This post was submitted by a reader, Jenai Rothnie, and we are grateful for her contribution. Edited by Eric Kemp.
Recently, Dr. Roger Olson wrote a blog post, “For Fellow Arminians and Quasi-Arminians (Non-Calvinists): Prevenient Grace”  in which he asked the thoughts of those who do not identify either as Calvinists or Arminians on the topic of prevenient grace. This is the question he addressed:
“Is a special act of the Spirit is required to overcome the fallen nature of a person so he is then able to believe?”
Dr. Olson framed this as there being only three options: Belief in irresistible grace; belief in prevenient, but resistible grace; or belief that the initiative in salvation is human.
However, there is a more fundamental question that Dr. Olson leaves unaddressed. Does spurning the idea that an unregenerate, fallen man is incapable of responding to the gospel in faith, the theory of Total Inability which is shared by Calvinists and many Arminians, mean that one must believe that man is “the initiator in salvation”? I do not see a good reason to think so. Indeed, this is a false dilemma, since there are other options. In other words, there is no logical reason that disbelief in one would mandate belief in the other. All Christians can agree; God initiates salvation. To illustrate this let me ask yet another series of questions I will spend the rest of the article exploring:
What does it mean for God to initiate salvation? How does God initiate salvation? And would a response to the gospel in faith outside of a special act of prior regeneration or enabling grace be the logical equivalent to man initiating salvation?
“Initiate” As a Verb
As with many soteriological topics, it is important to define terms. As I define the different ways “initiate” can be used, I will show how each understanding does not require Dr. Olson’s presumption of “Total Inability” for God to initiate salvation. The Miriam Webster definition of the verb ‘initiate’  is as follows:
1: To cause or facilitate the beginning of: set going, such as to initiate a program
The ‘program’ God initiated is Salvation. He caused the beginning of this program by sending Christ as Savior – something He planned from the foundation of the world – and revealing Him to man (Acts 28:28, I Pet 1:20, Tit 2:11.) The exact method for this program He initiated to be effectually fulfilled is the New Covenant in Christ’s shed blood, salvation being given to those who enter this Covenant through faith (Lk 22:20, Gal 4:24-31.) News of this program is then spread through the gospel message (Acts 8:12, Isa 52:7, Rom 1:16.)
2: to induct into membership by or as if by special rites
God inducts believers into His household and into the church as members (Eph 1:5, Rom 8:14, Rom 8:29, Jn 1:12-13, I Cor 12:27.) The first ‘rite’ He uses is baptism – identifying the believer as dying with Christ to their old self which was dead in sin, and raising that believer to new life in Christ (Rom 6:3-4, Rom 7:6, I Pet 1:3.) The born-again believer is granted the indwelling Spirit, given spiritual gifts to aid in the edification of the church, and adopted as a son of God and brother of Christ. (Rom 8:9, I Cor 12:7-11, Jn 1:12, Eph 1:5.)
3: to instruct in the rudiments or principles of something: Introduce
There are many elements God uses to instruct in the rudiments and principles of salvation. The general law of God written on people’s hearts, the general conviction of sin the Holy Spirit gives the world, the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, scripture, and the gospel message are just a few of them (Rom 2:14-15, Jn 16:9, II Tim 3:15, Eph 2:19-20, Rom 10:8-11, Heb 4:10). Even the law points us to Christ and the need for a Savior (Acts 7:52-53, Gal 3:24.) These all ‘introduce’ us to Christ, the good news of the Kingdom of God, and the way of salvation. For the believer, God continues to teach and instruct us via the indwelling Holy Spirit, scripture, and our relationship with Christ (Jn 14:26, I Jn 2:27, II Tim 3:16, II Pet 1:3-11.)
“Initiate” As a Noun
- A person who is undergoing or has undergone an initiation
The person who repents and turns in faith to Christ is the one undergoing God’s induction into His household and the church (Eph 2:17-19, I Cor 12:27, Col 3:15)
- A person who is instructed or adept in some special field
The believer is given the Holy Spirit to instruct Him in all things, scriptures to develop godliness, and relationship with Christ so that he may bear fruit (Jn 14:26, II Pet 1:3-11, Jn 15:5.)
The Initiate Is Not the Initiator
If God inducts the believing one, then it can be said that the believer is inducted by God. The believers’s agreement to join Yahweh’s group or program doesn’t change that. Yahweh is the one to admit the new Christian into membership and instruct the believer. The believing one’s assent to undergo the initiation merely affirms God’s role as initiator; it does not somehow make the believing one the initiator.
A fallen human hearing the gospel message about the Savior and subsequently turning in repentance and faith to Christ in no way makes that human the initiator of salvation. It is a logically absurdity, a contradiction in terms; the initiate cannot be considered the initiator.
Initiation into the New Covenant
One of the most important concepts in scripture is the New Covenant (also known as ‘The New Testament.’) The New Covenant is a two-party covenant between God and His people, attested to by the blood of Christ (Gal 3.) Yet a person has to enter that New Covenant by faith to become part of it. Only inside the New Covenant can he be cleansed by Christ’s blood and claim the promises of it (Heb 9:11-22, Gal 3:14.)
“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” I Tim 3-6a
The New Covenant is initiated by God. The securities and promises of the New Covenant are also initiated by God (Gal 3:22, Gal 4:30-21, Heb 12:22-25). Becoming a ‘grantee’ of those promises by faith does not, even in part, make a person the grantor. Christ initiated the ‘New Covenant’ in His blood, sealing it with His death and thus making it available for all mankind to enter it through faith. Our willingness to enter the covenant does not mean we made or initiated the covenant or initiated the giving of its rewards, including the promise of salvation (Gal 3:10-29, Col 1:21-23). At best we could say, colloquially, that our entering the covenant by faith begins our entering the covenant by faith – but that is just a tautology, and not treated in scripture as an impossibility for man like fulfilling the works of the law would be, but rather a requirement (Jn 6:28-29).
God As Initiator
God ‘initiates’ salvation by revealing the Savior and the offer of salvation to everyone, asking them only to believe, like a King both preparing a feast and sending out invitations asking people to come. For most people today, that invitation will be upon hearing the gospel. Faith is our acceptance of that invite, our trust in the feast to come.
God then effectually grants the believer salvation – we die with Christ and rise by the power of the Spirit to new life in Christ, an entire process which is initiated by God, sustained by the power of the Spirit, and continues until the believer physically dies and is resurrected with a new spiritual body. At no point does man do any of the actual ‘saving’ part, whether by accepting the offer or continuing to abide in Christ and walk by the granted indwelling Spirit.
Just as the initiator of a group or rite might have conditions for the initiate to follow, so God has the requirement of faith to be inducted into His household, to be grantees of the Covenant, to receive a regenerate nature, and to be recipients of Christ’s deliverance. If a fallen human were capable of responding to the gospel in faith, that would not logically make him the initiator of salvation – it just makes him an initiate. As such, the argument that the only alternative to Calvinism’s ‘Irresistible Grace’ or Arminianism’s ‘Prevenient Grace’ would be ‘Man Initiates Salvation’ is unfounded.
Below you will find brief comments of other passages which all Christians should be able to agree shows that God initiates that, we would argue, do not require Total Inability.
Here are 12 other non-exhaustive ways in which God initiates both the general offer of salvation to all mankind and the effectual granting of salvation to those who believe:
- God sent Christ into the world as Savior (Isa 63, Jn 17:3, Jn 3:17)
Man did not ask for a Savior or bring up his own savior or save himself. This sending was initiated by God.
- Christ ‘illuminates’ the way to eternal life. (Heb 1:3, Jn 1_3-4)
A man who sees the light and walks into it does not initiate the light. Without the light given first, he would not have even walked into it, so it cannot even be said that he initiated coming into the light. He responded; he did not initiate.
- God spoke to mankind through Christ during the Earthly ministry of Jesus (Lk 3:23, Heb 1:1-2, Matt 4:23)
This teaching of the kingdom of God and other truths was not initiated by man. Jesus taught the message to His disciples who shared it, but they did not teach by their own initiation. And no one who heard or even believed him initiated His words.
- By the Father’s will, Jesus was lifted up, drawing all men (Jn 12:32, Isa 5:26, Isa 10:11.)
Jesus is the one who is the beacon or rallying-point to which the nations look. He initiates the signal. He initiates the shelter offered to those coming to Him. He initiates the deliverance granted to those coming to Him.
This lifting up also initiated the opportunity for true healing to all. As Moses lifted the snake on a pole so that anyone who looked at the snake would be healed by the power of God, so God initiated the opportunity for healing through Christ’s work on the cross. Anyone who trusts in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross would be healed by dying to sin and be given eternal life in Christ (Jn 3:14-16, I Pet 2:24)
God initiates that call to be healed to all, and initiates the healing itself to those who look. Those who look do not become the healer, but merely accept that call to be healed and accept the healing God will then effectually initiate.
- Now that Jesus has ascended into Heaven (Heb 4:14,) God continues to illuminate the way through the gospel about Christ (II Tim 1:9-10, Jn 12:46, etc.)
By making the “righteousness apart from the law” known to all the world, anyone can now ‘see’ the way of salvation when presented the gospel. The gospel message ‘introduces’ those who hear it to Christ and the way of salvation, and some will respond to it in faith. (Rom 10:8-15.)
- The general revelation of God’s natural law written on the hearts of man shows the reality that we all sin (Rom 2:15-16.)
God ‘writes’ His law on the heart of man. An unbeliever who, at times, follows this law does not initiate the law or actualize it somehow by obeying. Their obedience, incomplete though it is, is rooted in the prior law of God written on their heart.
- The general conviction of sin in the world by the Holy Spirit reveals the need for a Savior (Jn 16:8-11.)
When man feels convicted for a sin he commits, it is not himself that initiates the conviction. The Holy Spirit does. If he heeds the conviction and repents, that repentance is still rooted in the conviction that the Holy Spirit initiated. It cannot even be said that man initiates his own repentance, since that ‘change of mind’ was initiated by the conviction of the Spirit that his natural mind was wrong. Man can also choose to ignore that conviction or reject it, rather than repent, but that cannot stop the Holy Spirit from continuing to convict the world regarding sin.
- An unbeliever who turns in faith becomes the baptized initiate, not the baptizing initiator.
For a new believer, God inducts him into the church, the body of Christ, through the ‘ritual’ of baptism. He takes the dead-in-sin condemned person and cleanses their conscience before Him, identifying that person with the death of Christ and so ‘killing’ the old self which was dead to sin (I Pet 3:12, Col 2:20.) As Christ’s death fulfilled the law, so the believer dies to the law (Rom 7:4.) God then identifies him with the resurrection of Christ, regenerating him unto a new life by the power of the Spirit, which then is given to that believer to indwell him as a helper. The new ‘alive in Christ’ believer is now dead to sin rather than dead in sin (Rom 6:1-14.) The believer is now ‘born again’ of the Spirit (I Pet 1:3, I Pet 1:23, Jn 3:5.)
- For believers, God inducts us into His household by adoption (Gal 4:4-7.)
God adopts us, we do not adopt Him. Our willingness to accept Him as Father is not the same as being the one who initiates the actual offer of adoption or the one who initiates and performs the adoption. Not only this, but this adoption was already settled before time began, when God predestined that He would adopt all those ‘in Christ,’ i.e. adopt all believers (Eph 1:4-5.)
- For those initiates in the New Covenant (believers,) God initiates the promises of the Covenant according to when He says they will occur. For present members of the Covenant: the Spirit to teach us and perfect us and flow from us like living water, God’s peace and armor to guard us, etc. (Jn 16:13, Jn 7:37-38, Gal 3:3, Eph 6:10-17.) For the future, Christ to raise all believers on the last day and grant us new Spiritual bodies, and for God to usher us in to His eternal rest (Jn 6:40, I Cor 15:42-58.)
- For believers, God initiates the bearing of Spiritual fruit (Gal 2:22-26, Jn 15:1-8)
“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” Jn 15:4
The believer must remain in Christ and walk by the Spirit. But does this ‘initiate’ the fruit? No – the initiation is from Christ our support, the power of the Spirit, and the will of the Father.
 Olson, Roger. “For Fellow Arminians and Quasi-Arminians (Non-Calvinists): Prevenient Grace.” Roger E. Olson My Evangelical Arminian Theological Musings, Patheos, April 26th, 2019, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2019/04/for-fellow-arminians-and-quasi-arminians-non-calvinists-prevenient-grace/
 “Initiate.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Inc, 2019. Merriam-Webster.com. Web. May 14 2019.