Arminianism Restrictive of Divine Free Agency

Rev. Samuel J. Cassells

from The Southern Presbyterian Review – Volume V. NO. 3., January 1852, pp. 366-379.

It has been alleged, again and again, that Calvinism destroys the liberty of the human will, and thereby renders man a mere passive instrument in the hands of his Creator. It is our design in the present article to prove the converse of this—that Arminianism, if legitimately carried out, restricts the free agency of the Creator, and thus leaves the infinite interests of the universe under the control of an Almighty Governor, it is true, but one whose will is perpetually intercepted and thwarted by His creatures. We mean no controversy with our neighbors of the Arminian school, but simply to retort an argument, whose very verbiage is almost worn out by the frequency of its use.

The fundamental doctrine of the Arminian school of theology is, that no act of a creature can be free, and yet predestinated. According to this system, predestination and free agency are the antagonists of each other. Where predestination exists, free agency falls; and where free agency exists, predestination falls. The school of the Calvinist, on the contrary, embraces these seemingly contrary elements of doctrine. It is so charitable and comprehensive as to maintain that God may predestinate, and yet man remain free. It denies neither human free agency on the one hand, nor divine foreordination on the other. It admits them both; and it is for this admission that Calvinism has been so generally reproached. The enemies of the system, however, always pursue a beaten path in assailing its citadel. They cast the second article of the Calvinist’s creed altogether into the dark; and taking it for granted that he renounces human freedom, press him solely upon the point of Divine pre-ordination. It is our intention to retort this mode of attack, which we do with the greater freedom because the Arminian does not, like the Calvinist, admit the two doctrines, but openly avows his rejection of predestination, in order to establish his theory of free agency. We shall assume it then as a postulate on the part of the Arminian school, that there can be no predestination where there is freedom.

Predestination is the agency of God, exercised in reference to His creatures and their actions.1 Freedom is the capacity which a creature has of acting in accordance with the laws and principles of its nature.2 It does not require that a creature have the power of changing its nature, or even of setting aside those fundamental laws under which it is created. If it can act in conformity to those laws—in other words, if its actions and its nature agree, there is freedom. The flower that expands its petals and exhales its perfumes—the bird that unfolds its wing and sports in the atmosphere—the fish that spreads its fins in the waves of the ocean—all possess a species of freedom. If the petals of the flower were bound up, if the wings of the bird were tied, or if the fish were prevented from swimming, there would be coercion, there would be force. The laws of nature in such cases would be subverted, and those of violence would predominate. The same principle is applicable to man. As long as he has the capacity to act according to the laws of his nature, he is free. This difficulty, however, presents itself in his case. The nature that he now possesses is not his original nature. If he act according to the nature he now possesses, he will at every material point violate the principles of the nature he has forfeited. To obey nature now, though it be freedom, is nevertheless sin. Freedom, therefore, is a physical power, and may be virtuously or viciously exercised, according to the nature in which it inheres. In angels, and all holy beings, it is wholly on the side of virtue; in devils, and all fallen beings, it is wholly exercised in rebellion and sin.

There is another source of obscurity, if not of difficulty, on this subject, in relation to man. His redemption by Jesus Christ, and the purpose of God thus to save at least a part of the race, gives a complexity, to the moral machinery, which renders it the more difficult of solution. Had man remained under condemnation, it would be comparatively easy to gauge the amount of his freedom. It would have been equal in all cases to his depravity.3 Or, were the work of the Gospel instantaneous, and had all men been sanctified by it, human freedom might then be a subject of far easier comprehension. But the design of the Gospel is to transform a fallen and impure being into a holy and obedient child of God. This work, though instantaneous in its occurrence, is nevertheless progressive and gradual in both its antecedents and consequents. To look, therefore, after human freedom in a moral chaos like this, is like searching for a ship tossed in the wildest storms. Still, however, the great beacon-light is clear, that whether a man obey nature or grace he is free. If, under the impulses of the old Adam, he commit sin, he was free to do so; and if, under the teachings of the new man, he was led to do that which is right, he still was free.

There is an idea of freedom contrary to this, which some seem to entertain. According to this theory, freedom consists in the power of acting, not according to, but against the laws of, one’s nature. The fish must fly in the air, the birds must swim in the ocean, devils must awake the hosannas of Heaven, and angels be employed in the wailings of hell! Man, fallen, lost and prostrate, must have full power to obey the commands of God, and man redeemed and sanctified, must be not less capable of self-expatriation from the kingdom and glories of Heaven! Yea, more; according to this dogma, God himself may not only be tempted, but may sin!! As neither theology, philosophy, nor common sense recognises a freedom of this sort, we can, of course, have no controversy with it, but simply note it as one of the extremes of folly into which the eulogisers of human nature run.

Now, the doctrine of Arminianism is, that wherever divine agency intervenes to make sure and certain any given act or any series of acts on the part of the creature, there the power to obey the laws of its nature—that is, to act with freedom, has been destroyed. How a result of this kind can follow from the premises, we are utterly at a loss to determine. God has not only given to His creatures their natures, and impressed upon those natures certain laws, but His presence and operation are absolutely essential to both the continued existence of such creatures and the permanent action of those laws. “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” The exercise, therefore, of the agency of God in those matters in which man is free, is absolutely essential to the very existence of that freedom. Predestination, therefore, instead of destroying human free agency, is its true origin and source.

But the Arminian claims a freedom for man, untouched by the predestination of God. Jehovah must stand aside, and man must act alone, or he is not free. Now, it is evident that if human freedom be claimed on this principle for man at one point, it must be claimed at all. If the act of faith by which a sinner becomes a participant in the blessings of salvation be an unpredestinated act, such must all his other acts be that stand associated with his voluntary agency. Thus in buying and selling, in building and planting, in doing good and in doing evil, must a man be left, not to chance or accident, but to himself! And what is true of one man is true of all men; and what is true of man on earth is also true of all intelligent creatures everywhere. What a chasm does this theory introduce into the universe! All the actions of all the accountable creatures of the great God are here seen to revolve in spheres, unpervaded by the presence, and power, and love of their glorious Author. What atheism! What regions of chill, and gloom, and death! According to this theory, too, so far as we can see, the material universe would also be deprived of a God. If God’s operation in man destroys free agency, equally true is it that His agency in the material universe subverts the regular action of its inherent laws. So that this theory, if legitimately carried out, utterly destroys, if not the being, the efficient agency of God, in the government of His creatures. He may be an eye-witness of the actions and doings of His creatures; He may approve or disapprove of those actions, but to order it otherwise is out of the question, inasmuch as by so doing, He would infringe the liberty of those who are the immediate actors in the scene. Thus is the divine freedom supplanted to establish that of man, and the agency of God fettered and bound by the creatures He has made. There is a curious fable among the Greeks of certain giants attempting to bind Jupiter. The purport of that fable is surely carried out, when the free agencies of men and angels are wrought into a vast chain with which to fetter the purposes and doings of the infinite God! If the Arminian, then, allege that predestination destroys free agency in man, we retort upon him that the free agency in man, of which he speaks, utterly subverts the efficiency of the divine will. If he attempt thus to run us into a palpable absurdity, we make an attempt equally earnest to run him into a greater one. If he represent us as depriving man of freedom, and thus converting him into a mere passive instrument, we represent him as taking the crown from the Almighty, and casting it beneath the feet of his insignificant creatures.

The subterfuges of the disciples of Arminius to avoid this dilemma, are various. Some are willing to allow that God’s agency is employed on all the circumstances of a given agent or a given act, but not upon or in such agent or act. Some are ready to admit a present operation of God in matters connected with human agency, but deny the predetermination of the Deity to exercise such power. Others again maintain an efficient Divine agency in all matters human, yet not such as to establish their certainty. In short, the Arminian winces at everything like a pre-established plan of moral government on the part of God, by which all things occur in the order in which we see them to take place. It is certain to him, as it is to us, that if events are fixed, they must be fixed by the purpose and power of God. He denies the fixedness of things, therefore, to get rid of the purpose—that is, of predestination. But, upon the same principle, he must also rid himself of divine foreknowledge. If God foresees all His creatures, and their actions, it is positively certain that they will exist just as He foresees them. To suppose that there could be any change, so that a creature not foreseen might exist, or that a creature foreseen might not come into being—in short, to suppose a solitary variation in a solitary thing, from the perspective of God in His foreknowledge, would be to deny at once the perfection of that foreknowledge. Beings and events then must arise in the order and circumstances in which God sees them ages before to arise; there can be no addition, subtraction, or variation. Here then is certainty; a certainty equally fixed as if it had been decreed. Now, how it is that God can have so long a foresight, and yet so limited a purpose—how it is that He can perfectly see the exact order in which all things will arise, and yet exercise no influence to originate and direct that order, must be left to the disciples of this school to solve.

But how does this matter affect the preaching of the Gospel? for after all this is the great question. The Arminian asserts that the Calvinist cannot truly announce the proffer of salvation to any but the elect. This, however, is a gross misrepresentation of the Gospel commission. Ministers are sent forth by God to preach the Gospel, not to the elect or non-elect, but to men considered as sinners. “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” is the imperative command of Christ to all who undertake this calling. Who knows the elect or non-elect? Who, indeed, knows that even he himself belongs to the one or the other of these classes, save so far as his character and conduct agree with, or are contrary to, the revealed will of God? Preach to the elect only! Where would you find them? No; the Calvinist must preach, if he preach at all, to sinners—to perishing sinners. The great majority of even the elect are among the ungodly and unbelieving. He must, therefore, pour forth the terrors of Sinai, and exhibit the love of Calvary; he must “reprove, rebuke, entreat, with all long suffering and doctrine,” to save even these. He is not left, however, in this work to his own strength, or to any goodness or wisdom in those to whom he ministers.4 His dependence is where it ought to be, in God, who is able to make even the feeblest instrumentality richly effective of his purposes. He knows that there are those among his hearers to whom God will make His word effectual; some whom the Father will “draw to the Son,” and who will thus believe unto salvation. He has in this work the promise of God; and what is such a promise but a partial revelation of the Divine purpose? The promises of God are based upon his purposes; so that if the latter be removed, the former become nugatory. Is not that minister then in a position of far higher advantage, who is sustained by both the purpose and promise of God, than he who is certain of neither? The error committed here by the advocates of the non-election school is, that universal contingence is a stronger motive to action than limited certainty. But is this so? When Moses undertook the management of Israel, suppose there was an equal probability that the entire nation would perish in the wilderness, with that of their safe arrival in Canaan; would not that fact be far greater discouragement to their leader than if he had been assured that although many would perish, yet the great body would certainly be preserved? Amid their murmurings and rebellions, how would his heart have fallen even below hope under the former hypothesis, while under the latter not even their greatest madness could generate despair. This is a fixed law of our natures. Universal contingence is always a far inferior source of encouragement to the human mind in its struggles, than limited certainty. What, then, if the Calvinist believe that only a part of mankind will be saved; he believes that that part will be saved. He is certain that, so far as that part is concerned, the Gospel will have effect, and the preaching of the cross will not be in vain. All these in their time will be led to a Savior, and through Him will obtain eternal life. But remove the certainty. Establish universal contingence, and what then? Christ may have died in vain. The Spirit may have been sent in vain. The preaching of a Paul or a Whitfield may be wholly in vain! No man indeed can thus be certain of anything. All rests upon certain concurrences and combinations, which may or may not take place. And is this state of thing a motive to action, to zeal, to martyrdom?

And the power that here acts upon the mind of the preacher operates with corresponding influence upon that of the hearer. It is true that the doctrine of election, misrepresented and misunderstood, is often repulsive to the sinner’s heart. But we venture to affirm, even in reference to him, that the certainty that some men will be saved, is a far stronger motive to action than the universal contingence of the salvation of all. There is a vague impression many have, that, if you remove the doctrine of election, the door of hope is at once open to all men. But this is by no means the case. By ridding mankind of election, we place them in a far worse condition for salvation. All certainty of the issue in any case whatever becomes a mere contingence—a mere chance—a hope floating upon straws. Would not, then, any man, in his sober senses, infinitely prefer the certainty and stability of God’s electing grace, to the miserable whims of his own nature, or the absolute fickleness of all human things? When a man begins to feel a desire for salvation, and begins to put forth a few feeble efforts for securing it, is it not better, far better, for him to believe that he is under the drawings and teachings of special grace, than that all these desires and efforts proceed from his own will, and may end so soon as that will shall change? In other words, is it not a stronger motive to action, and does it not afford higher encouragement to the sinner’s mind, during his struggle, to realize that his salvation is in the hands of God, than to hold that it is in his own? Our conclusion, then, is, that both to the preacher and the hearer—to the publisher of salvation, and to him to whom it is offered, the Calvinistic view of this subject is far superior in its motive power to the Arminian. It gives greater assurance—it presents a stronger hope—it far better sustains under discouragements and fears.

The objection, however, to the Arminian system, which we wish chiefly to notice, is, its atheistical tendency. Every philosopher knows that the entire system of nature is controlled by fixed laws. These laws, too, act with so much precision, that, in the lapse of ten thousand years, a world, apparently let loose in space, would not vary an inch from its original orbit! And even should there be that variation, the philosopher would at once look out for some disturbing force, that is, for some other fixed law, that produced the variation. Now, while the source of these fixed laws lies wholly beyond the grasp of the human mind, their operation is so regular and manifest as to become matters of the most certain mathematical calculation. No rules in common arithmetic, for instance, are stated with more absolute precision than those which astronomers lay down as governing that mysterious principle, attraction. How easy it is for a mind wholly employed in the contemplation of nature and its laws, to overlook altogether that unseen agency by which the whole is infallibly governed, the history of philosophy too plainly proves. Indeed, a certain class of philosophers have been at much pains to teach not only how a Universe may be self-governed, but how it may be self-originated! Now, who does not look with even horror at doctrines of this kind? A vast and inconceivable system of worlds, revolving in space with far more accuracy than the motions of a clock or a watch, and yet without a controlling will—without an intelligent author! Not simply amazement, but horror is awakened by such a conception. Nor does any one yield to that horror with greater enthusiasm than the disciple of Arminius. In nature, in all physical nature, God and his predestination are stamped upon the mind of the Arminian as deeply as upon that of the Calvinist. He sees, he adores both. He loves to travel over the pathway of departed ages, and to read in the distant epochs of eternity the embryo outline of that mighty system which now fills all space. He sees in the decree of God not only the locality and form of a globe, but the tints of a rose and the brilliancy of a gem. To him, as to the Calvinist, Nature is what Nature was predetermined to be. Throughout the universe there is no accident or chance or blind contingence. Not only fixed laws, but an immutable God orders and governs the whole. But has it never occurred to our brother of the Arminian school that the same philosophy that has carried him in so much triumph over the fields of nature, must also conduct his researches amid the speculations of God’s moral government? Has he taken a God with him all over the face of creation till he has approached the line of morality, and is he there to leave Him, or restrain Him? Is not God as much the author of mind as of matter? And has he not subjected to as vigorous a control the actions of an angel as the motions of a world? Can there be any more contingence or accident in the mental than in the material system? If the one were previously arranged and ordered in the Divine mind, has the other been left to contingence and chance? Has a man’s body, simply because it is composed of matter, greater need of Divine superintendence than his soul? Is God’s special providence exercised over a tree or a plant, and not over the spirit under whose wisdom and care it is made to flourish? Shall even the coldest and hardest rock be bound around by God’s predestination, and yet the soul of man be turned loose upon the chilly pathway of atheism? Shall every thing around, however low or mean, lie nearer the heart of God than the immortality that has emanated from his own Deity? Never, never, never. God’s wisdom, love and goodness irradiate the moral equally with the material universe. The one, like the other, was pre-arranged. Each is subjected to fixed laws. Over both God exercises a minute and universal providence. The thought of the mind it aided by Him, equally with the expansion of the petal of a rose. True, God controls matter as matter, and mind as mind. The method of government is different, but its influence is as strong in the one case as in the other. Nor is this moral theism to be relinquished because there are inferential or even real evils connected with it. Who thinks of casting the material universe into the hands of either fate or chance, because there are such things as earthquakes, volcanoes, disease and death? What, if even worlds should come into collision, or whole systems be dashed to pieces—do these things demonstrate either that there is no God, or that He has ceased to control the order of nature in even its minutest parts? What, if sin exist—what, if all men are not saved—what, if we cannot comprehend the concurrent action of Divine efficiency and human free agency—what, if some allege that human freedom is destroyed; or others, that God is made the author of sin? What of all this? Shall we, for these mere scare-crows, deny the predestination, the pretence and the control of God over the moral universe? Rather than admit a few dark clouds to exist in our horizon, will we blot out the sun, and involve all things in night? Rather than admit that human freedom is not entirely lawless, will we lay impious hands upon the free will of God, and limit its exercise towards the creatures He has made? Rather than confess our ignorance, will we deny the attributes and agency of God? But there are no real difficulties in the case. To God all is simple and plain and easy; and if to us there are points which we cannot comprehend, this fact is to be ascribed, to the limited nature of our faculties. We do not now and we never shall comprehend “the Almighty to perfection.” In eternity, as in time there ever will be “clouds and darkness round about Him,” through which our finite minds will never penetrate. The point of submission, not only of the heart, but also of the understanding, must be reached somewhere. At some point in its approaches to its Maker the human soul must fall—must confess—must admit its ignorance. The teaching of wisdom is, that we should not approach too near to that Burning Glory, lest our organs of vision be eclipsed, and our partial light become extinguished in total darkness.

There is another point on which we must briefly touch in the consideration of this subject. It is to be feared that many, by too exclusive a contemplation of the Gospel as a system of grace, have rather overlooked that Divine sovereignty which both originated and controls its entire scheme. It is natural for those who receive a benefit to presume. The Gospel presents us with such glowing exhibitions of Divine mercy that we almost cease to gaze at that solemn back-ground of Divine justice on whose very bosom that mercy is permitted to be displayed. We look at Calvary with so fixed and tender a contemplation that we forget the more terrible manifestations of the Godhead on the top of Sinai. Yea, more; God’s compassion for sinners, especially as exhibited in the life of Christ—His willingness to forgive them—His high-colored anxiety for their salvation, as exhibited in some of the parables—all these present us with so amiable a view of the Divine character, that we overlook the sternness of that wrath and the fixedness of that purpose by which the ungodly are turned into hell. The legal administration disappears as that of free grace becomes more prominent. In this illusion (for an illusion it certainly is,) we are apt to form opinions of human freedom and of the universality of redemption that neither the Scriptures nor facts will warrant. One of these opinions, and by no means the least mischievous, is that which limits the sovereignty of God with the pious design of magnifying His mercy. This opinion seeks to overthrow the decrees of God; not excepting even those that secure the salvation of the great body of the human rate! God, it admits, is the author of the Gospel; but then He must leave that Gospel to the depraved choice and corrupted free agencies of men. Or, should he aid at all, it must be only so far as to equipoise, not to determine the human will! The moment he transcends that point he invades the rights of human nature, and makes salvation necessary—not chosen! And is this the return we make to God for the infinite depths of His grace in Christ Jesus? At the very moment that He is about to make redemption effectual to us, do we seek to turn off His hand, and to deny His right of action? Alas! if God were to treat us according to the tender mercies of this belief, not a man in a million would be saved—not a man in a whole generation would even prove his boasted free agency.

But if, after all, the Arminian turn upon us, and ask a reconciliation of free agency with predestination—if he inquire of us how God can be efficient, and yet man active in the performance of the same deed—if he would wish to see the point of actual coherence between man’s will and that of God—we frankly confess our ignorance. That ignorance is based upon the fact that we know neither how man’s spirit acts, nor God’s. We are summoned to explain the co-operation of two mysterious agents, whose single operation, separately considered, we cannot understand. Here, however, as in all matters of sound philosophy, we must consider facts, not modes. There is that, not simply in a part, but in every part of conversion, which man himself cannot perform. There is that also in conversion, not in a part, but in every part, which cannot immediately be ascribed to God. Certainly man does not become God, nor God man in this work; nor are the specific acts of man to be ascribed to God, nor those of God to man. God acts as God, and acts freely; and man acts as man, and acts freely. The change of the human will in this work, which is consequent upon the change of the heart by Divine power, is not coercion, but freedom. The renewed soul, following the impulses of the new nature, as cordially chooses God and salvation, as the unrenewed soul, while under the power of sin, rejected both. Can it be true, then, that the application of God’s agency to the human soul, in the work of its salvation, destroys, vitiates or harms, in any sense, any of its intellectual or moral powers? If that application gives light to the understanding, tenderness to the heart, and a right choice to the will, is human free agency destroyed by it? Are not light, emotion and the power of a right choice, the very things that the soul most needs? Were fishes without water, or birds without an atmosphere, would the furnishing of these elements destroy or weaken in any way the physical capacities of either? Now, God’s efficient grace—that grace which enlightens the understanding, purifies the heart, and gives a holy direction to the will and the life—that grace is the very element of freedom in which the soul luxuriates in bliss.

There is a strange inconsistency here on the part of the advocates of resistible grace. The double dominion of sin and Satan may control the soul for years, and yet the will be free. The yoke of the poor sinner may be made of brass, and his fetters of steel—his bondage may be an iron bondage—and yet it is admitted that he is free. The moment, however, that all-conquering grace approaches the soul—the moment that God undertakes not simply to balance, but to determine the will, all freedom is gone! The crushing, gloomy, dismal domination of hell cannot destroy human freedom; but the legitimate establishment of divine authority does! No satanic bondage can lead a man into captivity; but the grace of God—that grace that is outstretched for the soul’s salvation—can! Surely, if any thing can enslave and fetter the will, it is sin—and if any thing can give it real freedom, it is grace! The more powerful, too, that grace, the higher the degree of freedom enjoyed; for although the will in a certain sense must always be free, yet an intelligent being is never so far removed from moral slavery as when, from the thorough sanctification of his nature, he cannot sin. This is the freedom of angels, and it is the freedom of God.


  1. This definition does not verbally include a purpose or decree formed in a past eternity. Strictly speaking, there is with God neither past nor future, but an eternal present, including both. Certainly God never acts without determining to do so; and as eternity is enthroned in His very being, all His acts may justly enough be said to be the results of an eternal purpose or decree. “The will of God,” says Knapp, “that any thing exterior to Himself should take place, is called His determination or decree. What that will is, can be learned only from its effects.” “God's predestination,” says Augustin, “is the preparation of grace; but grace is the effect of predestination itself.”
  2. It is more usual to affirm that freedom is the power of acting according to the choice of the will. The soul, however, is a simple essence; and what we mean by the will is simply the soul willing or choosing. This willing or choosing of the soul, however, is not a capricious matter, but results from the general character or nature of the soul. Some affirm that the will follows the understanding. But what is the understanding but the soul itself, exercising the power of attention, comparison, judgment, &c.? Besides, if the will follow the understanding, what does the understanding follow? Possibly the emotion; and thus shall we be chasing the freedom of a moral assent from faculty to faculty, in a sort of perpetual circle. We consider the will as the soul choosing, which choice results from the fixed moral condition of the soul itself. When that condition is sinful, the will will incline invariably to sinful objects; where it is holy its choice will be just the contrary. Hence the force of that beautiful paradox of St. Augustin: “What is freer than the free will that cannot sin ?”
  3. There is a sense in which the will may be said to be enslaved, as the nature to which it belongs is vicious. This slavery, however, refers to the incapacity of such a being to fulfil his moral duties, not to his inability to choose and prosecute that which is evil. In the latter sense, the will of Satan is as free as that of Gabriel; in the former, it is fettered as by the hand of fate. To choose evil, he is entirely competent; to choose good, he has no power.
  4. While the Arminian admits, in a general sense, that salvation is of grace, he yet denies that the specific act, which introduces a sinner into God's favor, is gracious. Grace must bear the soul up to a certain moral level; but here it is left to its own choice whether to go forward or to recede. The act that decides the matter must be, in every case, the unaided act of the sinner himself. Now this act in Scripture is denominated faith, and is ascribed directly to God as its author. “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” To contend, therefore, that while the preparatory work of salvation is of God, its completion is of man, ascribes to human nature a virtue which the Scriptures at least do not teach.

Marked up by Lance George Marshall
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