Is Arminianism damnable heresy?

by Phil Johnson

This post is adapted from a transcript of a seminar from the 2007 Shepherds’ Conference, titled “Closet Calvinists” (at this link).

I love the doctrines of grace and don’t shy away from the label “Calvinist.” I believe in the sovereignty of God. I’m convinced Scripture teaches that God is completely sovereign not only in salvation (effectually calling and granting faith to those whom He chooses); but also in every detail of the outworking of Providence. “Whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Romans 8:30). And He makes “all things work together for good to those who love God, [i.e.,] to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Quite simply, He “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).

That’s what people commonly mean when they speak of “Calvinism.” When I accept that label, I am not pledging allegiance to the man John Calvin. I am not affirming everything he taught, and I’m not condoning everything he did. I’m convinced Calvin was a godly man and one of the finest biblical expositors and theological minds ever, but he wasn’t always right. As a matter of fact, my own convictions are baptistic, so I am by no means one of Calvin’s devoted followers. In other words, when I accept the label “Calvinist,” it’s only for convenience’s sake. I’m not saying “I am of Calvin” in the Corinthian sense.

Furthermore, I’m not one of those who wears Calvinism like a big chip on his shoulder, daring people to fight with me about it. It’s true that I can get feisty about certain points of doctrine—especially when someone attacks a principle that goes to the heart of the gospel, like substitutionary atonement, or original sin, or justification by faith and the principle of imputed righteousness. When one of those principles is challenged, I’m ready to fight. (And I also don’t mind beating up on whatever happens to be the latest evangelical fad.)

But Calvinism isn’t one of those issues I get worked up and angry about. I’ll discuss it with you, but if you are spoiling for a fight about it, you are likely to find me hard to provoke. I spent too many years as an Arminian myself to pretend that the truth on these issues is easy and obvious.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I do think the truth of God’s sovereignty is clear and ultimately inescapable in Scripture. But it is a difficult truth to come to grips with, so I am sympathetic with those who struggle with it. I’m Calvinistic enough to believe that God has ordained (at least for the time being) that some of my brethren should hold Arminian opinions.

Over the years I have probably written at least twice as much material trying to tone down angry hyper Calvinists as I have arguing with Arminians. That’s not because I think hyper Calvinism is a more serious error than Arminianism. As a matter of fact, I would say the two errors are strikingly similar. But I don’t hear very many voices of caution being raised against the dangers of hyper Calvinism, and there are armies of Calvinists out there already challenging the Arminians, so I’ve tried to speak out as much as possible against the tendencies of the hypers.

That’s why I’m probably a whole lot less militant than you might expect when it comes to attacking the errors of Arminianism. Besides, I have gotten much further answering Arminian objections with patient teaching and dispassionate, reasonable, biblical instruction—instead of angry arguments and instant anathemas.

Why not take a more passive, lenient, brotherly, approach to all theological disagreements? Because I firmly believe there are some theological errors that do deserve a firm and decisive anathema. That’s Paul’s point in Galatians 1:8-9; and it’s the same point the apostle John makes in 2 John, verses 7-11. When someone is teaching an error that fatally corrupts the truth of the gospel, “let him be anathema.”

But let me be plain here: Simple Arminianism doesn’t fall in that category. It’s not fair to pin the label of rank heresy on Arminianism, the way some of my more zealous Calvinist brethren seem prone to do. I’m talking about historic, evangelical Arminianism, of the classic and Wesleyan varieties — Arminianism, not Pelagianism, or open theism, or whatever heresy Clark Pinnock has invented this week — but true evangelical Arminianism. Arminianism is certainly wrong; and I would argue that it’s inconsistent with itself. But in my judgment, standard, garden variety Arminianism is not so fatally wrong that we need to consign our Arminian brethren to the eternal flames or even automatically refuse them fellowship in our pastors’ fraternals.

If you think I’m beginning to sound like an apologist for Arminianism, I’m definitely not that. I do think Arminianism is a profound error. Its tendencies can be truly sinister, and when it is allowed to go to seed, it does lead people into rank heresy. But what I’m saying here is that mere Arminianism itself isn’t damnable heresy. It’s just grossly inconsistent with the core gospel doctrines that Arminians themselves believe and affirm.

But as long as I’m sounding like a defender of Arminianism, let me also say this: There are plenty of ignorant and inconsistent Calvinists out there, too. With the rise of the Internet it’s easier than ever for self taught lay people to engage in theological dialogue and debate through internet forums. I think that’s mostly good, and I encourage it. But the Internet makes it easy for like minded but ignorant people to clump together and endlessly reinforce one another’s ignorance. And I fear that happens a lot.

Hyper Calvinists seem especially susceptible to that tendency, and there are nests of them here and there—especially on the Internet. And more and more frequently these days I encounter people, who have been influenced by extremism on the Internet, touting hyper Calvinist ideas and insisting that if someone is an Arminian, that person is not really a Christian at all. They equate Arminianism with sheer works salvation. They suggest that Arminianism implicitly denies the atonement. Or they insist that the God worshiped by Arminians is a totally different God from the God of Scripture.

That’s really over-the-top rhetoric—totally unnecessary—and rooted in historical ignorance. A couple of years ago, when I started my weblog, I mentioned that tendency in the first entry I posted, which was titled “Quick and Dirty Calvinism.” At the end of that post, I said this: My advice to young Calvinists is to learn theology from the historic mainstream Calvinist authors, not from blogs and discussion forums on the Internet. Some of the forums may be helpful because they direct you to more important resources. But if you think of the Internet as a surrogate for seminary, you run a very high risk of becoming unbalanced.

Read mainstream Calvinist authors, however, and you’ll have trouble finding even one who regarded Arminianism per se as damnable heresy. There’s a reason for that: It’s because while Arminianism is bafflingly inconsistent, it is not necessarily damnably erroneous. Most Arminians themselves—and I’m still speaking here of the classic and Wesleyan varieties, not Pelagianism masquerading as Arminianism—most Arminians themselves emphatically affirm gospel truth that is actually rooted in Calvinistic presuppositions.

Dr. James White: “…consistent, full-on Arminianism (not the historic view of Arminius himself, oddly, but the more modern versions that have shed the Reformed heritage that was Arminius’) I do believe leads, inevitably and consistently (please note those terms), to a non-saving, man-centered system of religion. No question about it. But there is all the difference in the world to confess that and, at the same time, to recognize what I have often called the “blessed inconsistencies” of our Arminian, or more accurately, synergistic, brothers and sisters in Christ. I have met very few consistent Arminians—I have met many who have firmly extolled truths that have no place in a consistent Arminianism, and yet they are unaware of how their system is self-contradictory. I was one of those—every Calvinist that came to the Reformed position through prayer and study of the Word knows what I mean. But I was not saved the day I asked John Calvin into my heart. I was saved when I trusted in Jesus, and He faithfully led me, by His grace, to an understanding of His truth. In His time. In His fashion.”

(some) “tell God He has no right to draw a straight line with a crooked stick. It is straightforward: until you embrace all of Calvinism (I wonder just how much of that they really believe, or just how perfect their own understanding actually is?), you are lost. Unsaved. Enemy of God. Only Calvinists are saved. Pretty blunt, but there it is. Hyper-Calvinism in all its theological snobbery and perfectionism, never realizing that God works with sinners over time, in His own way, to cause them to GROW in grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. I was an heir of grace before I ever heard of John Calvin, ever heard of particular redemption, ever heard of many elements of Reformed theology. Once you start making the definition of the gospel more strict than the Spirit did in the Word, you have walked out of grace and into the realm of error yourself. Mark these men, keep an eye out for them! Few things can kill a Reformed church faster than graceless hyperism.”

Dr. John Gerstner concerning Arminian missionaries and whether their version of salvation can truly convert someone – from Handout Church History, at Ligonier:

The 20th century and the modern missionary movement. You remember I called your attention to the fact that though the missionary movement really began with Calvinistic missionaries, the present day scene and really during the 19th century the transition from a predominantly Reformed missionary endeavor to a predominantly Arminian one took place. We’ve analyzed Arminianism a little bit more at an earlier period but now we are addressing the question with respect to evangelism and missionary work and winning people to Jesus Christ, and the question I’d asked was whether, indeed, an Arminian can do this.

My answer I said, was yes…and no.

Now the answer is yes in this sense: Because evangelical Arminians profess faith in the divine Christ, His atoning blood, His inspired word, and many, many other elements of Christian truth. People giving these essential truths, unlike people hearing the liberal denial of them, may be saved. We must never forget that point, that Arminianism is evangelical. It does proclaim the Gospel. It tells of a divine Christ who died vicariously for the sins of the people. That, we must never forget and for that we must always be profoundly grateful.

But along with it are other doctrines that we’ll come to in a moment, but right now we’ll say, when an Arminian speaks his version of Christianity, a person who hears him hears essential, core Christianity. The Gospel is there. There’s no denying that. And if the people really do believe in the Jesus Christ preached by an Arminian, they’ll believe in the Christ of the Gospel. He is the second Person of the Trinity, He is absolutely divine, He has a true and sinless human nature, He died vicariously on the cross. He rose bodily from the grave, He is going to come again in the clouds of heaven. Those basic verities will be carried to the ends of the earth by people who are truly Arminian and truly evangelical. In that sense, yes, because the core of the Gospel is there.

The answer is also no. … Arminian evangelism rests on profound error: that fallen man is not dead spiritually but only dying. He is therefore supposed to be able to bring about his own new birth by his self-generated faith. This can never happen. No one can ever be saved by himself even with the help of the Holy Spirit. Usually when I point this out to Arminians, they say, ‘don’t forget, we’re relying on the help of the Holy Spirit!’ Well, help from the Holy Spirit is not going to do any good for a corpse! You need more than help! And all you’re offering IS help! You admitting the person is sick and dying but you don’t admit what the Bible says, namely, he is dead. … I hope and believe that multitudes of Arminians really believe the truth they do hold in spite of the otherwise fatal errors they proclaim to the world.

So in a sentence, can an Arminian be a missionary, can person actually be saved by persons propagating such errors, yes, because they are propagating such truths. Such glorious truths that cause us to embrace them as fellow Christians and ask them to accept us as the same.

But at the same time, as an integral part of their theology, is an element which if it’s taken seriously, understood and acted upon by hearers of the Arminian gospel they’ll never be saved, they never can be saved. … These people are evangelical, they believe in the bible, they worship Jesus Christ, so you tend to trust them. If you trust their errors, it’s fatal. If you rely on their way of converting, you’ll never be converted.

Let’s try to hold onto both of these ideas.

Ray Ortlund: In Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, Iain Murray draws four lessons from that conflict:

1. “Genuine evangelical Christianity is never of an exclusive spirit. Any view of the truth which undermines catholicity has gone astray from Scripture.” Spurgeon disagreed with hyper-Calvinists who “made faith in election a part of saving faith and thus either denied the Christianity of all professed Christians who did not so believe or at least treated such profession with much suspicion.”

2. Spurgeon “wanted to see both divine sovereignty and human responsibility upheld, but when it came to gospel preaching he believed that there needed to be a greater concentration upon responsibility. The tendency of Hyper-Calvinism was to make sinners want to understand theology before they could believe in Christ.”

3. “This controversy directs us to our need for profound humility before God. It reminds us forcefully of questions about which we can only say, ‘Behold, God is great, and we know him not’ (Job 36:26).” “It is to be feared that sharp contentions between Christians on these issues have too often arisen from a wrong confidence in our powers of reasoning and our assumed ability to draw logical inferences.” Spurgeon saw “how a system which sought to attribute all to the grace of God had itself too much confidence in the powers of reason.”

4. “The final conclusion has to be that when Calvinism ceases to be evangelistic, when it becomes more concerned with theory than with the salvation of men and women, when acceptance of doctrines seems to become more important than acceptance of Christ, then it is a system going to seed and it will invariably lose its attractive power.

Iain H. Murray, SPURGEON VS. HYPER-CALVINISM; Banner of Truth (Edinburgh, 1995), pages 110-122. Italics added.