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.


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.

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