Perhaps the most fundamental complaint of the Remonstrants against Reformed theology, the concern that most animated Arminius’ desire to revise Reformed theology, was the charge that the Reformed view makes God the author of evil. In his desire to fix this problem Arminius argued that the relations between God and creation are not what the Augustine and the Protestant Reformers had said. He agreed with the Spanish Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina (1535–1600), that God knows all the possible choices human beings might make and even arranged the circumstances so as to limit human choices. Still, in Molina’s scheme, God does not foreordain or predestine human choices, which remain free relative to God. Ultimately, Arminius’ solution to the problem of evil was to make God contingent upon human choices. Another way to put this is to say that, in his own way, Arminius was a rationalist. He put human reason above holy Scripture. His revision of Reformed theology was not fundamentally driven by Scripture nor by the historic Augustinian understanding of Scripture but by reason.
The existence of evil is a great problem for all Christian traditions but Scripture will not allow us to imagine a world where the God who spoke into nothing and made all that is, who hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 10:20), may be said to dependent upon the free choices of those whom he animated out of dust. As noted last time, were there no crisis Romans 9 would read rather differently. Making God contingent upon the free choices of humans is no solution to the problem of evil. It only makes things worse.
It is true that we cannot say exactly how it is that God is absolutely sovereign over all things, including human free choices, and yet in no way morally responsible for the sinful choices and evil consequences of sin. We must say all that Scripture says but we should say no more. When Job demanded that the Lord give an account of himself, the Lord replied for two chapters (38–40) challenging Job’s standing to complain against God. In short, the Lord consistently refuses to answer the question that Arminius sought to resolve.
In CD 1.4 Synod began to reply to Arminius and to the Remonstrants (his followers) by re-establishing some basics.
Art. IV. The wrath of God abideth upon those who believe not this gospel; but such as receive it, and embrace Jesus the Saviour by a true and living faith, are by him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them.
There are two words in Scripture, law and gospel. The law of God is holy and righteous and it declares that God demands perfect conformity to his holy law. We were created able to keep that law but and keeping it to enter into eternal blessedness. In God’s mysterious, sovereign providence, Adam freely choose not to obey. He chose to believe a lie rather than the truth, to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Arminius, however, rejected this understanding of our original state. He rejected the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works as “arbitrary.” This revision of Reformed theology again reveals his rationalism. Rather than submitting his intellect to divine revelation, Arminius had standard in his intellect that he thought should be satisfied. In reality, however, there is nothing “arbitrary” about God’s command to Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was a summary of the moral law. It was a symbolic expression of the moral law, which is grounded in God’s nature. That law requires that we love God with all our faculties and our neighbor as ourselves. That is what Adam was to do as the representative of all humanity. Because of our willful disobedience we placed ourselves under the wrath and judgment of God. The fault lies entirely with us. We chose to disobey. We chose to believe a lie rather than the truth.
Those who believe, who put their trust in Jesus as their righteous substitute and Savior, are “delivered from the wrath” of God and “from destruction.” This is the essence of salvation. There is more that may be said about salvation but it certainly begins with deliverance from divine wrath. The second thing that the Reformed Churches confess in this article is just as fundamental eternal life is a gift. This way of speaking, of course, comes right out of Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” (ESV). The whole complex of benefits of Christ, justification, sanctification, and glorification are all God’s gift.
By their proposed revisions of Reformed theology, Arminius and the Remonstrants had attempted to turn the free gift of God into wages. In the Arminian scheme, salvation is by grace (by which they did not quite mean what we mean) and our free cooperation with grace. The Remonstrants re-defined grace essentially as that which God grants with which we are are said to cooperate. When the Remonstrants talked of grace, they did not mean God’s unconditional favor to helpless sinners but conditional assistance to those who do their part.
In CD 1.5 the Reformed Churches added:
Art. V. The cause or guilt of this unbelief, as well as of all other sins, is nowise in God, but in man himself: whereas faith in Jesus Christ, and salvation through him is the free gift of God, as it is written, ‘By grace ye are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God’ (Eph. 2:8); and, ‘Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him,’ etc. (Phil. 1:29).
Asymmetry is an important concept in Reformed theology. We do not confess that God’s decree of salvation is exactly symmetrical to his decree of reprobation. Of course, the eternal divine decree is shrouded in mystery. None of us was present in eternity nor does any of us have access to the divine intellect. So it is a mistake simply to assume that we should think of the decrees as exactly parallel (symmetrical) in every way. When we speak of the decree of reprobation, i.e., God’s decree to allow the fallen to remain in their sinful state, we think first of the cause of guilt, unbelief, and sin. The cause of the fall is not in God. That the churches said this might come as a surprise to those who assume what the Reformed must believe. Rather, we are content to leave in mystery the cause of sin, fall where Scripture does: with us. God did not sin. He did not disobey. He did not transgress. We did and we did so freely, i.e., without compulsion. There was nothing in us (e.g., concupiscence) that impelled us to sin nor did any created thing act upon us to cause us to sin. Behind the scenes, as it were, lie the divine decree but Scripture (Rom 5:12, 14; 1 Tim 2:13–14) always points to us, to our choices. Reprobation is by works. The reprobate are so because of their choices, their sin. Reprobation is conditional.
The opposite is true of salvation. It is unconditioned by anything in us or done by us. It is a free, unconditional gift. Not only did Synod quote Ephesians 2:8 but Philippians 1:29. Salvation is not earned by us. It was earned for us and freely given to us. Faith, which receives salvation, is a gift and salvation itself is a gift. This was the central argument with the Remonstrants. Is salvation by assisting grace and cooperation with that assisting grace or is it by God’s unconditional favor alone, through faith alone? In this way the Reformation itself was at stake.