Arminian vs Reformed on Justification

WCF 11.1 ... nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness ...

Part 4: Arminian vs. Reformed on justification (see below)


Recent scholarship on Arminius has pointed out that he was a theologian of grace. Of course, I am yet to read of a Christian theologian who would not wish to be described that way. Some scholars have also tried to narrow the gap between Arminius and the Reformed tradition, with some suggesting that Arminius was correct to view himself as Reformed. 

Historically speaking, according to the judgment of many Reformed divines, Arminius, and his Remonstrant successors, deviated from the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone in a significant way. Arminius thought his difference was only minor.

In fact, as in other doctrines, Reformed theologians argued that Arminius and his successors seemed to hold to a view that is more Socinian and Roman Catholic than Reformed. This was a recurring polemic from the Reformed against the Arminians, who believed that Arminian theology had certain nominalistic tendencies and veered towards Socinianism on several important doctrines, especially on the matter of justification.

Franciscus Gomarus, the famous opponent of Arminius, said that it was "not the doctrine of predestination but that of justification" which was the "cardinal point on which Arminius deviated from Reformed doctrine." Fascinating. I do not think Gomarus fought with Arminius over this doctrine because of irrelevant differences. True, Arminius claimed to agree with Calvin on justification in book 3 of the Institutes, but Arminius also claimed to agree with the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession based on what, according to Richard Muller, can at best be described as a highly defensive and tendentious reading of those documents. 

The usually irenic Herman Witsius also drew attention to this deviation by Arminius: "Arminius, by his subtlety, frames vain empty quibbles, when he contends that the righteousness of Christ cannot be imputed to us for righteousness..." He adds: "It is well known that the reformed churches condemned Arminius and his followers, for saying that faith comes to be considered in the matter of justification as a work or act of ours." 

Besides Witsius, we could add the critiques of De Moor, Vitringa, Lubbertus, Voetius, Burgess (see The True Doctrine of Justification Asserted and Vindicated from the Errours of Papists, Arminians, Socinians...), Hoornbeek, Featley, Eyre, Buchanan, Roberts, Walker and many others. 

But what is this unorthodox view?

Arminianism Explained

Arminius distinguishes between legal theology and evangelical theology. Regarding, the latter, as sinners, because of the gracious estimation of God, faith is our righteousness. The righteousness of Christ is not imputed to believers, according to Arminius. He did not seem to believe Christ's righteousness could be imputed. 

Arminius made use of a concept, known as acceptilatio. Imperfect faith is accepted (by God's gracious estimation) as righteousness. Or, to put it another way, the human act of faith is by grace counted as evangelical righteousness, as if it were the complete fulfillment of the whole law. This genuine human act comes forth from the ability to choose (liberum arbitrium). God has a "new law" in the evangelical covenant, whereby faith answers to the demands of the covenant.

Arminius clearly struggled in coming to a settled view. Yet, as Aza Goudriaan says in his excellent essay on this topic, "While it is difficult to pin Arminius down on one particular view, it is obvious that he suggested in certain texts a justification because of the act of faith" (Scholasticism Reformed, 163; cf. McCall and Stanglin, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, 166-169).*

What is the problem? Because the act of faith constitutes righteousness, the manner in which a sinner is justified is not because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through the instrument of faith, but because of the act of believing which answers to the demands of the evangelical covenant. 

If you read Petrus Bertius (an Arminian) you might come to the conclusion that the Reformed and the Remonstrants seemed to agree on the formal cause of justification, i.e., imputation. But they differed on the material cause. What is imputed to the believer, our act of faith or Christ's righteousness apprehended by faith? The Reformed held to the latter, whereas, as noted above, the Arminians typically held to the former. But even on the so-called "formal cause" there was an important difference between the two camps. Based on what I have said above, for the Arminians, imputation is an aestimatio - God considers our righteousness (i.e., act of faith) as something that it is not (i.e., perfect). The Reformed, however, view imputation as secundum veritatem - God considers Christ's righteousness as our righteousness, precisely because it is, through union with Christ. The verdict that God passes on his Son is precisely the same verdict he passes on those who belong to Christ - but only through imputation.

In other words, technically we can stand before the tribunal of God with as much assurance of our righteousness as Christ can before the Father. Not because God accepts imperfection, but because God demands perfection from all who would enter life, and we possess a perfect righteousness, by imputation. This is why justification cannot be revoked (i.e., we cannot lose our salvation). Justification by faith (in the Reformed schema) has important implications for our doctrine of perseverance.

The act of faith in both the Papist and Arminian schemes seem to reveal similarity between the two positions. But for the Papists, faith is only the beginning of justification, whereas for someone like Bertius, faith is the perfect righteousness of the law. The act of faith answers to the demands of the gracious covenant. (Here Arminians and Reformed affirmed faith as a condition, but understood this condition in different senses). 

Sibrandus Lubbertus, a Reformed opponent of Bertius and the Arminians, makes the following point in terms of connecting Arminian views with Socinianism:

"For although the Papists teach that we are justified by faith taken in the literal sense, yet they do not teach that faith is our whole righteousness: they just teach that faith is the beginning of our justification...Servetus, however, and Socinus teach that faith is our whole righteousness, as has been shown before, and they reject [Christ's] merit. So because you [i.e., Arminians] say that we are justified by faith, taken in the literal sense, and in contrast deny, against the Papists, that faith is only the beginning of our justification, and [because you] add from Servetus and Socinus that it is the perfect fulfillment of the law, that is, it is the whole and perfect righteousness by which we are justified before God; because you finally deny against the Papists the merit of faith, and assert, with Servetus and Socinus, that it justifies because of God's valuation, [therefore] everybody sees that you come closer to Servetus and Socinus than to the Papists and for that reason it can be more correctly said that you are disciples of Servetus and Socinus than those of the Papists" (Goudriaan, Scholasticism Reformed, 172). 

In Socinus's view, faith itself is graciously considered righteousness by God. Christ's active and "passive" obedience is not imputed to the believer. So, as many Reformed theologians pointed out, there are similarities between Arminius and Socinus on justification by faith. 

Daniel Featley, at the Westminster Assembly, highlights the errors of the Papists, Arminians, and Socinians, and mentions Socinus immediately after Arminius: 

2. By the papists: if Christ's righteousness, then either whole or part. If the whole, then one hath all, another none. Or then everyone as righteous as Christ. ... 3. By Arminius: if by the act of faith, then not by the Imputed righteousness of Christ. Socinus neither active nor passive...

This, in part, explains the words quoted above from WCF 11.1, "... nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness ..." The Assembly seems clearly to have in view the views of the Arminians.


William Perkins highlights the importance of the Reformed view on imputation: "For as his righteousness is made ours, so are his merits depending thereon: but his righteousness is made ours by imputation ... Hence arises another point, namely, that as Christ's righteousness is made ours really [secundum veritatem] by imputation to make us righteous: so we by the merit of his righteousness imputed to merit and deserve life everlasting. And this is our doctrine."

Indeed. This is our (i.e., Reformed) doctrine. Justification by faith alone: whereby the gift of faith is the instrument that receives, through imputation, the merits of Christ.

But, make no mistake, the Papists and Arminians were zealous to say their view revealed the grace of God. Arminius also felt that his view did most justice to the biblical data (Rom. 4:5). Yet when you bridge the act of faith in justification according to the Remonstrant scheme with their Molinism, you'll find that one doctrine seems to affect another. And there is a type of synergism in Remonstrant theology that isn't found among the Reformed. As Goudriaan says, "it could be argued that Arminian positions on both predestination and justification reveal a common focus: human activity is formative in both Arminian doctrines" (SR, 178; cf. McCall & Stanglin,168). 

That said, I'm glad that we're not justified by believing in the precise doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Arminian view is not as bad, in my view, as the Papist error. Remember, too, that Rome hasn't officially revoked her anathema towards those who believe in justification through faith alone. But, where do we, in the Reformed world, begin to anathematize others for a view of justification that is in error? Now that's an interesting question! 


* As an aside, Stanglin and McCall are very fine scholars. I would be interested to see what other conclusions they might reach with a bit more historical context and theological analysis. I think Gomarus, who studied Arminius's works carefully on this topic, shows contrasting approaches by Arminius to his understanding of justification, thus disproving a fully consistent Arminius! The Lubbertus/Bertius debate is also crucial. Bertius was too close to Arminius to be ignored in a historical reading of Arminius on justification. That was one of the key strengths of Goudriaan's essay. One would need to disprove a lot of historical and primary source work by Goudriaan to establish the case that the Remonstrant view of justification was very close to the Reformed view. Indeed, to their credit, McCall and Stanglin admit it was different (Rom. 4:5 being a key text). 

John Fesko has a very good discussion of this debate in his book on the Westminster Assembly. Unfortunately, I only saw it just, but we seem to be in agreement on the Reformed vs. Arminian views of justification.