Wednesday, February 14, 2007

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

In comparing the Arminian teaching of prevenient grace with the Reformed teaching of total depravity/inability, we began by examining the arguments for prevenient grace, and concluded that the doctrine of prevenient grace as formulated by Arminians is not biblically justifiable (Part I). We looked at assumptions underlying the doctrine, noting that the teaching of prevenient grace tries to resolve thorny issues arising from the tension between a holy and just God's sovereignty and fallen man's responsibility:

Is it important that people possess "free will" prior to being born again, so that if they do choose Christ, their choice may be said to be genuine, as the Arminian asserts? Has prevenient grace restored to fallen man, prior to re-birth in Christ, an ability to say yes or no to the gospel, and even the ability to perceive the truth of it? Is God fair if He does not preserve our "free will" in the matter of salvation, and only enables some (not all) to respond to His saving grace?

Some parts of the assumptions of the Arminian view-- that God is just, that He desires all to be saved, that He is fair in election-- the Calvinist does not deny. Yet in the Reformed scheme the justice and righteousness of God in election does not depend upon the supposed existence of man's free will, but rather is founded upon the righteous character of God revealed in the Bible. This view acknowledges that in one sense God's will/desire is that all be saved, yet in another sense, He does not will/desire the salvation of all, since salvation is not universal (and as sovereign, omnipotent God, He could bring about the salvation of all, if it was His will to do so). The answers Arminianism provides to these difficult questions are valiant in their attempt to preserve God's sovereignty/fairness together with man's free will/responsibility, but they are based on conceptions of fairness and of the "free will" of man not demonstrated in Scripture. The following is a summary of points we have discussed thus far.

1. Classical Arminianism and Reformed teaching agree that man is under "original sin", and that apart from the working of God's grace, no one can be saved. This is because in our fallen sinfulness no one moves towards God or genuinely seeks Him.

2. Regarding the will of man, both Arminianism and Calvinism conclude that the will is so damaged by sin that apart from grace, the will of man is not free to choose God. However, the nature of divine grace, and how it is applied by God, is very different in the two systems.

3. In the Arminian view, prevenient grace counteracts the effects of the Fall, freeing and restoring man's sin-infected will to be able to accept, or to reject, the gospel. Man is drawn, convicted and enlightened by prevenient grace, yet without being "born again". He also has freedom to resist the wooing of prevenient grace. But if he does respond positively, by placing faith in Christ, he is then "born again"(regenerated).

4. Again, the Arminian view of prevenient grace is built upon various suppositions more based on human reason that upon the testimony of Scripture, such as:

a) Man must possess "libertarian free will", otherwise his choice for God cannot be genuine. An article from Theopedia defines libertarian free will as meaning "that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God";

b) God would not command things if men were unable to do them, and will not hold us accountable for that which we are unable to do.

c) God is obligated, by His loving nature, to provide universal means to the saving gospel. Since prevenient grace provides provides all with opportunity to respond to the gospel, God is fair in judging us if we reject this grace.

[In Part I we have presented arguments to refute these suppositions. See also the Articles listed in the "For Further Study" section below].

5. Arminian prevenient grace makes God's sovereign plan depend upon the fallen creature's decisions. The Reformed view argues that if God is truly sovereign, His plans are not contingent upon the actions of sinful men.

6. Prevenient grace gives men something to boast about, since it does not explain why some respond to it positively while others do not. Arminians say that the difference in responsiveness is not due to God's enabling. One is led to conclude therefore that something inherent in man accounts for differences in ability to respond to grace. Are some men better (i.e., more worthy) than others in this respect?

7. Prevenient grace is only partly effective in bringing man to salvation, since it may ultimately be resisted, and must be completed by man's action. Arminian prevenient grace thus makes man the "captain of his own salvation", since man's choice is the deciding factor in his being saved or not.

Thus I concluded at the end of the last post, "The state man finds himself in as a result of sin clearly demands a solution much more thoroughgoing and effective than prevenient grace". Let us turn now to examine more closely the Reformed teaching regarding total inability, to see if this statement is justified.

The Refomed View of Total Depravity/Inability
As we began to discuss in the previous post, in the Reformed view God's grace effectively (irresistibly) regenerates people who are spiritually dead as a result of the Fall; this grace effectively removes their natural resistance. In regeneration people receive a new spiritual nature that has new desires and new motivations. The will is thus enabled to choose to come to God. Prior to this new birth, people's desire/wills may be said to be "free" in the sense of being able to make choices and act upon them, but due to the debilitating effects of sin on every part of human nature (total depravity), people consistently and inevitably act according to their sinful nature/desires and therefore do not desire, nor will, to choose God. It is in this sense that people are "unable"-- the inability is not physical (people could physically obey God and His commands, if they wanted to do so), but moral (we simply do not want to).

The "total" aspect of total depravity/inability as taught by Reformed teachers refers to the fact that the effects of the original sin touch upon every facet of human nature-- mind, will, emotions, body. It does not mean that all people are as completely evil as they might be, in everything they do, or that as a result of the Fall, people are unable to perform any actions at all that may be considered good (from a standpoint of conformance to moral law and God-given conscience). Yet Reformed writers point out that it is only in relation to God can the "goodness" of human actions truly be judged.

Although fallen persons are capable of externally good acts (acts that are good for society), they cannot do anything really good, i.e., pleasing to God (Romans 8:8). God, however, looks on the heart. And from his ultimate standpoint, fallen man has no goodness, in thought, word, or deed. He is therefore incapable of contributing anything to his salvation. - John Frame

Why it it claimed that fallen persons, though "capable of externally good acts", are yet considered from God's standpoint to have "no goodness, in thought, word, or deed?"

In his article "Total Depravity", John Piper explains:

" is good that most unbelievers do not kill and that some unbelievers perform acts of benevolence. What we mean when we call such actions good is that they more or less conform to the external pattern of life that God has commanded in Scripture.

However, such outward conformity to the revealed will of God is not righteousness in relation to God. It is not done out of reliance on him or for his glory. He is not trusted for the resources, though he gives them all. Nor is his honor exalted, even though that's his will in all things (1 Corinthians 10:31). Therefore even these "good" acts are part of our rebellion and are not "good" in the sense that really counts in the end -- in relation to God... Piper also writes:

"Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23)". This is a radical indictment of all natural 'virtue' that does not flow from a heart humbly relying on God's grace.

It is because the Bible describes the plight of fallen man as so completely desperate and beyond his ability to cure that the doctrine of total depravity/inability is so integral to the Reformed view. The Reformed view stands in stark contrast to other views we have discussed in this series.

The Pelagian says man is basically good-- we have not inherited the sin of Adam-- therefore man can come to God by his own power, and divine grace, though helpful, is not necessary. In this view, Jesus is our model and provides an example to follow.

The semi-Pelagian and the Arminian both say that grace is necessary, but either that man is not so fallen that he is completely unable to initiate the first steps towards God, or else that prevenient grace has completely restored his lost ability to respond to God. In this view, Jesus is a potential Savior. Salvation is dependent on human actions. My initial response to Jesus saves me, and only my continued responses to Jesus keep me saved.

But Calvinism/Reformed teaching argues that salvation is not best depicted by the Arminian picture of a drowning man who grabs hold of the "hand" of the life-saving gospel as it is offered to him. Rather, Scripture portrays fallen man as the walking dead (Ephesians 2:1-2); blinded to the truth of the gospel (2 Cor 4:4); enslaved and led by our own sinful, fleshly desires (Eph 2:3, John 8:34, James 1:4-15), and also by Satan (1 John 5:19; Eph 2:2, 2 Tim 2:26); in our consciences aware that the things we do are wrong, yet suppressing the truth of that knowledge as we progressively sink into evil (Romans 1:18-32), and store up for ourselves the wrath of God (Romans 2:5). In our unrighteousness, we are not seeking God (Romans 3:10-11) nor do we acknowledge and worship Him; rather, we worship and follow after gods we have made (Romans 1:21-23). We are alienated from the life of God; disobedient, led astray, envious, malicious, hating, and being hated (Titus 3:3); not only are we darkened in understanding and hard-hearted, but also we personify "darkness" (Ephesians 4:18, Colossians 1:13,21, Ephesians 5:8); we are separated from Christ, excluded from God's covenant promises, without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12). And unless we believe in Jesus, we remain under the wrath of God (John 3:36).

So obviously, anyone "in the flesh" (unregenerated, not "born again", not believing in Jesus) cannot and will not please God (Romans 8:8). While it is true that believers too may live "according to the flesh" (that is, live by responding to the flesh that remains in us though we have been born of the Spirit and are indwelt by the Spirit), the unregenerate has no other choice than to live a "fleshly" life. This is because until a person is born-again they do not possess spiritual life (John 3:6, Romans 8:9, I John 5:12). Therefore they live "in the flesh", which, as we have said, is naturally dominated by sin and Satan (Eph 2:3).

So, apart from Christ we were DEAD (Ephesians 2:1), DEAD (Colossians 2:13), and DEAD (Ephesians 2:5),

"but God, being rich in mercy, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast...(my emphasis; Ephesians 2:4-9)

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him";(my emphasis, Colossians 2:13-15)

In the Reformed view, Jesus is an actual, powerful, sovereign Savior who saves us from the wretched plight we were in as a result of our sin. We were not just weakened, not just damaged, but spiritually dead-- and Jesus' death saves those that the Father has given Him (John 6:37,39). We are hostile rebels, with no spiritual life in us, but God makes us alive by His sovereign mercy, needing no help from us to do so.

"What the unregenerate person desperately needs in order to come to faith is regeneration. This is the necessary grace. It is the sine qua non of salvation. Unless God changes the disposition of my sinful heart, I will never choose to cooperate with grace or embrace Christ in faith. These are the very things to which the flesh is indisposed. If God merely offers to change my heart, what will that accomplish for me as long as my heart remains opposed to him? If he offers me grace while I am a slave to sin and still in the flesh, what good is the offer? Saving grace does not offer liberation, it liberates. This is what makes grace so gracious: God unilaterally and monergistically does for us what we cannot do for ourselves" -(Grace Unknown by R. C. Sproul p. 188).

"You must be born again" (John 3:7)
Jesus Christ our Lord

In conclusion, if Arminian prevenient grace is not taught as God's solution to man's sinfulness and separation from Himself (and we have tried to show that it is biblically unproven), then man is still under the effects of the Fall. And the Reformed view insists that the Fall has affected man's total being and made him spiritually dead to the things of God-- just as God prophesied would happen (Gen 2:17). Thus total depravity/inability is an accurate diagnosis of man's spiritual condition apart from Christ, and if we understand our true condition, then we will also recognize that the biblical cure is not leaving sinful men to use their free will to decide their own salvation, but that a sovereign, powerful, merciful Savior chooses us (John 15:16) and saves us from our sins (Matthew 1:21).

In the next post we will look at the topic of election, comparing the Arminian view (Conditional Election) with the Calvinistic/Reformed view (Unconditional Election). I hope this series has been helpful so far. Feel free to leave comments or to point out any deficiencies in my arguments.

For Further Study:

Do God's Commands to the Unregenerate Imply Moral Ability?

Total Inability/Total Depravity (links at

Articles on Original Sin (links at

The Unregenerate Will: Self-Determined But Not Free This is an excellent essay speaking to the subject of the supposed "free will" of unregenerate man. It shows that that the Arminian definition of the free will of men-- having ability to choose between two opposing alternatives, is simply not backed up by Scripture. We may do whatever we like, no physical force is coercing our choices, but man's sinful nature determines his desires and therefore his choices.

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

Arminian vs Reformed Theology (entire series)

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