From the late R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries we find a short article “praising” limited atonement by Richard Phillips. For the purpose of this post we will be focusing in on a section that promotes a critique of Arminianism that has been common among Calvinists for a long time and has been expressed in many different ways:
Second, if we grasp how personal in its application and how efficacious in its effects is the cross of Christ, we will find solid ground for our assurance of salvation.
There can be no assurance if the ultimate cause of our redemption is found in ourselves. The Arminian concept of a universal atonement, Packer remarks, “destroys the Scriptural ground of assurance altogether… . My salvation, on this view, depends not on what Christ did for me, but on what I subsequently do for myself.” (bold his, italics mine)
These comments by Packer, quoted favorably by Richard Phillips, represent just one of many Calvinist talking points that relies on a total misrepresentation of Arminian theology.
Since Packer and Phillips see this as a valid critique of Arminian Theology, it is worth addressing. Thankfully, it is so easily shown to be false that this response won’t need to be very long.
Let’s start by looking at some of the language Packer uses here. He says that in Arminianism, salvation does not depend on Christ but on us. It depends on what we “subsequently do” for ourselves. Since I do not have the full quote, I can only assume he is talking about our response of faith to the provision of the atonement. Never mind that the Bible plainly teaches that the benefits of the atonement are received by faith (Rom. 3:25), the main issue here is the claim that if it is up to us to put faith in Christ (or His “blood” as Rom. 3:25 says), then suddenly salvation “depends not on what Christ did for me, but on what I subsequently do for myself.”
Really? Putting faith in Christ and His atonement is an exercise in self-dependence? Does he really not see how it is exactly the opposite? Put simply, if we could save ourselves, we would not need to trust in Christ to save us. If we could atone for our own sins, we would not need to trust in His blood to receive the benefits of His atonement. Indeed, to say we need to trust in Christ to save us is the same as saying we need to “depend” on Him to save us. Trusting in Jesus is an act of dependence. That is why faith is the perfect non-meritorious condition for receiving the free, unearned and undeserved gift of salvation (cf. Rom. 4).
Let’s just look at a simple statement that all Arminians and Calvinists should readily agree with: “We need to trust in Christ to save us.”
Not controversial, right? Now let’s ask a simple question regarding that statement: Who does the saving in that statement? Is it the one who trusts in Christ? Of course not. Christ does the saving. Again, that is why we need to trust in Christ to save us because we cannot save ourselves. If we could save ourselves, we would not need to trust in Christ to save us, now would we? That we need to trust in Christ to save us proves that we are powerless to save ourselves. It is so painfully simple and obvious it is hard to understand how Calvinists can so easily miss it.
Are we responsible to trust in Christ? Yes. But that in no way means we save ourselves. It is still Christ who does all the saving. Trusting in Christ to save is depending on Christ to save. If we are depending on Christ to save us by trusting in Him, how can Packer not see how false it is to claim that Arminianism teaches that “salvation, on this view, depends not on what Christ did for me, but on what I subsequently do for myself”?
Arminianism in no way teaches that salvation depends on us. It teaches that salvation depends wholly on Christ and His atoning work on the cross. Because we are powerless to save ourselves or atone for ourselves, we must trust in Him to do what we cannot do. Arminianism cannot be rightly charged with promoting self-salvation or salvation by works. We fully believe in salvation by grace through faith, while rejecting the unBiblical idea that if we are not irresistibly caused to trust in Christ, that faith is somehow a work. Paul didn’t think so, nor does logic demand such a conclusion. So why do Calvinists persist in libeling Arminianism in such a way?
And of course, in Arminianism, we are not even able to trust in Christ in the first place without the prior intervention of God’s enabling grace to overcome our depravity and make faith possible. Not only do we need to trust in Christ to save us (proving we are powerless to save ourselves), but we are also fully dependent on His grace to even be able to trust in Him to save us. So the charge of Phillips and Packer against Arminianism is seen to be completely without merit.
The “ultimate cause of our redemption” is not found in us, it is found in Christ, which is why we need to trust in Christ to redeem us. The fact that we need to trust in Christ to redeem us in no way means that we are the cause of redemption. That is like saying that if we receive a free and unearned gift from someone, even though we could just as well have rejected the gift, that we are then somehow the “ultimate cause” of the gift.
Freely receiving a gift from someone does not mean we earned the gift. It does not mean we bought the gift. It does not mean we contributed to the gift. It does not mean we caused the gift, and it certainly does not mean we gave the gift to ourselves. All of that is plainly absurd and yet that absurdity forms the basis of this Calvinist argument against Arminianism. Behind this argument also lies the bizarre assumption that a gift cannot truly be a gift unless it is given irresistibly or unconditionally. It is truly hard to understand how many Calvinists still find this line of reasoning compelling.
This is why assurance of salvation is a field of theology and Christian experience plowed only by the Reformed. Murray notes, “It is no wonder that the doctrine of assurance should have found its true expression in that theology which is conditioned by the thought of the divine atonement or effective redemption, the irreversibility of effectual calling, and the immutability of the gifts of grace.
It is when you realize that even your faith is the outworking of Christ’s saving death for you, by the electing will of the Father, as applied by the Spirit, that you know the solid ground on which your salvation stands. If you truly believe–and the Bible gives you tests to determine whether you do–you can rest your heart in God’s sovereign grace and begin looking forward to an eternity of glory in the kingdom that you are now called to serve.
Actually, many of the fundamental claims of Calvinism work to severely undercut Biblical salvation assurance, rather than bolster it. For more on that see: