Arminianism is often given a bad reputation but not because those who oppose Arminianism necessarily find fault with the theology itself as much as they find fault with the presentation of so called Arminianism in many churches in the United States. I am convinced that much of what people see being called Arminianism coming from the pulpits in America is not true, biblical, reformation Arminianism but is semi-Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism, as many of you know, has some similarities to Arminianism in that we both teach that salvation is a free will choice to be made by the individual but the differences between semi-Pelagian theology and Arminianism are many.
Let me note several key differences between semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism.
- Depravity – Semi-Pelagianism teaches that the doctrine of total depravity is false. Man is born good and becomes a sinner by willful neglect of God’s law. Arminianism teaches that man is born depraved. We are born depraved and only by the grace of God can we overcome sin (Ephesians 2:1-3).
- The Sovereignty of God – Semi-Pelagianism would find more friends among those who believe in open theism than in Arminianism. Semi-Pelagianism essentially denies the sovereignty of God by stressing the freedom of man to an unbiblical extreme. Arminianism teaches that God is completely sovereign. God reigns over His creation with complete control (Matthew 5:45). Nothing happens outside of the sovereignty of God (Psalm 115:3). God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:12 ESV). Even salvation is by the sovereignty of God (Jonah 2:9; Ephesians 2:8-9).
- Salvation – Semi-Pelagianism teaches that man works with God in salvation. To use a common phrase from altar calls, “If you take one step, God will take two.” Or another misleading analogy, “Faith is one row, works are the other row that takes to heaven.” In some circles, salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7) but then they stress the works of man to keep oneself saved often pointing to James 2:14-26 but using it out of the context of the whole of Scripture. Arminianism teaches that from first to last, salvation is a work of God by His Spirit (John 6:44). No good works can obtain the righteousness necessary for eternal life in heaven (Isaiah 64:6). Because of our depraved state, we can only find salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ and His work on the cross (Romans 10:4). Without Jesus’ blood, we have no salvation (Hebrews 9:22). We are saved by faith in Jesus alone and not our goodness or good works (Philippians 3:7-10).
- Free Will – Semi-Pelagianism stresses the freedom of the will of man to the extreme that God does nothing in the earth except by man using his freedom to allow God to act. God’s sovereignty takes a backseat in semi-Pelagian theology because of the stress on God giving freedom of the will to humanity. Arminianism does embrace the teaching of free will but we don’t believe that God can not act outside of our using our will. God can and does override people’s will in the Bible as in the case of Pharaoh (Romans 9:17-18). Furthermore, Arminianism teaches that the only way that man can be saved is not by their own choosing to be saved but submission to the drawing power of God to salvation. In other words, semi-Pelagianism preaches a gospel of “Come and give your heart to Jesus” but Arminianism teaches “Surrender to the Holy Spirit drawing you to Jesus.” Is there a difference? Yes! One stresses man as the focus while the other stresses Jesus as the focus (Hebrews 12:1-2).
There are many more differences between semi-Pelagian theology and Arminianism. These simply highlight some of the major differences. As you can see, much of what passes as Arminianism is not true Arminianism. Those who teach such things and then try to use James Arminius are simply not using the teachings of Arminius in their correct context. My good friend Billy at Classical Arminianism [that blog no longer exists] is always using the writings of James Arminius to demonstrate what Arminians truly believe and this is important to do so because Arminius is often the scapegoat for many Calvinist attacks on his theology when in fact it is not Arminius’ theology. Much of what passes as Arminianism in many Arminian churches in the United States is not Arminianism and is, at best, semi-Pelagianism if not pre-reformation Catholic teachings.
So why the fuss? Because Calvinists often attack Arminianism but it is not Arminianism that they are attacking but semi-Pelagianism. Many Calvinist, for example, like to use Charles Finney as an example of Arminianism but Finney was not truly Arminian. Finney’s teachings often sounded Arminian but they were semi-Pelagian. Finney’s refusal to believe in total depravity, for example, comes not from Arminius but from Pelagianism.
All we Arminians ask is that our critics (and those who study our theology) would examine carefully what you read and hear (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Much of what passes as Arminianism is not. May all of us learn to discern truth from error and hold firmly to the Word of God (1 John 4:1).
[Link to original post and comments on Roy Ingle’s blog, Arminian Today]