I’ve often told people that I am not an Arminian, but that is not because I dislike Arminians; nor is it because we disagree over that many issues. In fact, Traditional Southern Baptists, like myself, agree with much of what many good Arminian brothers teach. But, there are several differences I have with my Arminian friends that should be noted. For instance, some classical Arminians believe one can be genuinely reborn and later lose their salvation by apostasy. I explain why I reject this view HERE.
Also, some Arminians teach the “foresight faith view” in order to explain God’s eternal plan of election. When I was a young Calvinist, I had been lead to believe the only real alternative to Calvinism was this seemingly strange concept of God “looking through the corridors of time to elect those He foresees would choose Him.” Notable Calvinistic teachers almost always paint all non-Calvinistic scholars as holding to this perspective. Once I realized other scholarly views were available, I became more open to consider them objectively.
I found a much more robust and theologically sound systematic in what is called “The Corporate View of Election,” which so happened to be the most popular view among the biblical scholars of my own denomination (Southern Baptists). Therefore, I have come to affirm the unified declaration of the author’s in the book titled Whosoever Will:
“We are neither Calvinists nor Arminians; we are Baptists!”
Even among Traditional Baptists, there exists various nuances over the nature of fallen humanity in response to God’s revelation. However, the Traditional statement, signed by many notable Traditional scholars, clearly denounces the concept of “Total Inability,” a view maintained by most classical Arminian scholars.
“Total Inability” is the belief that all humanity is born incapable of willingly coming to Christ for salvation even in light of the Holy Spirit wrought truth of the Gospel, unless God graciously works to empower the will of lost man (effectually by way of regeneration for the Calvinist, and sufficiently by way of “prevenient grace” for the Arminian). Traditionalists simply do not accept the presumption that the libertarian freedom of man’s will was lost due to the Fall. As article two of the Traditional statement says,
“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.”
Notable Arminian scholar, Roger Olson, critiqued the Southern Baptist Traditional statement by calling it “Semi-Pelagian” (which I addressed HERE). Recently, another Arminian brother and friend, William Birch, has posted a critique of my perspective on this matter.
In the past, William has posted links to my articles on his feed and I’ve re-blogged his articles here, so we agree on many (if not most) theological matters. He is a kind, intelligent brother with a far greater gift in writing than I could ever hope to possess. I prefer a personal discussion over dueling blog articles any day. Nevertheless, this is my response to his well crafted critique of my views on the subject of Total Inability.
For the sake of brevity, I will only respond to the most pertinent issues, as I see them. I welcome William (or other readers) to point out any issue that I fail to address which is germane to our disagreement. I will put William’s quotes in red, not because his teachings are to be compared to Christ’s ;-), but because I firmly believe that Christ’s words are at least as believable upon their reading as are his words.
Traditionally, there are a host of scriptural passages referencing an inherent inability within the depraved individual, relegating the individual as naturally deficient in properly responding to the grace of God.
One must wonder what is meant by the term “naturally deficient” in a world where all that is “natural” is ultimately of God’s permission or design? When a Christian theist speaks of what is “natural” are they not, in some way, referencing what is of God’s design or permission? Allow me to explain further…
“What do you have that you did not receive?” was the apostle’s question to the Corinthian believers (1 Cor. 4:7). My next breath is at God’s pleasure (Is. 42:5). My abilities to reason, or think, or make choices are all from God, my Maker (Is. 1:18). As AW Tozer is famously quoted for saying:
“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice…the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it.”[Link]
Why would this be any different with regard to my “natural ability” to respond willingly to God’s own word? It is not as if I (or any Traditionalist who agrees with me on this point) attempts to say that mankind’s ability to respond to the Holy Spirit wrought gospel is of my own making (like I went out into my tool shed and built a nature that was capable of willingly responding to God). Instead, it is a common ability built in us by our Maker, who created in His own image (this image, though marred, was graciously preserved even through the Fall…at least there is no biblical reason to think it was lost, as far as I can see). God was not required to create within us this ability, nor is He obligated to exercise His patience with us in waiting for us to exercise that ability (2 Pet. 3:9). He could have justly allowed each of us to suffer the immediate life-terminating consequences of our first sin.
At this point, the differences between William’s position and my own seem to be inconsequential. He argues that God supernaturally intervenes (by a work of “prevenient grace”) to grant all of fallen humanity an ability they supposedly lost in the Fall of Adam (something never explicitly or implicitly suggested in scripture as far as I can tell). Whereas, I believe God graciously preserved our human responsibility (the ability to respond) to God’s graciously revealed truth by letting us live, even though He had every right to simply destroy us.
In other words, the hair being split is God’s “common grace” in preserving man’s life and thus his God-given ability to respond willingly to His own word–versus God’s “prevenient grace” in supernaturally restoring man’s lost ability to respond willingly to His own word. I hardly see why any scholar would make the conscience effort to label one of these perspectives a “heresy” (Semi-Pelagian) in defense of the other.
In such a confession, however, we are not referring to an inability to hear the audible voice of God, as with Adam and Eve in the Garden after the Fall (Gen. 3:8, 9), or, obviously, the audible voice of Jesus while on earth. The Fall does not render a person physically deaf but spiritually deaf.
The question is not if Adam/Eve could physically hear God (we all affirm that). The question is whether or not Adam and Eve had the moral/spiritual ability to heed and respond willingly to God’s audible voice. Clearly they did, as they put on the clothes He provided to them (Gen. 3). We also see the responses of Cain and Able to the voice of God; followed by the subsequent rewards and punishments (Gen. 4). Thus, the question is why do some believe mankind is able to respond willingly to God’s audible word, but not His inspired word? Both are made abundantly clear (able to be physically heard/read). I can find no clear distinctions drawn in the text between mankind’s moral/spiritual ability to heed God’ word if revealed by different means (audible vs inspiration).
Most, even those who deny the doctrine of Total Inability, as outlined in the Reformed views of Total Depravity, will not deny that the Fall has affected the inward nature of the fallen mortal. What they deny is that the Holy Spirit must perform a special work of grace — some might suggest a separate work of grace (in the freeing of the individual from his bondage to sin in order to induce a freed-will response) — in order for the depraved individual to receive Christ in the Gospel.
William is right to point out that we do affirm the doctrine of Depravity while not going so far as to affirm the doctrine of “Total Inability.” We believe that the Gospel is a gracious work of the Holy Spirit, and thus is sufficient to accomplish it’s given purpose… “so that you might believe and have life in His name…” (John 20:31).
Scott Ross posted this question under William’s article:
I’ve always understood, regarding prevenient grace, that the Holy Spirit worked through the faithful preaching of the Gospel to free a sinner from bondage and empower them to respond. Romans 10:14-17 is an example of Scripture that indicates this idea. So to be clear, I believe the Holy Spirit must free us from bondage and enable us to respond to the Gospel as you have outlined, but I’ve always thought that the faithful preaching of the Gospel was one mechanism the Holy Spirit uses to do that. Would you say that is accurate?
To which William replied:
Yes, Scott, you are a classical Arminian at heart and in doctrine! Both Arminius and the Remonstrants insist that the Gospel must be preached for the Holy Spirit to grant enabling grace. This is not to suggest that the Holy Spirit cannot use prior means of bringing someone to the Gospel and, thus, to Christ; but that the Gospel will always be the instrumental means by which a person is enabled by the Spirit to freely respond.
The problem is that Scott’s question doesn’t draw the right distinction, and thus William’s response fails to hit our actual point of contention. For clarity, I would affirm “that the Holy Spirit worked through the faithful preaching of the Gospel to…empower them to respond.” And I would affirm “that the faithful preaching of the Gospel was one mechanism the Holy Spirit uses.” Whereas I wouldn’t affirm that “the Holy Spirit must free us from bondage and enable us to respond to the Gospel.” Confused? I admit, it can become quite confounding if one isn’t paying close attention to the nuances.
Notice the subtle difference between the Holy Spirit using the means of the gospel to empower the hearer to respond willingly, versus the Holy Spirit empowering the hearer through some other unknown hidden inward means (a “prevenient grace,” never expounded upon in the Bible) so that the means of the Gospel would become sufficient to enable a willing response of an otherwise incapacitated fallen person. Do you see the difference? The Arminian insists on the Holy Spirit’s use of two separate means of grace (the gospel and this so-called “prevenient grace”), whereas I contend the Bible only speaks of one (the gospel). Why? The Arminian assumes (without biblical warrant IMO) that the fallen person has become incapacitated to respond willingly to God Himself.
Some insist the Gospel, preached by Spirit-filled believers, performs an inner work within the sinner. Hence, the individual is in no need to be “freed from her bondage to sin” in order for the individual to then freely believe in Christ.
The author of Hebrews appears to be one of those people who insists the Gospel, God’s inspired word, does work inwardly within the sinner:
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
This penetrating work into the “soul and spirit” sounds like the work of “prevenient grace” described by William, yet the author simply refers to “the word of God” as accomplishing this work, not some extra working of grace that aids the otherwise incapacitated nature of fallen man.
Here are two other passages that seem to teach that the scriptures, God’s inspired word, are sufficient even even for the lost:
“…you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:15-16).
“Consequently faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
The Early Church Fathers likewise seemed to agree with this understanding:
Irenaeus, (130-202) wrote, “We have known the method of our salvation by no other means than those by whom the gospel came to us; which gospel they truly preached; but afterward, by the will of God, they delivered to us in the Scriptures, to be for the future the foundation and pillar of our faith,” (Adv. H. 3:1)
Athanasius wrote, “The Holy Scriptures, given by inspiration of God, are of themselves sufficient toward the discovery of truth.”
It seems incumbent on William, and those who agree with him, to provide evidence that the Holy Spirit inspired scriptures, apart from an extra inner work of grace, are insufficient to enable the lost to respond willingly.
Hence, the individual is in no need to be “freed from her bondage to sin” in order for the individual to then freely believe in Christ.
Given that not everyone repents and is saved once ‘freed’ on William’s view, would he have us believe there may be a lost person who is “freed from her bondage to sin,” but still remains in sin’s bondage? I’m not sure how one could rightly speak of those under the wrath of God in sin as being “freed from sin” in any sense. It appears to me that those spoken of in scripture as being “freed from sin’s bondage” are specifically those who have already believed and been reborn.
This is the same issue I have with the Calvinistic believers who insist in pre-faith regeneration, but they don’t have the same problem that William has here. For the Calvinist those who are regenerate will certainly come to faith and be saved, so at least the Calvinist can argue that God simultaneously brings someone to faith at the time of their regeneration. But William would have to argue that God frees all people from the bondage of sin (at some undisclosed time and in some mysterious way never revealed by the text), while only some individuals actually repent of sin—leaving the rest under sins curse while still “freed from sin’s bondage.” I find this view untenable.
Our view is far less complex. Mankind is freed from the bondage of sin by confessing that they are in bondage (admitting their inability to save themselves) and in faith trusting God to free them. Upon confession, Christ graciously steps in to provide freedom and salvation. It seems like William gets the cart before the horse to suggest that one has to be “set free from sin’s bondage” in order to even humbly admit they are enslaved by sin’s bondage.
William’s mistake (like that of the Calvinist) is assuming that the biblical reference to mankind’s being “bound in sin” equals mankind’s inability to see and confess they are in that condition even in light of God’s clear revelation. In short, acknowledging that someone is trapped in a jail cell does not mean that the one trapped cannot see that he is trapped and admit his need for help in order to gain freedom.
Let us address, briefly, passages which refer to this inability to freely embrace the Gospel. Two statements from Christ most obviously bespeaks to this position: “No one can [i.e., does not have the innate capability to] come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” (John 6:44, emphases added; cf. John 6:65) If a fallen sinner is able to freely respond to the Gospel, when such is presented, then Christ must be mistaken — we actually can come to Him without a special inner “drawing” work wrought by the Father (through, no doubt, the work of the Holy Spirit). Also, St John refers “coming to” Jesus to “believing in” Jesus (John 6:35, 37, 40). Hence, no one is capable of coming to and, thus, believing in Jesus unless drawn and granted such (John 6:44, 65).
It should be noted, the text William references to prove that the Gospel is an insufficient work of Grace to lead sinners to repentance does not even mention the Gospel (nor is it even written at a time when the gospel had been fulfilled and commissioned to go into all the world). As we have more fully developed in other articles, the fact that Jesus was purposefully hiding His identity from the Jewish leaders of that day and not entrusting Himself to most of Israel while “down from Heaven,” clearly indicates they were not privy to the appeal of the Gospel’s calling to repentance and faith in the death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah for the redemption of sin. This is a concept not even understood by His closest followers until after His resurrection (“when he is lifted up” – John 12:32).
After Christ is raised up, the message of the Gospel is complete and His messengers are commissioned to “go into all the world and preach” and in so doing, “drawing all people to Himself.” (John 12:32; Acts 1:8; Matt. 28:16-20).
St Paul argues: “Do you not realize that God’s kindness,” χρηστότητος, “divine kindness and Spirit-produced goodness” (link), “is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4)
Romans 2:4 states, “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Clearly, God’s kindness is in reference to His “forbearance and patience” with humanity (as seen also in 2 Peter 3:9). And patience, as discussed earlier, is God’s gracious means of allowing for mankind to live and thus have more time to respond to His provisions of Grace, the power of which is said to be in the Gospel itself (Rm. 1:18); never in some extra secondary means which supposedly makes the gospel sufficiently powerful and/or the human soul sufficiently able to respond freely (i.e. responsible).
“For he has graciously granted you,” ἐχαρίσθη, “to grace, bestow, favor,” “the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” (Phil. 1:29)
While this point could be conceded by simply appealing to the “common grace” referenced earlier, I believe the “granting” here is in reference to the sending of the Gospel first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. By sending the means of faith (the Gospel), God is “granting” each one (first the Jew and then the Gentile) the means by which they too may believe in Christ and subsequently suffer for Him as they continue to walk in that faith.
William also mentions 1 Cor 2, which I discuss in great detail HERE.
Yes, the Holy Spirit must convict sinners (John 16:8-11), as they are presented with the Gospel…
We all agree that the Holy Spirit must convict sinners. Our point of contention is over the means by which the Spirit brings conviction to sinners. Let’s look at John 16:
“7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. 12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
To whom is Christ speaking in John 16? Is He speaking to all of us, or is He addressing the inspired “holy apostles” given the “administration of God’s grace” and shown “the mystery…which was not made known to people in other generations but has now been revealed by the Spirit of God…so that you [the rest of us] will be able to understand…the mystery of Christ.” Let’s look at Eph. 3:1-11:
“2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. 7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Spirit’s means of revelation was to graciously inspire “holy apostles” to proclaim and write God’s very word and in reading those words we may “be able to understand…insights into the mystery of Christ.” (cross reference: Acts 10:39-43)
I believe William, like many Calvinists, have imposed an “individualized Western hermeneutic” to these types of texts by applying it to us personally when the intention of the author was pointing his readers to the sacred means of divine inspiration of the “holy apostles” set apart for the noble purpose of inspired revelation.
To the credit of Flowers, we agree that there is power, δύναμις, in the Gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:16), but this “power,” strength or ability, regards the revelation of the righteousness of God and that the person who shall live with Him eternally are those who live by or in the faith of Christ (Rom. 1:17). Such are accounted righteous (Rom. 3:21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26). But Flowers rejects the notion that anyone must be “set free” from one’s bondage to sin in order to believe that Gospel: there is no condition from which one must be released from captivity (contra John 8:34; Gal. 5:1).
John 8:32 says, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Truth, once known and accepted, will set you free. One is not set free so as to respond freely to truth, as William presupposes. Again, it would be difficult to defend a belief that sinners who remain in unbelief and under sin’s bondage all their lives can ever be described as “freed from sin’s bondage” in any meaningful sense.
So, then, Flowers, and those who agree with him, have created their own theological niche: they deny Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism and Calvinism. The view they are espousing is termed Traditionalism. They appeal to the early Church fathers regarding free will, that such has not been so affected by the Fall that a person cannot freely respond to the Gospel, but can freely respond to that Gospel because the Holy Spirit “works” within the heart through the Spirit-inspired Gospel. Again, from my perspective, I fail to see why the Holy Spirit needs to “work” within a person who is inherently capable of freely responding to the Gospel.
What William seems to miss is that on our view the work of the Holy Spirit, by means of the gospel’s arrival, is for the first time revealing a mystery that has been hidden for generations (1 Cor. 2:7-8; Eph. 3:1-11) thus making it accessible to all. So, the work of the Holy Spirit, on our view, is not to “aid an innate disability due to the Fall,” but to reveal truth that could not have been known or understood by any other means except the divine revelation through supernatural inspiration of “holy apostles.”
One would be hard pressed to find where Pelagius taught this fully or even partially, so I’m not sure what the labels really accomplish (if not the nefarious intent I’ve described in “The Calvinist’s Boogie Man” article). I’m beginning not to care too much about such labels given there abuse in modern times. Nevertheless, no label will simply make the clear biblical arguments I have presented disappear. William’s article is a well written defense of his perspective, no doubt, but will he engage me over the passages in dispute?
For instance, can he demonstrate that the Israelite audience of Jesus in John 6 were incapable of coming to Him while he was “down from heaven” because of an innate disability imputed to all humanity as a natural consequence of Adam’s sin, rather than a calloused condition of Israel due to their own libertarianly free choices (which God is judicially giving them over to, so as to accomplish a greater redemptive purpose; Acts 28:27-28; John 12:39-41; Mark 4:11-13; Rom. 11)?
An analogy for consideration:
I’ve said before, the gospel is to the Holy Spirit what the hammer is to the carpenter. Every analogy falls short, but the only point of this one is to reveal that the Holy Spirit (the carpenter) uses a tool (the Gospel) to enable a response (drive the nail). Whereas, the classical Arminian position insists that the carpenter (the Holy Spirit) must secretly put some mysterious oil on the nail (prevenient grace) that supposedly enables it to be driven into wood while still maintaining that the carpenter (the Holy Spirit) used the hammer (the Gospel) to drive the nail (enable a response). This presupposes the nail NEEDED the oil in order to be driven by the hammer and creates confusion as to the sufficient power of the carpenter’s hammer (the Gospel).
Now, if the “Authoritative Carpenter’s Manual” clearly indicates that nails cannot be driven by the hammer apart from the application of oil, then by all means, I would concede this point. But if the manual never even mentions anything about oil at all, but over and over again points the hammer as the sole means of power and sufficiency for driving nails, then why add the additional oily means? (Of course I understand that William, and other scholars, do interpret certain texts to mean that the “oil is necessary” whereas I simply do not see it.)