The Arminian Understanding of “Faith”

Sproul_blog2The following is an excerpt from R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe

The classic issue between Augustinian theology and all forms of semi-Pelagianism focuses on one aspect of the order of salvation (ordo salutis): What is the relationship between regeneration and faith? Is regeneration a monergistic or synergistic work? Must a person first exercise faith in order to be born again? Or must rebirth occur before a person is able to exercise faith? Another way to state the question is this: Is the grace of regeneration operative or cooperative?

Monergistic regeneration means that regeneration is accomplished by a single actor, God. It means literally a “one-working.” Synergism, on the other hand, refers to a work that involves the action of two or more parties. It is a co-working. All forms of semi-Pelagianism assert some sort of synergism in the work of regeneration. Usually God’s assisting grace is seen as a necessary ingredient, but it is dependent on human cooperation for its efficacy.

The Reformers taught not only that regeneration does precede faith but also that it must precede faith. Because of the moral bondage of the unregenerate sinner, he cannot have faith until he is changed internally by the operative, monergistic work of the Holy Spirit. Faith is regeneration’s fruit, not its cause.

According to semi-Pelagianism regeneration is wrought by God, but only in those who have first responded in faith to him. Faith is seen not as the fruit of regeneration, but as an act of the will cooperating with God’s offer of grace.

Evangelicals are so called because of their commitment to the biblical and historical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Because the Reformers saw sola fide as central and essential to the biblical gospel, the term evangelical was applied to them. Modern evangelicals in great numbers embrace the sola fide of the Reformation, but have jettisoned the sola gratia that undergirded it. Packer and Johnston assert:

“Justification by faith only” is a truth that needs interpretation. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood till it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which is left to man to fulfill? Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it man’s own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter (as the Arminians later did) thereby deny man’s utter helplessness in sin, and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder, then, that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principle a return to Rome (because in effect it turned faith into a meritorious work) and a betrayal of the Reformation (because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the Reformers’ thought). Arminianism was, indeed, in Reformed eyes a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favour of New Testament Judaism; for to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle from relying on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus, there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.”

I must confess that the first time I read this paragraph, I blinked. On the surface it seems to be a severe indictment of Arminianism. Indeed it could hardly be more severe than to speak of it as “un-Christian” or “anti-Christian.” Does this mean that Packer and Johnston believe Arminians are not Christians? Not necessarily. Every Christian has errors of some sort in his thinking. Our theological views are fallible. Any distortion in our thought, any deviation from pure, biblical categories may be loosely deemed “un-Christian” or “anti-Christian.” The fact that our thought contains un-Christian elements does not demand the inference that we are therefore not Christians at all.

I agree with Packer and Johnston that Arminianism contains un-Christian elements in it and that their view of the relationship between faith and regeneration is fundamentally un-Christian. Is this error so egregious that it is fatal to salvation? People often ask if I believe Arminians are Christians? I usually answer, “Yes, barely.” They are Christians by what we call a felicitous inconsistency.

What is this inconsistency? Arminians affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone. They agree that we have no meritorious work that counts toward our justification, that our justification rests solely on the righteousness and merit of Christ, that sola fide means justification is by Christ alone, and that we must trust not in our own works, but in Christ’s work for our salvation. In all this they differ from Rome on crucial points. Continue reading

Historical Background to the Canons of Dort

Arminius moved to Amsterdam to pastor a prominent church there. As a pastor, he was called upon to defend Calvinistic teaching against Dirck zoon Koornheert. In preparing his defense of traditional Calvinist doctrine, Arminius became convinced of his opponent’s teaching.

In 1603, Arminius was appointed professor of theology at the University of Leiden, where he was strongly opposed by his colleague, Francis Gomarus. Both Arminius and Gomarus believed in predestination, but they differed over the meaning of the word. At the heart of the disagreement was whether predestination was based solely on the will of God (Calvinism) or based on foreseen knowledge of belief (what would later be called Arminianism). The two met for a public debate in 1608, but the issue was no closer to being settled. Both men thought of themselves as Reformed, as Calvinists, but they were not saying the same thing.

Following Arminius’ death in 1609, the movement continued under the leadership of Janus Uytenbogaert, a court preacher at the Hague. In 1610, the Arminian party issued a document called the Remonstrance, setting forth the “Five Articles of the Arminians.” Gomarus and others formed a Contra-Remonstrance party (Gomarists) to oppose the Arminians. Things continued to heat up when Arminius’ successor at the University of Leiden was named–a man by the name of Vorstius, who was practically a Socinian. When the Arminian Simon Episcopius was named Gomarus’ replacement at Leiden, it looked like the tide had turned in favor of the Remonstrants. The Remonstrance party was further supported by the statesman John van Oldenbarneveldt and the jurist/theologian Hugo Grotius.

Political Intrigue

The Netherlands had recently won its independence from Spain. Some were still leery of the Spanish, while others welcomed a closer relationship. In general, the merchant class, for economic and trading reasons, desired improved relations with Spain. The clergy, on the other hand, feared that more contact with Catholic Spain would taint the theology of their churches. The lower class sided with the clergy for theological reasons, for national reasons (anti-Spain), and for class reasons (anti-merchants). Thus, merchants saw Arminianism as favorable to their desire for improved relations with Spain, while the clergy and lower class sided with Gomarus.

The Remonstrance of 1610 was issued to Oldenbarneveldt, Advocate-General of Holland and Friesland. Oldenbarneveldt, who was working to secure a better relationship with Spain, wanted toleration for the Arminians. The Contra-Remonstrance from Gomarists was submitted to the States of Holland in 1611. Oldenbarneveldt and the States of Holland decided on toleration. But the Gomarists wanted an official theological pronouncement to settle the issue once and for all.

Prince Maurice, the son and heir of William of Orange, eventually took the side of the Gomarists (perhaps for theological reasons, but perhaps in an attempt to garner more control of the Netherlands for himself). After Maurice had Olderbarneveldt and others imprisoned, the Estates-General called for an assembly to end the conflict.

The Synod

An international synod convened in Dordrecht from 1618-19. Of the approximately 100 members present, 27 were from Britain, Switzerland, and Germany, while the rest were Dutch. The Dutch contingent was comprised of roughly an equal number of ministers, professors, laymen, and members of the Estates-General. The Remonstrants were soundly defeated at Dort, leading to one of the greatest theological formulations of the Reformation. Unfortunately, Maurice, a product of his times (and not a very nice man it seems), condemned Barneveldt to death and had some Arminian pastors imprisoned. When Maurice died in 1625, measures loosened considerably, and in 1631 Arminians were officially tolerated in the Netherlands.

The Canons of Dort, in rejecting the five points of Arminianism, outlined five points of their own. The first concerning divine election and reprobation, the second on Christ’s death and human redemption through it, the third and fourth points on human corruption and how we convert to God, and finally the perseverance of the saints. Centuries later these five heads of doctrine would become the five points of Calvinism known at TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). The Canons do not pretend to explain everything about Reformed theology, or about the Bible for that matter. Dort simply sought to declare what was “in agreement with the Word of God and accepted till now in the Reformed churches” concerning “Divine Predestination.” With that goal in mind I think the Canons can be counted as a faithful witness and a God-glorifying success.

The Basics of Monergism and Synergism

At the blog site, the following is a primer on the two perennial branches of theological systems in Christianity. Or to put it another way, there are two very different ways for believers to view how their salvation was brought about.

In general, the first type (the Arminian-Synergist) affirms what is called “synergism.” Synergists believe that two forces in the universe are necessary to bring about regeneration in the life of the sinner. In specifics, the two forces at work (cooperation) that are necessary to bring about regeneration, or spiritual life, is the will of man and the Holy Spirit (grace).

To put it another way, the work of the Holy Spirit is dependent on the creature’s will, hence, “synergism” (working together). Synergists will sincerely say, “I believe in grace alone.” But in reality, they believe that grace is not alone (sufficient), but that man’s will is necessary for regeneration to be effective.

It could be said that synergists are “functional” Arminians because even though some will deny the label, their theology functions synergistically (thus, how they identify themselves is inconsistent with what they teach and believe).

The second group of believers (the Calvinist-Monergist) affirm what is called “monergism.” Monergists believe that there is only one force in the universe (grace alone) that brings about regeneration in the life of the sinner. In specifics, because of the deadness of man’s spiritual state, his moral inability, the Holy Spirit performs the miracle of spiritual resurrection (regeneration) in that person, hence, “monergism” (one work). Grace is sufficient to be effective, and does not depend on some action of man.

In other words, the Holy Spirit does not merely whisper in the hardened sinner’s ear, hoping that the rebel sinner will “cooperate”; rather, while the sinner is in a state of hardness and rebellion, the Holy Spirit penetrates in the will of man and performs the miracle of spiritual life (regeneration). That is grace alone. Faith does not precede regeneration, regeneration precedes faith.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions– it is by grace you have been saved. Ephesians 2:4-5

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. John 1:12-13

He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God. John 8:47

Arminians cannot affirm monergism (grace alone); they must always have the creature’s will as the final determiner of their destiny, not God. Inconsistently, Arminians pray (without knowingly) Calvinisticly, “God, change my unbelieving relative’s heart.” I have never heard them pray, “God, only whisper in my relative’s ear, but don’t change their heart unless you’ve been given permission.” In contrast, the Calvinist prays and affirms biblical truth consistently.

Why the Right Response?

Soli Deo gloria is the motto that grew out of the Protestant Reformation and was used on every composition by Johann Sebastian Bach. He affixed the initials SDG at the bottom of each manuscript to communicate the idea that it is God and God alone who is to receive the glory for the wonders of His work of creation and of redemption. At the heart of the sixteenth-century controversy over salvation was the issue of grace.

It was not a question of man’s need for grace. It was a question as to the extent of that need. The church had already condemned Pelagius, but not a grace that makes salvation certain.

In the parable of the sower we see that regarding salvation, God is the one who takes the initiative to bring salvation to pass. He is the sower. The seed that is sown is His seed, corresponding to His Word, and the harvest that results is His harvest. He harvests what He purposed to harvest when He initiated the whole process. God doesn’t leave the harvest up to the vagaries of thorns and stones in the pathway. It is God and God alone who makes certain that a portion of His Word falls upon good ground. A critical error in interpreting this parable would be to assume that the good ground is the good disposition of fallen sinners, those sinners who make the right choice, responding positively to God’s prevenient grace. The classical Reformed understanding of the good ground is that if the ground is receptive to the seed that is sown by God, it is God alone who prepares the ground for the germination of the seed.

The biggest question any semi-Pelagian or Arminian has to face at the practical level is this: Why did I choose to believe the gospel and commit my life to Christ when my neighbor, who heard the same gospel, chose to reject it? That question has been answered in many ways. We might speculate that the reason why one person chooses to respond positively to the gospel and to Christ, while another one doesn’t, is because the person who responded positively was more intelligent than the other one. If that were the case, then God would still be the ultimate provider of salvation because the intelligence is His gift, and it could be explained that God did not give the same intelligence to the neighbor who rejected the gospel. But that explanation is obviously absurd.

The other possibility that one must consider is this: that the reason one person responds positively to the gospel and his neighbor does not is because the one who responded was a better person. That is, that person who made the right choice and the good choice did it because he was more righteous than his neighbor. In this case, the flesh not only availed something, it availed everything. This is the view that is held by the majority of evangelical Christians, namely, the reason why they are saved and others are not is that they made the right response to God’s grace while the others made the wrong response.

We can talk here about not only the correct response as opposed to an erroneous response, but we can speak in terms of a good response rather than a bad response. If I am in the kingdom of God because I made the good response rather than the bad response, I have something of which to boast, namely the goodness by which I responded to the grace of God. I have never met an Arminian who would answer the question that I’ve just posed by saying, “Oh, the reason I’m a believer is because I’m better than my neighbor.” They would be loath to say that. However, though they reject this implication, the logic of semi-Pelagianism requires this conclusion. If indeed in the final analysis the reason I’m a Christian and someone else is not is that I made the proper response to God’s offer of salvation while somebody else rejected it, then by resistless logic I have indeed made the good response, and my neighbor has made the bad response.

What Reformed theology teaches is that it is true the believer makes the right response and the non-believer makes the wrong response. But the reason the believer makes the good response is because God in His sovereign election changes the disposition of the heart of the elect to effect a good response. I can take no credit for the response that I made for Christ. God not only initiated my salvation, He not only sowed the seed, but He made sure that that seed germinated in my heart by regenerating me by the power of the Holy Ghost. That regeneration is a necessary condition for the seed to take root and to flourish. That’s why at the heart of Reformed theology the axiom resounds, namely, that regeneration precedes faith. It’s that formula, that order of salvation that all semi-Pelagians reject. They hold to the idea that in their fallen condition of spiritual death, they exercise faith, and then are born again. In their view, they respond to the gospel before the Spirit has changed the disposition of their soul to bring them to faith. When that happens, the glory of God is shared. No semi-Pelagian can ever say with authenticity: “To God alone be the glory.” For the semi-Pelagian, God may be gracious, but in addition to God’s grace, my work of response is absolutely essential. Here grace is not effectual, and such grace, in the final analysis, is not really saving grace. In fact, salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end. Yes, I must believe. Yes, I must respond. Yes, I must receive Christ. But for me to say “yes” to any of those things, my heart must first be changed by the sovereign, effectual power of God the Holy Spirit. Soli Deo gloria.

– R. C. Sproul, Grace Alone

Arminianism v. Arminians

“I do not serve the god of the Arminians at all; I have nothing to do with him, and I do not bow down before the Baal they have set up; he is not my God, nor shall he ever be; I fear him not, nor tremble at his presence… The God that saith today and denieth tomorrow, that justifieth today and condemns the next… is no relation to my God in the least degree. He may be a relation of Ashtaroth or Baal, but Jehovah never was or can be his name.” – C.H. Spurgeon

“They are Arminians to a man; they deny the absolute sovereignty of God, his eternal choice of an elect people, and that Christ bore their sins only. They deny the total depravity of man, for they insist that he possesses a free will and can accept Christ and besaved by a decision of his own; thus directly repudiating God’s word,as found in John1:13; 6;44; 8:36; Rom 9:16, and other passages. And where any teacher or preacher is unsound on these basic truths, no confidence must be placed on him on any other subject. If he is all wrong at the foundations, his superstructure is bound to be faulty.” – A. W. Pink, Letter to Lowell Green August 19, 1934

“A “god” whose will is resisted, whose designs are frustrated, whose purpose is checkmated, possesses no title to Deity, and so far from being a fit object of worship, merits nought but contempt.” – A. W. Pink

Having said that, while the doctrines of Arminianism are to be rightly despised, maturity and balance is needed concerning how we view Arminians. See this article here, and this one here.

The same Spurgeon who wrote so forcefully about Arminianism (above) also said this:

“We give our hand to every man that loves the Lord Jesus Christ, be he what he may or who he may. The doctrine of election, like the great act of election itself, is intended to divide, not between Israel and Israel, but between Israel and the Egyptians, not between saint and saint, but between saints and the children of the world. A man may be evidently of God’s chosen family, and yet though elected, may not believe in the doctrine of election. I hold that there are many savingly called, who do not believe in effectual calling, and that there are a great many who persevere to the end, who do not believe the doctrine of final perseverance. We do hope the hearts of many are a great deal better than their heads. We do not set their fallacies down to any willful opposition to the truth as it is in Jesus but simply to an error in their judgments, which we pray God to correct. We hope that if they think us mistaken too, they will reciprocate the same Christian courtesy; and when we meet around the cross, we hope that we shall ever feel that we are one in Christ Jesus.”

“I do not ask whether you believe Calvinism. It is possible that you do not. But I believe you will before you enter heaven. I am persuaded that as God may have washed your hearts, He will wash your brains before you enter heaven.” – Spurgeon, Sermons, Vol. 1, p. 92

Roger Olson’s book “Against Calvinism” – A Review by Dr. James White

Parts 1 and 2
Roger Olson doesn’t like to debate, and he doesn’t like to defend his assertions, either, but that did not stop Dr. James White from reviewing his book “Against Calvinism.” A very troubling aspect of Olson’s book is that he admits that even if God revealed Himself to be and to act, as Calvinists say He does, Olson would refuse to worship Him. That’s an amazing thing for a professed Christian to say.

Here is the first half of Dr. White’s review:

Here is the second half:

Roger Olson’s book “Against Calvinism” – A Review by Dr. James White

Roger Olson doesn’t like to debate, and he doesn’t like to defend his assertions, either, but that did not stop Dr. James White from reviewing his book “Against Calvinism.” A very troubling aspect of Olson’s book is that he admits that even if God revealed Himself to be and to act, as Calvinists say He does, Olson would refuse to worship Him. That’s an amazing thing for a professed Christian to say.

Here is Dr. White’s review.

Problems with Arminian Universal Redemption

Amongst the archives of the Banner of Truth website, I came across this article. The site does not specify the author.

Serious objections must be lodged against Arminian universal redemption, among which are these:

It slanders God’s attributes, such as his love. Arminianism presents a love that actually doesn’t save. It is a love that loves and then, if refused, turns to hatred and anger. It is not unchangeable love that endures from everlasting to everlasting. It provides atonement for all, but then withholds the means of grace that would make that salvation effectual in all lives. Are we to believe that Christ died for everyone in the deepest jungle and the darkest city, but his love doesn’t provide the missionaries, preachers, or sermons that would make his death effectual?

It slanders God’s wisdom. Why would God make a plan to save everyone, then not carry it out? Would he be so foolish as to have his Son pay for the salvation of all if he knew that Christ would not be able to obtain what he paid for? Some say he didn’t realise the consequences; he saw far enough to provide atonement, but couldn’t see that some wouldn’t take it. Does not that assertion slander the wisdom of God? Could God plan and provide atonement, but not realise that his atonement would not be accepted?

I would feel foolish if I went into a store and bought something, then walked out without it. Yet Arminianism asks us to believe that this is true of salvation — that there was a purchase made, a redemption, and yet the Lord walked away without those whom he had redeemed. That view slanders the wisdom of God.

It slanders God’s power. Arminian universalism obliges us to believe that God was able to accomplish the meriting aspect of salvation, but that the applying aspect is dependent on man and his free will. It asks us to believe that God has worked out everyone’s salvation up to a point, but no further for anyone. The implication is that God has built the bridge of salvation between him and us, and we have only to walk over it by accepting his terms of salvation through a free act of the will. ‘God does his part,’ Arminians say, ‘and now we must do our part.’

Calvinists respond by saying that this makes salvation dependent on the will of humanity, thereby reducing God and his power. Instead of our coming to God with our withered hands and saying, ‘If Thou wilt, Thou canst make us whole,’ this view has God coming to us with a withered hand, a hand that is not strong enough to save anyone, and saying, ‘If thou wilt, thou canst complete this salvation; thou canst make me whole.’ In essence, modern evangelistic sermons often take such an approach: ‘God has done much, but he needs you to complete the job.’ Does that way of thinking not slander the all-sufficient power of God? It makes God dependent on the will of man.

It slanders God’s justice. Did Christ satisfy God’s justice for everyone? Did Christ take the punishment due to everybody? If he did, how can God punish anyone? Is it justice to punish one person for the sins of another and later to punish the initial offender again? As Augustus Toplady said,
Payment God cannot twice demand;
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.
God can’t and won’t demand payment twice. Double punishment is injustice.
Continue reading

Are Arminians Saved?

I was asked this question earlier today. Its obviously an important one and something that needs to be addressed.

Let me start by saying that doctrinal precision is important; far more important than many people realise. Yet having correct doctrine by itself saves no one.

The first individuals to recognise Christ were demons. Mark, in his Gospel tells us of a man with an unclean spirit who cried out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”” (Mark 1:24, 25)

Jesus did not wish for His identity to be established by the testimony of demons and so dealt with the situation accordingly, but it must be said, the demons possessed accurate knowledge concerning Christ, though they hated all that they knew about Him.

Clearly, such intellectual knowledge is not enough to save, which is the very point James is making when with sacrcasm literally dripping from his pen he writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19) Our ancient foe could pass the most rigorous theological exam, yet he hates everything he knows about God. Knowledge is not enough.

Having said that, knowledge is vital. Some issues are indeed so vital to the soul that to get it wrong means no salvation. Jesus said, “.. unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24) That’s clear isn’t it?

The Lord never gives us a free pass in false doctrine. We are called to search the Scriptures dilligently and to love Him with our minds as well as our hearts. Yet some theological errors are worse than others and some are less important.

For instance, I am a credo baptist. That means I believe water baptism is something to be administered when a baptismal candidate professes faith in Christ and not before. I have very good friends who do not see the issue the same way as myself who have no problem baptising babies. One of us is wrong. We cannot both be right. One of us is actually sinning – grieving God by maintaining a false belief and practice. Yet we believe the best of each other and are certain that if either of us could convince the other of the truth from the Scripture, the other person would change their view instantly.

Even though the issue is a very important one, I do not believe it is enough of an issue to mean that while disagreement remains, one of us is saved and the other is not. While we do not see eye to eye on this doctrine, we embrace each other as precious brothers in Christ, and join together in the unity of faith in the gospel.

Baptism is an important issue but secondary to that which is primary. The Gospel is primary, as are doctrines such as the Trinity, the virgin birth and sinless life of Christ, His full deity and humanity, His atoning death for sinners on the cross and His physical resurrection from the dead and His future second coming in power and glory. These are the BIG issue doctrines we must adhere to.

I cannot have Christian fellowship with someone who denies the Trinity or justification by faith alone. These doctrines, as well as many others like them, are central to the Christian faith. There is no unity of faith in Christ outside of the gospel. According to Galatians chapter 1, a false gospel, whether championed by an apostle or even an angel, brings the eternal curse of God (anathema). There are such things as “damnable heresies.” (2 Peter 2:1).

So where is Arminianism in all this?

Being convinced that the Scriptures teach Calvinistic or Reformed soteriology (the study of salvation) the question is sometimes asked, “just how grave an error is Arminianism?” Continue reading