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28 May, 2010 / theexpositor

What is an "Arminian"?

from the article, Evangelical Arminians

by Dr. Michael Horton, Modern Reformation magazine

James Arminius, one of Beza’s students, first raised the eyebrows of the Dutch Reformed Church by teaching that the person Paul describes in Romans chapter seven was unregenerate, whereas the Reformed had always interpreted it as a sad, but appropriate, picture of the Christian life (simultaneously justified and sinful). But there was more controversy beneath this: Arminius denied unconditional election, arguing that God made his eternal decision based on his foreknowledge of faith and obedience. With this the entire Reformed system was denied.

Upon his death, however, Arminius’s followers began to press the theologian’s claims even further. The "Remonstrants," as they were called, presented their claims in five points: election was conditional (i.e., determined by foreseen faith and obedience), the atonement was universal not only in sufficiency but in intention, depravity is only partial, grace can be resisted, and the regenerate can lose their salvation. Further, the Arminians denied the Reformation belief that faith was a gift and that justification was a purely forensic (legal) declaration. For them, it included a moral change in the believer’s life and faith itself, a work of humans, was the basis for God’s declaration. In 1618-19, the Synod of Dort, an international conference of Reformed churches, the Remonstrants ("Arminians") were judged heretical and the churches of the Reformation concurred, even those of non-Reformed persuasion (as, for instance, the Lutherans).

Arminianism came to the English-speaking world chiefly through the efforts of seventeenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, Bishop Jeremy Taylor, and the great preacher, Lancelot Andrewes. The leading Puritans such as John Owen, Richard Sibbes and Thomas Goodwin opposed Arminianism as a Protestant form of "Romanism" in which the Christian faith degenerated into a moralism that confused the Law and the Gospel and withheld from God his rightful praise for the whole work of salvation. Eventually, the English "Arminian" element evolved into the High Church wing of the English Church, emphasizing the importance of ritual and the church hierarchy as well as the moralistic Deism which characterized the preaching of the eighteenth century.

Wherever Arminianism was adopted, Unitarianism followed, leading on to the bland liberalism of present mainline denominations. This can be discerned in the Netherlands, in Eastern Europe, in England, and in New England. In fact, in a very short period of time, the General (Arminian) Baptists of New England had become amalgamated into the Unitarian Church in the eighteenth century.

This is not simply an argument from the so-called "slippery slope": in other words, if we allow for x, soon we will be embracing y. History actually bears out the relationship between Arminianism and naturalism. One can readily see how a shift from a God-centered message of human sinfulness and divine grace to a human-centered message of human potential and relative divine impotence could create a more secularized outlook. If human beings are not so badly off, perhaps they do not need such a radical plan of salvation. Perhaps all they need is a pep talk, some inspiration at halftime, so they can get back into the game. Or perhaps they need an injection of grace, as a spiritual antibiotic, to counteract the sinful affections. But in Reformation theology, human beings do not need help. They need redemption. They do not merely need someone to show them the way out; they need someone to be their way out of spiritual death and darkness.

Thus, the evangelicals who faced this challenge of Arminianism universally regarded it as a heretical departure from the Christian faith. One simply could not deny total depravity, unconditional election, justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, and continue to call himself or herself an evangelical. There were many Christians who were not evangelicals, but to be an evangelical meant that one adhered to these biblical convictions. While Calvinists and Lutherans would disagree over the scope of the atonement and the irresistibility of grace and perseverance, they were both strict monergists (from mono, meaning "one" and ergo, meaning "working"). That is, they believed that one person saved us (namely, God), while the Arminians were synergists, meaning that they believed that God and the believer cooperated in this matter of attaining salvation. It was this monergism which distinguished an evangelical from a non-evangelical since the Reformation.


This article originally appeared in the May/June 1992 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.