Follow up to previous post about a sermon illustration: Arminianism, salvation and good works (response to C. Gordon Olson)

Follow up to previous post about a sermon illustration: Arminianism, salvation and good works (response to C. Gordon Olson) July 26, 2012

If you didn’t read my previous post about a sermon illustration and Arminianism, please go back and read that before reading this.

I asked for feedback about the sermon illustration (Christopher Wren’s “deceptive pillars”) because I keep running into people who think that Arminianism includes good works as necessary for salvation.

Here’s just one of many examples I could cite. In his massive book Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: An Inductive Mediate Theology of Salvation (Global Gospel Publications, 2002) C. Gordon Olson (no relation) says “there is a tendency in both camps [viz., Calvinism and Arminianism] to intrude human performance into the ultimate salvation of the believer.” (p. 294)

Now, I’m sure Calvinists will complain loudly about that and rightly they should. But this kind of statement is more often made about Arminianism–especially by Calvinists. (Olson claims to be neither even though his own theology of salvation is very close to if not identical with basic Arminianism.)

During conversations with detractors of Arminianism (and even with some Arminians who don’t know they are) I frequently run into the claim that, deep down, in spite of denials, Arminianism bases salvation on what Olson calls “human performance”–some kind of good works.

As I have made clear numerous times and in every way possible, I adamantly deny it. Rather, from a classical Arminian perspective, as I have demonstrated in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, salvation is all and entirely a gift of grace even if we must receive it freely.

Olson’s claim is that Arminianism bases salvation at least partly on human performance because it denies the eternal security of the born again believer. (p. 295) First, not all Arminians deny the eternal salvation of the born again believer. Arminius did not and the Remonstrance did not. Second, it seems to me Olson is equating “Arminianism” with what most people who call themselves Arminian believe. That’s a nominalist approach to determining a category. I prefer a more realist approach that defines a theological category by what the person it is named after taught. (Thus, one does not determine what “Calvinism” is by taking a poll among self-identified Calvinists. One looks back to Calvin for the essence of Calvinism which is why many Reformed theologians prefer to call themselves “Reformed”–a much more flexible category than Calvinism.)

Second, denial of the eternal security of the believer, common among Wesleyans, Pentecostals and Free Will Baptists (among others) does not necessarily imply good works or “human performance” as necessary for salvation. Most theologically informed Wesleyans, Pentecostals and Free Will Baptists will say that a truly born again person can only “lose” his or her salvation by intentional rejection of the grace of God and not by neglect of good works.

Here is how Olson defines “eternal security”: “Whoever once truly trusts Christ’s finished sacrifice and resurrection for eternal life and is born again can never be lost, no matter what work (or lack of work) may accompany that faith.” (p. 295) This is a classical definition of what is historically-theologically termed “inamissable grace.” It also seems to describe the opposite of “Lordship salvation” (a la John Macarthur). I think it is “Lordship salvation” Olson believes ultimately leads to a kind of works salvation among some Calvinists. The question many would put to him, in light of his definition of eternal security and embrace of it is how it avoids antinomianism.

Classical Arminianism, including Wesleyanism, most emphatically does not include human performance IN THE SENSE OF ANYTHING MERITORIOUS as necessary for ultimate salvation. Both Arminius and Wesley went out of their ways to emphasize that. Salvation is all of God’s free grace even if that free grace must be freely received and not rejected. If it is the case that a person can “lose” his or her salvation (as some Arminians affirm) it is only by consciously, willfully rejecting God’s grace. Admittedly, for Wesley and many Arminians, that can happen in a process that looks like mere neglect, but, in fact, from God’s perspective, the only one that sees the heart and what is really going on there, it is not neglect but willful rejection.

I think the illustration of Wren’s deceptive pillars (comparing them to good works intended to contribute to or shore up salvation) is thoroughly Arminian–as much as Calvinist or Lutheran or any other Protestant theology. We Arminians do not believe our good works are supports for salvation but evidences of salvation only. They are products of God’s saving grace in our lives and not meritorious contributions to salvation.

Now, obviously, given some of the responses (which I invited, so I’m not blaming or shaming anyone), the illustration is not a complete one for describing salvation. It only serves one purpose–to compare good works intended to contribute to salvation to deceptive pillars. One person objected that the illustration is static and impersonal whereas salvation is a relationship. Sure, but no analogy does everything.

As for Olson and his “mediate theology of salvation:” On pages 33-47 (with summary on page 46), Olson lays out its several main points and they are all completely consistent with classical Arminianism. The only one some Arminians would disagree with is “True believers are eternally secure in Christ” (p. 42) and even then all informed Arminians would agree with the qualification “so long as they continue in faith and do not reject grace.” What’s interesting to me is that Calvinists would argue that Olson himself opens the door to salvation by works with one of his points: “It is man who is responsible to exercise repentant faith, not God to give it.” (p. 39) Of course, I agree with Olson and gladly include him among Arminians even if he doesn’t want to be one. He might not be one, but his theology is Arminian whether he recognizes it or not.

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