Two potential internal conceptual problems remain for the Arminian understanding of salvation. If so, these are reasons to reconsider the strength of the other reasons I gave in favor of Arminianism. However, as I’ll argue today, at least the first of these remaining two objections turn out not to be an internal conceptual problem for Arminianism.
Arminianism is Semi-Pelagian
It is often argued that Arminianism is, at root, semi-Pelagian, and therefore should be rejected. To understand this objection and response, we must first do a bit of church history for background.
Pelagius (354-418 A.D.) taught that people are basically good, and therefore can overcome moral and spiritual deficiencies by their own efforts. Therefore salvation comes through our good works, rather than the grace and mercy of God alone, provided through the death of Christ.
Augustine (354-430) led the critique of this view, showing clearly that we are fallen, not basically good. Therefore must depend on God’s grace alone for our salvation, and in no way rely on our works to find favor with God. Being inconsistent with the clear teaching of Scripture, Pelagianism was condemned in the fifth century at the Councils of Carthage and Ephesus.
Yet some modified the view into what became known as semi-Pelagianism. While granting original sin our thus need of God’s grace to some extent, we must also “do our part” by doing good works to earn our salvation. This view lives on to our day.
To illustrate these three views, suppose you fall into a deep pit. The biblical teaching is that God must lower a basket down for you to get into, or else you have no way of escape. If you get in the basket, he will pull you to safety.
Pelagianism said you, left to your own resources, can build a ladder and climb out. You don’t need God’s help. You are fully capable of solving your problem yourself.
Semi-Pelagianism agrees God must be involved. But he just lowers a rope part of the way down. You then must do your part–building a ladder up to the rope he is providing.
Semi-Pelagianism was also shown to be contrary to biblical teaching and condemned at the Second Council of Orange in 529. Yet it lives on in all views that deny our total depravity and thus believe we have the ability to please God by our own efforts, including the ability of our works to attain salvation.
Some argue that the Arminian view is semi-Pelagian, in so far as faith is a work we do, in order to earn our salvation. However, this is a misunderstanding of Arminianism in at least two ways.
Misunderstanding One: Arminians Also Affirm Depravity and the Need for Grace
First, Arminian (of at least the Wesleyan variety) begins with the affirmation that we are born dead in our transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1). It is God who must reach out to us, for we have nothing to offer that is good in and of ourselves. It truly and simply is by grace that we have been saved (Ephesians 2:8). Our Total Depravity is wholeheartedly affirmed (of the extensive sense, as discussed in Post 4).
Therefore, there are no works whatsoever that we can do to help earn our salvation, contrary to semi-Pelagianism. Rather, God must first reach out to us. He does so through his prevenient grace (see Post 2 for a discussion of this idea). This allows us to once again access the libertarian free will that is part of our nature but has been blocked by the Fall (see Post 8 for more on this).
In summary, the Arminian view takes the effects of the Fall as seriously as the Calvinist view. And it offers an equally (or perhaps more) plausible explanation of how God’s grace works to save us, in spite of ourselves.
Misunderstanding Two: This Objection Misunderstands the Natures of Works and Faith
Second, this objection is a misunderstanding of what faith and works are. Erik Raymond summarizes this distinction well in his article “How Is Faith Not a Work?” on the Gospel Coalition website:
I like what Tom Schreiner writes in his Romans commentary: “Working is the result of one’s own capability, but believing relies on another.” It comes down to what faith is. Faith is trusting in God rather than trusting in self. If faith were trusting in self, then it would be works, because it has as its object the performance of self rather than another. Think about Abram in Genesis 15:6: he believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. His faith was not in his ability to have more descendants then the stars of the sky but in God to make this happen.
Our faith is not a work, because faith trusts in the ability of another rather than relying on ourselves.
So, rather than being a work, faith is merely the instrument God designed us to use in order to access his gift.
By analogy, my wife recently got me a gift for my birthday. She wrapped it and offered it to me. I eagerly reached out and took the gift she was offering. But reaching out and taking the gift was not a work that earned me the gift. My arms and hands were simply the instruments God has given me to take hold of physical things offered by me. In the same way, faith–the ability to place my trust in Christ’s death to pay for my sin–is simply the instrument God has given me to take hold of his free gift.
Once clarifying the definitions of “faith” and “work,” it seems clear that faith is not a work. Therefore the Arminian is not claiming that anything we do saves us, including our choice to place or faith in Christ. Arminianism is not semi-Pelagian.
When Arminianism and related terms such as “faith” and “work” are properly understood, it becomes clear that Arminianism is not semi-Pelagian. This is not an internal conceptual problem for the Arminian.
There remains one last possible internal conceptual problem for Arminianism. I’ll look at this final objection next week. Until then, grace and peace.