What is Arminianism?

ARMINIANISM is a teaching regarding salvation associated with the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). The fundamental principle in Arminianism is the rejection of predestination, and a corresponding affirmation of the freedom of the human will. Shortly after his death, the followers of Arminius (later called Arminians) presented a statement to the governing authorities of Holland in which they set forth five articles of doctrine. These were: (1) that the divine decree of predestination is conditional, not absolute; (2) that the Atonement is in intention universal; (3) that man cannot of himself exercise a saving faith, but requires God's help to attain this faith; (4) that though the grace of God is a necessary condition of human effort it does not act irresistibly in man; (5) that believers are able to resist sin but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace. In essence, the Arminians maintained that God gives indispensible help in salvation, but that ultimately it is the free will of man which decides the issue. After a period of sharp theological controversy the Dutch government convened a National Synod of leading churchmen, which met in Dordrecht in the years 1618-19. At this "Synod of Dort" the members adopted five articles in direct opposition to the five articles of the Arminians. The articles of Dort have come to be known as the "five points of Calvinism."

The following paragraphs (taken from Romans: An Interpretive Outline, by David N. Steele and Curtis Thomas) give a particularly clear and concise summary of the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism.


According to Arminianism, salvation is accomplished through the combined efforts of God (who takes the initiative) and man (who must respond); man’s response being the determining factor. God has provided salvation for everyone, but His provision becomes effective only for those who, of their own free will, choose to cooperate with Him and accept His offer of grace. At the crucial point, man’s will plays a decisive role; thus man, not God, determines who will be recipients of the gift of salvation.

The Five Points of Calvinism

  1. Total inability or total depravity. Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the Gospel. The sinner is dead, blind and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free; it is in bondage to his evil nature; therefore, he will not—indeed he cannot—choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently it takes much more than the Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ—it takes regeneration, by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature. Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God’s gift of salvation; it is God’s gift to the sinner, not the sinner’s gift to God.
  2. Unconditional election. God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world rested solely in His own sovereign will. His choice of particular sinners was not based on any foreseen response of obedience on their part, such as faith, repentance, etc. On the contrary, God gives faith and repentance to each individual whom He selected. These acts are the result, not the cause, of God’s choice. Election therefore was not determined by or conditioned upon any virtuous quality or act foreseen in man. Those whom God sovereignly elected He brings through the power of the Spirit to a willing acceptance of Christ. Thus God’s choice of the sinner—not the sinner’s choice of Christ—is the ultimate cause of salvation.
  3. Particular redemption or limited atonement. Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only, and actually secured salvation for them. His death was the substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners. In addition to putting away the sins of His people, Christ’s redemption secured everything necessary for their salvation; including faith which unites them to Him. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, therefore guaranteeing their salvation.
  4. The efficacious call of the Spirit or Irresistible Grace. In addition to the outward general call to salvation (which is made to everyone who hears the Gospel), the Holy Spirit extends to the elect a special inward call that inevitably brings them to salvation. The external call (which is made to all without distinction) can be—and often is—rejected; whereas the internal call (which is made only to the elect) cannot be rejected; it always results in conversion. By means of this special call, the Spirit irresistibly draws sinners to Christ. He is not limited in His work of applying salvation by man’s will, nor is He dependent upon man’s cooperation for success. The Spirit graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent, to come freely and willingly to Christ. God’s grace, therefore, is invincible; it never fails to result in the salvation of those to whom it is extended.
  5. Perseverance of the saints. All who are chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and given faith by the Spirit are eternally saved. They are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and thus persevere to the end.

According to Calvinism, salvation is accomplished by the almighty power of the triune God: the Father chose a people, the Son died for them, the Holy Spirit makes Christ’s death effective by bringing the elect to faith and repentance, thereby causing them to willingly obey the Gospel. The entire process (election, redemption, regeneration) is the work of God and is by grace alone. Thus God, not man, determines who will be the recipients of the gift of salvation. This is the biblical Gospel.

Philip Schaff in his Creeds of Christendom gives a very full discussion of the Arminian controversy, and although he is not entirely in sympathy with the articles of Dort, he rightly observes that "Calvinism represented the consistent, logical, conservative orthodoxy; Arminianism an elastic, progressive, changing liberalism." (1) He sums it up well when he describes Arminianism as a "moderated semi-Pelagianism" (2) Semi-Pelagianism was an ancient heresy which held that man out of his own free will takes the first step in salvation, and is then assisted by God. The Arminians merely reverse the order, saying that man must respond out of his own free will after God first prompts him with "prevenient grace." In both, the decisive thing is the will of man, not the will or decree of God.

Although Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism were rejected in the Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during the eighteenth century Arminian doctrine was revived and promoted by the English evangelist John Wesley and his followers. Through their influence Arminian ideas eventually gained the upper hand in most American churches. Dwight Moody, who was the most popular evangelist of the nineteenth century, was essentially an Arminian with regard to his doctrine of salvation, although he inconsistently taught that salvation could not be "lost" after it was "obtained." The same is true of Billy Graham in the twentieth century. Arminian interpretations are to be found in one of the most popular versions of the Bible, Ken Taylor's Living Bible paraphrase. Today a naive and incoherent mixture of Arminian and Calvinistic teachings is typical of many churches, in which people describe themselves as "four point" or "three point" Calvinists after having implicitly accepted the basic premise of Arminianism that it is the free will of man which ultimately decides his standing with God. This premise is incompatible with explicit teachings of the Bible concerning predestination (see for example the ninth chapter of Paul's epistle to the Romans—a chapter which Arminians have never been able to explain). Theologians who have tried to present a coherent system of doctrine based upon the concept of "free will" have tended to fall into gross Pelagianism (e.g. Charles Finney). Churches in which Arminianism prevails tend to become humanistic and liberal, after having rejected the authority of the Bible. In recent years the brazenly heretical "Open Theism" movement lead by Clark Pinnock and John Sanders is a result of Arminians following their premises to logical conclusions. In the end, Arminian premises cannot be maintained without denying cardinal truths of the Christian faith.

The naive Arminianism that prevails in American churches represents a serious threat to the gospel. It involves a failure to understand the grace of God, and an ignorance of the gospel preached by Paul and the other apostles. Its tendencies are fundamentally heretical, because it attributes salvation to a human capacity or disposition rather than to God alone.

Soli Deo gloria

Michael Marlowe
July 2005

1. The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, sixth edition (New York, 1931), vol. 1, p. 509.

2. ibid., p. 516. Defenders of Arminianism have raised objections against this use of the term Semi-Pelagianism as a description of their doctrine, but these objections have no more merit than the objections of Roman Catholic writers when Protestants describe the doctrines enforced at the Council of Trent as a species of Semi-Pelagianism. Cf. the Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge, who writes: "It is an undeniable fact of history ... that in the Latin Church, Augustinianism, including all the characteristic doctrines of what is now called Calvinism, was declared to be the true faith by council after council, provincial and general, and by bishops and popes. Soon, however, Augustinianism lost its ascendency. For seven or eight centuries no one form of doctrine concerning sin, grace, and predestination prevailed in the Latin Church. Augustinianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Mysticism (equally irreconcilable with both), were in constant conflict; and that, too, on questions on which the Church had already pronounced its judgment. It was not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that the Council of Trent, after long conflict within itself, gave its sanction to a modified form of Semi-Pelagianism." (Systematic Theology, vol. 1 [New York: Charles Scribner and Co., 1871], p. 124.) Pelagianism and its (largely cosmetic) modifications seems to be a perennial heresy that keeps springing up in different times and places whenever it can find an opening; and, if it is not rooted out, it flourishes and eventually chokes out the biblical teaching on salvation. As it happened in Judaism in ancient times, and in Roman Catholicism during the middle ages, so also it has now happened in the Protestant denominations. The "five points of Calvinism" were designed to suppress it when it recrudesced in Reformed churches during the seventeenth century.