Arminianism: A Most Misunderstood Theology

Hi folks, please read with an open mind and feel free to share your thoughts. Blessings to all who proclaim Christ as Savior and Lord, Julian Pace.

 

I don’t think it would be an understatement to say that Arminian theology has fallen on hard times in recent years. I tend to think this is because many of the United States’ most influential preachers tend to be far more sympathetic towards Calvinism than Arminianism. Indeed, some of America’s best-known preachers do not make any bones about the fact that they are staunch Calvinists. Pastors and theologians like John Macarthur, John Piper, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, David Platt, and Al Mohler openly profess their embrace of Calvinism as well as their rejection of Arminian theology. Turn on Christian radio, walk into a Lifeway bookstore, or attend a Passion conference and you will hear sermons and see dozens of resources written by these men. While many theologians teaching at Seminaries in the United States are Arminians, I can’t think of an American preacher who openly professes to be an Arminian and enjoys the influence and popularity of say a John Macarthur (maybe William Willimon?) Macarthur has authored one of the most popular study Bibles in the United States, can you name a Study Bible written by an equally influential Arminian preacher?  I am also convinced that many people are fearful of claiming to be Arminian because of the charges that have been leveled against it by some of the United States’ most prominent preachers. Piper has called Arminian theology “Man Centered” and Macarthur has equivocated it with the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism. These preachers and theologians are listened to by millions of American Christians and have a major impact on the American Church’s thinking, practice, and spirituality. Thus, when these Christians hear these preachers speak negatively about Arminianism, many Christians understandably conclude that these well-educated and eloquent preachers must certainly be right. However, I am convinced that Arminian theology is oftentimes misunderstood, probably by even many Arminians themselves!

Although Calvinists have critiqued Arminian theology for dozens of reasons I will, for the sake of brevity, only respond to those objections that appear (in my judgement) most often in Calvinist literature and sermons. First, Calvinists will often argue that Arminian theology is unscriptural because it fails to appreciate man’s sinfulness and his utter inability to respond to God’s offer of salvation. In short, Arminians wrongly reject the scriptural teaching of total depravity. Second, Arminian theology forces one to accept that Christians can “lose” their salvation which could lead to a lack of assurance in a believer’s life. Third, Arminians reject God’s sovereignty.

When dialoging with Calvinists it has been my experience that they are quite surprised when I tell them that I affirm the doctrine of total depravity. Often, they are even further surprised when I tell them that every “Classical” Arminian affirms total depravity as well. I affirm, with the Calvinist, the scriptural teaching of Romans 3:11 that without God’s intervening grace we would never pursue a right relationship with God. Sin has so damaged our will that we can’t exercise the slightest inclination towards God without divine aid. The Arminian solution to this problem is the doctrine of “prevenient grace.” This doctrine teaches that God in his mercy has enlightened the will of people to the extent that they have the choice to freely choose or reject him. Without God’s gift of “prevenient grace”, we don’t have the ability to choose God. All we can do is rebel against God. Both the Calvinist and the Arminian affirm that we need to receive God’s grace prior to justification due to our depraved nature. The key difference between the two positions is that the Calvinist believes in irresistible grace while the Arminian believes in enabling grace. For the Calvinist, if God has elected to save you, he will graciously regenerate your will prior to justification which will certainly lead you to exercise faith in God. The Arminian posits that God’s gift of “prevenient grace” is for all people and it gives you the ability to choose God, or freely reject him. God regenerates and frees our will so that we are then able to exercise a right attitude towards God if we so choose. Thus, for the Arminian, salvation is all of God’s grace. If God had not taken the initiative in salvation we would never have sought him. The positions are distinct, but they are both an attempt to solve the problem of man’s total inability to choose God without the help of divine aid.

Many Christians have rejected Arminian theology because they believe that if they affirm it then they are required to affirm conditional security (aka a person who is genuinely saved can lose their salvation.) What might surprise the person investigating Arminian theology is that while many Arminians have affirmed conditional security (aka John Wesley and Adam Clarke) many have not! Indeed, Jacob Arminius of whom Arminian theology is named after, never dogmatically affirmed conditionally security and in fact made several statements in his writings that were quite supportive of eternal security! Many Arminians throughout history have believed in the doctrine of eternal security. Frankly, Arminian theology allows for both opinions in its system. If you feel you can’t affirm Arminian theology because you are convinced from the scriptures of the truth of eternal security, then worry no more, a belief in eternal security is entirely compatible with an Arminian framework.

It is often said that Arminians reject God’s sovereignty. This is simply not the case. Like the Calvinist, the Arminian affirms that God has exhaustive foreknowledge and is all powerful. The difference between the Arminian and the Calvinist’s view of God’s sovereignty is that the Calvinist believes that God has determined every aspect of history and has thus rendered each historical event certain. Thus, when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they could not have chosen otherwise because God before the foundation of time determined that they would sin against him. The Arminian view quite rightly distinguishes between God’s permissive and decretal will. God in his foreknowledge knew that Satan, Adam, and Eve would rebel against him, but they could have chosen to do otherwise. Their choice to rebel was permitted by God but it was not determined by him. While I can appreciate the Calvinist’s desire to affirm God’s sovereignty, I still must reject their view because I do not see how it does not lead to God being the author of sin. If God determined every historical event, thus rendering certain that Satan, Adam, and Eve would rebel and sin against him without the possibility of doing otherwise, then it seems that sin originated in the mind and will of God. To affirm this, as the Calvinist would agree, is blasphemous.

I want to close by noting that I have been positively influenced by several Calvinist theologians. I have benefited greatly from the work of Calvinist theologians like R.C. Sproul, Tim Keller, Charles Spurgeon, and many, many others. There is much I appreciate about the Reformed tradition in general. Thus, my goal here is not to smear Calvinism or its proponents even though I ultimately can’t affirm some of what it teaches. Rather, my goal is to dispense with some of the more common, and I think erroneous, objections that have been leveled against Arminianism so that people will give it a fair hearing once more. I think someone who approaches Arminian theology with an open mind will find that this doctrinal system takes seriously the depraved nature of people, robustly affirms God’s sovereignty, and is thoroughly grounded in the biblical witness.

 

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