This is the third in a series of four articles written to assist Methodist members to be aware of their own doctrinal position which is Arminian. In the first article, we explained how the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement has brought Calvinism back onto the theological centre-stage, and raises challenges to our Arminian beliefs. We also discussed issues of God’s sovereignty, human free will, and the problem of evil and unbelievers. In the second, we examined some of the key Scriptural passages in this debate. Now, we will look at some common misunderstandings about what Arminians actually believe. This article in particular draws heavily (though not exclusively) from Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by Roger Olson. We hope that this series of articles will help us not only to understand our doctrinal position and the Scriptures that support it but also to see it as credible, and be able to articulate and defend it.
Why Discuss Misunderstandings?
Why devote an entire article to discussing misunderstandings about Arminian theology? Arminian theology is often misunderstood, even by those who claim to be Arminians! As a result, beliefs that are neither Scriptural nor Arminian become confused with proper Arminian theology. This results in (1) the spread of unsound teaching among those who are Arminians, and (2) erroneous rejection of Arminian theology because of these unsound (but not actually Arminian!) teachings. Much, though certainly not all, Calvinist criticism of Arminian belief is due to these misunderstandings. While addressing these misunderstandings will not resolve all the differences between these two parties, (1) it can help Calvinists see Arminian theology as a reasonable belief, (2) helps both parties be on the same page in dialogue, and (3) keep us Arminians on track in what we actually hold to.
As with each of the preceding articles, we are limited in both scope and depth, and a list for further reading will be provided in the fourth article of this series. The misunderstandings we will cover here are: (1) Arminianism promotes salvation by works and denies grace, (2) Arminianism is human-centred rather than God-centred, (3) Arminianism believes in human free-will and denies God’s sovereignty, (4) Arminian teaching that salvation can be lost leads to a fearful Christian life, and (5) there is a middle ground between Arminian and Calvinist theology.
Does Arminianism Teach Salvation By Works?
A frequent accusation against Arminianism is that it denies salvation by grace alone because it introduces a human element of works. In this accusation, the Arminian belief that human beings can choose to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation is tantamount to earning salvation through our act of repentance. The only way to preserve salvation by grace alone, many Calvinists say, is to deny human beings any role in our salvation. Beyond this, the Arminian teaching that it is possible to fall away from salvation (which we shall explore in further detail below) makes staying saved dependent on human works.
Let us make it clear: Arminians affirm that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. Nothing that we do can earn or merit salvation. Even the ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation must first be made possible by an act of God’s grace (see our first article, where we discuss prevenient grace). Does accepting God’s gift of salvation make us any more worthy, give us a better standing than other human beings, or earn us our salvation? To each question, the Arminian response is no! If I were to receive a cheque for a sum of money as a gift, and proceed to deposit that cheque in my bank account, would I have earned that money or worked for it in any way? In receiving God’s gift of salvation, we do even less – in the example provided, I would have had to travel to the bank and make a deposit! In receiving God’s salvation, we rest fully in God to do all the work. Our only role is entirely passive – to stop resisting God’s grace.
What then of works in order to “stay saved?” Many Arminians, John Wesley being a prime example, have emphasized the importance of works in the Christian life. This is a biblical teaching, exemplified clearly not only in the letters to the Hebrews and to James, but also throughout Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels and Paul’s teachings in his letters. Let us once again clearly state: we have been saved, not by good works, but for good works (Ephesians 2:8-10)! The call to remain in Christ less we are thrown away and wither (the parable of the vine, John 15:1-17) is not a call to be hard at work for fear of losing our salvation. Rather, it is a clear statement that if we reject God’s grace and fail to remain in Christ, we will perish. When we separate ourselves from Christ, one sign of that will be our inability to be fruitful, as true faith must be more than intellectual assent but a belief and trust in Christ that will necessarily result in a life of good works that reflects that belief (James 2:14-26).
Is Arminianism Human-Centred?
Another common misunderstanding about Arminianism is that it is a human-centred rather than a God-centred theology. This view states that Arminian theology places the focus on human free-will and choice, placing our ultimate destiny in our hands, and denying God the full glory of His work in our salvation. These critics then proceed to say that this high view of humanity in Arminianism has a tendency to diminish our acknowledgement of the centrality of God in our lives and in the world, compromising our ability to worship Him, leading us to put our faith in human beings rather than in God.
In actual fact, Arminian theology begins and ends with God. Yes, Arminian theology emphasizes libertarian free will – that God gives those He calls a real and free choice to choose or to reject Him. However, the concern of Arminians in upholding free will is not to put the spotlight on wonderful human beings but rather to explain why God is not the author of sin and evil, and to understand why the Bible teaches that not all will be saved. We have written at length on this in our first article, under the section “The Problem of Evil and Unbelievers.” Arminians teach human free will and choice because we believe the Bible teaches that it is the way God has chosen to relate to His creation, and because this doctrine should lead us to worship a good, generous, and self-giving God.
Arminian theology does not in fact have an optimistic view of fallen humanity. Both Calvinism and Arminianism affirm total depravity – that there is no part of human beings that is not affected and marred by sin. We are made in the image of God, but sin has marred that image and irrevocably crippled our ability to be good, to form healthy families, to love our neighbours, and to construct a just and equitable society. Our hope is not in human beings or human society, but in the fact that God’s plan to redeem and restore the world, to create a new heaven and new earth, and to have His kingdom come and His will done on earth, as it is in heaven, come to fruition in His time.
Does Arminianism Deny God's Sovereignty?
Many Calvinists believe that if libertarian free will exists, God cannot possibly be sovereign. If human beings can go against God’s plan, it would mean that God’s will can be thwarted. In this view, we Arminians may say that we believe in God’s sovereignty, but in actual fact we do not believe that God is able to dictate every detail of the universe. If God is not fully in control of everything, how can He be truly sovereign, and how can we trust that His promises and plans will come to pass?
In our first article, under the section “God’s Sovereignty and Human Free Will,” we have discussed the very different Arminian and Calvinist understandings of this subject. It will suffice to say here that Arminians believe God can dictate every detail of the universe including every choice we make, but He has made us moral creatures with the real ability to choose good and evil, to choose God or to reject Him. We have discussed in the above sections of this article how both sin and God’s grace have affected our ability to choose. Ultimately, our ability to choose or reject God is a God-given gift twice over – first in how God originally designed us to be, and second when by prevenient grace He enables us to receive His gift of salvation. God’s power enables all this, and thus His sovereignty is preserved.
The question remains, however, whether human choice can thwart God’s will. The Arminian answer to that is yes, but only with God’s permission and enabling, and only temporarily. It may seem shocking that a Christian would claim that human beings can defy God’s will, but if we think upon it, that is what sin is – human beings going against God’s will. Each rejection of God, each act done in hate, pride, envy, or self-love, all these things are acts that clash with what God desires. And yet, if we look at the story of the Scriptures, God is able to take into account human sinfulness to bring good out of it, and to work out His ultimate plan to defeat sin and restore all creation to Himself. We see this in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and the whole story of the nation of Israel. We see this at the cross in the death of Jesus at the hands of sinful men. Because God has triumphed at every point in spite of human rebellion, we can trust that He will be able to fulfil all that He has promised. In the meantime, we are called to pray as Jesus taught us, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Does The Possibility Of Falling Away Create A Life Of Fear?
As we covered in the second article in this series, most Arminians believe the Scriptures teach that it is possible to turn away from the faith and compromise one’s salvation. For those who hold to a “once saved always saved” view of salvation, the Arminian position appears to be frightening. What happens to assurance of salvation? How can one know that one will persevere to the end? Won’t such a teaching cause Christians to work to keep their salvation, rather than do good works out of thankfulness to God? And how can this belief be compatible with the peace, joy, and hope that Jesus promised?
The Scriptural basis for the possibility of falling away has been explored in more detail in the second article, under “Warnings against Falling Away.” Briefly, Scripture contains both promises that God can and will keep us, and warnings that we can choose to go astray if we choose to remove ourselves from our connection with Christ, and from under God’s promises and protection. Arminians contend that these two statements are not incompatible. We need not fear that we will accidentally lose our salvation, and we know that God works to protect us from the temptations of the world and to pursue us when we wander away. Yet, it remains possible for us to make a shipwreck of our faith (1 Timothy 1:18-20) by repeatedly and persistently rejecting God’s grace until we no longer desire God or His grace.
The possibility of turning away from God should be a sobering and difficult teaching. Just because a teaching has unpleasant implications does not make it incorrect. How though, is the Christian supposed to find peace while heeding this warning? Let us start by comparing human relationships. I (David Tan) have a good relationship with my father. I know him and trust him, and I have never worried that our relationship could be damaged beyond repair. I realise that it is possible that this could happen, but it would require one or both of us to change in ways that are inconceivable. Simply put, I enjoy our father-son relationship, and know that it is a constant I can rely on. If this is the assurance one can find in a human relationship, how much more it should be with God! Scripture compares the relationship between Christ and the Church to the relationship between husband and wife. We know that in the broken world we live in, there are many marriages that fail, and many more that fall far short of what they should be. Yet, when a marriage relationship is healthy, husband and wife can both recognize that their relationship can be wrecked, while knowing there is no reason that should ever take place. They need not live in fear or worry. This is all the more true for us as Christians, for it is God who is our partner, and He is faithful even when we are faithless (2 Timothy 2:13).
Why Can’t Arminians And Calvinists Find A Compromise?
When Arminians and Calvinists start debating, many Christians wonder why we can’t find some middle ground, affirm both human choice and God’s sovereignty, and move on. These arguments are often divisive, are never- ending, and seem irrelevant to many aspects of the Christian life. They would like us to find a compromise, establish unity, and focus on the work of preaching the good news of Jesus, and what he accomplished through His life, death, and resurrection.
Indeed, Arminians and Calvinists both need to recognize that we have a common cause – proclaiming Christ and His Kingdom – that is far more important than the theological differences we have. We have different understandings of how we are saved and how God’s sovereignty is expressed, but we preach the same gospel. We may disagree, dialogue, and debate, but we should not let this obscure the fact that we are co-workers for Christ. Too much inflammatory language has been used, with each side accusing the other of distorting, or even denying the gospel. Seeking the truth is important; but so is our testimony to the world around us in the way we treat one another.
Having said this, there are at least two reasons why this debate of four hundred years and counting will not just go away. First, these theologies have important implications for our understanding of God, of the role of prayer, for how we explain and respond to evil and suffering, and much more. These are not merely theoretical issues, but affect the lives of individuals, the shared language of church communities, and the practice of pastoral care. Second, Arminian and Calvinist theology agree on many points but are logically incompatible with each other. It is a gross oversimplification to say that Arminianism is about human choice and Calvinism is about God’s sovereignty. Both Arminianism and Calvinism affirm human choice and God’s sovereignty, but explain how these interact in different ways. One states that human beings can choose to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation while the other denies this. One holds that salvation is truly available to all while the other affirms that salvation is only for some. It is possible for both to be wrong or incomplete, but both cannot be correct – this would go beyond paradox into sheer logical contradiction.
A Call For Understanding
We have tackled here four common misconceptions about what Arminians believe, and a fifth question that many frustrated with this debate have. It is not just Calvinists who have these misconceptions! Many Arminians have questions about their own beliefs, and we hope that these four misconceptions will provide a starting point for answering these questions. For those who find themselves in dialogue or debate with Calvinists, we hope that this paper will help to clear up these misunderstandings – not to score debate points, but so that you can have an actual conversation instead of talking past each other. And, to Calvinists, we recognize that this is an important and contentious issue. Let us seek first to understand what the other side actually believes before we put forth our objections.
Even as we call for understanding and hope that we can overcome acrimony, we realise that actual agreement may well need to wait until Christ returns. Beyond civility and mutual understanding, we need to figure out how we will live and work with each other, both in our local churches and in the larger Christian community. We will offer some suggestions on this and other issues in the final article in this series.