Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Is Arminianism Semi-Pelagian?

By Andrew Faris


I am convinced Arminianism is wrong. I am not convinced it is semi-Pelagian (or "works-based" in any biblical sense of the term).

But I hear it all the time: if humans make a free decision to follow Christ, then they have contributed to their salvation meritoriously. I barely feel the need to cite this anti-Arminian charge because Calvinists so commonly make it, but I will note that it was brought up recently in a comment on my post on Rick Warren's semi-pelagian gaffe, and again in Sam Storms' book, Chosen for Life, who argues it constantly.

Here are my problems with the charge:

1. Evangelical Arminians believe that accepting the gospel means recognizing one's own sin-induced inability to save oneself and thus one's total dependance on Christ for righteousness. That is, Arminians affirm their inability to contribute to their own salvation. This is relevant in two ways. First, Arminians do not affirm any form of Pelagianism. Second, what they do affirm is in fact the opposite of Pelagianism, i.e. their total need for Christ's righteousness.

2. Invoking the name of one of the most famous heretics in Christian history, even with the modifier "semi" in front of it, is pretty harsh rhetoric. Of course, harsh rhetoric is sometimes deserved, but not in this case considering the affirmations mentioned above.

3. Most importantly, I am not convinced that a free decision to accept the gospel constitutes what Paul calls a "work," even from a Reformed understanding of that term. Reformed folks think that when Paul condemns works, he condemns those actions by which humans think they can tip the scales of righteousness meritoriously in their favor. Paul famously (and gloriously!) says that our salvation is not as a result of works, but is a result of grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). If I freely recognize that I am unable to gain any favor with God by my actions because sin has disqualified me from that possibility, I am not working- at least not in the sense that Paul uses the term. Put simply, I cannot see how even the volitionally free affirmation that I am unable to work toward my salvation counts as a work toward my salvation.

An illustration may help. A professor of mine has been known to hold up a five dollar bill in class and say to his students, "Someone come take this from me- you can have it for free." A student walks up, takes the five, then sits down. The professor then asks, "Did that student's walk from his seat to grab the bill constitute him working for that bill?" The answer he expects is "no." And I think he is right. Of course one could say, "Yes Dr. Williams- the student had to get up from his chair, walk to the front of the class, and take it from your hand. Those were all works." But that is not the point. The point is that he has done nothing to earn the five dollars. He has simply taken it for free. It was given to him. Just like my Christmas presents were given to me freely even though I had to walk to the tree, pick them up, and unwrap them myself. I didn't earn my presents. I did nothing to merit them whatsoever. They were given to me.

My suggestion then is that Paul condemns the "earning" idea when he pronounces the soteriological worthlessness of our works.

All that said, insofar as Arminianism is wrong, it still distorts something about grace. This is a necessary corollary of being wrong. I think Calvinism views depravity and grace more biblically than does Arminianism. But that does not mean Arminians are semi-Pelagians.

In fact I think Pelagius might be a little angry that his name was used as an identifier for a system so high on grace...


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post very much as someone who has recently been converted to a reformed point of view I have had this thought thrown at me on many occasions.

Nicely put.

Andy Gammons said...

Dear Andrew,
I found your blog through Jim Spiegel's blog. When I read your first post, I had to comment. This is something that I have been thinking a lot about lately. How do our actions (that we really take) coincide with God's transcendence, providence, and sovereignty. Our pastor John Piper talks often about "means" of grace. For instance, it would seem to me that our "accepting" of Jesus (in Evangelical speak) is a means of grace. Of course there is some action on our part in our salvation. And of course this is of no merit of our own.

I was speaking with my wife the other night about this and I said to her that the order seems very important. First God gives us the gift of Faith through his Grace and then we follow him. If the order is messed up, it becomes a meritorious work.

Thanks for the post. I am going to read more.

Andy Gammons

Andrew Faris said...


I'm with you all the way until the last sentence in the second paragraph. I do think that Arminians obscure grace and its means. But it seems to me that labeling that mistake "meritorious work" goes well beyond what the Bible calls "works" and actually confuses that issue.

I might add that the Arminian belief in prevenient grace explains how a totally depraved human can make a free decision, such that the system actually allows for some grace before that free decision is made. This puts even less stress on works.

Again, I think this is wrong, but I do not think it is semi-Pelagian.

Thanks for the comments gents.