To Listen to the Podcast on Prevenient Grace and Pelagianism CLICK HERE.
I know I am a “Johnny-come-lately” to many of these discussions, however since they are somewhat timeless in content I’m not sure what a few months (or even years) matters all that much. However, I do strongly feel this particular issue has significant implications in our discussion over soteriology in Baptist circles.
I have much respect for the scholarship and work of Dr. Roger Olson. I have used his resources many times in my own studies and find him to be a thoughtful and thoroughly biblical scholar in all respects. He unashamedly wears the label “Arminian” and defends his views as well as I have ever seen. However, I do have a small bone to pick with his teaching on “Prevenient Grace.” Dr. Olson clearly explains this perspective:
“Prevenient grace” is simply a term for the grace of God that goes before, prepares the way, enables, assists the sinner’s repentance and faith (conversion). According to classical Calvinism this prevenient grace is always efficacious and given only to the elect through the gospel; it effects conversion. According to classical Arminianism it is an operation of the Holy Spirit that frees the sinner’s will from bondage to sin and convicts, calls, illumines and enables the sinner to respond to the gospel call with repentance and faith (conversion). Calvinists and Arminians agree, against Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, that the sinner’s will is so depraved and bound to sin that it cannot respond positively to the gospel call without supernatural grace. [LINK]
Notice that Dr. Olson frames the discussion in such a way as to set up “supernatural grace” as separate from “the gospel call,” as if the “graciously prevenient” work of God cannot actually be the work of the gospel itself. Maybe he does this because that is what some of the influential theologians have done in the past, but I see no valid biblical reason to frame the debate in this manner. Just because history has tended to paint theologians in one of the two “classical” camps does not mean most scholars have actually landed with both feet firmly planted in either of those actual camps.
What must be noted is that the gospel itself meets EVERY needed characteristic of this so-called “prevenient grace.” Using Dr. Olson’s own definition: The gospel goes before, prepares the way, enables and assists the sinner’s repentance and faith (Romans 10:14-17). The gospel is inspired, written, carried, proclaimed and preserved by the direct activity of the Holy Spirit Himself. What more must He do to enable the lost who hear it to respond to it? Must we further cloud the issue by suggesting that God, at some unknown point in the life of everyone, has to move in some other gracious way to enable all people to respond to the already gracious, powerful, Holy Spirit wrought truth of the gospel? What text necessitates such complex theological explanations? Why create a redundant theological term when the biblical word is more than sufficient? The GOSPEL is God’s enabling grace and the ONLY reason some do not have “ears to hear” is either because (1) the gospel had not been fulfilled and sent out into all the world yet (as would be the case prior to Christ being raised up – John 12:32), or (2) some have been blinded or calloused against it (John 12:39-41). There is nothing biblically which suggests men are born in such condition that would prevent them from responding to the double edge sword of the Holy Spirit’s soul piercing gospel truth (Heb. 4:12).
In another article Dr. Olson specifically addresses the “Traditional Statement” produced by many respected theologians associated with the SBC. The statement, according to Dr. Olson’s own article, reads as follows:
Article Two: The Sinfulness of Man
We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.
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. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.
Genesis 3:15-24; 6:5; Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 6:5, 7:15-16;53:6; Jeremiah 17:5,9, 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:19-20; Romans 1:18-32; 3:9-18, 5:12, 6:23; 7:9; Matthew 7:21-23; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 6:9-10;15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 20:11-15” (italics added)
This article seems to support the perspective I expounded upon above to which Dr. Olson takes to task by stating:
A classical Arminian would never deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will. Classical Arminianism (as I have demonstrated in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities) strongly affirms the bondage of the will to sin before and apart from prevenient grace’s liberating work. Now, perhaps this is the point of the statement’s mention of “the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” But that, too, can be interpreted in a semi-Pelagian way.
Does that mean it can also be interpreted in a “non-semi-Pelagian way?” If so, then I vote for that option and without the added redundancy of classical Arminianism’s so-called “prevenient grace.” The GOSPEL is more than sufficient. We do not need another term to muddy the theological waters in my humble opinion. Dr. Olson continues:
Semi-Pelagians such as Philip Limborch and (at least in some of his writings) Charles Finney affirmed the necessity of the gospel and the Holy Spirit’s enlightening work through it for salvation. What made them semi-Pelagian was their denial or neglect of the divine initiative in salvation (except the gospel message).
EXCEPT THE GOSPEL MESSAGE?!? That is kind of a huge exception to leave hanging there in a parenthetical afterthought. It is the GOSPEL–the “power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16), the very appeal of Christ Himself for all to be reconciled from the fall (2 Cor. 5:20). Can we…or should we “EXCEPT it” from being “the divine initiative in salvation” without very clear biblical cause?
The problem with this Southern Baptist statement is its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace for the exercise of a good will toward God (including acceptance of the gospel by faith). If the authors believe in that cardinal biblical truth, they need to spell it out more clearly.
It seems only to be unclear to one who presumes that an additional work of supernatural grace is needed above that which is accomplished by the Gospel itself, which begs the question of our disagreement: Is another work of divine grace, besides that which the gospel accomplishes, needed to enable the lost to respond? Show me in the Bible where such additional grace is said to be needed and I’ll be the first to recant my perspective on this. But, we must be careful in this discussion not to misapply texts having to do with God purposefully and judicially blinding the truth of the gospel from large numbers of Israelites. Dr. Olson certainly would not want to make the same hermeneutical mistake as the Calvinist on this point. Dr. Olson continues:
And they need to delete the sentence that denies the incapacitation of free will due to Adam’s sin. Leaving the statement as it stands, without a clear affirmation of the bondage of the will to sin apart from supernatural grace, inevitably hands the Calvinists ammunition to use against non-Calvinist Baptists.
With all due respect to Dr. Olson (and I really mean that when I say it), but the classical Arminians are strange bed-fellows with the Calvinists when it comes to their individualizing of the text (see Brian Abascaino’s work on the “Corporate View“) and this particular error of separating the grace from its means. God’s gracious means to enable faith IS the Gospel. The TRUTH will set you free (John 8:32). The very words that Christ spoke and gave us to proclaim are “spirit and life” (John 6:63). Faith comes by hearing God’s gospel truth (Romans 10:14). Dr. Olson continues:
It doesn’t matter what “most Baptists” believe or what is the “traditional Southern Baptist understanding.” For a long time I’ve been stating that most American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist.
Likewise, it does not matter what classical Arminians believe or how ancient councils have framed this discussion. It is never right to label and dismiss people with manmade Catholic titles of heresy, especially when we all deny the heretical component of that original doctrine (i.e the denial of the sin nature and our need for a Savior from conception).
Calvinists and Arminians stand together, with Scripture, against semi-Pelagianism. (Romans 3:11 and 1 Corinthians 4:7 to name just two passages.)
Regarding Romans 3:11, the teaching that “no one seeks God,” does not prove that no one can respond to God’s gracious means to seek and save us. And the context of the 1 Corinthians 4:7 passage ironically warns us against saying you are of Paul or Apollos (i.e. of Calvin or Arminius) because “what do you have that you were not given?” How that supports the concept that the Gospel itself is not a sufficient work of supernatural enabling grace is beyond me. In a follow up comment, Dr. Olson gives this less than helpful “litmus test” to determine if one falls into the heretic category:
The litmus test is this: Do you believe the initiative in salvation (speaking here of the individual’s salvation) is God’s or the human person’s? Can a sinner exercise a good will toward God apart from special assisting grace? If the answer to the first question is “God’s” and to the second is “no,” then I will count you an Arminian, not a semi-Pelagian.
Of course I believe God takes the initiative in salvation. He takes the initiative by sending the Law, His Son, the Spirit, the apostles, the Scriptures, and His Bride filled with Holy Spirit filled messengers to carry his powerful gospel appeal to every living creature. So, would I pass his first test question?
To the doctor’s second inquiry, I would quickly say “no, a sinner cannot exercise faith apart from hearing the gracious truth of the gospel appeal.” Faith does come by hearing, after all. How will they believe in one whom they have not heard (Rom. 10)? So, would I pass his second test question, or can we assume the good doctor forgot his parenthetical exception of the gracious gospel truth leaving me to fail his heretical litmus test?
Dr. Olson, you know I love you, but consider dropping the redundant term of this so-called “prevenient grace.” It is not a term we find in the Bible, which does not necessarily invalidate it, but why not stick with the biblical terminology? Leave Arminius and become a GOSPEL loving “BIBLICIST” along with the rest of us non-Calvinistic “Southern Baptists.” 😉
To Listen to the Podcast on Prevenient Grace and Pelagianism CLICK HERE.