faith. Arminians also believe that humanity by nature is totally depraved and hence spiritually unable to desire the things of God without a supernatural, gracious intervention of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the difference between Arminians and Calvinists is not what they believe about humanity’s total depravity and spiritual inability. Rather, it is about whom God graciously draws and influences and enables with his grace and whether they are able to resist that gracious drawing.

Still, Calvinists have for centuries characterized Arminius and his followers as semi-Pelagians who deny that humanity is totally depraved and thus wholly unable to be saved naturally without the intervention of the supernatural grace of the Holy Spirit. J. I. Packer is an example of this mischaracterization.[5] Quoting John Owen, he states that the earliest Remonstrants were “Belgic semi-Pelagians” who disagreed with the Calvinistic doctrine of human inability in salvation.[6]

This is a gross misrepresentation.[7] The earliest Remonstrants, following Arminius, said plainly that “man does not possess saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as in his state of apostasy and sin he can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good.” Thus, without divine grace, humanity is characterized by utter depravity and inability in spiritual things. They went on to say that the “grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to the extent that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ.”[8] In this sentiment, these earliest Remonstrants followed Arminius.

Wesleyanism also affirms this approach to depravity and inability. Richard Watson, the most influential early Methodist systematic theologian, stated that “the true Arminian, as fully as the Calvinist, admits the doctrine of the total depravity of human nature in consequence of the fall of our first parents.” Watson said that, in this doctrine, Arminians and Calvinists “so well agree, that it is an entire delusion to represent this doctrine, as it is often done, as exclusively Calvinistic.”[9] Thus, to argue that Arminianism is semi-Pelagian is to misrepresent Arminians, who clearly avoid the heresy of semi-Pelagianism condemned at the Second Council of Orange (A.D. 529). On the doctrine of depravity and inability, most Arminians fall squarely in the Augustinian camp. Semi-Pelagianism is inconsistent with traditional Arminian theology of all varieties.[10]

The Nature of Atonement and Justification

Arminius and the Arminians who follow him have held strongly to a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ in justification. While atonement theories seem arcane to many people, it is at this point that one finds the most difference between Reformed theology and that of many Arminians. Some Arminians reject a penal satisfaction view of atonement, whereby Christ satisfies the justice of God by fulfilling the law in our stead and paying sin’s penalty in our place. Their view issues forth in a more moralistic account of justification in which Christ’s atoning work is not imputed to the believer; rather, the impartation of righteousness is the dominant theme. This doctrine of justification, unhinged from a thoroughgoing penal satisfaction understanding of atonement, results in legalistic and moralistic construals of sanctification, sin in the life of the believer, assurance, and perseverance.[11]

This is one reason Reformed Arminians place so much emphasis on a penal satisfaction approach to atonement. It brings the biblical themes of the Reformers back into the center of one’s understanding of the priestly office of Christ: that he pays the penalty for sin and fulfills the law on one’s behalf, and that perfect lawkeeping and penalty-payment is imputed to the believer through faith in him. That, and not believers’ own righteousness, is what from start to finish makes them just and holy before God. Thus they can sing with the hymn writer, “Dressed in his righteousness alone/Faultless to stand before the throne.”[12] There is no need for Arminians to jettison these beautiful biblical doctrines, throwing out the Reformed baby with the Calvinist bathwater.

Thomas Oden provides an example of a Wesleyan Methodist who retains the motifs of penal substitutionary and propitiatory atonement and the full imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believing sinner. Oden argues for “penal substitution as sufficient vicarious satisfaction” and states, “The benefits of Christ’s obedience (active and passive) are accounted or reckoned to the believer.”[13]

Sanctification

This Reformed approach to atonement and justification coheres with a Reformed approach to sanctification. Just because one is an Arminian on how people come to be in a state of grace, he or she does not have to disagree with the rich Reformed understanding of sanctification. The traditional doctrine of sanctification in Calvin and the larger Reformed tradition maintains a beautiful balance between antinomianism and legalism. It confesses a sola gratia, sola fide approach to sin in the believer’s life that does not cause believers to despair of their justification in the ebb and flow of their growth in holiness, thus conflating justification and sanctification as many Arminian construals do.

F. Leroy Forlines’s chapter on “Sanctification” in his Classical Arminianism is the best account of how one can achieve a biblical balance, benefitting from the Reformed doctrine of progressive sanctification propounded by Calvin as well as authors like John Owen and Sinclair Ferguson, yet still being Arminian.[14] This doctrine of sanctification also results in a more ordinary- means-of-grace approach to spirituality similar to that found in Puritan piety, as opposed to the mystical, crisis experience-oriented, higher life, and second-work-of-grace emphases of some Arminians.

Summary

Arminius, and many Arminians who followed him, agreed with Calvin and Calvinism on the basic teachings of the Reformed tradition. This included the theology of what it means to be in a state of grace. Yet, like others in the Reformed Church prior to the Synod of Dort who affirmed the classic Reformed confessional standards, the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism, these Arminians have differed from Calvin and Calvinism on how one comes to be in a state of grace. Thus they have diverged from Calvinism on the last four points of the “TULIP,” which the next chapter will consider.


[1] This broad approach is often referred to as “Reformed Arminianism,” which, because of its agreement with Calvinism on the nature of atonement, justification, and sanctification, differs from classic Wesleyanism. For more detail on this, see the Introduction and the answers to Questions 3, 5, 9–11, 21, and 40.

[2] Jacobus Arminius, “Apology against Thirty-One Defamatory Articles,” in The Works of James Arminius, 3 vols., trans. James Nichols and William Nichols (Nashville: Randall House, 2007), 1:764.

[3] That Arminians are not semi-Pelagians is affirmed not only by Arminians such as Roger E. Olson, but also by many Calvinists, e.g., Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams. See Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 18, 30–31; Peterson and Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 39.

[4] Some advocates of eternal security who agree with Arminians on the other points of Calvinism have come to identify themselves as Arminians.

[5] I hesitate to criticize Dr. Packer who, despite our differences on Arminianism, Calvinism, and other issues, had a tremendous impact on me when I took one of his courses—and took up too many of his office hours with questions and discussion!—at Regent College one summer nearly thirty years ago.

[6] See Packer’s otherwise superb book, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 127.

[7] An exception to the rule of Calvinists characterizing Arminians as semi-Pelagians is Peterson and Williams. They say that Arminians are “Semi-Augustinians” (40). I would say that, in the doctrines of the nature of sin and salvation, Reformed Arminians are fully Augustinian but that they are semi-Augustinian regarding questions of determinism, un- conditional predestination, and irresistible grace. However, we must be careful with the term “semi-Augustinian” because of its synergistic undertones.

[8] Five Articles of Remonstrance, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1877), 1:518.

[9] Richard Watson, Theological Institutes (London: John Mason, 1829), 2:215. Not all those who call themselves Arminians affirm total depravity. For more information, see Question 15.

[10] However, some who have claimed the Arminian label have said things that sound semi-Pelagian.

[11] For more on the term “penal satisfaction,” see footnote 25 in Question 10.

[12] Edward Mote, “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” Rejoice: The Free Will Baptist Hymn Book (Nashville: Executive Office, National Association of Free Will Baptists, 1988), no. 419. On the inextricable connection between penal substitutionary atonement and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, see Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 211–21, and Stephen J. Wellum’s important essay “‘Behold, the Lamb of God’: Theology Proper and the Inseparability of Penal Substitutionary Atonement from Forensic Justification and Imputation, in The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 351–86.

[13] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 409–10, 422.

[14] F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation (Nashville: Randall House, 1999), 277–306. Cf. Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016); John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, reprinted unabridged with some of Owen’s other works in John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 41–140.


This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Arminianism by J. Matthew Pinson , which is scheduled to release on April 19, 2022. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

The actual life and teaching of Jacobus Arminius are often unknown or misunderstood across many Protestant traditions. Answers beyond a basic caricature can be elusive. What are the essential historical backgrounds of Arminianism, and what theological teachings connect to the Arminian point of view? Mixing solid historical research with biblical and doctrinal precision, Baptist scholar J. Matthew Pinson clarifies the foundations of this influential tradition.

40 Questions About Arminianism addresses the following questions and more:

  • Who was Jacobus Arminius?
  • How has the church interpreted God’s desire that everyone be saved?
  • How is Arminianism different from Calvinism?
  • Can one be both Reformed and Arminian?
  • What is “universal enabling grace”?
  • What do Arminians mean by “free will”?
  • Do Arminians believe that God predestines individuals to salvation?
  • Is it possible for a Christian to apostatize?


An accessible question-and-answer format helps readers pursue the issues that interest them most and encourages a broad understanding of historic and contemporary Arminianism, with additional resources available at 40questions.net.

 


 

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About Author

J. Matthew Pinson has been president of Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee, for twenty years and previously served as a pastor of churches in Alabama, Connecticut, and Georgia. He holds a master's degree from Yale University and a doctorate from Vanderbilt University and is the author or editor of ten books, including Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition.

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