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

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from 40 Questions About Arminianism
by J. Matthew Pinson

While Reformed Arminians and many other non-Calvinists agree with Calvin and Calvinism on the emphases discussed in the last chapter on what it means to be in a state of grace, they just as vigorously oppose them on how one comes to be in a state of grace. This chapter will discuss the last four points of the classic TULIP.

Unconditional Election

Arminians demur from Calvinism on the doctrine of unconditional election. As Questions 27–31 will discuss, Arminius believed in the doc- trine of conditional, individual election. In this way he was much like the Lutheran scholastics of his day such as Niels Hemmingsen.[1] Arminius believed that, just as salvation was conditioned on being in Christ through faith in time, election was conditioned on being in Christ through faith in eternity. God knew his own individually and personally from all eternity because he foreknew them in Christ, according to his sovereignly decreed condition for that union.[2]

Thus traditional Arminians such as Arminius and Wesley did not affirm the Calvinist notion of “election unto faith.”[3] In their view, this doctrine in- volved God’s embracing people with his elective love outside of Christ and then predestining them to be in Christ. Instead, God predestines persons to be his own for eternity in Christ via his foreknowledge of them in union with his Son. The reprobate are those whom God foreknows will not believe in Christ and continue in that unbelief. From eternity God knew those in union with Christ and, based on that foreknowledge, predestined them to be his chosen ones for eternity. Yet he did not foreknow those whom he comprehended, in his foreknowledge, would not be in union, and continue in union, with Christ through faith, and he predestined them to eternal separation from himself.[4]

Limited Atonement

Unlike some Calvinists who believe that it would be “wasteful” for Christ to die for the reprobate and that therefore God sent his son to die only for the elect, Arminians believe that God’s desire that everyone be saved entails that Christ’s atonement is for everyone (universal or general atonement, sometimes called general provision).[5] This gracious divine desire and provision is the basic thrust of Arminianism, which makes Arminians skeptical of the particularism of Calvinism. This is why it is so hard for Arminians to understand the notion of many Calvinists that there are, in essence, two wills in God for everyone’s salvation. The latter distinguish between a revealed will that desires everyone’s salvation and loves everyone and a secret will that de- sires the salvation of only the elect and salvifically loves only them.

Arminians likewise find the doctrine of two callings incommensurable with the overwhelming thrust of Holy Scripture. This is the teaching of Calvinism that there is one public calling that freely offers and preaches the gospel to all, just as most Christians always have, and another secret calling that only the elect can sense. All of this seems to the Arminian to fly in the face of the universal purpose of grace, the universal call of the gospel, and the universal atonement of Christ. This is exemplified in the seventeenth-century English General Baptist William Jeffery. Arguing against the Calvinist view of election, he said that it contradicted God’s love for the world, because it entailed that God “did (before time) hate the greatest part of the world” and that

(in time) he gives them up to hardness of heart (without grace at any time whereby to be saved) and at the day of Judgment will cast them into everlasting torments, because of their wickedness and hardness of heart; and yet declare in his Word, (which you say is a word of truth) that he is good to all, and that his “tender mercies are over all his works”; that he is “slow to anger, and of great mercy,” (Ps. 145.8, 9), “patient, long-suffering,” etc. (Ex. 34.6, 7), “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3.9), swearing by himself, “that he de- sireth not the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11) but “would have all men saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2.4), “forty years long grieving for the iniquity of his people” (Heb. 3.17), bemoaning their undone estate (Psal. 81.13), yea, even weeping for them (Luke 19.41), saying, “What could I have done more” (for your good) “that I have not done?” (Isa. 5.4), when as he knew (according to your tenet) that [he]himself had shut them up from all possibilities of believing unto salvation, and that by his own unresistible decree, and purpose of reprobation. Judge ye, friends, in this cause, and judge righteous judgment, and with fear and trembling, weigh these things.[6]

Because of his universal gracious purpose, or eternal counsel, Arminians con- fess, God sent his Son to atone, not only for the sins of the elect, but also for the sins of the entire world (1 John 2:2).[7]

Irresistible Grace

Calvinism affirms that if God loves and elects a certain number of people out of the mass of humanity, secretly desiring only their salvation and not the salvation of all people and thus sending Christ to atone only for their sins, he will give only them his special grace, and they will have neither the ability nor the desire to resist it. Another way of putting this is that he will regenerate them, and then they will desire salvation and will have no way not to desire it, no way to resist it.

Arminius and his theological descendants, however, believed that God reaches out to all humanity with his grace, without taking away their ability to resist. As the earliest Remonstrants stated:

This 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. But with respect to the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places).[8]

A passage from the nineteenth-century Free Will Baptist confession, the 1812 Abstract, expresses this doctrine:

We believe that sinners are drawn to God the Father, by the Holy Ghost, through Christ His Son, and that the Holy Ghost offers His divine aid to all the human family, so as they might all be happy would they give place to His divine teaching; whereas, such who do not receive the divine impressions of the Holy Spirit, shall at a future day own their condemnation just and charge themselves with their own damnation, for willfully rejecting the offers of sovereign grace. (Matt. 11:17, John 6:44, 66; Ps. 1:1; Tit. 2:11, 12; Jer. 12:29)[9]

Thus Arminians, in contradistinction to Calvinists, believe that the grace by which God draws sinners to himself is not limited to the elect. That grace is sufficiently enabling, but resistible, by all those to whom it comes.[10]

Certain Perseverance

Calvinists and their successors have historically embraced the doctrine of the certain perseverance of the saints. This includes those who emerged from Calvinist confessional backgrounds but jettisoned the predestinarian and irresistible-grace teachings of their tradition.[11] While historic Calvinists have believed that the true believer does indeed persevere in holiness (thus ruling out modern-day antinomian “pseudo-Calvinism”), they have held that all genuine believers will of necessity persevere in grace to the end of life. Another way of saying this is that grace continues to be irresistible after conversion. The historic Arminian confessional traditions have unanimously affirmed the possibility of the apostasy of genuine believers. However, differences of opinion have existed among Arminians on how apostasy occurs, or how often—that is, whether there is only one kind of apostasy and whether it is remediable.[12]

Reformed Arminians believe that the Bible teaches only one kind of apostasy: final apostasy, defection from saving faith (see Questions 33–40). This is a complete “shipwreck” of faith (1 Tim. 1:19). Such apostasy occurs only when the believer willfully turns away from faith. When that occurs, the apostate has departed from the very condition that brought him into union with Christ and the imputation of his righteousness which alone covers the believer’s sins. And, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews makes clear, such individuals cannot be “renewed to repentance” (and thus, obviously, to salvation). Why? Because they have “trampled underfoot” the only thing that could save them, and there remains “no more sacrifice” for their sin (Heb. 6:4–6; 10:26–29).[13] While this is a distinctive of Reformed Arminianism, some scholars from the Wesleyan tradition affirm this, including, for example, I. Howard Marshall.[14] Other Arminians believe that one can repeatedly lose one’s salvation through sinful behavior and regain it through penitence (for examples, see Question 40).

Summary

Though Arminianism has often been caricatured, by friends and foes alike, as being anti-Reformed, it need not be so. One can, like Arminius, be an Arminian and still benefit from the broad Reformed tradition without subscribing to Calvinist views on particular redemption, unconditional predestination, and irresistible grace. The rich Reformation portrait of our enslavement to sin and God’s redemptive remedy for it beautifully coheres with the historic church’s testimony to the free provision of grace to all humanity. Holding these two emphases together—the former in harmony with Calvinism and the latter at variance with it—is what the Arminianism of Arminius is all about.


[1] Henrik Frandsen, Hemmingius in the Same World as Perkinsius and Arminius (Praestoe, Denmark: Grafik Werk, 2013).

[2] See Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 53. Picirilli rightly points out that God unconditionally decrees that election be conditional. For an insightful account of conditional election from a Reformed Arminian perspective, see Kevin L. Hester, “Election and the Influence and Response Model of Personality,” in The Promise of Arminian Theology: Essays in Honor of F. Leroy Forlines, eds. Matthew Steven Bracey and W. Jackson Watts (Nashville: Randall House, 2016), 55–80. For the difference between foreknowledge and foreordination, see Question 20.

[3] Many Arminian and Lutheran authors use this phrase to characterize Calvinism’s view of election because Rejection 2 of the first head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort suggest that “election unto faith” is the same thing as “election to salvation.” https://prts.edu/ wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Canons-of-Dort-with-Intro.pdf., accessed January 8, 2021; Matthias Loy, “Election and Justification,” in Lutheran Confessional Theology in America, 1840–1880, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 209–22.

[4] For treatments from this perspective, see Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, 19–84; Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 37–202; and Jack W. Cottrell, “Conditional Election” in Grace for All: The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation, eds. Clark H. Pinnock and John D. Wagner (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 69–92.

[5] Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 223. The image of wastefulness is used, e.g., by Edwin H. Palmer in his widely read book The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 50.

[6] The Whole Faith of Man (London, 1659), 31–32. As with most of the other early modern English texts quoted in this book, the spelling, punctuation, and capitalization in this quotation have been modernized and some archaic words have been updated.

[7] For arguments and references to works defending universal atonement, see Question 13.

[8] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1884), 1:518.

[9] The 1812 Abstract is a confession of faith of the nineteenth-century Free Will Baptists in the American South that condenses the 1660 Standard Confession of their English General Baptist forebears. Art. 9, reprinted in J. Matthew Pinson, A Free Will Baptist Handbook: Heritage, Beliefs, and Ministries (Nashville: Randall House, 1998), 145.

[10] Steve W. Lemke, though he does not prefer the designation “Arminian” but likes “traditional Baptist” instead, provides an insightful discussion of this doctrine in “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 109–62.

[11] Some of these advocates of “once-saved, always-saved” who have emerged from Calvinistic confessional backgrounds and yet agree with Arminians about predestination, unlimited atonement, and irresistible grace have adopted the label “Arminian” for themselves. The Society of Evangelical Arminians welcomes such individuals into its membership, while all confessionally Arminian denominations have not ordained ministers who accept eternal security. Many Baptists who believe in eternal security but agree with Arminians on other doctrines refuse to be labeled either Arminians or Calvinists, referring to themselves as traditional Baptists (with their detractors calling them “Calminians”). Interestingly, many such individuals demur from Arminius’s own vigorously Reformed position on the first point of Calvinism, total depravity.

[12] It is difficult to decipher where Arminius comes down on perseverance. He is so ambiguous on the subject that Reformed Arminians (who emphasize irremediable apostasy only by turning away from Christ through unbelief), conventional Arminians (who emphasize apostasy through sinning and regaining salvation through penitence), and once-saved, al- ways-saved advocates all claim him as their own. I have almost given up on the possibility of ascertaining Arminius’s position.

[13] The best treatments from this perspective are Forlines, Classical Arminianism, 307–61; Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, 183–234; and Stephen M. Ashby, “A Reformed Arminian View,” in Four Views on Eternal Security, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 137–87.

[14] See his classic Kept by the Power of God: A Study in Perseverance and Falling Away (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007).


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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