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Arminianism is Evangelical Theology
Roger E. Olson
One of the most distressing criticisms of Arminian theology is that it is not evangelical. One does not have to read far into modern Calvinist literature to find this either implied or explicitly stated. One example is from influential Reformed theologian Michael Horton, editor of Modern Reformation magazine and one-time director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. The May/June, 1992 issue of Modern Reformation was dedicated to criticism of Arminianism. The issue’s title was simply “Arminianism.” The cover showed an imaginary ballot labeled “Important Election.” The question was “Will you be saved?” On the ballot God voted for the person and Satan voted against and at the bottom it declared “A TIE! Your vote must decide the issue” as if this illustrated Arminian theology. In fact, the imaginary ballot image was taken from a Southern Baptist evangelistic tract. The “tie-breaking vote” illustration originated with Southern Baptist preacher and theologian Herschel Hobbs.
Inside the special Arminianism issue of Modern Reformation various Reformed theologians blasted Arminianism as tantamount to the heresy of semi-Pelagianism. The best example of this misrepresentation and of the claim that Arminianism cannot be authentically evangelical is in Michael Horton’s article “Evangelical Arminians” subtitled “Torn between two systems, evangelical Christians must make a choice.” Near the end, Horton declares his thesis that “An evangelical cannot be an Arminian any more than an evangelical can be a Roman Catholic.” (p. 18) Why did Horton and why do many other Reformed critics of Arminianism exclude it from evangelical theology?
Horton’s reasons are representative of many other Reformed critics of Arminianism. I know this because I was invited to participate in a meeting of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals in Colorado Springs in 2001. I was their token Arminian brought in to explain why I think Arminian theology can be authentically evangelical. The discussions held over those two days revealed clearly that Horton’s article nicely sums up the main line of thinking about this matter among at least some Reformed theologians.
Horton defines “evangelical” as adherence to the Reformation tenets of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. (p. 15) He admits that before 1520, the year in which Luther was excommunicated and therefore the date of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, “evangelical” had a different meaning. It referred to anyone who had a sincere love for Christ and a zeal for missions. After 1520, however, Horton claims, “an evangelical was a person committed to the sufficiency of scripture, the priesthood of all believers, the total lostness of humans, the sole mediation of Christ, the gracious efficacy and finality of God’s redemptive work in Christ through election, propitiation, calling and keeping.” (p. 15) Ultimately, according to Horton, authentic evangelical faith does not exist without what he regards as the distinctive Reformation doctrines of simul justus et peccator—“simultaneously justified and sinful” and monergism—unconditional election and irresistible grace. He concludes “[h]istorically speaking, those who do not affirm those doctrines are, by virtue of the law of non-contradiction, not evangelicals.” (p. 16)
I would like to suggest that Horton has simply committed an error of thought and argument. He has defined a label in such a way as to exclude people he does not want in his camp or party. In other words, his claim that these doctrines are necessary to authentic evangelical faith since 1520 is a mere assertion; he cannot prove it or even support it except to say that he and his peers have always used the label this way. That others, such as Wesleyans and Anabaptists, have defined it differently is simply dismissed as irrelevant. In fact, one can peruse the major historical treatises about the history and theology of the evangelical movement and not find this strict limitation to all the Reformation principles to which Horton appeals. For example, David Bebbington and Mark Noll, two widely acknowledged experts on the history and character of the evangelical movement nowhere limit evangelical theology to Horton’s doctrinal hallmarks. Their InterVarsity Press series “A History of Evangelicalism” traces the movement back to the Great Awakening with Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers as its progenitors. Obviously, the Wesleys did not embrace all of Horton’s crucial doctrines. And neither have many evangelicals since the Great Awakening.
In his introductory article to the special Arminianism issue of Modern Reformation Horton equates Arminianism with the ancient heresy of semi-Pelagianism which places the initium fidei in the sinner rather than in God and his grace. (p. 4) And he says that for Arminianism man’s contribution to salvation becomes central. (p. 6) He writes that “Evangelicalism stands or falls with Calvinism” (p. 10) and he claims that Arminianism denies the Reformation belief that faith is a gift. (p. 16) Horton’s argument can be summed up by his assertion that monergism, belief that God alone saves without any cooperation by the person being saved, is necessary for authentic evangelicalism. (p. 17)
Horton and others like him reveal two things by these statements. First, they arbitrarily pre-define evangelicalism their way so as to exclude adherents of theologies they don’t like, and second, they clearly have not read Arminius or any true, classical Arminian thinkers. They may have read Charles Finney and misused him as a true representative of classical Arminianism and they may have read B. B. Warfield’s critical review of 19th century Methodist theologian John Miley’s Systematic Theology, but they cannot have read Arminius or Wesley or Fletcher or Watson or Pope or Summers or Wiley or Oden. If they had, they would know that classical Arminians all believe that salvation is all of grace and by faith alone.
Without accepting Horton’s narrow definition of evangelicalism, here I will demonstrate that Arminius, the touchstone of Arminian theology, and other, later Arminian theologians affirmed the core soteriological tenets of the Reformation. Whether one must affirm them to be authentically evangelical I’ll leave to others to decide. For my purposes here and now I will simply show that Arminius and his faithful followers of the past and present have always embraced salvation by grace alone through faith alone apart from works or merit on the part of the person being saved. This seems to be the central fear of critics such as Horton—that Arminianism somehow attributes merit to the human person being saved so that salvation is not a free gift of God’s grace alone acquired through faith alone. Of course, I cannot satisfy him or other Reformed critics insofar as they simply, arbitrarily insist that authentic evangelicalism must include belief in strict monergism. But I consider that claim historically inaccurate and unsupportable.
For me, following Bebbington and Noll and a host of other scholars of the evangelical movement such as Marsden, Carpenter, Stone, Collins, Bloesch, Balmer and McGrath, authentic evangelicalism necessarily includes a conversional soteriology that emphasizes salvation as regeneration as well as justification and rejects works as any foundation for it. Evangelicalism centers around the unconditional good news that anyone who throws himself or herself on the mercy of God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning death on the cross, leaving behind all claims to meritorious righteousness, is saved. This classical Arminianism teaches and it is therefore a form of evangelicalism.
Some critics accuse Arminianism of implicitly denying this soteriology. So I will begin my refutation with appeal to Arminius himself. Then I will proceed to the Remonstrants such as Simon Episcopius and Philip Limborch and then to John Wesley and his followers, the 19th century Methodist theologians mentioned above, and conclude with appeal to 20th century Arminian theologians such as H. Orton Wiley and Thomas Oden.
What did Jacob Arminius himself say about salvation? He went out of his way to affirm in every way possible its nature as sheer gift not dependent on good works or merits—except the merits of Christ. Giving the lie to claims that he was a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian, making salvation partly dependent on good works or on human initiative (e.g., by exercising a good will toward God apart from supernatural assisting grace), Arminius strongly affirmed that regeneration precedes anything good in man and that grace is the beginning and continuance of all good that a person has or does. In his “A Declaration of Sentiments” delivered to the Lords of the States of Holland less than one year before his death in 1609, Arminius said that
[i]n his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing, and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine grace. (The Works of James Arminius, Volume I, p. 659)
Shortly after that he added
I ascribe to grace the commencement, the continuance and the consummation of all good,–and to such an extent do I carry its influence, that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will nor do any good at all, nor resists any evil temptation, without this preventing and exciting, this following and co-operating grace,–From this statement it will clearly appear, that I am by no means injurious or unjust to grace, by attributing, as it is reported of me, too much to man’s free-will…. (Ibid., p. 664)
Immediately after that statement, Arminius went on to deny irresistible grace. This, he thought was the nub of the disagreement between him and Gomarus and the other Calvinists who were persecuting him. With them, however, he agreed entirely that salvation is all of grace and not at all based on any goodness or merit or even autonomous decision or choice of the person being saved.
Arminius’ affirmation that regeneration precedes even the first movement of the will toward God may surprise even many Arminians. It is usually thought that only Calvinists believe that regeneration precedes conversion. However, as later Arminians explain perhaps better than Arminius himself did, the regeneration of which the Dutch theologian here spoke is not complete regeneration but a partial regeneration in which the bondage of the will to sin is released so that the sinner can for the first time respond freely God’s offer of mercy in Jesus Christ. This is, of course, prevenient grace—an Arminian doctrine much neglected, misunderstood and sometimes maligned by Reformed critics of Arminianism. It is a, if not the, distinctive doctrine of Arminian theology that sets it apart from all forms of monergistic soteriology. For Arminius, at least, this prevenient grace of God, which is not merely common grace but supernatural grace, is not automatically salvific but it is essential to salvation. Without it, the fallen human person could never exercise a good will toward God.
In virtually every essay answering his critics, Arminius extolled the power and necessity of prevenient grace for salvation. In his “Letter Addressed to Hippolytus A Collibus” he wrote that
Free Will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without Grace That I might not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word “Grace,” I mean by it that which is the Grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration: I affirm, therefore, that this grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good: It is this grace which operates on the mind, the affections, and the will; which infuses good thoughts into the mind, inspires good desires into the affections, and bends the will to carry into execution good thoughts and good desires. This grace…goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and cooperates lest we will in vain. It averts temptions, assists and grants succour in the midst of temptations, sustains man against the flesh, the world and Satan, and in this great contest grants to man the enjoyment of the victory. It raises up again those who are conquered and have fallen, establishes and supplies them with new strength, and renders them more cautious. This grace commences salvation, promotes it, and perfects and consummates it. (Works, Volume II, p. 700)
A few sentences later Arminius wrote that “That teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to Divine Grace; provided he so pleads the cause of Grace, as not to inflict an injury on the Justice of God, and not to take away the free will to that which is evil.” (Ibid., pp. 700-701)
In other words, Arminius believed and taught that the source of all good is God and his grace; nothing spiritually worthy arises from the human person alone—not even the first inclination of the mind or heart toward God. God “bends the will” to the good but not irresistibly. And God does not take away the person’s freedom to resist God’s grace. In essence, then, what Arminius was saying is that the only thing the human person does in salvation is not resist the grace of God. Everything else is God’s work alone and human non-resistance to God’s grace can hardly be called a “work.” It certainly cannot be claimed as meritorious.
And yet, some critics will claim it is meritorious. A common saying among Reformed critics of Arminianism is that it makes the human decision not to resist the grace of God “the decisive factor in salvation” thus robbing salvation of its entirely gracious character. This, of course, is sheer folly. Suppose that critic gave a check for $1,000 to a student to save him from starvation and homelessness. Suppose then the student went around claiming that by endorsing the check and depositing it in his account he actually earned part of the money so that it was not a sheer gift. Suppose further that, when challenged, the student said “Well, I know of others who were offered money and didn’t accept it, so I must be better than them.” Who would consider the student anything other than a stupid, ungrateful wretch? Surely the Calvinist critic would so consider him. So why do Calvinist critics of Arminianism continue to claim that the sheer decision to not resist the grace of God makes God’s salvation something less than a gift? It boggles the mind.
In order to put to rest any notion that he denied the sheer graciousness of salvation or somehow fell short of the fullness of Reformation belief in justification by grace alone through faith alone, Arminius adamantly denied any merits in human persons and affirmed even faith as a gift. He also affirmed justification as the imputation of righteousness on the basis of faith alone as merely the instrumental and not effectual cause of justification. In other words, he affirmed everything the critics demand except their version of monergism—unconditional election and irresistible grace.
With regard to merits and the means of the blessings of salvation Arminius wrote that “God destines these means to no persons on account of or according to their own merits, but through mere grace alone: And he denies them to no one except justly on account of previous transgressions.” (Works, Volume II, p. 395) With regard to justification he expressed full agreement with the Reformed and Protestant churches’ doctrines saying “I am not conscious to myself, of having taught or entertained any other sentiment concerning the justification of man before God, than those which are held unanimously by the Reformed and Protestant Churches, and which are in complete agreement with their expressed opinions.” (Works, Volume II, p. 695) Lest anyone doubt, Arminius laid out his doctrine of justification clearly and unequivocally: “I believe that sinners are accounted righteous solely by the obedience of Christ; and that the righteousness of Christ is the only meritorious cause on account of which God pardons the sins of believers and reckons them as righteous as if they had perfectly fulfilled the law.” (Ibid., p. 700) What about faith? Arminius had a motto that he frequently stated and that was quoted by most of his followers, especially the 19th century Methodist Arminian theologians: “To a man who believes Faith is imputed for righteousness through grace.” (Ibid.) To those who questioned then or question now his meaning he wrote of Calvin’s doctrine of justification as imputed righteousness by faith alone that “[m]y opinion is not so widely different from his as to prevent me from employing the signature of my own hand in subscribing to those things which he has delivered on this subject, in the Third Book of his Institutes; this I am prepared to do at any time, and to give them my full approval.” (Ibid.)
Some critics, such as Horton, have accused Arminius and his followers of turning faith into a good work and teaching by this motto, “faith imputed for righteousness,” that faith is a substitute for righteousness. Nothing could be further from Arminius’ meaning and that is demonstrated clearly by the context quoted above. Clearly, for Arminius, faith is no substitute for righteousness; it is merely the instrumental means or “proximate cause” of obtaining the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is the “meritorious cause of justification” and that which is imputed to the repentant sinner on account of his or her faith. (Works, Volume II, pp. 701-701) Furthermore, Arminius argued that faith is a gift of God as well as an act of the believer; his teaching is a classical example of “both/and” thinking in theology. Call it a paradox, if you will, but clearly Arminius held faith to be both a gift and a human act. What he wanted to avoid by calling it a gift is any hint that it is a good work that merits salvation; what he wanted to avoid by calling it an act of the believer is any hint that the God-human relationship is an impersonal or mechanical one. So, on the one hand, according to Arminius, “Faith is the requirement of God, and the act of the believer when he answers the requirement.” (Ibid., pp. 49-50) On the other hand, “Faith is the gift of God, which is conferred on those only whom He hath chosen to this—that they may hear the word of God, and be made partakers of the Holy Spirit.” (Ibid., p. 67)
Normally people think that only Calvinists teach that faith is a gift of God; allegedly all others including Catholics and Arminians, believe faith is a work of man that partially merits salvation. This is simply false; Arminius, at least, believed faith to be both a gift of God and an act of man in response to prevenient grace. How can this paradox be relieved? Is it a sheer contradiction? I think not. What Arminius meant is that God offers saving faith to a sinner under the influence of prevenient grace and the sinner, under that influence, allows himself to receive the gift. The reception of the gift is also called “faith.” But it is properly the empty receiving of the gift of faith which is confidence in God’s grace through the cross of Christ to the exclusion of one’s own righteousness. At the moment a person receives that gift of faith by the act of faith he or she receives the imputation of righteousness. The righteousness imputed is Christ’s. (Ibid., p. 701) So, when Arminius says that “faith is imputed for righteousness” he is not making a work out of faith; he is simply saying that faith is the condition of the imputation of righteousness. But we must understand that for Arminius even the condition is supplied by God. All the person being saved does is freely receive it which is an act that can also properly be called “faith.” The “faith that saves,” however, is a gift of God passively received.
What about good works? Did Arminius leave out good works entirely? Was he an antinomian as some accused Calvinists of being? Naturally, he did not want to emphasize good works because he was wrongly accused of making them a condition of salvation. However, he often mentioned good works as a necessary concomitant of faith. For example, in his “Letter Addressed to Hypollitus A Collibus” he stated that “Faith, and faith only, (although there is no faith alone without good works,) is imputed for righteousness.” In other words, with Luther Arminius affirmed that true faith is always accompanied by good works, but good works are not part of faith or a condition of justification.
I think that Arminius’ true soteriology would come as quite a shock to many people—both Reformed critics and uninformed Arminians. It is thoroughly evangelical in the sense of attributing all of salvation entirely to God and his grace and requiring nothing of the human person except empty, passive reception of the gifts of grace. And it is thoroughly Protestant in the sense of viewing justification as the gracious imputation of Christ’s righteousness on account of faith alone. Whether Arminius would affirm the simul justus et peccator is open to debate, but I think he would.
In 1621 Arminius’ main disciple Simon Episcopius wrote a document called “Confession or Declaration of the Remonstrant Pastors” which is commonly known as “The Arminian Confession of 1621.” Interestingly, the self-proclaimed “Calvinist pastor of a Reformed baptistic church” who edited and translated the Confession for new publication in the Princeton Theological Monograph Series in 2005 writes in the Introduction that “[i]f one allows history to define labels, neither Arminius nor the Remonstrants were semi-Pelagian.” (The Arminian Confession of 1621 [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005], p. vi) What do we find in this early Remonstrant Confession about grace and faith? Echoing Arminius, the Confession says
We think therefore that the grace of God is the beginning, progress and completion of all good, so that not even a regenerate man himself can, without this preceding or preventing, exciting, following and cooperating grace, think, will, or finish any good thing to be saved, much less resist any attractions and temptations to evil. Thus faith, conversion, and all good works, and all godly and saving actions which are able to be thought, are to be ascribed solidly to the grace of God in Christ as their principal and primary cause. (Ibid., p. 108)
What about faith? Is it a work that merits salvation as critics of Arminianism say? Hardly. According to the Confession, “Man…does not have saving faith from himself, nor is he regenerated or converted by the powers of his own free will, seeing that in the state of sin he cannot of himself or by himself either think or will or do anything that is good enough to be saved.” (Ibid., p. 107) The Confession goes on to say, with Arminius, that the sinner must first be regenerated by God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit before he or she can even will anything that is savingly good. (Ibid., pp. 107-108)
What about justification? Does it require any good works? Or is it wholly and exclusively by grace alone through faith alone? Here is what the Confession says:
Justification is a merciful, gracious and indeed full remission of all guilt before God to truly repenting and believing sinners, through and because of Jesus Christ, apprehended by true faith, indeed, even more, [it is] the liberal and bountiful imputation of faith for righteousness. For indeed in the judgment of God we cannot obtain to it except by the pure grace of God and only by faith in Jesus Christ…without any merit of our own works. (Ibid., p. 111)
What more do critics of Arminianism want? Well, I supposed they want a clear and unequivocal affirmation of monergistic grace, but the evangel only requires this—the confession that salvation is a gift and not of works lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9) The Arminian Confession goes so far as to say, with Arminius, that faith is a gift and that regeneration must precede conversion and that justification is without merit a pure imputation of righteousness on account of faith alone.
A case can be made that Arminianism began to take a wrong path with Episcopius’s disciple and nephew Philip Limborch whose system of theology minimized human depravity and downplayed the supernatural aspect of prevenient grace. What actually happened, however, was not that Arminianism took a wrong path but that it split into two paths—what theologian Alan P. F. Sell calls “Arminianism of the head” and “Arminianism of the heart.” Limborch and his late Remonstrant followers headed toward rationalism and deism; John Wesley and his followers preserved the true spirit of evangelical Arminianism. Nevertheless, even Limborch affirmed that God, not man, is the primary cause of both repentance and faith even though the person being saved must “concur” with the divine operation of grace. (A Complete System, or, Body of Divinity, trans., William Jones [London: John Darby, 1713], p. 531) Of justification Limborch wrote that “[i]t denotes a declaration of righteousness, that is, absolving a man from guilt, and treating him as one that is righteous.” (Ibid., p. 835) Also, in justification, “[a] man is esteemed by God as righteous upon account of his faith.” (Ibid., p. 836) Finally, Limborch’s full definition of justification is as follows: “[j]ustification is the merciful and gracious act of God, whereby he fully absolves from all guilt the truly penitent and believing soul, through and for the sake of Christ apprehended by a true faith, or gratuitously remits sins upon account of faith in Jesus Christ, and graciously imputes that faith for righteousness.” (Ibid., p. 836) Limborch’s description of the synergism of salvation was not as subtle or paradoxical as Arminius’s and that is where he begins to get into trouble as an evangelical. In some places he emphasized the human side of the synergism calling faith an “act of obedience” and he denied that the righteousness imputed to the believer is Christ’s. (Ibid., pp. 838 and 837 respectively) Nevertheless, he clearly rejected any idea of human merit in faith and taught that salvation is a free gift of grace received by faith alone.
John Wesley was a true Arminian in spite of what some Calvinists claim. One notable Reformed theologian has called him a “confused Calvinist”—probably because of his strong belief in human depravity apart from supernatural grace and because of his strong emphasis on grace. Wesley himself said many times that his theology was “on the very edge of Calvinism” or a “hair’s breadth from Calvinism.” In his book John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) Thomas Oden quotes from Wesley’s “Minutes of 1745:” “Q[uestion] 23. Wherein may we come to the very edge of Calvinism? A[nswer] (1.) In ascribing all good to the free grace of God. (2.) In denying all natural free will, and all power antecedent to grace. And (3.) In excluding all merit from man, even for what he has or does by the grace of God.” (p. 253) His Arminianism was evident, however, in his strong rejection of unconditional election and irresistible grace—see his sermons “Predestination Calmly Considered” and “Free Grace”—and in his affirmation of synergism in salvation. What did he mean by synergism—a dirty word to Calvinists? Wesley explicitly rejected semi-Pelagianist synergism and defined his synergism this way (as paraphrased by Oden): “By synergism we do not imply that fallen freedom retains a natural capacity to reach out and take the initiative and establish a restored relationship with God. Rather by synergism we mean that human freedom by grace is being enabled to cooperative interactively with God’s saving plan. It is the coworking by grace of human willing with the divine willing.” (Ibid., p. 269) This is what I call “evangelical synergism” as opposed to semi-Pelagian or Roman Catholic synergism.
Some Calvinist critics accuse Wesley of attributing a part of salvation to human effort in a way that attributes it to human merit rather than solely to grace. This is Horton’s treatment (or one should say “mistreatment”) of Wesley in his article “Evangelical Arminians.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Hear Wesley on salvation:
[i]t is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in any wise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver; not on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions; for all these flow from the free grace of God. (“Free Grace” in The Works of John Wesley, Volume 3, ed., Albert Outler (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1986, p. 545)
Also, Wesley wrote that “Whatever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it.” (Ibid.) What more can anyone ask of an evangelical theologian? Contrary to what Horton and other critics imply, Wesley attributed everything in salvation to God alone.
What about justification and faith? Wesley preached two sermons entitled “Salvation by Faith” and “Justification by Faith” in which he delivered as strong an account of justification by grace alone through faith alone as possible. In the former sermon he even declared all good works “unholy and sinful.” (John Wesley: The Best from All His Works, abridged and edited by Stephen Rost [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1989], p. 91) Of course, he meant good works insofar as they are compared with Christ’s righteousness and viewed as a cause of salvation, which they are not and cannot be. In the same sermon Wesley declared that “[n]one can trust in the merits of Christ till he has utterly renounced his own.” (Ibid., p. 99) He also preached that in salvation God does all so that he “leaveth us nothing whereof to glory.” (Ibid., p. 98)
So what is justification according to Wesley? Here he departed somewhat from Arminius and other Arminians in asserting that justification is not an imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner which Wesley considered a legal fiction and therefore unworthy of God. He defined justification as “[p]ardon, the forgiveness of sins.” (Ibid., p. 182) However, he clearly distinguished it from sanctification: “[i]t is not the being made actually just and righteous. This is sanctification….” (Ibid., p. 181) So, for Wesley, justification is not forensically imputed righteousness, but neither is it, as in Roman Catholic theology, being made righteous inwardly. It is the total and complete forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ and his atoning death on account of faith alone. Wesley preached that
Faith…is the necessary condition of justification. Yea, and the only necessary condition thereof. … [t]he very moment God giveth faith (for it is the gift of God) to the ‘ungodly’ that ‘worketh not,’ that ‘faith is counted to him for righteousness.’ He hath no righteousness at all antecedent to this, not so much as negative righteousness, or innocence. But ‘faith is imputed to him for righteousness’ the very moment that he believeth. Not that God…thinketh him to be what he is not. But as ‘he made Christ to be sin for us,’ that is, treated him as a sinner, punishing him for our sins; so he counteth us righteous from the time we believe in him. That is, he doth not punish us for our sins, yea, treats us as though we were guiltless and righteous. (Ibid., p. 188)
How are we to interpret this? Wesley sounds confused. I suggest that what he is saying is that the righteousness we have in justification on account of faith only and by God’s grace alone is not Christ’s righteousness imputed to us but God’s considering us as if we were righteous. That is, in justification God treats us as if we were righteous while knowing we are not. Wesley was apparently afraid that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us would lead inevitably to antinomianism. Admittedly, Reformed folks will never be satisfied with this, but the point is that Wesley affirmed the forgiveness of sins in which we are accounted righteous by God to be wholly and exclusively a gift. Even faith, he said, is a gift of God and not a meritorious work. I think Wesley could have affirmed the doctrine of imputed righteousness, even the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, if he had not been so nervous about antinomianism and if he had not been afraid of implying that God deceives himself about what we actually are. Neither of these things is necessarily attached to the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness.
What about the 19th century Arminian Methodist theologians—Wesley’s main interpreters and the main conveyors of evangelical Arminianism in that century? Were they evangelical in their soteriology? That is, did they remain faithful to the great Reformation truth of sola gratia et fides? I believe they did. They consistently rejected salvation by works and human merit as having any role in salvation. Their version of the gospel of Jesus Christ was genuinely good news—that God loves all people, wants all to be saved, has freely provided salvation for everyone and requires nothing but faith for salvation.
One of the earliest and most influential 19th century Arminian theologians was Richard Watson whose Theological Institutes was published in 1851. Another was William Burton Pope who wrote A Compendium of Christian Theology and who died in 1903. Another was Thomas O. Summers, author of Systematic Theology: A Complete Body of Wesleyan Arminian Divinity published in 1888. Finally, there was John Miley who wrote Systematic Theology in 1893. Together these four represent the cream of the Arminian crop between Wesley and the 20th century. They largely handed on the Arminian faith to the 20th century. Rather than treat them one-by-one I would like to select quotes from some of them on the crucial subjects of evangelical soteriology. They largely agree on these matters; their differences are minor. One area of disagreement among them is the atonement; some of them believed in the penal substitution theory, with Wesley himself, and some of them believed in the governmental theory with Arminius’ follower Hugo Grotius. On the major soteriological doctrines, however, they were largely agreed.
First, then, the necessity of supernatural grace for anything spiritually good in the human person including even a first inclination toward God. Watson: “It is not denied, that the will, in its purely natural state, and independent of all grace communicated to man through Christ, can incline only to evil.” (Institutes, Volume II, p. 438) According to him, even repentance is a gift of God; sinful men are not capable of repentance. (Ibid., p. 99) Watson emphasized that even repentance does not save; only the death of Christ saves and restores the lost relationship with God. (Ibid., p. 102) Finally, Watson writes that “[s]acred is the doctrine to be held, that no person can repent or truly believe except under the influence of the Spirit of God; and that we have no ground for boasting in ourselves, but that all the glory of our salvation, commenced and consummated, is to be given to God alone, as the result of the freeness and riches of his grace.” (Ibid., p. 447)
William Burton Pope declared in his Compendium the “inability of man to do what is good” apart from renewing grace. (Volume II, pp. 65, 67) Also, “The natural man …is without the power even to co-operate with Divine influence. The co-operation with grace is of grace. Thus it keeps itself for ever safe from Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.” (p. 80) With regard to grace, Pope wrote that “It is the sole, efficient cause of all spiritual good in man: of the beginning, continuance, and consummation of religion in the human soul. The manifestation of Divine influence which precedes the full regenerate life receives no special name in Scripture; but it is so described as to warrant the designation usually given it of Prevenient Grace.” (p. 359) Also, “[t]he salvation of man is altogether of grace” (p. 361) and “The Grace of God and the human will are co-operant, but not on equal terms. Grace has the pre-eminence….” (p. 364)
What about Thomas O. Summers? He strongly defended the doctrine of inherited total depravity firmly rejecting Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. According to him, “Apart from grace the will is bad, because the man’s nature is so bad that of himself he cannot choose that which is right.” (Systematic Theology, Volume I, pp. 64-65) Also, “It is impossible for a man in this [natural] state to will and to do works pleasant and acceptable to God.” (Ibid., p. 68) Finally, he affirmed that “[n]oone can repent or believe without the aid of God’s grace….” (Ibid., p. 120)
Our final 19th century witness to Arminianism’s emphasis on the priority of grace is John Miley who said of man’s “native depravity” “This is a state of alienage from the true spiritual life, and utterly without fitness for a state of holy blessedness. Nor have we any power of self-redemption.” (Systematic Theology, p. 529) Miley argued that the power of choice in spiritual matters is a “gracious endowment” and not a natural capacity and that moral regeneration is entirely a work of the divine Spirit. (Ibid., p. 305) Only with the help of the Holy Spirit can a person choose to accept God’s mercy.
What about justification and faith? Did the 19th century Arminians believe, like Arminius and Wesley before them, that justification is entirely a work of grace through faith without meritorious works? Did they believe righteousness is imputed and not imparted or infused? Richard Watson affirmed that “Justification by faith alone is…clearly the doctrine of the Scriptures.” (Theological Institutes, Volume II, p. 246) He also affirmed faith as the sole condition for justification to the exclusion of virtue or good works (Ibid., p. 253) and taught that sanctification cannot be a formal cause of justification (Ibid., p. 251). As for imputation of righteousness, Watson claimed the motto “the imputation of faith for righteousness” and explained it thus: “The Scriptural doctrine is…that the death of Christ is accepted in the place of our personal punishment, on condition of our faith in him; and, that when faith in him is actually exerted, then comes in, on the part of God, the act of imputing, or reckoning righteousness to us.” (Ibid., p. 242)
William Burton Pope wrote that “[j]ustification is declaratory and altogether of grace.” (Compendium, Volume II, p. 411) and faith is its sole instrumental cause while Christ’s obedience is its sole meritorious cause. The Holy Spirit is justification’s sole efficient cause. (Ibid., p. 414) About justification he said: “Justification is the Divine judicial act which applies to the sinner, believing in Christ, the benefit of the Atonement, delivering him from condemnation of his sin, introducing him into a state of favour, and treating him as a righteous person. … [i]t is the imputed character of justification which regulates the New Testament use of the word.” (Ibid., p. 407)
Thomas Summers unequivocally affirmed justification by grace through faith alone as well as justification’s declaratory nature and the imputed nature of righteousness. “In justification we are accounted , accepted—dealt with—as if we were righteous, just as pardoned culprits, who are not by their pardon made innocent, are dealt with as if they were not criminals.” (Systematic Theology, Volume I, p. 121)
John Miley also affirmed justification by grace through faith alone: “The imputation of faith for righteousness is…easily understood. It means simply that faith is accepted [by God] as the condition of justification or the remission of sin, whereby the believing sinner is set right with God.” (Systematic Theology, Volume I, p. 320) He taught that faith as trust is the only condition of justification (Ibid., p. 323) and that justification requires no interior moral change (Ibid., p. 312). According to him, justification is at once complete the moment the believing sinner exercises faith in Christ—it sets him right with God as if he had never sinned. (Ibid., p. 313)
I could go on and offer similar quotations and arguments from 20th century Arminians such as H. Orton Wiley, the leading 20th century Nazarene theologian, and Thomas Oden, a contemporary evangelical Methodist theologian. Time and space prevent it. Suffice it to say, however, that both teach unequivocally that salvation is a sheer gift of God’s grace given apart from any human merit, received by faith alone resulting in the imputation of righteousness.
So what more do Reformed critics of Arminianism want? First, they want affirmation of monergistic grace—something they require not because it is clearly taught in Scripture but because they think it is logically necessary for salvation sola gratia et fides. Of course, it isn’t. Second, they want affirmation of justification as the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience to the sinner. Arminians have been reluctant to offer that because it is not specifically taught in Scripture and because it could easily result in antinomianism. Finally, Calvinists want a clear and unequivocal affirmation of the simul justus et peccator—something many Arminians are reluctant to offer because it implies a static salvation that ignores the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in sanctification. Arminians affirm everything necessary for a fully evangelical soteriology; Calvinists require more. Why? One wonders if it is because they are over reacting to the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation that includes salvation by means of human merit and confuses justification with sanctification? I suspect that is the case. But it is always wrong to over react and the Calvinist over reaction of strict monergism suffers a fate as bad or worse than its opposite. It makes salvation a mechanical process in which those being saved are puppets rather than free partners in a relationship.