Gordon Clark and the Salvation of Arminians

With books like What Presbyterians Believe (1956) and Biblical Predestination (1969) there is no doubt that Gordon Clark was an ardent Calvinist. In fact, his acceptance of supralapsarianism and his denial of the so-called “well-meant offer of the gospel” classify him as a High Calvinist. Yet, while being a staunch defender of the Doctrines of Grace, Clark held that salvation is possible for those, like the Arminians, who do not believe these same doctrines.

Clark’s view is most clearly seen in What Presbyterians Believe where, for one, he writes, “Not all Christians are Calvinists … It must not be supposed that these people are therefore lacking in sincerity and devotion or that they are outside the fold of Christ.” (p. 22) There he also calls a particular Arminian a “saint” (p. 71) and refers to other Arminians as “saints;” (p. 72) a term commonly reserved for Christians. In his most definitive statement on the topic, Clark writes, “An Arminian may be a truly regenerate Christian; in fact, if he is truly an Arminian and not a Pelagian who happens to belong to an Arminian church, he must be a saved man. But he is not usually, and cannot consistently be assured of his salvation. The places in which his creed differs from our Confession confuse the mind, dilute the Gospel, and impair its proclamation.” (p. 74) All of these statements from What Presbyterians Believe are kept intact in Clark’s 1965 revamping of the book under similar title, What Do Presbyterians Believe?

Clark clearly takes the same position earlier in a letter where he laments the changing emphasis in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1940s. He writes,

Modernism is dangerous because it denies the infallibility of the Bible. It is dangerous because it denies the vicarious satisfaction of Christ. Modernism is dangerous because there is no possibility of eternal salvation from sin for one who accepts these modernistic denials. Modernism is dangerous because it leads to hell. Arminianism accepts the Bible, preaches the vicarious death of Christ, and believes in the Resurrection. All sincere Arminians are predestinated, all persevere in grace, and are perfectly sanctified in heaven. We hold that Arminianism misinterprets the Scriptures on some important points. But, to put it mildly, it requires a singular lack of theological discernment to hold that Modernism and Arminianism are equally dangerous.” – Clark to the Directors of Covenant House, March 1, 1948.

The question of Arminian salvation was one of many questions at issue in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1940s. Some elders, including Clark, grew concerned that the Westminster Theological Seminary group was over-playing their Calvinist hand. Opposed to the WTS group, Rev. Richard Willer Gray, a friend of Clark’s in the OPC, wrote an article on the question of Arminian salvation in the Presbyterian Guardian titled “Is Arminianism Another Gospel?” (January 25, 1945, Vol. 14, No. 2, p. 21-22) He writes,

The first conclusion we draw from Galatians 1:6-8, therefore, is that Arminianism is not another gospel but an inconsistent expression of the true gospel. If it were another gospel, those who have embraced it would have fallen away from God. … Arminians, however, insist on making a special case of the sin of unbelief. It is sufficient to condemn a man for whose sins Christ died. They do not see the contradiction in their position. And they resolutely affirm that man is saved on the basis of the substitutionary atonement and that alone. Hence their error is an inconsistency. They do not deny outright, as the Judaizers, that the cross of Christ alone is the hope for lost sinners. Once again we insist that there is a difference between preaching an inconsistent view of the cross and denying the cross. The Arminians and Lutherans do the former; the Judaizers and Modernists do the latter.”

Clark and Gray are not alone in the history of Reformed theologians in holding that Arminians can be saved. In fact, it seems that this is the majority position among Reformed theologians including J. Gresham Machen (See: Christianity and Liberalism, 1923), Charles Spurgeon, and even the ardent High Calvinists in the Protestant Reformed Churches, (http://www.prca.org/resources/publications/cr-news/item/731-can-arminians-be-saved Herman Hoeksema among them. (see: Banner, January 2, 1919)

The question “can Arminians be saved” is really part of the larger question “What belief(s) are necessary for salvation?” That is, what proposition or propositions must those who are saved believe? If we can find an answer to the latter question, then we have the answer to the former.
Faith and Saving Faith (1983) Clark twice references Romans 10:9-10 “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your mind that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.”
Yet, Clark’s final remarks in Faith and Saving Faith show that he held that there are various sets of belief in Biblical propositions sufficient for salvation. He concludes:

Faith, by definition, is assent to understood propositions. Not all cases of assent, even assent to Biblical propositions, are saving faith; but all saving faith is assent to one or more Biblical propositions.” – Faith and Saving Faith, p. 118.

Clark must then understand Romans 10:9-10 (correctly, I believe) to say that believing the proposition “Jesus is Lord” along with believing the proposition “God raised him [Jesus] from the dead” is a sufficient, but not necessary, set of beliefs for salvation. [Edit 3/11/2019 – This last statement is confirmed in Clark’s commentary on First and Second Thessalonians where he writes, “The Bible definitely states that if one believes these two truths, these two propositions, names that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead, that one shall be saved.” (p. 96)] Clark (and Paul in Romans) leaves open the possibility that one could believe other (even non-overlapping) sets of propositions, and yet be saved.

We have examples of such sets of saving beliefs with the plentitude of Old Testament believers. They did not know that God raised (or would raise) the messiah from the dead, but were yet saved. And we should consider the thief on the cross, to whom Christ said “today you will be with me in paradise.” Of this thief, Clark writes, “As Christ preached to the multitudes, the thief might have been picking their pockets and also picking up some few ideas of what Christ was saying. We must therefore not underestimate the extent of the thief’s knowledge, but we can be pretty sure that he had no theological theory about the nature of saving faith.” (Faith and Saving Faith, p. 2.) That is, the thief was saved, but he was not a Calvinist. Clearly, one does not have to know all the doctrines of Calvinism to be saved.
In which Biblical propositions then does belief entail salvation? Surely believing “Jesus wept” is a trivial, non-saving proposition. Even believing “God is one” is not a saving proposition in itself as we see in James 2:19 – “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe, and shudder!” In fact, as Clark held, even belief in certain doctrines as central to the Christian Faith as the virgin birth of Christ is not necessary for salvation. He wrote, “Doubtless it is possible for some heathen to accept Christ’s sacrifice for his sin without knowing of the virgin birth and be saved.” (What Presbyterians Believe, p. 39.)

A Christian may be saved with a faith of minimal content, as are elect infants who die infancy, but no Christian should, of course, be looking for the minimal number of propositions to believe in order to be saved. A Christian should continue to seek the knowledge of God in the Scriptures and continually grow in faith. Clark writes,

But even if a minimum of propositions could be listed, below which number justification were impossible, it would still be the wrong question with a perverted outlook. This is the basic weakness contributing to the low spiritual level of most so-called fundamentalist congregations. The church is neither commanded, encouraged, nor even permitted to be satisfied with a bare minimum of a half dozen doctrines. Historic Presbyterianism is in a much better position with its multi-paragraph thirty-three chapters of the Westminster Confession. The Bible commands the maximum, not the minimum. Jesus said, Matthew 28:19, 20 Teach all nations … instructing them to observe all whatever I command you.” – Faith and Saving Faith, p. 109-110.

And so he concludes:

There seems to be no other conclusion but that God justifies sinners by means of many combinations of propositions believed. For which reason a minister should not confine himself to topics popularly thought to be ‘evangelistic,’ but should preach the whole counsel of God trusting that God will give someone the gift of faith through sermons on the Trinity, eschatology, or the doctrine of immediate imputations.” – Faith and Saving Faith, p. 110.

If Old Testament believers are saved, and the thief on the cross is saved, both of whom lacked knowledge of important Biblical propositions, so likewise can Arminians be saved by means of one of many combinations of propositions believed.

Clark correctly holds not only that Arminians can be saved, but that all true Arminians are saved. True Arminians believe a set of Biblical propositions sufficient for salvation because they believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. A Calvinist might challenge whether an Arminian actually believes “Jesus is Lord.” A Calvinist might ask, “Do Arminians, by virtue of thinking they have free will, deny ‘Jesus is Lord?’” Though the implication of Arminian free-will is a denial of “Jesus is Lord,” Arminians (in a fortunate logical error) don’t follow this implication. True Arminians do believe the proposition “Jesus is Lord.” And true Arminians believe the proposition “God raised Jesus from the dead.” And thus according to Romans 10:9-10 all true Arminians are saved.

Edit 7/22/2017. It might be of interest to some to note that Cornelius Van Til also held that Arminians are Christians. He writes, “By orthodox Christians we mean those who believe in historic Christianity. In particular we are thinking of all Protestants, whether Lutheran, Arminian or Reformed in their theology.” – Cornelius Van Til, “Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox?” Westminster Theological Journal. 16:2, May 1954.

37 thoughts on “Gordon Clark and the Salvation of Arminians”

  1. If the proposition “Jesus is Lord” is the only proposition sufficient for salvation, then so is the proposition “Megatron is Supreme”, because they may mean the same. In other words, which Jesus is Lord? What did He do to become Lord? Why is He Lord? All inconsequential as far as single proposition salvation is concerned. if the only proposition necessary for salvation is “Jesus is Lord”, then no additional proposition stating who Jesus is and what He has done is required.
    We can draw a comparison between this single proposition “Jesus is Lord” claim to Zane Hodges’ single proposition “Jesus gives eternal life to all who believe in him” claim. Are there any real differences? Nope. They are both Antinomian.

  2. Then what is the “irreducible minimum” required for regeneration? Do you know it? God does. False Arminian gospels are not to be condoned and those holding the false gospel should not be admitted to membership in a reformed and Presbyterian church. But one’s theological acuity and one’s salvation are two different things, I think; man knows one but only God knows the other.

    1. LJ,
      In the “ordo salutis” of each respective Reformed theologian I’m aware of, regeneration precedes any actions of man (faith, etc.).
      My understanding of Presbyterian history is that, while subscription to the Westminster Standards is required of ordained officers, a layperson may be a member of a church without such subscription. While false gospels are not to be condoned, the strictures on membership do not require an ability to delineate the nuances of Calvinist soteriology but merely require a profession of Faith in Jesus Christ (along with an agreement to be in submission to the session of the church).

      1. Doug, I should have written “What is the ‘irreducible minimum’ for SALVATION …” rather than REGENERATION. Thank you for that very important distinction and correction.

    2. “But one’s theological acuity and one’s salvation are two different things…man knows one but only God knows the other.”
      So is there to be no assurance of one’s salvation, or am I misreading the sentence?

      1. John, thanks for asking.
        First, note that I made two errors in my post which Doug graciously pointed out. I didn’t get the entire gist of his correction until a year after my initial post.
        The first error is a common one where “regeneration” is often used to mean “salvation” and vice versa; sometimes people will also use “salvation” to mean “regeneration.” Doug pointed out and I entirely agree that in the ordo salutis regeneration logically precedes faith/belief since a dead sinner must be regenerated or made alive before he can believe. The term “salvation” is broader and includes (I think) the entire ordo salutis not limited to “regeneration” alone. I knew better but it took Doug to point it out so that I could make the correction.
        The second error, also pointed out by Doug, is that membership usually does not require a member to delineate the nuances of Calvinist soteriology in order to be received for membership; that level of theological acuity is required for officers and a member simply needs to have a credible profession of faith.
        Now to your question. My intention was to agree with GHC that the “irreducible minimum” required for salvation by faith/belief is difficult to determine and varies with each sinner to such an extent that only God knows what that minimum belief is. Clark used the example of the thief on the cross and pointed out that he may very well have known much more theology that we usually ascribe to him. What that minimum is only God knows since what is saving faith for the thief, or Forrest Gump, or you and I may differ to that which is saving faith for the great Augustine. Every man has different levels of intellectual ability and God as both Creator and Savior determines what level of theological acuity is required for the individual sinner; Forrest Gump, St. Augustine, or me.
        So in answer to your question regarding assurance, I think one’s assurance is inhanced by this view since regardless of one’s level of intelligence it is God alone who knows and determines what the irreducible minimum of faith is for each elect sinner in order to be saved. If Forrest Gump and I are elect in God’s sight each of us will be given that irreducible minimum gift of faith/belief that saves. This increases my assurance of salvation since my level of theological acuity is often little better than Forrest’s 😝 as you can tell from my post yet even I am saved!

      2. Thx Larry.
        Here’s a little from Luther:
        “Justification is the chief article of Christian doctrine. For if we know this article, we are in the clearest light; if we do not know it we dwell in densest darkness. Therefore if you see this article impugned or imperiled, do not hesitate to resist Peter or an angel from heaven.”
        And of course the reference here is to Galatians 1. Do not hesitate, he says, to resist Peter, or an angel from Heaven, if you see this doctrine imperilled.
        We are not to pull up the tares, let we also pull up the wheat (Matt 13:24ff), but the purity of the doctrine is another matter.
        The best, by far, imho, the clearest on the doctrine of Justification is “Not what my hands have done” by Bonar. For 10 bucks from Trinity Foundation its amazing! http://www.trinitylectures.org/not-what-my-hands-have-done-book-p-192.html
        And the lectures by John Robbins, collection 13, are equally helpful http://www.trinitylectures.org/MP3_downloads.php. I have listened to them multiple times. They are so relevant to us now.

  3. Pingback: GHC Review 8: What Presbyterians Believe | A Place for Thoughts

  4. Surely Paul is not giving a minimal set to believe in order to be saved. The context in the first 8 verses is the Jews who were seeking to establish their own righteousness by works. Paul says it’s by belief, not works that a man is saved. He then goes on to say that they must believe the gospel. “And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!”
    So as I understand it, getting the gospel right – of justification by faith alone – is essential for a man to be saved. Paul is arguing that the minimum to believe is the gospel, and there are no works involved.

  5. If saving faith is a product of sinful man’s “free will” (as all Arminians believe) and not a sovereign irresistible gift of God’s grace (as Scripture teaches), then by definition saving faith is a human “work” generated by sinful man’s autonomous will or desire. I fail to see how someone who *truly* believes such a God dishonoring, anti-gospel proposition, can be viewed as regenerated and justified in God’s sight.

  6. In the hyper-link provided above Ronald Hanko says many things that are true. Yet, he undercuts his entire argument when he writes, “Nevertheless, many people inconsistently confess both grace and works” in his defense of Arminians being saved. There’s no doubt that many people inconsistently “confess” both grace and works (including many who claim to be Reformed). But the relevant issue is not whether one can inconsistently “confess” both grace and works, but rather if one can truly “believe” that justification is both of grace and works and be saved. According to Scripture the answer is no, “For if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work” (Romans 11:6). These two propositions are *contrary* to one another, and therefore cannot both be believed at the same time. Therefore, if a person believes that justification is by works to any degree (e.g., that saving faith is a work of sinful man’s autonomous will), then that person is not saved.

    1. Roger, I enjoy reading your thoughts. But I doubt that most folks, in the immortal words of Rooster Cogburn, would know a *contrary* if it jumped up and bit them on the …
      Nose 😂
      So the point JRob, Doug, and others have made that nailing down the “irreducible minimum” of faith/belief a sinner has is difficult if not impossible. Granted that the minimum is the gospel but a thorough and consistent understanding of the gospel, the ordo salutis, and a well thought out systematic theology in general are rarely seen in the pews and even some sessions. Maybe even the disciples lacked a thoroughly thought out fully systematic understanding? Otherwise why did Paul have to write so many letters correcting errors?

      1. Larry, I’m not arguing that “a thoroughly thought out fully systematic understanding” of justification by faith or the ordo salutis is necessary for a person to be justified/saved. There’s no doubt that many people (e.g., the thief on the cross) only assent to the “bare minimum” of the gospel and are saved. Indeed, I believe that I was saved the moment I first understood and assented to the basic gospel message, even though my understanding of it was very rudimentary at the time. My only point is that anyone who believes that their justification in God’s sight is contingent upon a mixture of prevenient grace *and their self-generated work of faith* (which all knowledgeable Arminians do) is saved. All truly regenerate people will reject such a false gospel.

        1. Chapter 14:3 of the WCF says:
          3. This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong;[288] may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory:[289] growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ,[290] who is both the author and finisher of our faith.[291]
          Does this mean that the elect Arminian will of necessity repent of the false Arminian gospel and believe the true gospel? Can a sinner have an inconsistent belief in the gospel or even a belief in a false (works) gospel and be saved or must he, at some point, believe the truth … to whatever degree? The answer seems obvious to me.
          Would GHC have said or would any of you say that an unrepentant Arminian that believes his free will to be the determining factor in his salvation is saved? Did Clark ever say that?
          I have, maybe all of us have, family and friends who claim they “believe Jesus is their savior” yet have no ideas about free will, repentance (though most would admit they do wrong and are sorry), never darken the door of a church unless it’s a Roman Catholic Church at a funeral or maybe during Christmas, never read the Bible, possibly pray but to whom I don’t know, maybe Mary or a saint, in other words these folks are as ignorant as the day is long, superstitious, and have at least no better knowledge than the thief on the cross and die in that state of theological ignorance.
          Here in Southern California with its large Hispanic Catholic population this is more the rule than the exception. Not one of them would ever dare to say they deny Christ even though the Christ they don’t deny is a characature of the Christ of the Bible. Ignorance and apathy rule the day.
          I have always considered these folks LOST and bound for hell. We take opportunity to give them the gospel, the true gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and almost without exception they will nod “yes,” admit their ignorance, look down at the ground for an instance in shame, then go on with their lives the same way until death. Very frustrating …
          Romanism is from the pit of hell. It encourages people to die without the gospel by deceiving them into thinking since they’re Catholic somehow God will cut them some slack. I have always thought Arminianism is only marginally better. I love GHC and he is my mentor in the faith more than any other minister. But his view of Arminianism bothers me and I think he was either inconsistent or flat out wrong since there are few thieves on the cross today and stubborn unmitigated ignorance until death is a sign of unbelief. Ultimately only God knows the eternal destiny of any of His creatures.
          So we just keep preaching …

  7. “Heresy should be defined. Not every mistake is heresy. An ecclesiastical trial would be based on the charge that the accused has denied something in the Confession. Some people would restrict heresy to a denial of something very important in the Confession. This latter is too vague because no one can estimate the necessary degree of importance. Since many Presbyterians have been infralapsarians, it would be better to charge them with being unscriptural, mistaken, or inconsistent. In 1936 we were very careful not to use the word apostate, though I think it could be used now since 1967. Nor would I say that a heretic, so defined, is not saved. The Confession at least allows infant baptism, and insists on Presbyterian government. Yet for these reasons I would not say that all Baptists are lost. Even Spurgeon!” – Gordon H. Clark to Gary Johnson, Undated letter.

    1. Arminians believe that saving faith is a product of sinful man’s autonomous free-will (and deny that it is a sovereign irresistible gift of God’s grace), which makes it a de facto human work. Therefore, while they falsely confess salvation by grace alone, they in fact believe they are saved by a mixture of God’s prevenient grace and their self-generated work of faith. If that’s not serious enough to be classified as non-saving heresy, then what is?

  8. [A quote from John Robbins via Sean Gerety]
    … The man who reads John 3:16 and thinks that Christ died for everyone without exception (he will even have to give it some thought to come to that conclusion) may or may not draw the inference that what saves some and damns others is their free will or their own efforts. All along I have contended that those who say no members of Arminian churches are saved are attributing a level of logical thinking to them that is completely unrealistic.
    July, 2003

    1. Hi Doug,
      Can u pls explain the quote from Dr Robbins? I’m not sure I get the meaning without the context. Thx

      1. I understand Robbins to be saying that a thoroughly consistent understanding of the Gospel is unlikely for most people. I know this from my own work as a pastor. Most people are able to understand most of the Gospel message; few ever come to understand it with great thoroughness. To require a high level of consistency in one’s understanding for salvation is, as he says, unrealistic.

    2. Doug, I’m not arguing that “no members of Arminian churches are saved.” I in fact believe there are many theologically ignorant Arminians, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians that are truly regenerate and saved. I simply don’t believe that any theologically knowledgeable Arminian, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox Christian (who actually believes one of those false view of the gospel) is saved.
      Also, it’s been a while since I’ve read Clark’s “Faith and Saving Faith,” but from what I can recall I agreed with the vast majority of what he wrote in it. Faith/belief is simply understanding and assenting to the basic gospel message; nothing more and nothing less.

      1. Hahaha, he may have also moonlighted as a minister of one of the large churches in our area where the preaching is popular but little better than a box a chocolates.
        I have often said that Roman Catholics, Arminians, and Orthodox Christians can be saved as long as they DO NOT BELIEVE what their churches teach.
        What a way to live.

  9. “Clearly the Arminians do not have the Gospel. They have no good news. They leave man in uncertainty and despair.”
    Excerpt From
    Gordon H. Clark
    This material may be protected by copyright.

  10. “Arminian dependence on the human will simply makes salvation impossible. Some Arminians may have indeed been saved – by blessed inconsistency. But Arminian preaching, such as that of the evangelist Charles G. Finney, is an unmitigated tragedy.”
    Excerpt From
    Gordon H. Clark
    This material may be protected by copyright.

  11. “Some men believe more, some believe less. How much a man believes no doubt depends on how much he understands. As Paul said in the tenth chapter, a man cannot believe unless he has heard the good news. But ultimately how much of the good news he believes depends upon God’s measuring it out to him.” – Gordon H. Clark, Predestination, p. 105.

  12. “The systems of Arminius, of Wesley, and of the Later-Lutherans, as well as that of Calvin, are alike evangelical, in distinction from anti-evangelical systems like Socinianism and Deism.” – W. G. T. Shedd, Calvinism: Pure & Mixed, p. 13.

  13. What to do with Arminians, however, was a more complicated question. Witherspoon was hesitant to say they could not be Christians, but he insisted that if they rejected the righteousness of Christ as the only ground of justification they were in great danger. In the end, Witherspoon concluded that for many Arminians “their hearts are better than their understandings.” Their sermons, their prayers, and their private religious exercises evidenced a greater appreciation for “free grace” than Arminians were willing to admit in their theological writings. This was Witherspoon’s way of firmly admonishing anti-Reformed critics like Wesley, without putting them all the way outside the camp.

    From Kevin DeYoung’s dissertation – “John Witherspoon and ‘The Fundamental Doctrines of the Gospel’: The Scottish Career of an American Founding Father.” University of Leicester, 2019, p.80.

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