The Poisonous Petals of the Arminian LILAC
In God's creation the lilac, like the tulip, has a beautiful place. It is not a poisonous plant, but a splendid flower of sweet perfume and purple hue. Its color symbolizes royalty and dominion. As such, the lilac would be a fit emblem of the Reformed faith and its key doctrine—the absolute sovereignty of God. But the lilac may be viewed as the emblem of the Arminian heresy, and then it takes on quite a different character. It becomes an ugly, stinking flower. Its color is the pale gray of disease and death. Its petals are poisonous.
It was, I believe, the late Dr. John Gerstner who invented the acronym LILAC to summarize the five points of the Arminians. He did this because the tulip flower has been the symbol of the five points of Calvinism. The two "flowers" look like this:
T - Total Depravity
U - Unconditional Election
L - Limited Atonement
I - Irresistible Grace
P - Perseverance of Saints
L - Limited Depravity
I - I Choose Christ
L - Limitless Atonement
A - Arrestible Grace
C - Carnal Security
In this article we want to examine briefly these poisonous petals of the Arminian LILAC. The reader will understand that we cannot launch into a detailed critique of the Arminian heresy in this one article. For that we refer you to the Canons of Dordt themselves, particularly the second part of each head of doctrine, where the Arminian errors are explicitly mentioned and refuted. We can only point out the main errors. Nevertheless, with the sweet smell of TULIP in our souls we will come to know the stench of the Arminian LILAC.
It was the Arminian party in he Dutch Reformed churches who first summarized their teachings into five points of doctrine. This they did following the death of James Arminius, the man who initially advanced the erroneous doctrines and after whom the Arminian party was named. Arminius had been teaching the errors associated with his name for many years following his ordination into the ministry in 1588. Especially in his preaching on the book of Romans he parted with the historic Reformed teaching concerning the state of the natural man and concerning the way in which the sinner is saved. But it was after Arminius' death in 1609 that his followers put his views together in summary form. In 1610 they set forth in five articles their Remonstrance (petition) as a defense of their position (which is why the Canons of Dordt consist of five heads of doctrine and why we speak of the five points of Calvinism). The first of these points expressed the Arminian view of predestination:
That God, by an eternal, unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his Son, before the foundation of the world, has determined, out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ's sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath, and to condemn them as alienate from Christ, according to the word of the gospel in John 3:36: "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him," and according to other passages of Scripture also.
At first glance it may seem as if the Arminians were stating an orthodox doctrine of predestination. The language appears sound and straight. But in reality their view of divine election and reprobation is that they are conditional decrees. Notice that the article says that God chooses those who will believe and passes over those who will not believe. That is,God's choice of some persons to be saved is based on (conditioned by) their faith and their perseverance in faith; and His rejection of others for damnation is based on (conditioned by) their unbelief and disobedience. For the Arminians, God's decree of predestination is not sovereign and unconditional; it is not freely made without any regard to man's acts in time. Rather is it conditioned by what man does. In eternity God looks ahead and sees who will believe and who will not believe and predestinates accordingly. It was right here in their opening statement that the Arminians revealed the heart of their heresy:
God is not sovereign in salvation; man is! God's will does not rule in the redemption of mankind; man's does! God's grace does not account for salvation; man's faith does! The poisonous, putrid petal of the Arminian LILAC is: "I choose God (Christ), and therefore He chooses me!"
How pervasive that poison is in the churches today! O, that the smell of the beautiful, biblical TULIP would prevail as it did in the time of Dordt: "God chose me to believe, sovereignly, unconditionally, entirely of grace!"
This, however, was just the beginning of the Arminian poison. In their second point the Arminianscontinued their vile errors:
That, agreeably thereunto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the gospel of John 3:16, "God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." And in the First Epistle of John 2:2: "And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."
In this statement the Arminians boldly set forth universal atonement: Christ has died for all men, head for head. His death on the cross covered the sins of all people that ever live. His sacrifice obtained forgiveness and freedom for each and every person in all of time and history. Christ's death, then, is not just for the elect of God; it is not limited to that select people determined by God. It is for all men without exception.
Yet at the same time the Arminians had to reckon with the fact that all men do not enjoy this salvation in the death of Christ. Some men perish in their unbelief and never receive the benefits Christ obtained for them. Which means that Christ has died in vain for some; His death is not sufficient to secure some people's salvation. What is this but a denial of the efficacy and all-sufficiency of Christ's atonement?! The poisonous petal of the Arminian LILAC this time was that Christ's limitless atonement fails!
This is not the sweet fragrance of the gospel, as they claimed; this is the stench of the lie! Besides, in this article the Arminians again grounded salvation in the faith of the sinner, not the sovereign work of God in Christ at the cross. At best Christ's death only makes salvation possible for the sinner. The determining factor in salvation is not what Christ did in dying but what the sinner does in believing. Christ has died in vain unless the sinner believes! Also this poisonous petal stands prominent in the churches of our day. 0, that the sweet savor of the biblical. Reformed TULIP might prevail today as it did at Dordt: "Christ died only for those elect given Him by the Father, sufficiently, efficaciously, with everlasting security of their salvation!"
In their third point the Arminians returned to their devilish deceptions and subtle subterfuges. They hid the truth of their position behind solid language:
That man has not saving faith of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, in as much as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as saving faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Ghost, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5: "Without me ye can do nothing."
It appears from this statement that the Arminians were upholding the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, that man is thoroughly corrupt in himself and incapable of doing any good apart from the grace of God. It appears that they were defending sovereign grace in the salvation of the sinner, such that only God by His regenerating Spirit causes man to repent and believe. It even seems that they condemn free will.
But this was a grievous deception. In reality, the Arminians taught just the opposite. When you read the "Rejection of Errors" section in the Canons of Dordt, III & IV Heads, you discover their true position on the nature of man's depravity and on the nature of God's saving grace. From this we learn that the Arminians taught that man is only partially depraved and that he has retained his power of free will after the Fall. Therefore the unregenerate sinner is not totally dependent on the grace and Spirit of God for salvation. He is able to prepare himself for salvation and cooperate with God in salvation. According to the Arminians, fallen man can hunger and thirst after righteousness and life by himself, he can offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit apart from the Spirit. He can use his natural powers to meet God "halfway" on the road of salvation. God gives the sinner a "common grace" to show him Christ and encourage him to conversion, but it is up to him to exercise his free will and decide whether or not he will be saved. In the Arminian scheme, faith is not God's sovereign gift worked in man's heart by the power of the regenerating Spirit but man's act which actually precedes regenertion.
So again, the Arminians denied the sovereignty of God's saving grace, this time by promoting the poisonous petal of "limited depravity." The fathers of Dordt saw this for what it was, nothing but a resurrection of the old Pelagian heresy which denied man's total depravity and advanced man's power of free will. 0, that once more this poisonous perfume of the Arminian LILAC might be snuffed out in the churches and the precious scent of the Reformed TULIP be powerfully smelled and savored!
The fourth article of the Arminians must also be viewed in the light of what we have just seen:
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, in as much as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.
Again, it seems as if the Arminians are defending sovereign grace, at least in the first part of the article. God's grace, they appear to say, accounts for all the good that man does.
But notice the words that are used to describe God's grace as it comes to the sinner. The article calls it "assisting" grace and "cooperative" grace, implying that God simply needs to help man along in the attainment of salvation and that man works along with God to achieve this. This exposes the Arminians in their real position—that of Pelagianism! In addition, the Arminians plainly stated their rejection of sovereign, irresistible grace. The grace of God as it comes to the sinner is able to be resisted by the sinner. God tries to save the sinner when He comes to him in the gospel. The Spirit approaches man with the grace of salvation, but man can turn Him away with his sovereign will! The Spirit comes with regenerating grace but cannot give it until man first believes by an act of his free will! And if a man does not want to believe, the Spirit is stopped in His tracks! Such is the stinking flower of the Arminians: arrestible grace!
How powerful is this poisonous petal in the churches! 0, that the precious odor of the biblical TULIP might waft through the churches as it did at Dordt: "God's sovereign grace is irresistible and conquers the wicked heart and will of the elect sinner, so that he is infallibly brought to faith and conversion by the Spirit alone!"
In their last article the Arminians expressed their belief concerning the perseverance of the saints:
That those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith, and ave thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, have thereby full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory; it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Ghost; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling so that they, by no craft or power of Satan, can be misled nor plucked out of Christ's hands, according to the Word of Christ, John 10:28: "Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand." But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.
It should be evident that once more the Arminians revealed their true colors, this time by rejecting the absolute perseverance of believers. They are willing to say that God makes it possible for the saved to persevere. He gives them sufficient grace; He assists them in the battle of faith so that they can possibly overcome and reach the goal of eternal salvation. But notice two things concerning the Arminiar position as set forth in this article.
First, they make this perseverance dependent on the activity of the believer. Christ extends His hand to help the believer and will keep him, but only if he wants the help, makes himself ready for the battle, and works hard on his own. Once more, the position of human sovereignty in salvation is proclaimed! God cannot make the believer persevere unless the believer wills and works first! And second, the Arminians state in so many words that they do not believe the total preservation of believers and therefore the absolute security of the saved. In other words, they posit that a believer can lose his salvation. He can be saved today and perish tomorrow. He can be saved all his life but in the very end go lost and join the wicked in hell.
This last petal in the Arminian LILAC is another poisonous one: carnal security. It leaves the believer with no real assurance of being saved to the end. It leaves him trusting in his own self for final deliverance. That's carnal security.
Of course, this follows from all that the Arminians teach. If at every point salvation is dependent on the will of man, then salvation is ever on shaky ground; it can never be safe and secure. Salvation can only be so if it is dependent on God's will and God's work from start to finish and at every point in between. Such is the pure flower of biblical Calvinism: God keeps His own unto the end so that none are lost. He gives them grace to persevere so that they all arrive in glory. This is the sweet perfume of the Reformed TULIP. The petals of the Arminian LILAC emit a deadly poison. Which flower are you savoring?
Rev. Charles J. Terpstra
Pastor of Protestant Reformed Church
Published in Standard Bearer
The Men at Doredt
Doredt - Set For the Defense of the Gospel