Why Arminianism Can’t Make You a More Compassionate Christian

A few days ago I posted a some thoughts on how Christians can love those who hold to different worldviews. One of the reasons why the Christian worldview enables believers to love unbelievers is because it teaches that salvation is all of grace. I noted that when Christians are walking faithfully within a Christian worldview they will sense deep love and compassion for those who hold to opposing worldviews. In this article I want to focus particularly on the topic of compassion.

By affirming in the previous article that salvation is all of grace, I was assuming a specific view of grace; namely, a Calvinist view. And, as I’ve continued to reflect on this topic, it has become clear that only this understanding of grace provides the necessary theological grounds for a Christian’s compassion toward unbelievers. Arminian theology cannot, in the final analysis, provide an adequate basis for a believer to exercise compassion on those who reject Christ and the gospel.

By making this claim I am not suggesting that those who hold to an Arminian understanding of salvation are not compassionate to unbelievers. Indeed, I know Arminians who are exemplary in their love for others who would probably put some strong Calvinists to shame. My point, rather, is that Arminians are compassionate to unbelievers despite their theology, not because of it. Let me explain.

Calvinism, Arminianism, and the Freedom of the Will: The Basics
With regard to the important issue of God’s sovereignty in salvation, two major theological camps emerged out of the Protestant Reformation. Both camps have held that man is, because of sin, unable to repent and believe in Christ apart from God’s grace. The difference, however, comes in how each camp defines free will.

Historically, Calvinists have held that the freedom of man’s will can be defined in terms of inclination. That is, God has given man the freedom to do what he most desires. We are free in the sense that God has allowed us to act on what we most want to do. While articulated and defended during the Reformation, this position was crystallized with rigorous theological and philosophical detail in the 18th century by Jonathan Edwards’s work, The Freedom of the Will.

Arminian theology conceives of man’s will differently. In the Arminian scheme, the will is not free unless it is able to choose apart from any internal or external influences, including one’s own desires. I am free if I could have chosen one thing or the contrary of that thing I chose. If we are truly free, then there can be no immediate influence upon our wills, including the immediate influence from God’s Spirit.  This understanding of the will is typically called libertarian free will.

Because these two camps view man’s freedom differently, how each understands the nature of God’s grace and how grace effects salvation in the sinner is very different. As I already noted, both theological schemes believe man is unable to come to Christ on his own for salvation: God must provide grace in order for the sinner to embrace Christ by faith. Calvinists believe the grace that God provides is an effectual grace that changes the heart of the sinner so that a person desires to come to Christ. The will is free–it does what it most wants to do–and it freely chooses Christ because God has changed the affections. Previously, the heart’s desires were only for sin and self. Now, by God’s grace, they are for Christ and holiness.

Arminians, however, holding to a libertarian understanding of free will, argue for something called prevenient grace. Because all men are dead in sin on their own and unable to come to Christ for salvation, they need grace. God therefore gives all men prevenient grace which removes the debilitating effects of the fall so that a person is now able to believe in Jesus, if he or she decides to exercise their free will. This grace is given to all people everywhere and is not an immediate, effectual grace. It merely provides man with the ability now to accept Christ, and it can be resisted. The difference comes in whether or not individuals choose to exercise their free will. Some choose Christ. And some don’t.

Compassion for Unbelievers and the Freedom of our Wills
Between these two camps, I believe Calvinism is the most coherent and does the greatest justice to Scripture. I can’t provide a full-scale defense of Calvinism here. I only want to point out that one of the deficiencies of Arminianism is that it cannot finally ground Christian compassion to unbelievers. If the brief sketch I provided above is at all clear, you may have already noticed why this is the case.

If man’s will is free in a libertarian sense and God provides grace to all men everywhere so that the distinguishing mark between believer and unbeliever is man’s choice to believe in Christ, then how can a believer feel genuine compassion for those remain in unbelief? The difference between the believer and the unbeliever is purely a result of the believer’s own actions–namely, the exercise of his free will. Both the believer and the unbeliever are equals, not only in the fact that they are made in the image of God, but because they have equal opportunity and equal ability to choose Christ.

But if you haven’t come to Christ and I have, then you are not rightly the object of my compassion, but of my scorn and rebuke. You are foolish if you do not exercise your free will like I have. We might feign compassion, but it will be self-righteous disdain in the guise of true sympathy: “God I thank you that I am not like this other man, too stupid to exercise his free will. What a poor, poor creature.”

Not Self-Righteous Scorn, but Broken-Hearted Pity
Granted, most genuine Christians won’t talk like that, regardless of their theological commitments. But Arminianism taken to its logical end can only produce self-righteous scorn, not broken-hearted compassion. Calvinism, however, is able to produce compassion in the hearts of believers because it teaches that a man in Christ is so only because of sovereign, effectual grace. Yes, the believer exercised faith, but he did so because God, by an immediate work of the Holy Spirit working through the gospel, changed the affections and enabled him to embrace Christ.

When the Christian encounters an unbeliever, therefore, he has compassion on him because this unbeliever is a spiritual hole out of which he cannot pull himself. Worse than that: he is dead and lying at the bottom of a pit and unable to recognize his desperate condition. But if we were in the exact same state prior to our salvation and it was only the unmerited grace of God that raised us to life, then we have no grounds on which we can boast about our ability to choose Christ. The Christian can now look upon the unbeliever with deep and genuine compassion while hoping that God might do the same work in this one who is still without Christ. Self-righteousness is devastated by effectual grace and scorn is replaced with humble pity. Only Calvinism can do that.

Photo: Ashley Rowe

3 thoughts on “Why Arminianism Can’t Make You a More Compassionate Christian”

  1. Oh Derek,
    You wrote a great theological piece and defended your point of view beautifully. I know we are fellow brothers in Christ, but I got to say this type of stuff drives me nuts. It drives a theological wedge between two points of view who are on a mission together to reach the world for Christ. Was it not Jesus’ heart to make them all one (John 17).
    I am a chaplain with a group that is in the mission of workplace chaplaincy. I have done youth ministry and started College ministries and other ministries. I have wrote a book dealing with discipling non-believers. Out of a compassion to help people see Jesus more clearly. That is the burden God put on me. He showed me lost and dying people around me. He showed me the need to tell them.

    The entire flaw in your argument is this. Our theology doesn’t give us the burden our fellowship with the Spirit does.

    My counter point is that many Calvinist I have observed have a way of looking down their noses at non-believers because they are no chosen. Now if I were to say all Calvinists are that way then I would be doing the Christian community a major disservice since, Calvinists are responsible for much of the missional and church planting movement.

    If your burden and compassion for people comes from your theology and not the Spirit, or at least both you are not gathering compassion from the right place.

    I sat at Bethlehem Baptist church one Sunday listening to John Piper preach Romans 8 while I was in Bethel Seminary. I listened to the greatest Calvinist of our day preach the most Calvinist part of the New Testament. He went back and quoted Romans 3:23. I remember as I had wrestled with this question for years. It caused depression for me. How can I be burdened to for people and they have no real choice.

    Something gave me great comfort on the journey back. John Piper quoted 3:23 how all are doomed and have fallen short, but him and no other Calvinist seem to finish the sentence. 3:24 goes on to say, “Yet all are freely justified at the cross.” Huh? Choice. If all are justified that means L of Tulip falls apart. Atonement is not limited. That doesn’t mean everyone has the same opportunity or everything is fair, but at the cross all were chosen and it seems we have a choice.

    The point is even the greatest of Calvinist that I respect beyond measure choses which verses to prove his point, and which book to preach from for 11 or 12 years to reinforce his position.

    My views on freewill push me to communicate the Gospel better, live better, represent Christ better, pray better, and lead my family better. But most of all the burden comes from the Spirit living in me.

    Your a good writer though, but your need to confirm Calvinism is guiding the ship on this one.

  2. Chaplapreneur,

    Thank you for your comments and your candor. I appreciate your honesty.

    We are certainly brothers in Christ, and for that I am grateful! And yes, it is Jesus’ heart that his people be drawn together in unity. But I don’t think Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his people precludes rigorous discussion or even disagreement about important theological issues. If we are going to be truly unified, then we must unite around the truth. Because of our faith in Christ, you and I have much in common! But if you believe in libertarian free will, then you and I also have some serious theological differences between us. We can rejoice in our respective efforts to proclaim Christ to lost sinners, but we probably couldn’t join on the same teaching team at a local church, for example. At least not until we agreed on some of these vital theological questions.

    I don’t doubt your zeal for Christ and compassion for the lost. And I am edified to hear about your ministry endeavors. Praise God! But I wasn’t arguing against specific Arminians in my article, but against Arminian theology, particularly libertarian free will. That’s why I prefaced the article with this statement: “By making this claim I am not suggesting that those who hold to an Arminian understanding of salvation are not compassionate to unbelievers. Indeed, I know Arminians who are exemplary in their love for others who would probably put some strong Calvinists to shame. My point, rather, is that Arminians are compassionate to unbelievers despite their theology, not because of it.” So, it would appear that you are someone who fits this description: you are a compassionate Christian who cares for unbelievers despite your theology. Your counter argument about proud Calvinists is simply the other side of the same coin and still doesn’t reckon with the qualification I made in the beginning of the article. These so-called Calvinists are arrogant toward others despite their theology. But it’s very possible these Calvinists are actually hyper-Calvinists because no man can know with certainty who is and who is not elect, but more on that in a moment.

    You narrow your complaint to one central issue in my article: “The entire flaw in your argument is this. Our theology doesn’t give us the burden our fellowship with the Spirit does.” In response to the statement ‘Our theology doesn’t give us the burden our fellowship with the Spirit does,’ I would say that’s true in a sense. But overall, this is a false dichotomy. And I’m not convinced you really believe it.

    It is true that the Spirit ultimately gives us our burden for the lost, and he can sometimes do this despite the fact that we believe something false. That’s my very point is making a distinction between Arminian Christians and Arminian theology early in my article. But the Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), so it is unwise to posit a dichotomy between the Spirit and truth as though the Spirit has a habit of working apart from the truth. If Calvinism is true, then it is the fruit of biblical revelation and therefore the Spirit’s gift to the church and the means through which he works compassion into the lives of Christ’s disciples. So yes, the Spirit ultimately creates the burden in our hearts, but he does so through true theology.

    But like I said, I’m not convinced you really believe the statement ‘Our theology doesn’t give us the burden our fellowship with the Spirit does’ because you continue in your comment to argue that ‘My views on freewill push me to communicate the Gospel better, live better, represent Christ better, pray better, and lead my family better.’ By this statement it seems that you actually believe that your theology matters when it comes to compassion for the lost. I think we agree that ultimately it is the Spirit who creates compassion in our hearts. But to imply that our theology has nothing to do with it is to pit the Spirit against the truth; something that you are not even willing to do.

    As to your comments about Piper and his sermons on Romans 8 and his thoughts on Romans 3:23, 24, etc., there’s a lot here to discuss, but it doesn’t appear that you grasp Piper’s argument or how Calvinists understand Romans 3:23-24. Briefly, there is nothing in these verses that undermine a belief in God’s sovereignty over salvation or the doctrine of freedom of inclination (as opposed to libertarian free will) or limited atonement (I prefer the phrase “definite atonement”). What Paul affirms in this passage is that all people are sinners and all people are justified the same way: by God’s grace through Christ. Certainly, Paul doesn’t mean all people without distinction because he goes on to say in the next few verses that justification is only received by those “who have faith in Jesus” (v.26).

    Brother, given what you said about Romans 3:23-24 and your question, “How can I be burdened to for people and they have no real choice,” I am not confident you really understand the Calvinist position. It seems as though you are arguing against hyper-Calvinism, a theological scheme I am happy to join you in rejecting whole-heartedly. Hyper-Calvinism teaches that only those who know they are elect have a warrant to believe in Christ. But this is un-biblical. The warrant to believe in Christ is given in the gospel itself: “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden…”(Matt 11:28); “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31), etc. As one author wisely notes, “God has much to do in us but requires nothing of us before we come to Christ.” Amen. All men have a choice. The problem is that left to ourselves our choice is only for sin and self. We need a change in our affections. And only God can effect this change through the gospel.

    Thanks for the good discussion –
    Derek

  3. You make some good points
    1. One issue not touched on is Calvinist can only be evangelical and burdened for a non-believer in a way that they want to see saving grace and faith bestowed upon the believer as a result of their witness inspite of their theology. On one hand I cited the greatness of preachers and missionaries in the Calvinist movement over the past 500 years, and the evangelical contribution. One the other hand I have studied and worked alongside others who didn’t see a reason to evangelize because really God has it sorted out for us, and we are not truly part of the equation in a way that effects the result.
    ex. I went back and listened to the Piper sermon I cited, and this is a good paraphrase for how he ended the message.
    “You may be thinking if some are chosen and some are not and I have nothing to do with it, then what is the point?” He states this because that is the obvious rational question. He continues to say something like, “Don’t think you can outsmart God. Choose this day to be chosen.”
    This is a prime example of a well school Calvinist being evangelistic inspite of his theology. He might feel more compassion than the Arminian, but His belief is he can’t do anything about it, but He is called to try, and from there it gets wrapped up in at least God is glorified and it becomes very confusing.

    2. I do feel I understand Calvinism pretty well, feel free to correct me where I am in error, but the main talking point for me is that Electionist must redefine certain terms or atleast make some leaps on terms. Possibly the most obvious one is “faith.” You mentioned being justified by “faith.” Ephesians 2 – grace through faith.

    To the Calvinist as I understand it, faith is only imputed to the believer and basically irrefutable. To the Arminian we have a choice to apply faith. Calvinist like to say well who would turn it down? In Exodus we see Pharoah faced with the confrontation with God Almighty and several times God hardened his heart, but at least three he hardened his own heart. Maybe free will isn’t all about the salvation moment but many choices that put us into the position. Jesus says, “If you seek you will find (Matthew 7:7).” It is a pointless statement if He is the only one who is doing the action, making someone seek Him.

    Faith can only be defined as a gift along with the method a person receives a message. When we pray we choose to apply faith. It isn’t just given. Granted it has to be given, but we are accountable to apply it.

    A high view of the sovrentigy of God to me means that God is in control. He knows what will happen, He knows what we will choose. He can let us be free and still have that type of authority. This type of beliefs allows me to walk in assurance and compassion for others.

    Thanks for the blog it has been fun.

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