An Arminian (?) Sermon Illustration

An Arminian (?) Sermon Illustration July 25, 2012

A Great Sermon Illustration (and a Question)

In 1689 the city of Windsor, England was in an uproar. The city fathers had commissioned famed architect Sir Christopher Wren, designer of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, to design a new town hall. The building was complete as desired with one exception.

The city fathers wanted their meeting rooms above a “corn market”—an open space for farmers and others to display and sell their products. But when they inspected the new building they were dismayed. Wren had used a new technique for supporting the floor/ceiling below the meeting space and above the corn market that required no pillars (except, of course, at the edges). To the city fathers and others, it seemed obvious that the ceiling of the corn market would soon fall under their weight as they met above it.

The city fathers insisted that Wren add four pillars in the middle of the corn market to support the floor of their meeting room above. Wren refused; the added pillars would destroy the beauty of the building. He adamantly insisted that his design would work; the ceiling of the corn market was in no danger of collapsing. The city fathers were more adamant; the pillars must be added. Wren reluctantly agreed and everyone watched over the next few months as his workmen created the required four pillars. (You can see the town hall, also known as the Guild Hall, at google images. Some pictures focus on the added pillars as they have become a tourist attraction over the years.)

Some years after the building’s celebrated dedication the corn market ceiling needed re-painting. As workmen built their scaffolds they noticed something strange. Wren’s pillars did not touch the ceiling. The space between their tops and the ceiling was so small as not to be noticeable without close inspection. The ceiling had long stood without support except in the city fathers’ imaginations. Wren was dead by the time this was discovered. The city fathers then added material to fill in the gaps “just in case.”

Like Wren’s deceptive pillars, our good works, intended to shore up our salvation (justification) and/or our favor with God in Christian living (sanctification) are at best psychological spiritual crutches. We are often so uncomfortable with the gospel of free grace that we demand our spiritual leaders give us something to add to God’s grace to support our sense of worth in God’s sight. Or our spiritual leaders are so uncomfortable promoting the gospel of free grace they add “grace boosters” we must perform to win and keep God’s favor. But, in fact, as beautiful as they may be, all such good works fall short and, in fact, detract from the beauty of the unsupported grace, the free gift of God’s favor in the cross of Jesus Christ. “For by grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves….”

Question (not part of the illustration or sermon): How is this consistent with Arminian theology? Can an Arminian use this illustration without falling into contradiction with his or her soteriology? I leave it to you, my faithful readers, to answer (more than “yes” or “no,” please).

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  • Hans Deventer

    I would not use the illustration. The whole thing about “works” is not about their merit, it is about the fact that given time and opportunity, faith needs to be expressed in works in order for faith to be faith. Otherwise, James 2 applies. I generally don’t like the word “faith”, I much prefer “trust”.

  • John Mark

    I’m no theologian, but I will rush in where angels fear to tread. My understanding of Arminian (from a Wesleyan point of view, in my case) theology is that salvation is experienced as we *cooperate* with grace. So I would think that though we are called to good works, and in fact are required to ‘prove’ our faith alive by our good works, they are not salvific. Our works, even though encouraged-or you can argue required- in scripture do not save us; thus in soteriological terms they are no more than an illusion if we think we are ‘propping up the ceiling’ by what we do–saving ourselves, that is. I stand ready to be corrected by minds that are brighter than mine :).

  • icthusiast

    Yes and No!! 🙂

    Yes, insofar as it is intended to illustrate the fact that works do not add to the efficacy of grace in salvation.
    No, insofar as it implies that works are an ugly addition to the design. Good works are part and parcel of the original design, demonstrating the efficacy of grace and bringing glory to God.

  • Mike Anderson

    This illustration reminds me of Paul’s argument in Romans chapter 3: we are all guilty before God and can’t be reconciled with Him except by the grace of God through Christ Jesus. Our works do not make us right with God, and as the illustration reminds us, we can easily be deceived into thinking they do, a Law-oriented religion that doesn’t need Christ’s sacrifice to reach God and which leads to death. This much is sound and Biblical, but there is much in the explanation to the illustration that I think is contrary to an Arminian perspective.

    I’m wondering what the author considers to be sanctification? Has he considered that it involves good works of some sort, though not to find favor with God? Has he considered the many times brothers in Christ were exhorted to continue in good works, for example Php 2:13, 1 Tim 5:25, 1 Tim 6:18, Tit 2:7, Tit 3:8, Heb 10:24, and much of the book of James? I can imagine this author calling James one of the spiritual leaders who is pushing “grace boosters” by suggesting faith without works is dead. In Christ we can do all manner of good works like a branch attached to the vine, and those who are not producing good works indicate they may not be attached. Sanctification is the process of yielding to the Spirit in becoming more Christ-like, not finding favor with God in Christian living.

    It also bothers me that the author does not explore the meaning of faith. Salvation isn’t free without qualification; it’s free to those who are believing. This involves action on our part just as Abraham acted on faith to leave his homeland, to stay there waiting for God’s promises, and to obey God in sacrificing Isaac. The children of Israel in the wilderness needed to act on faith by crossing the Jordan and possessing the land, and it was the faithless who stayed put, doing nothing. This does not make sense outside an Arminian view of the reality, which affirms our ability to accept or reject God’s plans for us.

  • I believe an Arminian can use this as an illustration of salvation by grace. The work having been already done by Christ, we then and all humankind, having been invited by Christ, must go into it and enjoy the benefits. However from the time of the Galatian Christians until now, insecurity and unbelief ( and being bewitched by evil spirits ) has caused many to turn from grace to works in order to obtain salvation and caused us to build our own pillars of good works.

  • I’d be disinclined to use the illustration, built as it is upon a static image of salvation. IF salvation is something static like a “well designed building that won’t collapse” and good works are “pillars that APPEAR to be involved making the structure stable,” then sure, it might work. But in such a model the works do nothing at all but make us feel good. When I read the Bible I see (a) our works do not contribute to making us “saved,” and (b) still have an important role to play as an expression/outgrowth of our salvation. In this model, “salvation” – yes I speak loosely (and popularly) – is dynamic, a living relationship with God, not just a status. In the dynamic model if we are not doing those things called “good works” the point is not that we’re “not saved” but that we’re missing out on part of what salvation is about.

  • Bev Mitchell

    It is odd that the more we emphasize “it’s all of God” the more we seem to need those extra pillars – the great paradox of the Reformation one might call it. It’s scary putting all one’s eggs in a single basket isn’t it – in fact,  good protestants would never counsel you to do such a thing under any circumstances. This little egg metaphor is right up there with “cleanliness is next to godliness.” How many other similar sayings are there out there in popular protestant parlance that may have arisen from a perhaps unconscious attempt to hedge our bets? It would be interesting to have a collection of them.

    Resting in Christ just seems so………..un-protestant, doesn’t it. Of course resting and following simultaneously takes such a long time even to do marginally well. It is always comforting to me to think of God not only as a loving and patient Father but also having a supernatural sense of humour. He really must have a great collection of jokes and funny stories. I hope some protestant faces don’t do themselves damage should he decide to relate one or two. I’ll quit now before I go too far.

    You have posed great questions and I have not really answered directly. I’m looking forward to what others have to say.

    P.S. But a little voice is telling me to send this link along about First Self-Righteous Church in Pascagoula. If you remember this blast from the past, wait ’till you see the video! I’m sure I’ll have to do extra penance, or make a trip to the alter for posting this.  🙂

  • Ben

    No, emphatically and categorically no to using this illustration in an Arminian context. For starters, a building/construction is not analogical to a relationship. Secondly, grace is the Person of the Holy Spirit, not some kind of abstract wave or force. Lastly, it is precisely illustrations like these that perpetuate mechanistic either/or conceptions of salvation. Moreover, that God is too mute to let us know our works are useless dummy pillars is wrong on two levels: His ability to communicate and the Scriptural evidence that we are judged on those dummy pillars.
    I think the better way to go with this illustration is found in the relationship between Wren and the city fathers. However, the fact Wren lied and acted deceptively cannot be analogous to how God deals with us– even in His accommodations. The “I’ll let them believe x, but x doesn’t actually do isn’t actually what they think” smacks of deception, like a shyster doctor selling snake oil.
    There is something else that is fundamentally amiss with this illustration. That something is the antimony between the city fathers and Wren. God is not at odds with us. He has nothing to gain by pulling a gotcha card on the other side of judgment: “ha ha your pillars didn’t even touch, gotcha!” Perhaps to change the illustration a bit. Wren builds obviously temporary supports all the way to the top. He then takes the city fathers on a tour and has them see how well supported it is and one by one takes the temporary support until they see how unnecessary the temporary supports are. This seems to be more in line with the whole of revelation and is far less deceptive.

    • it seems unreasonable to require that the illustration must be analogous to a relationship with god.

      the illustration need not be perfect. no metaphor in the bible covers all angles – to do so would be a futile attempt (or if not, require an unreasonable amount of time to construct a metaphor/illustration that covers all angles)

      an illustration is just that: an illustration. the context decides which angle the message should be viewed from.

      i think this illustration can be used either way, whether your calvinist or arminian. both believe in salvation by grace through faith alone, they just arrive at it in different ways (which is too deep to address here)

  • Besides Arminius Works, and your books, what other books would you recommend as good books for reference on Arminian Theology? Thanks

    • rogereolson

      Go to the web site of the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA) at There you’ll find tons of stuff including lists of good books by Arminians and about Armninianism. In my opinion, the best single volume exposition of Arminian theology is Thomas Oden, The Transforming Power of Grace.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Dr. Olson: One of your responders said: “Salvation isn’t free without qualification; it’s free to those who are believing. This involves action on our part just as Abraham acted on faith to leave his homeland, to stay there waiting for God’s promises, and to obey God in sacrificing Isaac.”

    Now let us consider the implications of the above statement. First, it suggests that God would never have conferred salvation upon Abraham UNLESS he ‘did something’ to earn it, i.e., “leave his homeland.” Second, the responder suggests that Abraham would not have been saved UNLESS he “obeyed God in sacrificing Isaac.” May I suggest that this kind of thinking is the result of faulty theology as embraced by too many (most!) Christians. Notice that according to scripture, Abraham was embraced by the Covenant BEFORE he ever left home. God’s covenant promise was conferred upon Abraham while he was still in his own homeland and surrounded by his family members. Although he was told to leave home, there is no indication that his salvation was conditioned upon him packing his bags and leaving. Later, he did leave the Promised Land for Egypt, but didn’t lose his covenant relationship with God for not being where he had been instructed to go.

    Finally, it is simply not true that Abraham’s covenant relationship was dependent upon condition that he “obey God in sacrificing Isaac.” In fact, Abraham DID NOT sacrifice Isaac! “God will provide himself with a sacrifice.” He can save us without our helping hand; hank you very much!

    • Mike Anderson

      I would not say that Abraham earned his salvation by leaving his homeland. Actually, I don’t think “salvation” is really in view at all through Abraham’s faithful obedience, rather it is a picture of faith. If Abraham has said “No, I don’t believe You” to any of God’s plans, would he at that point have lost his salvation? God is slow to anger, giving us many opportunities to say “yes” to Him, and I can’t judge how much rejection God allows before He honors that choice, but I figure it’s a lot!

      I’ll try to make my original point using a different illustration. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure a man found and hid in a field, and with joy sells everything he has to buy the field. Did the man earn the treasure? No! But he acted to secure it for himself. Faith is always followed by action. If the man did not act to buy the field, he would have to rationalize it by saying to himself, “Maybe I dreamed or hallucinated about the treasure, or maybe it is gold plated rather than solid gold.” He wouldn’t act because he wouldn’t believe he had really found treasure.

      • Dr. Olson

        Wow. I’m responding a whole year after you wrote this. The parable of the pearl (Matt 13) is not about us sinners. We have nothing with which to pay for the gospel. How could we sell all and pay for anything?
        This is a parable about Jesus Who left His home to seek sinners. He sold everything that He had to buy us for God.
        The pearl is not a tough diamond. It is formed by a living organism. When sand invades the oyster, it secrets liquid until the sand is covered. Sin is the foreign object that invaded humanity. Christ is the merchant Who made us pure by giving His all for His church.
        There is nothing in this parable about human merit. It is all about the matchless grace lavished upon us freely through Jesus.

  • Well, since Jesus didn’t hesitate to compare God to the self-serving judge who the woman had to hound, in order to encourage our boldness with him, knowing that not every point would correlate to God’s ways with us, I’m not apt to throw this word picture out on its ear. I think it’s memorable and useful for expressing how only grace ultimately saves us, although I agree with the protests that it could make works seem like a useless detraction that is wholly separate from, not organic to, salvation working in us, etc. This is where theological discourse and an assemblage of analogies that show other sides of the picture are useful.

  • Craig Wright

    It seems to me that after all these years of Protestant upbringing with an emphasis on a separation of faith and works, that looking again at Paul’s concern in Galatians and Romans, he is more concerned with falling back into the Torah requirements. He specifically mentions circumcision. The letter to the Galatians is so revolutionary. Where did Paul get that idea of not requiring Torah? It is not in the Gospels. Jesus never seemed to teach it. I’m curious.
    Any how, the whole thrust of the NT seems to be a blend of faith and good works.

    • rogereolson

      But the key question, of course, is what constitutes that “blend?” What has priority in terms of being the foundation for our salvation–grace/faith or good works? Ephesians 2 seems to settle that question clearly.

  • Bob G

    I think it’s a great illustration of one aspect of salvation. Our salvation is entirely of God, unsupported by anything we do. Any further analysis extends the metaphor too far.

    Subsequent sanctification needs another, separate illustration. But I like this one! Thank you.

    • rogereolson

      You understood my intention perfectly. Thank you!

  • John Wilks

    Niether an Arminian nor a Calvinist may use the illustration because even for the Calvinist, good works in the life of a believer are exactly that- good.

    Both a Calvinist and an Arminian agree that we are saved by what Jesus has done, not what we do. Both Calvinists and Arminians agree that even the ability to do good works is also due to God’s grace. Only a Palegian would say that our effort saves us- and Arminians are not Palegian or semi-Palegian no matter how loudly Calvinists may say so.

    Forgive any typos above as I am posting from my phone.

  • Steve Dal

    The more I look at it the more I have come to the point where I believe that God has opened the way in Christ and that this is His ‘grace’ toward us. The mystery of the attration of an individual to this message is just that, a mystery. I now have the conviction that nobody can really articulate the salvation process adequately nor does anyone really understand it even scritpurally. Hence the differences and indeed the reason this blog even exists. I have no doubt of course God is intimately involved in the process in terms of someone deciding to follow Christ but I also believe that it is possible to walk away from what would have been the path to salvation as the Galatians did due to the work of Judaisers in their midst and other references to this in for instance, Hebrews. Arminius attempted some kind of explanation as did Calvin etc but really there are lingering problems and assumptions as I believe for instance, prevenient grace is. I don’t believe in eternal security as describedby Calvinists nor predeterminsim nor prevenient grace as Arminians might say. I think TULIPS is a very poor attempt and suffers from lingering difficulties. We stumble on. As we ‘draw near to God’ (the practice of righteous acts ie love oyur neighbour as you love yourself) God sheds light into your life and you begin to ‘see’. This to me is the excitement of it all and in the end the essence of salvation.

  • Patrick Hare

    I think to answer this question adequately, we need a clear understanding of what salvation means. (As well as an agreed upon definition of what we mean by works) For too long in American evangelicalism, salvation has been equated with going to heaven when we de. This negates the significance of our life here on earth and seems to ignore God’s purposes for creating the earth in the first place. I see salvation as right relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, and with the planet God has entrusted us with. A life lived in right relationships in these areas will be a life filled with good works. A life filled with evil works can hardly be described as a life that has experienced God’s salvation. Likewise, a life that involves no work – sloth, self-preservation with no thought for the needs of others – can hardly be described as a life that has experienced salvation either. What are we saved from? What are we saved to? What does salvation look like?
    So, with respect to the analogy, a life in need of salvation would be a life without the pillars at the edge. Faith is filling the second floor of the building with people, trusting in the outer pillars to support us. I’m sure we could think of many “pious religious activities” done for their own sake rather than the sake of others that might correlate to the unnecessary center pillars. But it is a misunderstanding of what we have been saved from and saved to to suggest that a life in right relationship with God and others will not bear the fruit of good works.

    • rogereolson

      Did I suggest that? I don’t think so.

      • Patrick Hare

        Roger – No, you certainly didn’t say that. But it seems to be a logical corollary of the metaphor – that somehow works are an optional icing on the cake to salvation, rather than being an integral part of it. The metaphor likens works to a completely superfluous support system. The architect was right to argue that they shouldn’t have been there and that they are completely unnecessary. At least that’s how the metaphor reads to me. Whereas I think that a life transformed by faith will be characterized by works – a faith that didn’t exhibit works wouldn’t support the second floor.
        Thanks for your excellent posts – I’m blessed and challenged by your insights.

    • Steve Dal

      No. I think we are BEING saved. This I believe is a major part of the problem. People who believe they are saved end up in all sorts of silly persuits. So you are transiting between saved from on the way to saved to. This is Pauline.

  • Quartermaster

    Personally, from the POV of works not being salvific, the illustration is a good one. The aspect that James speaks of in James 2, however, is important,
    “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me
    thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.”

    We are also told that we shall be judged according to our works (Matt 16:27, Rev 2:23, Rev 20:12-13). Our works are an outworking of what is inside.

    • rogereolson

      Granted. But the illustration is only about works as necessary (causally) for salvation.

  • R.C.

    No theologian, but I’ll answer as best as I can:

    We are not Gnostics. A Gnostic believes that the physical world is either bad or irrelevant, and that that which is spiritual is either all-good or the only important thing.

    A Gnostic might argue that a man could have faith, could trust in God, and could love God as purely psychological events and sentiments without ever giving evidence of this externally.

    But a Christian ought not. A Christian who believes in Jesus Christ, who puts all his trust in Jesus Christ for his salvation, and who loves Jesus Christ not in a sentimental way but as an act of the will is necessarily going to believe, trust, and love with his heart, soul, mind, and strength. He will exhibit faith, hope, and love with the firing of his neurons AND the clenching of his muscles. He will believe with his mind and his body, trust with his mind and his body, love God with his mind and his body.

    A Christian will do this because he does not, like the Gnostics, hold that a man is a soul which incidentally happens to inhabit a body. Were that the case, the soul only would matter and the body would be irrelevant. But Christians trust that God meant it when He created us as physical beings, male and female, and saw that it was very good.

    The body and the soul are both the whole man, and a soul separated from its body is a sad and incomplete thing. This is why Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb: He surely knew Lazarus was in Heaven, but that doesn’t mean bodily death is any less of a calamity. We weren’t meant to have body and soul separated that way. We were not created for death. We are not pure-spirit beings like angels; we are human. This is why we don’t just believe in Heaven but in the bodily Resurrection of the Dead. And it is also why it was natural for James to say that faith without works is “dead” and that Abraham was justified by his works. Why so, James? Because Abraham could earn justification before God? No, but because had Abraham’s actions were exhibitions of trusting God; had he not acted as he did, it could only have been because he (body and soul, the whole Abraham) did not trust God, in which case there would have been no justification.

    Anyone who believes God is all-knowing, all-good, and desires your best and loves you, has no logical reason not to act accordingly. But he who knowingly and unrepentantly acts disobediently out of mistrust obviously isn’t convinced of something…perhaps he’s not convinced of God’s all goodness, or perhaps he doubts God’s all-knowingness, or that God loves him. But these are all vital to the Christian conception of God. You can believe in your heart and confess with your mouth and act through your deeds all you like…but if your deeds indicate that the God in whom you believe isn’t all-good, or isn’t all-knowing, or doesn’t love you, then he isn’t the Christian God.

    So I would say that our works are a kind of faith, just as our faith is a kind of works. (“This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” John 6:29) We discipline our bodies and examine our own actions because by doing so, we learn just what it is we actually believe, and in whom we trust (or don’t trust), and whom we love (or don’t love). And if we’re believing the heresy of a God whose laws can’t be trusted to be just and for our betterment, we need not merely to correct our works, but our faith, so that the whole man may come to faith, put his trust in God, be filled with God’s love, and be saved.

    Returning to the analogy of the pillars: The analogy is one in which the Architect has already done all the supportive work his way, and the pillars do no work at all.

    What seems missing to me from this analogy is that Christ’s work is all-sufficient, and our works apart from Christ are nothing…but when we are in Christ, and the Holy Spirit leads us to the good works for which we “were created” and which He “has prepared for us beforehand,” those works aren’t apart from Christ, but works done in Christ, by Christ. We are incorporated into Christ. We become members of His body: Our sufferings are His, which is why He accused Saul on the road to Damascus not of persecuting “his followers” but of persecuting Him. Jesus’ body is Jesus. (Jesus also is not a Gnostic.)

    So in the Wren analogy, the sheer separateness of the pillars from what’s doing the work seems to me unscriptural. If Wren as the Architect were to act like God, he’d have taken those pillars and melded them into the whole design in a fashion which (a.) the pillars by themselves couldn’t have done, and (b.) nevertheless made the pillars part of the whole supportive structure. The result would be that the pillars did do work, in the end…but none that they’d have known how to do on their own, or been able to do if they hadn’t been incorporated by the architect into his unexpected design. They would have been unexpectedly re-appropriated to do the architect’s work.

    Anyhow, if you ask me, the Wren illustration with the fake pillars is much more representative of 1 Cor 3:11-15 or maybe Matthew 7:15-23. In the former a person builds, but not on the foundation which is Christ, and his work is burned up and without value: A pillar that does no work, supports nothing, just gets in the way. In the latter people say “Lord, Lord” but they weren’t apparently “in” Christ after all, they weren’t “in” the true Vine. He says “depart from me you evildoers.”

    Of course we know that apostles are called “pillars” of the church and the believers are “living stones.” So an architectural analogy is entirely in accord with the Scriptural tradition. But in that tradition, a stone that isn’t actually part of the building but is pretending to be? Which was never intended by the Architect but was put there by people with other plans? I think Jesus and the apostles would have used that analogy only for the tares amongst the wheat.

    To sum up: The illustration would work better if these pillars were able to choose to the Architect using them or not. Some of them would allow the Architect to use them as He wished…and the Architect would take them away from their fakery and put them to use as a part of His design somewhere else. The others would not. They would remain mere fakes, appearing to do good while actually doing nothing; appearing to support the structure when in fact being irrelevant to it or even taking up space within it.

    That’s my answer.

    • rogereolson

      See my later posted sermon on “Grace Works.” Then interpret the pillars illustration in its context.