The controversy over free will boils down to one main issue. If God only gives effectual grace to some people and not others, then in the final analysis, it is God and not man who gets the credit for your salvation, but also would get the blame for the lack of it. Is God in charge of salvation, or do we choose to be saved?
The dispute has raged since the fourth century when Pelagius and Augustine debated the issue. Today on Renewing Your Mind, Dr. R.C. Stroul examines the biblical evidence to prove that without God's sovereign intervention, people cannot be saved. In today's session, I'm going to do something a little bit different from our normal procedure.
I'm going to start with a pop quiz. I'm going to ask you to see if you can identify the author of the following citation. I'm going to read this quotation as it goes as follows. In the fall, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirmed, bent, and weakened, but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost.
It has no powers except as it is excited by divine grace. I think if I put that question before my seminary students and asked them to identify the author of it, that none of them could do it, because the person who wrote those words was James Arminius, the father of Arminianism. And that statement sounds as Augustinian, as Calvinistic and Reformed as a statement could ever sound about the nature of our will in the fall. And it illustrates something that we need to say at the very beginning of this discussion today, that so often in theological debates what happens is the opposing position is constructed as a straw man, and a caricature is offered to people.
I don't know how many times I've heard Calvinism defined as teaching that God arbitrarily selects some people for salvation and selects others for damnation, and He brings the elect kicking and screaming against their will into the kingdom, while at the same time He prevents other people from entering His kingdom who desperately want to be there. That is as serious a distortion of Reformed theology as you could ever hear. And likewise, sometimes the theology of Arminius is painted and portrayed as if Arminius were an unreconstructed Pelagian, and such of course was not the case. In fact, in the beginning of his career, Arminius distinguished himself as a Reformed theologian, as he served in a Reformed theological institution in the Netherlands, and he was engaged in a serious dispute with one of his colleagues over the question of supralapsarianism and so-called hyper-Calvinism.
And in his response to his colleague, as they began to engage in debate, Arminius began to move further and further away, not only from hyper-Calvinism, but from classical Calvinism as well as we will see. But he did teach that in the fall, all three dimensions of man's spiritual nature were radically affected. As a result of the fall, man is left with what Arminius calls a darkened mind, a perverse affection and an impotent will. And the impotency of the will and the darkness of the mind and perversity of the heart comprise together spiritual death.
As the Bible says, we are dead in sin. And in commenting on that, Arminius declared that this being dead in sin means that we are not morally free to do any good unless we are first liberated by God, so that the first step of our redemption depends upon the liberating grace of God. Now, Arminius articulated this concept of the liberating grace of God in terms of what he called preventing grace.
We've seen this already earlier on in other systems. And the more popular rendition of this concept is found in the word prevenient grace. Now, when we use the word to prevent in our common modern language, we are talking about keeping something from happening. That's the last thing that Arminius means by the word prevent in terms of preventing grace. Rather, he's using this term, preventing grace, in a way in which the term was understood when it was used in a much closer relationship to its Latin origin. Preventing grace or prevenient grace, the prefix means before and venio means what? Veni, vidi, vici, I came, I saw, I conquered.
I saw a sweatshirt recently that said veni, vidi, vegi, I came, I saw, I had a salad. But we know that the veni means I came, and so prevenient grace is a grace that comes before something. And it is the prior operation of divine grace that Arminius sees as a necessary prerequisite for the soul's liberation from spiritual death. So that grace and the prevenient grace that we're speaking of here comes before conversion and indeed must come before conversion for conversion to take place. Now when we talk about the grace of God, there are those who distinguish between internal grace and external grace or the internal call of God and the external call of God. And some limit the grace of God to what God does outside of us by giving us His Word, by showing us the truth, by wooing and drawing and enticing us to come to Him.
But this assistance of grace remains outside of our souls. That we would call external grace, but internal grace would mean that God does something inside of us. Now, it's important to understand that for Arminius, he sees the grace of God by which he calls sinners to conversion as not being limited to an external operation by the Holy Spirit. But for Arminius, grace works internally, and insofar as he was teaching that, he would be on the same page as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, speaking of God's internal operation.
But then he goes on to make this observation, which seems to be utterly inconsistent with the first citation I gave you. He says, quote, all unregenerate persons have a freedom of the will and are capable of resisting the Holy Spirit. He can refuse grace and not open to the person or to God who knocks at the door of the heart. So even though the grace by which we are converted, according to Arminius, is internal, it is not irresistible. So if we can see a picture here of fallen man who is in bondage to sin and can't change himself or the inclination of his heart to do the things of God on his own, he needs the intrusion of grace into his soul, and that grace operates internally in his soul. So, for that person to be converted, that person must still positively respond to this operation of grace and not refuse it. And this grace is powerful enough to convert, but it is not so powerful that it converts by virtue of its own activity.
It still requires an internal response from the person who is receiving it. Now, again, in describing this operation in the soul, Arminius says that the grace of regeneration is sufficient to convert. It's all that a person needs to be liberated from spiritual death and from moral bondage. And that certainly is something that we do need. We can't be liberated without it, and the grace that God gives to people is enough. That's the way he's using the term sufficient.
It is all that is needed to get the job done. But it is not inherently efficient, meaning that it does not always and everywhere affect conversion or regeneration. Now, in this regard, we see the sharp contrast between Arminius and Augustine and those in the Augustinian tradition such as Luther and Calvin. Arminius speaks frequently about the calling of God as being effectual calling, meaning that when God changes the disposition of the heart through the operation of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, that the Spirit affects what it intends to bring to pass by this divine and supernatural work in the soul. So that's the basic difference here between historic Reformed theology and Arminius, namely that Reformed theology teaches that the grace of regeneration is effectual. It is both internal and effectual, whereas for Arminius it is internal but resistible.
It is not necessarily effectual. Now, he goes on to say that if man does not assent to this sufficient prevenient grace and is therefore not converted, the fault rests exclusively with man. Now, do you remember how this whole controversy started in the first place between Pelagius and Augustine, and Pelagius being upset by Augustine's prayer, God, grant what thou dost command. And Pelagius was saying that if grace is required at the hand of God for us to do our duty, then God would not be just in requiring people to believe and to follow Him if in order to meet that requirement God had to do something to help them along. Now, Arminius disagrees with Pelagius to the extent of saying that God does have to help in order for us to be virtuous, but that the help that he gives is not so effectual that it makes the final difference as to whether a person is saved or not saved. Now, the same point that Pelagius was concerned about, Arminius was also concerned about, though they worked it out in different ways.
They were both concerned about the justice of God, and particularly as it relates to the doctrine of election. If God only gives effectual grace for conversion, for liberation, for regeneration to some people and not others, then in the final analysis it is God and not man who gets the credit for your salvation but also would get the blame for the lack of it. And so trying to protect God from any shadow or hint of arbitrariness, Arminius leaves this island of ability within fallen man to either cooperate with the grace that is given or to reject it. So the point again is that for Arminius, grace of regeneration is resistible. Now, there's an interesting footnote to this whole understanding. Because of this schema by which he says that grace is not irresistible, he can then say that if a person is not converted, the fault lies within the person.
Now, he doesn't say the opposite. He does not say that if a person is saved because they did not resist this grace and gave the proper response to that grace, he does not come to the conclusion that if a person makes the right choice that he is therefore virtuous at that point. But the question I raise and other critics of Arminianism have raised is this, that if you have two options, to acquiesce to this grace or to reject this grace, and if the rejection of it is clearly a fault, why then would not the acquiescence and acceptance of it be indeed a virtue? The fact that Arminius doesn't come to that conclusion is, I think, due to his understanding of the Scriptures that excludes boasting from the human person in the whole drama of redemption.
He certainly was astute enough to realize that if there was something virtuous about this acceptance, that then indeed the sinner would have something of which to boast. Now, in order to illustrate the poverty of the human condition and the greatness of the role of grace in our redemption, Arminius constructed a famous analogy in order to illustrate his view of the question. He told the story of a rich man and a beggar. Now, the beggar was destitute. He lived a life of total misery. He was completely incapable of increasing his financial position.
He had neither the tools nor the ability to do that. And a rich man comes to him and freely bestows a highly valuable gift on the beggar, a gift that will enrich and liberate this beggar from his miserable condition. That is, the rich man is coming now offering the beggar all that the beggar could ever hope for in order to get out of his wretched condition. And the rich man freely and gratuitously offers this wonderful gift to the beggar. What all the beggar can do to receive it is to reach out his hand and accept it. He hasn't earned it. He doesn't receive it because of any virtue within himself or because of any power that he is exercising, because he's powerless to change his condition without the gift of the rich man.
Are we following this, I hope? But in the final analysis, he still has to open his hand and receive the gift. But it is still possible for the beggar to be so happy in his misery or so proud that he will not accept the assistance and the benevolence of the rich man that he may resist even the gift and not reach out his hand to accept it, keep his hands to himself and refuse the wonderful donation that has been proffered him.
Now, in modern circles of Arminianism, one hears similar analogies of the human condition. I hear two of them frequently, one describing man as being in such a desperately wretched condition that he is like a person with a fatal illness who is on his deathbed. He is utterly powerless to cure himself, and in order for him to be made well, he has to receive medicine that can cure his disease. And that medicine is now brought to him with the guarantee of a cure. But the man is too weak to even take the medicine and drink it on his own.
Somebody has to pour the medicine onto a spoon, hold it up to the lips of the person who is so weak, and the person still has to open his mouth and receive the medicine. Or the other analogy that I've heard spoken of is the man who's drowning, and he's going under for the third time. He cannot swim. His condition is hopeless. He's about to perish. He's in fact gone under, and the only thing that's left above the water is his hand.
And unless somebody throws their life preserver to him, and the preserver has to be thrown perfectly right up against his hand, but still that man has to grab hold of the life preserver. Billy Graham puts it this way, God does 99%, but that last 1% has to be done by the sinner. Now, the Reformed view, of course, is that medicine is not offered to a dying man, but resurrection to one who has already expired, and that the analogy of the man drowning doesn't get the biblical view of someone who's dead in sin and trespasses. That person is stone-cold dead at the bottom of the ocean, and the only way he can be restored is if God dives into the water, pulls him up, gives him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and brings him back to life.
And so, the dispute here is over that 1% or that little tiny bit of human ability. Now, after Arminius died in 1609, the next year following, some of his disciples were engaged in a controversy called the Remembrant Controversy in the Netherlands, in which the Remenstrants presented five objections against the Reformation teaching of the day. In their response to historic Calvinism, they gave five alternate theses, and these theses are one, that God elects people on the basis of His foreknowledge, on foreseen faith. Those whom He knows in advance will respond positively to this offer of grace, He elects. Two, Christ died for all men.
The intent of the atonement was to save everybody, however, only those who cooperate with this grace are actually saved. Three, man is so depraved that grace is utterly necessary. Four, grace may and can be resisted.
And five, the question of whether a person who was once redeemed can lose their salvation or whether they persevere in the faith is something that is open to question. These were the historic five statements offered by the Remenstrants. This led to the Synod of Dort in 1618, where these five articles were all condemned, and it was in response to the Remenstrants and this historical controversy that ended in the Synod of Dort from which the famous five points of Calvinism arose. The five points of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints were hammered out vis-à-vis the followers of Arminius in the Remenstrant controversy of the early part of the seventeenth century. It is helpful to recognize the differences between Arminianism and Reformed theology. And here at Ligonier Ministries, we are committed to helping you know the one true God as He's revealed Himself in Scripture, and that includes nailing down these essential doctrines.
Dr. R.C. Sproul's series, Willing to Believe, is a comprehensive study of this topic, examining the issue of free will through the views of Augustine, Pelagius, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Edwards, Finney, and others. There are twelve lessons on three DVDs in this series, and we will be happy to send them to you for a gift of any amount to Ligonier Ministries.
You can find us online at renewingyourmind.org, or you can call us at 800-435-4343. And if you've downloaded Ligonier's app, you'll want to sign into your account to activate several helpful features. In the Learning Library tab, all of the audio and video resources you request from Ligonier will show up there as soon as you complete your order. That means you'll be able to watch Dr. Sproul's series on your phone before the DVDs arrive in the mail, and we will add the study guide of the series there as well. The app also gives you access to daily audio and video features, plus articles and daily Bible study plans.
Just search for Ligonier in your favorite app store. Well, in 1754, a pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts, wrote one of the most insightful books on the doctrine of freewill ever written, a pastor's name, Jonathan Edwards. And Thursday, R.C. will explain the importance of Edwards' work here on Renewing Your Mind. I hope you'll join us.
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