Biblical Defense of Arminianism

By James M. Rochford

We have already explained the case for Calvinism (see “Calvinism versus Arminianism”). Here we will give the biblical case for the Arminian view. Arminianism is named after Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch theologian who strongly objected to the Reformed system described above—especially limited atonement. His position was published posthumously in the Remonstrance of 1610.

Some Arminians charge that this Calvinist model is “unfair.” However, this should not be the starting point for Arminian theology. God is free to dispense grace however and to whomever he wants. If God chose to save only one person, sending the rest to hell, this wouldn’t be fair; it would be merciful. As Calvinist R.C. Sproul argues,

Is there any reason that a righteous God ought to be loving toward a creature who hates him and rebels constantly against his divine authority and holiness?[1]

We agree with the consistency of Calvinism on this point: God is not under obligation to dispense grace. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be grace. As soon as we begin to ask for “fairness,” we are really pulling the rug out from under ourselves. If we want fairness, all of us would be judged for our sins! Therefore, Arminians begin with a different biblical starting point:

God desires all people to be saved

Arminians point out that God desires all people to have a relationship with him—not just some. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).[2] Paul writes, “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Jesus said that he would “draw all men to [Himself]” (Jn. 12:32), and the Holy Spirit would “convict the world”—not just the elect (Jn. 16:8). In the OT, God makes it clear that he doesn’t desire people to be judged (Ezek. 18:23; Jer. 48:31; Isa. 28:21).[3] However, under the Calvinist view, God would not desire all people to be saved, and he would desire to judge some sinful people.[4]

God allows humans to resist his will

There are two different words used for God’s will in the NT: boulē and thelō. Humans are said to thwart both of these.

1. Boulē (pronounced boo-LAY)

Luke writes, “The Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose (Greek boulē) for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John” (Lk. 7:30; c.f. Acts 7:51). This is the same word used for God’s will in Ephesians 1:11 (“predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will (Greek boulē)”. Here, Luke explains that the Pharisees were capable of thwarting God’s will for them. Likewise, in 2 Peter 3:9, a derivative of boulē is used (boulomai), when Peter writes of God not “wishing for any to perish.” Since some ultimately do go to hell, this must mean that God’s will (boulē) is not fulfilled.

2. Thelō (pronounced THELL-oh)

Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted (thelō) to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling (thelō)” (Mt. 23:37).[5] Here, Jesus (God) wanted to do something, but this was thwarted by the religious leaders. Earlier in the same chapter, Jesus said, “[The King] sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling (thelō) to come” (Mt. 22:3).

Elsewhere, Jesus prayed that God’s “will” would be done on Earth, as it is in heaven (Mt. 6:10). This word (thelēma; pronounced THAY-leem-uh) is in the same word group as thelō. If God’s will could not be resisted, there would be no reason to pray for this. Moreover, Jesus claimed that we are permitted to line up our will with God’s (or choose not to). He said, “If anyone is willing (Greek thelō) to do His will (Greek thelō), he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (Jn. 7:17). These passages all imply that we are permitted to resist the will of God.

Freewill is arguably the most well taught doctrine in the entire Bible

The Bible has a number of broad, sweeping teachings that support the traditional definition of freewill. Let’s consider a few of these examples.

1. God calls on people to obey, choose, and believe in him (Jn. 15:10; Josh. 24:15; Jn. 3:18). These calls would be nonsense, if we are not free moral agents.

2. The very fact that we can sin implies freedom of the will, unless we are claiming that God is the agent of sin.

3. God judges us (1 Cor. 3:10-15; Rev. 20:11-15). Humans are rewarded and punished according to their actions. Judgment only makes sense, if we are free to choose and culpable for our choices.

4. God tests his people, which implies our ability to pass or fail (Gen. 22:1; Jas. 1:12; 1 Pet. 1:6-7; 1 Cor. 10:13).

5. Prayers are not scripted; they are free expressions of the heart (see the Psalms for good examples of this).

6. God pleads with sinners to repent, which would only make sense in light of free moral decision (Ezek. 18:23-32; 33:11).

7. God desires all men to believe in him (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9; Jn. 12:32). Consider this. An omnipotent being “desires” something that clearly is not happening. Something must be stopping God from doing what he wants to do. Freewill is the most likely solution to this problem (Lk. 7:30; Acts 7:51; Mt. 23:3, 37; Mt. 6:10; Jn. 7:17).

8. God himself is a free moral agent, who is not determined (Rev. 4:11). Therefore, even the determinist will admit that it is not necessary for all decision to be determined. Jesus was not determined; instead, he submitted his will to the Father’s will (Lk. 22:42).

Moreover, all of us have an immediate experience of freewill. Imagine how good the arguments would have to be against freewill, in order for you to believe that you were determined in your actions. The burden of proof on the Calvinist is enormous, because it flies contrary to our immediate experience.

Moreover, if freewill doesn’t exist, then we could never know if our knowledge of anything is true. Reason implies that a personal agent can determine between truth and falsehood. But if determinism is true, then we could never know that we have arrived at the truth, because we would have been determined to do so. All we could ever say is that we believe it is true (i.e. this is our current psychological state)—not that we know it is true (i.e. we have used reason to come to this conclusion).

Furthermore, if freewill doesn’t exist, then we should never try to argue someone into determinism. This is both because we do not know whether our view is right (because we would be determined to hold it), and the other person wouldn’t be capable of changing their view (because they would be determined to hold their position).

In the OT, God enables the freewill of the people to choose for him (Josh. 24:15; Isa. 50:2; Jer. 1:6; 2:13-14; 7:13; 13:10; 26:2-3; Ex. 3:11; 4:1-13; Hos. 11:1-9; Ps. 78:10; 81:11-13; Jer. 32:33). For instance, Isaiah writes, “I will destine you for the sword, and all of you will bow down to the slaughter. Because I called, but you did not answer; I spoke, but you did not hear. And you did evil in My sight and chose that in which I did not delight” (Isa. 65:12). Solomon writes, “I called and you refused, I stretched out my hand and no one paid attention” (Prov. 1:24). Jeremiah writes, “And if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned” (Jer. 18:8).

One final passage should be considered in this regard: Matthew 19:24. Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” What exactly could this verse mean from a Calvinist perspective? Arminian scholar Roger Olson comments, “What sense does this verse make in light of irresistible grace? Is Jesus saying it is harder for God to save a rich man than a poor one? How could that be? If everyone, without exception, only gets into the kingdom of God by God’s work alone without any required cooperation on his or her part, then Jesus’ saying makes no sense at all.”[6]

Hermeneutical Principles for Disputed Passages

There are a number of passages that Arminians need to address in this discussion. These passages are all answered below. However, before jumping to these passages, consider these four hermeneutical principles that should be considered.

PRINCIPLE #1: The “Me” or “We” principle.

In our modern individualistic culture, we usually read the Bible as referring to me, rather than to we. Often, passages on chosenness or election are referring to the entire church, rather than individual believers (Eph. 1:4). When reading difficult passages, ask yourself if it is referring to the church being saved, rather than a specific individual.

PRINCIPLE #2: The “chosen for heaven” or “chosen for ministry” principle.

Often God chooses us for the purpose of ministry, rather than for the purpose of salvation (Gal. 1:15; Jn. 15:16). Calvinists read all passages on choosing to refer to “going to heaven,” rather than “going to work.” Therefore, as you read difficult passages, ask yourself if the passage is describing how a person was chosen for a purpose in ministry, or if they were chosen to go to heaven.

PRINCIPLE #3: The “all believers” or “those believers” principle.

Sometimes difficult passages refer to the original audience, rather than to modern believers. Therefore, in interpreting difficult passages, ask yourself if this passage is referring to all believers throughout human history, or if it is referring to those specific believers at the time. This is especially important when reading promises made to the Twelve or to Paul.

PRINCIPLE #4: Predestination is based on God’s foreknowledge principle.

God predestines the people that he knew would make the freewill decision to come to faith. Romans 8:29 reads, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” Notice that God’s foreknowledge precedes who is predestined. Likewise, Peter writes that believers “are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Pet. 1:1-2). Therefore, both predestination and election are based on God’s foreknowledge of what humans would freely do.

Disputed Passages

Exodus 4:21 How could God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

1 Samuel 18:10, Amos 3:6, Isaiah 45:7 Does God create evil?

John 6:44-45 Will Christ only draw some people and not others?

Acts 13:48 Were some “appointed” for eternal life?

Romans 8:29-30 Is this passage teaching predestination for believers?

Romans 9:13 Are some predestined for heaven before birth?

Romans 9:17-19 Will God harden hearts so that they can’t receive Christ?

Romans 9:22-23 Does God create some people only to damn them?

Galatians 1:15 Paul was set apart before birth?

Ephesians 1:4 Are some chosen for heaven and others for hell?

Ephesians 1:5 Are some predestined for heaven and others for hell?

Ephesians 2:8-9 Is faith a gift of God?

2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 A deluding influence?

1 Timothy 2:4 Is a Calvinist view of this passage plausible?

2 Timothy 2:25 Does God cause or force repentance?

1 Peter 1:2 Are some chosen for heaven and others for hell?

1 Peter 2:8 Are some appointed for hell?

2 Peter 2:1 Do false teachers lose their salvation?

1 John 2:2 Does this passage support unlimited atonement?

Jude 4 Condemned beforehand?

 

[1] Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986. 21.

[2] Calvinists respond by saying that God is waiting for all of his elect to come to repentance. There are elect people in the future, who have not yet come to Christ, and God is waiting for them to come to him. If Christ came back sooner, these elect wouldn’t come to Christ yet. In other words, Christ is waiting to return to save all of his elect. Regarding 2 Peter 3:9, Sproul says that the “anyone” refers to the “elect.” That doesn’t work in light of 1 Timothy 2:4 though. Sproul, Chosen by God, p.195. Cited in Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 118.

[3] Regarding these key Arminian passages, Calvinist preacher and theologian John Piper appeals to the fact that this is a mystery. He writes, “God’s emotional life is complex beyond our ability to fully comprehend… Therefore we should not stumble over the fact that God does and does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Piper, John. The Pleasures of God: Meditating on God’s Delight in Being God. Portland, Or.: Multnomah, 1991. 336-337. However, I don’t believe that this explanation is cogent. Appealing to mystery makes your position unfalsifiable—even in the presence of contrary evidence. While it is sometimes appropriate to appeal to mystery when an answer is unknown, it is inappropriate to appeal to mystery in the face of contrary evidence to one’s own position.

[4] Calvinists usually respond by saying that these passages do not mean all people (i.e. the entire population), but all kinds of people (i.e. all ethnicities and all classes). Calvin writes, “By this Paul surely means only that God has not closed the way unto salvation to any order of men; rather, he has so poured out his mercy that he would have none without it.” (Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.16.) Likewise, Boettner writes, “Verses such as 1 Timothy 2:4, it seems, are best understood not to refer to men individually but as teaching the general truth that God is benevolent and that He does not delight in the sufferings and death of His creatures.” Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 295. Cited in Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 116.

[5] Calvinists argue that Jesus was trying to reach the “children” of Jerusalem, but the religious leaders were unwilling to allow this.

[6] Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 165.