A common feature among world religions is their recognition that man is in need of something. Man needs to be saved. Man cannot stand in the presence of God in his present state. There is something that needs to be done, either by man or for man. The Christian position is that there is nothing that can be done by man, for by man salvation is impossible (Matthew 19:26). But, Christ continues, with God, salvation is possible. The Christian position, then, is illuminated. Salvation is solely a work of God and there is nothing that we may contribute to our salvation. The atonement of Jesus Christ is sufficient for us. It unites us with our heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, and was our perfect substitute. Among the body of Christ who affirms this view are evangelical Arminians. While they hold to the sufficiency of Christ and justification by faith alone, there is a sharp distinction between Arminianism and the biblical model of salvation. This article is a critique of Arminian soteriology.
Soteriology is a technical parlance meaning doctrine of salvation. The Arminian doctrine of salvation is under dissection in this article. For Arminians believe that while God is actively laboring to save man, the final choice of salvation is left to man. God is offering the free gift of salvation to man, and man is free to either accept it or deny it. But, argues the evangelical Arminian, man cannot merit or earn his salvation. The only thing he can do is choose to accept the gift that is being offered to him. It is sort of like a drowning man who was thrown a rope. The prideful man may choose to flail widely to save himself, which will lead to his drowning. He may also grab the rope and be brought to safety. But the man who grabs the rope would not boast that he has merited his salvation. This is a critique of Arminian soteriology, for I do not think that it is the biblical model of salvation (although most of my readers probably do).
I would rather honor God too much than honor man too much. If the objective reader (if there is such a thing) comes away from this discussion unsatisfied and uncertain, they might accept some wisdom from a friend of Martin Luther. He writes in his commentary on Galatians 1:11-12, “I remembered what Doctor Staupitz said to me. ‘I like it well,’ he said, ‘that the doctrine which you proclaim gives glory to God alone and none to man. For never can too much glory, goodness, and mercy be ascribed unto God.'” The Calvinist position is that man is dead in his sin, incapable of turning to God in saving faith. He ascribes all mercy and honor to God in his capacity to save man. Arminian soteriology, on the other hand, ascribes honor to man in his capacity to “grab the rope.”
The point that Luther was making was directed at the papists who believe in works-salvation. But it may well be applied here. If we ascribe too much honor and ability to God, this hardly seems like a crime worthy of mentioning. However, if we ascribe too much honor to man, when it rightly belongs to God, then this would be a crime worth speaking of. That is not to accuse my Arminian brethren of committing a crime, but it is to say that I would rather ascribe too much honor to God than too much honor to man. If you are uncertain about this issue, you would do well to follow Luther’s example and ascribe too much honor to God.
Of course, some may object to a critique of Arminian soteriology that the doctrines of grace do not ascribe honor to God. They may render moral judgments over God. I argue that this is misplaced. Christians need to lay their hands over their mouths (Job 40:4) and acknowledge that God is more holy, loving and righteous than we are. I labored this point in my article Is God Evil If Calvinism Is True?
Arminian soteriology is the foundation for sacramental soteriology. Evangelicals charge it against the Papists that among their crimes, they have perverted the gospel of Christ. They have committed the same sins as the Judaizers who added circumcision to the gospel. The Papists have added seven sacraments that are necessary to salvation to the gospel. The Campbellists have added water baptism. The same may be said of others who add to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. He writes of them, “You have been severed from Christ, you who seek to be justified by the Law. You have fallen from grace.” (Galatians 5:4). Of course, there is a common denominator among these soteriological heresies. Though they may deny it or be unaware of the applicability of this label. But they have constructed this sacramental soteriology on the foundation of Arminian soteriology.
For if man is capable of turning to God in faith, and that action is necessary to salvation, we may easily understand why the Papists or the Campbellists would think to add other elements to this formula. As I pointed out, the common denominator among these systems is Arminian soteriology. It would be impossible for Calvinist soteriology to accommodate sacramental soteriology. For the Calvinist maintains that man is utterly incapable of turning to God in faith or performing any religious rituals that would serve as the mechanism for his salvation. My critique of Arminian soteriology maintains that rather than supplementing the Papists and the Campbellists sacramental system, we should deny them all recourse or comfort by adhering to Calvinist soteriology.
Does Jesus save or make men saveable? Arminian soteriology maintains that Jesus Christ died on the cross for all men, every single individual, and now God is trying to win them over with his love. He is trying to persuade them to accept the free gift of salvation. However, this entails that on the cross, Jesus Christ did not save men. He did not bring about the salvation of men. He merely made men saveable. This means that without the death and resurrection of Christ, salvation would be impossible. But with the provision of the atonement, salvation is now possible. Men have been made saveable. But the cross was not efficacious. It was not powerful to save. It was God’s best effort.
Is that the biblical model of salvation? Does the death of Christ merely make men saveable, or does he save perfectly? Calvinist soteriology maintains that Jesus Christ is able to save to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25). We maintain that through the death of Christ, we were reconciled to God (Romans 5:10). There is nobody who can condemn us because of the death of Christ (Romans 8:34). My critique of Arminian soteriology is centered around the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ. On Arminian soteriology, the death of Christ did not save. It did not reconcile men to God. It made it possible for man to be reconciled to God.
The Bible favors the doctrine of Unconditional Election. The doctrine of unconditional election states that there is nothing that God sees in man that warrants his salvation. God chooses his elect based on the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11). He does not choose men because he knew that that they would choose him. He knew that apart from his saving grace, nobody would choose him. So he elected some to salvation for his glorification, and he condemned others for their sins unto his glorification. Many people have emotional reactions to this doctrine. But it seems to be the position of the apostle Paul and Jesus Christ.
Paul writes in Romans that salvation “does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” (Romans 9:16). Anticipating the moral objections that people will have to this doctrine, he writes, “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (Romans 9:20).” In the article that I linked to above about whether God is evil if Calvinism is true, and in my article about Romans 9, I expounded upon what Paul said. Similarly, Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” Jesus offers assurance that those who the Father draws will be raised up on the last day, hence denying that everybody is drawn to him (unless you are willing to defend universalism). My critique of Arminian soteriology seems to be vindicated by these common bastions of Calvinist soteriology.
The doctrine of total depravity causes problems for Arminian soteriology. Evangelical Arminians (to whom this critique is primarily directed) often affirm the doctrine of total depravity. The doctrine of total depravity states that man is dead in his sin. He is unable to turn to God in and of himself. Faith is not an attribute to man possesses in and of himself. Many evangelical Arminians are willing to concede this point. Since man is in love with his sin, he has the freedom to choose only a broad range of sin. But he is repelled by righteousness. Therefore, he will never choose God. Paul defends this doctrine when he describes man as dead in sin (Ephesians 1:1), following Satan (v. 2), indulging in the lusts of the flesh and children of wrath by nature (v. 3). Similarly, Paul describes us in Romans 3:10-11, saying, “There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands. There is none who seeks for God.” Evangelical Arminians will usually affirm the doctrine of total depravity on the basis of these passages.
They will just employ the controversial doctrine of prevenient grace as a measure of restoring Arminian soteriology. The doctrine of prevenient grace states that God lends just enough grace to man such that his capacity to believe in Christ has been restored. I will briefly state three problems with this doctrine. First, it is ad hoc. It is constructed specifically to circumvent the evidence. It is meant to solve the problems raised by total depravity. Second, it makes no practical sense of the descriptions that Paul applied to mankind. If the faith-center in our hearts have been activated by God, then in what sense does Paul’s description of the natural man even apply? It would be an irrelevancy. Third, the doctrine of prevenient grace does not really solve the problem. Why does one man choose to accept God’s salvation, and his neighbor does not? Is he more righteous than others? The only recourse is to say that God gives more prevenient grace to his elect. But this would restore to us the doctrine of unconditional election. With these three objections, my critique of Arminian soteriology should emerge.
Evangelical Arminianism borrows from Calvinism. Martin Luther was the great trailblazer who revolutionized the popular conception of soteriology. Most people believed in a sacramental system of soteriology, wherein one could merit their salvation in a lifetime of obedient faith. Like many before him, Luther recognized that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. His confidence in this truth erupted as concomitant to Calvinist soteriology. Similarly, the father of evangelicalism, Jonathan Edwards, rested his believe in justification by faith alone in Calvinist soteriology. The doctrine of justification by faith alone rests firmly on the foundation of Calvinist soteriology.
While many of our Arminian brethren affirm justification by faith alone, they deny the foundation upon which it rests. They have to borrow justification by faith alone from Calvinist thought. The efficacy of the atonement, our rejection of sacramental soteriology and the strength of TULIP seems to raise serious difficulties for Arminian soteriology. Our Arminian brethren would do well to concede this point and adopt the consistency to be found in Calvinist soteriology.
If you would like to get in on the discussion about this, join my Theology Discussion Group!