Lately I have noticed that a number of my Calvinist friends are anathematizing Arminians for teaching something that they do not actually teach. Before I continue, I want to make clear that I am Calvinist, all five points but I am also a former adherent to Arminianism and I am currently a member of the Society of Evangelical Arminians. Why would I, a self admitted Calvinist, be there? Discussion; it is hard to understand someone’s point of view if you will not talk to them and so I pursue friendships with Arminians of both stripes, Evangelical and Wesleyan. I digress…
Many of my brethren go off on tangents regarding things they think Arminians teach that are not actually to be found in Arminian doctrine. In this case, they claim that Arminians teach that man has a free will to choose Christ. This is not quite correct. As a point of reference, when I refer to Arminian Soteriology, I will be referencing the document, the FACTS of Salvation (http://evangelicalarminians.org/the-facts-of-salvation-a-summary-of-arminian-theologythe-biblical-doctrines-of-grace/) , by the excellent theologian Brian Abasciano. Permit me a rather large quote from Brian,
“We speak of the will of man being freed by grace to emphasize that people do not have a naturally free will when it comes to believing in Jesus, but that God must graciously take action to free our wills if we are going to be able to believe in his Son whom he sent for the salvation of all. When our wills are freed, we can either accept God’s saving grace in faith or reject it to our own ruin. In other words, God’s saving grace is resistible, which is to say that he dispenses his calling, drawing, and convicting grace (which would bring us to salvation if responded to with faith) in such a way that we may reject it. We become free to believe in Jesus and free to reject him. The resistibility of God’s saving grace is clearly shown in Scripture, as some of the passages already mentioned testify. Indeed, the Bible is sadly filled with examples of people spurning the grace of God offered to them. In Isaiah 5:1-7, God actually indicates that he could not have done anything more to get Israel to produce good fruit. But if irresistible grace is something that God dispenses, then he could have easily provided that and infallibly brought Israel to bear good fruit. Many passages in the Old Testament talk about how God extended his grace to Israel over and over again but they repeatedly resisted and rejected him (e.g., 2 Kgs 17:7-23; Jer 25:3-11; 26:1-9; 35:1-19). 2 Chronicles 36:15-16 mentions that God’s persistent reaching out to his people, which was rejected, was motivated by compassion for them. But this could only be if the grace he extended them enabled them to repent and avoid his judgment yet was resistible since they did indeed resist it and suffered God’s judgment. Nehemiah 9 presents a striking example of Old Testament testimony to God continually reaching out to Israel with his grace that was met with resistance and rejection. We do not have space to review the entire passage (but the reader is encouraged to do so), but will quote some key elements and draw attention to some important points. Nehemiah 9:20a says, “You [God] gave your good Spirit to instruct them [Israel]” and is followed by an extensive catalogue of gracious divine actions toward Israel in vv. 9:20b-25. Then 9:26-31 says,
26 Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies. 27 Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies. 28 But after they had rest they did evil again before you, and you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies. 29 And you warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey.30 Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. 31 Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.
The text affirms that God gave his Spirit to instruct Israel (9:20a) and that God sent his prophets and warned Israel for the purpose of turning them back to him. God purposed his actions to turn Israel back to him/his Law, yet they rebelled. This shows God allowing his purpose to not come to pass because of allowing human beings a choice of whether to yield to his grace or not. Intriguingly, the word translated “bore” in Neh 9:30 uses a Hebrew word that usually means something like “draw, drag, pull” and gets translated in the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the early church with the same word used in John 6:44a (“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”). A better translation of Neh 9:30 would be, “Many years you drew them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear.” The text speaks of a resistible divine drawing that seeks to bring people to the Lord in repentance. Stephen also furnished a good example of the resistibility of grace when he said to his fellow Jews, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53). Luke 7:30 tells us that “the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves.” And Jesus, who spoke to people for the purpose of saving them (John 5:34), yet found that they refused to come to him to have life (John 5:40), and who came to turn every Jew from their sin (Acts 3:26; see the treatment of this text under “Atonement for All” above), yet clearly found that not every Jew believed in him, lamented over his people’s unwillingness to receive his grace, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Luke 13:34; see further Ezek 24:13; Matt 23:37; Rom 2:4-5; Zech 7:11-14; Heb 10:29; 12:15; Jude 4; 2 Cor 6:1-2; Ps 78:40-42).
Arminians differ among themselves about some of the details of how God’s prevenient grace works, probably because Scripture itself does not give a detailed description. Some Arminians believe that God continually enables all people to believe at all times as a benefit of the atonement. Others believe that God only bestows the ability to believe in Christ to people at select times according to his good pleasure and wisdom. Still others believe that prevenient grace generally accompanies any of God’s specific movements toward people, rendering them able to respond positively to such movements as God would have them. But all Arminians agree that people are incapable of believing in Jesus apart from the intervention of God’s grace and that God does bestow his grace that draws toward salvation on all morally responsible people. With respect to the gospel, seventeenth century Arminian Bishop, Laurence Womack, well said, “on all those to whom the word of faith is preached, the Holy Spirit bestows, or is ready to bestow, so much grace as is sufficient, in fitting degrees, to bring on their conversion.”
The concept of “freed will” raises a broader question of whether human beings have free will generally, apart from the realm of pleasing the Lord and doing spiritual good (again, people are not free in this area unless God empowers them). The Arminian answer is yes. People have free will in all sorts of things. By this we mean that when people are free with respect to an action, then they can at least either do the action or refrain from doing it. People often have genuine choices and are therefore correspondingly able to make choices. When free, the specific choice someone makes has not been efficiently predetermined or necessitated by anyone or anything other than the person himself. In fact, if the person’s action has been rendered necessary by someone else, and the person cannot avoid doing the action, then he has no choice in the matter and he is not free in it. And if he does not have a choice, then neither can it properly be said that he chooses. But Scripture very clearly indicates that people have choices and make choices about many things (e.g., Deut 23:16; 30:19; Josh 24:15; 2 Sam 24:12; 1 Kings 18:23, 25; 1 Chron 21:10; Acts 15:22, 25; Phil 1:22). Moreover, it explicitly speaks of human free will (Exod 35:29; 36:3; Lev 7:16; 22:18, 21, 23; 23:38; Num 15:3; 29:39; Deut 12:6, 17; 16:10; 2 Chron 31:14; 35:8; Ezra 1:4, 6; 3:5; 7:16; 8:28; Ps 119:108; Ezek 46:12; Amos 4:5; 2 Cor 8:3; Philemon 1:14; cf. 1 Cor 7:37) and attests to human beings violating God’s will, showing that he does not predetermine their will or actions in sin. Furthermore, the fact that God holds people accountable for their choices and actions implies that those choices and actions were free. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Arminians do not believe in unlimited free will. There are many things in which we are not free. We cannot choose to fly by flapping our arms for example. Nor do we deny that our free actions are influenced by all sorts of causes. But when we are free, those causes are resistible and we have a genuine choice in what we do and are not caused necessarily to act in a certain way by God or anyone or anything other than ourselves.
Finally, the concept of freed will also implies that God has ultimate and absolute free will. For it is God who supernaturally frees the will of sinners by his grace to believe in Christ, which is a matter of God’s own free will and sovereignty. God is omnipotent and sovereign, having the power and authority to do anything he wants and being unconstrained in his own actions and will by anything outside of himself and his own judgment (Gen 18:14; Exod 3:14; Job 41:11; Ps 50:10-12; Isaiah 40:13-14; Jer 32:17, 27; Matt 19:26; Luke 1:37; Acts 17:24-25; Rom 11:34-36; Eph 3:20; 2 Cor 6:18; Rev 1:8; 4:11). Nothing can happen unless he either does it or allows it. He is the Almighty Creator and God of the universe to whom we owe all love, worship, glory, honor, thanks, praise, and obedience. Therefore, it is good for us to remember that behind human freed will stands the One who frees the will, and that this is a matter of his glorious, free, and sovereign grace, totally unmerited on our part, and provided to us by the love and mercy of God. Praise his holy name!”
In candor, I do not find in needful to elaborate on what our learned commentator has written. Instead, I would like to summarize/paraphrase:
- Both the Calvinist and the Arminian believe that man is under Total Depravity (T in TULIP and T in FACTS)
- Both would believe that it is in act of God’s grace that allows man to come to Christ.
- Our Arminian brethren believe that the Holy Spirit has freed the individual’s will to respond to the Gospel Call
- We disagree on whether or not grace is resistible but we do not disagree that it is God who elects and the Holy Spirit who administers the act of grace.
- Calvinists and Arminians agree that nothing can happen unless God either does it or allows it.
- We agree that God is the Almighty Creator and God of the universe to whom we owe all love, worship, glory, honor, thanks, praise, and obedience.
- Like Calvinists, all Arminians agree that people are incapable of believing in Jesus apart from the intervention of God’s grace and that God does bestow his grace that draws toward salvation on all morally responsible people
There are points of Arminian doctrine that I vehemently disagree with, perhaps even to the point of calling them heterodox but I am loath to call them heretical. The charge of heresy is the most serious charge that can be leveled because true heresy damns the soul eternally and I do not find that the Arminian position on salvation meets the level of damnable heresy, I just disagree with it.
At the end of the day, there will be Arminians in Heaven and I hope to get close enough to the Throne of Grace to meet Tozer and some of his brethren. If we forget that Arminians also have a place in Heaven, we insult the very One who died to redeem them unto Himself.
Until next time, grace to you.