A Display of Arminianism

John Owen



BY the former steps is the altar of Ahaz set on the right hand of the altar of God, — the Arminian idol, in a direct opposition, exalted to an equal pitch with the power and will of the Most High. I shall now present unto you the Spirit of God once more contending with the towering imaginations of poor mortals, about a transcendent privilege of greatness, glory, and power: for having made his decrees mutable, his prescience fallible, and almost quite divested him of his providence, as the sum and issue of all their endeavors, they affirm that his will may be resisted, he may fail of his intentions, be frustrate of his ends, — he may and doth propose such things as he neither doth nor can at any time accomplish, and that because the execution of such acts of his will might haply clash against the freedom of the will of men; which, if it be not an expression of spiritual pride above all that ever the devil attempted in heaven, divines do not well explicate that sin of his. Now, because there may seem some difficulty in this matter, by reason of the several acceptations of the will of God, especially in regard of that whereby it is affirmed that his law and precepts are his will, which, alas! we all of us too often resist or transgress, I will unfold one distinction of the will of God, which will leave it clear what it is that the Arminians oppose, for which we count them worthy of so heavy a charge. 

“Divinum velle est ejus esse,” say the schoolmen,1 “The will of God is nothing but God willing;” not differing from his essence “secundem rem,” in the thing itself, but only “secundem rationem,” in that it importeth a relation to the thing willed. The essence of God, then, being a most absolute, pure, simple act or substance, his will consequently can be but simply one; whereof we ought to make neither division nor distinction. If that whereby it is signified were taken always properly and strictly for the eternal will of God, the differences hereof that are usually given are rather distinctions of the signification of the word than of the thing. In which regard they are not only tolerable, but simply necessary, because without them it is utterly impossible to reconcile some places of Scripture seemingly repugnant. In the 22d chapter of Genesis, verse 2, God commandeth Abraham to take his only son Isaac, and offer him for a burnt-offering in the land of Moriah. Here the words of God are declarative of some will of God unto Abraham, who knew it ought to be, and little thought but that it should be, performed; but yet, when he actually addressed himself to his duty, in obedience to the will of God, he receiveth a countermand, verse 12, that he should not lay his hand upon the child to sacrifice him. The event plainly manifesteth that it was the will of God that Isaac should not be sacrificed; and yet notwithstanding, by reason of his command, Abraham seems before bound to believe that it was well-pleasing unto God that he should accomplish what he was enjoined. If the will of God in the Scripture be used but in one acceptation, here is a plain contradiction. Thus God commands Pharaoh to let his people go. Could Pharaoh think otherwise, nay, was he not bound to believe that it was the will of God that he should dismiss the Israelites at the first hearing of the message? Yet God affirms that he would harden his heart, that he should not suffer them to depart until he had showed his signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. To reconcile these and the like places of Scripture, both the ancient fathers and schoolmen, with modern divines, do affirm that the one will of God may be said to be divers or manifold, in regard of the sundry manners whereby he willeth those things to be done which he willeth, as also in other respects, and yet, taken in its proper signification, is simply one and the same. The vulgar distinction of God’s secret and revealed will is such as to which all the others may be reduced; and therefore I have chosen it to insist upon. 

The secret will of God is his eternal, unchangeable purpose concerning all things which he hath made, to be brought by certain means to their appointed ends: of this himself affirmeth, that “his counsel shall stand, and he will do all his pleasure,” Isaiah 46:10. This some call the absolute, efficacious will of God, the will of his good pleasure, always fulfilled; and indeed this is the only proper, eternal, constant, immutable will of God, whose order can neither be broken nor its law transgressed, so long as with him there is neither change nor shadow of turning. 

The revealed will of God containeth not his purpose and decree, but our duty, — not what he will do according to his good pleasure, but what we should do if we will please him; and this, consisting in his word, his precepts and promises, belongeth to us and our children, that we may do the will of God. Now this, indeed, is rather to. qelhto,n than to. qe,lhma, that which God willeth, rather than his will, but termed so as we call that the will of a man which he hath determined shall be done: “This is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life,” saith our Savior, John 6:40; that is, this is that which his will hath appointed. Hence it is called “voluntas signi,” or the sign of his will, metaphorically only called his will, saith Aquinas;2 for inasmuch as our commands are the signs of our wills, the same is said of the precepts of God. This is the rule of our obedience, and whose transgression makes an action sinful; for h` a`marti,a evsti.n h` avnomi,a, “sin is the transgression of a law,” and that such a law as is given to the transgressor to be observed. Now, God hath not imposed on us the observation of his eternal decree and intention; which, as it is utterly impossible for us to transgress or frustrate, so were we unblamable if we should. A master requires of his servant to do what he commands, not to accomplish what he intends, which perhaps he never discovered unto him; nay, the commands of superiors are not always signs that the commander will have the things commanded actually performed (as in all precepts for trial), but only that they who are subjects to this command shall be obliged to obedience, as far as the sense of it doth extend. “Et hoc clarum est in praeceptis divinis,” saith Durand,3 etc., — “And this is clear in the commands of God,” by which we are obliged to do what he commandeth; and yet it is not always his pleasure that the thing itself, in regard of the event, shall be accomplished, as we saw before in the examples of Pharaoh and Abraham. 

Now, the will of God in the first acceptation is said to be hid or secret, not because it is so always, for it is in some particulars revealed and made known unto us two ways: — 

First, By his word; as where God affirmeth that the dead shall rise. We doubt not but that they shall rise, and that it is the absolute will of God that they shall do so. Secondly, By the effects; for when any thing cometh to pass, we may cast the event on the will of God as its cause, and look upon it as a revelation of his purpose. Jacob’s sons little imagined that it was the will of God by them to send their brother into Egypt; yet afterward Joseph tells them plainly it was not they, but God that sent him thither, Genesis 45:5. But it is said to be secret for two causes: — First, Because for the most part it is so. There is nothing in divers issues declarative of God’s determination but only the event, which, while it is future, is hidden to them who have faculties to judge of things past and present, but not to discern things for to come. Hence St James bids us not be too peremptory in our determinations that we will do this or that, not knowing how God will close with us for its performance. Secondly, It is said to be secret in reference to its cause, which for the most part is past our finding out: “His path is in the great waters, and his footsteps are not known.” 

It appeareth, then, that the secret and revealed will of God are diverse in sundry respects, but chiefly in regard of their acts and their objects. First, In regard of their acts, the secret will of God is his eternal decree and determination concerning any thing to be done in its appointed time; his revealed will is an act whereby he declareth himself to love or approve any thing, whether ever it be done or no. Secondly, They are diverse in regard of their objects. The object of God’s purpose and decree is that which is good in any kind, with reference to its actual existence, for it must infallibly be performed; but the object of his revealed will is that only which is morally good (I speak of it inasmuch as it approveth or commandeth), agreeing to the law and the gospel, and that considered only inasmuch as it is good; for whether it be ever actually performed or no is accidental to the object of God’s revealed will. 

Now, of these two differences the first is perpetual, in regard of their several acts; but not so the latter. They are sometimes coincident in regard of their objects. For instance, God commandeth us to believe; here his revealed will is that we should so do: withal, he intendeth we shall do so; and therefore ingenerateth faith in our hearts that we may believe. Here his secret and revealed will are coincident; the former4 being his precept that we should believe, the latter his purpose that we shall believe. In this case, I say, the object of the one and the other is the same, — even what we ought to do, and what he will do. And this inasmuch as he hath “wrought all our works in us,” Isaiah 26:12. They are our own works which he works in us; his act in us and by us is ofttimes our duty towards him. He commands us by his revealed will to walk in his statutes, and keep his laws; upon this he also promiseth that he will so effect all things, that of some this shall be performed: Ezekiel 36:26,27, 

“A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them.” 

So that the self-same obedience of the people of God is here the object of his will, taken in either acceptation. And yet the precept of God is not here, as some learned men suppose, declarative of God’s intention, for then it must be so to all to whom it is given; which evidently it is not, for many are commanded to believe on whom God never bestoweth faith. It is still to be looked upon as a mere declaration of our duty, its closing with God’s intention being accidental unto it. There is a wide difference betwixt “Do such a thing,” and, “You shall do it.” If God’s command to Judas to believe imported as much as, “It is my purpose and intention that Judas shall believe,” it must needs contradict that will of God whereby he determined that Judas, for his infidelity, should go to his “own place.” His precepts are in all obedience of us to be performed, but do not signify his will that we shall actually fulfill his commands. Abraham was not bound to believe that it was God’s intention that Isaac should be sacrificed, but that it was his duty. There was no obligation on Pharaoh to think it was God’s purpose the people should depart at the first summons; he had nothing to do with that: but there was one to believe that if he would please God, he must let them go. Hence divers things of good use in these controversies may be collected: — 

First, That God may command many things by his word which he never decreed that they should actually be performed; because, in such things, his words are not a revelation of his eternal decree and purpose, but only a declaration of some thing wherewith he is well-pleased, be it by us performed or no. In the fore-cited case he commanded Pharaoh to let his people go, and plagued him for refusing to obey his command. Hence we may not collect that God intended the obedience and conversion of Pharaoh by this his precept, but was frustrated of his intention, — for the Scripture is evident and clear that God purposed by his disobedience to accomplish an end far different, even a manifestation of his glory by his punishment, — but only that obedience unto his commands is pleasing unto him; as 1 Samuel 15:22. 

Secondly, That the will of God to which our obedience is required is the revealed will of God contained in his word; whose compliance with his decree is such, that hence we learn three things tending to the execution of it: — First, That it is the condition of the word of God, and the dispensation thereof, instantly to persuade to faith and obedience. Secondly, That it is our duty by all means to aspire to the performance of all things by it enjoined, and our fault if we do not. Thirdly, That God by these means will accomplish his eternal decree of saving his elect; and that he willeth the salvation of others, inasmuch as he calleth them unto the performance of the condition thereof. Now, our obedience is so to be regulated by this revealed will of God, that we may sin either by omission against its precepts or commission against its prohibitions; although by our so omitting or committing of any thing the secret will or purpose of God be fulfilled. Had Abraham disobeyed God’s precept, when he was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, though God’s will had been accomplished thereby, who never intended it, yet Abraham had grievously sinned against the revealed will of God, the rule of his duty. The holiness of our actions consisteth in a conformity unto his precepts, and not unto his purposes. On this ground Gregory affirmeth,5 “That many fulfill the will of God” (that is, his intentions) “when they think to change it” (by transgressing his precepts); “and by resisting imprudently, obey God’s purpose.” And to show how merely we in our actions are tied to this rule of our duty, St Austin6 shows how a man may do good in a thing cross to God’s secret will, and evil in that which complieth with it, which he illustrates by the example of a sick parent having two children, the one wicked, who desires his father’s death, the other godly, and he prays for his life. But the will of God is he shall die, agreeably to the desire of the wicked child; and yet it is the other who hath performed his duty, and done what is pleasing unto God. 

Thirdly, To return from this not unnecessary digression, that which we have now in agitation is the secret will of God, which we have before unfolded; and this it is that we charge the Arminians for affirming that it may be resisted, — that is, that God may fail in his purposes, come short of what he earnestly intendeth, or be frustrated of his aim and end: as if, [when] he should determinately resolve the faith and salvation of any man, it is in the power of that man to make void his determination, and not believe, and not be saved. Now, it is only in cases of this nature, wherein our own free wills have an interest, that they thus limit and circumscribe the power of the Most High. In other things they grant his omnipotence to be of no less extent than others do; but in this case they are peremptory and resolute, without any coloring or tergiversation: for whereas there is a question proposed by the apostle, Romans 9:19, “Who hath resisted his will?” which that none hath or can he grants in the following verses, Corvinus affirms,7 “It is only an objection of the Jews, rejected by the apostle;” — which is much like an answer young scholars usually give to some difficult place in Aristotle, when they cannot think of a better, “Loquitur ex aliorum sententia;” for there is no sign of any such rejection of it by the apostle in the whole following discourse; yea, and it is not the Jews that St Paul disputeth withal here, but weaker brethren concerning the Jews, which is manifest from the first verse of the next chapter, where he distinguisheth between “brethren” to whom and “Israel” of whom he spake. Secondly, He speaks of the Jews in the whole treatise in the third person, but of the disputer in the second. Thirdly, It is taken for a confessed principle between St Paul and the disputer, as he calls him, that the Jews were rejected, which surely themselves would not readily acknowledge. So that Corvinus rejects, as an objection of the Jews, a granted principle of St Paul and the other Christians of his time. With the like confidence the same author affirmeth,8 “That they nothing doubt but that many things are not done which God would have to be done.” Vorstius goes farther, teaching9 “that not only many things are [not] done which he would have done, but also that many things are done which he would not have done.” He means not our transgressing of his law, but God’s failing in his purpose, as Corvinus clears it, acknowledging that the execution of God’s will is suspended or hindered by man; to whom Episcopius subscribes.10 As, for example, God purposeth and intendeth the conversion of a sinner, — suppose it were Mary Magdalene; — can this intention of his be crossed and his will resisted? “Yea,” say the Arminians, “for God converts sinners by his grace.” “But we can resist God when he would convert us by his grace,”11 say six of them jointly in their meeting at the Hague. “But some one may here object,” say they, “that thus God faileth of his intention, doth not attain the end at which he aims. We answer, This we grant.” Or be it the salvation of men, they say,12 “they are certain that God intendeth that for many which never obtain it;” that end he cannot compass. 

And here, methinks, they place God in a most unhappy condition, by affirming that they are often damned whom he would have to be saved, though he desires their salvation with a most vehement desire and natural affection,13 — such, I think, as crows have to the good of their young ones: for that there are in him such desires as are never fulfilled,14 because not regulated by wisdom and justice, they plainly affirm; for although by his infinite power, perhaps, he might accomplish them, yet it would not become him so to do. 

Now, let any good-natured man, who hath been a little troubled for poor Jupiter in Homer, mourning for the death of his son Sarpedon, which he could not prevent, or hath been grieved for the sorrow of a distressed father, not able to remove the wickedness and inevitable ruin of an only son, drop one tear for the restrained condition of the God of heaven, who, when he would have all and every man in the world to come to heaven, to escape the torments of hell, and that with a serious purpose and intention that it shall be so, a vehement affection and fervent natural desire that it should be so, yet, being not in himself alone able to save one, must be forced to lose his desire, lay down his affection, change his purpose, and see the greatest part of them to perish everlastingly,15 yea, notwithstanding that he had provided a sufficient means for them all to escape, with a purpose and intention that they should so do

In brief, their whole doctrine on this point is laid down by Corvinus, chapter 3, against Moulin, and the third section; where, first, he alloweth of the distinction of the will of God into that whereby he will have us do something, and that whereby he will do any thing himself. The first is nothing but his law and precepts; which we with him affirm may be said to be resisted, inasmuch as it is transgressed. The latter, he saith, if it respect any act of man’s, may be considered as preceding that act, or following it; if preceding it, then it may be resisted, if man will not cooperate. Now, this is the will of God, whereby himself intendeth to do any thing; the sum of which distinction is this, “The will of God concerning the future being of any thing may be considered as it goeth before the actual existence of the thing itself, and in this regard it may be hindered or resisted; but as it is considered to follow any act of man, it is always fulfilled:” by which latter member, striving to mollify the harshness of the former, he runs himself into inexplicable nonsense, affirming that that act of the will of God whereby he intendeth men shall do any thing cannot be hindered after they have done it, — that is, God hath irresistibly purposed they shall do it, provided they do it! In his following discourse, also, he plainly grants that there is no act of God’s will about the salvation of men that may not be made void and of none effect, but only that general decree whereby he hath established an inseparable connection between faith and salvation, or whereby he hath appointed faith in Christ to be the means of attaining blessedness, which is only an immanent act of God’s will, producing no outward effect; so that every act thereof that hath an external issue by human co-operation is frustrable and may fall to the ground: which in what direct opposition it stands to the word of God, let these following instances declare: — 

First, “Our God is in the heavens,” saith the psalmist: “he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased,” Psalm 115:3. Not only part, but all, whatsoever he pleased should come to pass, by any means. “He ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will,” Daniel 4:17. The transposition of kingdoms is not without the mixture of divers free and voluntary actions of men, and yet in that great work God doth all that he pleaseth. Yea, before him “all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” verse 35. “My counsel,” saith he, “shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure,” Isaiah 46:10; “I have purposed, I will also do it,” verse 11. Nay, so certain is he of accomplishing all his purposes, that he confirms it with an oath: 

“The LORD of hosts hath sworn, Surely as I have thought, so it shall come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand,” Isaiah 14:24. 

And indeed it were a very strange thing, that God should intend what he foreseeth will never come to pass. But I confess this argument will not be pressing against the Arminians, who question that prescience; but yet, would they also would observe from the Scripture, that the failing of wicked men’s counsels and intentions is a thing that God is said to “deride in heaven,” as Psalm 2:4. He threatens them with it. “Take counsel together,” saith he, “and it shall come to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand,” Isaiah 8:10. See also chapter 29:7,8. And shall they be enabled to recriminate, and cast the like aspersion on the God of heaven? No, surely. Saith St Austin,16 “Let us take heed we be not compelled to believe that Almighty God would have any thing done which doth not come to pass.” To which truth, also, that the schoolmen have universally consented is showed by Alvarez, Disput. 32, pro. 3. And these few instances will manifest the Arminian opposition to the word of God in this particular: —

S.S. Lib. Arbit.
“Our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased,” Psalm 115:3. “We nothing doubt but many things which God willeth, or that it pleaseth him to have done, do yet never come to pass,” Corvinus. “We grant that some of God’s desires are never fulfilled,” Idem.
“I will do all my pleasure.” Isaiah 46:10. “None can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” Daniel 4:35. “It is in the power of man to hinder the execution of God’s will,” Idem.
“I have purposed, I will also do it,” Isaiah 46:11. “It is ridiculous to imagine that God doth not seriously will any thing but what taketh effect,” Episcopius.
“As I have purposed, so shall it stand,” Isaiah 14:24. “It may be objected that God faileth of his end: this we readily grant,” Rem. Synod.


  1. Aquin., p. q. 19, ar. ad. 1.
  2. Aquin., q. g. 19, a. 11, c.
  3. Durand, Dist. c. 48, q. 3.
  4. The words “former” and “latter” evidently refer to the previous sentence, — “former” corresponding with the revealed will, “latter” with the secret will of God. The order is reversed in the first clause of this sentence, and hence the author’s meaning might be mistaken.
  5. “Multi voluntatem Del faciunt, cum illam nituntur vitare, et resistendo impruden-ter obsequuntur divino consilio.” — Greg. Moral., lib. 6. cap. 11.
  6. Aug. Enchirid. ad Lauren., cap. 101.
  7. “Ea sententia non continet apostoli verba, sed Judseorum objectionem ab apostolo rejectam.” — Corv, ad Molin., cap. 3. per. 19.
  8. “Multa non fieri quae Deus fieri vult, vel non dubitamus.” — Ibid, cap. 5:p. 5.
  9. “Multa fiunt quae Deus fieri non vult: nec semper fiunt quae ipse fiere vult.” — Vorst. de Deo, p. 64.
  10. “Ab homine esse agnoscimus, quod voluntatis (divinae) executio saepe suspendatur.” — Corv., ubi sup. parag. 12; Episcop. Disput. Pri. de Volun. Dei, corol. 5.
  11. “Possumus Deo resistere, cum nos vult per gratiam suam convertere.” — Rem. Coll. Hag., p. 193. “Objiciet quis, ergo illum suum finem Deus non est assecutus, respon-demus, nos hoc concedere.” — Rem. Defens. Sent. in Synod., p. 256.
  12. “Nobis certum est, Deum multorum salutem intendere, in quibus eam non assequitur.” — Grevinch, ad Ames., p. 271.
  13. “Vehemens est in Deo affectus ad homini benefaciendum.” — Corv, ad Molin., cap. 5. sect. 8.
  14. “Esse in Deo desideria quae non implentur concedimus.” — Idem, sect. 9. “Non decet ut Deus infinita sua potentia utatur ad id efficiendum, quo desiderio suo naturali fertur.” — Armim Antip., p. 584.
  15. “Deus eo fine et intentione remedium praeparavit, ut omnes ejus actu fierent participes, quamvis id non actu evenit.” — Rem. Apol., cap. 7. fol. 86.
  16. “Ne credere cogamur aliquid omnipotentem Deum voluisse factumque non esse.” — Aug. En., cap. 103.