The Arminian Concept of God’s Will
Thomas Oden (The Transforming Power of Grace [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993]) contends that “the eternal will to save may be viewed as either antecedent or consequent to the exercise of human freedom in history” (82). This Wesleyan-Arminian perspective recognizes “God’s primordial (or antecedent) benevolence, and God’s special (or consequent) benevolence. A distinction is posited between God’s antecedent will to save (voluntas antecedens, antecedent to the exercise of human freedom), and God’s consequent will (voluntas consequens) to reward the just and punish the unjust consequent to the exercise of their freedom” (83).
Thus the universal sufficiency of grace is viewed in three phases:
“1. God’s will antecedently is to save all;
2. God’s will is to offer grace sufficient to make actual God’s universal will to save;
3. Consequent upon the exercise of freedom, God’s will is to destine those who freely accept grace to be near to God in eternal blessedness and to destine those who reject grace to be far from God in eternal separation” (83).
God’s antecedent will is that all be saved. It is called “antecedent” because it precedes and is unrelated to the free and self-determining response of people to believe or not believe. God’s consequent will, so called because it is subsequent to and follows upon the decision to believe or not believe, is that those who embrace the gospel in faith shall be saved whereas those who reject it be lost.
Thus the antecedent will of God is equally and impartially disposed toward all without regard to any human responsiveness. This antecedent will is wholly sincere, insofar as there is no secret intent that some would not be saved. Consequent to and upon human choice, God wills that those who have freely believed receive salvation. By virtue of divine foreknowledge, God knew in advance who would and who would not avail themselves of the prevenient grace that was the fruit of his antecedent benevolence. Thus, says Oden,
“the antecedent will focuses on God’s eternal intent to give, the consequent on God’s will in answer to historical human responsiveness. The former is universally and equally given, the latter particularly and variably received according to human choice” (88).
If there is any relation between God’s antecedent will and human faith it is that faith is the condition under which God antecedently wills all to be saved. In other words, God truly and sincerely wills for all to be saved . . . but only if they believe.
Oden contends that “since God is eternally present to all moments – past, present, and future – God foreknows how free agents will choose, but that foreknowing does not determine their choice” (128). Events are known by God because they exist, but do not exist because he knows them. Thus God’s foreknowledge does not place a necessity on any foreknown event. Things do not happen because God foreknows them. God foreknows them because they will happen.
Grace arrested man in his fall and placed him in a salvable state and endowed him with the gracious ability to meet all the conditions of personal salvation. The redemption that God intends for all must be freely chosen as the human will cooperates with the conditions of grace enabled by the history of grace in Christ. “Insofar as grace precedes and prepares free will it is called prevenient. Insofar as grace accompanies and enables human willing to work with divine willing, it is called cooperating grace” (47).
Prevenient grace is universal. “To no one,” says Oden, “not even the recalcitrant unfaithful, does God deny grace sufficient for salvation” (48). Prevenient grace is responsible for “healing the nature vitiated by original sin and restoring the liberty of the children of God” (58).
Thus, “God antecedently wills that all should be saved, but not without their own free acceptance of salvation. Consequent to that exercise of freedom, God promises unmerited saving mercies to the faithful and fairness to the unfaithful” (77). God “provides sufficient grace to every soul for salvation . . . . Those who cooperate with sufficient grace are further provided with the means for grace to become effective” (77). Therefore, whereas prevenient grace is distributed universally pursuant to the fulfillment of God’s antecedent will that all be saved, it is not irresistible. It only makes a response in faith possible, but not certain. Any or all may conceivably resist the overtures and operation of prevenient grace to their eternal damnation. That some freely choose not to resist, but to yield, freely embracing the gospel, is foreknown by God, on the basis of which he elects them to inherit eternal life.