Arminian Today

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Prevenient Grace and Romans 9:19-23

John Goodwin wrote about Romans 9:19 and was quoted by Adam Clark as follows:

I scarce (says he) know any passage of the Scripture more frequently abused than this. When men, in the great questions of predestination and reprobation, bring forth any text of Scripture which they conceive makes for their notion, though the sense which they put upon it be ever so uncouth and dissonant from the true meaning of the Holy Ghost, yet, if any man contradict, they frequently fall upon him with – Nay but, O man; who art thou? As if St. Paul had left them his heirs and successors in the infallibility of his spirit! But when men shall call a solid answer to their groundless conceits about the meaning of the Scriptures, a replying against God, it savours more of the spirit who was seen falling like lightning from heaven, than of His, who saw him in this his fall.

This is certainly the case when someone questions the doctrine of unconditional election as it applies to Romans 9-11.  I have read many commentaries on the chapters but many of them turn to Romans 9-11 to prove the doctrine of unconditional election.  Yet many of them have a hard time when it comes to Romans 9:22-23.  For instance, Dr. R.C. Sproul acknowledges that Romans 9:20-24 clearly teach double predestination though he rejects hyper-Calvinism.  Sproul struggles with verse 22, that the verse teaches that God actively makes people sinners for their own destruction.  Most Calvinists simply take an agnostic view in regard to double predestination.  Dr. Vic Reasoner points out that John Calvin takes a false humility view with regard to the issue by writing, “The predestination of God is indeed in reality a labyrinth, from which the mind of man can by no means extricate itself.”

The reality is that we must not come to Romans 9-11 and try to impose our presuppositions upon the text.

John Fletcher, the great early Methodist theologian and man of God, wrote that Romans 9 establishes two basic truths.

1.  That God will admit whom He will into the one covenant out of pure, distinguishing, sovereign grace.  2.  That He had an absolute right of hardening all who imitate the obstinate unbelief of Pharaoh.  Such inflexible unbelievers are the only people whom God will harden or give up to a reprobate mind.  Therefore in both senses the objection is proposed and answered by the apostle, without the help of sovereign free wrath and Calvinistic reprobation.

With regard to verse 19, many assert that there is no biblical concept of prevenient grace.  It is argued that Romans 9:19-23 establishes that man has no free will and our salvation and damnation come from the sovereign hand of God.  God, in His absolute sovereignty and grace, has chosen to elect some while reprobating others.  They point to texts such as Romans 9:19, that God’s will is never resisted and He sovereignly draws whom He wills to salvation (John 6:44).  This is called irresistible grace.  When God calls, He draws and none can resist His will.

Yet Samuel Fisk points out that Scripture often teaches that people resist God’s will.  He cites the following texts: Joshua 24:15; Deuteronomy 30:19; 1 Samuel 8:19; Nehemiah 9:16-17; Psalm 81:10-11; Proverbs 1:24-25, 29-30; Isaiah 1:19-20; 28:12; 30:15; 65:12; 66:3-4; Jeremiah 5:3; 11:10; 13:10; Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11; Zechariah 7:11; Matthew 23:37; John 5:40; 1 Timothy 2:4.

The text does not actually say that God makes people into objects of wrath.  In fact, Romans 9:22 says that God endures with much patience these vessels of wrath.  Why would God endure patience with them if it was HE who first made them this way according to the Calvinistic view?  Is this yet another “mystery” of God much like His call to all to come and be saved when in reality He knows that He has only chosen a selected few to be saved?  Why does God give a general call to salvation while denying it to the majority?  Further, why would God be said to be patient with vessels of wrath prepared for destruction if He caused their stubbornness and hardness of heart?

Logically, it is best to view Romans 9:19-23 in its context.  Arminius stated, “Nothing is more plain in Scripture than that sinners persevering in their sins against the patience of God, who invites them to repentance, are those whom God wills to harden.”  Paul is speaking clearly  to the Jews (vv. 1-5).  His point in Romans 9-11 is to speak of the election of the nation of Israel and God turning to the Gentiles to include them into His remnant of grace (Romans 11:5-6).  Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah led to their own fall from grace (Romans 9:30-33).  The Jews can still be saved if they turn from their unbelief and repent (Romans 10:1-4, 9-17).  Paul even warns the Gentiles to learn from Israel’s disbelief (Romans 11:20-22).  The elect are those who believe (Romans 11:7).  The point: you are not elect by being a Jew but through faith in Christ.

The point of Romans 9:19-23 is to show that God is right to choose to save whomever He wills.  He calls all to come and be saved from among the Jews and Gentiles (v. 24).  These verses are not speaking of an unconditional election of people to salvation but God’s sovereign right to reject the Jews who were His elect people under the old covenant in favor of saving all who call upon His name (Romans 10:13).

How then does prevenient grace involve these passages?  First, prevenient grace or enabling grace remains necessary for our salvation.  The remnant of grace of Romans 11:5-6 are those who believe the gospel by God’s grace (Romans 4:4-5).  We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Paul, in Romans 4, contrasts faith and works.  To believe the gospel is said to be grace.  It is not a work to be saved in the sense of seeking to earn God’s righteousness (John 6:29).  Belief merely submits the Lordship of Christ and casts oneself completely upon the cross for salvation (Galatians 3:1-5).  Secondly, salvation is accomplished by the sovereign grace of God.  God’s enabling grace enables us to believe and be saved.  Apart from God’s grace, none of us could be saved (Romans 3:10-18).  We need His aid.  We need His grace (Ephesians 2:1-6).  Thirdly, it is clear that God’s desire is for all to repent and be saved (Acts 2:38-39).  Jesus Himself told us to go to all and preach the gospel to all (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).  The will of God is for all to be saved through faith in Christ (1 Timothy 2:1-6).  The will of God is for the lost to repent and be found by God’s grace (2 Peter 3:9).  The will of God is that all who come to Christ may be saved (John 6:37).

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