by Leighton Flowers
Are “Modern Arminians” and Provisionists Semi-Pelagians for denying the need for a Partial Regeneration?
As many of our regular listeners are aware, we as “Provisionists” (or “Traditional Southern Baptists”), are sometimes accused of holding to heretical (or “semi” heretical) views due to our denial of the Calvinistic doctrine of Total Inability, the belief that all men are born in a corpse-like dead condition spiritually and thus must be given new life (“regeneration” on Calvinism) or partial life (“partial regeneration” on Classical Arminianism) in order to believe the clearly taught, graciously inspired gospel truth brought by the Holy Spirit through His chosen messengers.
I have produced much to debunk the concept of Total Inability in my books, blog posts and broadcasts, but in short, we deny that being “spiritually dead” entails a moral incapacity to believe so as to be given new life. What does the Bible say one must do BEFORE getting new life?
“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”John 20:31
“…you refuse to come to me to have life”John 5:40
The scriptures seem to teach that “believing in” or “coming to” Christ is the solution for those who remain dead in their trespasses rather than some pre-regenerating or pre-partial regenerating work.
Interestingly, some modern day Arminians, like Dr. Brian Abasciano of the Society of Evangelical Arminians, agree with me in regard to my objections against the need for a “partial regeneration.” Abasciano wrote:
“…the classical Arminian view is neither the only nor the typical Arminian view of prevenient grace. The classical view regards prevenient grace as a partial regeneration…the more typical Arminian view today does not view prevenient grace as partial regeneration, but as God’s work of helping sinners to believe the gospel in various ways such as enlightening, convicting, drawing, opening the heart, etc…. It does not involve a split in regeneration” <link>
Both Olson and Abasciano maintain, however, that God must supply an extra supernatural grace to the lost, above and beyond the supernaturally gracious work in bringing us the gospel, in order for the lost to believe it. In my experience, the modern Arminian, like Abasciano, have been hard-pressed to explain what exactly that supernatural grace is accomplishing that is not adequately accomplished by the gospel itself. After all, if the condition of man from birth is not, as the Calvinist explains it, “corpse-like-dead and thus needing spiritual life in order to believe the gospel,” then what must the Holy Spirit do to the lost man in order to make the gospel revelation sufficiently believable? On Abasciano’s view, what specifically is the Spirit DOING above and beyond what the Spirit does by bringing the light of the gospel?
Provisionist/Traditionalists, like myself, maintain that the gospel is a sufficient work of supernatural grace by the Holy Spirit to enable whosoever hears it to believe (Rom 10:14; Jn 20:31; 2 Tim 3:15). And that the only reason someone might be in a condition by which they are “ever hearing but not understanding, ever seeing but not perceiving” is due to an individual’s libertarianly free choice to continually reject God’s clearly revealed truth and remain in rebellion (the word “libertarian” simply means they had the moral capacity to choose otherwise). Over time, despite God’s patience and gracious provisions, a sinner’s heart may “grow calloused” or their “consciences become seared” and they may be “given over by God to their defiled minds.” But, despite what both Arminians and Calvinists teach, this is not an innate moral incapacity from birth inherited from Adam due to the Fall (Acts 28:23-28; Jn 12:39-41; Heb 3:15; Rom 1:28; 2:15; 1 Tim 4:2).
In a recent Twitter exchange, Abasciano explained what he sees as the difference between my view and that of the modern day Arminian. He wrote,
“We believe that sinners need God’s help to believe, that sinners need the Holy Spirit to work directly in their hearts alongside the gospel”
And I would say that sinners need God’s help to believe, so the Holy Spirit inspired the gospel to be written and proclaimed through His chosen messengers and spread by His Bride throughout the world so as to work directly in their hearts.
Abasciano seems to assume the gospel (God’s word) itself cannot be considered a “supernatural work of the Holy Spirit,” which has the ability to sufficiently “penetrate the heart,” but the Bible seems to indicate otherwise:
“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 my Arminian brethren, yet the author of Hebrews 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. Do God’s gracious means really need more grace to work?
Here are other passages that seem to teach that the scriptures, God’s inspired words, are sufficient 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
“Leighton believes there is nothing wrong with sinners that would mean they cannot believe the gospel on their own once it is presented. (He says they are not on their own because they have the gospel, but that is torturing the language; the point is having the gospel, they can believe it without additional grace/help from God.)”
I would characterize the gospel as a gracious “help of God” and see no reason to assume it’s insufficient to do what the scriptures say it is meant to do. The Holy Spirit brings us the gospel so why would anyone attempt to separate the two, as if the gospel may be “a dead letter” (as Calvin put it) if the Holy Spirit does not work alongside it? You cannot separate the author from his writings, especially if that author is supernaturally preserving and carrying those writings through those in which He Himself inspires and embodies.
“This is Semi-Pelagian, which does not mean unsaved. On the classical teachings, it depends on what you mean by them. We affirm original sin, but there are varying orthodox views of original sin. We believe in total depravity, which includes inability to believe apart from God’s gracious enabling.”
How does Abasciano think he is going to escape the boogie-man label of “Semi-Pelagianism” brought by his fellow Arminians of the “Classical Arminian” variety (like Olson) who, in affirming the “corpse-like deadness” of the lost and thus the necessity of partial regeneration, can thus hurl a similar objection against modern Arminians. In other words, how would Abasciano reply if Olson falsely labeled him as he has falsely labeled me?1
Maybe then Abasciano would borrow from the works of Drs. David Allen and Adam Harwood, who clearly establish the historical definitions of the term “semi-Pelagianism” and demonstrate how we differ? Maybe then he would realize the error of his ways?
Abasciano also wrote regarding my views:
“I have shared with [Leighton] the non-partial-regeneration view, but he still insists that sinners don’t need the Holy Spirit to personally and actively minister to them to be able to believe the gospel.”
I know what Abasciano means, but to be clear, I would say that we DO need the Holy Spirit to personally and actively minister to us by means of the gospel so that we may believe. Our difference is not with regard to the personal nature of the Holy Spirit’s work, nor the activity of the Holy Spirit. The point of our contention is solely about the means by which the Holy Spirit works, which I maintain is both personal and active. Abasciano may not believe such means are personal and active but it would be question-begging to presume true the very point up for debate.
The root of the problem is that Dr. Abasciano, knowingly or unknowingly, separates the personal working of the Holy Spirit from the means of the word of God, particularly in a way which I do not do, and hence since I make no such separation, I can easily affirm both (a) the necessity of the personal and active work of the Holy Spirit AND (b) the efficacy of the word of God. He must establish biblically that the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing the gospel is not personal or active enough to be believed by lost people unless another additional MORE personal and MORE active working precedes or accompanies it.
“He [Leighton] is very concerned to insist that there is nothing wrong with human nature such that we need the Holy Spirit to believe the gospel besides that the Holy Spirit revealed the gospel and inspires evangelists. Stating that man does not have ability to believe in the gospel until we hear its message is completely irrelevant.”
To be clear, I do believe there is something wrong with human nature, but I maintain that the gospel provides a sufficient solution to remedy that which is wrong. I also question those who insist the gospel is an insufficient solution, given the many passages that speak of its power2 and the absence of any passage which denies it.3
The fact that we cannot believe something we do not know is only irrelevant to those, like Abasciano, who are seeking to establish the need for something more than the gospel, which once again is the very point up for debate. The principle itself was not irrelevant to Paul in Romans 10:14 apparently:
“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?”
This strongly implies that those who do hear the preacher proclaim the gospel might believe and thus call upon Christ for salvation. What verse explicitly or implicitly suggests otherwise?
“The disagreement is over what we need. [Leighton] says we only need the information of the gospel to believe it without any additional working of the Holy Spirit.”
Allow me to better represent my view: I believe we need the light of the gospel, which is a sufficient work of the Holy Spirit. Abasciano says the gospel is not a sufficient light apart from another work (of which has no clear definition from what I can tell).
“That is the problem. That is what makes him Semi-Pelagian. But the Arminian position is that man is so sinful that he will not believe the gospel unless the Holy Spirit helps him. Man and the gospel = rejection by man. Man + the gospel + the Holy Spirit working alongside the gospel = man able to believe.”
That does not comport with the definition of Semi-Pelagianism, as provided by Allen and Harwood referenced above (which has yet to be refuted by either Olson or Abasciano to my knowledge). And, if Provisionists were to make an equation to contrast those presented above it would look like this:
Man + the Holy Spirit working by means of the gospel = man able to believe
When Abasciano was asked to clarify what is meant by the “additional work of the Holy Spirit” if it is not “partial regeneration,” Abasciano replied in part saying:
“…we are talking about the [personal] presence of the Holy Spirit. Leighton denies he must be personally present working.”
Both Abasciano and I affirm the omnipresence of God (i.e. He is at all places at all times), so, this is another mischaracterization. Our disagreement IS NOT about the presence of the Spirit, but is instead about the means by which the Spirit (who is always present) is working and the sufficiency of that work.
Abasciano needs to answer this question: What is it that the Holy Spirit is doing that is above and beyond that which the Holy Spirit accomplishes by the means of the gospel?
“I have characterized Leighton’s view before as a form of deism with respect to conversion. We might call it conversional deism. The Holy Spirit did the personal work upfront of creating the gospel. It’s now loose in the world and people can interact with it on their own with the power to believe it or not without God/the Holy Spirit doing anything else.”
This accusation assumes, without any basis, that my view maintains the Holy Spirit is only “creating the gospel,” and then “letting it loose in the world,” when I have explicitly stated to Abasciano (and others from the SEA) that is not my position. Additionally, this characterization seems a bit ironic given that it presumes that the gospel being proclaimed can somehow come about absent a direct, active work of the Holy Spirit, which is closer to Abasciano’s view than mine.
Did not the Holy Spirit inspire the authors to write the gospel? Did not God work within His Bride, of Holy Spirit indwelled believers, to canonize and preserve the scriptures? Does not the Holy Spirit still today embody and influence believers to spread the good news to others? Does not the Holy Spirit still today work through all sorts of circumstances, dreams, visions, good deeds of His Bride and other various means to ensure that others hear His inspired message? And, finally, is not the Holy Spirit omnipresent? I cannot imagine one of us would answer any of these questions in the negative.
I do believe Dr. Abasciano means well, but it appears to me that he is using a tactic called “closing the ranks,” in which he is trying establish his more modern version of Arminianism as “orthodox,” while excluding Provisionists/Traditionalists, and yet, one could make the argument that the “modern Arminians” are closer neighbors to the Provisionists side of the “Prevenient Grace” discussion, since they are with us in denying partial regeneration. Provisionists, therefore, can act as a scapegoat of sorts for the modern Arminian by saying to their classical Arminian friends, “Ok, we disagree on this one point but we are not as bad as those semi-heretical Provisionists are because they think God created us with a capacity that we never lost and we think God permitted us to lose it only to give it back again. See, they are the real heretics, not us!”
There is no need for such boogie-man tactics and there is no reason modern Arminians should be any more scared of Provisionists than they are of those classical Arminians who side with the Calvinists on this relatively obscure doctrine. And, Provisionists certainly should not be treated as more dangerous (“less orthodox”) than the Calvinist, as some surprisingly do. We should deal with the actual claims of our opponents without trying to attach them to heretical views which have little or nothing to do with our actual points of contention.
From my study of the scriptures, I find nothing which clearly teaches that fallen humanity has lost the innate moral capacity to respond positively to God’s own gracious appeals and provisions to be reconciled from that Fall.4 If you have, please show me. I’ll do my best to objectively and honestly evaluate it with much prayer and an open mind.
With all due respect to my Arminian friends, I believe their concession to the unfounded Calvinistic doctrine of “Total Inability” has muddled the waters and made an otherwise clear distinction rather difficult to untangle.
I understand that both Calvinists and Arminians desire to be true to the biblical account, but my challenge to them both is to engage with us over the relevant biblical data (without punting to the boogie man fallacy of Pelagianism or some new made up form of Deism).
In my experience, the scholars on both sides tend to cite the other as validation for their otherwise unfounded views (i.e. even Arminians agree with us on this point so no need to debate it biblically) and anyone who falls outside the 16th century parameters are piously dismissed by man-made labels also introduced in the 16th century (i.e. semi-Pelagianism).