Legalistic Arminianism
and Perfectionism

Arminians are primarily distinct from Calvinists on the issue of the freedom of the will. On presalvation issues the Arminians take the position that people have a free will to believe. They hold that people will not be held responsible for things they have no control over. This is in contrast to Calvinism which holds more of a puppet model.

With respect to post-salvation Arminians generally reject Eternal security in the sense of once saved always saved, though Joseph Arminius himself took no stand on the issue. However there is a category of theology, which I label "Secure Arminians", who hold to presalvation concepts of Arminius, but post-salvation concepts of Calvin (such as Eternal Security). Such is the position of the BCBSR. Arminian theology is held by Wesleyans, Methodists, Pentecostals and others.

However there is an unofficial division among Arminians which incorporates a legalistic version of Arminian theology in which a person loses salvation each time they sin, and which incorporates rituals in much the same sense as the legalists in the New Testament incorporated them. Among them are Holiness groups which deny having a sinful nature and deny sinning at all. John Wesley argued against such groups. In his paper "On Sin in Believers" he mentions "many well-meaning men, particularly those under the direction of the late Count Zinzendorf, ran into another; affirming, that "all true believers are not only saved from the dominion of sin, but from the being of inward as well as outward sin, so that it no longer remains in them:" And from them, about twenty years ago, many of our countrymen imbibed the same opinion, that even the corruption of nature is no more, in those who believe in Christ." And Wesley goes on to affirm that sin remains in us, but doesn't reign in us.

But Wesley differs from Traditional Arminian Theology in his view of Perfectionism, leading his theology to be only a shade different from the Legalistic Arminian theology (of Finney for example), and as such is perhaps not the best example of Traditional Arminian Theology.

Wesleyan Theology
Legalistic Arminian
John Wesley
Charles Finney
"But can Christ be in the same heart where sin is?" Undoubtedly he can; otherwise it never could be saved therefrom. Where the sickness is, there is the Physician, 

                Carrying on his work within,
                Striving till he cast out sin. 

Christ indeed cannot reign, where sin reigns; neither will he dwell where any sin is allowed. But he is and dwells in the heart of every believer, who is fighting against all sin; although it be not yet purified, according to the purification of the sanctuary.

However Wesley does teach perfectionism, interpreting 1John 3:9 to mean that those born of God never commit any acts of sin, this being an effect of the new birth. (This goes beyond Calvinism, which interprets the verse merely to refer to the person's overall lifestyle) Wesley does expect perfect behavior, but not as a condition for salvation, but rather as an effect of salvation. However his concept of perfectionism allows for sins of ignorance and "mistakes" or "errors in judgment". (Sounds like a fudge to me) 

"Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect, as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers." John Wesley

This cannot be directly labeled "legalism" as it's speaking of the effect rather than the cause of our salvation. However it seems to me that under this system, much like in Finneyism, a person would be reckoned unsaved if they commit any act of sin, or any evil thought or evil temper.

"It certainly cannot be true, that God accepts and justifies the sinner in his sins."

"the penitent soul remains justified no longer than this full-hearted consecration continues. If he falls from his first love into the spirit of self-pleasing, he falls again into bondage to sin and to the law, is condemned, and must repent and do his "first work," must return to Christ, and renew his faith and love, as a condition of his salvation."

"Whenever he sins, he must, for the time being, cease to be holy. This is self-evident. Whenever he sins, he must be condemned; he must incur the penalty of the law of God ... If it be said that the precept is still binding upon him, but that with respect to the Christian, the penalty is forever set aside, or abrogated, I reply, that to abrogate the penalty is to repeal the precept, for a precept without penalty is no law. It is only counsel or advice. The Christian, therefore, is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys or Antinomianism is true ... In these respects, then, the sinning Christian and the unconverted sinner are upon precisely the same ground."

For Finney perfect behavior is a condition for salvation and this even includes a complete awareness of one's sinfulness.

"If there is sin in such a case as this (ignorance), it lies in the fact, that the soul neglects to know what it ought to know. But it should always be understood that the sin lies in this neglect to know, and not in the neglect of that of which we have no knowledge. Entire obedience is inconsistent with any present neglect to know the truth; for such neglect is sin."

Finney's Inconsistent Position

Finney is perhaps not the ideal person to pin down as a legalistic Arminian. For he has not taken a consistent position on these matters. On the one hand Finney believes that a Christian can lose their salvation if they sin. But on the other hand he believes in the Calvinistic concept of the Perseverance of the Saints, which implies Eternal Security. He says,
"Another effect of gospel justification is to ensure sanctification. It not only insures all the means of sanctification, but the actual accomplishment of the work so that the individual who is truly converted will surely persevere in obedience till he is fitted for heaven and actually saved."
Logically if we combine this statement with those above it appears that Finney's position is that once a person is "truly converted" they will no longer commit any act of sin, conscious or unconscious. For he previously said that if a person sins then they are no longer justified. If such a person were to die at that point they would go to hell.

Furthermore Finney also claims to preach "perpetual justification", which is a complete contradiction of his other position! He says, "... God never changes his mind when once he undertakes the salvation of a soul. I know that this is thought by some to be a very dangerous doctrine, to teach that believers are perpetually justified - because, say they, it will embolden men to sin."

He speaks of this perpetual justification in the context of Christians actually sinning. Finney writes, "If he sins, now, he is not thrust back again under the law but receives the benefit of the new covenant. If he is justified by faith and so made a child of God, he receives the treatment of a child and is corrected and chastised and humbled and brought back again."

Which is it Finney? Are Christians perpetually justified inspite of their sinning, or do the "truly converted" never actually sin at all and thus that is not even an issue?

These kind of inherent contradictions are due to a basic flaw in his theology. And so also with Wesley.

Wesley's Error of Perfectionism

The problem even with Wesley's theology is that if sinlessness is an effect of salvation, then such a person born of God would certainly never fall away. For falling away is the worst of sins. But Wesley believes one can be unborn of God. He says, for example,
It is plain, in fact, that those whom we cannot deny to have been truly born of God, (the Spirit of God having given us in his word this infallible testimony concerning them,) nevertheless, not only could, but did, commit sin, even gross, outward sin. They did transgress the plain, known laws of God, speaking or acting what they knew he had forbidden.
"those who were made the children of God by baptism, but are now the children of the devil, may yet again receive power to become the sons of God; that they may receive again what they have lost, even the Spirit of adoption. Amen, Lord Jesus! May every one who prepareth his heart yet again to seek thy face, receive again that Spirit of adoption, and cry out, Abba, Father! Let him now again have power so to believe in thy name as to become a child of God; as to know and feel he hath redemption in thy blood, even the forgiveness of sins; and that he "cannot commit sin, because he is born of God."
So in Wesley's theology one bounces in and out of being born of God each time one sins. He contradicts himself saying at one point that those born of God do not commit any acts of sin, but here admitting that they do! But let me point out a more obvious contradiction:

In his sermon on Christian Perfectionism Wesley responds to counter argument that King David sinned by simply pointing out that it was a different dispensation and so David should not be equated with Christian in this matter.

we cannot measure the privileges of real Christians by those formerly given to the Jews. Their "ministration," (or dispensation,) we allow "was glorious;" but ours "exceeds in glory." [2 Cor. 3:7-9] So that whosoever would bring down the Christian dispensation to the Jewish standard, whosoever gleans up the examples of weakness, recorded in the Law and the Prophets, and thence infers that they who have "put on Christ" [Gal. 3:27] are endued with no greater strength, doth greatly err, neither "knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God." [Matt. 22:29]
But in his sermon on 1John 3:9 he tries to prove that this verse doesn't mean that sinlessness is inevitable or permanent by pointing out that King David sinned and therefore implies that David should be equated with a Christian! The contradictions come up because he's trying to reject Eternal Security, or more precisely the concept of the Perseverance of the Saints, and yet embrace perfectionism. It can't be done.

Furthermore if one's sin has an effect on their salvation status, they cannot claim to ever having been saved from sin. Wesley appears ambiguous to me on this issue, and I can only guess that his actual position is that one is only potentially saved from sin, having been born of God. That is that he is given the power to overcome sin, but if he fails to do so, such a person loses his salvation. But that ties a person's performance to his justification and not simply to his sanctification. It sounds like a works based salvation system. Though Wesley may claim that salvation is lost only by faith, and that sin is just a reflection or effect of the loss of faith. But when he describes the loss of salvation he puts the loss of faith third saying:

So it was a giving into inward sin which Wesley sees as first cause and then the loss of faith, though outward sin follows. Thus under Wesley's model a person can maintain their salvation status by not giving into inward sin. Loss of faith is secondary to maintaining one's salvation status. Wesley is even more explicit on this point saying,
To give a clear and incontestable answer to a question which has frequently perplexed many who were sincere of heart. "Does sin precede or follow the loss of faith?" Does a child of God first commit sin, and thereby lose his faith? Or does he lose his faith first, before he can commit sin?" I answer, Some sin of omission, at least, must necessarily precede the loss of faith; some inward sin: But the loss of faith must precede the committing outward sin.
Though I think the positive inward sin he spoke of previously should be categorized as a sin of commission, which also precedes loss of faith under his theology. Finney is more explicitly legalistic.

As for the Legalistic Arminians, aspects of their gospel may be likened to that of the circumcision and that of the self-righteous Jewish religious leaders.

I. An Historical Digression

Let's consider a situation where there was an attempt to introduce a false gospel into the early Christian church. In Acts 15:1,2 it says:

Then when they went to the church of Jerusalem there were some Christians who held this position: These people were called believers, as they associated with the visible church. But notice what Paul says about them in Galatians 2:1-5 They were false brothers, not actually having been born of God, but simply nominal believers. (Beware of being too presumptuous when interpreting historic passages. Make sure to compare them with the rest of the Bible. Not everyone in the historic passages who is a disciple of Christ, a "believer", or a member of a local congregation of believers, has necessarily been born of God.)

What about their doctrine. Certainly even among Christians today there is a wide variety of interpretation and application of the scriptures. Shouldn't we promote unity and ecumenicalism among the churches? If the divisions are over non-essential things, there certainly should be a degree of tolerance, but not when it comes to essential things. What did Paul think about this idea of adding on to the requirements for salvation? If faith alone is the only requirement, why object if people add on to it? Let's consider Paul's attitude towards this group who were attempting to influence the Galatian churches.

What in particular was Paul so upset about? He writes in Galatians 3:1-5 Paul was upset because the foundation message of the gospel is that the forgiveness of our sins and the justification that is a result of such is not a matter of human effort. It's simply a matter of believing what we heard. This faith is contrary to human effort: And so he says of the Galatians: What have they actually fallen away from? They've fallen away from the concept of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

II. How does this relate to Legalistic Arminianism?

Legalistic Arminians don't advocate following the Law of Moses or circumcision, but consider the principle. Was it the Law of Moses and Circumcision in particular that Paul was opposed to? Certainly not! For he himself often derived applications from the Law of Moses and applied them to the Christian church. Such as applying Deuteronomy 25:4 to justify ministers getting paid for their service as in 1Cor 9:9. Furthermore, he himself circumcised Timothy in Acts 16:3. It was the principle of performance based salvation idea advocated by the group of the circumcision that he was reacting against.

Yet this same performance-based salvation idea is present among the Legalistic Arminians. Some among them believe that faith alone is not sufficient to obtain salvation. For example, you have what I call the "group of the Baptism", demanding that people must get wet to be saved, treating the ceremony of water baptism just like the group of the circumcision treated circumcision. Others will agree that faith alone is necessary and that salvation is obtained purely as a gift, but that perservering that gift, maintaining your salvation status, is a matter, not only of faith, but also of your performance, treating the teachings and commands of Christ just as the group of the circumcision treated the Laws of Moses.

III. How does this relate to their Holiness concept?

Just as with the religious leaders of Jesus time, these people lack conviction of sin, reckoning themselves sinlessly perfect, while at the same time judging others. Paul writes to such people in Romans 2. And Jesus spends time in his ministry pointing attempting to bring such people under the conviction of sin by humiliating them, pointing out their hypocrisy. Such people tend to emphasize fleshly rituals in order to avoid focussing on the spirit. For to focus on the spirit would bring conviction of sin, nullifying their elitist attitude.


I do not advocate hostility against those who are of a Legalistic Arminian persuasion. For like the Galatians, most are simply unaware or have never really take to heart the gospel of grace. Rather I advocate that you clarify to them the gospel of grace. But there are those who presume to have some authority, teaching and preaching this false gospel. They should be held more accountable. And not only does more authority bring more accountability, but also more influence.

Do not compromise on this. There are those, even pastors, who are aware of this false gospel, but will not preach against it, for fear of being rejected. Consider the Apostle Peter. In Galatians 2:11+, Paul mentions:

Do not be afraid to take a stand against this false gospel of Legalistic Arminianism.
It is a cancer in the modern Church.

For debates with Legalistic Arminians see:
A debate over Eternal Security
Another debate over Eternal Security

The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources