BEN: Arminius seems to be clear on the possibility of both intellectual and moral apostasy by a believer. Can you unpack his views for us briefly? Does he take the malicious rejection of Christ or blasphemy of the Spirit by a former believer as the unpardonable sin?
KEITH: Some older interpretations have claimed that Arminius did not think it is possible for a true believer to fall from saving grace. This erroneous interpretation is partly based on an inaccurate English translation of his Declaration of Sentiments. In short, Arminius did believe that such apostasy is possible. If grace is a resistible gift before justification, then it remains resistible after justification. God’s salvation does not suddenly become irresistible after conversion.
He is also clear that apostasy is not a daily or frequent occurrence that happens with every sin. There are different degrees of sin based especially on their various motivations. Sins out of ignorance or weakness cannot separate the regenerate from God’s saving grace. However, sins motivated by malice for God’s law or for Christ himself reflect a lack of saving faith and result in the forfeiting of salvation. One who sins out of malice for the law (say, David or Peter) can be brought back to repentance. One who sins out of malice for Christ himself (say, Judas) cannot be restored. This latter case is what Arminius regards as the unforgivable sin.
BEN: In rejecting the once saved always saved theology (or the inevitable perseverance of the saints), how then does he view the issue of assurance of salvation? If assurance is not based on unconditional election by God, then what is its basis in Arminius’ view?
KEITH: It is common for Reformed Christians to accuse Arminians of having no assurance. Their assumption is that, without having what I call “irresistible perseverance,” there can be no real assurance for an Arminian, but instead a constant anxiety about whether one is in or out of God’s grace at the moment. The Reformed, as this account goes, have full assurance because the elect can never be lost.
So the real question, for both Reformed and Arminian, is this: How does a person know that God loves him? For the Reformed, it is ultimately inscrutable. Here is what makes assurance hard to come by for the Reformed: God simply does not love each and every person for the purpose of salvation. So how can one know that one belongs to the elect and not the reprobate? Even faith, as Calvin admitted, can be temporary and cause the reprobate temporarily to think himself elect.
For Arminius, assurance of salvation is based on the fact that God loves all people—that is, each individual—for the purpose of salvation. For the believer, there can be full assurance at the present moment, though there may be no guarantee of one’s personal response for the future. This is, by the way, how other relationships work. For example, a partner in a healthy, loving marriage need not be in constant anxiety about the present relationship simply because he doesn’t have an infallible guarantee about its future, or because he acknowledges the logical possibility of divorce.