2022 State of Theology Summary

The following is extracted from an article posted online by Ligonier Ministries. I will let it speak for itself.

What do Americans believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible? Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research partnered to find out. Every two years, we take the theological temperature of the United States to help Christians better understand today’s culture and to equip the church with better insights for discipleship. Read some of our key findings from 2022 below and explore the data for yourself.

Does God Change?

As we look at ourselves and at the world, it is clear that human beings, along with the rest of creation, undergo frequent changes. But does this principle of change apply to God as well?

The Bible affirms the truth that the triune God is both omniscient, meaning that He knows all things, and immutable, meaning that He cannot and does not change (Isa. 46:10; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17; 1 John 3:20). Despite this truth, the majority of adults in the United States believe that God both learns and adapts to different circumstances.

Despite the clear teaching of Scripture, this year’s survey reveals that approximately half of evangelicals believe that God learns and adapts to various situations, meaning that they believe that God does change.


God learns and adapts to different circumstances.

U.S. Adult Finding: 51% agree vs. 32% disagree

U.S. Evangelical Finding: 48% agree vs. 43% disagree

These results show that American evangelicals and the general U.S. population are essentially equivalent in their agreement with this statement. Nearly half of both groups believe that God changes by learning and adapting. This may indicate the influence of open theism (which denies God’s complete knowledge of future events) and process theology (which denies God’s omnipotence and asserts that He does undergo changes) within the evangelical church. This finding may also indicate a lack of clear, biblical teaching on the character of God in evangelical churches.

Are We Born Innocent?

When God created the world, everything He made was good (Gen. 1:10, 21, 25, 31). Yet through Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the garden of Eden, humankind became corrupted. The Bible teaches the concept of original sin, which means that since the fall, every human being inherits a sin nature from the time of their conception (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12). In other words, we are not sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because we are sinners.

It is unsurprising that most U.S. adults believe that humans are born innocent, given the influence of humanistic philosophies and worldviews that teach self-determinism and a view of humankind as basically good.


Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God.

U.S. Adult Finding: 71% agree vs. 21% disagree

U.S. Evangelical Finding: 65% agree vs. 32% disagree

The fact that almost two-thirds of evangelicals believe that humans are born in a state of innocence reveals that the biblical teaching of original sin is not embraced by most evangelicals. God’s Word, however, makes clear that all humans are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). This truth is foundational for an accurate understanding of the gospel and of our absolute need for the grace of God in salvation.

U.S. Evangelicals: Trends

The 2022 survey results for U.S. evangelicals reveal concerning trends related to the exclusivity and deity of Jesus Christ, the historicity and divine nature of Scripture, objective truth, gender identity, and homosexuality. At the same time, encouraging trends include evangelicals’ increasingly biblical views on abortion and sex outside of marriage.


Key to orthodox Christianity is Jesus’ own assertion that He alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” and that “no one comes to the Father except through [Him]” (John 14:6, emphasis added). Trends over time and the 2022 survey results reveal an increasingly unbiblical belief among evangelicals that God is pleased by worship that comes from those outside the Christian faith.


God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

U.S. Evangelical Finding:

2016: 48% agree
2018: 51% agree
2020: 42% agree
2022: 56% agree

This year’s survey also revealed a significant increase in evangelicals who deny Jesus’ divinity. Such a belief is contrary to Scripture, which affirms from beginning to end that Jesus is indeed God (John 1:1; 8:58; Rom. 9:5; Heb. 1:1-4).


Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.

U.S. Evangelical Finding:

2020: 30% agree
2022: 43% agree


Embracing the reality of objective truth is necessary to a right and proper understanding of the world. Scripture affirms that God is truth (Num. 23:19; John 1:14; 14:6; 16:13), and because the Bible is His Word, Scripture is truth as well (Ps. 119:160; John 17:17; 2 Tim. 2:15). Despite the testimony of Scripture, evangelicals increasingly believe that the Bible is not literally true.


The Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.

U.S. Evangelical Finding:

2016: 17% agree
2018: 23% agree
2020: 15% agree
2022: 26% agree

A rising disbelief in the Bible’s literal truth may help us understand why American evangelicals also increasingly believe that religious faith is a subjective experience rather than an objective reality.


Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth.

U.S. Evangelical Finding:

2018: 32% agree
2020: 23% agree
2022: 38% agree

Sexual Ethics

The changes in sexual ethics in the United States are occurring at an alarmingly rapid pace. However, one encouraging finding is that evangelicals affirm a biblical view of fornication and adultery in greater numbers.


Sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin.

U.S. Evangelical Finding:

2016: 91% agree
2018: 89% agree
2020: 90% agree
2022: 94% agree

While evangelicals are more likely than U.S. adults in general to affirm a biblical sexual ethic, in the areas of gender identity and homosexuality, a significant rise of an unbiblical worldview is apparent, especially in the 2022 survey.


Gender identity is a matter of choice.

U.S. Evangelical Finding:

2016: 32% agree
2018: 30% agree
2020: 22% agree
2022: 37% agree

The rise of unbiblical views among American evangelicals on the subjects of gender and sexuality may indicate the influence of a secular worldview that is making greater inroads into the church.


The Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today.

U.S. Evangelical Finding:

2016: 19% agree
2018: 20% agree
2020: 11% agree
2022: 28% agree


The Bible teaches the personhood of those in the womb (Ps. 139:13, 16; Luke 1:41, 44). As such, the practice of abortion is the murder of a human being who is an image bearer of God. Past survey results among evangelicals have remained fairly consistent since 2016, with an uptick in 2022 of more evangelicals asserting that abortion is a sin. While the reasons for this positive trend are unknown, it is encouraging to see more evangelicals affirming the personhood of human beings in the womb.


Abortion is a sin.

U.S. Evangelical Finding:

2016: 87% agree
2018: 88% agree
2020: 88% agree
2022: 91% agree


Evangelicals were defined by LifeWay Research as people who strongly agreed with the following four statements:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Respondents can also be identified as evangelical in the State of Theology data explorer based on their supplied church affiliation.


The 2022 State of Theology survey reveals that Americans increasingly reject the divine origin and complete accuracy of the Bible. With no enduring plumb line of absolute truth to conform to, U.S. adults are also increasingly holding to unbiblical worldviews related to human sexuality. In the evangelical sphere, doctrines including the deity and exclusivity of Jesus Christ, as well as the inspiration and authority of the Bible, are increasingly being rejected. While positive trends are present, including evangelicals’ views on abortion and sex outside of marriage, an inconsistent biblical ethic is also evident, with more evangelicals embracing a secular worldview in the areas of homosexuality and gender identity.

These results convey the ongoing need for the church to be engaged in apologetics, helping unbelievers by providing a well-reasoned defense of the Christian faith, and helping believers by strengthening their clarity and conviction regarding why they believe what they do. Additionally, the people of God must continue to obey the Great Commission by communicating the whole counsel of God in biblical evangelism and discipleship. The need is great, but the power and promises of God can equip the church to bring truth and light to a deceived and dark world.

Did Christ Actually save anyone or just make salvation possible?

A recently published Facebook post published the following:

“On a ship bound for Rome, Paul advised the captain to winter in a port due to bad weather. Ignoring Paul’s advice, they sailed on, right into a storm that grew so fierce that the sailors feared for their lives. “Be of good cheer,” Paul said. “There stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, saying, Fear not, Paul, thou must be brought before Caesar: and lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee”.

When the storm continued, some of the sailors decided to bail out. But just as they were about to leave, Paul said, “Except these abide in the ship, you cannot be saved”. In other words, “If you choose to go overboard, you’ll be wiped out. You are secure, safe, and sealed only as long as you stay on board.”

No one can pluck us out of God’s hand – but that doesn’t mean we can’t leave on our own. I’m shut in the good ship salvation because I have no intention of going overboard, of sailing off in another direction. Yes, I sin. But I am determined, and have decided that I will love the Lord all the days of my life.” – Jon Courson.

An obvious comparison was made between a frightened sailor aboard the Roman ship wanting to jump overboard and a Christian wanting to leave the protection of God’s (and Christ’s) hands.. While the comparison is clearly stated, do you think it’s a fair analogy? That’s my question.

To helpI offer for your consideration commentary from Albert Barnes (1798-1870) for John 10:28:

“I give unto them eternal life – See Joh_5:24.

Shall never perish – To perish here means to be destroyed, or to be punished in hell. Mat_10:28; “which is able to destroy (the same word) both soul and body in hell.” Mat_18:14; “it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Joh_3:15; “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish” Rom_2:12; They who have sinned without law shall also perish without law” Joh_17:12; 1Co_1:18. In all these places the word refers to future punishment, and the declaration of the Saviour is that his followers, his true disciples, shall never be cast away. The original is expressed with remarkable strength: “They shall not be destroyed forever.” Syriac: “They shall not perish to eternity.” This is spoken of all Christians – that is, of all who ever possess the character of true followers of Christ, and who can be called his flock.

Shall any – The word “any” refers to any power that might attempt it. It will apply either to men or to devils. It is an affirmation that no man, however eloquent in error, or persuasive in infidelity, or cunning: in argument, or mighty in rank; and that no devil with all his malice, power, cunning, or allurements, shall be able to pluck them from his hand,

Pluck them – In the original to rob; to seize and bear away as a robber does his prey. Jesus holds them so secure and so certainly that no foe can surprise him as a robber does, or overcome him by force.

My hand – The hand is that by which we hold or secure an object. It means that Jesus has them safely in his own care and keeping.

The story about Paul’s trip to Rome and the great storm had everything to do with Paul, by God’s sovereign design, arriving safely in Rome. Our passage from John 10:28 has everything to do with the eternal salvation of believers and the security (God’s sovereign design) of the double fisted hand of God. On one hand, a frightened sailor with free choice saw jumping overboard as a better alternative than going down with the ship. In like manner, a Christian believer could get to a point that he/she wanted to walk away from God.

Questions for us:

1. Can/will God ‘keep’ those whom he saves.

2. Does Jesus gives his ‘sheep’ eternal life, or ‘conditional’ eternal life., with our free will decision the determining factor in keeping the ‘eternal life’ once given. What does scripture say?

3. Did Jesus death on the cross actually save anyone, or did it just make salvation possible?

4. What did the Apostle John mean when he said of those who left following Jesus:

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” 1 John 2:19

Tell us what you think and why. Smile

Jellyfish Christianity

by J. C. Ryle

evanjellyfish One plague of our age is this widespread dislike to distinct biblical doctrine. In the place of it, the idol of the day is a kind of jellyfish Christianity – a Christianity without bone, or muscle, or sinew, without any distinct teaching about the atonement or the work of the Spirit, or justification, or the way of peace with God – a vague, foggy, misty Christianity, of which the only watchwords seem to be, “You must be liberal and kind. You must condemn no man’s doctrinal views. You must consider everybody is right and nobody is wrong.”

And this creedless kind of religion, we are told, is to give us peace of conscience! And not to be satisfied with it in a sorrowful, dying world, is a proof that you are very narrow-minded! Satisfied, indeed! Such a religion might possibly do for unfallen angels! But to tell sinful, dying men and women, with the blood of our father Adam in our veins, to be satisfied with it, is an insult to common sense and a mockery of our distress. We need something far better than this. We need the blood of Christ.

Jellyfish Christianity epidemic

Dislike of dogma is an epidemic which is just now doing great harm, and specially among young people. It produces what I must venture to call a jellyfish Christianity in the land: that is, a Christianity without bone, or muscle, or power.

A jellyfish is a pretty and graceful object when it floats in the sea, contracting and expanding like a little, delicate, transparent umbrella. Yet the same jellyfish, when cast on the shore, is a mere helpless lump, without capacity for movement, self-defense, or self-preservation. Alas! It is a vivid type of much of the religion of this day, of which the leading principle is, “No dogma, no distinct tenets, no positive doctrine.”

We have hundreds of jellyfish clergymen, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity. They have not definite opinions; they belong to no school or party; they are so afraid of “extreme views” that they have no views at all.

We have thousands of jellyfish sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or a corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint.

We have Legions of jellyfish young men annually turned out from our Universities, armed with a few scraps of second-hand philosophy, who think it a mark of cleverness and intellect to have no decided opinions about anything in religion, and to be utterly unable to make up their minds as to what is Christian truth. They live apparently in a state of suspense, like Mohamet’s fabled coffin, hanging between heaven and earth and last.

Worst of all, we have myriads of jellyfish worshippers — respectable church-going people, who have no distinct and definite views about any point in theology. They cannot discern things that differ, any more than color-blind people can distinguish colors.

They think everybody is right and nobody wrong, everything is true and nothing is false, all sermons are good and none are bad, every clergyman is sound and no clergyman is unsound. They are “tossed to and fro, like children, by every wind of doctrine”; often carried away by any new excitement and sensational movement; ever ready for new things, because they have no firm grasp on the old; and utterly unable to “render a reason of the hope that is in them.”

Never was it so important for laymen to hold systematic views of truth, and for ordained ministers to enunciate dogma very clearly and distinctly in their teaching.


Excerpt from JC Ryle, Principles for Churchmen

Charles Ryle (10 May 1816 – 10 June 1900) was an English evangelical Anglican bishop. He was the first Anglican bishop of Liverpool


Five tulips in one field: Revelation 13:8-10

by Jesse Johnson


The “five points of Calvinism” are a mnemonic approach to understanding the complexity of our salvation. The doctrine of salvation can seem complicated because it incorporates hamartiology (the effects of sin on a person’s nature), Christology (the nature of Christ), theology proper (the sovereignty of God), and pneumatology (the work of the Holy Spirit). To put it another way, our salvation intersects with just about every major area of theology, and the five-points help us understand what exactly is going on when God saves us.

The five-points are often presented in an acronym form (T-U-L-I-P), and that is fitting because the whole point of extracting these five particular points of emphasis is to help us think memorably about salvation. While they are called the five points of Calvinism, they were not designed by John Calvin—although they do reflect some of the emphasis of his ministry, it is unfair to his legacy to confine it to the five points.

While the five points themselves were identified in the 1600’s, the acronym T-U-L-I-P didn’t come into use until the 1900’s in the United States (say what you will about Americans, but we are good at acronyms).

A common push back against the five points is to claim that they are an invention of man, and are not found in the Bible. In a limited sense I grant that is true: the phrase “total depravity’ is not in the Bible (nor is I suppose is “theology”), but the concepts themselves are obviously biblical, and there is no shortage of resources that make strong cases for them (like this long-form article on Desiring God, or an 8-part Grace To You series, or a 30-minute John MacArthur video).

But this year, I stumbled across a new (to me) approach to the five points. In studying for a sermon on Revelation 13:8-10, I realized that all five points are represented in this single concise passage:

All who dwell on the earth will worship the beast, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear.  If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.

T—Total Depravity

“All who dwell on the earth will worship the beast.” John declares that during the tribulation, every human will worship the beast, and by extension, the antichrist. Revelation 13:7 expressly says that it will include people from every ethnic group, language group, and nation. Verse 16 says that “all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave” will worship the antichrist. In other words, every human has the capacity to worship the devil and believe his lies.

It’s not just that humans are sinners. Total depravity means that we worship that which is evil. Nor is this confined to some future eschatological judgment on earth. Back before the flood God had already said that “every inclination of people’s hearts is only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Total Depravity doesn’t mean that people are as evil as they could be, but it does mean that every one of their actions, inclinations, and desires are all corrupted by sin; so much so that they will worship the antichrist, were he on earth. You could say it this way: there is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who seeks for God; all have turned their own way.

This depravity is exactly what makes our salvation necessary.

U-Unconditional Election

“Everyone whose name has not been written from before the foundation of the world in the book of life.” While everyone is born depraved, and with the inclination toward worshiping the devil’s lies, that is not the end of the story. There is a sub-group of people that will be rescued from this, and they all have one thing in common: their names were written by God before the world was even created.

If you are a Christian, marvel that before your parents even met, God already knew you by name. Before our country was formed, before God spoke light into darkness, he knew you, and he knew you by name.

He didn’t know you because he saw that would do something good in your life. Rather, before you were “even born, or had done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose in election might stand,” God wrote the names down of the people whom he would save.

He didn’t write everyone’s name down. Also, he didn’t write family names, or church names, or nation’s names. That’s because he doesn’t save nations, churches or families—he saves people, people whom he has known before they were even alive.

John presents this book as the causal effect for why one group of people does not worship the antichrist. There will be lots of differences between them and the rest of humanity (holiness, purity, worship, faith, etc.). But none of those are presented as the causal difference. John instead identifies this book with names as what separates those who will be saved from those that will perish resisting the gospel. And this book was written before anyone was born.

This election is what makes our salvation possible.

L-Limited Atonement

“..the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.” While I prefer the phrase “definite atonement” or “particular redemption,” those would mess up the acronym, so we are stuck with limited atonement, which is probably the most controversial of the five points.

But when you look at the book John sees, you see one of the places this doctrine comes from. The book is titled “The Book of Life,” and the copyright date is “before Day 1.” The content is a list of names. But closer inspection reveals that this book has a subtitle: “The Book of Life: of the Lamb that was slain.”

The book which describes whom God will save was written in light of the means by which God would save them. Jesus did not simply die a generic death for people everywhere, but a specific death to take away the punishment for the sins of specific, named people.

The Lamb indicates that the death was substitutionary and efficacious. Jesus’ death was in our place, and was effective at removing the sins of all for whom he died—even the sin of unbelief. In fact, once the Lamb died, our salvation was so accomplished that Jesus himself could declare, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

The atonement is what accomplishes our salvation.

I- Irresistible Grace

“If anyone has an ear, let him hear.” John inserts a refrain from the seven letters (Revelation 2-3), which serves as an appeal for those who are spiritual to see the spiritual truth which he is describing. And of course this is an adaptation of Jesus’ own explanation of why he taught in parables: “So that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12).

If Jesus accomplished our salvation at the cross, how come people whose names are in the book of life spend much of their lives running from God and rejecting the gospel? Because of their depravity they are unwilling to turn and be saved, and this remains until God gives them spiritual ears to hear. This is called regeneration, and it has the effect of opening a person’s eyes to the truth, so that they can turn and be saved.

This happens in time, through the preaching of the word and the gift of faith. It is a work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8), and it results in a person able to hear spiritual truth through their faith (1 Corinthians 1:182 Corinthians 2:15, 4:3).

This grace is what makes our salvation a reality.

P—Perseverance of the Saints

“If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.” John now quotes Jeremiah 15:1-6, which was Yahweh’s response to Jeremiah’s question. Yahweh told Jeremiah to evacuate Jerusalem, and the question was, “where, exactly, should they all go?”

God’s proposed destinations were less than encouraging. He said that some of them could be killed by the beasts, some by birds, some by famine, and some by plagues. In short, if God wants them to go to jail, to jail they will go. If he has chosen some of them for death by the sword, then by the sword they will die.

What is that reference doing in Revelation 13? Well for Christians under the antichrist’s reign of terror, they too might wonder “Where should we go?” The answer is simple: God has already chosen each person’s end. Some the antichrist will throw in jail, and some he will kill with the sword. But despite their martyrdom, the antichrist cannot take their salvation away. They may die a martyr’s death, but their names cannot be removed from the book of life. The cannot take Jesus off the cross, and he cannot take the Spirit out of believer’s hearts. And because their names are in the book, and Jesus did die for their sins, and they do have spiritual ears to hear, then they will overcome. Or, as John says, “this is the perseverance of the saints.”

Such a promise encourages believers to hold onto the grace that is holding onto them. It compels us to trust God even in the midst of horrific persecution.

This perseverance is what makes our salvation a certainty.

Taken together, these verses explain salvation by showing:

The condition that required it (depravity)

The predestination that allows it (election)

The substitution that achieves it (atonement)

The illumination that gives it (regenerative grace)

The sovereignty that keeps it (perseverance).

Source: The Cripplegate

What if there’s a power outage at Hillsong?

. . .or any other ‘church’ where the big attraction is the music?

Think about that for a minute. I know Christians who choose a church based on how much they like the ‘worship’ music, and I’m sure you do also. But what if the power went out and there were no more electric instruments, lights, smoke, etc.? All we would have left are lyrics.

If all we have left are the lyrics, would we ‘feel’ the Spirit come down, or is all that excitement generated from the stage and those great ‘worship’ feelings pretty much the same as a good U2 concert (name your band)? Is today’s ‘worship’ more about us than God?

And if all we have are the lyrics, what are they saying and teaching? Something to think about.

Fighting For The Faith discussed that very thing – lyrics – this last week titled “Heresy Hiding in Plain Sight” .

Enjoy, or not. The segment discusses some of the lyrics to specific worship songs from Hillsong. Protect your toes.

Why would God create anyone doomed to Hell?

That’s a question asked in connection with the doctrine known as Calvinism that teaches that God sovereignly saves some, but not others, that the ‘others’ are created already predestined to an eternity in Hell.

Many, if not most who ask the question hold to the doctrine known as Arminianism, which would tell us that a loving God would never create anyone whose ultimate end is Hell. They also realize that God does have a ‘chosen’ or ‘elect’ people, because to deny that would be to deny the Bible. They define the chosen/elect as those whom God knows will at some point in their lives choose Christ.

Well, if God knows who will choose Christ, He also knows who will eventually reject Christ, and spend an eternity in Hell. And if God creates those He knows will reject Him, isn’t he creating persons doomed to hell?

Any ideas?

Bad Theology, Logical Fallacies, & Generally Fuzzy Thinking

If you want to see some examples of really bad theology, an assortment of logical fallacies, generally fuzzy thinking, and all around fundamentalist Christianity & Calvin bashing, go here. It might take a bit of time to load, since there are over 1,000 comments, most of which are completely against anything resembling Reformed theology.

If you stick around there and visit other blog posts, you can find a veritable plethora of judgmentalism against all things Reformed, and just about every prominent evangelical who holds to Christian fundamentalism and/or Reformation theology.

They haven’t blasted The Gideons yet, but after their rant against the ESV, it’s probably coming, since the Gideons are pro-ESV.

Also please know that I am not in any way personally criticizing the individuals who promulgate the aforementioned ‘examples’ of this and that, although I seem to have been completely banned from making any comments whatsoever, even if it’s just a verbatim passage of scripture.

Having said that, if you are interesting in finding a LOT of ‘interesting’ theology, etc., pay a visit. If not, just ignore me. J I promise I will not be upset.

Calvinism and Arminianism

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

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.

Unconditional Election

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.

Conditional Election

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.

Unlimited Atonement

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.

Irresistible Grace

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.


The Blogs, the Battles and the Gospel

by Tim Challies

The blogosphere in general and the Christian blogosphere in particular has had its share of successes, but also its share of failures. Many of its most egregious and public failures have been in the realm of polemics—discussing or debating controversial topics. Many bloggers have mastered all the practical rules of blogging, the short paragraphs, the use of subheadings, the best times and dates to post their articles. But these same bloggers, myself included, would do well to work toward mastering the spiritual rules of blogging.

I recently found help in an unusual place, Robert R. Booth’s Children of the Promise, a book on the always-controversial subject of baptism. He says

We know we understand an opposing view only when we are able to articulate it and receive the affirmation of our opponent that we have accurately represented his position. Only then can we proceed to argue against it. It does not take a big man to push over a straw man—little men are up to this simple task. Nor is it enough to say that our brother is wrong, or silly, or that his arguments make no sense; we must be prepared to demonstrate such claims. Some argue that they do not need to demonstrate such claims. Some argue they do not need to understand opposing views. But they cannot expect to engage people who disagree with them.

Indeed, and this applies to discussions far beyond baptism. In a recent article Tony Payne turns to football (soccer) to provide the helpful illustration of playing the ball rather than the man. “As in football, so in debates and arguments, we should strive to play the ball not the man; to discuss the issue itself rather than attack the person presenting the issue. This is not easy. It requires the ability to separate the pros and cons of a particular argument or issue from the personality who is presenting them, and to subject your own arguments to the same honest scrutiny that you bring to bear on the alternative view.”

You know you’re dealing with someone who is playing the man not the ball when he makes a straw man of your view; that is, when he presents your side of things in an extreme or ugly light, or describes or illustrates it in such a way as to make it unattractive. By contrast, a ball-player endeavours to describe and present the opposing view as fairly and reasonably as he would like someone to present his own view.

Ball-players also freely and honestly acknowledge what is good and right in the opposing view, and avoid intemperately damning the whole because of a defect in the parts. They seek to stick to the issue at hand, and not broaden or generalize the disagreement into a questioning of character or bona fides.

Playing the ball also means seeking to remain in good relationship with the person you’re disagreeing with, so that you can hopefully shake hands and share a coffee after your debate, or continue to work together on other projects or platforms. This is the ideal, and we should strive for it—to avoid targetting the person, and to deal instead with the issue, in the hope of coming to a common mind.

A very helpful and extensive word on gospel polemics comes from Tim Keller. It bears regular and repeated readings. Keller looks to D.A. Carson and several other theologians and arrives at seven rules that should guide our discussions, our polemics, our controveries, our words.

#1. Carson’s Rule

The first rule comes from D.A. Carson and states You don’t have to follow Matthew 18 before publishing polemics. ”[I]f someone is publicly presenting theological views that are opposed to sound doctrine, and you are not in the same ecclesiastical body with this person (that is, there is no body of elders over you both, as when, for example, both of you are ministers in the same denomination,) then you may indeed publicly oppose those without going privately to the author of them. Carson does add a qualifier, but that comes under the next rule.”

#2. Murray’s Rule

The second rule comes from John Murray and states You must take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of someone’s views. “In our internet age we are very quick to dash off a response because we think Mr A promotes X. And when someone points out that Mr A didn’t mean X because over here he said Y, we simply apologize, or maybe we don’t even do that. John Murray’s principle means that polemics must never be ‘dashed off.’ Great care should be taken to be sure you really know what Mr A believes and promotes before you publish.” To rule #2 I might add that if you have a relationship with a person with whom you disagree, it may be wise to attempt to contact that person to ensure that you have, indeed, understood their position and are now able to accurately represent it.

#3. Alexander’s Rule

The third rule comes from Archibald Alexander and states Never attribute an opinion to your opponent that he himself does not own. “[E]ven if you believe that Mr A’s belief X could or will lead others who hold that position to belief Y, do not accuse Mr A of holding to belief Y himself, if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent, but it is one thing to say that and another thing to tar him with belief Y by implying or insisting that he actually holds it when he does not. A similar move happens when you imply or argue that, if Mr A quotes a particular author favorably at any point, then Mr A must hold to all the views that the author holds at other points. If you, through guilt-by-association, hint or insist that Mr A must hold other beliefs of that particular author, then you are violating Alexander’s Rule and, indeed, Murray’s Rule. You are misrepresenting your opponent.”

#4. Gillespie’s Rule A

The fourth rule is from George Gillespie and states Take your opponents’ views in total, not selectively. “Just because someone says (or fails to say something) in one setting—either for good reasons or because of a misstep—does not mean he fails to say it repeatedly and emphatically in the rest of his work. Gillespie is saying, ‘Be sure that what you say is Mr X’s position really is his settled view. You can’t infer that from one instance.’ If we build a case on such instances, we are in danger of falling afoul of Murray’s rule as well. We must take responsibility for misrepresenting the views of others.”

#5. Gillespie’s Rule B

The fifth rule also belongs to Gillespie and states Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form. “Do all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength that he says, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’ Then and only then will your polemics not misrepresent him, take his views in toto, and actually have the possibility of being persuasive.”

#6. Calvin’s Rule

The sixth rule is Calvin’s and states Seek to persuade, not antagonize, but watch your motives! “It is possible to seek to be winsome and persuasive out of a self-centeredness, rather than a God-centeredness. We may do it to be popular. On the other hand, it is just as possible to be bold and strongly polemical out of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. And therefore, looking very closely at our motives, we should be sure our polemics do not unnecessarily harden and antagonize our opponents. We should seek to win them, as Paul did Peter, not to be rid of them.”

#7. Everybody’s Rule

The seventh and final rule belongs to each of the previous six theologians and states Only God sees the heart—so remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology. Keller goes to John Newton and says “no one has written more eloquently about this rule than John Newton, in his well-known ‘Letter on Controversy.’ Newton says that first, before you begin to write a single word against an opponent, ‘and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing.’ This practice will stir up love for him and ‘such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.’ Later in the letter Newton says, ‘Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who ‘when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.’ ‘It is a great danger to aim to ‘gain the laugh on your side,’ to make your opponent look evil and ridiculous instead of engaging their views with ‘the compassion due to the souls of men.’”

I commend these seven rules to my fellow bloggers and to all of us who engage in online discussion. May we exemplify gospel-centered and God-glorifying polemics.


Online Source