Arminius on the Sanctification of the Believer

While Arminius is often known for his disagreements with Calvinism’s five points, many other aspects of his theology are often neglected. One such issue is the doctrine of sanctification. Both Arminians and Calvinist ignore his teachings as if he never spoke of it at all. Yet this issue defines much of so-called Arminianism today. So what does Arminius teach about sanctification? To answer this question, let us first examine what Arminius taught. Then, we can evaluate contemporary Arminian theology in light of Arminius.

The Purpose of Sanctification

What is the purpose of sanctification for Arminius? He summarizes in quite succinctly:

It is a gracious act of God, by which he purifies man who is a sinner, yet a believer, from the darkness of ignorance, from indwelling sin and from its lusts or desires, and imbues him with the Spirit of knowledge, righteousness and holiness, that, being separated from the life of the world and made comformable to God, man may live the life of God [1].

The Christian life should be understood then as a pilgrim’s progress—as John Bunyan so nicely put it. Sanctification is the believer’s purification, conforming him to what he now has been declared to be: righteous. It consists of two concepts: the mortification of the old man who lives by the flesh and the quickening of the new man who lives by the Spirit [2].

Arminius described the struggle between the old and new man as a wrestling match between the flesh and Spirit [3]. Keith Stanglin, having written extensively on Arminius, contends that this was a common description regarding the process of sanctification among Arminius’ contemporaries. He writes, “Lucta, or wrestling, although not found in the Latin Vulgate, was a word that became a common description of the relationship between flesh and Spirit” [4]. This image finds its origin in passages like Galatians 5:17: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these two are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Similarly, Ephesians 6:12 describes the Christian as one who wrestles “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, the holy living is a continual battle that Christians will fight.

Most interesting is how Arminius’ interpretation of Romans 7 informed his views regarding sanctification. Arminius was one of few theologians of his time to interpret this passage as describing the state of the unregenerate man in sin’s bondage (an otherwise common interpretation today). At the time, most theologians argued that Romans 7 described the Christian’s battle with sin. However, this view upheld a weaker view of God’s sanctifying grace according to Arminius. Stranglin states, “Arminius considered that his view of the state of the regenerate attributes more to the power of divine grace than his opponents were willing to recognize, for he considered their pessimism to reflect their attenuated view of sanctifying grace” [5]. In his mind, Paul’s remarks about the Spirit in Romans 8 did not align with the common interpretation of his day.

In comparing the law to both Christians and non-Christians, Arminius argued that Romans 7 declared the believer’s victory over sin and the law’s curse. He says, “For in the first [the Christian], the flesh overcomes; but, in the latter [the non-Christian], the Spirit usually gains the victory and becomes conqueror” [6]. While Arminius agreed that Christians wrestled with sin, he further believed the Spirit ultimately provided victory.

He believed that Romans 7 was more optimistic, rather than pessimistic, in tone assuring Christians of victory over sin. This assurance further informed his thoughts on perseverance. He states, “Those persons who have been grafted into Christ by true faith, and have thus been made partakers of his life-giving Spirit, possess sufficient powers [or strength] to fight against Satan, sin, the world and their own flesh, and to gain the victory over these enemies” (emphasis his) [7]. Again he says, “Christ preserves them from falling” [8]. The bondage of sin under the law is rendered ineffective. We are able to conquer it because the Spirit works to sanctify us. Victory is ours.

How Sanctification Happens

Though we may understand God’s purpose in sanctification, we must know how it takes effect. Arminius credited God as the source of our sanctification: “The author of sanctification is God, the Holy Father himself, in his Son who is the Holy of Holies, through the Spirit of holiness” [9]. For Arminius, Christ’s atoning sacrifice was the sole objective work of our sanctification. This comes from the Apostle Peter who directly links the Spirit’s sanctifying work to the sprinkling of Jesus’ blood (1 Pet. 1:1-2). In similar fashion, Arminius’ understanding of sanctification correlates with his views regarding the atonement. He directly links sanctification with the levitical sacrifices prescribed in the Old Testament:

As, under the Old Testament, the priests… were accustomed to be sprinkled with blood, so, likewise, the blood of Jesus Christ, which is the blood of the New Testament, serves for this purpose—to sprinkle us, who are constituted by him as priests, to serve the living God. In this respect, the sprinkling of the blood of Christ, which principally serves for the expiation of sins, and which is the cause of justification, belongs also to sanctification [10].

Arminius’ doctrine of sanctification was derived from his high Christology, particularly his views on Christ’s atonement. He aptly notes the link between justification and sanctification. Though Christ’s atonement was the grounds of our justification, it is nevertheless grounds for our sanctification also. The Spirit works to apply God’s cleansing sacrifice to our life.

Yet this work does not take place apart from us. “God does this in us, but he does not perfect without us; he acts in us so that we might act,” states Arminius [11]. This is similar to Paul’s words: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Like Paul, Arminius does not ground our sanctification in our obedience, but shows how sanctification is worked out in us [12]. Our justification does not dependent upon our sanctification; rather, our justification is the means by which the Spirit’s cleansing work takes effect.

Arminius and Contemporary Arminianism on Sanctification

So far, Arminius’ view of sanctification aligned more with the standard Reformed theology of his day (except maybe his emphases) and is much different from contemporary Arminian theology. Much of so-called Arminianism, which follows John Wesley’s adaptation, teaches that entire sanctification is possible and even expected of believers. This teaches that Christians may reach a point in their spiritual progression where they have become completely sanctified or live a life of sinless perfection. A Wesleyan theologian, John Miley writes, “The fullness of sanctification shall be instantly attained on the condition of faith, just as justification is attained; and there shall be a new experience of a great and gracious change, and just as consciously such as the experience in regeneration” [13]. The conscious experience that Miley refers to is commonly known as a second work of grace.

But second-grace theology is contrary to Arminius’ teachings. While Arminius attributed victory and power over sin to Christians because they live by the Spirit and not in bondage, he neither affirmed nor taught sinless perfection. Listen to his words:

This sanctification is not completed in a single moment; but sin, from whose dominion we have been delivered through the cross and the death of Christ, is weakened more and more by daily losses, and the inner man is day by day renewed more and more, while we carry about with us in our bodies, the death of Christ, and the outward man is perishing [14].

Though Arminius speaks positively about sanctification’s end result, his statements do not affirm any form of entire sanctification. Notice the gradual progression that he ascribes to sanctification. He attributes our victory over sin to Jesus’ death on the cross. The cross cancels out sin’s power while the resurrection evermore strengthens us to walk in newness of life.

The contrast between the inner and outer man is apparent. The cross has broken and continues to weaken sin’s power, daily renewing the inner man while killing the outer man. As the inner man strengthens, the outer man dies—in order words, the phasing out of the old with the new. Eventually no remnant of the old will remain.


As our Arminius Emphasis Month concludes, we note a much different Arminius than we might have expected. His theology is too Arminian for the Reformed community, as seen in his teachings on the Fall/human condition and prevenient grace. At the same time, it is too reformed for many Arminians, as evident by his teachings on the believer’s sanctification. What we have instead is an Arminius who adheres to the best of the Reformation tradition, while providing an alternative for Christians dissatisfied with Reformed spirituality.

Arminius has much to offer evangelicals today if we will only have ears to hear him. He is certainly not the foe often portrayed by his critics! Rather, he is our partner for the cause of Christ.


[1] James Arminius, “Disputation XLIX: On the Sanctification of Man,” The Writings of James Arminius, trans. James Nichols and W. R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1977), II: 120.

[2] Ibid.,120.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.,119.

[5] Keith D. Stanglin, Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603-1609 (Boston: Brill, 2007), 123.

[6] Ibid., 125.

[7] Writings, I: 254. Though Arminius argues that there are strong grounds for the believer’s perseverance, this does not necessarily disregard the possibility of apostasy for Arminius. It is clear from his writings that his teachings on perseverance did not keep him from questioning the possibility of apostasy from actually happening to Christians. While it is debated as to what he believed regarding apostasy, it is clear that he did not think the possibility of apostasy actually undermine the sufficiency of the Spirit’s grace to preserve Christians and to enable them to persevere.

[8] Ibid., 254.

[9] Writings, II: 255. Interestingly, Stranglin states that Arminius’ more optimistic view of sanctification in Romans 7 caused him to be accused of holding Pelagian sympathies. See Stranglin, Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation, 126.

[10] Ibid., 121.

[11] James Arminius, De imaginis Dei restitutione (1605), vii, quoted in Keith D Stanglin, Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation, 119.

[12] Leroy Forlines states that the righteousness of sanctification is worked out in us by the Holy Spirit in regard to our personal righteousness. F. Leroy Forlines, Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2001), 229.

[13] John Miley, Systematic Theology (New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1894), II; 369.

[14] Writings, II: 121.


Author: Jeremy Craft

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  1. You guys are doing a great job on these articles! I look forward to reading more.

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  2. This was helpful to understand the difference between Arminius and Wesley

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