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Arminianism: Error, But Not Damnable Heresy

December 12, 2012 16 comments

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?