What is Arminianism?

Arminianism: Though few Christians have heard that term, most Christians are Arminians. Arminianism, however, has a bad reputation: Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Calvinists have often misrepresented what Arminians actually believe to the extent that Arminianism has come to be defined by its detractors. Too often, Calvinists construct a straw-man of Arminianism, proceed to knock down their own creation, and then exult over their resounding victory. All the while, Classical Arminianism—also known as Reformed Arminianism—looks on unscathed.

Perhaps the misrepresentation is unintentional: Arminianism is not as well defined as is Calvinism. Whereas Calvinism has a solid body of historical work stemming from the pens of giants such as John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon, Arminian heroes, such as James Arminius and John Wesley, are read with less frequency. Furthermore, Calvinism has an acronym—TULIP—which allows anyone easily to remember what Calvinists affirm. In contrast, Reformed Arminianism has no such acronym.

Classical Arminianism is a version of Reformed theology taught by the Dutch minister, James Arminius. Arminius, who studied under Theodore Beza—John Calvin’s successor—in the city of Geneva—where John Calvin was a pastor—discovered that his views did not fit with Calvinism when he received a charge to debate Dirk Koornhert’s teaching on predestination. While studying to refute Koornhert’s theology, Arminius made a shocking discovery: He believed that Koornhert was right when he rejected certain elements of Calvin’s theology. After studying the Bible, the Church Fathers, and other significant theologians, Arminius began to develop what we now call Classical or Reformed Arminianism.[1]

Growing out of the same seedbed as Calvinism, Classical Arminianism has more in common with Calvinism than people typically realize. Arminianism, however, differs from Calvinism in numerous locations. Though the points of Arminianism usually come in a different order, I’ll address Arminian beliefs in the same order that I addressed Calvinist beliefs. The central tenet of Arminianism is God’s desire to see every single person come to the salvation offered them in Christ.

1. Total Depravity

One of the most common critiques of Arminianism is that Arminians deny Total Depravity; this charge, however, is incorrect. All Reformed Arminians affirm humanity’s Total Depravity and Total Inability before God.

Arminius wrote: “In his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good.”[2] Similarly, the Arminian Confession of Faith of 1621 posited: “Man therefore does not have saving faith from himself, nor is he regenerated or converted by the powers of his own free will, seeing that in the state of sin he cannot of himself or by himself either think or will or do anything that is good enough to be saved (of which first of all is conversion and saving faith), but it is necessary that he be regenerated and totally renewed by God, in Christ, through the word of the Gospel joined with the power of the Holy Spirit.”[3]

For the Arminian, the doctrines of Total Depravity and of Total Inability are essential to the gospel: On our own, we can never do anything which qualifies as good. In fact, we can’t even choose to accept the gospel on our own strength. As I stated here, it’s not that we need to do enough good works to be made right before God; the problem is that there is a fundamental perversion in our nature as human beings such that we are incapable of performing truly good actions. At this point, Calvinists and Arminians agree: For salvation to take place, God must initiate the process. Furthermore, once we’re saved, the only way we can do good works is through God’s grace.

2: Conditional Election

Arminians believe in divine election to salvation; however, one of the fundamental differences between Arminians and Calvinists centers on the details of this election. For the Calvinist, election is God’s unconditional, arbitrary choice of individuals to heaven and to hell; for the Arminian, election is God’s conditional choice of individuals to heaven—in Arminianism, God elects no one to hell—on the basis of a foreseen response to the gospel.

There are different shades of election within Arminianism. Some Arminians take a corporate view of election: According to the corporate view of election, God elects to save all those who respond in faith to become members of the universal Church. In other words, God elects the Church to salvation; people then punch their ticket into the Church by accepting the gospel by God’s grace. Other Arminians, myself included, take an individual view of election: According to the individual view, God foresees and elects to salvation all those who do not reject the gospel. In my personal theology, I believe that God foreknew that he would call me to repentance at fourteen years old, that I, by his grace, would accept the call to salvation, and, on the basis of this foreseen faith, he thus elected me to salvation before I was born.

For biblical support, Arminians can turn to several passages: Romans 8, a favorite passage for Calvinists, explicitly says that those whom God foreknew, “he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son.”[4] The Arminian believes that this means that God predestined (elected) to salvation all those whom he foreknew would accept salvation in Christ. Similarly, 1 Peter 1.2 says that the believers in modern-day Turkey “have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.”[5]

3: Unlimited Atonement

Unlimited Atonement is a necessary component of the Arminian system. Remember that the core of Arminianism is God’s desire to save every single human being through Christ’s death on the cross: With this in mind, it seems obvious that Christ must have died for every single person without exception. For the Arminian, if Christ didn’t die for Jane Doe, then it makes no sense to say that God desired that Jane Doe go to heaven; for, if Christ didn’t die for Jane Doe, God’s only desire for Mrs. Doe is for her to be condemned to hell.

The Arminian Confession of Faith of 1621 claims that Christ “offered himself to God the Father as a propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the entire human race.”[6] Thus, as an Arminian, I can be confident that the person to whom I am witnessing has a legitimate opportunity to go to heaven because I believe that Christ died for every single person. In Arminianism, there is no empty offer of the gospel to a person for whom Christ did not die.

For biblical support, Arminians will typically point to verses that say that God wants everyone to be saved and reason that, for God to be honest in this desire, Christ had to die for every person. Take 2 Peter 3.9 for an example: God does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Similarly, John 3.16 claims that “whoever believes” in Christ “shall not perish but have eternal life.” That is, if a person—no matter who they are—will believe, they can have real salvation in Christ because Christ paid the penalty for every person on the cross. Finally, 1 John 2.2 explicitly says that Christ is the atonement “for the sins of the whole world.”

4. Resistible Grace

Along with election, whether God’s grace is resistible or not is foundational to the differences between Calvinists and Arminians. As Arminius put it, “the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution to this question, ‘Is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?’”[7]

Though God has a legitimate desire to see every person saved, God does not force a person to salvation. Instead, God gives pre-salvation grace—Arminians call this prevenient grace—to the sinner. Through this grace, God begins to lead the sinner toward salvation by slowly changing the sinner’s thoughts and affections; during this process, the sinner has the ability to harden her heart and push God’s grace away. Provided that the sinner does not reject God’s advances, upon hearing the gospel, God extends to the sinner an offer to forgiveness and life in Christ. At this point, the sinner in whose life God has been working is enabled to make a real choice between becoming a Christian and remaining lost.

It’s important to note that the only way that the person can choose between salvation and remaining lost is by God’s grace: God drew the person to this point; the person did not get here on their own. Thus, this is not humanity shaking off God’s sovereignty, this is God gently drawing his creature to himself. If the person says yes, they are saved by grace alone through faith alone thanks to Christ alone to the glory of God alone; however, if the person says no, then they’ve spurned the grace of God and head further down the road to eternal damnation. Thus, the person has a choice only because God puts them in the position to make a choice.

For biblical support, Arminians point to Hebrews 3.15’s warning: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” In context, this verse, which is a quote from the book of Psalms, comes as the author of Hebrews warns people against hardening their heart in the face of the gospel. Similarly, in John 5.40, Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that they “refuse to come to [him] to have life.” Finally, in a speech that led to his death, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, told the Sanhedrin that there were stiff-necked with uncircumcised ears and that they “always resist the Holy Spirit.”[8] That is, Stephen said that the people were resisting God’s directions.

5. The Possibility of a Fall from Grace

Finally, Classical Arminianism teaches that it is possible for a person to lose her salvation. According to The Opinions of the Remonstrants in 1618, “true believers can fall from true faith and can fall into such sins as cannot be consistent with true and justifying faith; not only is it possible for this to happen, but it even happens frequently.”[9]

To buttress the possibility for a Christian to fall out of the faith, Arminians point to the warning passages found in the New Testament. Hebrews 6 talks about people who have “been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit…and have fallen away.”[10] Similarly, some New Testament passages imply that only those who persevere in the faith will go to heaven: Colossians 1.22-23 says that God “has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body…if you continue in your faith.” Arminians point to these passages and claim that if we don’t continue in the faith, we can walk away from our salvation.

Though I’m an Arminian, I agree with the Calvinist doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints.

Conclusion

Arminianism is a much-maligned theology: Arminianism is not what its detractors often claim, however. Arminianism is not a human-centered theology, free will is not the center of Arminianism, nor do Arminians believe that human beings are inherently good. Arminianism is a version of Reformed theology that focuses on God’s legitimate desire to save every single person.

Both Calvinists and Arminians believe the same people are going to heaven: the Church. For the Arminian, the reason that some people fail to go to heaven is not that God did not arbitrarily choose them: The reason that people end up in hell is that they spurned God’s legitimate offers to salvation. Similarly, in Arminianism, the only reason that people end up in heaven is because of God’s actions. Though we are totally depraved, Christ died on the cross for our sins, God gave us grace to enable us to understand our need for salvation, and we, by his grace, did not spurn his offer to salvation. We did not save ourselves: The Triune God is the architect and executor of our great salvation.

Notes & Sources

[1] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, vol 2., rev. and updated (New York, NY: Harper One, 2010), 229-30.

[2] James Arminius, Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God, edited by John D. Wagner (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 68.

[3] The Arminian Confession of 1621, translated and edited by Mark A. Ellis (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2005), 17.5.

[4] Romans 8.29, all scripture quotations are from the NIV.

[5] 1 Peter 1.2.

[6] The Arminian Confession of 1621, 8.7.

[7] Arminius, 69.

[8] Acts 7.51.

[9] Quoted at this address: http://evangelicalarminians.org/the-five-points-of-arminianism-calvinism/.

[10] Hebrews 6.4; 6.

4 thoughts on “What is Arminianism?

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  1. This is a good presentation of classical Arminianism. Thanks for this good effort. Yet, I find many things quite very puzzling. What is exactly responsible for some people hardening their hearts, while some others didn’t and so received salvation? Is this difference owing to something inherently and morally different between them? Or is it arbitrary? If you answer this question in the affirmative, how could the heart of man, knowing it’s proneness to pride be able to avoid entertaining pride as having made an eternally profitable choice, while the other person didn’t…what is the reason for this difference in choices? The reason why my heart has just leaned naturally to calvinism is because I couldn’t find any answer to the reason why I chose God when he gave me the grace, and my friend didn’t choose God, even though God gave him as much grace to choose that He gave to me. Pls if you have the time, and get the notification, Pls reply

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    1. Under Arminianism, libertarian free will is the reason why some people accept the salvation offered them in Christ while others reject the very same offer. Thus, it’s not arbitrary; instead, the reason why one person says yes and another says no is simply that they both exercised their God-given free will. This is one of Arminianism’s strengths over Calvinism. In Calvinism, the gospel is not for the non-elect because, at least according to 5-point Calvinists, Jesus did not die for them. The problem isn’t much better for a 4-point Calvinist, however. Under this milder form of Calvinism, though Jesus died for all people, some go to hell because they were never offered salvation. Thus, Arminianism provides a reason for why some people accept the salvation that others reject while also sidestepping one of Calvinism’s biggest objections.

      Furthermore, under Classical Arminianism, the person who says yes to salvation has no reason to be prideful about their choice. For the Arminian, the only way that we can come to salvation is to be called by God. Thus, when a person accepts salvation, they haven’t done anything worthy of being prideful about; instead, they’ve only relented to God’s grace. There’s no reason for pride here.

      So, in summary, the reason why some say yes and others say no to salvation is that God has given us libertarian free will because we are human beings. This choice isn’t a source of pride, however, because we didn’t really do anything. Instead, we surrendered to God’s grace that we calling us to salvation.

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      1. The question was not attended to. Libertarian freedom is just a complex term that I may not understand as a non philosopher. On the existential level, and if you can break it down for me. Why was I able to exercise my freewill right and the other person exercised his free will wrong? Obviously, there is fundamentally something better inherently about me, for which God is not responsible, that made me make a wise choice and there’s something inherently wrong about the other person, for which God is not responsible, that made him make the wrong Choice. If we cannot trace this tie breaker between me and the other person to God, then it’s something within us that’s responsible for the various ways we chose to exercise our freewill.

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      2. Libertarian free will is one of the two main options for understanding free will. Libertarian free will means that the person has a genuine choice between at least two alternatives. Thus, if I have libertarian free will, it is my choice that determines whether I get chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream at the grocery store. The source of the decision is my ability to choose between two live, legitimate options. Applied to salvation, libertarian free will says that when God offers salvation to a person, that person has the real choice between saying yes and becoming a born-again Christian or saying no and being left in their sins. Arminianism also adds a bit more detail by saying that God sends prevenient grace to people that begins to awaken them to spiritual things while they are still unregenerated. So, in Arminianism, God works people towards salvation through increasing measures of grace. Then, at some point, God extends a real offer to salvation to the person in whose life he has been working. That person then has the God-given ability to say either yes or no.

        The people who say yes are not more loved or inherently better than others. They simply said yes when confronted with a yes or no decision. We all make these simple yet important choices every day. There’s no reason to look at this choice and say that the person who says yes is superior to the person who says no. The difference is the way they exercise their God given free will when God offers them salvation.

        By way of extension, this understanding of salvation accords well with scripture. In numerous places, the Bible enjoins people not to harden their heart against God. In Arminianism, saying no to God’s call to salvation constitutes hardening your heart. In Calvinism, if a person hardens their heart, the reason that they do so is because God led them to that situation; thus, from an Arminian point of view, it’s hard to see how God isn’t a least partially responsible. Similarly, Jesus tells his followers to count the cost of discipleship before deciding to become his disciple. Prevenient grace gives the opportunity for people to count the cost.

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