While considering the sovereignty of God over salvation last night in our continuing study, Walking in the Excellencies of God, the question arose, “Does the rejection of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty ever cross over into heresy?”
To begin to answer that question, let’s consider a couple of main criteria the church has historically used to decide what errors were so far outside the bounds of Scripture that they constituted heresy. First, does it affect an essential component of the gospel? The Protestant Reformation represents one of the most serious of theological hills in that it was largely based upon the struggle for the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The Catholic church had adulterated the gospel to the point that it proposed a salvation by works. When you introduce works as a means unto justification, you have a “different gospel,” as Paul taught in Galatians 1.
A few years back, there was a broad attack on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement in some of the more liberal pockets of the church. Even now, Paul Evans, in his Lies We Believe About God, makes a sustained assault on multiple essential components of the gospel, including substitutionary atonement. A gospel that prescribes a mechanism for salvation other than Christ absorbing God’s wrath in our place is rightly called heresy. It guts the gospel.
The denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ would also rightly be considered heresy. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Christ was not raised, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Do away with the resurrection and you do away with the gospel. So if a belief removes an essential component of the gospel, it is heresy. A good diagnostic question could be, “if I hold this particular belief, do I still have the gospel?” If the answer is “no,” it is heretical.
Second, does this belief affect the nature of the Godhead? Most of the theological controversies of the early church surrounded the orthodox understanding of the members of the Trinity. This is why all of the early creeds are so heavy on the deity of Christ – they fought long and hard to win that theological battle. We should be willing to stand anytime there is a movement in the church to downgrade a member of the Trinity from our biblical and historically orthodox understanding of them, or to deny the existence of the Trinity in any sense.
So what about the doctrines of grace and unconditional election in particular? I don’t think that the Arminian view of salvation does harm to any essential component of the gospel. But the concern is that it does damage to a biblical view of God. Does Arminian theology affect the nature of the Godhead in such a way that we no longer have biblical Christianity?
My opinion is that it does not. With an Arminian view, you still have an orthodox Trinity, and even a sovereign God, although the outworking of that sovereignty is somewhat out of line with the clear teaching of the Bible. You would be hard pressed to find an Arminian who would disagree with the statement, “God is in control.” They are going to have an errant understanding of the mechanics and extent of that control, but they still believe that in some sense He is in control and will bring about the fulfillment of all His promises.
Something to keep in mind is how inflammatory the word "heresy" can be. I'm all for exposing serious error and calling a spade a spade, but there may be wisdom in engaging in a conversation about why something is a dangerous teaching before pulling out the "heresy" billy club. We are more likely to be winsome and persuasive if we make our approach in a patient and caring way. "You're a heretic" tends to shut down communication immediately and lose us a hearing with those who need the truth most. Additionally, there is nothing that will make us less effective in persuading people of the truth than gaining a reputation as "the boy who cried heresy." If we label every error "heresy" then we're not going to be taken seriously when it really matters.
I would reserve the word “heresy” for those errors that directly assault the gospel and the nature of the Godhead in such a way that we are no longer left with Christianity. We may disagree on where that line is. May the Lord give us wisdom, charity, and grace in our interactions on all such issues.
I’m happy to continue with this topic. If you have a follow-up question, you can post it in the comment section or send it to me via email.