Friday, June 01, 2007

Arminian vs Reformed Theology : Answers to Objections to Unconditional Election-Pt 2

Total Depravity/Inability in relation to the doctrine of Election

There is a firm, logical connection between the Reformed doctrines of total depravity/inability and election. It’s hard to get past total inability. Remember that the doctrine of total inability does not mean that people are as evil as they could possibly be, or that they cannot act in accordance with their God-given conscience. It does not mean that they do not have their own wills and cannot act upon their own desires. Total inability describes the fact that man, as a result of the sinful nature he inherited by the Fall of Adam, is not able to respond to the gospel of himself, in order to be saved. Classical Arminians acknowledge the truth of the Scriptural teaching of total depravity/inability but posit their notion of prevenient grace by which man, despite his deep sinfulness, is brought to the position of being able to respond to the gospel. We have shown however, that Arminian prevenient grace is not supportable scripturally (series posts on prevenient grace, 1 and 2). Others (Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians) claim that man is “not so dead”, and that despite the severity of man’s fallen condition, prevenient grace isn’t really necessary for man may respond to, or cooperate with, God in the salvation process.

Dead Men Walking
In part II of my article on Total Depravity, I described man’s spiritual condition before God this way (the description has been expanded here):

–- 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 8:7-8). Can unbelievers do anything good at all? If we define "good" as obedience to the moral law that God has established and is universally binding, even unbelievers may perform actions of relative good. It's as if a man were saying to God, by his actions, "I know you are probably there and therefore have a claim on my life, but I want to live my life my way, so I'll try to forget that you are there. I know that there's right and wrong, so I'll do my best to appease my guilty conscience over not acknowledging you by not being as bad as others (you know, the murderers, thieves, abusers, etc.). In fact, I'll try to be much better than those guys (give to charity, give good gifts to my children, be a productive worker, etc). OK, God? So you just leave me alone, and I'll make you proud of me, don't worry." Such a person may become highly regarded in the world as a decent, moral, productive member of human society, lauded for their humanitarianism and their good works (sure, he's been divorced five times, but he has such great friendships with all his ex-wives, and always visits the kids when he's supposed to).

The standards of good according to the Lord and according to the world are completely different. Man's good deeds apart from the Lord are relatively good because the unbeliever essentially is in sinful rebellion against his Creator, refusing to honor Him as Lord. Also, man's "good" deeds don't change the fact that he is by nature a sinner whose sins condemn him before a holy God whose standard is moral perfection. How then can God be pleased with the rebel who, though not as evil as he might be and perhaps doing some acts of good, adamantly refuses to acknowledge His Creator? As the prophet Isaiah wrote,

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isaiah 64:6)

Now 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; see Romans 7:7-25), but the unregenerate have no other choice than to live a "fleshly" life. This is because until a person is born-again he/she does not possess true 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) --

If the above biblical statements about mankind's unregenerate condition provide a true picture, it must be then that our wills and choice-making faculties are also gravely affected by the Fall. Scripture describes our unregenerate condition as "dead in our sins". What can this "deadness" mean, since the unregenerate obviously are alive physically and make choices? It means that the natural person is "dead" to the things of God. 1 Corinthians 2:14 states:"The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned."

The use of the word "dead" (Eph 2:1,5, Col 2:13) to describe man's spiritual condition, inspired of course by the Spirit of God, is no accident. There is an implication of unresponsiveness and inability in the word "dead". Unregenerate man is indeed dead in a spiritual sense and therefore, he cannot respond to God who is Spirit. God therefore must make people fit for the kingdom by birthing them into it.

So can those fitting the portrait of unregenerate man described above make a willing choice for God, as if their wills were free from the pervasive and deadening influence of sin? Can the man dead in sin make the most important and righteous choice he will ever make-- the choice to receive Christ as Lord and Savior? Those who downplay the state of sinful man as a result of the Fall must ignore or sidestep the Scriptures that describe how utterly without hope man is to save himself and how completely he is dominated by his sinfulness. The unregenerate cannot and do not act in such a way as to cooperate with God in their salvation.

Total Depravity Necessitates an Unconditional Election
Again, if man is really as fallen as these Scriptures describe, unconditional election is what makes salvation possible for those whom God chooses. Sinful men are not searching for God (Romans 3:11). As natural beings, they do not understand the spiritual truth of the gospel(1 Cor 2:14), and as sinners prefer the darkness of their sinful lifestyle to the light of the gospel (John 3:19). Thus only the mercy of God will convict the sinner and override his natural hostility by giving the sinner what he does not have-- spiritual life that can perceive and willingly respond to the truth of the gospel.

Due to the Fall, We Must Be Born Again
As we have said, Adam's sin had the effect of making his progeny dead spiritually. So unless regenerated, men do not have that life which is the light of men, or the light of life, dwelling inside of them (John 1:4,8:12).

If men had only been injured by the Fall, then perhaps the enlightenment and conviction brought by the Spirit of God would be enough to enable people to perceive the truth of the gospel. But man is in a more dire state than this. The Fall utterly ruined man, such that sin permeates his entire being, and such that he is spiritually dead. The fact that man must be "born again" proves that enlightenment and conviction by the Spirit is not all that is necessary to save him.

Jesus said that unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, and also that unless one is born of the Spirit, neither can that person enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3,5). In other words, the kingdom of God is not a place for natural people, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6)." Jesus also says, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:53).

Again, for these reasons an unconditional election is the only way anyone may come to Christ. Man in his natural, sinful, "in the flesh" state is unable to respond to the gospel because his sin makes him a rebel who does not desire God and therefore rejects the gospel, and because as a natural man he is unable to spiritually comprehend (see) the gospel. God in His mercy has saved ungodly human beings, not because they merit anything, but because He is full of mercy and compassion. "God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4). Election is not a response to a human act of faith-- for it is while people are still sinners (Romans 5:8) and dead in their trespasses (Eph 2:2, Colossians 2:13) that God saves them. The election which leads to this salvation took place in eternity past: He "chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Eph 1:4)".

Man's Responsibility and Man's Inability

Now in response to this the objection is raised, "If man is unable to respond, then why all the biblical commands to repent? Why would God give men commandments He knows they cannot obey, yet hold them responsible for not obeying?"

But it is a logical fallacy to conclude that because we are commanded to do certain things that we must have ability to do them. The commands do not speak to ability. For example, Jesus said, “Be perfect”— but apart from complete dependence upon Him we have not the ability to obey a single command (John 15:5), let alone be perfect.

We are responsible to obey the law of God because it is His good and righteous and holy law that He has given us for our benefit (Romans 7:12), and because as God's creatures we are under His authority. But since all are sinners by nature and by choice, mankind is incapable of keeping the law so as to be justified by it (Romans 3:9-12,20,28, Romans 5:12,19-20, Gal 2:16). The law itself is good, Paul says, but the reason the law cannot justify us is because of the weakened flesh (Romans 8:3).

Nevertheless God considers us guilty and holds us responsible for the sin of Adam, as well as for our own sins (Romans 5:12). So the critical question is this: can man obey the commands of God in such a way that he will be justified by his keeping of them? The Bible's answer to this is a resounding no, as seen in the above verses.

The law is meant to reveal sin, showing that our works cannot justify us (Romans 3:20), and pointing us to the only solution for sins God has mercifully provided: the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. But since due to our sin we will not and cannot choose this faith, God has mercifully and graciously intervened, not waiting on sinful man to choose Him by their wills, but choosing many people and then effectively saving them.

The following chart is adapted from Greg Gibson's excellent website comparing Calvinism and Arminianism in regard to who gets the credit for salvation (I have added a verse or two to his original table):

We see from this chart that there are bible commands to repent or to believe, or to exercise one's will to do the will of God. However we also see many places where Scripture says that apart from God, man is unable to change his ways or come to God.

From such verses we may conclude that man does what it is in his nature to do. Since man's nature is set against God, only a divine act which changes man's nature will allow man to come willingly to God. In Scripture man's moral responsibility to repent and come to God are not negated by man's inability to do so, for we find that human responsibility and human inability are taught side-by-side.

Faith and Works in Relation to Election

The Reformed/Calvinist position holds that faith is a gift of God, and the Arminian view, while denying that faith is a work, nevertheless holds that faith is something that man can do; indeed, that he is responsible to do.

The origin of saving faith is a key issue in the debate between classical Arminians and Calvinists on election. Both would agree that faith is the means by which we are saved and considered righteous before God. Both would say we cannot trust in works to justify us before a holy God, for our works would then need to be perfect (of course, this is impossible for fleshly, sinful creatures to accomplish). But the Arminian claims that unregenerated man, while still a sinner, can exercise faith in Christ. The Arminian reasons that since he is commanded to have faith, it must therefore be possible for him. Yet we have shown in the sections above the fallacy involved in such a conclusion.

Is faith a work?
In a comment on my previous post on election, reader Daniel Jordan wrote:

"Faith could never be a work no matter its source. Faith is completely along a different line and has to to do with a simple heart commitment to God and His Christ".

What defines a "work"? Is it not something man does of his own accord in an effort to win God's favor? If faith were something that man is able to do of himself then it would also come under the definition of a work. The Arminian view claims that while man is influenced and wooed by the Spirit, ultimately his faith in Christ is his own doing. To label it a "simple heart commitment" does not change this. If faith is man's own doing, then by definition this faith is a work. And if, as the Arminian argument goes, this faith that is man's own doing is also the condition for being chosen by God, then it follows that in this view, man is being saved by his own work of faith.

Now Jesus said something interesting, to those who asked him the question “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Does Jesus mean then that faith is actually a work that all are called upon to perform? Let's try to answer this question by looking at what Paul says about the relationship of faith and works in the matter of election and of salvation.

Faith in relation to Election
In the matter of election, Paul says, "though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad— in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

We see here that election is "not because of works", but originates from "Him who calls", so that "God's purpose in election might continue". Though Jacob and Esau are twins from the same womb (that of their mother Rebekah), Jacob rather than Esau is chosen by God -- and this choice the text says is made by God prior to their birth and when neither Jacob or Esau had done anything good or evil. The faith of Jacob or Esau, foreseen by God or not, is not mentioned at all here. Why? Because election does not require it; God's choice is not conditioned upon it, since election is not conditioned on anything done by man.

The Role of Faith in Salvation
What then is the role of faith in salvation? In Romans 3:28 Paul says "one is justified by faith apart from works of the law". Paul says that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Romans 4:4-5). Paul goes on to say that "the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring— not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (Romans 4:13-16)."

Notice that Paul says "to the one who works, his wages are not counted to him as a gift but as a duty". Now if Abraham's faith was his own doing, would it not be then a work which God would be duty-bound to reward? The point Paul makes however is that Abraham is not working-- He is believing God (by a faith that is not self-generated and therefore not a work of his own).

So then, faith is the means by which we are justified before God and saved from His wrath, for by it we receive the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, a righteousness given to us by grace through faith and not by works of the law (See also Eph 2:8). Believers in Christ do not trust in their own works (attempts to obey God's law as a means of gaining God's favor) for salvation, but rest in faith upon the finished work of Christ. And yet, this faith is not a condition for election. For as we have seen, someone not yet born, who has done nothing either good or evil, would have neither works or faith as a possible ground upon which God would choose them.

So to return to our question, is faith a work, as Jesus seems to imply in John 6:29? As we have seen, Paul in his epistle to the Romans contrasts faith against works to make the point that human effort cannot and will not justify us with God, or bring about the righteousness that God requires. But Paul is not necessarily saying that faith is not a work-- he is concerned with whether man is relying upon his own efforts or relying upon God. If the faith to believe comes from God, then it is not a human work, but it is a work of God. Jesus' statement is actually saying something quite similar to Paul, for He is answering the question what must people do to "do the works of God" by pointing to man’s responsibility to simply believe in the One whom God has sent, rather than to do many other “works”.

However, Jesus is using the word “work” a little differently than Paul. Whereas in Paul’s argument “works” are human efforts to achieve righteousness, in Jesus' statement the work of believing in Him whom God has sent is being contrasted against the doing of many other works to please God. Yet we know from other Scriptures that this work of believing is not something man summons up from within himself. For example, Jesus commended Peter for believing in Him as the Messiah saying, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven (Matthew 16:17), but pointed out that this revelation came from God and not from man (nor from within Peter himself).

So man’s faith is the result of God’s revelatory work within the soul. It is not a work of man, but a work of God. We do the "work of God" as we believe in Him who God has sent (in other words, have faith in Jesus, John 6:29). But this work of faith is "of God", for it is generated by His power within us. It is not something we-- in ourselves-- have the capacity to do, as we will now examine further.

The Source of Faith: God Alone

So then, faith is the vehicle by which believers are saved, but it is not a condition for election unto salvation. Where then does salvific faith come from?

We find the answer in Scriptures such as these:

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48)

We see here that those Gentiles who believed (had faith) were those whom God had appointed to eternal life. This passage shows that faith is God's work in those He elects.

You do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (John 10:26-27)

Who are the ones that believe? According to Jesus, the reason some don't believe is because they are not part of His flock. Notice that He does not say that because they do not believe, they are not His sheep: it is the other way round. His sheep do hear His voice (that is, believe) and follow Him and are granted eternal life by Him (v 27-28).

We can deduct from these statements that the cause of unbelief is exclusion from the flock of Jesus, while the cause of belief is inclusion in His flock. Since inclusion (or exclusion) in the flock is shown to be the work of the Father (v 29), we conclude that God is the source or cause of the faith of His flock.

In a famous passage, Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus:
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8)

Jesus likens the experience of being born of the Spirit to the working of the wind. The illustration shows that the Spirit of God is both sovereign and mysterious in the way He works. Like "the wind that blows where it wishes", so too the Spirit blows where He pleases, sovereignly regenerating. His work is mysterious because, like the invisible wind, the Spirit works unseen. Nevertheless, we feel and experience His effects.

Thus the faith which regenerates a person is caused by the Spirit of God working mysteriously, yet unmistakably. As we have said, it is no accident that the metaphor used for spiritual regeneration is a new "birth". Just as we have no part in our natural birth, so too we have no part in our spiritual birth. We were dead and unresponsive, but God has made us alive.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God (1 John 5:1)

A continuous theme in this first letter of John is that the one who has been born of God, who is now a child of God, and whose very nature has been changed by God, brings forth certain fruit (such as love and ceasing the pattern of sin). In this verse, we find that another fruit of having been born of God is the belief that Jesus is the Christ. So faith is the fruit of being born again.

God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”(1 Corinthians 1:28-30)

Paul writes here that God chooses, not those who are "something" in this world-- the one who seem especially deserving of honor. Instead He chooses those who are low and despised in the world. The divine choice operates according to a different pattern, one which rejects the false values of the world. The world says we ought to pick the beautiful and reward those who show merit, but God's system doesn't play by these worldly rules. And Paul here reminds us that the reason we are in Christ is "because of Him"-- in other words, because God chose us and caused it to happen. For this reason, he says, no human being can "boast in the presence of God". The cause of our own salvation, our faith in God, is found in God alone.

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have (Phil 1:27-30)

In exhorting the Philippians to live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that their lives might give clear testimony of its truth to the enemies of the gospel, Paul says that it has been granted to them, for the sake of Christ, not only to believe but also to suffer. Paul does not go into an elaborate defense or explanation here of the fact that the source of belief in Christ is the granting or gift of God, he merely states it simply and clearly. We are granted faith to believe, just as also God grants suffering as part of the walk of faith.

To summarize then, in this article we have defended election as unconditional because:

1. The total depravity/inability of man that is revealed in Scripture means that man is dead spiritually and a rebel against God by nature. Unless the Lord gives the individual a new nature that will cease its rebellion against Him, man will not come to God.

2. Scripture teaches also that the source of faith is God alone. The unregenerate person does not understand the things of the Spirit and therefore does not have the capacity to self-generate faith in a gospel that is necessarily received by spiritual revelation. To see and enter the kingdom of God, man must be born again, and this is a sovereign work of God, who makes those who are dead come alive.

For these reasons man is unable to meet the condition of faith that the Arminian claims God foresees as He elects people for salvation. Contrary to this man-centered formulation, the Reformed view finds in Scripture that God has shown mercy upon individual sinners, electing those who would otherwise prefer to remain in their sin and would have no movement towards Him. His election sovereignly ordains that the means by which the sinner is called, converted, justified, sanctified and glorified will be granted to those whom He has chosen.

In the next post I hope to conclude my responses to the objections on this doctrine by further defending unconditional election as being expressed in Romans 9, and also discussing the bible truth that we are chosen "in Him"-- how this relates to the question of the whether there are conditions we must meet to be elected.

I plan also to speak again to the issue of whether the Reformed concept of election makes God arbitrary, and also show how sovereign election does not remove the motive to evangelize. I may also address a few other issues, space permitting. If anyone has any other questions to objections they would like me to address on this topic, please let me know. I will be happy to attempt to do so.

For further study and consideration:

Arminian vs Reformed theology series completed to date

Objections: Answered, Loraine Boettner

Objections to Election Answered- links at

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