An Arminian Response to Charles Spurgeon’s “A Defense of Calvinism”

Charles Spurgeon (d. 1892)Error #1: Equating the Word “Arminian” with the Doctrine of Pelagianism. Spurgeon said: “Well can I remember the manner in which I learned the doctrines of grace in a single instant. Born, as all of us are by nature, an Arminian, I still believed the old things I had heard continually from the pulpit, and did not see the grace of God. When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself, and though I sought the Lord earnestly, I had no idea the Lord was seeking me.”

To this day, as can be demonstrated repetitively in the documentary Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism (2004), this seems to be the main problem in the Calvinist-Arminian debate. I’m not saying Arminians don’t have wrong views of Calvinism sometimes, because we all have a sinful nature (Rom. 7:14-25). But as a Wesleyan Arminian, and as a Christian who hungers for the truth of Scripture, I truly believe that Spurgeon has unfairly tagged the word “Arminian” with the heretical concept of Pelagianism. In this above quote, he is loosely dealing with the concept of saving grace. In this area of soteriology, there are three views of what Scripture teaches on the subject:

Monergism – The Calvinist view that man is so completely, totally depraved and corrupted with a sinful nature, that the grace of God (the saving power of the Holy Spirit) must come upon certain individuals chosen for salvation (the elect). When these elected, chosen men are pressed by the Holy Spirit to repent and believe in the Gospel, it is all God’s work. Not even their “repenting” nor their “believing” can be credited to these men; nor can it partially be credited to them as if God was helping them half-way, and they did the rest. God does it all; He possesses these corrupted men by His Spirit, and makes them saints, to persevere in faith and righteousness for the rest of their lives.

Synergism – The Arminian view that all mankind is totally depraved and corrupted with a sinful nature, but all mankind has the influence of the Holy Spirit upon them, and all mankind is being drawn to the Gospel by the Holy Spirit through the conscience (prevenient grace). It admits that there are only a small group of people that receive salvation by faith (the elect), but this people of God enters into their salvation on the condition that they choose to repent and believe in the Gospel. Not so with the consistent Calvinist, who denies this experience of choice in his conversion to Christ. But I would cite Joshua’s challenge: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15); and Elijah: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal is god, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21); and Peter: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). To “repent” means to turn away from your sins—it is the same thing as choosing to resist evil, believe in the Gospel, and live a holy life. The Calvinist would reply that this produces vanity in the Arminian; that any Christian who believes he played a role in his salvation must eventually be puffed up with pride and self-exaltation; that only a monergist-Calvinist can rightly give all glory to God (soli Deo gloria), because as a man, he did no repenting nor believing. To this notion, as a synergist-Arminian, I reply: but such a view ignores the Arminian view of prevenient grace—the Holy Spirit’s presence is very real and present: it is “a very present help” in time of need (Ps. 46:1). So, the Arminian has no problem giving all the glory to God for His help, His salvation, His rescue; while at the same time, he acknowledges that in Heaven, the righteous will receive the rewards of their faith, holiness, and good works—according to God’s will; as Paul said in the last days of his life: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). The Arminian has no problem singing: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” But he also understands that Jesus will give rewards to the saints after death.

Pelagianism – The Concise Encyclopedia defines it this way: a “Christian heresy of the 5th century that emphasized free will and the goodness of human nature. Pelagius (d. 418), a British monk who settled in Africa in 410, was eager to raise moral standards among Christians. Rejecting the arguments of those who attributed their sins to human weakness, he argued that God made humans free to choose between good and evil and that sin is an entirely voluntary act. His disciple Celestius denied the church’s doctrine of original sin and the necessity of infant baptism. Pelagius and Celestius were excommunicated in 418, but their views continued to find defenders until the Council of Ephesus condemned Pelagianism in 431.” Basically, Pelagianism is the rejection of any need for the Holy Spirit’s help, divine assistance, or saving graces; it affirms that all mankind has it well within his own natural ability to obey God’s commandments and live a holy life pleasing to God; and further, it rejects the doctrine of original sin, that man is naturally sinful, and that even Christians saved by the Spirit, still have a sinful nature in their flesh. Pelagianism denies the sinful nature of man completely. Charles Finney, the great revivalist, unfortunately fell into the error of rejecting original sin; but it would be wrong to call him a “Pelagian” properly speaking; in the actual working out of the Christian life, he affirmed the need for the influence of the Holy Spirit. Pelagianism, on the other hand, is a form of humanism—the idea that man is naturally good.

As a Wesleyan Arminian, who holds to the Synergist view of God’s grace, to me it is completely wrong that Spurgeon would use the word “Arminian” under the notion of Pelagianism. Spurgeon said, “Born, as all of us are by nature, an Arminian, I still believed the old things I had heard continually from the pulpit, and did not see the grace of God. When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself, and though I sought the Lord earnestly, I had no idea the Lord was seeking me.” Here he equates the word “Arminian” with the notion of a Pelagian conversion experience. “When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself”—Spurgeon said. True, many new Christians have this notion when they choose to live for God; I know I did. But I also experienced the Holy Spirit a lot in Charismatic worship, and could feel the presence of God very strongly after I just got saved. I didn’t know any theology or doctrine, but I was definitely experiencing the Holy Spirit working in my heart. But the flitting thought or idea that my act of turning away from sin and living for God, was my action alone, and that God was not helping me do it—is a mistake, an accidental Pelagian thought—but is in no sense, Pelagianism in the doctrinal sense. Further, John Wesley’s The Doctrine of Original Sin (1756) is more than enough evidence, to prove that this champion of Arminian theology, certainly upheld the Scriptural revelation on the sinful nature of mankind. And, although there may be anonymous Pelagians in any denomination, it would be very wrong to call Methodists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, Holiness, and any other Christians faithful to the Wesleyan theological tradition—it would be an error to call them “Pelagians.” No, actually, they are Synergists.

Error #2: Works of Supererogation Attributed to Arminianism.
Spurgeon said: “What is the heresy of Rome, but the addition of something to the perfect merits of Jesus Christ—the bringing in of the works of the flesh, to assist in our justification? And what is the heresy of Arminianism but the addition of something to the work of the Redeemer? Every heresy, if brought to the touchstone, will discover itself here. I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”

The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England say: “Voluntary Works besides, over and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for His sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants” (XIV, “Of Works of Supererogation”). All his life, Wesley considered himself and his Methodist preachers to be Anglicans, as far as their denominational affiliation was concerned; their theology was an Arminian-Anglican theology—the via media between Catholic salvation and Reformed salvation. In this light, it is very similar to Martin Luther’s views of salvation, but less so John Calvin’s. Yet, on the subject of justification by faith, Wesley said, “I think on justification just as I have done any time these seven and twenty years—and just as Mr. Calvin does. In this respect I do not differ from him a hair’s breadth” (“Letter to John Newton,” May 14, 1765). Wesley, and all other Arminians (myself included), would heartily agree with the Church of England on this point: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort” (XI, “Of the Justification of Man”). But the question of justification is one thing, and the order of salvation quite another—what happens to a Christian after he initially experiences justification by faith alone? Well, he has THE CHRISTIAN LIFE to live! So, after he is turned from darkness to Light (Acts 26:18), he is required by God to live his life in holiness and righteousness (Luke 1:75), to “walk in the light, as He is in the light” (1 John 1:7). I agree that preaching Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 1:23) is necessary for initial conversion from evil to good, from paganism to Christian faith, from satan to God. But after this beginner’s faith has been experienced, we Christians are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do!” (Eph. 2:10). As long as these good works are rooted in God’s commandments, then they are not works of the flesh. What reasonable Christian would call preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, or giving to the poor in Christ’s Name—works of the flesh? No one, I hope.

Error #3: Those Who Believe in Conditional Security Preach a False Gospel. Spurgeon said: “Nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.”

Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, John Wesley, and all preachers who stand in the historic Lutheran and Methodist traditions have all believed in the conditional security of the believer. To abhor this doctrine, is to abhor something which these reformers and revivalists clearly affirmed. However, I would say, that the word “gospel” does not need to be used so extensively as to include the doctrine of conditional security. Why can’t the word “Gospel” be used to only include the doctrines of repentance, faith, justification, and regeneration? Must it necessarily cause a division between Calvinists and Arminians? Must Christians necessarily use the word “gospel” in application to other soteriological fine points like monergism-synergism or perseverance-apostasy? I don’t think this is necessary. However, if you are curious about what Scripture says, then you should look no further than the warnings against apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26-29, and 1 Timothy 1:18-19. [John Jefferson Davis, “The Perseverance of the Saints: A History of the Doctrine,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34:2 (June 1991), 213-228.]

Error #4: Rejection of Unlimited Atonement. Spurgeon said: “To think that my Saviour died for men who were or are in Hell, seems a supposition too horrible for me to entertain. To imagine for a moment that He was the Substitute for all the sons of men, and that God, having first punished the Substitute, afterwards punished the sinners themselves, seems to conflict with all my ideas of Divine justice.”

However, as an Arminian, it does not conflict with my ideas of Divine justice. Paul says plainly of Christ, that “He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:15). He does not put a qualifier on it: “He died for all the elect,” or “He died for all the chosen ones,” but simply, “He died for all.” In the plain sense it is written, must be the plain sense it is meant: Christ died for all men: Jews and Gentiles, Christians and pagans, saved and unsaved. My ideas of Divine justice are more compatible with this Bible verse than the Calvinistic view. Why? Because of Hell. In Hell is inflicted all the wrath of God against His enemies. While it is true that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16), He only loves everyone in sense of His Creator-creature relationship. God as Creator looks down upon His creation and loves what He has made; He loves man who was made in His own image; but on the other hand, they have fallen, they have sinned, and they continue sinning: “The Lord was grieved that He had made man on the earth, and His heart was filled with pain” (Gen. 6:6); so God has a Gospel plan to save as many of the men on the face of the Earth as He can. This plan is repentance and faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ died for all men (2 Cor. 5:15), but unless men choose to repent and turn from their sinful ways, and respond positively to the message of justification by faith alone in the cross of Christ, then they shall “all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3) as those did in the flood of Noah, and God was only able to save or spare Noah and his small family from His wrath. The next flood is an everlasting flood of Hell fire, and an everlasting perishing for those who rebel against the Law of God—dying, dying, dying, but never completely dead. God will exact revenge on them as enemies: all who reject the Gospel of Jesus; all who reject God’s love—will receive in turn the fierce anger of God Almighty.

The damned in Hell are to blame themselves for their own damnation, for not repenting, for not continuing to believe the Gospel, or living in “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Unlimited atonement is a very scary doctrine, while at the same time a very hopeful one. Jesus put it this way: “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:18-19). Jesus died for all men, as Scripture makes clear, but that is not the issue when comes to understanding the mystery of Hell—the real issue is this: “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” The blood of Jesus is available to all, and remains available to all—to believers, unbelievers, to backsliders, and apostates—ALL means ALL! But unless they stop loving darkness, unless they stop their evil deeds, they are rejecting the light of the cross; and they will be punished everlastingly in Hell for such a rejection of the cross. Scripture declares that justification has been by faith alone, is by faith alone, and always will be by faith alone—unlike Spurgeon, who on this point, it seems, would have us to believe that God’s love has more to do with the salvation of the elect (divine favoritism)—than the repentance and faith of those who would hope for Heaven (justification by faith).

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