The Triumph of Arminianism
(and its dangers)
For the last several hundred years, the church in America has been mostly
Calvinist while Arminianism has been a minority position. All that has
The evangelical church today is basically Arminian in its approach. For
now, Arminianism has triumphed and Calvinism is in retreat. I don't mean
that the Calvinist denominations have officially changed their doctrine.
Most Calvinistic theologians have stuck with their five-points (see
TULIP Calvinism Compared to Wesleyan Perspectives). But most of the
ordinary people have drifted from traditional Calvinism toward the Arminian
position. The average Christian today might claim to be Calvinist, but they
function as a "practical Arminian." While many Calvinist pastors still
ascribe to the Calvinist shibboleths, in their practical theology, they are
Arminianism has triumphed. This great theological battle was won without
warfare, with few debates, with "dueling magazine articles." How ironic that
in a day when theology no longer matters to most people, one of the great
theological battles of all times seems to have been settled. Droves of
Calvinists have become Arminians—at least in practice..
Some historical background
The terms "Calvinist" and "Arminian" are derived from the names of two
individuals who promoted differing theological approaches. Calvinism comes
from John Calvin who was a French reformer who lived in the early 1500's. He
was a main leader of the Protestant Reformation. An organized and systematic
thinker with an excellent legal mind, John Calvin promoted the doctrines
that eventually came to be called "Calvinism." Actually Calvinism was not a
new doctrine at all. The approach was pretty similar to the theology of
Augustine who lived about a thousand years earlier.
Arminianism derives from James Arminius who lived in the late 1500's.
When Calvin died, Arminius was only four years old. James Arminius is not as
well known in history as Calvin. But the Arminian approach was not new
either. His approach was taken in the 400's and 500's by many of the early
church's "Eastern fathers." One early church leader, Pelagius, even took
this approach to the extreme and was ultimately condemned as a heretic by
the Western church.
The Differences between Calvinism and Arminianism
Does man have a role in getting saved?
A true Calvinist begins and ends his discussion of salvation with God.
God alone. For the true Calvinist, man has no ability to move toward God. He
cannot even recognize his own sin. Salvation is something which happens
wholly as God's work. What man does or is makes no difference. Confession,
repentance, or "going to the altar" does not make a difference. To the true
Calvinist, salvation happens totally apart from anything man does or is. It
is purely God's work done without man's participation in any way whatsoever.
Today's church has drifted to a more Arminian approach. Most church
people today believe the Christian's relationship with God is
bi-lateral, not uni-lateral.
While maintaining that God alone does the saving, today's church figures
that men and women have a part to play—confessing sins and receiving Christ.
To today's average Christian, Christ's death on the cross provided
completely for our salvation, but forgiveness is not effective until an
individual receives God's forgiveness. In this most Christians are
How shall we approach evangelism?
Since a Calvinist believes salvation is wholly God's work without any
partnership with man, he or she approaches evangelism nonaggressively.
Calvinism teaches there is nothing whatsoever a person can do to become
saved—we can't "decide for Christ" or "receive Christ" enabling a person to
"become a Christian." To do this would give man a part in salvation.
Calvinists believe salvation is from God and God alone. To make salvation
hinge on an individual's "accepting Christ" or "receiving Christ" makes
salvation partially a human endeavor. A true Calvinist believes that nothing
whatsoever a person does or is contributes anything at all to salvation.
Salvation is God's work alone and we play no part in it—not even receiving
Today's evangelical church is far more Arminian in its approach to
evangelism. Most Christians and even prominent Calvinistic churches
emphasize our personally receiving Christ as Savior and invite attenders to
"receive Christ" or "make a decision" to become a Christian.
Are people totally and completely evil?
Calvinism teaches that men and woman are totally depraved—absolutely evil
from birth. Every single baby coming into the world is born with an evil
heart—totally depraved and completely inclined to wickedness. Total
depravity teaches that men and women from birth are rotten to the core. A
man or woman can do nothing whatsoever good or pleasing to God—it is
impossible, for we are born absolutely and altogether sinful. Since we are
born so sinfully inclined, we are therefore totally incapable of any good.
Even little babies are absolutely sinful. (see Body
and Soul: Greek and Hebraic Tensions in Scripture.)
Most Christians today are far more Arminian. They may not use a
theological term like "prevenient grace" or "common grace" but they have a
hunch that God has granted some sort of grace or "light that lighteth every
man" to all people on earth. In fact, even these worldlings sometimes do
good things out of this positive impulse in them—an impulse planted there by
God. Though this impetus is not enough to save them... it is a "God-shaped
Vacuum" drawing them toward God. This prevenient grace—the "grace that
precedes"—enables naturally sinful men and women to seek God and to feel
conviction over their sins. Most of today's Christians have a hunch that
their unbelieving associates at work are really hungry for God deep inside.
This approach is a mostly Arminian view.
Did God pick who would be saved?
The Calvinist doctrine of election teaches that long before the beginning
of time, God chose who would be saved. He "predestined"—set their destiny
before hand—some to be saved and go to heaven. This teaching says that out
of all the people who would ever live in future history, God selected some
to be saved. Some were "picked," others were not picked. The chosen ones
would be the only ones saved. No one else.
This view easily grows out of the conviction that man is wholly and
totally depraved and unable to choose God. So, God must choose him. True
Calvinists believe that God did this selection based on nothing whatsoever
the individual might do or be in the future. In other words, God did not
look down through history and pick those who would later choose Christ. Such
a notion would make salvation based somewhat on man's later decision and not
fully on God alone. Calvinists believe that God chose whom He wanted based
wholly on His own criterion (see God's Foreknowledge,
Predestination, and Human Freedom).
Since God chose only some, those left out are destined to go to hell.
There is nothing at all persons can do to escape hell if they were not
chosen by God long ago. The elect are picked for salvation, no matter what
Most Christians today take a far more Arminian approach to "election."
They suspect that God has not limited salvation to a "select few" chosen
long ago. Most people today figure God has chosen all men and women to be
saved, but some reject this offered salvation and thus exclude themselves
from heaven. Many today think that "according to God's foreknowledge" God
elected us to salvation. That is, because He knew beforehand who would
accept His salvation, He elected these ones who would later repent and
receive Christ. And when it gets "real practical"—such as the funeral for a
baby—most folk have a strong intuition that God's grace extends to innocent
babies. Few Christians today really believe that a dead baby will go to hell
because it is not "on God's list."
For whom did Christ die?
The Calvinist doctrine of a "limited atonement" teaches that Christ died
only for a limited number of people—only for those chosen ahead of time to
be saved. No one else. Calvinists believe that God chose beforehand exactly
who would be saved. Thus there is no need to "waste" Christ's blood on those
not chosen. Thus Christ did not die for all men and woman, but only for the
elect, those God picked to be saved. Christ did not die for all men.
Most Christians now believe that Christ died for all men, as a ransom for
all, for the whole world. They think that any person could be saved. They
are basically Arminian in this approach to the Atonement.
Can you keep from being saved?
The Calvinist teaching of "irresistible grace" argues that there is
nothing whatsoever a man or woman can do to keep from being saved if he or
she were already chosen. The grace of God is totally irresistible. Those
elected by God will be saved. They can't help it and they can't resist it.
Arminians believe that Christ died for all men, and thus He granted
common grace to all so that "whosoever will" may be saved, not just those
picked beforehand. Most Christians today lean toward the Arminian approach
that anyone may be saved and a person can refuse God's grace.
Can you quit being a Christian?
The Calvinist doctrine of the "perseverance of the saints" teaches that
once you are a Christian, you are forever a Christian. Once born into God's
family, you can't quit being a family member. God will never disown you.
Once made alive in Christ, you can never die—"once saved, always saved." To
the Calvinist, you can never divorce God out of your life, and he won't
divorce you under any circumstance. In a word, "you can't, He won't."
While this doctrine is the best surviving Calvinist teaching, even
"eternal security" is eroding from the strictly Calvinist position. Many
Christians in the pew today do not believe that a person living in wicked,
flagrant, open, continual and habitual sin is on their way to heaven. More
likely they will say that such a person never was a Christian in the first
place. And many even believe that while it is unlikely, there is indeed a
possibility that a person who was once saved could apostatize and leave
God's family. While this single point of Calvinism remains, even the
Calvinist doctrine of absolute unconditional security is moderating toward
The Triumph of Arminianism
There is little doubt about it: Arminianism has triumphed in the pew, if
not in the seminary. The average Christian is a practicing Arminian, even if
he claims to be a Calvinist in theory. "Practical" modern church members are
increasingly rejecting traditional "five-point Calvinism." While Arminianism
has been a "minority view" for decades, today there is a major drift toward
Arminianism in most Calvinist churches.
Why the switch?
I spent several years as a determined five-pointer as a young man before
changing my mind to accept Arminianism. I made the switch purposefully and
with quite a bit of painful study as a student at Princeton Seminary. But
many Calvinists today are making the switch for purely pragmatic reasons.
They have not become convinced the Bible really teaches the Arminian
approach. Frankly, Arminianism is simply more palatable to a secular
culture. It "fits in" to the mind-set of the people in their pews. Like it
or not, the secular mind is naturally Arminian in its outlook. I've
discovered this repeatedly myself by administering a theological
questionnaire to secular students in an adult education program. These
"unchurched Harrys" invariably register Arminian theologically.
Face it, Arminianism is simply more logical. It makes sense to the person
on the street. And today's church is scrambling to make sense to
unbelievers. We want to sound sensible, logical, rational, enlightened,
fair. Arminianism is so much more appealing to worldly people.
Thus, many Calvinist churches customize worship services, communication
styles, architecture, and music, to fit the worldly customers. But they also
adapt their theology by quietly creeping away from the "right end" of the
theological continuum and drifting over toward Arminianism. The truth of the
matter is, they are embarrassed by Calvinistic theology. They have found it
offensive to the "customers." The Arminian approach to theology is simply a
more "seeker sensitive."
The Dangers of Arminianism
I admit that I am a committed Arminian. Of course I welcome the host of
new "practical Arminians" joining ranks with my theological tradition. I
think this approach fits better with the Bible, reason, tradition, and
experience. But I must be honest. There are some real hazards over here in
the Arminian ocean—especially for Calvinistic churches. You can sink your
theological ship here. As a local "pilot," I'd suggest you keep your eyes
open wide for submerged rocks!
We Arminians tend to put too much emphasis on man and his decisions, and
not enough on God and the gospel. Sometimes we are tempted to act as if God
is helpless without us and our work. We lean toward pragmatism and are
constantly looking for "what works best" as if methodology were more
important than the message. Since we believe that all men can be saved, we
tend to assume that if they aren't saved, we have not packaged the
invitation (or the message) right. We especially love management,
leadership, programs, marketing, and research data. We tend to focus more on
the "potential convert" than on the eternal gospel. Arminianism easily leans
toward a NIKE mentality—"Just do it." We are somewhat less inclined to pray
in order to move God to "do it" (see
Divine-Human Synergism in Ministry).
And, as has always been true, Arminianism can be taken to the extreme of
humanism. Calvinists have a sovereign God and an inactive man. Humanists
have a sovereign man and an inactive God. Arminians lean toward the humanist
end of this continuum and thus are always in danger of becoming humanists
(see Humanism in Scripture and Culture:
Recovering a Balance).
So if you are a former Calvinist who has drifted into Arminianism with
little thought and for mostly pragmatic reasons, be careful as you navigate
in this territory. You probably knew the dangers of your former theology,
especially of "hyper-Calvinism." But you may not be aware of the dangers
over here. Many of us Arminians have learned to stay out of the humanist end
of the spectrum. We've learned that the best place to sail is on the
Arminian end, but just over the line from Calvinism. Our five points would
look something like this:
1. Total Depravity
Mankind is totally depraved, but God has extended
His common grace to all so that every man or woman can search and find
2. Unconditional Election
Before the foundation of the world God elected
all men to salvation but most refuse His offer.
3. Limited Atonement
The atonement of Christ is open to all men
everywhere and is limited only by our refusal to be saved.
4. Irresistible Grace
The "common grace" [prevenient grace] of God is
given to all men everywhere and it is irresistible, but saving grace can
be refused by a stubborn heart.
5. Perseverance of the Saints
Once saved, a person will always be saved unless
by defiant, continual, purposeful, rebellion he or she refuses God's grace
and chooses apostasy. Though relatively rare for a truly saved person,
apostasy is possible.
If you are recently coming from the Calvinistic end, be careful not to
pass right by the middle ground and run off to extreme Arminianism:
man-centered humanism. Instead, if you stay on the Arminian side, but at the
end near the Calvinist line, you'll be safe in these waters. If you want a
name for that area—the area on the Arminian end, but just "a hair's breadth
from Calvinism," some call this the "Wesleyan-Arminian" approach.