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.

The History of Arminianism

Arminianism is named after Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch theologian who strongly objected to the Reformed system—especially limited atonement. His position was published posthumously in the Remonstrance of 1610. However, it would be anachronistic to believe that Arminius was the first to hold this view. Jack Cottrell writes that Arminianism “was the consensus belief in Christendom prior to Augustine (A.D. 354–430).”[1]

Theologians who hold to Arminianism

Modern Arminian theologians would include Jack Cottrell, Craig Keener, Roger Olson, Ben Witherington III, F. Leroy Forlines, Robert Picirilli, Leighton Flowers, David Allen, Thomas C. Oden, Gordon C. Olson, Grant Osborne, Thomas McCall, and Scot McKnight (to name a few).

Is Calvinism unfair?

Some Arminians charge that Calvinism is “unfair.” However, this should not be the starting point for Arminian theology. God is free to dispense grace 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. We agree with Calvinist R.C. Sproul who write,

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?[2]

We agree with the consistency of Calvinism on this point: God is under no 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, Arminianism begins with a different biblical starting point: God’s character.

God desires all people to be saved

Arminianism points 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).[3] 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).[4] However, under the Calvinist view, God would desire to judge some sinful people, and he does not desire all people to be saved.[5]

God allows humans to resist his will

Calvinism places God’s will as the primary attribute of God in their system—anything that speaks against this is thought to take away from God’s glory and nature. However, Scripture clearly states that God permits people to oppose his will. The NT uses two different words for God’s will in the NT: boulē and thelō.

1. Boulē (pronounced boo-LAY)

In the gospel according to Luke, we read, “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 rejecting 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)

We see the same theme in the life of Jesus. Toward the end of his earthly life, Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Lk. 19:41). Matthew records that 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).[6] Here, Jesus (God) wanted to do something, but this was rejected 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) is in the same word group as thelō. If God’s will cannot be resisted (as Calvinism claims), there would be no reason to pray 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 God allows us to resist and reject his will.

Freewill in the OT

In the OT, God enabled the freewill of the people to choose 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). Consider several examples:

(Isa. 65:12) “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.

(Prov. 1:24) “I called and you refused, I stretched out my hand and no one paid attention.”

(Jer. 18:8) “If that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.”

(Ps. 81:11-14) “My people did not listen to My voice, and Israel did not obey Me. 12 So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart, to walk in their own devices. 13 Oh that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would walk in My ways! 14 I would quickly subdue their enemies and turn My hand against their adversaries.”

(Jer. 7:23-26) “This is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’ 24 Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward. 25 Since the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them. 26 Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck; they did more evil than their fathers” (Jer. 7:23-26). The larger context shows that God gave them a choice to obey and be forgiven, but they refused to do so (Jer. 7:1-22).

(Hos. 11:1-2 NIV) “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.”

The Bible teaches freewill from one end to the other. It contains a number of broad, sweeping teachings that support the traditional concept of libertarian freewill. Even Reformed authors like D.A. Carson acknowledge these clear and perspicuous teachings of Scripture:[7]

(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).

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.”[8]

Hermeneutical Principles for Disputed Passages

There are a number of passages that Arminians need to address in this discussion. We respond to these in detail 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 disciples 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: An Arminian Interpretation This is a verse-by-verse commentary on Romans 9 from an Arminian perspective.

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] Cottrell, Jack, Clark H. Pinnock, Robert L. Reymond, Thomas B. Talbott, Bruce A. Ware, and Chad Brand. Perspectives on Election: Five Views. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006. 70.

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

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

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

[7] This list is similar to Carson’s list. See D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 18-22.

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