The Reformation in the sixteenth century was a great revival of the doctrines of grace. Throughout the Middle Ages, the church had come to be more and more dominated by leaders who elevated human ability and human cooperation with God as the critical issue for salvation. These leaders did not deny the necessity of grace, but taught that the human factor was essential for making that grace effective. With the Reformation, the church recovered the Bible and the purity of its teaching on grace. Christians saw anew that God’s grace does not depend on a human contribution, but is effective simply according to the plan and action of God. The Reformers proclaimed again the simple teaching of the Word of God that salvation is by grace alone.
The Reformers also realized that they were not the first in the history of the church to recognize this teaching of the Scriptures. As they read the writings of the great church father Augustine of Hippo (354–430), they saw that he also had seen the clear revelation of God concerning grace. They also recognized that although many in the medieval church had moved away from Augustine’s doctrine of grace, many leading theologians continued to teach his views throughout the Middle Ages. The Reformation recaptured and renewed the teaching of the Bible, Augustine, and the better medieval theologians on grace.
All of the magisterial Reformers stood for salvation by grace alone. The Reformed churches followed the teaching on grace of John Calvin, who expressed that truth with the greatest clarity and forcefulness. Grace, he said, was planned in eternity, flowed from the death of Christ, and was applied irresistibly to the elect by the Holy Spirit. In his Genevan Catechism, Calvin wrote of that sovereign, effective work of the Holy Spirit in giving to His elect the grace of Christ:
I mean that the Spirit of God, while He dwells in our hearts, operates so that we feel the power of Christ (Rom. 5:5). For when we grasp the benefits of Christ with the mind, this happens by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. By His persuasion they are sealed in our hearts. In short, He alone gives them a place in us (Eph. 1:13). He regenerates us, and makes us new creatures (Titus 3:5). Therefore whatever gifts are offered us in Christ, we receive them by virtue of the Spirit.
The banner of grace was raised high wherever the Reformed movement spread. One country in which Calvinism came to prominence was the Netherlands, where, in the midst of severe persecution and civil war, the Reformed church was established. The Reformed churches there adopted the Belgic Confession, written by the martyr Guido de Bres—a confession that the grace of God alone saves.
While most in the Dutch Reformed churches faithfully embraced the teaching of Scripture and the confession on grace, some ministers dissented. The dissenters may have been influenced by Desiderius Erasmus, who had criticized Martin Luther’s stress on the helplessness of sinners. Like Erasmus, they came to believe that a doctrine of irresistible grace would undermine preaching and weaken the call to holiness. This has been a serious and recurring concern in the church, and yet it is a strange one. The history of the church shows over and over again that those most serious about the doctrines of grace have been very serious about preaching and holiness.
James Arminius, first a minister in Amsterdam and then a professor at the University of Leiden, became the principal spokesman for these dissidents in the Netherlands. On the question of the irresistibility of grace, Arminius wrote: “I believe, according to the Scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered.”
When Arminius died in 1609, he left behind a number of followers whom history would call Arminians. In their own day, they came to be known as the “Remonstrants,” because in 1610 they filed a remonstrance, or petition, with the government asking for protection and toleration. At the heart of their remonstrance of 1610 was a five-point summary of their theology. First, they believed that election was not the unconditional election of individuals, but the conditional election of those who would believe and obey. Second, they taught that Christ died on the cross for all men and for all sins. Third, they taught that mankind was helplessly lost in sin apart from grace. Fourth, they taught that while grace is “the commencement, progression, and completion of all good,” it is not irresistible. Fifth, they stated that they were unsure as to whether those regenerated by the grace of God could fall from grace and be lost.