/ Barry York

Learning a Lesson from the Duplicity of James Arminius and the Remonstrants

On September 14-15, the faculty of RPTS spoke on the subject of "The Synod of Dort and the Doctrines of Grace." This year marks the four hundredth year since the conclusion of this famous council, which met from 1618-19. Dort's delegates, from the Netherlands and eight other countries, stood opposed to Arminius' teachings and the five points of doctrines, or remonstrances, that his followers had put forth. We enjoyed a rich weekend presenting and discussing the history and teaching on the five Canons of Dort that this synod has given to the church. These teachings have become known as the "Doctrines of Grace" or the "Five Points of Calvinism." (The audio for the messages will soon be available on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals website here, and the articles published in our online journal will appear pm this Resources tab on our website toward the end of October.)

One of the themes that we began to hear about is the duplicitous way Arminius and his followers promoted their viewpoints. Though not planned, from the opening address by Professor of Church History David Whitla (who gave the historical background to the Synod of Dort) down through the rest of the lectures to my concluding one, we kept hearing of how the Remonstrants were perfidious in the manner they spread their teachings. Claiming to be Calvinists, the Arminians proposed they were offering to the church a more moderate, gracious view of God and the Bible's teaching on His grace. Yet they often shaded their beliefs depending on their audience and, in fact, were denying the Biblical meaning of grace

Their manner of dealing with a less than forthright manner was seen with respect to their handling of the doctrine of perseverance of the saints. Arminius claimed on occasion to uphold this doctrine. He stated that he “never taught that a true believer can either totally or finally fall away from the faith, and perish.”[1] Yet Arminius clearly questioned the importance of the doctrine of perseverance. Though the history of the church is filled with battles upholding this particular doctrine, and the Reformed confessions and catechisms clearly taught it, note how he minimizes perseverance’s importance in this quote:

Is it possible for true believers to fall away totally and finally: Do some of them, in reality, totally and finally fall from the faith? The opinion which denies ‘that true believers and regenerate persons are either capable of falling away or actually do fall away from the faith totally and finally,’ was never, from the very times of the apostles down to the present day, accounted by the church as a catholic doctrine.[2]

He further calls into question his commitment to the doctrine when he cautiously writes, “Those persons who have been grafted into Christ by true faith, and have thus been made partakers of his life-giving Spirit, possess sufficient powers to fight against Satan, sin, the world and their own flesh and to gain the victory of those enemies – yet not without the assistance of the grace of that same Spirit."[3] The wording here ultimately puts the success of perseverance on the believer, lacking the God-centered confidence of perseverance taught by Calvinists. Furthermore, though Arminius said he had not explicitly denied the Calvinist position on perseverance, he entertained the possibility that perseverance was in error and so was not prepared to declare it true.

Read now the Remonstrants’ short statement on perseverance in their fifth article and see how it reflects the uncertainty and even ambivalence of Arminius.

Those who are united to Jesus Christ by a true faith and so come to share in his life-giving Spirit have abundant power to fight against Satan, sin, the world, and their own sin and to win the victory. But whether they of themselves through neglect can lose the beginning of their being in Christ, again take up with this present world, reject the Holy Spirit once given to them, lose their good conscience, and abandon grace, must first be sought out further from the Holy Scripture before we can ourselves teach it with the full confidence of our minds.[4]

Note the emphasis on the believers having “abundant power to fight”, which echoes Arminius’ “sufficient powers”, falls short of the confidence heard in Westminster or Dort regarding God’s ability to preserve His people. Dort proclaimed about believers, "God is faithful, mercifully strengthening them in the grace once conferred on them and powerfully preserving them in it to the end" (Dort, 5.3) Additionally, it is almost incredulous to hear learned ministers stating publicly that they need to seek out further in the Scriptures this doctrine before they can teach it with “full confidence of our minds.” Robert Godfrey, clearly writing tongue in cheek, says of this statement, “they believe that the sinner can reject grace at the beginning of grace’s contact with his life, but they are uncertain as to whether this grace can be rejected later.”[5]

Fortunately, the delegates at Dort, seeing the Remonstrants' duplicity in this and other examples, did not lack such confidence and approved the fifth canon along with the previous ones without dissent. At Dort, eight years since their original statement, the Remonstrants, having either “sought out further” or having just become more honest, said openly to the Synod, “True believers can fall from true faith and can fall into such sins as cannot be consistent with true and justifying faith; not only is it possible for this to happen, but it even happens frequently.”[6]

With their true colors eventually coming out, the Calvinistic assembly at Dort had to respond. Thankfully, they did, and we have the clear, beautifully stated Canons of Dort as a result.

In both studying and hearing from my other colleagues about these doctrines, I rejoiced again in the wonders of God's saving grace. But I also was reminded of a lesson in pastoral ministry I was not necessarily expecting. Shepherds of the church must always exercise diligence in preventing false teachers from using subtle means like the Arminians did in trying to sneak their teachings in under the radar. Shading truth, feigning ignorance, playing upon emotions, and subtle insinuations are all in their bag of tricks. As Paul warned the Ephesian elders, the greatest dangers to the church are not always without, but those wolves who arise "from among your own selves" and speak "twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:30). We do well to heed the concluding words of instruction of Dort.

Finally, this Synod urges all fellow ministers in the gospel of Christ to deal with this teaching in a godly and reverent manner, in the academic institutions as well as in the churches; to do so, both in their speaking and writing, with a view to the glory of God’s name, holiness of life, and the comfort of anxious souls; to think and also speak with Scripture according to the analogy of faith; and, finally, to refrain from all those ways of speaking which go beyond the bounds set for us by the genuine sense of the Holy Scriptures and which could give impertinent sophists a just occasion to scoff at the teaching of the Reformed churches or even to bring false accusations against it.
May God’s Son Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of God and gives gifts to men, sanctify us in the truth, lead to the truth those who err, silence the mouths of those who lay false accusations against sound teaching, and equip faithful ministers of his Word with a spirit of wisdom and discretion, that all they say may be to the glory of God and the building up of their hearers. Amen.

[1] The Writings of James Arminius (Baker, 1956), 1:254

[2] Ibid, 2:501-3.

[3] The Apology Against Thirty-One Defamatory Articles, Arminus, Works, 676.

[4] Godfrey, W. Robert. Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019, 14.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matthew Barrett, The Grace of Godliness: An Introduction to Doctrine and Piety in the Canons of Dort. Joshua Press: Kitchener, ON, 2013, 157.

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness. Author - Hitting the Marks.

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