Recently a group of Southern Baptists developed a document titled, “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” It is mostly a response to the (fast) rising Calvinistic movement in the denomination. The most controversial statement is where they said, “We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.”
Of course Calvinistic Southern Baptists are upset over the statement. They have been mostly ignored for quite a while and now they are getting too big to ignore so a more direct approach is necessary. Most sovereign grace believing people would call this statement, as well as those who wrote and signed it, Arminians, after James Arminius. But how many people have actually read anything that Arminius has written?
The statement in question is actually closer to what is known as semi-Pelagianism than it is to Arminianism. A little background information is necessary. Whereas the heretic Pelagius said that man was totally capable of choosing God without the aid of God’s grace, the semi-Pelagians, led by John Cassian said that God’s grace assists men in choosing Christ.
You might be surprised to read that Arminius wrote the following: “Exactly correspondent to this Darkness of the Mind, and Perverseness of the Heart, is the utter Weakness [impotentia] of all the Powers to perform that which is truly good, and to omit the perpetuation of that which is evil, in a due mode and from a due end and cause…”1 He goes on to refer to Romans 3:9-10 saying, “man is altogether dead in sin.” Not exactly the heretical sounding words we would expect from one whose name is a commonly used epithet among Calvinists.
This is not to argue that Arminius was right on. He believed that God’s grace freed men from the bondage of their depravity, but he also believed that that grace could be rejected. He didn’t hold to a one-time regeneration but gradual regeneration. Neither did he believe in a definite atonement, sovereign election, and final perseverance. There are plenty of problems with his beliefs, but there are two points we can draw from the above made distinction.
First of all, most of what we hear on television and radio from preachers today isn’t classical Arminianism; it’s semi-Pelagianism. Some may say, “Who cares?” but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Arminius would probably condemn anyone who made a statement like the one made by this group of Southern Baptists (as one of his modern followers actually has). If we’re looking at levels of agreement, sure we’re closer to John Gill than Arminius, but we’re closer to Arminius than we are to John Cassian and the semi-Pelagians.
Second, we should not carelessly label someone an Arminian (or anything else) without knowing what we’re talking about. I’d say well over ninety-percent of the people who call someone an Arminian have never read a sentence of the works of James Arminius. I’m not suggesting that you dive into them, but if we’re going to talk about a dead guy, we should make sure we know what he actually said rather than referring to what someone else said about him.
In case you’re wondering, Arminius is not a personal hero and I don’t believe his theology. I do want us to know our history.
1 The Works of James Arminius, vol. 2 , as quoted in Willing to Believe, by R. C. Sproul, pp. 127.