I was blessed to read a local Free Presbyterian Church site that wrote of the free offer of the gospel. The site maintained that it is the duty of the Church to preach the gospel and that they were fervent in their evangelism because of the call of God to take the gospel to all. I was encouraged by this. They are absolutely correct in avoiding the hyper-Calvinism tendency to avoid preaching the gospel to all because the hyper believes that the gospel is only for the elect and the elect will be saved by the sovereignty of God no matter what and all this protects the glory of God and His grace.
Charles Spurgeon battled this in his day. Many Calvinists accused Mr. Spurgeon of being an Arminian because of his constant call for all to come and be saved yet Spurgeon maintained his belief in unconditional election. Spurgeon believed that both were truths in Scripture: that God calls all sinners to repentance but the elect alone will come and be saved. John 6:37 was Spurgeon’s favorite passage.
My issue as an Arminian with all this is not the call to salvation. I agree that God calls all to salvation. John 3:16 is clear that God loves the world and desires the world to be saved. 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Ezekiel 18:32 says that God does not delight in the death of the wicked. Acts 2:38-39 says that the promise of salvation is for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call. This call, as the Free Presbyterian site agrees, is to all. Revelation 22:17 says that all may come and drink of this water of life. Matthew 22:9 says that we can invite all to the wedding feast. Because of the nature of Jesus’ authority (Matthew 28:18) we can go into all nations and make disciples (Matthew 28:19).
In my estimation, the nature of the call goes hand-in-hand with the provision that God has made for our sins. The Calvinist replies while the call goes out to all, only the elect respond and repent and God has only provided for the elect’s sins. The rest of humanity is passed over and reprobated to hell by their own sins (though their nature has been predestined by God as well as their sins but the mystery is how God can hold sinners punishable for their sins that they committed by His sovereign will). The Arminian viewpoint is that both are true: the universal call and the provision therein for the atonement. I see both as true.
The atonement only makes provision for the one who repents (Romans 3:23-25). The elect are those who repent. When a sinner repents, they become part of the elect of God (1 Timothy 4:10). The elect are those who are in Christ Jesus (“His elect”). Jesus shed His blood for His sheep (John 10:11), for His Church (Acts 20:28), for our sins (Galatians 1:4), for Paul the Apostle (Galatians 2:20). Yet He also shed His blood for the world (John 3:16; 1 John 4:14). Through the blood of Jesus, sinners can come before God and be saved (Hebrews 9:14). This salvation has come for all people (Titus 2:11) but only those who repent and believe the gospel are saved (2 Thessalonians 2:12).
A key verse here is 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 which I think holds all these truths together. The verse reads:
13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
Three truths are presented here. First, the sovereignty of God is seen in verse 13 with “God chose you.” God chooses us in Christ Jesus who is the provision for our sins (John 3:14-15). Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. He is the one who bore our sins before a holy God (Romans 5:8-9). This is by the sovereign will of God (Acts 2:23). The Father sent the Son to die for the sins of the world that whosoever may come and be saved.
Secondly, the provision must come by the proclamation of the gospel as we see in verse 14. Even my Calvinist brethren agree with me here. The elect are saved by hearing the gospel and repenting of their sins. This is the truth of Romans 10:14-17. The command of Jesus is to go and preach the gospel to all (Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47-49). The Lord has given us the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish this truth (Acts 1:8). As we preach the gospel, the Lord is faithful to save those who believe (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). As we preach the gospel, the gospel opens the sinners hearts to the truth of salvation in the Lord Jesus. The Spirit of God works through the gospel to draw sinners to salvation (John 6:44; 16:8-11). The conviction of the Spirit prepares the sinner for the gospel and for true repentance.
Lastly, not only do we see provision and proclamation but we see perseverance in verse 15. After we are saved by the sovereign hand of God working through the gospel, we must stand firm in the gospel. This is a biblical truth found through the Bible. God’s warnings to the Israelites was to remain faithful, stand firm in true worship, teach the children the truth of God, don’t abandon Yahweh for false gods, etc. This is equally true for the New Testament disciple. Jesus said that if we keep His word (present active sense), we will never see death (John 8:51). Paul beat himself to make sure he was a slave of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Paul also warned the Corinthians to remain in the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-2). Paul also warned the disciples in Colossae to remain steadfast (Colossians 1:21-23). If Israel could be cut off, so can we (Romans 11:20-22).
All these truths: provision, proclamation, and perseverance are the keys of salvation in the Arminian understanding. The focus is always on Jesus and what He has done for us. We preach Him (2 Corinthians 4:5). We call all to repent and believe the gospel. We preach that Jesus demonstrated His love for lost sinners by dying for them on the cross. We proclaim this truth to lost sinners. We preach that God does love sinners because He has demonstrated His love on the cross through His Son. We don’t mind preaching this truth to sinners and to saints.
Chapter 1 of the book Grace For All is written by Roger Olson. Dr. Olson’s focus is on the issue of whether Arminianism is man-centered theology. This is a key question as Calvinists often accuse Arminians of being “man-centered” and “Pelagian” in our theology. I find this ironic since I have read much of great Arminian scholars such as Arminius, John Wesley, Richard Watson, Adam Clarke, Daniel Steele, Roger Olson, Vic Reasoner, Jack Cottrell, etc. and none of them have a man-centered approach.
Our sacred Theology, therefore, is chiefly occupied in ascribing to the One True God, to whom alone they really belong, those attributes of which we have already spoken, his nature, actions, and will. For it is not sufficient to know, that there is some kind of a NATURE, simple, infinite, wise, good, just, omnipotent, happy in itself, the Maker and Governor of all things, that is worthy to receive adoration, whose will it is to be worshipped, and that is able to make its worshippers happy.
Far from having a man-centered theology, Arminius was clearly at home with the Reformers in embracing a theology that first and foremost focused on God. It is the nature of God, His character that is the main debate among Arminians and Calvinists in my estimation.
Dr. Olson focuses first on various Calvinist theologians view of Arminianism and how it is nothing more than “man-centered theology.” It seems Calvinists (or some at least) hold that Arminianism is barely orthodox. Dr. Olson points out that Calvinists often attack Arminianism as man-centered in three ways:
1. It’s focus on human goodness and ability in the realm of redemption.
2. It limits God by suggesting that God’s will can be thwarted by human decisions and actions.
3. It places too much emphasis on human fulfillment and happiness to the neglect of God’s purpose and glory.
Dr. Olson uses these three questions to jump into the rest of the chapter. He does a good job of using the works of Arminius here to show what Arminius believed about what Calvinists have later said about his theology. Ironically, even John Piper says that after reading Arminius, he enjoyed him and found him to be a deep, serious thinker with a focus on the glory of God. I couldn’t agree more. Having read Arminius on and off for most of the past 10 years, I have found Arminius to be nothing like what Calvinists often describe of Arminianism. Arminius is clearly God-centered and his focus is on the glory of the King!
With regard to the three questions. First, Olson points out that Arminianism has always held to total inability when it comes to sinners. We need the divine aid of God to be saved (John 6:44). The concept of prevenient grace both in Arminius (though he doesn’t use those words) and later John Wesley clearly shows a view of man that is anything other than sinful. Man, because of sin, cannot obtain the perfect righteousness God requires (Matthew 5:48). We need the aid of the Lord which He has graciously given to us in His Son (2 Corinthians 5:21). Like Paul the Apostle, we find nothing in us but everything in Jesus (Philippians 3:8-9).
Secondly, Olson points out that Arminius held to the sovereignty of God. The mystery in Arminianism is just this: how does a sovereign God get His will done while still allowing for free-will decisions by sinful humans. The mystery in Calvinism is this: how is God not guilty of sin when He is the one who renders all things certain and nothing comes to pass without Him first ordaining it. I will continue to uphold the mystery in Arminianism as the biblical mystery rather than trying to explain (as in Calvinism) how God can punish people who are only doing what God has ordained for them to do (according to their nature but their nature is determined first and foremost by God). Arminius never wavered on the issue of God’s sovereignty. He merely didn’t see divine determinism in the biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty. To be sovereign does not mean that God must not only control but cause all things as in Calvinism. Arminius was clear that God is sovereign over His creation and can do as He like but there is one thing God will never do and that is sin (James 1:13). Because God cannot sin nor does He tempt anyone to sin, Calvinism runs into trouble by taking their definition of sovereignty and applies it even to sin. In this way, God ordains sin and renders it certain yet the Calvinist has to wrestle with why God is not sinning.
And lastly, Olson rightly points out that Calvinism does not back away from the issue of happiness either. John Piper preaches on this issue often with his Christian Hedonism. A reading of Arminius shows that this was not a focus for him. Arminius lived and preached during a time of great plagues. Many died from the plagues and Arminius often risked his life to minister to the dying. Arminius knew that heaven was the joy for the child of God. This world is fleeting but heaven is eternal (John 11:25). We focus on what is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Olson concludes this chapter by making the focus not about man-centered versus God-centered. The key issue, writes Olson, is the character of God. In Calvinism, writes Olson, he finds little difference between God and Satan (Olson is not suggesting Calvinists worship Satan nor a false god). The God of Calvinism wants a few to be saved and to damn most. How is this different than Satan? writes Olson. The character of God is best seen in His Son who is the “exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). In Jesus we find a God who is loving, kind, praying both for His friends and His enemies, who has come to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus came to show the Father (John 14:9) and He perfectly revealed Him to us in His life, death, and resurrection from the dead (Colossians 1:15-20). Christ died for sinners (Romans 5:8) and this love was given for the entire world (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 1 John 4:10, 14).
We live in a wicked world. It seems we look around us and see wickedness each and every day. Some look at wickedness and they simply ignore it and hope it will go away. For the disciple, we pray Matthew 6:10, for the kingdom of God to come and the gospel can remove the wickedness that we see. This nation, the United States, as with most of the “Christian” West, needs revival. We need the gospel to break the chains of sin and to bring true salvation to the nations (2 Corinthians 5:17). Only the gospel can usher in the kingdom of Christ.
But my purpose here is not to write about the kingdom of God. Both Arminians and Calvinists agree that the kingdom of Christ is what we long for. Whether you identify with a certain end-times view it not the issue here. We want the kingdom to come. We want the Lord Jesus to be exalted and for His gospel to be preached so that God may be glorified through it all. We stand in the face of evil and declare that there is hope, there is forgiveness, there is reconciliation with God through the Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). We know that our God is working to bring about this truth. The gospel is going forth even as I type this.
What then are we to do with evil? It is the tension that has caused much friction. Liberals think the answer for evil is education, less poverty, more jobs, equal money. Atheists point to evil as “proof” that God does not exist (yet there would be no concept of evil with a holy and good God as the standard). Agnostics wonder if there is a God then why doesn’t He end all evil with just a wave of His all-powerful hand. Even among us true Christians there is tension. Calvinists believe that all that comes to pass happens because of the sovereign will of God and His decree. A murder is the will of God. A rape is the will of God. An abortion is the will of God. Anything and everything happens because God wills it so.
The Arminian cannot escape this tension either. We too have our mysteries. Calvinists wrestle with how God avoids being guilty of sin while He ordains whatsoever comes to pass. In Calvinism, compatibilism (or “soft determinism”) is the idea that mankind does not possess free will but rather they act according to their nature. In other words, a sinner sins because God does not give them to them the grace necessary to avoid that sin and in essence God knows the sinner is going to sin, wills the sinner to sin, the sinner makes a choice to sin based on their own sinful nature, and thus while God knew, planned, and ordained the sinner to sin, the sinner is still held responsible for their actions that they freely chose to do. The mystery is how God is not guilty of the sin when the sinner really could not choose otherwise since there is no true free will in mankind in Calvinism.
Compatibilism is defined by Monergism.com as:
Compatibilism (also known as soft determinism), is the belief that God’s predetermination and meticulous providence is “compatible” with voluntary choice. In light of Scripture, human choices are believed to be exercised voluntarily but the desires and circumstances that bring about these choices about occur through divine determinism (see Acts 2:23 & 4:27-28). It should be noted that this position is no less deterministic than hard determinism – be clear that neither soft nor hard determinism believes man has a free will. Our choices are only our choices because they are voluntary, not coerced. We do not make choices contrary to our desires or natures. Compatibilism is directly contrary to libertarian free will. Therefore voluntary choice is not the freedom to choose otherwise, that is, without any influence, prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Voluntary does mean, however, the ability to choose what we want or desire most. The former view is known as contrary choice, the latter free agency. (Note: compatibilism denies that the will is free to choose otherwise, that is, free from the bondage of the corruption nature,for the unregenerate, and denies that the will is free from God’s eternal decree.)
Notice the article is clear that mankind does not have free will. A person, when confronted with a choice to murder another person, is not able to choose to do the sin or not. They are simply doing what God has determined for them to do. The mystery is that God is not guilty of causing the person to sin nor is He wrong to hold the person to be punished for their sins that they could not chose to do otherwise.
The tension in Arminianism is much more biblical and to me is a biblical tension. The tension in Arminianism is the mystery of how God is sovereign and does His will despite giving His creatures made in His image the freedom to choose. God does have the right (since He is the creator) to step into our world and do as He pleases. He foreknows all things and is not limited in His knowledge. He foreknew, for example, the fall of Man (Genesis 3) yet does this mean that He caused the fall? No! He is perfectly holy and the Bible is clear that He leads no one into sinning (James 1:12-15). God foreknew that wicked sinners would crucify His Son (Acts 2:23). Did God cause them to kill His Son? No! They did so by their own sinfulness and free will. The mystery here is free will and how God allowed these creatures of His to do as they please yet His will was done.
The Calvinist replies to this are that God is sovereign and by definition in Calvinism, sovereignty must mean that God alone determines all things. But I ask why? Why must we settle for the Calvinist answer? After all, in the Bible people did things that grieved God yet if Calvinism and compatibilism are true, then why was God grieved?
Glenn Shellrude points out from Ezekiel 24:13-14 that in a Calvinist reading, God simultaneously tried to cleanse Israel and prevented them from being cleansed because He wanted to judge them (Grace for All, p.35). Does this make sense? In Jeremiah 7:31 the Lord rebukes the sons of Judah for doing what He had not commanded nor came to His mind. The Calvinist understanding is that this is merely God coming down on our level so that we can understand His ways. Yet this does not fit the text. Is God merely saying something not true about Himself because of our ignorance? That doesn’t make sense.
Shellrude goes on to point out the many sins in the New Testament we are said to avoid and even the entire book of 1 Corinthians where Paul rebukes the Corinthians for sinning. If Paul understood compatibilism (and remember that Calvinists will claim that Paul was a true Calvinist) then surely he would understand that the sins of the people were done by the will of God. The sins could not be avoided if God willed them so.
I accept that there are mysteries in theology. This is one of them. I believe in limited free will (because only God has true free will to do whatever He wills) because I see this truth played out in Scripture and in humanity. Yet I believe in the sovereignty of God but not in the compatibilism use of the word. I believe that God knows all things and yet the mystery for me is that God is not guilty of sin, that He doesn’t cause people to sin and He would that they not sin yet He allows for free sinful decisions yet He still gets His will done. That is a mystery I accept because I see it taught in Scripture. The Bible does not answer all our questions about God and I believe it never could. God is simply too exhaustive to know.
Despite Calvinism holding to soft determinism, most Calvinists are not consistent in this so that they preach, pray, and live their lives as if free will were true. No doubt when backed into a corner they will hold to determinism but they don’t live that way. I know of only one man in all my years who lived as if compatibilism were true. He would indulge looking at porn and he never felt guilty for it because he reasoned that if God didn’t will for him to look at porn, God would supply the grace for him to not look at it. He eventually moved on to prostitutes and then to leaving his wife for another woman. Why? Because God never stopped him. He reasoned that God could have but God willed for him to do all these sexual sins.
Now to be fair, nearly every Calvinist I know would rebuke this man for his sinning. They would even call him an apostate and call him to repentance and they should. Yet did this man not do what God willed him to do? If compatibilism is true then he has no free will and acted by his nature that God had not changed by His sovereign grace. As an Arminian, I would (and did) call this man to repent. I warned him of his sinning but he ignored me because of my Arminianism. I pointed him to Scripture but he ignored that. Again, he reasoned that if God wanted him to stop his sinning, God would grant him the grace to do so but God never did and so he continued in his sinfulness.
Now I know that was a hard case. That is not typical at all and I thank God for that. Most Calvinists I know are truly godly men and women who love the Lord Jesus. Yet they live their lives as if free will were true. They might would deny free will if asked but they wake up each day and seemingly do what they like. When faced with temptation, they, like myself, are faced with a choice to make and many of them avoid sinning. I praise God for that. Yet if I asked them if they could freely choose A or B when faced with temptation, they would say yes yet Calvinism denies such a view.
I am happy to hold to my mysteries. I have not figured God out and never will. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who knocked on my door this morning have their god figured out. That is why the JW’s god is not the true and living God. God is a mystery. He is beyond my understanding and His ways are a mystery to me. I am comfortable with my mysteries in my theology.
On Father’s Day, 1995, Brownsville Assembly of God had a special speaker in Rev. Steve Hill. Hill was scheduled to preach that night (in those days, churches still had Sunday night services even on Father’s Day) in lieu of the passing of John Kilpatrick’s mother the previous week. Kilpatrick simply was tired and he asked Hill to preach the morning service as well. Hill preached from Psalm 77:11-12. You can watch the sermon online and there was nothing in the sermon that was incredible. Hill simply preached from his life, from his own experience of longing for God. The altar call is where the “revival” began. The revival that started that morning would continue until 2002.
I attended the Brownsville Revival (as it became known) three times. The first was in 1996, once in 1997, and again in 2002. By 2002, the revival was not really a revival anymore and the church was trying to find its place again.
The Good & The Bad
I went to Brownsville in 1996 very skeptical of what I would see. People at our local church were constantly going on and on about what God was doing in Pensacola. I heard strange things were happening and people were going to Pensacola for experience above the Word of God. I had had a friend go down there and he “fell under the power” for a few hours. He said the event changed his life (more to that later). Thousands of people were heading to Pensacola to the point that even the news program, 20/20, did an expose on the revival. Newspapers reported on the revival. The church sign out front had to be daily changed as they would put how many souls were being saved at the revival. At our church, people believed this was the great final outpouring of the Spirit before Jesus would come. They believed God was preparing the world for the end by reaching out to it one last time. I watched entire churches change their entire services to reflect Brownsville.
When I went down to Pensacola in 1996, I was very skeptical of what I would see. I did not go there seeking a revival. I did not go there to seek an experience. In fact, I had no experiences. However, I left hungry for God. While I saw some flesh, I saw some good. I saw thousands of people praying at the Tuesday night prayer meeting which was the highlight of the week for me. I saw people weeping over the lost. I saw people longing to touch God with their prayers for sinners. That blessed me.
However, I also saw people in the flesh. I talked to some teenagers (as I was only 21) and they focused entirely on experiences instead of the Word of God. That said, I also saw the youth pastor (Richard Crisco or Brother Richard) exhorting his teenagers to get into the Word. Brother Richard preached the best that week in my estimation. He preached from 1 Samuel 14 about Jonathan and his armor bearer and how we need to be around disciples if we are going to war.
I saw the strange manifestations. I saw strange people. One lady asked to pray for me and I said she could. I closed my eyes and waited for her to lay her hands on me to pray but she did not and all was silent. I opened one eye to see what she was doing and she was doing some sort of charismatic dance in front of me while, I guess, praying for me? It was truly strange.
Another girl asked if an Argentinean pastor had prayed for me. I said no. She said that if he prays for you, you fall under the power of God (slain in the Spirit in the charismatic world) for hours. At that time, I was open to this so she went to get him to pray for me. He prayed for me but nothing happened. Steve Hill came by and just pushed me down (courtesy drop we called it).
I watched as people literally chased John Kilpatrick around the church. He took off running and people were running after him for his “anointing.”
I stood in line to talk to John Kilpatrick and was going to ask where in the Bible does he find evidence for the revival. I was right behind a lady when she asked the very question I was going to ask him. His reply was bad. He said, “Woman, lay aside your mind and just let God touch you. I can’t answer your questions about where this is in the Bible but I know it is from God because I see Him all over this place. Let go and let God!” That was it. She and I both walked away from him shaking our heads.
Back home, I watched people try to copy Brownsville. They would preach like Steve Hill or pray like Kilpatrick. They wanted their praise team to sound like Lindell Cooley and the Brownsville team. Prayer banners became popular. The subjective experiences I witnessed at the revival were carried over to the churches with shaking and laughing.
My View 20 Years Later
Did God do something in Pensacola? Hard to judge. I have found people who were saved at the revival and still are seeking God today. I praise God for that. However, I know a few unbelievers as well who once were “on fire” at the revival but today are enemies of Christ. When I visited Brownsville in 1996, the neighborhood was hardly touched at all by the revival. I remember walking over to an African-American woman’s house and asked her about the revival. She said that she use to send her children to the church before the revival but now avoided it. She pointed to the lines and lines of people and said the revival was a white revival and not a black revival so she wouldn’t go. How sad.
Today Pensacola still needs the gospel. The church has had a hard time after the revival. The expenses of the revival ran the church into major debt. The church is still fairly large but nothing like it use to be. Before the revival, the church had 2000 members. Today they have less than 800. The lines of people are long gone. John Kilpatrick left the church in conflict in 2000. Steve Hill left in 2001 to go back to missions work. Hill died in 2014.
Sadly, most churches I know who were touched by Brownsville have faded as well. Today they are seeking to be like Perry Noble or like Rick Warren more than like Brownsville. What I think Brownsville highlighted was the tragedy of seeking experiences above God. The churches who adopted Brownsville tactics did so not because of the Word of God but because of experiences and pragmatism. They wanted Brownsville crowds and not revival.
I know of few churches today that truly pray for revival. The one blessing that came from the Brownsville revival was that the word “revival” was so common on our lips in the 1990’s. The Assemblies of God even had a link on their website in those days focusing on revivals breaking out across the nation and the world. I remember attending the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) camp meeting in South Carolina in 1998 and the entire focus was on revival. The preaching evangelist had just got back from Brownsville and was on fire. He wanted to see the Church of God folks go back to their churches with the fire of God. Sadly, those days seem to be gone. I hear few churches speaking of seeking God earnestly for revival. Revival seems to be only what we read about today and not seek.
The Brownsville revival did spark a hunger in my life. After the revival, I went on to long for God more and study His Word more. I am thankful that He has been faithful to me all these years later. I love the Bible now more than ever before. I love sinners now more than ever before. I long to pray for revival like I use to. I long to see the churches seeking God for revival yet again. So I go back to Psalm 77:11-12 and I pray that God would touch His people. I don’t want another Brownsville revival but I want a true revival of sound doctrine, of sound preaching, of sound praying, and of soul winning.