Archive for the ‘Enabling Grace’ Category
Having come face to face with my own sinfulness, my own lack of keeping the law of God, I have spent the last several months looking at the law and the gospel. While this is not new to Christianity, it is fairly new to me. I grew up in a church environment that was heavy on the law. You keep the law and God was happy. Break the law (which was often), God is now angry with you. The gospel was not the end but only a step to helping me keep myself clean. It was not Jesus period. It was Jesus who now enables me to keep the law and when I fail, back to the beginning.
We all sin. None of us are perfect. We read passages such as Romans 3:23 and acknowledge the universal sinfulness of mankind. But we miss the point that we are sinners ourselves. I am not arguing that we wake up each day thinking “what can I do today to violate the law of God” but we do sin. Whether we make sins into categories such as “sins of omission” and “sins of commission,” either way we do sin. Apart from grace, none of us can stand before a holy God. It is only through Christ that we can stand before a holy and totally pure God. The reason Christ died for my sins is not simply to enable me to be holy on my own power but He died because I am a sinner in need of forgiveness because I do sin (1 John 2:1-2).
Consider the command of Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40:
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Stop and consider how you are doing with that one? I’m not even good at it. I would love to say that I love God perfectly as Jesus taught. I would love to tell you that my love for God flows into loving my neighbor as myself. But the reality is that I fall way short of these two commands and Jesus said that law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. Do these and you’ll be perfect! But I don’t!
And thus the gospel comes into play. The law condemns me as a sinner (Romans 3:19) and the law teaches me that I need a Savior (Galatians 3:24). The law condemns me. The gospel saves me. The law shows me that I am a sinner (Romans 7:7). There is nothing wrong with the law of God (Romans 7:12) but the problem is me. I can’t keep the law. No matter how hard I try, I fail.
The gospel preaches peace to me. The law tells me to love God perfectly and my neighbor perfectly (Matthew 5:48). The gospel tells me Christ died for my sins and the sins of not loving God perfectly nor my neighbor as myself. The law tells me to love my wife as Christ loves His Church (Ephesians 5:25). The gospel tells me that Christ died for the sin of not loving my wife as Christ loves His Church (I am far from a perfect husband). The law tells me to pray, to worship, to evangelize, to give my money to the poor and to helping the kingdom of God, to do good to my neighbor especially of those of the household of faith, etc. but the gospel tells me that Christ died for my sins even the sins of not keeping the law perfectly.
Martin Luther taught two (and I would add a third) uses of the law. Lutherans debate the third use of the law. The three uses of the law are:
- For society, to curb man’s sinfulness.
- To condemn us a sinners and show us our need for salvation.
- To help the Christian in sanctification.
These three uses of the law are seen not just in the Bible but in life. Antinomians accept the first two uses of the law but not the third. I believe in preaching all three. Christians need to hear the law so that the Holy Spirit can help us in the process of sanctification. So for example a believer hears that we should pray (Luke 18:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer itself doesn’t justify us before God. We are justified only through Christ Jesus alone by grace alone though faith alone. Yet none would say that prayer is bad. Yet prayer can become a law. It was that way for me. I once held that a person should pray for 2 hours a day or God was not pleased. Prayer became a law and gospel for me. But prayer is not the gospel. The gospel is the death of Jesus for our sins and His resurrection for our justification (Romans 4:24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Thus Jesus died for my sin of prayerlessness. Does this mean that I should not pray since Jesus died for my sin of prayerlessness? By no means! The key is to see prayer as flowing from my forgiveness and not from the law. I pray because Christ shed His blood for me (Hebrews 4:14-16).
This holds true of any law. The law if holy and good (1 Timothy 1:8-11). The law shows me how far I am far from the perfection of God. But the gospel shouts to me that I am accepted in the Beloved. I am holy before God because of Christ (Hebrews 10:10, 14) and not by my works. The law tells me to pursue holiness (Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 1:15-16) and this is good. The gospel tells me that I am accepted in Christ Jesus who bled and died for my sins (Romans 5:6).
This understanding of the law and the gospel has blessed me. It has brought some joy to my soul where joy has been lacking. For so long I have been full of pride, my own self-righteousness. I thought God was honored by my prayer life, my evangelism, my passion for God. Like Voddie Bauchman preaches, my works-righteousness muscle likes to flex. I would have, in the past, gladly acknowledged Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and would have gladly told you that I was saved by His grace alone but in reality I was full of pride, thinking more highly of myself than I ought (Philippians 2:3). I would have preached Christ but my focus was not on pleasing Christ per se but on men seeing how much I “loved” Jesus. Oh how much pride was in my heart! Oh wretched sinner that I was!
But Christ died for me. Christ bled and suffered for my sins. Jesus gave His life for my sins and now I am forgiven not because I keep the law but because I can’t keep the law (Galatians 3:10). Christ suffered in my place, for my sins (Galatians 3:13-14). I am saved now not because I keep the law but because of faith in Jesus Christ who gave His life for my sins. What a blessing! What a Savior!
I have no problem with the law. The law is good. The law comes from our holy God. Yet too many Christians try to live the law. You will always be falling short. Always. You will never obtain holiness by the law. Even if you think (as I did) that I had obtained a level of holiness by my striving, inside (like me) you’ll know that you stand condemned because you can’t keep the whole law (James 2:10). I have no problem preaching the law and calling Christians to repent of not keeping the law. But the balance of this is the gospel. The answer to not keeping the law is not more law. The answer is the gospel. The law condemns us as sinners. The gospel comforts us by pointing to Christ who died for our sins (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
Perhaps I am wrong on this. I don’t think so. I believe it’s biblically based. I know that this teaching has pushed me closer to Christ and not away. I still hate sin. I really do hate sin. I acknowledge that I do sin but I hate my sins. I am so grateful to God for giving me His Son for my sins (John 1:29). I stand condemned but Christ preaches to me no condemnation (Romans 8:1). Satan accuses me of sin and he is right to do so. But I trust in Christ alone for my salvation (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus has promised not only to save me from my sins (Matthew 1:21; Romans 6:1-4) but He has promised to keep me (Jude 24-25). I trust in Christ alone and not my works-righteousness before a holy God.
John Wesley called the awakened state of man as “the almost Christian.” Wesley believed that most people in the church were that way, they were aware of their sins but they had not truly become children of God. They were servants of Christ but not sons. All sons are servants but not all servants are sons.
Wesley believed that Romans 7 described the awakened state. While nearly all Calvinists that I know of teach that Romans 7 is the normal state for Christians and Martin Luther taught that a Christian is both a sinner and a saint at the same time, Wesley taught (along with Arminius I might add) that Romans 7 describes people who are not saved. This is what Wesley deemed the awakened state, where a person is aware of their sins and aware that they are not pleasing to God so they seek to please God by their works or by their flesh. This cannot merit salvation (Romans 4:5). Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:7-8).
Sadly many in the modern church are in that state as well. Many of the seeker sensitive churches preach an easy gospel that is without conviction, without true repentance, without a true knowledge of God’s holiness and our sinfulness before God. They preach a message of “come to Christ” but they fail to convict sinners of their sins. They ignore the Bible’s call to repentance (Mark 1:15-16). They fail to preach repentance for the forgiveness of their sins (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19). They seek to lead people to Christ using the goodness of God but fail to preach His just wrath nor His forbearance and patience with sinners (Romans 2:4). Just this week I listened to two local seeker churches “sermons” and both were focused on the flesh rather than God, on what the sinner can get from God rather than repentance from their sins, and they both gave “altar calls” where the sinners just said a prayer and were said to be saved by grace. Both failed to preach the gospel where sinners see their sins and repent of their sins against God. Both failed to present Christ as the propitiation for our sins (John 1:29). Both preached a message of “Christ wants to fill the void in your life.” That is not the gospel. That is what many people are hearing week after week in many churches.
The Arminian should preach the law of God to produce the awakened state. Of course, the Spirit of God is the one who produces mighty conviction of sin (John 16:8-11). The almost Christian will see their sins and their need for Christ but they don’t know how to respond to the call of God to salvation. People believe (because of their sinfulness) that they must do something to earn salvation. This is human thought through and through. World religions attest to this fact. Religious people are consistently trying to earn God’s favor, His forgiveness, or His salvation. They think that they will be saved if their good works out number their bad works. Others believe that their actions (sacrifices, prayers, etc.) will bring salvation.
The truth is that only Jesus Christ can save us from the wrath of God (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Isaiah the prophet saw the work of Christ in Isaiah 53:4-6:
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
The Lord Jesus is the hope for our salvation. Jesus is the hope for the awakened sinner who sees his sins but doesn’t know how to flee from them. The hope for the sinner is not rehabilitation or reform. The hope for the sinner is to be born from above (John 3:3-7). The hope is for the Spirit of God to regenerate the sinner to bring about new life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Titus 3:5-7) and this only comes through faith.
Romans 3:21-26 is full of the richness of God’s mercy and grace given freely to the sinner in Christ Jesus our Lord:
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
The sinner is justified before God only grace through faith in Christ alone (Romans 5:1). The sinner is not justified before God by a combination of human works and God’s grace (as many cults teach). We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Why is this? Because the sinner cannot merit God’s salvation. Consider good works for a moment. How many good works must we do to earn God’s forgiveness? What works qualify as “good” works? How do we know that our wicked hearts will not produce pride in our “good” works? How will we know if God approves of our “good” works? Are there any “good” works which we consider good but God considers as bad? How can we know?
The awakened sinner, writes Wesley, fears God but does not love Him. The Christian loves God and fears Him (Romans 11:20-22; 1 John 4:18). The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7) and the Christian has a healthy fear of God (Hebrews 10:31). Too many do not fear God but sadly few actually love Him either. The awakened sinner fears God and knows that the judgment of God is just in punishment of their sins but they do not love God. They seek to win God’s approval by reforms, by vows, by religion. They find Romans 7 to be true, that they are too sinful to do any “good” works. Their flesh simply will never please God. They find in their awakened state that they are fully aware that they are sinners but have no peace with God.
The gospel is the solution. The gospel brings peace. Jesus is the prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6). Jesus came to bring peace (Ephesians 2:14). Jesus came to bring us not just peace in the storms of life (as many seekers preach) but He came to bring us peace with God whom we have greatly offended by our wicked sins. The holy God of the universe is the one that we have violated. He is the offended one. When we talk about salvation we are saying that we are being saved from something and that something is the wrath of God that we justly deserve for breaking His laws and shaking our fists at Him.
The awakened sinner is not saved. The duty of the evangelist is to preach Christ to the awakened sinner and call the sinner to faith and repentance through Christ. The blessed Holy Spirit aids us in this preaching. The Spirit works on the sinner’s heart to free the will to believe freely the gospel of God’s grace and mercy. May we preach Christ and Him crucified for our sins.
In Greg Dutcher’s book, Killing Calvinism, Dutcher writes that Calvinists often hear that Calvinism destroys evangelism. Yet Dutcher writes that while he disagrees with such a view, the best way to show that Calvinism does not destroy evangelism is to actually do evangelism. I appreciated that. Dutcher writes that Calvinists like to point to men such as George Whitefield as proof that true Calvinists can be great soul winners but fail to show through their own lives that they actually do share the gospel with the lost. Agreed with all that he wrote. Great words for us all whether we are Arminians or Calvinists.
In another book, John MacArthur writes,
The wonder of the gospel is that it is God’s doing. W sow the seed by sharing the gospel, then we go to sleep, and the Spirit works through the gospel to give life. We do not control who is saved, because the Spirit goes wherever He wills (John 3:8). We do not even know how it happens, any more than a farmer knows how a seed in the ground becomes food. Our job is not to impart life, only to implant the seed. Once we have done that, we can rest in the sovereign power of God. (Evangelism, pp.12-13).
I agree here with MacArthur as well. Our job is not to “save” anyone since we cannot. Only God can save a sinner who believes (1 Corinthians 1:21). When a sinner believes the gospel, they are brought from death to life (John 5:24) and from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Son (Colossians 1:13-14). The sinner who believes the gospel does so by the grace of God, through the conviction of the Spirit (John 16:8-11) and after believing, they are sealed with the Spirit of God (Ephesians 1:13-14) which testifies to their adoption (Romans 8:15).
Yet I would point out that to be a consistent Calvinist, one must hold that all of salvation is unconditional. God alone is the first and ultimate cause. God foreordained all things even before time began (1 Peter 1:1-2). God predestined His elect by His own sovereign choice (Romans 8:29-30). God elects based on His own choice and not on anything in the person (Romans 9:11-13). Consistent Calvinism then would hold that God not only elects the person before time began but He also sent His Son to redeem the elect (John 10:14-15). God then calls and saves the elect not because of anything in man nor by the means of man but by His own sovereign, irresistible power (John 1:13; Acts 13:48). While some Calvinists argue that God saves the elect by the means of the Word of God, this would not be consistent with the sovereignty of God nor with the unconditional nature of election. To truly be unconditional, the choice, call, and saving is all done by God for God’s glory. If we add that a person must hear the gospel, we are adding a condition. If we add that a disciple must preach the gospel to the elect for them to hear and be saved, we are adding a condition. This is not consistent.
I was recently reading Charles Spurgeon who was by no means consistent on this issue. Spurgeon is hailed for his great preaching but also for his evangelism as well. I appreciate Spurgeon much. Yet Spurgeon was preaching on John 6:44 and he was being very Calvinistic in this text as I would expect. Spurgeon even stated,
Now, if the preaching of Christ himself did not avail to the enabling these men to come to Christ, it cannot be possible that all that was intended by the drawing of the Father was simply preaching. No, brethren, you must note again, he does not say no man can come except the minister draw him, but except the Father draw him. Now there is such a thing as being drawn by the gospel, and drawn by the minister, without being drawn by God. Clearly, it is a divine drawing that is meant, a drawing by the Most High God—the First Person of the most glorious Trinity sending out the Third Person, the Holy Spirit, to induce men to come to Christ.
Spurgeon even took a shot at Arminians in this sermon for holding that sinners are converted by hearing the gospel and believing the truth. Spurgeon here was consistent with his Calvinism. Truly, if God has elected the elect before the world began and has saved them in His Son, the elect will be saved and further, are saved even from eternity past (eternal justification in the words of John Gill). The means is not a condition to salvation. Evangelism, preaching, discipleship, etc. are not means to salvation. They cannot be. That would add a condition and would not be consistent with the sovereignty of God as taught within Calvinism. The fact is that Spurgeon was correct if Calvinism is true: the sinner is drawn not by the preaching of the gospel or any external means but the internal call of God by which the Spirit of God regenerates the sinner so that they can hear God’s voice and live. The classic example given by Calvinists is Lazarus in John 11.
Calvinists will insist that external call goes out to all (Revelation 22:17) but the internal call goes out only to the elect. The internal call is the call of God and is irresistible. The internal call of God is based on His sovereign choice. The internal call of God is unconditional. The external call is the preaching of the gospel but the internal call of God is only to His elect (1 Corinthians 1:23-25). The Calvinist evangelist then will preach the gospel to all and call all to repent and believe the gospel but he knows that only the elect will do so (1 Peter 1:3). J.I. Packer writes that this is great comfort for the Reformed evangelist since they know that the work of God is done not by them but by God’s power and grace. The evangelist merely preaches the gospel and the Lord does the work of saving sinners for His glory. The duty of the evangelist is not to save anyone (he can’t) but to preach the gospel and God takes the gospel and brings forth fruitfulness in His timing (Matthew 13:3-9).
Yet is all this consistent with divine determinism? If in fact God has chosen His elect before the foundation of the world and if in fact this election is based on God’s sovereign choice and if in fact this election and salvation are purely monergistic, what role does the evangelist play? In reality, none. If one argues that the preaching of the gospel is necessary to the saving of the elect, is this a condition? How can one argue that election is unconditional while placing certain conditions upon election such as faith, repentance, or hearing the gospel preached by an evangelist?
I agree with much of what I wrote above about the external call. I reject the internal call because this violates the power of choice in a given relationship and God, in Scripture, treats us as people. God deals with people as people who can choose because they have been created in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). The preaching of the cross is to be preached to all and all can be saved (John 16:8). The prevenient grace of God is the preaching of the gospel and the work of the Spirit as He works through the preaching of the gospel to bring forth salvation among lost sinners (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). I agree entirely that God alone saves because He alone can save (Isaiah 45:22). The “work” of mankind is to humble themselves and believe the gospel (John 6:29; Romans 4:5). When a sinner humbles themselves before the cross, they will find that the Lord is merciful toward humble sinners and He will save them by His grace (Luke 18:14). This is the hope of the Bible (1 Timothy 2:4).
Consistent Calvinists (known as hyper-Calvinists) hold that God saves only the elect and He does so in His own timing and power. He does not need man nor does He even use man. God alone saves His elect. Everything that happens happens because God wills it so including the damnation of the non-elect or reprobate. Calvin acknowledged this calling it the “horrible decree.” I’m not sure why Calvin would label it as such since everything happens to the glory of God including the damnation of the reprobate. In the consistent Calvinist church, how does one become a Christian? By God’s sovereign decree and timing. In fact, some consistent Calvinists believe that assurance of salvation is impossible in this life. One cannot know they are elected until the final judgment. Some have even taught that many will think they were elect but will find at the final judgment that they were not. This reminds me of the Islamic view of eternal life in which Allah sometimes even casts faithful Muslims into hell simply because Allah wills it so. While the consistent Calvinist would view Yahweh as loving and good, they would agree that Yahweh may or man not allow some into heaven even if they thought they were elect simply because He did not will it so.
Yet the Calvinist must admit that the consistent Calvinist is correct. If God is sovereign as Calvinism teaches then everything that happens happens because of the will of God. As R.C. Sproul is famous for saying, “If there is one rebellious molecule in the universe, God is not sovereign!” In Calvinism, sovereignty means “complete control, divine determinism of all things.” How can one say the uphold such a view of God yet say that He allows sinners to willfully reject (with free choice) the salvation offered to them? Remember, compatibilism holds that free choice is not allowed. Let me repeat the definition of compatibilism:
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.)
So a sinner hears the gospel and notice that according to compatibilism, that person cannot choose freely to receive or reject the gospel. Notice carefully that a person is not free to choose otherwise. In other words, the Reformed evangelist comes along preaching the gospel to a crowd. The Reformed evangelist preaches, “Repent and believe the gospel” but he knows that only those who have the internal call of God will respond while the others are dead in their sins and cannot even hear him spiritually speaking (1 Corinthians 2:14). Yet even before the evangelist ever came and even before time began, God had already chosen His elect. The evangelist comes and the people have no choice in this matter. They will believe because God wills it so. It has nothing to do with the evangelist or the sinner. Go back and read Spurgeon at the top. God draws the sinner not by external means but by His grace alone (John 6:44). God needs no minister in the words of Spurgeon. This, my friends, is consistent Calvinism. It is not practiced much but it is consistent.
Some Calvinists will read this post and say that I got it all wrong. I may have. I am not a Calvinist and have never been so. However, I read Spurgeon and most of the above came from a book I have on John Calvin written by a Calvinist. I rejoice that consistent Calvinism is not rampant. I believe that as more and more Calvinists read into Calvin and think deeply on the implications of Calvinism, they will reject the system. Calvinism is not practical. Calvinism is not congruent. Especially for those who love sinners and want to see them saved. Most Reformed evangelists I know preach like Arminians. They call sinners to repent and they reason with sinners to come to faith. Yet they are not consistent with their evangelism and their theology that they believe backs up their preaching. From Jeremiah’s Cry to many other Reformed evangelism groups, they are not consistent in their application of Calvinism toward preaching to the lost.
My prayer is that we would soon see a turning of the tide away from Calvinism. I love my Calvinist brothers and sisters. I love to listen to many of them preach and teach the Word of God. I have been blessed to have even evangelized with many Calvinists brothers and sisters in the open air. I do not view Calvinists as enemies of the gospel. Let me repeat that: I do not believe Calvinists are enemies of the gospel. I disagree with Calvinism but love Calvinists. I listen to many Calvinist podcasts and enjoy their labors for the Lord. I rejoice that nearly every Calvinist I know is not consistent.
In the end, I will freely admit that I am not a brilliant man and could be wrong. I pray that God would show me where I am wrong. I would humble myself before His throne and admit my failures in my own theology as He reveals it to me. I also confess that theology always has some mystery to it. I cannot understand fully how God is able to take free choices of men and women and still has His own outcome. I don’t understand the nature of petitionary prayer to the sovereignty of God. Yet I am okay with mystery. The gospel is not a mystery (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). The gospel is clear (Acts 13:38-39). Yet other aspects of theology are a mystery and I suppose we may never fully grasp them even in eternity in God’s holy presence.
In my next post I won’t to jump into John 6:37. Does John 6:37 affirm divine determinism or is there another way to read John 6:37 in the context of both John and Scripture that affirms the universal call of the gospel? We shall see.
May God be glorified in His Church!
I have been listening to a podcast of a brother and he has been dealing with the issue of prevenient grace. His take is that prevenient grace within Arminianism is not much different from the view of Calvinists only that the order of salvation differs. His regard is that the Arminian gives up ground to the Calvinist when they admit first that people are born dead in their sins and unable to respond to God at all. His view is that people are not born unable to respond but simply born with a sinful nature and thus sin but are still able to respond to God’s grace and God’s call. He secondly says that we give up ground to the Calvinist when we ignore both the call of Scripture for all to repent and say that they can’t or that we teach that people must have prevenient grace given to those whom God foreknows will believe. This linear view of election is not biblical in his estimation.
In reply, he offers that prevenient grace is not a unique enabling that God only gives to the foreknown elect but rather God gives His enabling grace to all through the gospel. The gospel is prevenient grace in his view. The gospel, he argues, is given to us by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16), is empowered by the Spirit (Acts 1:8) through Spirit chosen Apostles (John 15:16). The Apostolic preaching is thus from the Spirit and is the Spirit’s work in the world to bring about the salvation of sinners (John 16:8-11). As the gospel is preached, this is the prevenient grace of God (prevenient means “beforehand”) at work among the nations to draw them to salvation. God uses the gospel to entice sinners to repentance. All are freely able to respond to the gospel of God’s grace (Romans 11:32). Prevenient grace is thus the work of the Spirit, the preaching of the gospel, the ministry of the Church. This is all prevenient grace and should not be cornered into one area: just the drawing of the Spirit unto salvation. This is all the work of the Spirit in bringing salvation to sinners.
This is an interesting view and one that I am curious about. I have not heard prevenient grace explained in this manner. I have long heard the concept as taught by John Wesley and the early Methodists. The Wesleyan concept is that people are born dead in their sins (original sin) and only the work of the Spirit to draw sinners to salvation is sufficient to bring dead sinners to repentance. Wesley very much held to a Calvinist view in this regard. Arminius likewise seems to hold to such a view. The Calvinist question, of course, is how does God choose one person over another. Is it based on works? Is it based on the response of the person? Is it based on foreseen faith? The Calvinist answer is simple: the elect are chosen based on the arbitrary choosing of God. While Calvinists would disagree with me and would say that God chooses people based on His love and His glory (Romans 9:22-23; Ephesians 1:11-12) but either way, the Calvinist would never admit that God chooses a person based on anything the person does and the choice is completely God’s choice and a mystery (Deuteronomy 29:29 is the most appealed to passage).
However, Acts 28:27 would seem to disagree with both the Calvinist and Arminian viewpoint. It reads:
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.
Paul is speaking here of the Jews. Notice he doesn’t say that they are born dull or born without the ability to believe. He says that they have become dull. These Jews have made themselves this way. Later he would write that these same Jews can turn and be saved if they will humble themselves (Romans 11:23).
So why does one man believe while another man does not? The issue is not with God. The issue is humility. Does one person humble themselves before God as a child? Does one person continue in their pride and unbelief? Acts 28:28 Paul the Apostle states that he is turning to the Gentiles but not because of God’s sovereign election but because they will listen. The Gentiles humbled themselves while the Jews did not.
This is this brother’s take. No system of theology is perfect. We are all humans trying to understand the infinite God. We are so limited in knowing God. A.W. Tower said:
The doctrine of justification by faith (a Biblical truth, and a blessed relief from sterile legalism and unavailing self-effort) has in our times fallen into evil company and has been interpreted by many in such a manner as actually to bar men from the knowledge of God. The whole transaction of religious conversion has been made mechanical and spiritless. Faith may now be exercised without a jar to the moral life and without embarrassment to the Adamic ego. Christ may be “received” without creating any special love for Him in the soul of the receiver. The man is “saved”, but he is not hungry or thirsty after God. In fact, he is specifically taught to be satisfied and encouraged to be content with little. The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of His Word.
The reality is that knowing God is not knowing facts about God. It is knowing Him! Salvation is not a part of a system but a person, the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16-17). Salvation is found in a person (Romans 5:1). I want to know Him more and more! I want all people to know Him as well (Matthew 28:18-20). Thankfully, God does not save Arminians or Calvinists but He does save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) and Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).
Arminius is often said to be the theologian of freedom. One Calvinist theologian said that Arminius was “anthropocentric” in that he placed humanity at the center of his theology and not God. To this day, Calvinist theologians continue to assert that Arminius and Arminianism is all about human freedom. Libertarian free will is said a chief focus of Arminian theology.
And yet is this fair? Is Arminianism focused on free will and humans as its center?
The fact is that those who say that Arminius was first and foremost about human freedom must prove this from his writings. This cannot be done. Arminius does not elevate human freedom above God’s sovereignty nor does he ascribe to salvation the basis being free will. Arminius is clear in his writings that the will of man is free indeed but bound by sin (Romans 8:6-7). The will of mankind is darkened by our sinfulness. The will of man, like Jonathan Edwards later, was free but free to sin. Man could do nothing with their free will to earn salvation.
Arminius was clear that we should uphold free will for three main reasons. First, sin must be ascribed to free will. While God can certainly use man’s free will sinful acts for His glory (Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23-24), the act of sin must be free and not from God lest God be made the author of sin itself which Scripture deplores (James 1:13-15). God is simply too holy to sin (Exodus 15:11; Habakkuk 1:13). If mankind does not have free will, sin must come from outside of them and that would be from the Creator Himself and Arminius simply would not affirm this.
Secondly, Arminius defended free will in regard to grace. It was here that Calvinists often attacked Arminius as being Pelagian. For salvation to be truly gracious and a gift from God (Romans 6:23) then it must be maintained that mankind receives this grace by their own free will albeit by the ministry of the Spirit. To deny freedom in the work of grace is to make grace not truly grace. How can one ascribe salvation as a work of grace if in fact man has no choice but to succumb to the irresistible drawing power of God? Calvinists will insist that this is truly grace when dead sinners are regenerated to believe the gospel but salvation as a gift from God (John 3:16) is not a gift if the person offered the gift has nothing to say about receiving the gift. Salvation as gracious is gracious in Arminianism since the will of man is freed by the Spirit to believe and receive the gift (John 1:12-13; Romans 11:5-6).
Finally, Arminius affirmed human freedom because it upholds the relationship between God and man as a true relationship. God is not forcing His will upon people as a Master and they as robotic slaves. Instead, God is loving, gracious, and reaching out to lost humanity through His Son and through His Word to bring them into a free and loving relationship with Himself. The consistent theme of the Old Testament is God having relationships with people (and later the nation of Israel) through human freedom. God allows the free will decisions of Abraham, David, and others to build His relationship with them. No doubt God is sovereign in His choosing but He continues to allow a man like Abraham or Moses to even sin against Him in the process but nonetheless uses the men and their free will for His glory. This does not end in the New Testament. The coming of the Messiah is God still reaching out to humanity. Yes our will is bent and wicked. Yes we are sinners but God is consistently holy and pure yet He reaches out to the lost though His Son (Luke 19:10; 1 Timothy 1:15). God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
The facts are that Arminius is not putting man at the center of his theology nor even free will. Instead, Arminius affirmed the grace of God as central to his theology. We are saved by grace and kept by grace. Pelagianism places the beginning of faith in man but Arminius places salvation as an act of God’s first grace. It is God who initiates salvation first in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15) and ultimately in His Son (John 1:17-18). The beginning of salvation is not in man. The beginning of salvation, according to Arminius, is God and His grace.
For more on this I highly recommend the book, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace by Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall.
John MacArthur has a famous sermon that he preached on Mark 4:26-29 on the theology of sleep in which he argues that the doctrine of unconditional election allows him to sleep at night. He argues that the doctrine that God alone saves gives him comfort because if the salvation of others depended on him, he would not be able to sleep at night. MacArthur argues that he cannot understand how ministers who deny unconditional election can sleep if in fact the saving of souls depends upon them.
I for one reject unconditional election but I sleep well at night not because I deny the lostness of men nor because I turn a blind eye to their desperate need for salvation. I sleep well because of the doctrine of prevenient grace. I agree with MacArthur that salvation is the work of the Lord. Regeneration is the work of the Spirit (John 3:1-5; Titus 3:5-7). The entire work of salvation is by the power of God (Romans 1:16-17). While I believe the Bible teaches that people believe the gospel as a duty (John 3:15), I deny that this belief is works (Romans 4:5). Sinners are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).
However, my job is not to save sinners. It is the Lord’s work to save sinners. MacArthur’s appeal to Mark 4:26-29 is right. The harvest is the Lord’s harvest (Matthew 9:38). Paul argues this way in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9. While Paul and others did work to tell people the gospel, the Lord is the One who saves sinners. Our job is to simply preach the gospel. This is a point that both Arminians and Calvinists can agree.
Obviously, the key difference here then is not over the gospel. It is not over whether the Lord saves sinners. It is over whether the Lord treats sinners as people or does He treat them as something else like robots or chess pawns? I believe God treats people as people who can think, hear, respond. God is the one who saves and He deals with sinners by His grace. His Spirit woos the sinner but He does not force the sinner (John 6:44). The Spirit opens the sinners heart to hear the gospel and be saved (Acts 16:14-15, 30-34; 1 Corinthians 1:21; Ephesians 1:13-14). The Spirit is the one who empowers the disciple to first preach the gospel to the lost (Acts 1:8) and then He also is the one who opens sinners minds and hearts to the gospel though He allows the sinner to believe in their own freed will. Over and over again the New Testament calls the sinner to believe the gospel and repent (Acts 17:30-31). As the Spirit works, the sinners respond (Acts 2:37). The sinner either repents (Acts 2:38, 41) or they rebel (Acts 7:51; 13:46). Those who believe the gospel become the elect of God (Acts 13:48; Romans 8:29-30; 1 Timothy 4:10).
As Arminians our dependence in evangelism must not be on gimmicks or tricks or rock concerts or skits or movies. It must be on the gospel that saves sinners! The Spirit empowers the Church to preach to the lost. Our dependence must be on the Word of God that saves the lost. In Mark 4:26 we read of the scattered seed. In Mark 4:14 the seed is the Word. The Word brings forth fruit as we preach the gospel! Our job must then be to preach the gospel (2 Timothy 4:2, 5).
The bottom line is that Arminians can take comfort in the work of the Spirit in drawing sinners to salvation. Calvinists often contend that the term “prevenient grace” is not found in the Bible. What they fail to realize is that Calvinists theologians have also used the term for the term means “beforehand” grace. This is a biblical concept even if we disagree over whether this grace can be resisted or not. Both Arminians and Calvinists affirm that salvation is the divine work of God and His grace. While we Arminians would contend that God grants free grace to draw in souls through the preaching of the gospel, the result of regeneration is the divine working of God.
So that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
– Galatians 3:14
The Calvinist view is that a person is dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:1-3) and therefore the Spirit must regenerate the dead sinner so that they can hear the gospel, believe, and be saved. Many appeal to the story of Lazarus in John 11 as an example of regeneration. Calvinists also appeal to John 3:3 saying that one must be born again to believe and enter the kingdom.
Here in Galatians 3:14 the Calvinist view has a problem. Paul the Apostle clearly states that we receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. The Spirit comes through faith. The Spirit does not come before faith. This is a problem text for Calvinists.
The Arminian understanding is that all who believe will be saved (John 3:15). Our view is that the Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel to bring forth faith but He can be resisted and He does not force the person to believe (a point that Calvinists would agree with in regard to force). John 6:44 is used by both Arminians and Calvinists concerning this work of the Spirit. The Spirit opens the heart of the sinner to hear the gospel and He enables those who believe to be saved. The work of regeneration is entirely His work (Titus 3:5-7). But the belief, while certainly a work of grace, is done by the believer themselves.
The Arminian order of salvation then would be that the Spirit is given to those who believe (Acts 11:17; 15:9). We are justified before God through faith (Romans 5:1) and at the moment of regeneration, we receive the promised Spirit (Romans 5:5). There is simply no way around this.
While Charles Spurgeon was no doubt a Calvinist, I do agree with him here:
“If I am to preach the faith in Christ to a man who is regenerated, then the man, being regenerated, is saved already, and it is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ to him, and bid him to believe in order to be saved when he is saved already, being regenerate. Am I only to preach faith to those who have it? Absurd, indeed! Is not this waiting till the man is cured and then bringing him the medicine? This is preaching Christ to the righteous and not to sinners.”
Spurgeon battled hyper-Calvinists in his day because Spurgeon rightly preached that all could and should come and be saved while he also believed in unconditional election. Spurgeon was inconsistent in his theology but for that I am thankful.
One final point. Calvinists acknowledge that the Spirit convicts people of their sins before salvation (John 16:8-11). Even if we grant that the Spirit only convicts those who are elect, how can He convict those who are dead? The Calvinists would have to preach that the Spirit regenerates before conviction instead of before faith. What is the point of the Spirit’s convicting work toward dead sinners if the dead sinner must be regenerated to believe the gospel?
The Arminian understanding of the convicting work is consistent with our teaching on prevenient (or enabling) grace. The Spirit convicts the sinner through the gospel (1 Timothy 1:8-11). The Spirit takes the law of God and He shows the sinner their sin (Romans 3:19-20; 7:7). The sinner must believe to be saved (Acts 16:30-31) but the Spirit woos the sinner under the guilt of their sin and He regenerates the sinner who believes the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:21; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14).