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Arminianism

April 2000 | by Jonathan Bayes

‘Thank you: I see that hand. Is there another who will decide for Jesus now? [Pause] God bless you! I see that hand. Is there another …?’ In the end, I suppose, five or six hands must have gone up while ‘all heads were bowed and all eyes closed’. This was a private moment between the soul and God, with the preacher as the only observer (apart from any others who might have been tempted to peep!).

It was a little over twenty years ago when that happened at a Sunday evening service at which I was present in an Arminian church.

But what exactly is an Arminian church? What do people who call themselves ‘Arminians’ actually believe? It is not very easy to answer these questions, because Arminianism embraces a variety of views. We saw last month that Arminius, the founder of modern Arminianism, was not an Arminian in the sense in which the word is most frequently used these days.

Work of grace

True, there are some whose beliefs are pretty close to those of Arminius himself. A pastor I knew in my student days was one example. He believed that God the Holy Spirit has to do a work of grace in the heart before it is possible for a person to become a Christian. But that work of grace (he said) only gives the person complete freedom to decide either for or against Christ.

Synod of Dort
see image info

This was pretty much the position which the Synod of Dort was rejecting when it said that regeneration is not achieved ‘by such a method of working that, after God has done his work, it remains in the power of man whether he is regenerated or not, whether he is converted or not’.

Rather, they continued, all those in whose hearts God works, ‘are for certain infallibly and effectually regenerated, and actually do believe’. The Bible teaches that Adam was so totally corrupted by sin that all his descendants begin life corrupt (see Psalm 51:5; Romans 3:10). Consequently, in saving a sinner, God must do all or nothing. His work cannot be merely a halfway measure.

Inconsistent

Nevertheless, we must concede that this version of Arminianism does give God’s grace first place in our salvation. The problem lies in its inconsistency. It rejects the view that God chose (elected) certain specific individuals and sent his Son to die with the express purpose of saving them in particular.

Instead, this type of Arminianism follows Arminius in teaching that God elected in general terms those who would repent and believe, and that Jesus died for everyone to make salvation available. Although it teaches that God does not bestow the freedom to choose on everyone, it fails to explain why he does that work in some and not others.

For our Arminian friends who take this line, there is real hope that they will spot the inconsistency and move towards a thoroughgoing proclamation of grace.

Natural ability

However, there is another, more widespread, version of Arminianism which teaches that the freedom to choose for or against Christ is something we possess naturally. We do not need a work of grace to bring us to faith. Salvation is by grace, but only in the sense that God accepts faith in place of works.

This version of Arminianism is so confident of human ability that it will invite people to indicate their ‘decision’ for Christ by raising a hand, or signing a card, or repeating a prayer. It then glibly offers an assurance of salvation based on a kind of logic which goes like this: (1) God promises to save all who believe; (2) You just indicated that you believe; (3) Therefore, you must be saved.

We sometimes describe this as ‘easy-believism’. It would be foolish to suggest that no one has ever been truly converted through such an approach. God is sovereign, and will save his elect, however inadequate the means he may use.

Nevertheless, the tragedy is that many people are deluded into thinking they have become Christians when in reality they have not. They soon become disillusioned and write off the Christian faith altogether.

An easy matter?

The odd thing is that those who teach these things are actually contradicting Arminius. He understood correctly that sin has left us without free will, so that we are bound to do wrong. Only God can change that. By contrast, modern ‘free-willers’ do not believe the Bible’s assessment of human depravity. Consequently, they think it is an easy matter for a person to ‘make a decision’ and start to follow Jesus.

Actually, this idea is more like Pelagianism than Arminianism. Pelagius lived in the fifth century. He did not believe that human nature has been corrupted by sin, and used a curious argument to support his contention.

He claimed that sin is not a ‘substance’ (in other words, it does not exist as a thing). Sin is only the doing of things which are wrong. ‘How’, he asks, ‘could that which lacks all substance have possibly weakened or changed human nature?’

The task of refuting the opinions of Pelagius fell to Augustine. In A. D. 415 he wrote a book called On Nature and Grace, in which he faced this particular argument head-on. He points out that refusing to eat is not a ‘substance’. It is, rather, withdrawal from a substance (food). But the effect of this withdrawal is to corrupt and injure the body.

Well, he continues, allowing Pelagius’ point that sin is not a substance, it is the withdrawal from God, who is ‘the height of substance’ and our ‘only true sustenance’. The result of this withdrawal is the total corruption of the soul, which only God’s grace can restore.

Charles Finney

A modern follower of Pelagius was Charles Grandison Finney, an American evangelist who was born in 1792. He believed that Christ’s death made it possible for God to declare a universal amnesty inviting all people to repent, believe and be saved. Finney’s influence on mass evangelism was immense, and the evangelistic ‘crusades’ of our own day owe much to his methods and theology.

He argued that every person is free to accept Christ if he wants to. He failed to see that everyone is bound to reject Christ, unless God intervenes by grace. This is the real problem with the Pelagian sort of Arminianism. As Augustine put it in a letter to Sixtus, written in 416, this doctrine ‘is diametrically opposed’ to the grace of God.

What is grace?

We have used the word ‘grace’ many times in this article. What do we mean by ‘grace’ in this context? We mean God’s undeserved, life-changing power. Two things are claimed in the assertion of grace.

The first is that God saves the undeserving. The second is that God’s power must carry through the work of salvation from its first beginnings in the human heart to its final consummation in heaven. Pelagian Arminianism denies both. It claims that the human being has the power to get started on the way of salvation without God’s grace. Consequently, when God’s grace does come into play, it is for those who deserve it because they have taken the first steps.

What this involves in the end (as Augustine pointed out in 415 in a letter to Evodius) is the denial of the grace of God. Pelagian Arminianism is a rejection of the gospel.

The third section of the Canons of Dort is entitled, ‘On Human Corruption, and on Conversion to God and the Means of Conversion’. Its final words are these: ‘For the means of grace and also for their saving fruit and effectiveness, all the glory is due only to God – and that forever’. We echo those sentiments with a grateful ‘Amen’!