William Birch and Micah Currado, two good Arminian brothers, and I have had a few cordial points of disagreement regarding the sufficiency of the gospel revelation in enabling the lost to respond in faith. In response to our previous discussions (seen HERE and HERE), Micah most recently wrote:
In this matter, I’m reminded of the dangers of quarreling over words, or of spending time on disputations (2 Tim. 2:14). I hope that my response below will demonstrate a Christian charity between fellow believers bought by the blood of Jesus. I pray that my readers will not focus on matters of doubtful disputation leading to their ruin, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ, who redeemed every person in the world (1 Tim. 4:10, John 2:2, 2 Peter 2:1, etc), who graciously offers this salvation by simple trust in Him (John 3:16, Eph. 2:8-9) which we are free(d) to do, and who promises eternal life to those who are believing in Him. In this core element, Dr. Leighton Flowers and I are in full agreement, standing together against the flood of faithless and merely moralistic teaching.
I could not agree more and I wish all my theological interactions were with brethren who are as careful, kind and Christ-like as Micah and William have been in our exchanges. Allow me to begin by addressing some of the pertinent sections of William’s most recent article (seen HERE), then I will touch on Micah’s latest response. (their words will be in blue)
Arminians affirm both Total Depravity and Total Inability. We affirm not free will but freed will — freed by the Holy Spirit in order to freely respond to the Gospel.
The Arminian must establish from scripture that mankind lost their freedom to respond willingly to God Himself. I simply do not feel John 6:44 and 1 Cor. 2:14 meet that burden when understood in the right context. Obviously we may just have to agree to disagree on that point, but I will say that neither Micah or William take the time to engage my interpretation of those passages. (See this article on 1 Corinthians)
That human beings are born with a sin nature is denied only by Pelagians and certain semi-Pelagians. That statement is constructed not as a boogie-man tactic but as bare fact.
William is simply appealing to the historical “fact” that other Christians (mostly Calvinistic) have employed this “boogie man tactic” so as to escape culpability for following their poor example. The fact that others throughout history have attempted to label those who agree with my perspective as heretical or semi-heretical does not make it less of a fallacious tactic.
William could just as accurately call my view “semi-Augustinian” or “semi-Chrysostomian” or “semi-Barthian” but the reason he does not is because to appeal to those notable historical Christians would not serve the fallacious purpose of associating me with a “bad character” or a “boogie man.” The difference is that the “Pelagian” label is associated with a known heretical belief (of which I have clearly disavowed HERE).
The fact is that most of the earliest Church Fathers held to one false view or another, as have many notable and respectable believers throughout human history. To “boogie man” those good believers by marginalizing, decontextualizing, exaggerating, and often times out right misrepresenting their views is something that those throughout history should be ashamed of doing and something we should not encourage today by following their fallacious example.
Someone who denies this understanding of prevenient grace may argue, as does Leighton Flowers, “we must not presume that just because man is born fallen that the gospel is not up for the task of enabling the fallen man to respond to its appeal for reconciliation from that fall.” But the message or words of the Good News are not magic words: words do not enable a person to believe in Jesus.
I’m not sure why William would make this argument against my view. After all, from my perspective the words need not be “magical” (i.e. infused with some supernatural inner working or ‘Prevenient Grace’) in order to have their intended effect. They simply must be clear and understandable. This seems to be a case against his own perspective rather than mine. The words are sufficient to accomplish their purpose without a ‘mystical’ (magical) or ‘supernatural’ work because mankind has the basic capacity to hear, understand and respond to clearly revealed truth. It is his view that appears to require a work of “magic,” not mine.
…a carnal or natural person “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness” to that person…
As stated above, it might benefit our conversation for William and Micah to engage with my interpretation of these texts in question instead of presuming their interpretation of them, otherwise we will continue to go around and around without addressing the biblical evidence. As I’ve explained elsewhere, the natural man who deems the things of the Spirit foolish do so by their own free moral choice, not by compatibilistic compulsion imposed by Calvinistic philosophy (i.e. man is free and thus accountable as long as he does what he wants to do but what he wants is determined by his nature which is ultimately determined by God).
I have to ask if William is a compatibilist? If not, then why does he think some of humanity deems the things of Spirit as foolishness as if they were not free to deem otherwise? I believe William has fallen into the same erroneous line of argumentation upheld by our Calvinistic friends…i.e. that mankind is born only able to deem the revelation of God as foolish due to their innate nature yet they are still held culpable because they are doing so “freely” (according to their preset innate desire/nature).
…indeed, that individual cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised, examined, or discerned (1 Cor. 2:14). Unless the Holy Spirit enables and grants a person to freely believe, that person will not believe, because that person cannot believe.
What is it that the natural man cannot understand? “The deep things of God,” (vs. 10) those things which are “a mystery that has been hidden” from this generation, otherwise “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (vs. 7-8). Paul is not talking about THE GOSPEL, which is being revealed NOW through Holy Apostles so as to explain the “deep things of God” in such a way that man COULD understand. As Paul explained in Ephesians 3:
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.
Would William conclude that the means God chose to reveal these otherwise mysterious truths is insufficient? Paul specifically says, “In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ.” So, why would one assume that God’s grace and power given to the apostles to reveal the MYSTERY OF CHRIST (the “DEEP THINGS OF THE SPIRIT”) isn’t sufficiently understandable or believable?
I think the mistake Calvinists (and some Arminians like William) have made in their interpretation of passages such as 1 Cor. 2 is to assume the mystery of Christ (things hidden in the Spirit of God) cannot be understood even AFTER they are revealed by the means of inspiration (i.e. the Gospel revelation). William has mistakenly conflated the hidden mysteries of the Spirit with the Gospel itself, rather than understanding that the Gospel IS THE MEANS by which the Spirit is revealing otherwise mysterious and unknown truths for the first time in human history through divinely appointed apostles. Micah and William may disagree with me on this point, which is fine, but I’ve not seen evidence that they have actually engaged with me over these differing interpretations.
Second, neither Calvinist nor Arminian suggests that God, for some unknown reason, decided to punish all of us for the sin of Adam by making us all innately incapable of responding willingly to His own word. God did not “make us innately incapable of responding willingly” to the Gospel: we are born innately incapable of responding willingly to the Gospel apart from the inner work of the Holy Spirit. This is part of what being “dead in sins” entails. (Eph. 2:1)
As pointed out before, William does not take the needed time to define what is meant by “we are unable by nature” in relation to “we are unable by God’s decision.” We, as Christian theists, do not believe in mother nature, so to say that something is “natural” is to say that is it designed or at least permitted by God. Does William believe that God punished mankind by making them unable to respond willingly to His own revelation? When God was explaining the curse of labor pains and toiling the soil, did He forget to mention the worse of all the curses, “You now are morally incapable of responding willingly to my appeals or commands?”
If this innate moral inability is not a punishment decided directly by God, then does William believe it is a “natural consequence” that God permitted? If so, could God have prevented mankind from losing that ability by NOT permitting it? If not, why not? And if He could have prevented mankind from losing this ability, then why simply give back what he permitted for them to lose in the first place? Why not simply stop them from losing the ability to begin with? Also, who decided, if not God, that the inspired revelation wouldn’t be sufficient apart from an extra work of enabling grace? Couldn’t God have revealed truth in such a way that it would have been sufficient to enable a response without doing some other prior work?
Now, I might be willing to live with the mystery of this quandary if I clearly saw that scripture afforded this mystery. In my estimation, however, there is no biblical indication that mankind lost their moral ability to respond willingly to God’s own revelation due to the fall. Mankind cannot, however, understand deep spiritual mysteries hidden in mind of God unless God sends clear revelation, like the gospel (Rm. 10:14; Eph. 3:1-11).
One is dead to the spiritual realities involving God, His Son, His Spirit and His word. We are unable by nature. We are born sinners. God does not punish all of us for the sin of Adam by making us all sinners. We are naturally born sinners. We are sinners by nature. (Rom. 3:23) We are born unbelievers. God does not punish all of us for the sin of Adam by making us all unbelievers. We are unbelievers by nature. (John 3:18)
How does proof that we are all born sinners by nature also prove that we are incapable of admitting that fact when confronted by the Holy Spirit wrought truth of God? It’s one thing to become bound to sin because of your rebellion. It is a whole other thing to be born in bondage and completely incapable of admitting that you’re in bondage and accepting help to escape when it is offered by a loving Creator.
Even if the matter were as Leighton has outlined above, would God be unjust in punishing us in such fashion, given that He Himself subjected nature to entropy because of the sin of one man (cf. Rom. 8:20)?
Only if I were to affirm inherited guilt would this be an issue for me, which I do not. No one is condemned for the sin of Adam except Adam. We will each be judged for our own choices and actions in light of God’s revelation (John 12:47-49). Nothing stands between anyone and their reconciliation with God save only their own unbelief.
Often these same individuals will insist that an enabling, in whatever manner conceivable, is a gratuitous doctrine. People are capable, in and of themselves, to freely respond to the Good News of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. All that is required is that a person hear the Gospel. If that is true then there is no need for such individuals to insist that the Gospel enables the person to believe in Christ. Some, inconsistently, still do.
I had to read this argument several times to follow William’s meaning. I finally realized that William is once again conflating man’s inability to understand/accept hidden spiritual mysteries with his belief that man is born unable to understand/accept the Gospel itself. On our view, the gospel is necessary to understand otherwise unknown and mysterious truths which have been hidden for generations. As Paul says in Romans 10:14,
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?
The apostles were just now being sent to proclaim these deep hidden spiritual truths, which they could not have believed unless someone told them. The inability here isn’t an innate incapacity to understand/accept clearly revealed truth. It’s an inability to believe in something unknown or unrevealed.
St Paul teaches that, with regard to the Jewish people, their minds are hardened; even to this very day a veil remains unlifted over their minds (2 Cor. 3:14), by which veil they are incapable of freely trusting in Christ. He continues teaching that the Gospel is veiled by the Devil, who has “blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (2 Cor. 4:3), by which blinding an inherent inability is rendered as a reality. Therefore an enabling by God must be performed if anyone is to freely trust in Christ.
Notice the order William presumes in 2 Cor. 3:14, but keep reading in verse 15 and 16:
“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”
William, along with Calvinists, simply get the order incorrect by insisting that God removes the veil so as to enable one to turn to the Lord, when the text clearly indicates that it is by turning to the Lord (and His clear revelation brought by inspiration) that one may understand so as to have the veil (the misapplication of God’s law) removed.
Can mere words of the Gospel cause a person to no longer be hostile toward God apart from the inner working of the Holy Spirit?
William, like Calvinists, seems to be presuming that mankind is born fully hostile/hardened/defiled based on the fact that they are born with a sin nature. The scriptures teach that mankind, while sinners, may “become hardened” or “grow calloused” (Acts 28:27-28) or “be given over to their desires so as to become defiled” (Rom. 1). This is something that mankind can become if they continue in their rebellion, as was the case with the Israelites of the New Testament, especially that of Saul prior to his own conversion. In my estimation, Calvinists and some Arminians misapply some of the teachings about the calloused condition of man once “given over” to their depraved and calloused wills as if it applies to an innate condition from birth. There must be a distinction drawn between the heart of a sinner and the heart of a hardened sinner.
For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (Acts 28:27-28)
What might they have done had they not “become calloused” according to the scripture above? “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn…” And notice the contrast with the Gentiles (while still sinful), who will listen. What is the distinction Paul is drawing between the Jews and the Gentiles in this text? One is calloused and thus unable to turn while the other, who are still sinners, are willing to listen and respond.
Now, for the sake of brevity, if that is even possible at this point, I have attempted to narrow my focus upon the key elements of Micah’s latest response, entitled Unmediated.
First, allow me to offer a definition of the term “unmediated” as that seems to be a crux of the matter. One dictionary offers us this definition: “without anyone or anything intervening or acting as an intermediate; direct.” This definition, and how we apply it to mankind’s natural abilities to comprehend and accept directly revealed truth, is essential to this discussion. Micah argues that reading or hearing the inspired word of God is a “mediated” (by way of means, or through a mediator) form of divine revelation. And Micah asserts that those means are insufficient to enable the natural man to respond freely to God’s own appeal. He believes that the Holy Spirit must do more than inspire the words (which clearly reveal truth and call us to reconciliation through faith) in order for us to have the ability to freely respond. I contend that his view is not convincingly established by the scriptures.
Below I have pulled out several quotes from Micah’s article that relate directly to this matter.
What I called “mere information” Leighton prefers to call “divine inspiration.” I certainly agree with him that the propositional truths of Scripture are in a different category than, say, a grocery list or even a profound poem by Milton. Scripture was “God-breathed.”
Yet, ironically, if Micah is correct, the natural man is able to freely respond to the average list or poem but not the “God-breathed” revelation, unless graced in some supernatural manner. Should we assume this is true? I see no biblical reason to do so.
However, the inspired Bible is not God Himself; it is instead information from God. Likewise, the message of the Gospel is not God Himself; it is information from God. This is all I meant by “mere information.”
Of course, I agree with this distinction (as Micah kindly acknowledges), but to be clear for our readers — our point of contention is not over whether or not the gospel is God Himself. No one is suggesting the gospel is God. Our point of contention, as I understand it, is over whether or not the message inspired by God is sufficient to enable a free response. It is simply a false dichotomy to in any way imply that one must either believe the Bible is an insufficient means of revelation to enable faith or to believe the Bible is equal to God Himself.
In practical terms of response-ability, I agree that the message of the Gospel produces faith in its hearers (Rom. 10:17) and it is then the response-ability of the hearer to “mix” that faith within their heart (Heb. 3), resulting in salvation if they do. But I’ll clarify that in a moment.
To be clear (or maybe more precise) on this point; I do not believe that the message of the Gospel “produces faith in its hearer.” I believe the Gospel enables the hearer to freely respond.
Certainly we should agree that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Suffice to say, I believe that the unmediated presence of the Triune God is the drawing in view (John 12:32, 16:8), while Leighton would hold that the mediated means of the scriptures are in view. The unmediated presence and influence of God is going to be my focus for this article.
I too affirm the Holy Spirit’s unmediated presence and continual influence, but do so while maintaining the sufficiency of the means by which He has chosen to reveal Himself and his inspired truth (even by mediated means). In other words, I see no biblical reason to believe that God’s unmediated presence and influence somehow suggests that His work through means is insufficient to accomplish its given purpose.
For instance, the mediate means of writing articles in response to each other’s theological perspective is sufficient for Micah and myself to understand and converse. If Micah were to come over to my house tomorrow to further discuss these matters in an “unmediated” manner, would that suggest that the articles were no longer sufficient to convince readers of his persepctive? Of course not. It would only reveal that Micah has chosen more than one way in which to communicate with me about his views. I am not sure why it would be any different with God’s chosen means of communication with fallen humanity.
Proof that God uses a variety of means to communicate does not suggest that some are insufficient and others are not. Was the testimony of the witnesses sufficient to allow Thomas to believe their testimony despite the fact that he refused to do so? I believe it was. It was Thomas’ own fault for not believing their testimony, not a lacking in the testimony or an inborn incapacity due to the sin of Adam. I blame Thomas alone for his unbelief in light of that clear testimony. The fact that God chose to reveal Himself more personally to Thomas was purely gracious, not required or necessary for a faith response. It must be established biblically that the proclaimed inspired truth is insufficient apart from some extra supernatural grace. Respectfully, I do not believe Micah has met that burden thus far in our discourse.
I believe that Leighton’s view downplays the cosmic spiritual war that surrounds us. The unsaved are styled as “blinded by the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4)…People are not merely uninformed (for which they would need only God’s inspired truth propositions), they are enslaved to a dark power which seeks to hinder and blind them to God’s truth.
Allow me to reword Micah’s argument in such a way that reveals how I read it from my worldview: “I believe that Leighton’s view of God’s word is more powerful than the cosmic powers that surrounds us. The unsaved are styled as ‘blinded by the god of this world’ (2 Cor 4:4) in such a manner that even hearing God’s inspired word is insufficient. People are not merely in need of God’s powerful, life-giving inspired truth, because God’s own word isn’t sufficient to set the fallen man free apart from some extra supernatural (unmediated) grace.” This would be a high bar to prove from scripture in my opinion.
Yes, we are enslaved but that is why God sent truth, which may set man free (John 8:32). I see no biblical reason to suggest that God’s inspired truth is insufficient to do just that.
In the apostolic era, some men tried to cast out a demon by invoking Jesus Christ (Acts 19:15). Their words were essentially the same words the Apostles would use, but the invocation of the name and saving power name of Jesus didn’t work, because the Spirit, in this case, was not present in power.
So also the scriptures or message of the Gospel are not sufficient of themselves to cast from us the oppressive presence of spiritual darkness inflicted on humanity by Satan and his forces of evil. We need a Power stronger they they, which will liberate us in just an unmediated way as they afflict us.
Is there a verse which relates the unmediated work of the Spirit in driving out demonic spirits to the necessity of an unmediated work of the Spirit to enable a free moral response to God’s own inspired truth? If so, I have not found it.
I agree that the Gospel message is sufficient to enable belief, but only within a paradigm of God’s unmediated activity in the hearts of unbelievers.
Stated another way: “The Gospel brought by unmediated revelation to His chosen apostles is insufficient to enable the belief of their hearers unless God also chooses to reveal that same truth to each hearer individually by those same unmediated means used to bring the inspiration to the apostles in the first place.”
(1) Where is this taught in scripture? (2) Why even use the mediated means of the apostles writing scriptures if those means are not sufficient anyway? Why not just reveal truth directly (unmediated) to each individual to begin with and cut out the insufficient “middle man?”
With Leighton and all Christians, I believe that the Gospel message is a production of the Holy Spirit. However, it is not a procession of the Holy Spirit and must not be conflated with His personal activity in our souls.
I agree, which is why I teach God’s “personal activity” comes as a result of a faith response to God’s inspired appeal, not the other way around. This is why we disagree with Calvinists (and others) who suggest the Holy Spirit’s direct indwelling (unmediated involvement) must proceed a faith response. The gospel is God’s APPEAL to have a personal/direct “unmediated” encounter with God. To suggest God must encounter us in that direct/unmediated way in order for us to freely respond to an APPEAL to do so seems to get the proverbial cart before the horse.
If a sworn enemy sends me a letter requesting to meet in person so as to be reconciled, does that enemy need to personally hand deliver the letter for it to have the sufficient means to enable my response? Of course not. A currier can carry the letter and it would still sufficiently communicate the intent of that enemy and the means by which we can be reconciled. Why would God’s chosen means be less sufficient? Where does the bible explicitly teach that such inspired means are not sufficient to enable a free response?
Jesus is the one who “enlightens every man” (John 1:9)…
How? By what means? Did every man get the unmediated revelation that the apostles got when writing the scripture? I agree that God enlightens every man, but He does so through His chosen means. See Eph. 3:2-11 quoted above.
…we are not merely made in the image of God but in some mysterious way God is in contact with each of us, for “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
As believers in Him, yes, we live and move and have our being in a personal – direct – intimate – relational way. But we are not like the apostles who received direct revelation from the Spirit. Instead, we believed their message so as to receive His Spirit.
The view articulated by Leighton essentially posits that since the Bible says that the hearing of the message produces faith…
Again, not trying to nitpick, but I do not believe that hearing the message certainly produces faith, but that it enables a free response of faith. The gospel enables the lost man to place his trust in Jesus (Rm. 10:14). That is important in this particular discussion because the burden on me IS NOT to show that hearing divinely inspired truth is sufficient to save the lost, but only that it is sufficient to enable a free response of those who are lost. What’s the difference? One cannot conflate the responsibility of the lost to respond to God’s revelation and the responsibility of God to graciously save/indwell those who freely believe.
Let me reaffirm that there is a difference between what I am calling God pressing upon the soul and God inhabiting the soul. Contra Leighton’s claim, there is no inherent danger that I might blur the distinction between God’s prevenient grace with regeneration proper.
Micah may draw that distinction systematically but the question for our discussion is whether scripture ever does. I my opinion, his perspective creates a somewhat confusing systematic by which God must work to enable his own means to work and I simply see no need for such qualification in scripture. If indeed God’s pressing upon the soul is accomplished by means of inspired revelation (rather than some unknown supernatural “unmediated” way never explicitly expounded upon in the Bible), then God still gets all the credit for those means, doesn’t He? So, what is it that we gain by making such difficult qualifications?
Is not this article sufficient means to communicate my message and potentially persuade a hearer to adopt my view? Must I show up to the hearer’s home in person to be given due credit for my efforts? Why would my mediated message be more sufficient to inform and convince a hearer than God’s?
I assert that Jesus’ words “you can do nothing without me” (John 15) are not only to the Christian but can also be applied to every act of every person, for it is in Him that “all things consist” (Col. 1:17). We can do nothing spiritual without Him…
I agree, but then again I don’t believe someone responding to God’s inspired revelation as being “without Him,” do you? For instance, I spent a summer in Russia away from my family who prayed for me, spoke to me by letter or on the phone daily. I might say to them, “I could not have made it through the summer without you.” Was their prayers and daily correspondence insufficient to be credited to them simply because they were not with me in person (“unmediated”)? They supported me through means, and they get the due credit for that support. As Jesus said, “Blessed are they who do not see me but still believe.”
I disagree with Leighton’s view that the gospel makes a direct contact with our souls in a way commensurate with the unmediated contact by God Himself.
That is just it. They are not commensurate. The gospel is making an appeal for a direct intimate contact with our soul. I just believe those are sufficient means to enable the lost to respond in faith. Only when man responds willingly to the appeal to be reconciled are we blessed with the direct “unmediated” presence of our Lord.
Based on previous discussions, Leighton believes that the Holy Spirit’s activity could have simply been paused after the writing of Scripture and people would still be able to come to faith.
This is not entirely accurate. I believe the Holy Spirit continues to work to preserve and carry His word by means of inspired Holy Spirit indwelled messengers. We cannot assume the gospel’s preservation and continued dispersion would have happened apart from the continual work of the Spirit through His bride. The point of the former conversation, to which I believe Micah is referencing, was only to illustrate the sufficiency of the inspired word in enabling the lost to respond to its appeal. I was not making a case that the gospel would have continued to accomplish its intended purposes absent the Holy Spirit’s work in other ways.
I would also take issue with the many quotes provided in Micah’s article of other believers and Early Church Fathers. I honestly tried to read them with full objectivity in order to understand why Micah reads them as uniquely supportive of his perspective. In order for me to give a more meaningful response it would be necessary for us to go line by line through those quotes and expound on what Micah believes the author is intending. I simply do not see specific support for his position in those quotes.
I appreciate these brother’s sharpening my iron as I hope to sharpen theirs. Blessings to all.