Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Arminianism vs Reformed Theology (Universal Prevenient Grace vs Total Inability, Part I)

With this post I am at last launching into deeper analysis of the doctrines of Arminianism, compared with those of Calvinism (Reformed Theology).

I will contrast five points of Arminianism against the Reformed "T.U.L.I.P" (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints). As you may recall, the five points known by the acronym "T.U.L.I.P" were devised as a point-by-point response by the Synod of Dordrecht to the five articles of the Arminian Remonstrants.

"Although Calvinism is sometimes identified with these five points, they more properly function as a summary of the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism on the doctrines of grace and predestination, not as a general summary of John Calvin's writings, of Calvinism as a theological system, or of the theology of the Reformed churches (indeed, Calvin never fully discussed doctrines such as limited atonement in his writings, but only hinted at his opinion) (Five Points of Calvinism, Wikipedia)".

Yet because the five points do illustrate key differences between Calvinism/Reformed theology and Arminianism, I will continue my analysis using the following outline:

  1. Universal Prevenient Grace vs. Total Depravity (Inability)

  2. Conditional Election vs. Unconditional Election

  3. Unlimited (or Universal) Atonement vs. Limited Atonement (or Particular Redemption or Definite Atonement)

  4. Resistible Grace vs. Irresistible Grace (or Efficacious Grace)

  5. Uncertainty of Perseverance vs. Perseverance of the Saints (or Preservation of the Saints)

Universal Prevenient Grace vs. Total Depravity (Inability)

Classic Arminianism agrees with Calvin that, as a result of the Fall, human beings are rendered powerless to choose "true good", including the ability to say yes to the gospel offer. Arminius said,
In this [fallen] state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. (489/Disputation 11 "On the Free will of Man and its Powers" Respondent: Paul Leonards)

The Reformed view would say that mankind, as a result of its thoroughly sinful condition (Total Depravity/Inability) produced by the Fall, is unable to do anything at all to save itself-- it is "dead in sins and trespasses- Eph 2: 1". Thus both Arminians and Calvinists agree that mankind requires the grace of God to be saved. But a key difference between them lies in their conception of how God's grace functions to bring the sinner to salvation. We will examine the differences between the Arminan and Reformed views of grace in greater detail in a future article ("Resistible vs. Irresistible Grace"). However in this post we will also touch on the subject, as we focus upon the difference between the Arminian conception of prevenient grace and Reformed views of how grace interacts with man's "Total Depravity" (or Total Inability).

Does prevenient grace really solve the problem of reconciling man's free will with God's sovereignty and fairness in election? Is it Scriptural? Does man's "total inability" to move towards God demand a grace that goes beyond what prevenient grace claims to accomplish? These are some questions we will attempt to answer.

The Importance of "Free-Will" in Arminian soteriology

In Arminian soteriology, God elected to salvation those He foresaw choosing Him by their own "free will" prior to their regeneration (being "born again" by the Spirit). The Arminian places strong emphasis on the necessity of man's free will in the making of the choice to either accept, or reject, the gospel offer. Without such freedom, the Arminian sees such a choice as not genuine. For God has not created human beings as programmed robots, but desires to preserve our freedom to choose or reject Him, so that if we do choose Him, it is a "real" choice. At the same time, the classic Arminian position sees fallen human beings as having no natural inclination to choose God. Arminians say God has solved this problem through His granting of "prevenient grace" to all, which nullifies the effects of the Fall upon the human will, freeing man to accept or reject the gospel offer (this concept of prevenient grace was particularly developed by John Wesley). It is once a person has freely said yes to the gospel by placing faith upon Jesus that they are regenerated (born-again); yet it is also possible to resist the influence of prevenient grace. Thus in this view, as man responds positively to prevenient grace, faith becomes his "gift to God". This is in contrast with the Calvinist view which states that an unregenerated man cannot exercise faith in God and can only receive faith as "God's gift to man". Note that in the Arminian view faith precedes regeneration, whereas in the Reformed view regeneration precedes faith.

"Wesley insisted on prevenient grace as a solution to two great problems in Christianity: the reality of original sin and the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Developing the idea based upon the witness of Scripture, Wesley felt that prevenient grace enabled the doctrines of original sin and salvation by grace to co-exist while still maintaining God's sovereignty and holy character as well as human freedom" (Prevenient Grace, Wikipedia article). With prevenient grace, the Arminian can maintain that man is sinful as a result of the Fall and yet that he is saved by grace alone, since the Arminian argues that man does nothing to merit or earn salvation, but merely exercises faith in response to prevenient grace. God is sovereign in that He foresees who will accept this gift and makes such people the elect; He is fair and righteous because the opportunity to accept grace is given to all; He doesn't exclude anyone from the offer.

Arminian assumptions
There seem to be several assumptions underlying Arminian thinking with regard to prevenient grace:

1- In order to be justly held accountable for our choice, we must be able, by our own free will, to obey (or not obey) the command to believe the gospel;

2- The choice to accept or reject the gospel must ultimately come from ourselves; otherwise it is not genuine;

3- Prevenient grace preserves the justice of God. Because of His benevolence and love for all God desires that all would be saved, and His nature constrains Him to do everything He can to save all. Thus He provides means to all (prevenient grace) by which they may say yes to the gospel and thus be saved; therefore if anyone rejects this grace and is damned, it is their fault, not God's. God is not the cause, nor the author of, sin.

These assumptions underlying the Arminian concept of prevenient grace follow human logic, but are not supportable from Scripture.

Must we be "free", to be held accountable?
For example, let us examine the first of the assumptions above-- that in order to be held morally accountable for his choice, man must be able to freely choose or reject the gospel.

The Arminian agrees with the Calvinist that mankind is sinful as a result of the Fall. Certainly the Arminian would not argue that as a result of the Fall we are no longer responsible to uphold the moral law God has established. Are we not also responsible then, despite our fallen condition, to obey the moral command to believe the gospel and be saved?

The Arminian position seems to follow the logic that God would not command something if man was unable to do it. Yet this is not proven by Scripture. The Reformed position argues convincingly that while Scripture teaches we are all by nature sinful, even dead in our sins (Romans 5:12, Eph 2: 1-3), we are nevertheless obligated to uphold the moral law, the righteous standard the Creator has established (Romans 2:12-13, Matthew 5:17-20). There is no indication in Scripture that because sin has infected us that God has either canceled our responsibility for keeping His holy law or removed our guilt when we fail to do so. Yet our failure to be able to keep the law is designed for the very purpose of driving us to the righteousness that can only be found in Christ(Romans 7: 13, 24).

Limited grace?
In the helpless, lost state man finds himself in-- a sinner with no desire for God-- only God's grace will save him. Is that grace the Arminian "prevenient grace", which brings him only to the brink of salvation but must finally be completed by an act of the unregenerated (though "enlightened") human will? How enlightened by prevenient grace is the will anyway, since it may also finally decide that the gospel isn't true, after all? If all receive the same amount of prevenient grace, then why is it effective only in some, and not all? The fact that all receive the same portion of prevenient grace implies that there is something within people that would be the determining factor in whether or not they respond positively to the influence of prevenient grace and say yes to the gospel. Would not this act of believing then, become something about which such people could boast? (Eph 2: 8-9, 1 Cor 28-29 ).

Prevenient grace manages to preserve the freedom of the creature to say yes or no to the gospel, but at the expense of the power and the sovereignty of God, which this doctrine limits by saying that a man will not be saved unless he makes the choice to accept the gospel, and that God's sovereign plan depends upon the creature's decision, rather than the other way around. It is an odd grace of an omnipotent, sovereign God that would be so limited and indefinite in its effectiveness, and which would give men something to boast about!

Does Arminian "freedom" keep us from becoming robots and God from being an unfair Tyrant?
Why is prevenient grace so interested in keeping the decisions of mankind "free"? Again, this would seem to be because Arminianism assumes that unless a person's will is free to choose, apart from any outward influence, the act of choosing does not reflect genuine desire on the part of the chooser. But why is this important? Presumably because of these further assumptions: a) for true affection to exist between man and God, those affections must not be coerced, but freely chosen; and b) God would not hold us culpable for not choosing him, if in fact we have no other choice but to reject Him. In other words, if our choice is not free, how can God blame us for it? Therefore, it must be free.

Examining the Scriptural validity of these Arminian assumptions, however, they are found wanting.

It is true that affections for God need to be genuine, that is, we show that we truly love God through acts of obedience freely (in the sense that they are not programmed) chosen (1 John 4:16, I John 5:2, John 14:15). However, the Reformed view reminds us that because of our sinful condition, a person who is in the flesh cannot, and has no desire to, please God (Romans 8: 7-8, Romans 7: 18). The will is not free because, apart from Christ, it is in bondage to sinful impulses (Romans 7: 18). Only one who has been regenerated by the Spirit and now by faith walks after the Spirit can truly act in a way that pleases God (Romans 8: 3-6, Hebrews 11: 6, Romans 14:23, Romans 8: 13-14, Gal 5: 16-17, 24).

We love because he first loved us... 1 John 4:19

The Arminian thinks if God has predestined us to love Him, but man's free will does not play any part in the decision to be in relationship with God, then how can such a relationship demonstrate real love? However, the Arminian is overlooking the fact that, apart from God's work of regeneration, our wills are enslaved to sin (Eph 2: 1-3, John 8: 34) and therefore unable to love or obey God. The Reformed view of total inability teaches we must first have our natures changed (Eph 4:24), our will/desires renewed (2 Cor 5:17) and turned towards God by an act of His sovereign mercy (Romans 5: 8), and then we will be able to love Him as we ought, because a change has been brought about in our very nature(Matthew 12: 33, I John 3: 9, Hebrews 10:16 ). God's saving grace does not turn us into programmed robots who now must love Him-- rather He removes the sinful "heart of stone" and replaces it with a righteous "heart of flesh" that is now actually free and willing to love Him, rather than continuing to prefer its old sinful ways (Ezekiel 36:26).

Prevenient grace and God's fairness
The Arminian tries to preserve the fairness and justice of God's character in His action of bringing people to salvation by saying it is ultimately man's choice to either believe or disbelieve, rather than a choice forced upon us by God. The Arminian reasons that for God to be fair, He must provide equal opportunity to all to be saved. For how can God elect only some, enabling only them to believe and be saved, yet hold those He has not elected and similarly enabled accountable if they do not choose Him?

Yet Scripture, says Reformed theology, does not present this notion of fairness. Since all are guilty of sin and rebellion against God, all would be justly condemned (Romans 1: 18-25), but God has mercifully provided a way of escape, has elected many and enabled them to find it. It would be just and fair of God to condemn all people to hell, but He has shown His mercy and His justice through Jesus Christ, saving many from their deserved end (Eph 2:3-7, Matthew 20:28. Indeed, Paul speaks to this question of whether it is fair of God to show compassion to some yet harden others:

"You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this? (Romans 9: 19-20)"

Paul's answers the above very natural question that arises from his teaching that God "has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills". And his answer is that God as sovereign Creator has a right to act as He pleases; we His creatures are not in a position to question Him about it. Of course, we also know from Scripture that God's essential nature is good and it is for this reason that His his actions are always right. Exodus 33:19 shows the interesting juxtaposition between the goodness of God and His sovereignty in displaying mercy and compassion:

"And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy."

Knowing the character of God from Scripture, there is no reason to assume that God's choices and decisions in matters of election are unfair, though from our standpoint they may seem so. We will be looking more at the issue of the fairness of God in a subsequent article that examines and contrasts the Arminian view of election (Conditional) with the Reformed view (Unconditional).

Thus far, we have seen that the doctrine of prevenient grace seems built upon certain assumptions, but the Scriptures do not appear to support those assumptions. But is there Scriptural support for the teaching of prevenient grace itself?

Prevenient grace in the Wesleyan scheme

Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace [prevenient grace]; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. All these imply some tendency toward life; some degree of salvation; the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God.

On Working Out Our Own Salvation, Sermon 85, John Wesley

For Wesley, prevenient grace functions much as "common grace" does for Reformed thinkers. Prevenient grace is the means by which sinful people are able to do some good things, as their conscience is enlightened by it. This conception of grace bears some similarities to the Calvinistic "common grace". Common grace is that benevolence of God that causes Him to extend mercy and blessings to His enemies, such as allowing the sun to keep shining on them, giving material blessings, etc. In short, common grace may give the natural man all variety of good blessings-- but only by supernatural faith in Jesus Christ can man be saved, and this is not bestowed by common grace. This is the critical difference: Arminian prevenient grace may lead one all the way into salvation, but in Reformed thinking it is saving grace, rather than common grace, that brings salvation.

Tom Schriener, in "Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?" (Chapter 18 of the book Still Sovereign) describes further the Wesleyan notion of prevenient grace:

"Prevenient grace does not guarantee that the good will be chosen. It simply provides the opportunity or liberty to choose salvation. People may stifle the grace given and turn away from God, or they may respond to God’s grace and turn to him in order to be saved.

Obviously, prevenient grace fixes a large gulf between Calvinism and Wesleyanism. Calvinists contend that the unregenerate have no ability or desire to choose God. God’s election of some is what brings them from darkness to light, from Satan’s kingdom to God’s. Wesleyans believe that God has given prevenient grace to all people. As descendants of Adam they were born with no ability or desire to choose God, but God has counteracted this inability by the gift of prevenient grace. Now all people have the ability to choose God. The ultimate determination of salvation is the human decision to say no or yes to God."

Let us turn now, to examine some of the Scriptural evidence that some Arminians have argued to support the teaching of prevenient grace (I am heavily indebted to Mr. Schriener's article for the following arguments):

Argument #1: Jesus comes as the Light to bring universal illumination

John 1: 9
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

The metaphor of Jesus as the Light of the world expresses a truth rich with meaning. But does Jesus as "the true light, which enlightens everyone" necessarily accord with the Arminian idea of prevenient grace? Does Jesus' coming into the world as the Light mean that every person has now been illuminated by Him so that their will and their minds are sufficiently freed to perceive and believe the truth of the gospel? Such an interpretation of this verse seems highly speculative. Additionally, Jesus' words to Nicodemus, and later to His disciples, seem to best explain the purpose of the coming of the Light described in John 1:9:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God. John 3:19-21

In John 12: 35-36 Jesus tells His disciples :

"The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light."

It would seem then, that in John 1:9 the primary meaning of Jesus as the light is that His presence in the world exposes (like a light in a darkened place) the moral state of one's heart, and also brings light that illuminates a pathway out the darkness we find ourselves in. Those who believe in Him show themselves to be righteous when they come into the light of God and give Him the glory for their good deeds. They have received Jesus and have been born of God (John 1: 12), while those who are evil neither know him nor receive Him (rather, they prefer the darkness, to hide their evil deeds) (John 1: 10-11). This meaning of the Light of Jesus is far different from the Wesleyan notion that Jesus brings universal inward illumination and ability to respond to the gospel.

Argument #2: The Atonement brings prevenient grace

John 12: 32
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

The above verse has been used by some Arminians to argue that the atonement of Christ makes grace available to all in such a way that all are drawn to Christ, at the same time maintaining that this drawing grace may be cooperated with or resisted.

However many Reformed thinkers say that the context of Jesus' statement here in John 12:32 is crucial in understanding who comprises the "all" that Jesus is referring to. Jesus is responding to His disciples who have informed Him that some Greeks were wanting to speak with Him. Upon hearing this, Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit..." He continues and then concludes with the statement, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself (John 12: 23-24, 32)."

Thus Reformed scholars point out that when read in context, Jesus' words here are not indicating that His death on the cross will draw all individuals without exception to Him. Instead Jesus' means the gospel, having been first proclaimed to His own people (the Jews) (Matthew 15:24), will now, by the act of His death on the cross, be spread to all (to the Gentiles, as well as the Jews).

Argument # 3: God must grant the power to choose Him because otherwise the warnings, invitations, and commands in Scripture are meaningless

We have spoken above about the faulty assumption underlying this argument. Nevertheless there is a certain logic in the expectation that if God commands us to do certain things that He will also give us power to obey. Indeed, verses such as the following seem to provide biblical backing for this idea:

John 16: 8- 11
And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

Romans 1: 20
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Romans 2: 4
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

These and other passages do show that God is calling us to repentance, that the call to acknowledge God's claim upon us as Creator is universal (for even if we have not heard the gospel we can know God exists and is to be acknowledged, through the things He has made), and that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of its unbelief in Christ.

Despite our obvious responsibility to heed the call to repentance, the Scriptures declare that none of us--in ourselves-- has life/ability to obey (John 3:5-7, John 6:53, 63). Jesus invites all to come to Him (Matt 11: 28-30) and says of His followers that they must "be perfect" (Matt 5:48). Yet He also says that human beings are "evil" (Matt 7:11), that "no one is good except God" (Mark 10:18), that "no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (John 6:44), and "all that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out" (John 6:37). Jesus is saying that although we are obligated to obey His call and live holy lives, we are unable to believe, have life in ourselves, and do so, unless enabled by God.

For example, He said to some who did not believe, "you do not believe because you are not part of my flock" (John 10:26). This supports the Reformed teaching of human inability-- it is because we are Jesus' sheep that we are enabled by Him to believe. Even as believers, all ability to act righteously depends upon continuous abiding and empowering from the life of God, as in John 15:5, "I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing".

Rather than support prevenient grace, the biblical evidence refutes the concept, argues Tom Shriener in his article Is Prevenient Grace in the Bible? where he shows that passages such as Matthew 11:21-27 and Mark 4:11-12 teach the very opposite of what prevenient grace is saying about God's intention to save all. In these passages we find that God's purposes may sometimes involve an intentional obscuring of the message or withholding of what might make people repent (such as miracles), in such a way that people are not saved. For example, in Mark 4: 11-12, Jesus explains why the parables He speaks are not understood by "those outside":

And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven."

We have seen how the Arminian concept of prevenient grace has important objectives. It appears to provide an explanation for how man can be sinful and yet move towards God, yet without his free will being violated. It seems also to preserve a certain ideal of fairness and justice, in that it says that through universal prevenient grace God has reached out, as it were, to all mankind, and if we do not receive his offer we are the guilty party, rather than God. Yet we have also found that the assumptions seeming to underlie prevenient grace are not proven by Scripture, and that neither is the doctrine itself justified or supported by Scripture.

And though in classic Arminianism prevenient grace is built upon the foundation of the thorough sinfulness of man, which makes him unable to do any true good, it nevertheless seems to remove this sinfulness and inability from man too neatly, and yet, not very efficiently. The state man finds himself in as a result of sin clearly demands a solution much more thoroughgoing and effective than prevenient grace.

With this we turn now to the Reformed teaching on Total Depravity (Total Inability), which I will discuss in the next post.

Previous posts in this series:
Reformed or Arminian- What Difference Does Theology Make?(Introductory Post)
Reformed or Arminian- Theological Definitions
Contrasting Reformed/Calvinistic Theology with Arminianism (Related Views)

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