Arminius on Free Will
It is vital for the Arminian to know what it is we believe about free will otherwise we will tend to think that the Arminian-Calvinist debate is over free will when in fact it is not. The heart of the debate is the doctrine of God. Other issues involved with that would be whether God’s decrees are conditional or unconditional. Does God elect people conditionally (upon faith in Jesus) or unconditionally (based on God’s sovereign choice)? Does God send His Son to die for the sins of the whole world and whosoever believes is saved (conditioned upon faith) or did Jesus die only for the elect (unconditionally chosen by God before time began)? This all flows from our view of God. Free will comes into play only in the sense of whether God’s grace enables the person hearing the gospel to believe on their own or must they be first regenerated by the Spirit to believe (or as R.C. Sproul puts it, “born again to believe”).
Arminius was clear in his writings about his view of free will. He wrote,
This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.
Methodist theologian Richard Watson wrote about free will,
The doctrine of the Remonstrants is, “That God, to the glory of his abundant goodness, having decreed to make man after his own image, and to give him an easy and most equal law, and add thereunto a threatening of death to the transgressors thereof, and foreseeing that Adam would wilfully transgress the same, and thereby make himself and his posterity liable to condemnation; though God was, notwithstanding, mercifully affected toward man, yet, out of respect to his justice and truth, he would not give way to his mercy to save man till his justice should be satisfied, and his serious hatred of sin and love of righteousness should be made known.” The condemnation here spoken of, as affecting Adam and his posterity, is to be understood of more than the death of the body, as being opposed to the salvation procured by the sacrifice of Christ; and, with respect to the moral human nature since the fall, the third of exhibited at the synod of Dort, states, that the Remonstrants “hold that a man hath not faith of himself, nor from the power of his own free will, will, see seeing that, while he is in the state of sin, he cannot of himself, nor by himself, think, will, or do any saving good.”
The state of mankind is clear; apart from the grace of God, we are sinful and slaves to sin (John 8:34). Romans 3:10-18 is equally clear that we do not love God, do not choose God, do not please God with our lives. Instead, Romans 3:10-18 is clear that we are the opposite and we reject God just as all people tend to do by nature (Romans 1:18-32). Paul the Apostle states further in Ephesians 2:3 that we all are by nature “children of wrath.”
Richard Watson goes on to quote Ambrose writing on the Fall of Mankind,
Thence was derived mortality, and no less a multitude of miseries than of crimes. Faith being lost, hope being abandoned, the understanding blinded, and the will made captive, no one found in himself the means of repairing these things. Without the worship of the true God, even that which seems to be virtue is sin; nor can any one please God without God. But whom does he please who does not please God, except himself and Satan? The nature, therefore, which was good is made bad by habit; man would not return unless God turned him.
When it comes to the issue of free will, Richard Watson further admonished his readers to neither place too much emphasis on free will nor on our lapsed state. He said that to go either extreme would pervert the gospel and make God the author of sin. It is clear that the first inclination toward sin came from man’s free will. God did not cause Adam to sin. Adam sinned because Adam was tempted by Satan and chose to sin. From the fall of Adam, we born in his image are likewise now born with a sinful desire, a sinful nature. I do reject the teaching of inherited guilt meaning that I reject the teaching that says we go to hell because we inherit the sin of Adam. I find this teaching to be contrary to the Word of God (see Ezekiel 18:4 for example). However, I also know of Arminians who do hold to inherited guilt and disagree with me over this view.
Yet all true Arminians believe that mankind is incapable of pleasing God or earning His perfect righteousness in our own free will. We need His grace to be saved (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7). We need His Spirit to be born again (John 3:1-7; Romans 8:9-10; Galatians 3:14). We need His gospel to set us free (Galatians 5:1). We believe that the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel to draw sinners to the Savior (John 16:8-11; Romans 10:14-17; 1 Corinthians 1:21). The Spirit of God opens the eyes of sinners to hear and believe and thus be saved (1 Corinthians 2:10-16). Yet we do not believe that the Spirit forces anyone to believe. People believe by their own free will that is set free to believe by the Spirit (Acts 2:21, 37-39). God certainly foreknows those who are His (Romans 8:29; 1 Peter 1:2) and He lovingly convicts sinners to draw people to Himself who become the elect of God through faith in Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 4:10).