D. Free Will

Religious concepts of free will, including Pelagius and Arminius

Christians believe that the Fall is only part of humanity's story, and that it is essential to understand the role of Jesus' sacrificial death in salvation. These ideas make little sense if the Fall totally ruined humanity. Many Christians believe that continiuing free will is a necessary part of being human. This idea goes back to the time of Augustine.


Pelagius was a British Christian who visited Rome and was apalled by the openly sinful behaviour he witnessed. This explained why Augustine was obsessed with sin, Pelagius thought. It also showed how unhelpful Augustine's teaching was. The belief in Original Sin, that we are born sinful and there's nothing we can do about it, lead people to give up trying to be good.

Pelagius believed that the idea of original sin was unfair - why would God punish future generations for Adam's sin? Moses taught that ‘Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sins.’ Deuternomy 24:16.

Pelagius taught that we don't inherit original sin from Adam, but free will. He said:

"Before eating the fruit they did not know the difference between good and evil; thus they did not possess the knowledge which enables human beings to exercise freedom of choice. By eating the fruit they acquired this knowledge, and from that moment onwards they were free. Thus the story of their banishment from Eden is in truth the story of how the human race gained its freedom: by eating fruit from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve became mature human beings, responsible to God for their actions." Letter of Pelagius to Demetrias

Pelagius disagreed with the idea that humanity is a 'lump of sin'. In fact, he said:

"In truth no one is totally evil nor totally good; every person at every moment is capable of choosing good or choosing evil." ibid

Pelagius sees this reflected in the Old Testament, where the Jewish people sometimes get it completely wrong, then they repent and get it right, and God forgives them. He also thinks that the commandments of God only make sense if we assume people have free will. Why would God give commandments to people who he knew couldn't follow him?

Not perfect

Augustine's criticism of Pelagius was that he didn't need God in the picture - humans could do good of their own accord. This was an unfair criticism of Pelagius, who really believed that we need God's help to be good. He said:

“Free will is in all good works always assisted by divine help.” Letter to Innocent I

Pelagius also made the point that when we could do the wrong thing but instead choose the right thing, then we are being truly good. God guides us, but we choose whether to listen to God.

“This very capacity to do evil is also good – good, I say. Because it makes the good part better by making it voluntary and independent.”. Letter to Demitrius


Pelagius completely disagreed with the concept of the elect. He said that Jesus died for all people (universal atonement) and that anyone who freely chooses to have faith in Jesus will be saved.


Arminius lived over 1,000 years after Pelagius, but had very similar views. He disagreed with the idea of predestination, thinking that this would make God responsible for all the evil acts of humanity.

Arminius was born shortly before Calvin died, and when he studied theology, it was at the height of the Protestant Reformation. Some of his teachers were staunch Calvinists, but there were others who were already questioning some of the implications of Calvinism. For example, Kolmann taught that by focusing on God's sovereignty above everything else, Calvinists made God into a "tyrant and an executioner".

Denial of predestination

Arminius rejected Calvin's notion of predestination. It makes us merer automatons, rather than being in God's image. Also, if Calvin was right, and we were controlled by God without having any real free will, then God must be responsible for all of the evil in the world. Arminius couldn't accept this, as it doesn't fit with God's loving nature.

The effect of original sin  on free will

Arminius agreed with Calvin that the fall was devestating. On this point, Arminius is completely at odds with Pelagius, who saw Adam and Eve's disobedience as a good or necessary thing. Arminius believed in original sin, saying of our fallen state:

"...the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace." The writings of James Arminius, 1:526

God's 'prevenient' grace (the Holy Spirit) in allowing humans to exercise free will

Arminius taught that the fall left humans completely dependent on the grace of God. If it wasn't for God's grace, humans would be in the state that Augustine and Calvin described, totally depraved and without hope. However, Arminius could not accept that a just, loving God would randomly save some and not others. God's grace must be for all people. St Peter wrote:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9

The elect and the possibility of rejecting God's grace

Arminius disagreed with Calvin about irresistible grace, teaching that people could resist God's grace, making election conditional. The difference between Calvin and Arminus is the Holy Spirit. Arminius taught that humanity was not completely 'polluted' as Calvin said:

"...everything in man, the understanding and will, the soul and body, is polluted and engrossed by this concupiscence." Institutes, Vol. I, Bk. II, Chap. 1, Para. 8; Allen translation.

Instead, Arminius said that:

"Jesus Christ also by his Spirit assists them in all their temptations, and affords them the ready aid of his hand; and, provided they stand prepared for the battle, implore his help, and be not wanting to themselves, Christ preserves them from fall." Jacobus Arminius, The Works of James Arminius, D.D., Formerly Professor of Divinity in the University of Leyden (Auburn, NY: Derby and Miller, 1853), vol. 1:254

This has been called 'prevenient grace', and describes God's love for humans that precedes their decision making. Unlike Calvin, Arminius thinks God is helping us make the right choice, not forcing us to do something against our will.

"Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace.... This grace goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and co operates lest we will in vain." Jacobus Arminius, The Works of James Arminius, D.D., Formerly Professor of Divinity in the University of Leyden (Auburn, NY: Derby and Miller, 1853), vol. 2:472

When Arminus talks of the elect, he doesn't mean a limited group of people that God has elected for salvation. He is refering to potentially all of mankind, whoever chooses (elects) salvation for themselves. This is called universal atonement. This might be supported by verses like this, referring to Jesus:

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:2

The election of believers being conditional on faith

Arminius agree with Calvin that God chose some people for salvation. However, Arminius thought it would be unfair for God to randomly choose some people to be saved. Instead, he taught that God had foreknowledge of who would choose to accept salvation.


One line of argument suggested in the board's A02 questions is:

Both Pelagius and Arminius offer convincing arguments for free will on the basis that there is biblical evidence to support the idea that humanity is supposed to be free. For example: 2 Corinthians 9:7 says ‘Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord.’


The A02 questions provided by the board suggest discussion points and conclusions you might reach, including:

Whether you accept Calvin or Arminius, you still believe in that God who has both power and love. Predestination or free will may then influence how you rationalise those qualities, but it does not affect whether you believe God has them.