What Are Weaknesses of Arminianism Doctrine?
Arminianism vs Calvinism
The study of the history of doctrinal controversies seems to indicate that heretical movements usually begin as the result of the overstatement of a case in opposition to another system. The biblical theologian would do well to learn this lesson and be careful not to go beyond biblical revelation in the affirmation of doctrinal truth. Also, he should recognize the tendency of many to think only in extremes of dialectics. Therefore, when one states opposition of Calvinism, he tends to be labeled “Arminian” or “Pelagian” or sometimes “Semi-Pelagian.” In the minds of those who so label, these words all refer to the same doctrinal system known popularly as Arminianism. It is difficult for some to realize that one can seek a consistent biblical balance in his theology and in so doing oppose the extremes of both Calvinism and Arminianism. As Mullins notes:
“The sense of proportion in the emphasis upon truth may be easily lost in our admiration for the harmony and beauty of a systematic arrangement. A simple doctrine or conception, such as the sovereignty of God, or election, or human freedom may be given a dominating position and all other truths modified to make them conform. Theological controversy may lead to one-sided systems. Thus Calvinism and Arminianism have sometimes taken on extreme forms and have led to unfortunate results.”
Arminianism is that theological system originated by Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), while he taught at the University of Leyden in South Holland. Arminius was later condemned by the Council of Dort for his perceived teaching of a modified form of Pelagianism. While Arminianism and Calvinism today stand as two opposing theological systems, it has been suggested this is due primarily to the extremes of their respective followers more than the essential teachings of their founding teachers. Actually, there is a substantial agreement in the basics or fundamentals of the faith in the teachings of Arminius and Calvin. Perhaps the best-known American teachers in England were John Wesley and John Fletcher. In America this doctrinal system was popularized by such men as Francis Asbury and Charles Grandison Finney. Most holiness and Pentecostal denominations tend to be Arminian in theology; however, only a few Baptist groups are so identified.
Perhaps no man has had a greater influence for God during his life and in the ensuing years than John Wesley. Also, God has used many holiness evangelists to do a great work in winning souls, establishing churches and schools, and sending out missionaries. While the author praises God for what has been accomplished by these men, he also recognizes that orthodoxy is not always determined by one’s ministerial successes. Also, God has greatly used many Calvinists who have opposed many of the fundamental tenets of Arminianism. In the determination of the theological orthodoxy of any Bible teacher, it is best to follow the Berean example and evaluate their teaching in the light of Scripture (Acts 17:11). When this is done, there are several reasons why I must also decline the label “Arminian.”
Denial of Original Sin
One of the major problems with Arminianism is its view of sin. Since they differ in their definition of sin, it is only natural they would view differently the work of Christ on Calvary, the sanctification of the believer (how to live above sin) and the security of the believer (the consequence of those who fall into sin). There is a tendency among Arminians to deny or so define original sin as to practically deny its existence. According to Hodge, Arminians “usually deny the imputation of the guilt of Adam’s first sin.” Summarizing the teaching of Arminius on this doctrine, Strong notes,
According to this theory, all men, as a divinely appointed sequence of Adam’s transgression, are naturally destitute of original righteousness, and are exposed to misery and death. By virtue of the infirmity propagated from Adam to all his descendants, mankind is wholly unable without divine help perfectly to obey God or to attain eternal life. This inability, however, is physical and intellectual, but not voluntary. As a matter of justice, therefore, God bestows upon each individual from the first dawn of consciousness a special influence of the Holy Spirit, which is sufficient to counteract the effect of the inherited depravity and to make obedience possible, provided the human will cooperate, which it still has power to do. The evil tendency and state may be called sin; but they do not in themselves involve guilt or punishment; still less are mankind accounted guilty of Adam’s sin. God imputes to each man his inborn tendencies to evil, only when he consciously and voluntarily appropriates and ratifies these in spite of the power to the contrary which, in justice to man, God has specially communicated.
While Arminians usually employ the correct vocabulary and speak of original sin, they have in practice so redefined original sin as to deny the biblical teaching concerning the imputation of Adam’s sin upon the race which he heads (Rom. 5:12). While the Bible teaches sin is imputed to all men and all men are born with a sin nature (experiential), according to Arminius, a man becomes a sinner only when he consciously and voluntarily sins, thus appropriating the sin nature of Adam. Thus sin tends to be volitional only, not omission, nor a center for lust within the person. As a result, there is some divergence of opinion concerning the motive in God’s bestowal of ability to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. As Hodge observes,
We may add that Wesley made the bestowal upon our depraved nature of ability to cooperate with God to be a matter of grace, while Arminius regarded it as a matter of Justice, man without it not being accountable.
Limited Definition of Sin
A second problem with Arminianism is the tendency to redefine sin in such narrow limits as to deny all sin except “voluntary transgression.” As noted elsewhere in this book, several Hebrew and Greek terms are used to identify sin or particular sins or classes of sins. To use any of these terms as an exclusive definition of all sin is to ignore or repudiate the wider biblical teaching. Yet this appears to be the practice of some Arminians. John Wesley once wrote in a letter:
“Nothing is sin, strictly speaking, but a voluntary transgression of a known law of God. Therefore every voluntary breach in the law of love is sin; and nothing else, if we speak properly. To strain the matter farther is only to make way for Calvinism. There may be ten thousand wandering thoughts and forgetful intervals without any breach of love, though not without transgressing the Adamic law. But Calvinists would fain confound these together.”
Apparently, in his opposition to extreme Calvinism, Wesley made the mistake of overstating an opposing case. While the voluntary transgression of the known law of God is sin, a biblical definition of sin includes far more. Perhaps his view of sin was a necessary part of his apologetic for his view of perfectionism. For if a person believed that sin was “every voluntary breach in the law of love,” then it would be possible to attain perfection. On the other hand, if a person believed he had a sinful nature and he could never fulfill the perfect standard of Jesus Christ (he omitted divine perfection in his life), he could never believe in or gain perfection in this life.
View of the Completed Work of Christ
The meaning of the sixth cry from the cross, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), is practically questioned by Arminian theologians. Paul defines the work of Christ on the cross in terms of a reconciliation of God and man (2 Cor. 5:19) and concludes that nothing can separate the reconciled from the love of God which makes that reconciliation possible (Rom. 8:38-39). In contrast, toward the end of his life, Wesley concluded, “Two things are certain: the one, that it is possible to lose even the pure love of God; the other, that it is not necessary.”
One of the implications of the denial of the security of the believer is a redefinition of the completed work of Christ. The giving of eternal life was in the teaching of Christ a guarantee against condemnation or perishing (Jn. 3:16; 5:24; 10:28). In His high priestly prayer, Jesus identified the giving of eternal life as a part of His work which was completed (Jn. 17:12). Since God has completed His work and since the believer has life that is eternal, how could God abdicate a completed agreement and take away salvation? Christ used the anthropomorphism of “the Father’s hand” to emphasize the secure position of each and every believer, emphasizing they could not be removed from that place (Jn. 10:29). It is clear that the provision of salvation by Christ on the cross implied–at least in the mind of Christ–the security of the believer.
The idea that Christ would save and then allow a convert to lose what he did not merit nor achieve in repentance, causes one to question not only His work, but also His character. This is particularly so in light of such things as the sin unto death, which was apparently committed by some in the New Testament Church (cf. 1 Cor. 11:30). As one Calvinist has observed:
“Let our opponents inform us why it is that in regard to those who become true Christians, but who as they allege, fall away, God does not take them out of the world while they are in the saved state. Surely they will not have the perversity to say that it was because He could not or because He did not foresee their future apostasy . . . There is scarcely an error more absurd than that which supposes that a sovereign God would permit His children to defeat His love and fall away.”
Method of Retaining Salvation
Again Arminians appear to conflict with the clear teaching of Scripture when they make some work on their part necessary to retain their salvation. Paul questioned the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). While in the context of his epistle, Paul assumes a negative answer, the Arminian answer is apparently, yes. If it is possible for an individual to somehow fall away from grace, it therefore stands that the same individual – if he does not fall away – must be somehow at least in part responsible for the retention of his salvation. By definition, therefore, salvation ceases to be a free gift (Eph. 2:8). While the author knows of no Arminian so bold as to teach a salvation by works doctrine, this is implied by the idea that apostasy is possible for the believer.
It should be noted that there is a divergence of opinion as to what causes one to lose his salvation. E. B. Pusey, one of the Oxford Tractarians, suggested:
“The six sins which are accounted of old to be forerunners of the sin against the Holy Ghost are: presumption of God’s mercy, obstinacy in sin, impenitence, despair of salvation, impugning known truth, and envy at another’s grace.”
In his testimony concerning his various experiences of attaining perfection, John Fletcher seems to suggest an unwillingness to confess publicly that a particular blessing of God could result in some degree of apostasy. On August 24, 1781, Fletcher gave the following testimony in a Methodist Society in Leeds”
“I received this blessing four or five times before; but I lost it, by not observing the order of God . . . When I first received this grace, Satan bade me wait awhile, till I saw more of the fruits: I resolved to do so; but I soon began to doubt of the witness, which, before, I had felt in my heart; and, in a little time, I was sensible I had lost both. A second time, after receiving this salvation, I was kept from being a witness for my Lord, by the suggestion, Thou art a public character – the eyes of all are upon thee – and if, as before, by any means thou lose the blessing, it will be a dishonor to the doctrine of heart-holiness. I held my peace, and again forfeited the gift of God. At another time, I was prevailed upon to hide it, by reasoning, How few, even of the children of God, will receive this testimony. . . .”
The doctrine of the security of the believer is sometimes opposed by those who use hypothetical cases involving horrendous crimes such as murder, rape, or child molesting. Fletcher, who was fifty one when giving the above testimony would never have been suspected of any such acts. His reputation was, in fact, widely known as a man of piety and holiness. The implication of his testimony and Pusey’s argument suggest a view where salvation can be lost for what most Christians might consider hardly worthy to be called sin at all.
Confusion of Salvation and Sanctification
The idea of perfection and the corresponding view of sanctification as a post conversion experience, characteristic of Arminianism, tends to confuse the biblical teaching of salvation and sanctification. This experience is known under various terms, including the second blessing, the second work of grace, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, fullness of the Holy Spirit, eradication, perfection, or salvation from sin and sanctification. As these various terms are used by holiness writers to describe the same experience, it is difficult to identify a single writer who represents the variations. In an attempt to summarize this tenet of Arminianism, A. A. Hodge observes:
“It is possible for and obligatory upon all men in this life to attain to evangelical perfection – which is explained as being perfectly sincere – as being animated by perfect love – and a doing all that is required of us under the gospel dispensation.”
The doctrine of sanctification is discussed elsewhere in this study, and the holiness doctrine of perfection is more closely examined there. The point of interest here is the use of expressions of salvation to identify this apparently post conversion experience. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is one of several things happening to the believer at the moment of conversion, and is nonexperimental. This is more a question of semantics. Holiness writers speak of experiencing the love of God in this second blessing, yet Paul suggests that it is the result of justification (Rom. 5:5). Contemporary charismatic and Pentecostal writers speak of “receiving the Holy Spirit,” yet again, this is a part of the Pauline doctrine of the conversion experience (Rom. 8:9-14).
View of Regeneration
In the history of doctrine, various theological concepts have been redefined in different ages. Beyond a doubt, the great contribution of John Wesley to the field of systematic theology was his refinement of the doctrine of regeneration. In one sense, every evangelical and fundamentalist Christian is indebted to Wesley in this area. Alexander Hodge observes that the Arminian denial of eternal security challenges the biblical doctrine of regeneration.
It is an inseparable part of the Arminian system, flowing necessarily from their views of election, of the design and effect of Christ’s death, and of sufficient grace and free will, that those who were once justified and regenerated may, by neglecting grace and grieving the Holy Spirit, fall into such sins as are inconsistent with true justifying faith, and continuing and dying in the same, may consequently finally fall into perdition.
The very nature of regeneration denies this possibility. Regeneration is a work of God, therefore no man has the ability to change his nature, nor its fundamental existence. Creating new life was the prerogative of God. Since God created the new nature and gave it eternal life, only God can eradicate its existence. Man’s actions cannot erase it. As Boettner says:
“The nature of the change which occurs in regeneration is a sufficient guarantee that the life imparted shall be permanent. Regeneration is a radical and supernatural change of the inner nature, through which the soul is made spiritually alive, and the new life which is implanted is immortal. And since it is a change in the inner nature, it is in a sphere in which man does not have control. No creature is at liberty to change the fundamental principles of its nature, for that is the prerogative of God as Creator. Hence, nothing short of another act of God could reverse this change and cause the new life to be lost. The born again Christian can no more lose his sonship to the Heavenly Father than an earthly son can lose his sonship to an earthly father.”
Union With Christ
The security of the believer is to a large extent due to the unique union of the believer with Christ. Arminians tend to define this union as “A merely moral union, or union of love and sympathy, like that between teacher and scholar, friend and friend.” Rather, the Bible seems to teach an organic union where believers are “in Christ” and “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Because of the indissoluble nature of this bond between the believer and his Lord, this union implies eternal security as Strong observes:
“Once formed, the union is indissoluble. Many of the ties of earth are rudely broken, – not so with our union with Christ, – that endures forever. Since there is now an unchangeable and divine element in us, our salvation depends no longer upon our unstable wills, but upon Christ’s purpose and power.”
The Nature of Grace
The word “grace” as used in Scripture is unlike any other theme. It includes the limitless goodness and kindness that God shows to sinners. Sinners did not deserve God’s benefits. As a matter of fact, they deserved the opposite, damnation and eternal punishment. In grace, (1) God dispelled every charge against a sinner, and (2) God dismissed every human responsibility to Himself. Grace is more than love for the sinner. It is absolutely free merit bestowed on the sinner. God has dealt with all sin. Grace means all the sinner has to do is to receive it.
Not only is the sinner saved by grace (Eph. 2:8-9), but also, “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand,” (Rom. 5:2). To stand in grace is to recognize that the sinner stands perfect (his position or standing before God) while he is still a sinner on earth (his state or place on earth). Since human ability did not gain a standing before God, human ability cannot maintain such a standing either.
The continued exercise of divine grace toward a Christian is the only basis for his salvation and eternal security. Grace recognizes he did nothing to get it and can do nothing to continue it. The Arminian believes the sinner is saved by grace, but his continued salvation is dependent on his endurance in that salvation, which is conditioned on human merit or works. However, many Arminians who have been saved, have been kept from the moment of their salvation, not because they remained good, but because unmerited grace is given to everyone who is saved by grace. The grace of God anticipated the sin of Christians (1 John 1:7), and took care of their sin, but God was never willing to encourage or condemn their sin. He demanded confession (1 John 1:9), taught a perfect standard (1 John 1:8-10), and rebuked those who broke the standard (1 John 2:3 12).
As noted before, God has seen fit to use many who hold to an Arminian system of theology. He has also used many Calvinists in the same way. According to the doctrine of blessability, God will bless a man’s faith and faithfulness even if he may be off on minor doctrinal points. If we would be biblical in our view of soteriology, we will necessarily oppose the extremes of both Calvinism and Arminianism. The biblical teaching on this doctrine lies outside these two systems. As Mullins correctly notes,
Now the New Testament avoids the pantheistic tendency of extreme Calvinism and the deistic tendency of extreme Arminianism. The New Testament teaching and Christian experience are completely one in keeping the divine and human aspects properly related to each other. In both, there is a clear recognition of God’s initiative. The shepherd seeks the lost sheep. This is Jesus’ declaration. The saved man knows he is found, laid hold of, apprehended by Christ. . . . Again, the lost is not merely found; he is more than a sheep. He is a prodigal in a far country who must repent. So the New Testament teaches.
See Elmer L. Towns, Theology for Today (2001) for complete listings of cited material.