Human Freewill and Capabilities: Arminianism 101

Abstract: Arminianism has been used so broadly that it means different things to different people and, as a result, it has been unfairly accused of sentiments that are not truly Arminian. Arminianism champions the Biblical theology of redemption in Christ as being freely offered to all by grace through faith. The need in our time for the light of Christ’s grace and the glory of God’s love for all is as desperate as it has ever been. Therefore, this series intends to boldly proclaim the righteousness of God in the good news of salvation for all people everywhere in the name of Jesus Christ.

 

ARBITRIUM: FREEWILL CHOICE

In Arminius’ theology classes at Leiden between 1603-09, he held a number of Public Disputations (originally 25), in which he addressed the subject of our study today: freewill choice. He argued that human freewill signifies both the faculty of the mind for understanding and the judgment that arises from that faculty for understanding.

He argued for five states of liberty with respect to “will” (whether human or divine):

1. Freedom from the control or jurisdiction of another and any obligation to render obedience to another

2. Freedom from the inspection, care, and governance of a superior

3. Freedom from necessity, whether external or internal, which determines one’s actions

4. Freedom from sin and its dominion

5. Freedom from misery

Arminius argues that:

Of these five modes, the first two appertain to God alone; to whom also on this account, autexousia, perfect independence, or complete freedom of action, is attributed. But the remaining three modes may belong to man, nay in certain respects they do pertain to him.

Arminius Speaks, p.1

Human freewill is not free from any obligation or higher jurisdiction. God alone assumes absolute independence and sovereignty over all other beings. Likewise, human freewill is not free from any superior moral accountability and oversight. God alone stands above the judgment and assessment of any other since any judgment or assessment made by any inferior to him is necessarily invalid. Indeed, the idea of God submitting to the assessment, control, or authority of any inferior being is utterly laughable and inherently disqualifies such a being by all means of both “logic” and “scripture” from truly being “god”.

Therefore, when we think of human freewill, if we are going to do so biblically, we cannot think of ourselves as occupying these realms of sovereignty. We are subject to the will of God. Anyone familiar with the distinctions between Arminianism and Calvinism understands that there is great debate between how we are subject to his will, but on this point both theological camps agree: we are ultimately subject to the divine will of God.

In this respect, I cannot will to both sin and live because the divine will has sovereingly and irresistibly decreed that “the soul who sins shall die”:

Ezekiel 18:4 (CSB) — 4 Look, every life belongs to me. The life of the father is like the life of the son—both belong to me. The person who sins is the one who will die.

God is perfectly within the bounds of his right to make such a decree without violating human freewill because the absolute sovereignty of will never belonged to created beings. Every creature belongs to God, and is ultimately under the care and supervision of God as those who are accountable to him in every way.

Commenting on the third and fourth aspects of human freewill, Arminius observes:

Freedom from necessity always pertains to him because it exists naturally in the will, as its proper attribute, so that there cannot be any will if it is not free. Freedom from misery, which pertains to man when recently created and not then fallen into sin, will again pertain to him when he shall be translated in body and soul into celestial blessedness. But about these two modes we have no dispute. It remains, therefore, for us to discuss that which is a freedom from sin and its dominion, and which is the principal controversy of these times.

Arminius Speaks, p.2

There was not any dispute at this time regarding these two aspects of the human will: we were created in a state in which our will was not subjected to misery, and was therefore truly free in this regard, but now we are subjected to natural corruption so that our wills are not truly free from all the constraints of such corruption. And to freedom from necessity, it was of no controversy at this time that the human will was not determined by any external or internal force acting to animate it in such a way that determined its response. On this point, at least, the debate has changed and this “freedom” certainly has become a matter of contention, with some modern Calvinists insisting on various forms of determinism wherein, whether by internal or external means, the individual choices of each person are determined for them so that they act, and their will is controlled, by some other means that exists beyond their individual will. Instead, the controversy at the time of this writing weighed heavily on whether or not our will is free with respect to sin and its dominion.

Commenting on the final aspect of human freewill, Arminius first deals with one principled question:

Is there within man a freedom of will from sin and its dominion, and how far does it extend? Or rather, what are the powers of the whole man to understand, to will, and to do that which is good?

Arminius Speaks, p. 2

Does the human will retain its independence from all influences, both internal and external, including from the influence of sin? This question is most vital because it will define the “manner” in which the human will is or is not “free”.

In answering this question Arminius defines two additional concepts regarding the human condition and the nature of “goodness”:

To return an appropriate answer to this question, the distinction of a good object, and the diversity of men’s conditions, must both enter into our consideration. The GOOD THINGS presented to man are three, natural, which he has in common with many other creatures; animal, which belong to him as a man; and spiritual, which are also deservedly called Celestial or Divine, and which are consentaneous to him as being a partaker of the Divine Nature. The STATES or CONDITIONS are likewise three, that of primitive innocence, in which God placed him by creation; that of subsequent corruption, into which he fell through sin when destitute of primitive innocence; and, lastly, that of renewed righteousness, to which state he is restored by the grace of Christ.

Arminius Speaks, p. 2

“Goodness” exists in three states:

1. Natural goodness, which is common to all created beings

2. Animal goodness, which belong to us as human beings

3. Spiritual goodness, which derive from the divine nature

Arminius concludes that it is within the capacity of the human will to do desire and perform acts of both “natural good” and “animal good”; any disagreement on these terms would seem easily dismissed by our experience of reality, wherein doctors heal sick people, neighbors comfort each other in times of distress, and so on and so forth. While these things are good to natural human beings like us, they are not sufficient to please God because God is spirit. Therefore, the main question of interest pertains to the human capacity to desire, will, and perform acts of spiritual goodness.

To answer this question according to Scripture, we must define the three states of the “human condition”:

1. Primitive innocence, which belonged to us as we were created by God

2. Corruption, which belongs to us as fallen creatures

3. Restoration, which belongs to those who have been restored by the grace of Christ

Very little debate exists regarding the first and final states of the human condition: we were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) and are being restored to the same image in Christ Jesus (Eph. 4:24; Col 3:10). The question then pertains to the second human condition that exists in corruption. Do we have the capacity to desire, will, and perform acts of spiritual goodness in our state of corruption?

In answering this question, Arminius observes the following:

But man was not so confirmed in this state of innocence, as to be incapable of being moved, by the representation presented to him of some good, (whether… relating to this animal life, or… to his spiritual life) inordinately and unlawfully to look upon it and to desire it, and of his own spontaneous as well as free motion, and through a preposterous desire for that good, to decline from the obedience which had been prescribed to him.

Nay, having turned away from the light of his own mind and his chief good, which is God, or, at least, having turned towards that chief good not in the manner in which he ought to have done, and besides having turned in mind and heart towards an inferior good, he transgressed the command given to him for life. By this foul deed, he precipitated himself from that noble and elevated condition into a state of the deepest infelicity, which is under the dominion of sin. For “to whom any one yields himself a servant to obey”, (Rom. 6:16) and “of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage”, and is his regularly assigned slave (2 Pet. 2:19). In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing.” St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: “Christ does not say, without me ye can do but little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any arduous thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do nothing.”

Arminius Speaks, p. 3

Humanity rebelled against God and fell from our state of innocence when Adam and Eve sought to take for themselves some spiritual good using material means, disobeying God, and being cast out from the presence of God wherein they were free to live in righteousness, and being consumed by the darkness into which they had fallen, wherein they were now free from righteousness.

Particular attention should be paid to the results of the fall:

1. The free will of man towards spiritual good is wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened

2. The free will of man towards spiritual good is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost

3. The powers of the human will are likewise eliminated, apart from being enabled by divine grace

The Arminian view of human freewill has never exalted the human will to the heights of supreme sovereignty or suggested that fallen humans have the capacity to properly will, desire, and perform acts of spiritual goodness on the merits of their own strength.

Instead, humans were created in a state of perfect freedom, and were lost to the powers of sin and darkness, in which our wills are taken captive by various means so that we cannot properly perceive, discern, understand, desire, and perform acts of “spiritual goodness”.

The tragic reality of the fall is still experienced today in the following:

2 Peter 2:19 (CSB) — 19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption, since people are enslaved to whatever defeats them.

The terrible promise of freedom that darkness makes ultimately results in spiritual bondage to sin and death. There will always exist an impassable chasm between “darkness” and “the light”, in which those who serve the darkness cannot also experience the light; we are either free in one and estranged from the other, or estranged from the one and free in the other.

Therefore, Arminius concludes that the human mind is darkened to all spiritual goodness (1 Cor. 2:14) and lost therein (Rom. 1:21-22; Eph. 4:17-18; Ti. 3:3; Eph 5:8).

Another important question in this study pertains to the capacity for the human will to respond to the Law of God or the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In answering this question, Arminius observes:

This is true, not only when, from the truth of the law which has in some measure been inscribed on the mind, it is preparing to form conclusions by the understanding; but likewise when, by simple apprehension, it would receive the truth of the gospel externally offered to it. For the human mind judges that to be “foolishness” which is the most excellent “wisdom” of God. (1 Cor. 1:18, 24.)… To the darkness of the mind succeeds the perverseness of the affections and of the heart, according to which it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil. The Apostle was unable to afford a more luminous description of this perverseness, than he has given in the following words: “The carnal mind is enmity against God. For it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then, they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom. 8:7.) For this reason, the human heart itself is very often called deceitful and perverse, uncircumcised, hard and stony.” (Jer. 13:10; 17:9; Ezek. 36:26.) Its imagination is said to be “only evil from his very youth;” (Gen. 6:5; 8:21;) and “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries,” &c. (Matt. 15:19.)

Arminius Speaks, p. 4

We cannot properly perceive, discern, understand, desire, and perform acts of “spiritual goodness” in our fallen state of corruption because the gospel is described as being both a stumbling block and utter foolishness to the lost, whose minds are described by the apostle Paul as being immersed in spiritual darkness:

Ephesians 4:17–19 (CSB) — 17 Therefore, I say this and testify in the Lord: You should no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their thoughts. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts. 19 They became callous and gave themselves over to promiscuity for the practice of every kind of impurity with a desire for more and more.

To say that the human will is capable on its own to properly understand the gospel requires that there be some light in their natural understanding regarding the life of God, that their hearts be in some way receptive to his goodness, and that their thinking not be futile (i.e. abortive, bootless, fruitless, ineffective, ineffectual, unavailable, unavailing, unprevailing, unproductive, useless, vain, empty, hollow, idle, nugatory, otiose; inadequate, inefficacious, inefficient, insufficient; unsatisfactory, unsuccessful; or idiomatically: in vain, no dice, of no avail, to no effect).

Many Christians will be shocked to hear these words so clearly stated by Jacob Arminius because they will quickly discover that the main difference on this issue between Calvinists and Arminians exists, not in the dispute as to whether or not humans are sufficient in their state of corruption to enact spiritual goodness, but in whether or not humans act (towards both sin and righteousness) being irresistibly compelled by the divine will. In Arminian thought, Adam and Eve were not compelled to disobey God by the irresistible divine will, but by their own innocent desire to obtain what they perceived to be “good” apart from God himself. Humanity persists in evil by our stubborn determination to be “good” entirely apart from God and by our love for those things which are evil in God’s sight, but which we either call “good” or desire because they please our carnal appetites. And humanity is restored to righteousness by the power of Christ’s resurrection and ascension being enabled by God through the Holy Spirit to properly perceive, discern, understand, desire, and perform acts of “spiritual goodness” by the prevenient grace of God; those who encounter the powerful gospel of Jesus Christ and yet are still perishing will do so because of their stubborn and impenitent hearts, which resist the grace of Christ because of their insistence that they can “do good” on their own.

CITATIONS: ARMINIUS SPEAKS

John D. Wagner’s collection of Arminius’ essential writings on predestination, free will, and the nature of God serves as the basis for my study on this series. Wagner’s considerable effort in organizing and presenting the essence of Arminius’ teaching on these subjects is of incredible value, and I highly recommend this volune – Arminius Speaks – to any student who is genuinely interested in accessing what Arminius actually taught.

Any material that I take from other sources will be properly cited. But to save time and labor on my part, I will simply denote the page number and title when referencing this work.

Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God: James Arminius: Wagner, John D: Wipf and Stocke Publishers, 199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3, Eugene, OR 97401

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