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.

In 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. 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. 

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About douglasdouma

I am a graduate of the University of Michigan (BSME), Wake Forest University (MBA), and Sangre de Cristo Seminary (Mdiv). I've learned far more from books than in school. I'm particularly in debt to Martin Luther, Ludwig von Mises, and Gordon H. Clark for any thoughts I have.
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4 Responses to Gordon Clark and the Salvation of Arminians

  1. paulgolata says:

    Good work.

  2. Dear Doug:

    A good post. : – )

    Benjamin Wong

  3. Taylor Gaffney says:

    Excellent! This is challenging and edifying. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  4. David Bishop says:

    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.

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