An Arminian Account of Free Will

Roger E. Olson

Recent years have witnessed another wave of the old Calvinist versus Arminian controversy that has waxed and waned at least since Luther’s debate with Erasmus in the 1520s. (Excuse the anachronism, but the controversy over free will predates Arminius by at least a century!) There is today an aggressive, resurgent Reformed theology that is encroaching even on traditionally Arminian theological territories. It is not unusual to find Methodist and even Assemblies of God (!) students avidly reading John Piper and watching Mark Driscoll on podcasts. Free will is being called into question again — as it was in the days of John and Charles Wesley when Augustus Toplady, writer of many hymns including “Rock of Ages,” questioned their salvation because they believed in it.

But part of the controversy of “predestination versus free will” is based on confusion. Before the debate goes on, one should be aware of what these and related terms mean to the various parties in it. These are not simple concepts. “Free will” means different things to different people. One cannot assume anything when free will is affirmed. Many Calvinists today, unlike John Calvin himself, affirm “free will” but mean something quite different from what most people mean by the phrase (and certainly different from what Wesley and Arminians generally mean by it!).

So, in order to sort things out and make sure the debaters are not talking past each other, we need to define terms and distinguish concepts. We start with “Calvinism” and “Arminianism.”

Calvinism is a broad concept, but generally it only applies correctly to belief in TULIP — the acrostic for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and perseverance of the saints. It is questionable whether one can be truly Calvinistic without affirming all five of these “points” of Calvinism. That is very strange since Calvin himself probably did not believe in “L” — limited atonement. Nevertheless, historically speaking, “Calvinism” has come to be equated with that five-point system of soteriology. A single word for it is “monergism” — that is, the belief that God is the sole active agent in salvation. God determines who will be saved and gives those whom he selects for salvation the gift of grace irresistibly.

Arminianism is also a broad concept, but generally it only applies correctly to denial of the U, the L, and the I of TULIP. The label stems from Jacob Arminius, the Dutch theologian who rejected those points of Calvinism. He died at the height of a controversy over predestination versus free will in 1609. His followers, the Remonstrants, carried on his objections to the three middle points of TULIP while affirming that salvation is all of grace. (See my Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities [InterVarsity, 2006] where I dispel criticisms that Arminianism denies the gospel of grace alone through faith alone.)

The problem is that, often, both sides in this debate affirm “free will.” How so? As far back as Augustine in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, some Christians have defined free will simply as “doing what you want to do” so that you are acting freely whenever you are not coerced to act against your will. Or, as the great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards argued, you act freely whenever you act according to your strongest motive that you do whenever you act without external compulsion.

In other words, in this “compatibilist” account of free will (because it is compatible with determinism), you are acting freely even if you could not act otherwise so long as you are doing what you want to do and are not being forced to do something against your will. For example, if you eat pizza for lunch because you want to you are acting freely even if pizza is the only thing on the menu and you are starving. But if someone holds a gun to your head and makes you eat the pizza when there is spaghetti on the menu and you would rather have that, you are not acting freely.

Many people find this compatibilist meaning of free will very strange. It is hardly the most common meaning of free will or the meaning of “the person on the street” who talks about being free. So, when Calvinists affirm free will they do not mean power of contrary choice — something most Calvinists deny. Power of contrary choice is the typical Arminian view of free will. In philosophy this is known as non-compatibilist freedom or libertarian freedom. In this view, “free will” means being able to do otherwise. In other words, in this view, you are only acting freely when and if you could do otherwise than you do. And this does not just mean “physical ability” to do otherwise; it means real ability — that you genuinely could have chosen to do something else but intellectually chose the course of action you took even if you actually preferred something else.


Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology (InterVarsity, 2006).

One problem that arises for Arminians when they affirm this non-compatibilist idea of free will (power of contrary choice) is how to avoid Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism. Pelagianism is the ancient heresy that all people have the innate ability to avoid sinning and are not totally dependent on grace for everything good. (Paul asks his converts “What do you have that you did not receive? [1 Cor 4:7].) Often Calvinists (and sometimes Lutherans) accuse Arminians of falling into the heresy of denying grace in favor of meritorious salvation — earning one’s salvation by the good work of independently deciding to trust and obey God. Pelagius and Pelagianism were condemned as heresies at the third and fourth ecumenical councils in A.D. 431 and 451.

Semi-Pelagianism is the more frequent accusation by informed Calvinists against Arminianism. Semi-Pelagianism is the name given to the teaching of so me of Augustine’s critics. (Augustine was a monergist who believed in unconditional election.) John Cassian was a notable monk and spiritual writer of the early fifth century who opposed Augustine’s teaching on predestination and affirmed instead that the sinner, though fallen, can initiate his or her salvation by “exercising a good will” toward God. God waits to see that initiative and only then responds with saving grace. This was condemned as heresy at the Second Council (or Synod) of Orange in A.D. 529 and Arminians have always rejected it. But many Calvinists are convinced that Arminian affirmation of libertarian free will necessarily implies semi-Pelagianism.

Arminius and his follower Wesley (who named his magazine The Arminian lest anyone question his Arminianism!) affirmed libertarian free will/power of contrary choice but adamantly rejected Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. Unfortunately, today, too many Protestant Christians do fall into Pelagianism and
semi-Pelagianism and Calvinist critics tend to point the finger at them and say their error is the result of Arminian influence. True Arminianism, however, does not fall into either of those errors and the preserving factor is the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace.

Arminius and Wesley both taught that the will of the sinner is bound to sin unless and until it is freed by grace. Thus, they both taught the first point of TULIP — total depravity — which means that the fallen human being, not yet liberated by God’s grace, cannot exercise a good will toward God. After all, both the Psalms and Paul asserted that “No one seeks after God” and “No one does what is good” (Pss 14; 53; Rom 3) — meaning apart from God’s grace.

Prevenient grace is the liberating grace of God that frees the sinner’s will so that he or she can choose to accept the gift of saving grace or reject it. It is grace that “goes before” (which is what “prevenient” means) and prepares the heart for saving grace, but in Arminian theology it is resistible. If a person touched by prevenient grace (normally through the Word of God) does reach out to God with repentance and faith it is only because he or she was liberated from the bondage of the will and convicted, called, enlightened, and enabled by prevenient grace. Thus, in Arminian thought, the initiative is all God’s and the ability is all God’s; everything in salvation is wholly and exclusively “by grace alone.” But God will not force himself on anyone and so the person whose will is freed by grace must cooperate by allowing God’s grace to save him or her. It is simply a matter of saying “yes” to God. It does not involve meritorious good works.

So, when it comes to Arminian theology, it is better to speak of the freed will than the free will. The latter term is confusing (partly because some Calvinists affirm it in its compatibilist sense) and (when used in the non-compatibilist sense) can imply a human-centered and meritorious salvation.

Charles Wesley beautifully expressed these concepts of prevenient grace and freed will in his hymn “And Can It Be?” “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”

So, to sum up, “free will” is a vague concept; by itself it does not communicate anything specific. It might mean simply “doing what you want to do even if you could not do otherwise” or it might mean “power of contrary choice.” According to Arminian theology, it always means power of contrary choice, but in matters pertaining to salvation, power of contrary choice is a gift of God’s grace; apart from prevenient grace sinners would always choose to ignore God and reject his mercy.

So why not affirm the compatibilist sense of free will? Why is the so-called libertarian view (free will as power of contrary choice) necessary? Why should we not all just be Calvinists (or agree with Luther who totally rejected free will in his debate with Erasmus) and be done with it? A few simple reasons jump to mind. If we do not have power of contrary choice, then our salvation is not a gift but a fate imposed and others’ damnation is not truly deserved. If there is no such thing as libertarian free will, as Edwards argued, then Adam and Eve’s fall into sin was part of the plan of God, controlled by God, and makes God a moral monster. If salvation is not something freely chosen or freely rejected, then, if some end up in hell for eternity, God is a moral monster. Why? Because he could have saved everyone since salvation is unconditional and not freely chosen. And if God imposes salvation on some without their free assent and cooperation, then the love they have for God is not genuine and God can take no real delight in it. Love that is not freely given is not real love.

Some common objections arise mainly from Calvinist quarters. Where is prevenient grace taught in Scripture? The answer is it is everywhere assumed. Why do some people touched by prevenient grace give assent to God’s saving mercy and others do not? We do not know and do not have to know, but that mystery is better than why God unconditionally elects some to damnation and others to salvation (which makes it arbitrary). Do people not always act according to their strongest motive or inclination? (This was Edwards’ argument and one still encounters it from Calvinists such as J. Frame and R.C. Sproul.) Not necessarily. The intellect or heart can choose between competing motives or inclinations.

One common argument against the libertarian account of free will, even in its Arminian manifestation (with prevenient grace as its source), is that it is an incoherent concept. Some Calvinists, relying heavily on Edwards, argue that it simply makes no sense to say that anyone acts in any other way than according to his or her strongest motive or inclination. And, of course, strongest motives or inclinations cannot be freely chosen in the libertarian sense because that would involve contradiction. So, say the critics, all of our mental decisions and all of our actions are determined. Who or what determines them? In that account of matters it cannot be we ourselves who determine them, so it must be God, who is the all-determining reality, who determines them.

But that raises two difficulties for the compatibilist view of these Calvinists that they rarely face up to. First, are God’s decisions and actions always determined by a strongest motive or inclination? Does not God have power of contrary choice? If not, then creation and redemption are not all of grace but are necessary outworkings of the mechanical mind of God. But if God has power of contrary choice it cannot be an incoherent concept. Second, where did the very first evil motive or inclination come from? In the Calvinist view it had to come from God! Few Calvinists will affirm that, but there does not seem to be any alternative. If they say it came from the creature itself (whether Satan or Adam) that introduces power of contrary choice into reality — something they claim is logically incoherent.

A final consideration must be offered. Often one hears critics of Arminianism say that “free will” is not true freedom. The Arminian can agree. “True freedom” is being what God intended you to be. That is what we will enjoy in the kingdom of heaven. Free will is a God-given instrument for getting there — by the mercy and grace of God.

Posted Apr 01, 2012