Sunday, 25 November 2007

What Is Reformation Arminianism?

What Is Reformation Arminianism?

For those well acquainted with the Calvinist-Arminian debate, Reformation Arminianism (or Classic Arminianism) is a theological system which emphasizes universal atonement within a framework of Calvinistic total depravity and the penal satisfaction view of the atonement.

For those less acquainted with such matters, Reformation Arminianism is first of all a way of understanding how salvation is accomplished within the main lines of Protestantism, which tends to emphasize human freedom of the will rather than a deterministic/predestinarian approach.

Reformation Arminianism is an older cousin to Wesleyan Arminianism, the latter being propagated in the American churches through denominations such as some Brethren groups, Methodist groups, Nazarene and Holiness groups, and by many Pentecostal/Charismatic groups. These groups traditionally have rejected total depravity and penal satisfaction view of atonement, and are well known for viewing salvation as something which can be lost at a moment's indulgence in sin (i.e., "Repeat Regeneration").

Reformation Arminianism, in contrast, is an accurate reflection of Arminius' own theological urgencies and is subject to perhaps only 25% of Calvinistic refutational argumentation, leaving about 75% to knock over straw men. In many ways, Reformation Arminianism assumes the some of the important urgencies of the larger Reformed movement, and is several steps closer to Calvinism than Wesleyan Arminianism.

These issues have been hotly debated since the late 1500s, but seemed to lag much in the 1970s-1990s. During this period Calvinism seemed to be on the decline, prompting such journal articles as the cleverly titled, "Where Have All the TULIPs Gone?" However, in the last 10-15 years, there has been a tremendous resurgence of Calvinism, putting this important issue back on the table for discussion as local churches find themselves in the midst of the debate.

PresuppositionsReformation Arminian soteriology, like Calvinism, presupposes holiness as the basic character of God which is absolute. Thus, sin must be punished. A sin against an infinite and absolutely holy God demands an infinite and eternal punishment. Consequently, for Calvinists and Reformation Arminians alike, hell is not an arbitrarily created punishment, but rather one which is necessary to the holiness of God. God can't just simply forgive sin; sin must be punished. God's wrath must be satisfied.

Penal Satisfaction View of the AtonementReformation Arminianism and Calvinism both view Jesus death as substitutionary. Instead of God's wrath being poured out upon deserving sinners, Jesus died in their place, bearing the full wrath of God. Traditional Wesleyan Arminians believe that Jesus' death was not a sin payment, but rather an astonishing demonstration of God's love for humanity, designed to draw them to the Father. In contrast, Reformation Arminianism and Calvinism both agree that Jesus' death was a payment for sin to satisfy God's wrath. The sole point of disparity between Reformation Arminianism and Calvinism regarding the atonement is not its nature, but its extent: was it universal, or did Jesus only provide payment for the sin debt of the elect?

Penal Satisfaction: A Double Payment?
A recurring argument in the debate against Reformation Arminianism is that if Jesus' death was a payment for sin, and if Jesus died for all humanity, then how could unbelievers rightly be sent to hell for sins which were already paid? Universal atonement, then, was argued to teach either universal salvationism (everyone goes to heaven), or to imply an unjust double payment for sin. (One wonders if this argument may have driven later Arminians to reject penal satisfaction.)

Reformation Arminianism unties the knot by appealing to the idea that the atonement was provided for everyone, but only applied to believers. (Lewis Sperry Chafer was one person who wrote a strong article to this effect, which was republished in a DTS journal in the late 1970s or early 1980s.)

Calvinists have a strong knee jerk reaction to the notion of an atonement which is provided but not applied, as witnessed in Murray's work Redemption Accomplished and Applied. However, the careful Calvinist must concede that even within a Calvinistic system, atonement consists first of substitutionary payment followed second by application of the payment.

This two-fold aspect of the atonement is, in principle, assumed by both Calvinists and Reformation Arminians. The difference is that Calvinists think that the atonement is applied automatically and co-extensively to the elect at the God-ordained time, while Reformation Arminians think that the atonement is applied not automatically, but on the condition of faith. Actually, to be precise, Reformation Arminians think that the atonement is applied to the individual's account when the person is united with Christ through faith. But at any rate, both sides explain salvation in terms of the atonement being provided, and then applied—either automatically, or conditionally.

If Calvinistic atonement is not explained in terms of first being provided followed subsequently with its application, then a very strange scenario emerges wherein the elect end up having been eternally justified, without ever being children of wrath and under condemnation and without God in the world. The whole point of salvation is that we actually lived in disobedience to God, but that God rescued us from this situation. If atonement was automatically applied at the point of Christ's sacrificial death, then the elect really didn't have an old way of life from which to be rescued. At this point, however, I'm not trying to defend or refute one position or the other, but only to assert that both sides must hold to a two stage salvation event, one in which atonement is first provided, followed by the application of the atonement to the individual.

Total DepravityReformation Arminians take total depravity seriously. With Calvinists, they affirm that by himself, an individual cannot understand biblical revelation, or put his faith in Jesus, or do anything to earn salvation. The difference between the two is that Calvinists think that regeneration must occur first for these things to happen, while Arminians believe that God is capable of enabling a person to believe, with the result being that God regenerates him.

To put it more starkly, Calvinists don't have any room for the idea that God could enable an unregenerate person to believe, while Reformation Arminians insist that God enables belief prior to regeneration. Of course, the Calvinist position is tied to the notion that God's grace is irresistible, and whoever is called cannot do anything but respond in faith. In contrast, Reformation Arminians think that a person whom God convicts is enabled to believe, but can continue to resist.

In some sense, the Reformation Arminian position is not really an assertion of the human's free will. According to Reformation Arminianism, the individual by himself is still unable to choose God by his own free will. His nature is such that he cannot overcome his propensity toward rebellion by his own strength. Like Calvinism, Reformation Arminianism believes that it is only by God's gracious intervention that a person could overcome his total depravity. The difference lies in the fact that Calvinists think that God cannot enable a person to believe without first regenerating him, while Reformation Arminians think that the enabling happens prior to regeneration.

Salvation through Faith
Calvinism and Reformation Arminianism have the same nuanced definition of faith. I can't quote him exactly, but the Calvinist J.I. Packer defines faith along the lines of a person coming to the point of total self-abnegation where he understands that he has no resources of his own to merit salvation, and a complete trust in Jesus and his work on the cross for salvation. This is a good definition, and Reformation Arminians should be happy with it.

On the other hand, Calvinists have often charged that Arminians seem to make faith into a work worthy of salvation. This might be a Wesleyan Arminian perspective, but Arminius and Reformation Arminianism would strongly deny it. In the Reformation Arminian system, faith is not a meritorious act.

However, faith is the condition or agency through which salvation comes, as attested by the Pauline formula that salvation is through faith. Calvinists have objected to this position first on the ground mentioned before that unregenerate people cannot believe, and second, on the ground that this would make salvation by works.

I find it entirely ironic that Paul's main thrust is that if you pursue salvation by faith, then you are not pursuing it by works, to use his language to the conclusion of Romans 9. Assuming the same definition of faith, as outlined above, if salvation is by faith, then it is not by works. Simply put, when the Calvinist claims that Arminians believe in a works-salvation, the response is that if it is by faith, by definition it cannot be by works.

And if God in his sovereignty chooses to make faith the condition whereby the atonement is applied, then who are you, O man, to say otherwise?

We are left to conclude then, that if God is capable of enabling an unregenerate person to choose to believe in him, and if faith is not a work, and if God established faith as a condition for salvation, then Reformation Arminianism's view of salvation through faith is internally consistent.

Robert E. Picirilli (Grace, Faith and Free Will) has made the case that the ultimate issue between Calvinism and Reformation Arminianism is whether or not salvation is through faith. It seems that Calvinism has a very difficult time speaking clearly on this issue. On one hand, Calvinists want to affirm that salvation is by grace through faith, but on the other hand, they seem to formulate much of their views as if faith is the happy response of having been saved, as if the Pauline formula said, "Salvation by grace unto faith."

The Issue of ContinuanceIf salvation is by grace through faith, Reformation Arminians argue by extension that continuance in salvation (i.e., eternal security) is also by grace through faith: "salvation by grace through faith; continuance in salvation by grace through faith."

Ironically, Arminius himself claimed that he wasn't prepared to take a position on whether or not a genuinely saved person could ever make shipwreck of his faith, explaining there are strong passages on both sides of the issue, and urging that further study is needed. Arminius' heirs, however, reject the notion that once you are saved, you are always saved.

Reformation Arminianism differs remarkably from Wesleyan Arminian on this issue. Wesleyan Arminians seem to think that a true believer is subject to losing his salvation by sinning. Ultimately, their view seems best explained as "salvation by grace through faith; continuance in salvation by not sinning."

In contrast, the Calvinist position on continuance seems best expressed as, "salvation by grace unto faith; continuance in grace unto faith."

The Calvinist-Arminian dialog probably ought to proceed along these lines. Unfortunately, J.I. Packer's classic article "Arminianisms" which has informed so much of the Calvinist animus against Arminianism betrays little or no awareness of Arminius or of Reformation Arminianism (he knows only of "Rational Arminianism" and "Evangelical Arminianism," i.e., Wesleyanism). As a result, a huge amount of the Calvinist animus is against straw men or, at least, against a lesser form of Arminianism which makes a much easier target than Reformation Arminianism.


allen said...

I have bookmarked this, and I am looking forward to seeing what you are learning in your program.

Thanks for publishing for us.

Allen Pointer

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Good to hear from you Allen. I tried to email you, but I don't have your address. Hope to see you soon.

Pam said...

So glad to see you have joined the blogging world. Tell Angie she should do so as well. She could do an update on family life.

I look forward to reading you site and benefiting from your continued education.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you can help me with something, looking at classical Arminianism it would seem to me that he was for a person being regenerated before faith, but that it was not complete regeneration and it would only become complete upon the person having faith. Would this be an accurate discription of Arminius view on the matter?


James M. Leonard said...

Thanks, Ben.

While I have read through most of Arminius' works, it has been years, and I fear that I cannot speak definitively for him.

However, if I were to dare speak for Arminius, I'm sure he would reject a partial regeneration.

What he would affirm is a pre-venient grace (or a pre-regenerating grace) which enables the unregenerate person to believe.

Moreover, I'm certain that Arminius argued that Rom 7 was a portrait of an unregenerate person who comes under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and finally cries out to God for deliverance. Arminius wrote an extensive commentary on this chapter, 150 pages, if my memory serves (which hardly gets cited in the commentaries).

At any rate, Arminius uses the term "prevenient grace" which enables the person to believe. Regeneration, or the sharing of the new life with Christ, comes as a result of God uniting the believer with Christ by faith.

DonaldH said...


God bless you man. Thanks for your help over the discussion group too!

Man you got to put this in booklet form. This is good.

Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips. Proverbs 27:2 KJV

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article! I am having a video debate with a friend on this very topic at I wish I had read this article priori to making some of my videos :).

Anonymous said...

This really helps a lot.

welburg said...

Thank you for this. I am a new pastor, still studying in seminary. I grew up in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, am in active leadership at a reformed baptist church, and attend a strongly Reformed - Calvanist seminary. I used to joke that I was a Reformed Arminian... This has been very enlightening. Thank you.

Matthew Christian Harding said...

This really is an excellent article. Thanks so much for sharing it. I have one question that came up with my pastor yesterday. I supposed it would come after your section on the 'double payment'. He was saying that the payment of Christ on the Cross extinguished the wrath of God and therefore there is no more wrath left for the day of wrath if in fact Jesus died for the sins of the whole world instead of for the elect. How would you respond to that point? Grace, peace and blessings to you, brother.

James M. Leonard said...

The point is that one must be "in Christ" in order for the payment to be of any value to anyone. Calvinists have a tendency to think of payment of sin debt as a transaction that gets applied to an external bank account. This, of course, is a bit far flung from New Testament thinking. While there is payment, and although payment is a transaction, all due emphasis must be on the outpouring of God's wrath on Jesus himself. The outpouring does not affect some external record book, but is entirely located in Jesus himself. The only way that we can share in such payment is if we are united with him so that we share in his sufferings. Those who are "in Christ" are truly united with him so that we share in his history, and thus in the exhaustion of God's wrath.

Reformation Arminian Leroy Forlines explains the point with an analogy from American history. Prior to its statehood, Hawaiians could not own American history as their own. They could not claim that their forefathers had fought the British or survived the ordeal at Valley Forge. They could not own for themselves the writing of the Declaration of Independence or the celebration of the 4th of July. The freedoms Americans enjoy could not have been attributed to the sacrifice of their forefathers. All this changed, however, when Hawaii became a state. The history of America became the history of the Hawaiians.

Jesus did indeed pay the sin-debt for everyone, but it is of no effect apart from union with Christ. Once we are united with Christ through faith, then we share in Christ's sufferings, and, in effect, can assert that Christ's history of suffering on the cross is our own history.

Hope this helps.

Marcos Torres said...

Jim, this was a really good article. I have a few questions about Arminian baptists that Im sorting through at the moment and Im hoping you could help me. You mentioned Wesleyans tend to be more likely to see salvation as something that can be lost at a moments notice, whereas I have heard from Wesleyans that their strength is they believe an apostate can return to faith whereas classical arminians tended to believe an apostate could never be restored. What are your thoughts on this? Also, are Arminian Baptists still Covenantalists or have they switched over to Dispensationalism?

Looking forward to hearing from you,


James M. Leonard said...

Thanks Marcos. I hold to the irremediality of apostasy. Several NT passages send us in that direction, especially two from Hebrews (6:4-6) and chapter 10. The doctrine also helps sort out the unpardonable sin texts. I also see how it makes sense of God's being offended over a former believer's mockery or trampling over the shed blood of God's Son, especially after having experienced union with Christ.

It's not a pleasant doctrine, and biblical support is not as strong as other doctrines.

Most Arminian Baptists who know the difference between Covenantalism and Dispensationalism are typically more Covenantalist than Dispy. I don't think there's a strong systematic connection that would make Arminian Baptists more inclined one way or the other.