Chances are you’ve discussed it lately. Who chose whom? God? Man? Both? Whose will and choice triggers salvation? Man’s? God’s? Both? It’s a common occurrence to spar over Calvinism (the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace) vs. Arminianism.
This post could not possibly address all the issues. Instead, it will take a brief look at some of Arminianism’s consequences. But first, a quick reminder of common Arminian teaching.
Arminianism typically holds that God elects individuals to salvation based on his foreknowledge of their personal worthiness. It’s claimed that God’s election means that he chose those whom he foresaw would trust in Christ for salvation prior to them doing so. God chose those whom he foreknew would choose him. Humanity, therefore, is fallen, but not incapable of seeking God. Though sinful, man is still able to arouse his will so as to choose God savingly. Some reject election, arguing that it is incompatible with human freedom and responsibility, thus rendering things like evangelism, prayer, and discipleship unnecessary. It follows, then, that many argue that one is able to lose their salvation.
Arminianism has had its propagators over the years. Jacob Arminius, of course. Later, John Wesley wrote, “I reject the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination…I would sooner be a Turk, a Deist, yea an atheist, than I could believe this” (Cited in Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 102). About 100 years later, Charles Finney held that there are essentially two types of people; the savable and the unsavable. God chose those who inherently possessed the ability by their freedom to choose God and be saved. Some contemporary proponents include F. Leroy Forlines and Roger Olson, to name a few.
Wherever we might find ourselves theologically, there are a number of hazards for consideration which are consequent of Arminian teaching:
- Harming the plain sense of a large amount of Scripture.
At best, much Arminian teaching must violate the natural reading of many passages. For example, the assertion of free will is biblically untenable. Free will indicates that man is free to do as he pleases.
However, our will has two big constraints, rendering it not free. The first is God’s sovereignty (e.g. Prov. 19:21 “Many plans are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the LORD will stand”). We are only free to do what God has ordained. The second constraint is human depravity. We are unwilling to seek/choose God so as to be saved (Rom. 3:11 “There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God”). We are unable to seek/choose God so as to be saved (Eph. 2:1 “You were dead in your trespasses and sins”). Whatever the word “dead” asserts, it is not man’s ability. The dead are not able to do anything but stay dead. Thus, Arminianism’s assertion that man is able, and even willing, to choose God is untenable.
God is the only Being whose will is free: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). No such statements are made of man. And incredibly, God uses his will, in love, to unlock ours from sin. When it comes to salvation, the only one willing and able to do the choosing and seeking is God. For that reason, Scripture speaks of salvation is an act of grace (Eph. 2:8-9).
Regarding God’s sovereign choice of his people, Ephesians 1:4-5 says, “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” From this text, and many like it, we simply cannot responsibly conclude that, “God chose us because he saw that we would choose him.” The word, “chose,” is an aorist middle, indicating an active, willful choice on the part of the subject (God), independent and unconditional of the object of choice (believers). Finally, contrary to much Arminian reasoning, God did not chose because he saw that we would choose, but “according to the purpose of his will.” And the passage continues, emphasizing that God’s work in salvation had nothing to do with man’s foreknown actions, but to the praise of God’s glory.
But what about the word “foreknew” in Romans 8:29? When speaking of God, the word can refer to either the simple knowing of something before or foreordaining. In the biblical context of salvation, to “know” or “foreknow” can refer to an intimate love, thus speaking of God’s independent choice to love his chosen. Further, the focus of the text is not on man’s actions; that God foreknew man would choose him, but on God’s actions; that God foreknew because he sovereignly decided to bestow grace on those he chose to love (hence the word, “predestined,” in v. 30).
Romans 9 is another passage which contains several massive problems for Arminianism. Arminian friends often ask, “Why do you guys always go to Romans 9 to argue your case?” For the same reason that the Bears always handed off to William “Refrigerator” Perry, when it was 4th and goal at the one yard line.
Some propose that the choosing spoken of in Romans 9 is concerned with nations and groups, not individuals. But that will not do, since Paul mentions individuals (e.g. Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Esau, Pharaoh), as objects of his sovereign choice who serve as illustrations of God’s sovereign dealings with humanity. Then, that truth is crystallized, shown to be the manner of God’s sovereign prerogative, as Creator, with all humanity, his creation, in vv. 20-24. If God did not ordain some for salvation and others, not, Romans 9 is not a good way to say that.
Furthermore, v. 19 and following is Paul’s response to Arminian-like rejection. “How can God find fault? If election is true, who can resist his will?” And, if Paul were not arguing for the case of God’s sovereign election of individuals in salvation, then his anticipation of the rejection as stated in v. 19, followed by his response in vv. 20-26 (e.g. “…Has the potter no right over the lay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable useand another for dishonorable use?…”) makes no sense. If Paul is not saying that God chooses individuals for salvation according to his own will, then why ask, “Then who resists his will?”
Many other passages could be brought into the discussion, such as John 1:12-13, John 3, John 6:39, 44, and 65, to name a few. I would point us to thorough treatments on the issue, such as R.C. Sproul’s, Chosen by God, or Bruce Demarest’s, The Cross and Salvation, to name a few contemporary writers.
- Tending towards salvation by works.
Arminian soteriology asserts that the cause of salvation is both God’s grace and man’s ability. The Holy Spirit saves by cooperating with man’s will. Man and God partner to accomplish salvation. Consequently, salvation is the product, in part, of man’s will or ability. Another way to say that is man’s salvation is partly due to his doing, or, his work.
But Romans 9:16 is telling. Speaking of the divine election of individuals, the Apostle Paul says, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” The issue could not be more clear. And to that we could add the overwhelming testimony of Scripture declaring that salvation is purely the work of God’s grace (e.g. Eph. 2:8-9). The determining factor pertaining to who will be saved is not man’s will, decision, or ability, but God’s sovereign decision to extend saving mercy.
And as a sidenote, if we are going to reject God’s sovereign grace for Arminianism, then we should stop praying for anyone’s salvation. We should instead pray to the particular man for that man’s salvation: his will is the Sovereign when it comes to his salvation.
- Exalting man’s ability to reason over the plain sense of God’s word.
Though not all, much of Arminianism’s rebuttals to the doctrines of grace take the form of, “Then how can God…?” or, “How can man…?” For example:
“How can God be fair and loving if he’s already fixed who will be saved? He cannot be, because he is not really giving everyone the opportunity to be saved.” Paul settled this in Romans 9:20-26. The answer ultimately lies in God and his sovereign prerogative by virtue of being God. Further, if we struggle to understand his love there, let us take an unrushed walk around the cross as a fresh reminder. Perhaps the more clear sheds light on the less.
“How can man have a free will if he is called to repent but God chooses?” Scripture never says that man’s will is free, but that he is dead in sin. And, the call for man to be saved should not be taken ipso facto that his will is free. Instead, it should be taken plainly: man is responsible to repent. We do well to leash our reasonings from going beyond what is written.
“How can God be loving if he only chose some? Why didn’t he choose more?” On the contrary, even if we are never saved, it would only be right for us to marvel that God would choose to save even one in light of man’s wickedness. Furthermore, Scripture clearly says that God is loving, thus we joyfully submit to the truth, whether or not we can ascertain how God’s dealings are loving in our radically finite minds.
“How can the call for all to be saved be genuine? It is a farce—a false offer—since God has already determined some, not all, to be saved.” God did not come to redeem all humanity (universalism is not true), but his people. And, salvation is a command (Acts 17:30). Just because man is unable and unwilling to obey a command of God’s does not invalidate the command.
“How can we really evangelize? Isn’t it pointless?” Wesley claimed that evangelism would be futile if election was true. But that some are chosen is far more motivation to evangelize than if the choice was up to man. If salvation were contingent on man’s will, then evangelism would be futile since man is unwilling and unable to choose and seek God in his natural state.
The problem with these objections is clear and singular. What is the governing authority common in the rebuttals? Man’s ability to figure out the “How can?” If he cannot, then the plain sense of Scripture is rejected. It boils down to man’s ability to reason.
For the most part Arminianism is man’s fallen philosophical response to God’s clear, biblical self-disclosure. Thus, it appears almost as a theology of response. Many of the objections center more on our fallen philosophical conundrums, than the plain sense of Scripture.
- Forbidding God from doing as he wishes.
Perhaps the most God-ness thing about God is his sovereignty. His sovereignty rules over all (Ps. 103:19). And long, long before puny, sinful man was around to comment on the extent and limitations of that sovereignty, he did as he does now: whatever he pleases. His plan of salvation is simply one area in which he exercises his sovereignty, both in the designing and doing of the plan.
Sadly, however, we come along (as a consequence of God’s sovereignty), and strap him with boundaries. And, we do so through the grid of our not-Godness; our non-sovereignty. We do things like question and complain and resist the most God thing about God. We are all, by nature, a bit Arminian (cause for more alarm).
But Arminianism permits God to do as he wishes, except when it comes to his most prized doings in history: salvation. He is permitted sovereignty over rocks, rain, rhinoceroses, and raises, but not the plan around which all these things revolve: redemption. God sits in the heavens and does whatever he pleases, except when it comes to exercising his grace. Something is amiss.
Charles Spurgeon said it well: “Some men cannot endure to hear the doctrine of election. I suppose they like to choose their own wives, but they are not willing that Christ should choose his own bride, the church.”
- Disregarding the testimony of church history.
A brief look at church history demonstrates the scores of faithful men who have embraced the doctrines of grace over Arminianism. A small sampling of those includes Tertullian (2nd-3rd century), Athanasius (4th), Augustine (4th-5th), John Knox (15-16th), Luther (16th), Calvin (16th), John Bunyan (17th), the some 150 Westminster Divines (17th), John Gill (18th), Charles Spurgeon (19th), and Martyn Lloyd-Jones (20th). It could not be said that these men were theological novices. And it’s not that they are above theological examination. But it is to say that we do well to carefully examine a teaching, first, because it is backed by sound exegesis and hermeneutics, and second, because it was held by many competent theologians.
I tremble when I hear so many in our day spurn the doctrines of grace as if they are a strange teaching fabricated by theological lightweights.
- Man shares glory and credit with God for salvation.
The reason there are so many passages ascribing glory to God in the context of salvation is because he did, and does all, of the work, since man cannot and would not.
“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).
“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Now, if salvation depends even the slightest bit upon man (whether his choice or ability to seek God), then man deserves part of the glory and credit for it. If man is able to choose, he contributes something to his salvation, and should be praised for that contribution. We must laud him for his choosing abilities and accomplishment. Ephesians 2:8-9 should, then, be edited to read: “For by grace and your choice you have been saved, through faith and your ability to choose. And this is partly your doing; it is both a gift of God and your ability to choose, so that you and God may boast it up together.”
Bottom line: when it comes to our God’s glorious plan of salvation, we do well to step away from his throne by letting the clear testimony of Scripture speak, permitting him to choose, ordain, predestine, and foreknew whom he wishes from a hopelessly rebellious human race.
Charles Spurgeon: “I believe the doctrine of election, because I am quite certain that if God had not chosen me I should never have chosen Him; and I am sure He chose me before I was born, or else He never would have chosen me afterwards; and He must have elected me for reasons unknown to me, for I never could find any reason in myself why He should have looked upon me with special love. So I am forced to accept that doctrine.”
“Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).
*Update: Above, it was mentioned that free will indicates that man is free to do as he pleases. A correction is needed. Many of the Arminian persuasion do not equate free will to unrestricted free will. Many hold to a libertarian free will. Man is naturally depraved, being unable and unwilling to please God, some hold. Many assert that prevenient grace is universally given by God, which then enables depraved man to cooperate with God by savingly trusting in Christ.