So what have we covered so far in this discussion of Arminian soteriology? God loves everyone in the whole world and has given his Son as an atonement for all of us, although the benefits of the atonement only accrue to those who believe. But humanity is a fallen and spiritually dead race; totally depraved and unable to understand, acknowledge, or make any move towards accepting the benefits of the atonement. So, since we are unable to make the first move toward God, he takes the initiative, enabling us to respond to his offer of salvation. And the key to this is grace.
What is grace, specifically God’s grace? Thomas Oden, in the book The Transforming Power of Grace, defines grace as “the favor shown by God to sinners. It is the divine goodwill offered to those who neither inherently deserve nor can ever hope to earn it. It is the divine disposition to work in our hearts, wills, and actions, so as actively to communicate God’s self-giving love for humanity.”1 Grace is not an entity or other object. It is a defining characteristic of God’s relationship with us. It is only because of God’s grace, his favorable disposition towards us, that we are able to submit to God as well as to live for him.
God’s grace, or favor, impacts our lives in a number of different ways. God’s grace enables us to believe. It enables us to be saved. It enables us to live holy and godly lives. It enables us to serve within his church. While some talk about different types of grace, as I will here, in reality they are all simply different ways that God’s grace is working in our lives, not different kinds of grace. God’s grace enables us to be what we could never be on our own.
Prevenient grace is the term Arminians use to describe the grace of God that enables us to believe. Prevenient means ‘comes before’, or the grace of God that comes to us before we have believed. This grace of God makes it possible for us to submit to God’s call in our lives. It is by the prevenient grace of God that faith is possible. Apart from this gracious action on God’s part I would be unable to turn to him.
In Romans 10:20 Paul quotes from Isaiah where God says “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” Clearly it is not due to man’s efforts that we are able to find God. We might seek, but on our own we will not find God. He is found by those who do not seek him and revealed to those who did not ask. God initiates the contact. Apart from his initiation, we are helpless. This is prevenient grace.
In John 6:44 Jesus says that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.” And he expresses the same thought shortly after in John 6:64 when he says “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” God’s drawing of people to Christ is a result of his grace toward us and is what the Arminian means by the term prevenient grace. Apart from God’s drawing or enabling, we are incapable of coming to Christ. This is in contrast to semi-pelagianism that teaches that I make the initial step towards God, and then God takes over and does all the rest. But I cannot make the initial step. Only after God has enabled me am I able to respond positively to his invitation.
But who is drawn? Does God only draw those who are foreordained, or does he draw everyone? In John 12:32 Jesus says “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” One of the consequences of Jesus crucifixion is that he would draw all people, to himself. Jesus is not drawing just those who have been foreordained, or from all types of people; he is drawing everyone in the world. But is the drawing of the Father different that the drawing of the Son? Since they are the same God it would seem reasonable that those that the Father draws are the same as those that the Son draws.
How does this drawing occur? In John 16:8-11 Jesus says of the Holy Spirit that “When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.” The Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin, of our lack of righteous, and awareness of the judgement to come because of our sin. That is something that in our natural depraved state we would be unable to experience. Conviction of sin and the coming judgement is not done just to torment us. But the Holy Spirit, at the same time he brings conviction, also enables us to respond.
John’s gospel makes clear that all three persons of the Trinity are involved in drawing or enabling us. God loves the whole world (John 3:16) and is not willing that any should perish (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). God knows we are incapable by ourselves, so he does what is needed to enable us to be saved.
Is Grace Resistible?
Calvinist and Arminian alike agree that humanity is depraved and salvation is only possible through God’s gracious work on our behalf. Where they differ though is in the resistibility of God’s grace. The Calvinist will argue that if God’s grace draws you to God, that you cannot resist it; what they call irresistible grace. The Arminian, on the other hand, believes that God’s gracious work on our behalf is resistible, we can choose not to submit to God and to continue in our sinful and fallen state. We can resist God, not because we are stronger than him, but because he allows us to.
The difference here really follows from the differing views of predestination. If God foreordained who would be saved, then it logically follows that we could not resist his invitation to salvation. And in reality it is not an invitation; it is a summons that we are unable to ignore. But if, on the other hand, God wants all to be saved, and foreknows those who will believe, then it makes sense that his grace would be given to all to enable the possibility of belief.
So what does the Scripture say about this; is God’s grace resistible? One of the most telling passages comes from Acts 7:51 when Stephen is confronting the Jewish religious leaders. He tells them ““You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” Clearly the Jewish people had been able to resist the Holy Spirit’s intentions for the nation. Throughout the history of Israel we see God calling the people, and the people nearly as often resisting him. If God’s will, his gracious invitation to us, was not resistible, the Old Testament would read quite differently.
In Matthew 24:1-14 Jesus tells the parable of the wedding banquet. In this parable there are a number of people invited to the banquet; in fact, everyone was ultimately invited. But not everyone was able to enjoy the banquet; many resisted the summons and refused to come, or came in an inappropriate fashion. At the conclusion of the parable Jesus says that “many are invited, but few are chosen.” This parable would clearly seem to teach that more are invited into the kingdom than actually make it. God’s invitation to salvation is resistible.
Some will argue that if God’s grace is resistible, it is somehow diminished, that it is not as powerful. And that would be true if God was attempting to force his will on us. But if God is wanting to allow us to make a choice, then his grace must be resistible; not because it is weak, but because he chooses to make it so. Indeed, in the Arminian view, God’s grace is magnified because it reaches out to all people rather than being limited in scope to only a few.
Is Prevenient Grace Always Available?
Another way of wording this question is “am I able to accept Christ at any time, or are there times when God’s grace is not enabling me to respond.” Arminians are generally divided on this. Classical Arminians, those holding specifically to the teaching of Jacob Arminius would argue that grace is given to the hearers when the gospel is proclaimed (Rom 10:14). Others, who hold more to the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, believe that prevenient grace is always available and not just when the gospel is proclaimed.
The danger with the Wesleyan approach is that one might be tempted to believe that people could be saved apart from the gospel. And while that is also true of Calvinists view on predestination where salvation is determined independent of the proclamation or acceptance of the gospel, it seems contrary to the necessity of evangelism. Romans 10:17 says that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” Without hearing the message there can be no faith. This is one of the few differences I have found between Arminius and Wesley, and I believe that Arminius’ view that prevenient grace is only present when the gospel is proclaimed in some fashion, or the word of God is read, is preferable.
But What About Faith?
If salvation is entirely a work of God, then what role does faith play? The Scripture is clear that faith is an essential element as Romans 3:21-31 repeatedly expresses.
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
It is hard to read this passage and not see the emphasis Paul places on faith. But if we are totally depraved, incapable of doing any spiritual good, where does faith come from. For the Calvinist, if faith is something that I choose to exercise then it is a work, and I am responsible for my own salvation. Instead, they would say that faith is a gift of God, he gives it to me and essentially requires me to exercise it; I have no choice. But is that really faith? If God has arbitrarily decided to save me apart from anything I am or do, then I do not understand why he would choose to require faith and give it to me. Faith would not seem to have any real role in my salvation; it’s just window dressing.
But the Scripture distinguishes between faith and works. Romans 4:3 and Galatians 3:6 both quote from Genesis 15:6, expressing that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham simply believed that what God told him was true, and he was justified. Romans 4:5 then says that “to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” Faith is credited to us as righteousness, and it is specifically contrasted with works; faith and works are not the same thing. Galatians 3:10-14 contrasts faith with works of the law. Justification does not come by obeying the law, but by faith. Faith is not a ‘work’ on my part; rather it is a surrender.
The Arminian would say that God enables faith in me. His prevenient grace frees my will to be able to accept God’s salvation, or to resist it. I am able to exercise true faith because of God’s grace working within me. But doesn’t that make faith a ‘work’ on my part; something that I have to do in order to be saved? Jacob Arminius responds to this question with the following from The Apology or Defense of James Arminius:
“To explain the matter I will employ a simile, which yet, I confess is very dissimilar; but its dissimilitude is greatly in favour of my sentiments. A rich man bestows, on a poor and famishing beggar, alms by which he may be able to maintain himself and his family. Does it cease to be a pure gift, because the beggar extends his hand to receive it? Can it be said with propriety, that ‘the alms depended partly on THE LIBERALITY of the Donor, and partly on THE LIBERTY of the Receiver,’ though the latter would not have possessed the alms unless he had received it by stretching out his hand? Can it be correctly said, BECAUSE THE BEGGAR IS ALWAYS PREPARED TO RECEIVE, that ‘he can have the alms, or not have it, just as he pleases?’ If these assertions cannot be truly made about a beggar who receives alms, how much less can they be made about the gift of faith, for the receiving of which far more acts of Divine Grace are required!”
The rich man gives alms to a beggar and the beggar accepted them. Is the gift here solely a work of the rich man? Or does the willingness of the beggar to receive the gift give him a portion of the credit? Arminians would agree that the gift is solely the work of the rich man. In the same way the gift of salvation, including the freed will that enables faith, is totally the work of God, and all glory belongs to him alone. And, just as the beggar could have rejected the rich man’s gift, so our grace freed will enables us to reject the gift of God. Faith is a gift from God, but it is a free faith that is not constrained to believe.
It Is by Grace Alone
The five solas of the Protestant Reformation define the foundational principles of the movement and of all true Protestants. These five sola’s are:
- Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone)
- Sola fide (by faith alone)
- Sola gratia (by grace alone)
- Solus Christus (Christ alone)
- Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone)
Arminians hold as strongly to these biblical principles as any Calvinist or Lutheran and boldly proclaim that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilled. 2
- John 5:24 – Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
- John 6:44 – No one come to the Father unless he is drawn.
- John 12:32 – Jesus draws all people to himself.
- Romans 1:16 – The gospel is the power of God that brings light to everyone in the world.
- Ephesians 2:8-9 – Salvation is a gift of God by his grace.
- John 16:8 – The Holy Spirit came to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement.
- Acts 16:14 – The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to the gospel.
- Romans 2:4-5 – God’s kindness leads us to repentance, our stubbornness leads us to wrath.
- Acts 17:27 – God is not far from each of us.
- Acts 18:27 – Apollos helped those who by grace had believed.
- Titus 2:11 – God’s grace brings salvation to all men.
- 2 Chronicles 36:15-16 – God repeatedly reaches out to Israel, but they rejected and then faced God’s wrath.
- Luke 7:30 – The Pharisees rejected God’s purpose for themselves.
- Luke 13:34 – Jerusalem unwilling to be gathered to Jesus as a chick to a hen.
- Isaiah 66:4 – God calls, but they did not answer. His call is resistible.
- Acts 7:51 – Stephen accuses the religious leaders of resisting God.
- Romans 4:3 – Abraham believed and his faith was credited to him as righteousness.
- Romans 4:5 – Faith is not a saving work.
That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.” – Five articles of Remonstrance
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. but respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible; inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places. – Five articles of Remonstrance
“In this manner, 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 resist any evil temptation, without this preventing and exciting, this following and co-operating grace. From this statement it will clearly appear, that I by no means do injustice to grace, by attributing, as it is reported of me, too much to manâ€™s free-will. For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, “is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?” That is, the controversy does not relate to those actions or operations which may be ascribed to grace, (for I acknowledge and inculcate as many of these actions or operations as any man ever did,) but it relates solely to the mode of operation, whether it be irresistible or not. With respect to which, I believe, according to the scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered.” – Jacob Arminius, A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius
“Arminius was concerned not only that God not be made the author of sin but also that the God-human relationship not be merely mechanical but genuinely personal. For him the high Calvinist doctrine reduced the person being saved to an automaton and the God-person relationship to the level of the relationship between a person and an instrument. Therefore, he had to leave room for resistance, but never did he so much as hint that the person being saved became a cause of salvation. He adamantly denied it.” – William Gene Witt, Creation, Redemption and Grace in the Theology of Jacob Arminius (Ph.D. diss., University of Notre Dame, 1993, pp. 629-30
“Whatsoever good is in man or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it.” – John Wesley, On Working Out Our Own Salvation
“Grace works ahead of us to draw us toward faith, to begin its work in us. Even the first fragile intuition of conviction of sin, the first intimation of our need of God, is the work of preparing, prevening grace, which draws us gradually toward wishing to please God. Grace is working quietly at the point of our desiring, bringing us in time to despair over our own unrighteousness, challenging our perverse dispositions, so that our distorted wills cease gradually to resist the grace of God.” – Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), p. 246
1 Oden, Thomas C., The Transforming Power of Grace, Abingdon Press, 1993; pg. 33
2 Grace Greater than Our Sin by Julia H. Johnston