I was asked this question earlier today. Its obviously an important one and something that needs to be addressed.
Let me start by saying that doctrinal precision is important; far more important than many people realise. Yet having correct doctrine by itself saves no one.
The first individuals to recognise Christ were demons. Mark, in his Gospel tells us of a man with an unclean spirit who cried out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”” (Mark 1:24, 25)
Jesus did not wish for His identity to be established by the testimony of demons and so dealt with the situation accordingly, but it must be said, the demons possessed accurate knowledge concerning Christ, though they hated all that they knew about Him.
Clearly, such intellectual knowledge is not enough to save, which is the very point James is making when with sacrcasm literally dripping from his pen he writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19) Our ancient foe could pass the most rigorous theological exam, yet he hates everything he knows about God. Knowledge is not enough.
Having said that, knowledge is vital. Some issues are indeed so vital to the soul that to get it wrong means no salvation. Jesus said, “.. unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24) That’s clear isn’t it?
The Lord never gives us a free pass in false doctrine. We are called to search the Scriptures dilligently and to love Him with our minds as well as our hearts. Yet some theological errors are worse than others and some are less important.
For instance, I am a credo baptist. That means I believe water baptism is something to be administered when a baptismal candidate professes faith in Christ and not before. I have very good friends who do not see the issue the same way as myself who have no problem baptising babies. One of us is wrong. We cannot both be right. One of us is actually sinning – grieving God by maintaining a false belief and practice. Yet we believe the best of each other and are certain that if either of us could convince the other of the truth from the Scripture, the other person would change their view instantly.
Even though the issue is a very important one, I do not believe it is enough of an issue to mean that while disagreement remains, one of us is saved and the other is not. While we do not see eye to eye on this doctrine, we embrace each other as precious brothers in Christ, and join together in the unity of faith in the gospel.
Baptism is an important issue but secondary to that which is primary. The Gospel is primary, as are doctrines such as the Trinity, the virgin birth and sinless life of Christ, His full deity and humanity, His atoning death for sinners on the cross and His physical resurrection from the dead and His future second coming in power and glory. These are the BIG issue doctrines we must adhere to.
I cannot have Christian fellowship with someone who denies the Trinity or justification by faith alone. These doctrines, as well as many others like them, are central to the Christian faith. There is no unity of faith in Christ outside of the gospel. According to Galatians chapter 1, a false gospel, whether championed by an apostle or even an angel, brings the eternal curse of God (anathema). There are such things as “damnable heresies.” (2 Peter 2:1).
So where is Arminianism in all this?
Being convinced that the Scriptures teach Calvinistic or Reformed soteriology (the study of salvation) the question is sometimes asked, “just how grave an error is Arminianism?”
Well, is Arminianism error? Yes I believe it is.
Does Arminianism damn the soul? I dont believe so, no.
Arminians, for the most part, would affirm the concept of prevenient grace. Dr. R. C. Sproul in his book “Chosen by God” explains:
As the name suggests, prevenient grace is grace that “comes before” something. It is normally defined as a work that God does for everybody. He gives all people enough grace to respond to Jesus. That is, it is enough grace to make it possible for people to choose Christ. Those who cooperate with assent to this grace are “elect.” Those who refuse to cooperate with this grace are lost.
The strength of this view is that it recognizes that fallen man’s spiritual condition is severe enough that it requires God’s grace to save him. The weakness of the position may be seen in two ways. If this prevenient grace is merely external to man, then it fails in the same manner that the medicine and the life preserver analogies fail. What good is prevenient grace if offered outwardly to spiritually dead creatures?
On the other hand, if prevenient grace refers to something that God does within the heart of fallen man, then we must ask why it is not always effectual. Why is it that some fallen creatures choose to cooperate with prevenient grace and others choose not to? Doesn’t everyone get the same amount?
Think of it this way, in personal terms. If you are a Christian you are surely aware of other people who are not Christians. Why is it that you have chosen Christ and they have not? Why did you say yes to prevenient grace while they said no? Was it because you were more righteous than they were? If so, then indeed you have something in which to boast. Was that greater righteousness something you achieved on your own or was it the gift of God? If it was something you achieved, then at the bottom line your salvation depends on your own righteousness. If the righteousness was a gift, then why didn’t God give the same gift to everybody?
Perhaps it wasn’t because you were more righteous. Perhaps it was because you are more intelligent. Why are you more intelligent? Because you study more (which really means you are more righteous)? Or are you more intelligent because God gave you a gift of intelligence he withheld from others?
To be sure, most Christians who hold to the prevenient grace view would shrink from such answers. They see the implied arrogance in them. Rather they are more likely to say, “No, I chose Christ because I recognized my desperate need for him.”
That certainly sounds more humble. But I must press the question. Why did you recognize your desperate need for Christ while your neighbor didn’t? Was it because you were more righteous than your neighbor, or more intelligent?
The $64 question for advocates of prevenient grace is why some people cooperate with it and others’ don’t. How we answer that will reveal how gracious we believe our salvation really is.
The $64,000 question is, “Does the Bible teach such a doctrine of prevenient grace? If so, where?”
We conclude that our salvation is of the Lord. He is the One who regenerates us. Those whom he regenerates come to Christ. Without regeneration no one will ever come to Christ. With regeneration no one will ever reject him. God’s saving grace effects what he intends to effect by it.
With Dr. Sproul’s insight fresh in our minds, I would say that if the Arminian concept of prevenient grace is taken to its logical conclusion, and they consider their faith a “work” on their part, this would in no doubt undermine salvation by grace alone through faith alone, in Christ alone. If someone really believes that, I believe they put themselves outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy completely. However, I have never met an Arminian who would affirm that. Arminians do not consider their faith as a work (even though reformed people would view their belief in this way). Because of this, they do not cross the line into heresy to believe that their work got them in the kingdom, even though I would say that this is the logical conclusion of their belief concerning the nature of faith in the unregenerate heart. They maintain a glorious inconsistency.
Dr. Sproul was asked “Are Arminians saved?” and he replied, “The real question is whether they are safe… Saved? Most are, barely… really the debate between Calvinists and Arminians is an intramural debate among Christians..” I agree.
The conversation between Calvinist Charles Simeon (1759-1836) and Arminian John Wesley (1703-1791) about their commonality amidst this same exact controversy is enlightening:
[Simeon] Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
[Wesley] Yes, I do indeed.
[Simeon] And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
[Wesley] Yes, solely through Christ.
[Simeon] But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
[Wesley] No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.
[Simeon] Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
[Simeon] What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?
[Wesley] Yes, altogether.
[Simeon] And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
[Wesley] Yes, I have no hope but in Him.
[Simeon] Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things where in we agree.
Cited in Handley Carr Glyn Moule’s 1892 biography, Charles Simeon, p. 79f.
With the great Prince of Preachers, C. H. Spurgeon then, I would say:
We give our hand to every man that loves the Lord Jesus Christ, be he what he may or who he may. The doctrine of election, like the great act of election itself, is intended to divide, not between Israel and Israel, but between Israel and the Egyptians, not between saint and saint, but between saints and the children of the world. A man may be evidently of God’s chosen family, and yet though elected, may not believe in the doctrine of election. I hold that there are many savingly called, who do not believe in effectual calling, and that there are a great many who persevere to the end, who do not believe the doctrine of final perseverance. We do hope the hearts of many are a great deal better than their heads. We do not set their fallacies down to any willful opposition to the truth as it is in Jesus but simply to an error in their judgments, which we pray God to correct. We hope that if they think us mistaken too, they will reciprocate the same Christian courtesy; and when we meet around the cross, we hope that we shall ever feel that we are one in Christ Jesus.
Here’s a 7 minute video by Dr. James White on this question:
For more on this theme I would encourage you to read this very useful chart where the synergism of Arminianism is contrasted with the monergism of Reformed theology, the article “Are Arminians Saved?” and this one concerning prevenient grace, all by my friend, John Hendryx, as well as “The New Genesis” by Dr. R. C. Sproul.
Other articles I have written that may be helpful: