I first encountered the doctrine of predestination as described by Jacob Arminius in his “Public Disputations”, which opened his collected writings in Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God. After that first encounter, I honestly couldn’t detect any difference between his view and Calvin’s. As I continued to read through his other writings the nuance of his view became more clear, but it was surprising to me that what I had always heard described as polar opposites, when articulated by Arminius himself, did not seem that different, initially.
Some people think that Arminius rejected predestination in favor of the idea that the free will of man is capable of laying hold of salvation. This idea, however, is nowhere found in his writings (at least none which I have read). Arminius consistently describes salvation as the work of God from start to finish which depends upon God’s good pleasure in predestination. Regeneration, faith, justification, sanctification, and glorification all belong to God alone.
Arminius defines Predestination as follows:
“Predestination, therefore, as it regards the thing itself, is the decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ, by which he resolved within himself from all eternity, to justify, adopt and endow with everlasting life, to the praise of his own glorious grace, believers on whom he had decreed to bestow faith (Eph 1; Rom 9).” (Arminius Speaks, 7)
He continues by defining reprobation:
“From the law of contraries, we define reprobation to be a decree of the wrath, or of the severe will, of God. He resolved from all eternity to condemn to eternal death unbelievers, who, by their own fault and the just judgment of God, would not believe, for the declaration of his wrath and power (John 3:18; Luke 7:30; John 12:37, 40; 2 Thess 2:10, 11; Rom 9:22).” (Arminius Speaks, 10)
I suspect that many readers would be hard pressed, like I was, to spot the distinction between Calvin’s view of predestination and that of Arminius, which is described in the former quote. When both quotes are taken together, I believe his distinctives may be more apparent, and I hope to draw them out in the discussion below.
First, one thing needs to be explained if we want to understand how Arminius viewed predestination. He held that we can never talk about predestination apart from Jesus Christ or sinful man. What this means is that, when we think about the decrees of God regarding predestination, as they took place in the mind of God and according to his foreknowledge before the foundation of the world, we must consider that the objects of predestination (we humans) were considered by God to be sinners and the propitiation for sin to be the blood of Christ. To put it in laymen’s terms, God made his decree of predestination knowing full well that He would create man, who would fall through sin, He would send Jesus to die for sin, and salvation would be applied to those who would trust in Jesus.
Now, Arminius wholeheartedly embraced the doctrine of Total Depravity as taught by the other reformers. He affirmed that Man, having fallen through sin, is wholly enslaved to it, utterly incapable of turning to God in faith or deed. For any man to turn to God in faith, God must regenerate that man, overturning his utter bondage to sin, and bestow the gift of Faith upon him. So, for Arminius and Calvin alike, it was clear that God had decided, before the foundation of the world, that He would grant faith to certain men, though not all men. Arminius says,
“I grant that there is a certain eternal decree of God, according to which he administers the means necessary to faith and salvation, and this he does in such a manner as he knows to be suited to righteousness, that is, to his mercy and his severity.” (Arminius Speaks, 375)
Here then, we can begin to discuss the key difference between the views of Arminius and Calvin. Calvin held that the grace of God was a certain and irresistible force, which taking effect in a man, could lead to no other outcome than that man’s glorification. Arminius, on the other hand, held that scripture taught that man can, and often does, resist the work of the Holy Spirit, even after grace has begun to take effect. In other words, man can in no way affect the salvation of his soul, except that when restored from the utter bondage to sin by regeneration, God permits that man retains his ability to resist Him. Both Calvin and Arminius would generally agree that believers can resist the spirit, but for Arminius, the warnings against unbelief, and the calls to hold to ones confession suggest that it is possible for a believer to ultimately reject the gospel (Rom 11:22, Col 1:23, 1 Tim 4:1, Heb 6:4-6, Heb 10:35-36). In light of such verses he says, “Therefore the whole cause of the faith of one, and the unbelief of another, is the will of God, and the free choice of man [respectively]” (Arminius Speaks, 272).
While Arminius held that rejection of the faith was possible for believers, he didn’t think that it was necessary or common, for God provides, at all times, everything necessary for each believer to keep from stumbling (Jude 1:24). On the subject of perseverance, Arminius writes:
“My sentiments respecting the perseverance of the saints are, that those persons who have been grafted into Christ by true faith, and have thus been made partakers of his lifegiving Spirit, possess sufficient powers [or strength] to fight against Satan, sin, the world and their own flesh, and to gain the victory of these enemies yet not without the assistance of the grace of the same Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ also by his Spirit assists them in all their temptations, and affords them the ready aid of his hand; and, provided they stand prepared for the battle, implore his help, and be not wanting to themselves, Christ preserves them from falling.” (Arminius Speaks, 69)
While Calvin held that God’s grace was irresistible and that the decree of predestination described, in one fell swoop, those to whom God would grant faith, justification, and ultimate glorification, Arminius explains that we should instead consider predestination to be two-fold. First, as I described above, God unconditionally (according to his good pleasure) decides those to whom He will grant faith. Second, knowing those who would continue in faith by His power and those who would reject Him before the end, God predestined believers to be conformed into the image of Christ, to be holy and blameless before Him, to be adopted as sons and glorified, and He predestined unbelievers for wrath (Rom 8:29-30, Eph 1:4-5).
Arminius did not deny the doctrine of predestination, like some today might think, but held it in high regard, so far as one did not take it further than demanded by Scripture.
“This doctrine therefore ought to resound, not only within private walls and in schools, but also in the assemblies of the saints and in the church of God. Yet one caution ought to be strictly observed, that nothing be taught concerning it beyond what the Scriptures say, that it be propounded in the manner which the Scriptures have adopted, and that it be referred to the same end as that which the Scriptures propose when they deliver it. This, by the gracious assistance of God, we think we have done.” (Arminius Speaks, 11)
Ignoring this caution would, in Arminius’s opinion, cause believers to “begin to doubt whether the sense of certainty of salvation they have at times enjoyed, is to be attributed to the testimony of the Holy Spirit, or to a certain persuasion and presumption in their own minds” (Arminius Speaks, 157). In other words, we risk believing that in God’s eternal decree we might be rejected, destined by Him for our faith to be revealed as false and our reward to be wrath. Instead, God desires any who know the gospel to be confident in the work of Christ and to trust that God will reward their confidence.
Finally, the end for which our Scriptures aim when presenting the doctrine of Predestination is always, according to Arminius, confidence in God’s goodness toward us, his justice, his wisdom, and his power.
“For the ultimate design of the divine counsels is not the life of one and the death of another, but the illustration of the goodness, justice, wisdom and power of God, which He always secures.” (Arminius Speaks, 261)
Arminius, J. (2011). Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God (J. D. Wagner, Ed.). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.