Home > C. H. Spurgeon, Calvinism, doctrines > Arminianism: Error, But Not Damnable Heresy

Arminianism: Error, But Not Damnable Heresy


On occasion we in Calvinist circles come across someone with a very narrow definition of true Christianity, to the point of saying that Arminians are heretics: as in, not actual Christians.  Aside from the fact that the person may be confusing pelagianism and/or semi-pelagianism with Arminianism, such a view fails to see the difference between a serious error and misunderstanding, versus those we could not fellowship with as Christians.  As S. Lewis Johnson well summed it upWe’re all born Pharisees. We’re born again as Arminians. And the work of sanctification is to bring us to Calvinism.

Phil Johnson also addressed the issue in this talk (Closet Calvinists: Why Arminians pre-suppose the doctrines of grace) at the 2007 Shepherds Conference (article version, Why I Am A Calvinist, Part 1), noting that “I’m Calvinistic enough to believe that God has ordained, at least for the time being, that some of my brethren should hold Arminian views.”  In God’s great providence, shortly after I observed an online incident (a person calling Arminians heretics) and the follow-up discussion on that issue, I came to this great sermon from Charles Spurgeon in my reading through Spurgeon volume 7, “EXPOSITION OF THE DOCTRINES OF GRACE.”  Here are some good points from Mr. Spurgeon:

 The controversy which has been carried on between the Calvinist and the Arminian is exceedingly important, but it does not so involve the vital point of personal godliness as to make eternal life depend upon our holding either system of theology. Between the Protestant and the Papist there is a controversy of such a character, that he who is saved on the one side by faith in Jesus, dares not agree that his opponent on the opposite side can be saved while depending on his own works. There the controversy is for life or death, because it hinges mainly upon the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, which Luther so properly called the test Doctrine, by which a Church either stands or falls. The controversy, again, between the Believer in Christ and the Socinian, is one which affects a vital point. If the Socinian is right, we are most frightfully in error; we are, in fact, idolaters, and how can eternal life dwell in us? And if we are right, our largest charity will not permit us to imagine that a man can enter Heaven who does not believe the real Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are other controversies which thus cut at the very core, and touch the very essence of the whole subject.

I think we are all free to admit, that while John Wesley, for instance, in modern times zealously defended Arminianism, and on the other hand, George Whitefield with equal fervor fought for Calvinism, we should not be prepared, either of us, on either side of the question, to deny the vital godliness of either the one or the other. We cannot shut our eyes to what we believe to be the gross mistakes of our opponents, and should think ourselves unworthy of the name of honest men if we could admit that they are right in all things, and ourselves right, too! … We are willing to admit—in fact we dare not do otherwise—that opinion upon this controversy does not determine the future or even the present state of any man!

Finally, in beginning to expound on what Calvinists do and do not believe, Spurgeon observed (something also applicable to other doctrinal differences among believers):

We have not come here to defend your man of straw—shoot at it or burn it as you will, and, if it suits your convenience, still oppose doctrines which were never taught, and rail at fictions which, except in your own brain, were never in existence. We come here to state what our views really are, and we trust that any who do not agree with us will do us the justice of not misrepresenting us. If they can disprove our Doctrines, let them state them fairly, and then overthrow them, but why should they first caricature our opinions, and then afterwards attempt to put them down?

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  1. December 12, 2012 at 8:50 am

    I’m so glad you posted Phil’s sermon as I could not locate it a week ago. I’m going to download it for safekeeping. 🙂 And thanks for posting these Spurgeon quotes, especially the first – very helpful in this discussion!

    • December 12, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Thanks, Justin. I had read a transcript form of Phil’s sermon a few years ago, at the sfpulpit site, but that post and site no longer exist, so I searched online and found the original audio, and posted it here along with the other items for future reference.

    • December 12, 2012 at 9:33 am

      Justin, you can also find it in text form here: http://www.gty.org/resources/articles/10194

      • December 12, 2012 at 9:46 am

        Thanks, Elaine… I had an old link from a few years ago, and saw where they had moved some posts from sfpulpit.com to the new gracechurch blog site, but didn’t know what had become of this article.

  2. December 12, 2012 at 9:36 am

    I love that last quote by Spurgeon. Thanks Lynda!

  3. December 12, 2012 at 9:40 am

    In the Arminian teaching, which has engulfed evangelical society, we have a tiny, little, powerless God that can’t run the details of a universe without being bound by the choices of
    apostate sinners.

    It seems as though Spurgeon may have wavered from time to time on his view of Arminianism.

    “If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, “He is one who says, ‘Salvation is of the Lord.’” I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this. It is the essence of the Bible. “He only is my rock and my salvation.” Tell me anything contrary to this truth, and it will be a heresy; tell me a heresy and I shall find its essence here, that it has departed from this great, this fundamental, this rock-truth, “God is my rock and my salvation.” What is the heresy of Rome, but the addition of something to the perfect merits of Jesus Christ–the bringing in of the works of the flesh, to assist in our justification? And what is the heresy of Arminianism but the addition of something to the work of the Redeemer? Every heresy, if brought to the touchstone, will discover itself here.”
    —Charles Spurgeon

    • December 12, 2012 at 9:49 am

      Rick: Spurgeon clearly disagreed with Arminianism, as brought out in the full “Doctrines of Grace” sermon mentioned above, as well as elsewhere. The point here is that Spurgeon also recognized that Arminians were not in the same class as unbelievers such as Roman Catholics and Socinians, and that he could call Arminians (such as Wesley) believers.

  4. Robyn W.
    December 12, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Something I have noticed when reading posts and comments on either side accusing the other of damnable heresy on this issue is that arrogance is the driver.

    It is a wonderful thing to come to the understanding of the doctrines of grace and the implications of God’s sovereign election but it must be a rare thing to be one of the elect who fully understood those truths at the same moment of the regeneration of their hearts.

    • December 12, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      Very true, Robyn. I see a lot of truth in SLJ’s comment that “we’re born again as Arminians.” At conversion most of us do not yet understand many truths of the Christian faith.

  5. December 13, 2012 at 1:30 am

    Let me first say: I have profited from Lewis Johnson more than anyone else. I have listened and relistened to many of his messages, and read many as well. Lynn, as for:

    “As S. Lewis Johnson well summed it up: We’re all born Pharisees. We’re born again as Arminians. And the work of sanctification is to bring us to Calvinism.”

    Perhaps this is too much of a generalisation.

    Many Arminians are confused: they just can’t get it that the causal progression is Given – Come – Eternal life. If however, they see it clearly but refuse to accept that all those who are given will definitely come and will never lose their salvation because it is entirely up to God and not even a thimbleful to them, then the problem is far more serious. The following excerpt explains:

    “Are Arminians Saved?

    Question: If we are saved by grace alone (and we are) how can anyone be saved if they believe salvation is a cooperation between man and God and that you can lose your salvation? If one believes they can lose their salvation does not that faith then become a work, rather than a gift of God? If someone believes they can lose their salvation, do they really believe that it is the finished work of Christ, and not the “work” of faith, that saves them? If someone believes that they can lose their salvation, would it be true that their faith is no longer a free gift from God, but something the sinner needs to muster up daily to keep their salvation? So here is the hard question. In this matter, can we be saved in spite bad theology? If someone truly held to the five points of Arminianism, could they have “real” saving faith? Can you have real saving faith without understanding Grace Alone?

    Response: Important question. If they are consistent, since they do not believe grace is effectual, Arminians must ascribe their repenting and believing to their own wisdom, humility, sound judgment and good sense. However, I tend on the side of being generous if Arminians affirm that they justly deserve the wrath of God save for Christ’s mercy alone, which most Arminians do. So we do not exactly hold the view that Arminians are lost. Much bad theology turns out merely to be inconsistent theology and it is possible to be saved in spite of bad theology, but only if you are inconsistent, and you don’t really believe what you think or say you believe. I find, in my many encounters with Arminians, that this is usually the case. Thankfully I think a good number Arminians are inconsistent, and they don’t really believe what they say. For example, they pray for God to bring friends and neighbors to salvation – why? God has no power (or right) to do that, according to Arminianism. But some Arminians (I would argue, the ones that are saved) know in their heart that salvation IS all the work of God and IS all by grace. So they pray for God to save sinners! Their true theology comes out in their prayers, even if they don’t want to admit it. I feel that, over time and with patience, these people would become reformed in theology if they had good teaching and instruction.”

    Isn’t there a difference between “confuse” and “refuse?” I discuss the problem here:
    http://onedaringjew.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/arminians-who-confuse-and-refuse-free-will-in-coming-to-christ/

    • December 13, 2012 at 2:48 am

      WOW! Now I understand why the original blog was so important…assuming YOUR determination of who is or is not saved is binding. Apparently to some it is not enough to believe the Gospel that Paul referred to, but you have to get the theology of salvation right in most of the details! Shame on you!

      • December 13, 2012 at 9:24 am

        I have always found it to be true that most Arminians are consistentl in their theology. They consistently see the word “all,” for instance, as meaning ‘each and every existing individual,’ regardless of the context that proves otherwise and the clear intent of the author. Their theology is consistently poor; so poor in fact as to be utterly wrong. Whether or not they are condemned for that I’ll let God decide. It took me five years after seminary to realize that I was indeed an Arminian theologian, and had on multiple occasions, not only misrepresented the gospel but had actually not understood what it was. With that realization came another five years of trying to figure out how I got so far off base. Arminians are overly concerned with free will — a topic that Jonathan Edwards puts to rest permanently in favor of a Reformed view point. They consider it no small matter to imagine that apostate sinners can will what they desire (i.e., not to come to Christ), while giving no credence that the God of the universe sovereignly does what He desires with their silly will. I guess the end all for me is this: “If God really wanted to save ‘each and every existing individual,’ the hallmark of every Arminian, — the one thing God WOULDN’T have done would be to give them all free will.” Think about it. You can’t have it both ways. Either your will is not free (unencumbered) or God doesn’t desire to save every existing individual.

    • December 13, 2012 at 7:22 am

      I’ve considered the same things before, Tom. It comes down to whether one is relying on their “faith” for salvation or relying on Christ for salvation. While I err on the side of generosity and trust many Arminians are saved but just inconsistent, there may be some (or many considering the state of the church today) who are trusting in and relying on themselves, which is no different than what Catholics do.

    • December 13, 2012 at 9:23 am

      Agree, Bography, that is one of the underlying issues: many Arminians are inconsistent. Spurgeon went on to cite the words from several very Calvinistic hymns that were written by Arminians, yet sung in Calvinist churches. Also there are many actual Pelagians and semi-Pelagians, those who are consistent and who in discussion become very insistent on man’s free will and not recognizing God’s overall sovereignty in salvation.

  6. December 13, 2012 at 5:27 am

    Tom, would you say, with Spurgeon, that what begins in the flesh ends in the flesh.

  7. December 13, 2012 at 5:31 am

    And Tom, how do you understand the term “theology?”

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