Does an Arminian Understanding of Grace Lead to a More Missional Worldview?

, posted by SEA

What I’ve learned: a church’s dominant soteriology indelibly shapes its culture (the way people think about and do) for mission.

                                    –Dr David Fitch

In his “Framework for Missional Christianity” series, influential missiologist Alan Hirsch writes (bold mine):

One of the most basic assumptions of the incarnational missionary is to assume God is already involved in every person’s life and is calling them to himself through his Son. Our mindset should not be the prevalent one of taking God with us wherever we might go. Instead, our mindset should be that we join God in His mission.

This means that the missionary God has been active a long time in a person’s life. Our primary job is to try to see where and how God has been working and to partner with him in bringing people to redemption in Jesus.

This is basically the Wesleyan-Arminian understanding of prevenient grace.

Let me repeat: one of the most basic assumptions of Christians who act missionally is an Arminian view of grace. [1]

How does Arminian Theology change our worldview?

I have written before that compared with Calvinism, I have found that Arminianism tends towards a more missional and evangelism/discipleship-focused worldview. For me personally, Arminianism has a big impact in helping me see (and on the way I see) God’s providence at work.

While Calvinism tends towards a deterministic worldview, leading to what has been called a “theology of resignation”, Arminian theology encourages us to wear a “Gospel-lens” over all of our interactions, and thereby becomes a “theology of practice”.[2]

As another Arminian blogger points out:

Arminianism, and especially Wesleyan-Arminianism, is missional in nature.  […] Arminianism very naturally gives expression to missionary endeavors, as God loves each and every person, and desires, according to Scripture, the salvation of each and every person. This biblical truth motivates the believer to witness to her or his faith in Christ toward the salvation of others. Evangelism is the heart of God and of Arminian theology.

United Methodist Pastor Omar Rikabi likewise has written, “the gospel doesn’t discount anyone from grace and salvation […] If we believe in prevenient grace—that Jesus is pursuing every person—we can only know what he’s up to by entering into their story through holy love.

Even those who hold to a more Reformational/Classical Arminian view of prevenient grace (that is, that prevenient grace comes through the preaching of the gospel [3]) will hold a more missional worldview, knowing that God is active in every gospel encounter.  For instance, Dr Adam Dodds writes (PDF link):

[T]he fact that God’s prevenient grace that enables and causes belief in Christ is offered through the Church’s communication of the gospel is of immense missiological importance. As the Church carries out her missionary task she can be confident not only that Christ has died for all, but also that there is inherent power in gospel proclamation and demonstration, for it is through the Church’s mission that God makes His grace available and people are enabled to repent and believe, and thus experience regeneration/conversion.

Arminianism, then, drives us, everyday and with every part of our lives, to engage those around us with the Gospel, knowing that God is already seeking them and we are cooperating in His pursuit.

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“More” than what? What about Calvinism’s worldview?

Calvinist theologian Wayne Grudem, in his popular Systematic Theology, suggests that Calvinism should encourage evangelism since it “guarantee[s] that there will be some success” (p 674):

Election is Paul’s guarantee that there will be some success for his evangelism, for he knows that some of the people he speaks to will be the elect, and they will believe the gospel and be saved. It is as if someone invited us to come fishing and said, “I guarantee that you will catch some fish – they are hungry and waiting.”

But does this actually work out in practice? For one thing, Grudem cannot guarantee that there will be some success. If the person I am sharing the gospel with has not been elected from the foundation of the world, there is nothing my witness will do to change that. What he really seems to have in mind is evangelism that is wide but shallow.[4]

Worse, Grudem’s view, in my estimation, turns evangelism into a game: in this view, evangelism never really “snatch[es] them out of the fire” (Jude 23), since only those elected from eternity will respond, and those same will respond eventually to God’s irresistible grace/effectual call regardless. At best, the Calvinist can take comfort in that they were the means God used to save the elect.  It is understandable, then, why there is little real motivation for evangelism, especially in the face of persecution.  If it is only a game–if the elect will be saved and the lost will be lost regardless–why should I risk rejection (or worse) instead of staying silent?

Of course, I know that Calvinism is not devoid of evangelism; I have personally known Calvinists who are passionate about sharing the gospel. I would suggest, however, that this is in spite of their Calvinism rather than because of it.

What about those great gospel preachers Whitefield and Spurgeon?

In his article “How to Teach and Preach ‘Calvinism’”, John Piper writes, “Make Spurgeon and Whitefield your models rather than Owen or Calvin, because the former were evangelists and won many people to Christ in a way that is nearer to our own day.”

If Whitefield and Spurgeon are the go-to models of successful Calvinist evangelists, could they be effective counter-examples to my suggestion?

If we take a closer look at their ministries, we find that both of these men were accused by the other Calvinists in their day of being “Arminian”-ish!

John Piper himself has written that to the Calvinist Baptists, “Whitefield’s Calvinism was suspect, to say the least, because of the kind of evangelistic preaching he did. The Particular Baptists spoke derisively of Whitefield’s ‘Arminian dialect.’”

Of Spurgeon, Baptist historian AC Underwood wrote:

His sermon on “Compel them to come in” was criticized as Arminian and unsound. To his critics he replied: “My Master set His seal on that message. I never preached a sermon by which so many souls were won to God…. If it be thought an evil thing to bid the sinner lay hold of eternal life, I will yet be more evil in this respect and herein imitate my Lord and His apostles.”[5]

Given these accusations from their contemporaries, it should be obvious that Spurgeon and Whitefield were the exceptions to Calvinism’s practice of evangelism rather than any sort of rule.


[1] While most Calvinists hold to “common grace” this is not understood to have any salvific purpose.  As leading Calvinist scholar Tom Schreiner has written, “The Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace differs from the Calvinistic conception of common grace in one important area. In the Calvinistic scheme common grace does not and cannot lead to salvation. It functions to restrain evil in the world but does not lead unbelievers to faith. For Wesleyans, prevenient grace may lead one to salvation.”; see also: Ben Witherington, “The Reformed View of Regeneration vs. the Wesleyan Theology of Prevenient Grace”; and Matt O’Reilly, “Common Grace vs. Prevenient Grace: What’s the Difference?”.

[2] For more on Wesleyanism vs Calvinism in practice, I recommend: Don Thorsen, Calvin vs Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice (Find in a library). You can read a review from Seedbed here, and one from Dr Olson here. There is also a short article online by the author here.

[3] For more on the difference between the Reformation/Classical view and the Wesleyan view, see: Prevenient Grace: An Introduction

[4] This is the same attitude that allowed Whitefield to believe that slavery could be used for evangelism.  Dr Irv A Brendlinger makes this point in his book, Social justice through the eyes of Wesley: John Wesley’s theological challenge to slavery, where he writes, for example (p 90):

The focal point for Wesley was that every slave was a potential believer and doing good for them as neighbours, acting in love, would be the most effective means of persuading them of God’s love.  This clearly flies in the face of the evangelizing approach of others, such as Whitefield and the SPG, who believed that slavery, in spite of its brutality and cruelty, facilitated evangelism by exposing Africans to Christianity.

And (p 99), “The form of predestination Wesley opposed could take a softer position on slavery because, in the context of theological determinism, a system [in which a slave owner could deprive a slave of all spiritual exposure] […] was irrelevant; God would work salvation in the elect regardless of circumstances”. See also: Irv Brendlinger, “John Wesley’s theological challenge to slavery”

[5] AC Underwood, A History of English Baptists, pages 203-206 (approx.), as quoted in Dave Hunt, What Love Is This?, pages 154-55. You can read his sermon “Compel them to come in” here.

This post was taken from Gospel Encounter

An earlier version of this post first appeared at BeyondCalvinism.