Arminianism and the Patience of God
What is Arminianism?
The Arminian heresy is somewhat infamous in the christian circles that I frequent. We all know that Arminianism is heresy. We all know why. But, I wonder, are there subtletis at play here that mean we sometimes slip into this heresy unknowingly? I think so.
Jacob Arminius was a Dutch theologian who lived in the late 1500s. His theology became quite popular, largely because Jacob Arminius, alongside being a theologian, was also a song writer. He wrote many a hymn loaded with his theology. Critically, he also wrote children’s songs. So two key side points, if you want to protect your ministry from heresy, guard your music and guard your children’s work. Because his songs were popular and, at least for the culture of the time, catchy, Christians embibed his theology without even realising it. The problem, for both Calvin and Arminius was the question of how human free will and responsibility relates to the sovereignty of God. For Jacob Arminius, the emphasis was on human will. It’s a sticky question. Do we have free will? Are we responsible for our actions? If yes, then how can God be sovereign? If God is fully sovereign in our salvation, in short if the Calvinistic doctrines of TULIP were true, then how can human will be free and how can we be responsible. You see, here is what Calvin argues, commonly shortened to the acronym TULIP:
T — Total Depravity
Humans are totally depraved. This doesn’t mean that we are as bad as we possibly could be all of the time, but it means that we are totally enslaved to sin and where that sin is restrained, it is restrained, not by our desire to bring glory to God, but by our desires for self preservation and elevation, in some form. The application point of this for us today is that it is totally impossible for us to choose God by ourselves. For Jacob Arminius, this means we do not have free will and cannot be held responsible.
U — Unconditional Election
In short, as there is nothing in us that deserves the good favour and blessing of God, so our salvation is not conditional on anything within us, anything that we can say, think or do. This is ‘free’ grace, in the sense that we do not earn it. It also means that since the choice cannot be ours, the choice is God’s alone to act and save us. Again, for Mr Arminius, this means we do not have free will.
L — Limited Atonement
The ins and outs of this one make it the most controversial point so I won’t address it in detail here. In short, the idea is that Christ died for the elect and not for the whole world. As I said, the arguments for and against this idea are involved, but for now, and for Jacob Arminius, this obviously means that it is not possible for someone that God does not choose to be saved, even if they could choose themselves.
I — Irresistable Grace
This is talking about the effective call of God. Once God calls someone to salvation, gives them new birth and opens their eyes to see Jesus and the gospel, all by grace. This is irresistable. The person will repent and believe and they cannot ‘resist’. I think it is fairly obvious why Arminians don’t like this.
P — Perseverance of the Saints
Following on from the previous point, this means that those called by God will persevere. They will keep going to the end. Someone who has truly been called and regenerated, cannot at some later point ‘unchoose’ Jesus Christ and fall away. Again, Jacob Arminius saw this as a problem.
And so, in Arminian Theology, none of this is true to the extent that it is in Calvinism. He would not have outright denied that God was sovereign, but in effect he taught and believed (and sung!) that a person had totally free will and was totally responsible for all that they did and therefore it was on them, to choose Christ. To choose repentance and faith and to choose to follow Jesus. And, it was ultimately on them to keep choosing Christ thereafter.
Why Arminianism is ‘neater’
In many ways, this theology is neater. It is easier for us to get our head around it. And it makes for easier application in sermons and Bible studies. Think about it, the application of prayer in some ways are far easier to get to. God is all powerful and God can act and since there is genuine risk that we might fall away, praying for protection from this is urgent. Yes, if we chose to abandon Christ, God could not stop us, but we can pray that God can supernaturally order the circumstances of our lives to make it unlikely we would choose that. In evangelism, the applications seem neater don’t they? Person X will not become a Christian unless they choose, so every effort must be made to persuade, every evidence presented and we must pray that we have good conversation and ability to speak well. Salvation depends upon it.
For Jacob Arminius, this was key. The total sovereignty of God and human will/responsibility could not be held together. How could people be held responsible for rejecting Christ if they lacked the capacity to do anything else? Why would the Bible so frequently warn against apostasy if it were not a real threat?
Where the problems come in
The problems come in, when you start to compare the theology within Arminiasim to the Bible. And then further still when you use logic to extrapolate from what Arminius taught and then compare that to the Bible.
Because the New Testatament is clear, across the board on the total sovereignty of God in Salvation. And by salvation, I mean from start to finish. Incorporating the cross, the ressurection, the proclamation of the gospel, the regeneration and new birth of believers, their perseverance as Christians and all the way through to our final glorification and eternity.
The images of the unbeliever.
In the New Testament, the unbeliever is described as enslaved, deaf, blind, lame and dead. The idea that we could somehow snap out of all of these ailments and somehow free ourselves and choose God is ludicrous.
The descriptions of the unbeliever
Combine the physical imagery outlined above with some of the other words used to describe us as unbelievers. Hostile to God in our minds. Alienated from God. Dead in sin and following the ruler of the Kingdom of the air (satan). The inevitable conclusion is that we are so bound up in our sin and sinfulness that it is impossible for us to do anything to please God. In fact, in Romans 7 & 8, this is explicitly stated. Romans 8:7–8 (ESV): For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
The Sovereignty of God in Salvation
Given this picture of the state of mankind — totally unable to please God, it makes sense therefore that Salvation belongs to God in Christ. This comes from numerous places where it is either explicity stated, implied or assumed. To give a few examples, in Acts 4:12 we learn, speaking of Jesus, that salvation is found in no one else for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. If salvation is only found in Christ, and in no one else, then any other person, including [insert your own name here] is not able to save you. Ephesians 2 makes it clear that when we were dead, it was God that made us alive in Christ. Further explaining that we are saved by grace, through faith, and this faith is not from ourselves but is the gift of God. This is why we cannot boast. If we chose God, if we chose to repent, then Paul’s argument here makes no sense because we could boast in that choice and in our wisdom that enabled us to make the choice. But, we cannot boast says Paul, because everything, even our faith, comes from God alone. In John’s Gospel, the famous chapter 3, Jesus makes it clear that no-one will see the Kingdom unless they are born again of the Spirit. By this he is referring to the Holy Spirit. Later, when speaking of the Holy Spirit, in ch 16, he makes the point that when the Spirit comes he will convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement and that he will guide the disciples into “all truth”. Jesus says to them in v12 that there would be more he would say, but they cannot bear them now. Only with the Spirit can they do so, because, only with the Spirit can they see the Kingdom. We therefore see that only when a person has the Holy Spirit, has been born again, can they see the Kingdom, be convicted of sin and be guided into the truths of the gospel.
And from this, and other passages, we conclude that salvation belongs to our God (Rev 7:10)
The sovereignty of God in our perseverance
Further, the Bible is pretty clear that we stay Christian and keep going to the end not due to our own choice or force of will but because of God’s power. In John 10v26–31 we learn that some do not believe Jesus’ words because they are not ‘his sheep’. (Further evidence of God’s sovereignty in salvation). He will give his sheep eternal life and they will never perish. No-one can snatch them from his hand. The point is clear, such is the power of the Lord Jesus that he is more than capable of keeping his sheep safe and no threat will overcome them, in an eternal sense.
Then there are the classic verses in Romans chapter 8. In many ways they speak for themselves!
Romans 8:28–30 (ESV): And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified
Here Paul states the unbroken chain of our salvation, a chain where every link is the responsibility and work of God and a chain therefore, with no weak links.
What would Arminianism lead us to conclude?
The problems go further when you take Arminianism further. We are led to conclusions that are even further away from what the Bible teaches:
God makes it possible for you to be saved but ultimately he cannot save you. That rest with you and your choice. Also, since you can ‘un-choose’, ultimately God cannot keep you Christian. We cannot therefore conclude that God is sovereign as ultimately your will trumps His when it comes to salvation. God may be powerful, but ultimately, as far as salvation is concerned, you hold the cards.
About the cross
The cross becomes odd at best. Yes it is still true that Jesus death was necessary as a sacrifice for sin in order that we might be forgiven, but ultimately, since God is not totally sovereign in salvation, there was the very real possiblity that Jesus would have hung on the cross for nothing. If no-one had chosen God then the cross would have been a waste.
Further, we conclude that the cross is not actually sufficient to save anyone. It is necessary, but not quite enough. It’s like a buffet in front of a man on the brink of starvation. Yes salvation is there, but in order to live, the man must eat.
About our assurance
In short we have none. Under Arminianism, it is possible for us to ‘un-choose’ our salvation down the line. Today, I am a Christian but I have no idea if that will always be true so I have no ultimate assurance. Worse, we know God is a God of grace, but actually constitutes apostasy? It would be possible for us to fall away and come back multiple times throughout our lives. Under Arminianism, any momentary assurance of the effectiveness of the gospel for us depends on the answer to the question — what is apostasy? Your left in an fearful situation of never quite knowing. Is it wilful sin? — Then most of us would ‘fall away’ daily. Is it doubting that the gospel is true? Is consistent habit of doubt that spans weeks or months? I do not know how Arminius would answer this question but I fear without a clear answer we left constantly asking, have I done enough? Have I actually ‘chosen’ Christ or is that niggling doubt or continual battle with sin enough to bar me from the Kingdom of God.
Ultimately, we are left in a perilous place.
Arminianism and the patience of God
So, after an introduction that was far longer than I thought it would be, we return to the original point. And now, it can be briefer.
When we read 2 Peter 3v9, we read that “the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” This is often taught as a spur to evangelism. Every day is a great day to tell people the gospel! It is also taught as a reason to give thanks — “Give thanks that Jesus did not come back the day before you got converted!”
There is a danger here. The danger is that the picture we form is one of God waiting until the last possible second, desperate for more to be saved. Like in the movies, when the guy has to shut the gate to prevent some threat (fire/explosion/dinosaur/monster/flood of water/etc etc) from coming in but he leaves it until the last possible second so as many as possible might be saved.
The picture is of a God who holds the keys to salvation but is helpless to effect that salvation and is limited to watching and waiting, hoping against hope that people might be saved.
This is Arminianism. With all the problems that come with it.
So, when we read this verse, and others like it and when we teach them. Be careful. This is where developing our knowledge of the Bible and thinking biblically can be really helpful and prevent us from inadvertantly believing things that skew our understanding of God and the gospel to some dangerous places.
We CAN give thanks for God’s patience with us when we read 2 Peter 3. This IS a spur to evangelism and prayer. Because God is patient with us. Scripture teaches that God has set a day. We do not know when but we know it is in the future. We know this becuase if it was now we’d know and if it had happened, we’d know. God has set a day, a day that He knows. And God is patient, mercifully patient, that this day is in the future with all the sin and suffering that continues to run rampant in His world. He has set it in the future becuase that’s when it needs to be in order for God to save His people. We can give thanks for His patience with His world, His mercy in the gospel and His grace shown to us in our salvation. We can give thanks for this because of the wonderful truth that God set the day, deliberately, in order that we His people, would hear the gospel, receive the Spirit and repent. And we should crack on with telling others the gospel. If the delay to the return of Christ is because of God’s patience, then there are still those whom God predestined and foreknew that God will save as they believe the gospel and repent. As God gives them His Spirit. In that unbroken chain, strong with the full power and might of a Sovereign God, hearing the gospel is a key part of that chain. Not a weak link as it does not depend on us, but an equally strong link as it depends on God’s work both in and though us and in and through His people who hear our words. We do not know who they are, but God does.
And so, we end up in the same place, but with better reasons and without that pesky heresy. The patience of God is something we can give thanks for, praise God for and does spur us on and give us great encouragement as we tell others the gospel.