Dr. Bruce Ware
The following is excerpted from the transcript of a class presented by theology professor Dr. Bruce Ware, Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). It discusses both the background and stance, as he understands them, between Calvinism and Arminianism. The opinions presented are solely Dr. Ware’s although I am willing to share mine, should there be responses questioning what I believe. I hope that some of the ‘stealth’ visitors to this blog, who are very anti-Calvin (evenly rabidly so), will read and attempt intelligent discussion accompanied by rational thought and critical thinking.
Background and Precursors
We are talking about the precursors to the Calvinist-Arminian debate that took place in the late Reformation period. Much of this debate began back in the fourth and fifth century with the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius.
1. Pelagius (in Rome ca. 383-410)
I had mentioned that Pelagius put a strong emphasis on the human will and the will’s ability to decide the course of action that a person would take. Upon hearing the Gospel, the human will can respond in obedience to Christ. Upon hearing moral imperatives, what we should do and what we ought to do, the human will is able to make these choices as whether to obey or not. So God’s gift to human beings was volition, to do what we were called to do, so how unjust it would be if God commanded us to something that we just could not do.
I have no idea if Pelagius used this illustration; I suspect that he didn’t because it has a kind of contemporary ring to it. But it would be a very Pelagian way of thinking. I have two girls, and they are now grown and able to do a lot more things than they could when they were little. Imagine a four year old girl standing by the refrigerator in the kitchen, and I say to this little four year old girl, Rachel, (who is one of my two girls), “Rachel, will you reach up on the top of the refrigerator and hand me the chips?” Rachel is four years old and she looks up at the top of the refrigerator and she reaches as high as she can and she can’t get there. I say, “Rachel, did you hear your daddy? I said reach up on top of the refrigerator and give me the chips.” She looks at me with this scared look on her face and she jumps and she tries and she can’t do it. I say, “Rachel, naughty girl.” So I discipline her; I hold her accountable for failing to obey the moral command I gave her. Would that be fair? This is exactly the way Pelagius thought about this. If God gives moral commands, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved,” the standards of justice require that human beings are able by nature to respond to those commands. So if you reject Christ that is because you willfully rejected him. If you come to him, it is because you willfully, by nature, used your God-given volition to do what you can do, obey.
A lot of Christian people are surprised to find out that the view I just described has been evaluated in the history of the church to be a heresy. It sounds so intuitive to so many people, and yet it has been judged a heresy. How can that be?
2. Augustine (354-430)
Augustine disputed this view that Pelagius was proposing. Augustine, I think it is fair to say, is the single most influential theologian in the history of the church, baring biblical authors like Paul or Peter. Clearly, in the history of the church he has had the most impact. He was the synthesizer of the whole early church tradition, particularly the western church because he was in the Latin tradition. He was the one, for example, that we will come to when we talk about the doctrine of the trinity; he put it all together in his massive volume, “de Trinitate.” He synthesized so much for the early church. Then, when you come to the Reformation period, Calvin, Luther and the other Reformers were referring back to Augustine regularly for help in articulating theological understanding. So he clearly had the biggest impact of any person in the history of church doctrine.
One of the areas that he is most famous for interacting with is this question of the nature of sin and grace. So what did Augustine Propose?
1. God is righteous and his law is righteous.
There is nothing wrong with the law. Romans 7 teaches the law is holy, righteous and good. The law coming from God must be of the character of God. God is righteous his law is righteous.
2. Humanity was created good, and before sin, could obey God’s commands. So if you are looking for an answer to the question of what went wrong with people, don’t look at creation to find that. God didn’t create evil people. God did not create people disobedient to him. He created people who were good, so in the garden, and presumably until Genesis 3, there were, no doubt, many occasions where Adam and his wife obeyed God and followed his commands while resisting any temptation there might have been to eat of the forbidden tree. They did what they were suppose to and pleased God. They were able to do that in their unfallen state. But then, Augustine held, sin resulted in human beings being unable to obey God. Sin so affected the very nature of Adam, his wife and all of their progeny (all those who are in Adam), that they are born into this world with that sin-infested nature, rendering them unable to carry out the moral commands of God. More than just hindered by it, humanity is hampered by it, sort of like trying to run a race with a 15 pound weight attached to your waist. Adam’s progeny is absolutely unable to carry out the command of God.
So when asked the question, how can God be just in holding people accountable, Augustine’s answer is that what the law shows what sinful humans cannot do, grace enables them to obey. The law, according to Augustine, is given by God precisely to show us what we cannot do on our own. The purpose of the law is to make it clear to human hearts that we can’t keep it, so that we fall upon God, humbly recognizing our own inability and accept grace, by which we are now enabled to do what God calls us to do.
So you can see these perspectives are very different. For Pelagius, when asked what it means when God gives a moral command; what does that entail or imply about human nature; his answer is that if God gives a command, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,” it implies that we can keep it. How could God be just and how could we rightly be held accountable if we couldn’t keep it? It would be like asking my four-year-old daughter to reach up to the top of the refrigerator and hand me the chips. She can’t do it, how could I be just for holding her accountable for failing to do what she cannot do? How could God hold us accountable for failing to do what we cannot do? That is all Pelagius’ view.
Augustine’s view is that the law is given by God for really a gracious purpose ultimately. The law condemns, but the reason for the law coming to us is to expose our own inherent inability to live a righteous life, so that we recognize our need for grace. We realize how totally depraved we are, to take the language of the later Reformation period when Calvin picked up on this doctrine. We realize that every aspect of our lives is affect by sin, so we cannot do what pleases God, we need grace.
So you can see why this debate has often been framed as the “nature/grace” debate. Can we obey by nature? Pelagius said yes. Augustine said no, by nature (sinful nature), we cannot please God. We must have grace in order to obey.
3. Council of Carthage (418)
The church met in regard to this whole question and decided that the Pelagian view was considered unorthodox, heretical. They judged that Augustine’s view was fundamentally correct and Pelagius’ view was incorrect. From that point on in the history of the church, since the Council of Carthage in 418, the church has rejected the Pelagian view as a viable legitimate biblical view.
4. Semi-Pelagian Alternative
There were many people in the church who were not entirely happy with Augustine’s view. One of the implications of Augustine’s view, which was seen even in Augustine’s day and certainly was picked up by the Reformers, is that if no one by nature can believe in Christ and be saved, if no one by nature can be pleasing to God, then it requires grace in order to be saved. Are all people saved? No. Then, might it be the case that grace is only given to some and not all. If that is the case, then who decides who gets the grace? We don’t merit grace. That is the whole point of grace: unmerited favor. So, God decides to whom he gives grace and from whom he withholds grace. Then this seems to lead to some notion of God’s election of people apart from anything they have done. This was for many people, then and now, a very troubling notion.
There arose in the church at this time a modified position that has been called Semi-Pelagianism after the Council of Carthage made their decision. The Semi-Pelagian alternative tried to agree with Augustine and Pelagius simultaneously. How do you do that when they have really opposite views?
Essentially what they argued was, yes, Augustine is right that all people in Adam are affected by Adam’s sin. Pelagius got this wrong in thinking that people are born into this world morally neutral and can go either way. They stood in agreement with Augustine that in Adam we incur sin; by the one act of Adam’s sin, we are sinners. But, they argued, it is not the case that sin results in our being totally unable to do anything that is right, anything that pleases God. What sin does is hampers or weakens our will. It makes it harder to obey; we are less inclined to do what God wants us to. So apart from grace, we are disinclined to obey God. We can obey him, but it is hard to do so. Grace comes along as an assistant, a helper, a prod to do what we can do by nature. This is the Semi-Pelagian alternative that really became dominate through much of the church.
5. The Senate of Orange (529)
Semi-Pelagianism was debated for a full century after the Council of Carthage in 418 and its main tenets were rejected formally by the church. Yet they were picked up on a popular level by a vast majority of the church. The Senate of Orange met in 529 and rejected the Semi-Pelagian Alternative. Even though it was rejected as well, it was still accepted informally in the church and became the predominate Roman Catholic view. Most Roman Catholic theology is founded upon a Semi-Pelagian understanding of the relationship between grace and nature. Grace comes along to assist and strengthen a weakened will in doing what we are called to do.
Because, according to Pelagius, a person is born into this world without the sin of Adam, without guilt and without any propensity toward sin, he or she is just neutral. So, in principle someone could always make right choices. When asked the question of how to deal with the Bible passage that says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”(Rom 3:23), his answer would be that is, as a matter of fact, true. We sin by habit and by custom, and we are born into a world surrounded by sinners, so what is the most likely thing that is going to happen according to Pelagius? We will follow the example of other people and sin. But must it happen? No, if you say it must happen, you totally evacuate the will of its ability that God gave it to do what is good and what is right.
So what is Augustine’s view of free will? There is the earlier Augustine and the later Augustine. The earlier Augustine, I think it would be fair to say, held to what would later become known as a libertarian view of freedom. In fact, the free will defense, that is so commonly invoked in relation to the problem with evil in Arminian circles over the centuries, finds its roots in Augustine. I could show you a passage in Augustine’s treatise on the freedom of the will where he gives essentially the free will defense in one page. It is a beautiful statement of it, very clear and succinct. But the later Augustine came to a different understanding of will, in which God has to enable the will and equip the will to do what is right. He comes much closer (although I don’t think it is ever out with precision) to what has come to known as the compatibilist view of the will.
For all this time, until the Reformation period, in the medieval church the Semi-Pelagian view prevailed predominately, and we don’t have a change until the Reformation, when Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other Reformers began to rethink this whole issue of the relationship of the moral commands to human nature, the question of nature verses grace all comes up again.
Luther, Calvin, Arminius and the Synod of Dort (1618-19)
1. Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Martin Luther was the first to champion the Reformation doctrine that became called “the doctrine of total depravity” in a book he wrote in response to Erasmus of Rotterdam, the humanist literary expert. Erasmus was a brilliant man, and was highly educated. He had written a book entitled The Freedom of The Will, in which he argued what was, fundamentally, a Semi-Pelagian position. He acknowledged that sin had some impact on the will but that we were free; we could choose. That was the dominate note in Erasmus’ The Freedom of The Will. Luther wrote a tract in response, it is one of his most famous writings entitled “The Bondage of The Will.” Luther wrote in “The Bondage of The Will,” that sin has so bound us that we are not free. Luther didn’t have any conception of an unregenerate person, a fallen person being free. To be free is to be as God is. God who can only do what is good, God cannot sin, God cannot lie, God cannot go back on his word, but God is free. Just the opposite of that is the sinner, the unsaved sinner, the fallen person, who cannot do good, cannot please God, cannot obey the Gospel on his or her own. That person has no freedom according to Luther. This view, where there is no freedom of the will, is not a typically Reformed view. This is Luther’s view that there is no freedom at all, so he calls it the bondage of the will.
What is needed then? Grace is needed to free the will to do what is good. So when grace comes, God enables, frees up, enlivens the will of the human being to do now what it previously could not do; and that is obey God, trust Christ, and believe the Gospel. An implication of this for Luther was, because all are not saved, God gives this freeing grace, which enables the will to do what it could not do before, to the elect; he gives that to some. The doctrine of unconditional election was, for Luther, a logical entailment of his view of total depravity and the necessity of grace in order for any to believe. For Luther, it was so clear that if you hold to total depravity and the necessity of grace, and yet all are not saved, then that entails that God chooses to give his grace some and chooses not to give to others; hence unconditional election is an entailment of those two doctrines: total depravity and the necessity of grace. The Arminian position disagreed with that notion.
2. John Calvin (1509-1564)
On this issue John Calvin held to Luther’s view, but was not as firm on the notion that unbelievers or fallen people have no freedom. He rather spoke in terms of God’s control over all that happened, though people did precisely what they chose to do and wanted to do, they did so in a way that fulfilled God’s will, and yet they were morally responsible for it. He did not follow Luther in denying any sense of freedom whatsoever of unsaved fallen humans. Because he recognized they did precisely what they wanted to do, he understood that as a kind of freedom. Jonathan Edwards is the one who championed the notion, two centuries later, that this freedom that unbelievers have is a legitimate concept because it is the expression of their greatest desire or their highest aspirations. This is what they want to do above all else, and that constitutes freedom. Calvin shifted from Luther on this and Edwards actually developed this notion of freedom a bit more.
But where Calvin agreed with Luther was on total depravity; people could not do anything that pleased God on their own, in Adam, in their sins. Secondly, grace was necessary for anyone to believe in Christ, obey the Gospel, and follow the moral commands of God to live in a way that pleased God. It followed, according to Calvin, that unconditional election must be the case. God chose those to whom he would give grace; by which, they would certainly come; and he chose not to give grace to others.
The following are key passages that Luther, Calvin and for that matter even Augustine refer to in reference to total depravity. You can have in mind that that these ideas were not just lifted out of the air; they were attempting to be faithful to Scripture’s teaching.
Romans 8 was referred to on a number of occasions by these theologians. Verses 5-9 (Rom 8:5-8).
Rom 8:5 For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. Rom 8:6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace,
Now listen carefully.
Rom 8:7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, Ro 8:8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
They looked at this and said, people who are in the flesh, unsaved people, dominated by the flesh, by this sinful inclination of heart, are so affected by sin that they are hostile to the things of God. It is not even that they are indifferent, it is much more like what Jesus says in John 3 about how they see the light and hate the light; they do not come to the light because the light exposes their evil deeds; they turn from it; they love the darkness; they love their evil ways. So fallen sinners apart from grace would never obey God, follow God, or believe in Christ.
Hebrews 11:6 is another passage that has been cited. “And without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to him must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him” (Heb 11:6).
Without faith it is impossible to please God. Do unbelievers have faith? No. Can they please God? No. So it is impossible for them to live a life that is honoring and pleasing to God. John 15:5 says, “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” Obviously, Jesus doesn’t mean apart from Christ you are frozen like an iceberg, and you can literally do nothing. You can’t put on socks; you can’t take a step. He doesn’t mean that. Nor does he mean that you can’t do things that appear good. Remember Jesus talked about sinners who able to give good gifts to their children (Mt 7:11 “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children). I know that there are many unsaved parents out there who give sacrificially to other people, to their kids and friends, and perhaps are even philanthropists. No, Jesus is not indicating that you cannot do that. Apart from me, you can do nothing. What is the context of John 15: Bearing fruit. There can be nothing from your life that bears fruit for the kingdom, nothing of eternal value, nothing that God would say, this is good, this is lasting.
Clearly Scripture has this theme in it. Apart from God’s work in us, apart from Christ, apart from grace, we can do nothing. We cannot please God; we do not follow him, and we don’t want to. We are hostile to him.
The following are key passages related to the necessity of grace.
Eph 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Grace is necessary then for people to be saved.
Luther and Calvin both championed these notions of total depravity, and the necessity of grace. And when grace comes, people believe.
Another passage that shows when grace comes, people believe is John 6:37 where Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out. (John 6:37)
He said in verse 44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44)
But he also says, “All that the Father gives me will come, they will believe, they will be saved.” (John 6:37) So no one can come unless the Father draws, but all who come will be saved.
Luther and Calvin were in agreement on that and it became the uniform Reformation position of the sixteenth century.
3. Jacob Arminius (1560-1609)
The first thing to learn about this name is that it is the name of a person and followers of this person are called Arminians and they may or may not be Armenian in their ethnic origin. Please do not call these people who hold this theological position by the name of an ethnic group. They are not Armenians; they are Arminians with an “i” as in Jacob Arminius.
Arminius grew up in Amsterdam, Holland and was a very bright young man who grew up in a fairly wealthy home. When he was in his late teen years, his father wanted him to be educated in the best way possible, and by that time Amsterdam was very Reformed in its understanding, so his parents sent him to Geneva, Switzerland to receive his major theological training. He studied under Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza. (We have an expert on campus on Theodore Beza, Dr. Shawn Wright, who wrote his dissertation on Beza, one of the very finest dissertations I have had the privilege of reading, it is just superb. Dr Wright read many things that apparently other scholars had not read. These were untranslated works in French and Latin and he came to an interpretation of Beza that corrects some of the scholarship that is out there. It is a remarkable dissertation.) Essentially, Beza inherited the job of passing on to the church this Calvinist understanding, this understanding of Reformed theology. Arminius was a student of Beza and learned it very well. After he was done at Geneva, Arminius went back to Amsterdam, and he was appointed as pastor of one of the most prominent Reformed churches in Amsterdam. Quite an honor for this young man, as he was this home boy, back home. He had received all of this training and he was a very gifted man, so he began pasturing this church. As he was pastoring there, a dispute occurred at the University of Amsterdam. There was a teacher at Amsterdam, Koornhert, who proposed that some of Calvin’s teachings, as they relate to election and irresistible grace, were incorrect. A lot of students began wondering about this, and the question became so large that he actually asked Arminius, as a pastor of this prominent church, to adjudicate the dispute. Arminius took some time off from his pulpit ministry and studied for a period of time to look at the issues, look at what Koornhert was arguing, look at Calvin’s Institutes and study these issues. He came to the conclusion that Koornhert was essentially correct about what he had been arguing.
Many people assume that Arminians are either Pelagians or Semi-Pelagians. The fact of the matter is that Arminius was not either of those, nor was John Wesley a Pelagian or a Semi-Pelagian. Most of the theological tradition in Arminianism has avoided Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism. However, much of the lay Arminian tradition is Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian. That could be said of many of our traditions at the lay level; they may in fact be Pelagian, because Pelagianism has kind of an intuitive sense to it.
Arminius held that Calvin was right in his doctrine of total depravity. People, because of the sin of Adam, are born into this world unable to please God, unable to believe the Gospel, unable to obey anything that God asks them to do to his honor and glory. I sometimes joke that Arminius was a one point Calvinist; he held to total depravity. Here is the problem, if you hold to total depravity how do you avoid holding to unconditional election? Total depravity means that no one by nature can come; so what is needed? Grace. When grace comes, it enlivens the will to believe in Christ and the reason we know that grace only comes to some is because only some are saved. So grace shows that God gives that grace to those whom he wills, and therefore unconditional election follows.
Here is where Arminius proposed a brilliant theological proposal (I don’t believe that it is true, myself. I don’t believe the Bible teaches this doctrine, but I do admire the creativity of Arminius in proposing this. Of course, many theological Arminians believe it is true, believe that the Bible does teach this. And this is where the dispute is, at least at one level.) Arminius believed that grace is necessary, but the grace that comes is resistible grace. No one can come to Christ apart from grace. God has to work upon the hardened heart of an individual in order for that individual to believe. The grace he gives is a grace that enables a will to believe, but does not necessarily lead that will to believe. So grace is not as Calvin proposed; namely irresistible. Grace, rather, is resistible. A person upon hearing the Gospel can be affected by the Grace of God coming to him or her, and at that moment then grace has freed up the will enabling it to believe. So that person can believe in Christ if he or she chooses to do so, but that person can also resist the grace and say, no I don’t want to follow Christ; I don’t want to acknowledge my sin, my impending destruction; I believe that I can on my own be reconciled to God or be acceptable to God, so I reject Christ. What grace does is make it possible for a person to believe or not, to go either way according to this view. So grace is resistible.
Hence, what happens to the doctrine of election for Arminius? This is another interesting move that takes place. Election according to Arminius is conditional. It is not that God chooses whom he will save and whom he won’t on his own. It is not that he is the one who ultimately makes that decision. It is rather that God knows as he looks down the corridors of time, he foresees, what people will do when this grace (resistible grace or prevenient grace – grace that precedes the enlivening or brings about an enlivening) is given to them. If a person is given this grace, and they believe in Christ, it is conditioned upon God’s knowing that they will believe, so he elects them to be saved. But if he sees another person, who when given this grace rejects Christ, conditioned upon that, he does not choose them to be saved. His election is conditioned upon foreseen faith. He sees ahead of time whether people will believe in Christ or not: foreseen faith. So you can see that this view is not Pelagian nor is it Semi-Pelagian because it holds that no one can come to Christ; no one can obey God; no one can please God apart from grace.
I think that those of us who are Calvinist here need to really careful in talking to Arminians, that is theological Arminians, who know their own tradition and hold a strictly Arminian view. We need to be careful that we don’t charge them wrongly because they are not denying that grace in necessary to be saved. They are not saying that the will on its own can believe in Christ and be saved. They are not Pelagian, they are not Semi-Pelagian, rather they are holding that grace is necessary, but that the grace that comes frees up the will to go wither direction, either believe in Christ or not. What this resistible, prevenient grace does is get people to the place Pelagius had them in the first place by nature. Pelagius had them in the first place by nature able to believe or not, the will could believe one way or another. Arminius said, no that is not true; the will cannot do that by itself, but grace makes it possible for them to will to go either way, so ultimately it is up to us whether we believe or not.
4. Remonstrance and the Synod of Dort (1618-19)
Arminius died in 1609. He had written quite a bit and had preached all of these sermons and he had become a strong advocate of this view which became known after him as Arminianism. After his death, his followers wanted to crystallize and put straight-forward, clear understanding even in tract form, if possible so that they could distribute them and make widely known their key points. These people are called the Remonstrance- the followers of Arminius after his death in 1609. They put together the five points of Arminianism. They distributed these and made them known through Eastern Europe and particularly in the Netherlands.
In response to them, the Synod of Dort met in 1618-1619 to, among other reasons, give a theological response to the five points of Arminianism. The five points of Calvinism were not developed on their own as a crystallization of the Calvinist view. These five points of Calvinism were actually the responses to the five crystallized central points of Arminianism that the Remonstrance put forward. We will never know what the list would have looked like if the Calvinists, on their own, apart from this dispute were asked to summarize the main points of Calvinism. Would it be five points? I have no idea and I’m not sure that we would end up with exactly the same thing that we have got here but the fact of the matter is that historically the five points of Calvinism are a response to the five points of Arminianism.
5. Five Points of the Remonstrance and Calvinism
We know them today through the acrostic of TULIP.
|Total Depravity||Total Depravity|
|Conditional Election||Unconditional Election|
|Limited Atonement||Unlimited Atonement|
|Resistible Grace||Irresistible Grace|
|?||Perseverance of God|
Total depravity is held in the Arminian view. That is why I say, only partly tongue in cheek, that Arminians are one point Calvinist. They really do hold this view that sin affects the human nature such that apart from grace, fallen human beings cannot please God, cannot obey the Gospel, cannot do what is good in God’s site.
The Calvinist would understand unconditional election that God chooses in his own sovereign good pleasure for reason we could never know but it isn’t capricious, it isn’t arbitrary, it is not unfounded it isn’t a flip of the coin. But for reasons we could not know he chooses those whom he will save, apart from consideration of any merit, any works, any choices that may be true of their lives. He is the one who chooses, so that the people make the choice to believe in Christ and be saved. Along with that (this is very clear in Calvin), he holds to a double predestinarian view; God also chooses that the non-elect willfully continue to rebel against Christ and will be dammed. This is God’s choice from the very beginning; before he ever creates human beings, God chooses these to be saved and these to be lost. I don’t hold a double predestinarian view. However, even though I don’t hold a double predestinarian view, I have a different understanding of God’s relation to the lost than I see in Calvin; the bottom line is God chooses not to save those who he could save. In any Calvinist understanding this is true. That came out in the with debate Jerry Walls; he was very disturbed at that notion. He said, “You folks need to know this about the Calvinist view: they hold to a God who could save these people but has chosen not to.” He is absolutely right; that is the Calvinist view.
God’s election of people is conditioned upon their response. In a simple phrase, it is conditioned upon foreseen faith. God foresees; he sees ahead of time whether people believe in Christ or not. If they do, he elects them, if the don’t, he does not.
Limited Atonement (particular redemption)
It is an open question whether Calvin himself held to this or not. We have a dissertation in the library by Kevin Kennedy arguing that Calvin did not hold to this doctrine. It is clearly an issue of scholarly dispute. But it is also clear that the generation after Calvin and beyond have been predominately committed to the doctrine of limited atonement. This doctrine holds that the atoning work of Christ was for the elect. That is, God chose these people to be saved and when Christ came and gave his life, he gave it for them, for the elect, for his own, for his sheep. There are a number of passages that use language which indicates Christ’s death for the church, for his sheep, for those whom the Father had given to him. Limited atonement, though, is sometimes called particular redemption because some Reformed people prefer this, but it doesn’t work well in the word TULIP.
Limited atonement underscores the notion that the redeeming work of Christ really does save sinners, so it has to be for just those who are saved. If Christ died a redeeming death, he really did redeem people from their sin, and yet if he died for the whole world this would entail universalism (all people must be saved), because he died a redeeming death for all. Then, all people must be saved since he died a redeeming death for all. So his redemption must be particular and must be focused on just the elect. I do not hold this view myself; I am a four point Calvinist. My own view is odd; I’ll tell you that now. But I am not convinced that this traditional Calvinist understanding is what the Bible teaches, and yet I do not hold to a strictly Arminian view on this either.
Arminius argued that God’s purpose in sending Christ was to save all who would come. So the atoning death of Christ had to be for everyone. The Gospel goes out to all because God so loved the world, and he wants all to be saved. His purpose in providing Christ is not to select just some to save, but to provide the basis by which all could be saved if they would come.
The grace that comes to people does not just enable them to believe in Christ, but it works in them so that they will ultimately, surely believe in Christ. The term irresistible is unfortunate, insofar as it has this connotation that God takes people and pulls them into the kingdom; as though they have their heels dug in and they are resisting at every moment, but he prevails over their resistance. That is not what Calvinists mean by this term. I think sometimes these slogan-type terms we get stuck with are maybe less helpful than some others might be. The Biblical metaphor that I think is most helpful to understanding irresistible grace is the Biblical metaphor of Paul. When you go out and preach to the gentiles; I want you to open blind eyes so that they may see the light of the glory of Christ and come. Now take that image of opening blind eyes. It is a more vivid image to me now than it used to be because I am a member of a church where we have a number of blind people. Every Sunday there are eight, ten or dozen blind people who are at this church. I am constantly reminded what a privilege it is to have eye sight. You take a blind person, you perform a miracle and they see. What is a blind person going to do when all of a sudden given sight; what will they do? They will look; and they will use the eye-sight that has been given them; they will embrace it, and they will make use of it and revel in it. They will say, wow what color, what beauty, the shapes, wow. This is the biblical metaphor for irresistible grace. It is not that God takes people kicking and screaming with heels dug in. That is not the idea. The idea is rather an enabling of people to enter into the most incredible joy and blessing, that apart from his grace they would never have seen. But allowing them to see it, opening their eyes; they look. This is what Calvinists mean with this term irresistible grace: God opens blind eyes and they see; he awakens a hardened heart and it believes in Christ.
Resistible Grace – (Prevenient Grace)
There is a sense in which this doctrine of resistible or prevenient grace is the genius of the Arminian system. It is what allows it to avoid Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism. Because Arminians can rightly claim no one can come apart from grace. Arminians can rightly claim grace is necessary for someone to be saved. It isn’t that I can do this on my own or that I can trust Christ by my nature. This is not a Pelagian view. Grace is necessary, but the grace that comes doesn’t ensure that the person will believe; it just makes it possible for the person to believe.
Perseverance of God
Sometimes called the perseverance of the saints; that is the common way of putting it. But more accurately in the Calvinist view, it is the perseverance of God who causes the saints to persevere. This is a two part doctrine in the Calvinist’s view. God will not fail to save to the end those whom he has chosen, those for whom Christ died, those in whom he has worked to inevitably bring to faith; he will not fail to complete the work that he began. Sometimes that half of the doctrine gets tagged with eternal security – once saved always saved. That is ok, but it is more than that. What this doctrine is about, first and foremost, is the determination and faithfulness and covenant fidelity of God to fulfill his promise, and do what he set out to do, to fulfill his eternal plan to save a people. What does Ephesians 1:4 say? “Before the foundation of the world, in him we were chosen, in Christ, to be holy and blameless before him.” Will he succeed? This doctrine says yes. People call it eternal security, but it is so much more than that. It is the faithfulness of God to do what he set out to do. The other half of the doctrine is how does he do that? He works in us, so the mark of the one who is claimed by God, owned by God, assured by God to be saved in the end, is one who puts initial faith in Christ and continues to put faith in Christ through life. So ongoing faithfulness is the mark of true initial faith. It is perseverance in faithfulness. The perseverance of the saints is the spin off of the perseverance of God. Because God will not fail, he will work in the lives of his own to cause them to trust him from here until the end.
In terms of the Arminian position on this, I am going to put a question mark here.
The Remonstrance statement, to which the synod of Dort responded, was ambiguous on the question of whether or not people who believed in Christ would necessarily be saved in the end. You find in the Arminian tradition some who hold to eternal security and some who don’t. In my judgment, the consistent Arminian view is to deny eternal security. Instead of holding to perseverance, hold to apostasy. I think that this can be borne out by serious Arminian theologians who have written on this. They have carefully thought it through and this is the view that is most often held by serious theological Arminians: Just as people may freely come to Christ, their freedom requires that they can likewise turn away from Christ and reject the gift of salvation they had been previously given. Our little phrase, “Lose your salvation,” doesn’t do justice to the view. You can lose your keys, and you can lose your credit card, but you don’t lose your salvation. But what you can do is apostatize. They use Hebrews as strong support for this doctrine. You can look Christ in the face and say, no I will not follow you; I will not accept anything you have done on my behalf. You can do that, they say. In my judgment, consistent Arminianism would deny the perseverance of God in saving to the end those he elected to be saved, and it would deny that those who are truly saved will persevere to the end. They deny both sides of that particular doctrine.
John Wesley revived the Arminian tradition enormously in the eighteenth century. He even published a journal called The Arminian, and he preached a Gospel of Arminianism. One thing that Wesley did to Arminian theology is that he added his own distinctive doctrine of Christian perfection. The sanctification doctrine that Wesley championed that by faith one could not only be justified but could be sanctified. The very root of sin was taken out of a person. It is not borne out by Scripture. The passages Wesley used to support his view, rightly understood, would seem to support entire sanctification or Christian perfection at initial belief. For example, “The one who is born of God cannot sin” (1 John 3:9). Wesley cites this verse and he says there is a point in which a person believes in God, and he cannot sin. Is John talking about some second stage of active belief, or is it initial saving belief? If Wesley is right, then everyone who comes to Christ is entirely sanctified. Biblically and from experience we know that this is not the case.
In the Calvinist tradition was, in many ways, furthered by the Puritan tradition. There was marvelous theological development that occurred through the Puritan tradition. There are so many wonderful reprints of those Puritan classics; I encourage you to get some of those and read and revel in them. You will find such great insight into the Reformed understandings of grace through these Puritan classics. Jonathan Edwards is perhaps the great synthesizer of this Reformed faith.
We have today, in the twentieth century, this ongoing debate. We have Ware and Schreiner, and Dongell and Walls debating Calvinism and Arminianism. It is a very tough issue, very difficult. Emotions get involved in it. Intuitions get involved in it, “What do mean people can’t believe? What do mean by saying they are bound in sin and unable to believe what they hear?” People hear these things and their intuitions are challenged. I think the only way to go about this thing is to resolve before God, “I will follow Scripture’s teachings; I am willing to have my intuition corrected. I am willing to have my moral intuition corrected by Scripture.”
I grew up in an Arminian Baptist church; it wasn’t called that but that’s what it was. It was Arminian until you were saved and then eternal security, which is like a lot of Baptist churches. I remember that when I went to seminary it was such a struggle. Honestly, I was in theological angst for two full years on these questions, just wrestling and questioning and debating on these questions, two full years, before God in his grace brought me to a point where I settled in affirming what amounts to fundamentally a Calvinist understanding, which I came to believe is what the Bible teaches. Now I am a qualified Calvinist in a number of ways. For example, I don’t hold to the limited atonement doctrine. I would encourage you likewise be patient with yourself if this is a struggle for you; be patient with yourself and be patient with others. Those of you who think that you’ve got every tack tacked in and everything is just clear and you can answer any question, be patient with fellow students. Please don’t badger them with your confidence because these really can be very difficult issues for people to wrestle with. Give them space and time for God to work with all of us.
Class Questions (The questions by the students were inaudible on the tape)
Arminius himself always connected the preaching of the Gospel. He was steeped in this Reformation history that Word and Spirit go together. He always connected the preaching of the Gospel with the time when this grace was given. This then raised the question, what about people who don’t hear the Gospel? Wesley was more inclined to think that there could be grace given that could lead people to know about God and put saving faith in God apart from hearing the Gospel of Christ. Wesley was kind of the precursor of what we know as inclusiveism. John Sanders is very happy to identify John Wesley as one of his guys as an inclusivist. This was the motive for it. Isn’t the grace of God universal? Doesn’t God give prevenient grace to all people? But yet all don’t hear the Gospel.
As far as I know, neither of the gentlemen that we debated denies the foreknowledge of God nor do Arminians, generally. But one of the reasons that open theists prefer their view is precisely because it avoids problem, of God creating a world that he knows before he creates it that X number of people, millions of people perhaps, maybe billions of people in the end will not accept Christ, despite his wooing, despite his giving of prevenient grace, despite every effort God does to bring them, they will not come and they will be damned eternally; and yet he creates. So the openness position thinks it has a one-up here because it can say, you know God knew it was a possibility but he surely did not envision the vast majority or even a large number of people suffering eternal condemnation through their misuse of free will. John Sanders holds the view that when sin happened in the garden, God was surprised. The implausible occurred according to Sanders. “How did this happen? You mean they turned away from me.” So you can’t hold God accountable for creating a world that he knew would have all of these people going to hell. To the open view you say, “Oh, so now you hold God accountable for finding out, in time, all of these people are going to hell. Well I don’t know if that is much of an improvement or not.” All of us have to ask the question of a good God and hell. We all do.
Blessings on you.