Friday, September 28, 2007

Calvinism And Free Will: An Exegetical Vindication of Matthew 23:37

The following post was first published at I decided to re-post it as it relates to the previous post regarding God's Sovereignty and Man's Free Will. A few minor revisions have been made.

Arminians have long pointed to Matthew 23:37 to respond to the Calvinist doctrines of determinism, limited atonement, and irresistible grace.

Calvinism teaches that Christ died only for the elect (particular atonement), that he has decreed whatsoever shall come to pass in human history (determinism- no human free will as pertains to true contingencies), and that man has nothing to do with his own salvation (monergism), which necessitates their doctrine of irresistible grace.

Matt. 23:37 poses serious problems for all of these doctrinal positions. It would seem that though Christ genuinely desired the salvation of the Jews, they were not saved. They were not saved because they were unwilling. If this be the case, then Calvinism cannot stand. Why?

Calvinism believes in unconditional election and reprobation. God determined from all eternity who would be saved and who would be damned. This determination was unconditional. This choice was according to God’s good pleasure. It pleased God to unconditionally elect some for eternal life. It also pleased God to irrevocably reprobate others to eternal punishment [this may be an active or passive reprobation]. Arminians feel that any such choice, if truly unconditional, would make God arbitrary. Very few Calvinists want to claim such a word as a description of God. They contend that God’s choice was not arbitrary but was still unconditional. If God’s choice was not arbitrary, then he must have had some reason for choosing one and rejecting the other. The Calvinist avoids this conclusion by appealing to God’s inscrutable counsel. God had a reason, but it had nothing to do with those being chosen or rejected, and it is simply beyond our understanding. This is the approach taken by Peterson and Williams in Why I Am Not An Arminian. They state, “His gracious choosing ultimately transcends our reason, but it is not arbitrary.” [pg. 66] The Arminian finds this unacceptable given the clear Biblical assertion that one is saved or rejected based on whether or not that person believes the gospel or continues in unbelief (Jn. 3:16-18, 36). The Arminian contends as strongly as the Calvinist for the Biblical doctrine of election, but believes that God’s decision to elect is based on the free response of his creatures to either accept or reject the gift of salvation.

Matt. 23:37 lines up perfectly with the Arminian view. In the Arminian view God genuinely desires that all of his creatures be saved (see also Ezk. 18:31, 32; 33:10, 11; 1 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:3). If they are not saved, it is due to their own refusal of God’s gracious gift, and not because God has unconditionally determined from all eternity to damn them (Hosea 11:1-2; Jer. 13:15-17; Rom. 10:21; Heb. 3:7-13). The Calvinist feels that determinism is the only way to reconcile human choices with God’s sovereignty. There is no room for libertarian free will in their theology. Some Calvinists then deal with these passages by dividing God’s will into parts which are plainly contradictory. They maintain that God does not desire the eternal death of the wicked while at the same time unconditionally determining from all eternity that some should remain wicked, never know his saving grace, and perish eternally, according to his good pleasure. Here is pictured a God who stretches his hands out to the perishing while refusing to give them the grace they need to be saved. He can say that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, while secretly desiring and guaranteeing their eternal death. The Arminian points out the inherent façade and is met with responses like, “God’s ways and thoughts are high above ours; his counsel is inscrutable”, or “Who are you O’ man to talk back to God?” etc. John Wesley summed up the problem well,

"Our blessed Lord does indisputably command and invite “all men everywhere to repent” [Acts 17:30]. He calleth all. He sends his ambassadors in his name, “to preach the gospel to every creature” [Mark 16:15]. He himself “preached deliverance to the captives” [Luke 4:18] without any hint of restriction or limitation. But now, in what manner do you represent him while he is employed in this work? You suppose him to be standing at the prison doors, having the keys thereof in his hands, and to be continually inviting the prisoners to come forth, commanding them to accept of that invitation, urging every motive which can possibly induce them to comply with that command; adding the most precious promises, if they obey; the most dreadful threatenings, if they obey not. And all this time you suppose him to be unalterably determined in himself never to open the doors for him, even while he is crying, “Come ye, come ye, from that evil place. For why will ye die, O house of Israel?” [cf. Ezek. 18:31]. “Why” (might one of them reply), “because we cannot help it. We cannot help ourselves, and thou wilt not help us. It is not in our power to break the gates of brass [cf. Ps. 107:16], and it is not thy pleasure to open them. Why will we die? We must die, because it is not thy will to save us.” Alas, my brethren, what kind of sincerity is this which you ascribe to God our Saviour?" [Excerpt from Predestination Calmly Considered; Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 2, pg. 97]

Consider the Lord’s words to Judah in Jeremiah 13:15-17,

"Hear and pay attention, do not be arrogant, for the LORD has spoken. Give glory to the LORD your God before he brings the darkness…But if you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the LORD’s flock will be taken captive.”

With regards to this passage, Walls and Dongell make the following observation,

"Knowing that Judah did not turn and listen, the Calvinist concludes that God had already chosen to withhold his transforming grace from them, though he could easily have granted it. So while the text seems to identify Judah’s pride as the root cause of punishment, the Calvinist instead concludes that Judah’s ability to repent depends on God’s eternally fixed plan. Again, although the text seems to identify salvation as God’s deepest desire, the Calvinist must conclude that at a deeper level God never intended to bestow transforming grace on Jeremiah’s hearers. In other words, the true intentions of God cannot be discerned from his words." [Why I Am Not A Calvinist, pg. 57- emphasis in original]

It would seem that some Calvinist are rather uncomfortable with appealing solely to contradictory wills within God, and prefer rather to undertake exegetical wrangling in order to conform these passages to the tenets of Calvinist theology. This is the approach taken by James White in The Potter’s Freedom. His handling of Matthew 23:37 is revealing, and ultimately does more harm than good for his position.

In Chapter 6, Mr. White attempts to explain away what he refers to as Norman Geisler's "Big Three" verses to which he makes constant appeal in his book, Chosen But Free (Matt. 23:37; 1 Tim. 2:4; and 2 Pet. 3:9). White’s treatment of Christ's lament over Jerusalem in Matt. 23:37 is not only problematic, but detrimental to his Calvinism. The passage reads, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." This passage seems to plainly indicate that Christ genuinely desired the salvation of the Jews (cf. Ezk. 18:30-32; 33:11), but their unwillingness prevented him from saving them.

Mr. White wastes no time in helping us understand that we have it all wrong, and this should be very plain to us if we would just focus very hard on the context. The passage in question comes after a lengthy rebuke of the Pharisees and Scribes for being blind guides, hypocrites, etc. Therefore, Mr. White concludes that when Jesus says "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem", he is not speaking of the Jews in general, or Jerusalem personified, but the leaders of Jerusalem (the hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes), and saying that he wanted to gather their children [in some sense, then, the Jews are the Pharisee's and Scribe's children?], but these corrupt leaders were not willing [to let Jesus gather "their", i.e. the Pharisee's and Scribe's] children to himself, and therefore it was not the children themselves that were not willing. Mr. White concludes, "Jesus speaks to the leaders about their children that they, the leaders, would not allow him to 'gather'...This one consideration alone renders the passage useless for the Arminian seeking to establish freewillism." [pg. 138]

This "exegesis" is problematic for several reasons. First, it is hard to fit the further comments made by Jesus of these people (in verses 38, and 39) with the idea that Christ is only addressing these corrupt leaders. It is to the same people that Christ says, “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” [vs.39] If Mr. White’s interpretation is accurate, then this statement must also be directed to the wicked Scribes and Pharisees. Were they the same who would call him “Blessed” when they saw him again? Such an interpretation does not seem to fit the historical context, for the Scribes and Pharisees certainly saw Christ again after this event and continued to be hostile towards his ministry to the point of securing his death. If Christ is speaking of the final restoration of Israel, as many scholars believe, then surely all of the people of Jerusalem are in view and not just the Scribes and Pharisees. Again, if Christ was addressing the Scribes and Pharisees that he had just rebuked, it is quite clear that none of them survived to see Israel’s final restoration. Even If we apply these passages to the triumphal entry (as very few scholars seem willing to do), it was the common people who called him “blessed”, and the Pharisees who called on Christ to rebuke them. Mr. White does not even address these verses in his book.

Second, this same lament is recorded in Luke 13:34-35 in a completely different context; one which will not so easily lead to Mr. White's conclusions (in Luke, the Pharisees are trying to protect Jesus from Herod). Mr. White does not even mention the Luke account.

Third, there is no exegetical warrant for making such a strong distinction between “Jerusalem” and the “children” of Jerusalem. Such was a common use of Biblical language to use two terms to describe the same object. In the Old Testament We find God both calling his people “Israel” and the “children of Israel”. Consider the word usage in Jeremiah Chapter 4,

"At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, “A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people, but not to winnow or cleanse; a wind to strong for that comes from me. Now I pronounce my judgments against them…O Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved…Tell this to the nations, proclaim it in Jerusalem…Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment…My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding.” [11, 14, 16, 18, 22, NIV-emphasis mine]

It is clear that, in these passages, the Lord speaks to the city, the people, and the children as the same entity. When Jeremiah speaks of Jerusalem it is an obvious personification of those who live within the city, for he says of Jerusalem, “wash the evil from your heart”. Just as in Jeremiah’s day, the city is about to be destroyed due to the sin of its people. These are the very people whom the Lord desired to save. Their destruction is deserved due to their continual rebellion. They were “unwilling” to submit to their Lord, but instead killed those sent to them who were calling them to repentance. They will compound these sins by rejecting and killing the very Son of God. The city will therefore suffer destruction, and the rebellious “children”, unless they repent, will suffer the loss of their eternal souls,

"When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” [NAS- Luke 19:41-44-emphasis mine].

Notice that in this parallel lament Christ says that the city’s enemies will level “you” and “your children within you”. If we assume again that “Jerusalem” is shorthand for the leaders of Jerusalem, then we need to explain how “your children” can be within these corrupt leaders [Jerusalem]. Obviously, as in Matt. 23:37, Jerusalem is personified, and is not a reference to leaders as contrasted with the common people of the city.

The fourth and most glaring problem comes from the fact that if we accept Mr. White's "exegesis", it creates an even bigger problem for his Reformed doctrines. Remember, according to Calvinism, God is sovereign over his creatures to such an extent that they have nothing to do with their own salvation (monergism). When God desires to save his elect, nothing can stop him, not even the unwillingness of the rebellious sinner (God will simply "make" him "willing"). Man can do nothing to thwart God’s saving purposes, they are irresistible. This is the very doctrine that Mr. White is trying to preserve with his "exegesis" of Matt. 23:37. But does he succeed?

Listen again to Mr. White's explanation, "Jesus speaks to the leaders about their children that they, the leaders, would not allow him to 'gather'." [pg. 138] He reinforces this by connecting it to a previous verse [13], "But woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from the people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in." [138] Mr. White, then, trades one problem in for another, for the text plainly states that the Pharisees and Scribes were not allowing those who were entering to go in!! Now we have really opened a can of worms! If those who are saved are the ones that God has unconditionally elected from all eternity, how could anyone, including the Scribes and Pharisees, prevent them from entering in? How could they possibly "shut off the kingdom of heaven" from them? How could anyone "not allow [Jesus] to gather" them to himself? If they are the elect, then nobody can effectively "shut off the kingdom" from them; and if they are reprobates, it is God who has "shut off the kingdom" from them (by refusing them his saving grace), and not the Pharisees! And if they are reprobates without hope (for God has eternally and unconditionally decreed to reject them), then in what sense could Christ possibly have "longed" to gather them unto himself? Perhaps Mr. White did not think through the ramifications of his conclusions, or perhaps he just hoped that we would not. Whether we accept the traditional Arminian interpretation, or Mr. White’s proposed exegesis, it would seem that Calvinism still suffers a fatal blow.

Monday, September 24, 2007

God's Sovereignty and Man's Free Will

Sometimes Calvinists will say that Arminians have a small God. I have been told by Calvinists that the Calvinist God is "bigger" and therefore superior to my "little" Arminian God. Usually this claim is framed within the context of whether or not God can truly "save" anyone in an Arminian framework. Since the Arminian believes that God requires the genuine response of faith on the part of His creatures, then He is apparently quite small compared to the Calvinist God who just overpowers His creatures with His grace and makes sure that they are saved, etc. get the point.

I find this to be a terrible misunderstanding of the Arminian position, but that is the subject for a future post. For now I want to ask the Calvinist which God is bigger in a different context. Is a God who can only control His universe through cause and effect bigger or smaller than a God who can allow for true contingency in His creatures and still accomplish His will? Picirilli makes the point effectively in Grace, Faith, Free Will:

"...Arminians believe that there is no threat to, or restriction of, God's sovereign freedom, who runs everything (nothing omitted) as He pleases, by having another personal and free (although limited) being in the universe.

Arminians consider that this view magnifies God's omniscience. In the Arminian conception of the universe, God foreknows true contingencies. Man really can choose either of two ways, and God really knows which he will choose.

Likewise, Arminians consider that this view magnifies God's power, in at least two interrelated ways.

1. God was able to create a being who was not merely "determined," but an actor who also "determines" things, a being who is free and in His own image. He of the only true sovereign will was able to endow man with a will that really has the power of decision and choice.

2. God is able to govern the truly free exercise of men's wills in such a way that all goes according to His plan. A God who created a complex universe inhabited by beings pre-programmed to act out His will for them would be great. But one who can make men with wills of their own and set them free to act in ways He has not determined for them, and still govern the whole in perfect accord with His purpose is greater." [page 43, italics his]

He then goes on to quote Arminus:

"If the divine Wisdom knows how to effect that which it has decreed, by employing causes according to their nature and motion- whether their nature and motion be contingent or free, the praise due to such wisdom is far greater than if it employ a power which no creature can possibly resist." [ibid.]

Arminians hold that God is wise enough to accomplish His will despite filling this world with creatures who are capable of free choice. We cannot explain how exactly God does this but are careful not to put limits on God's omniscience and infinite ability. F. Leroy Forlines comments on the text that seems to best demonstrate God accomplishing His will through human free agents. Calvinists understand this passage through the lenses of their compatibilist assumptions, but Forlines well shows how these passages can harmonize with the libertarian understanding of free will and the Arminian understanding of divine foreknowledge:

"It is important we realize that God did not foresee the future as a passive observer. He did not simply raise the curtain of time and look at a future that was already fixed before He looked. He planned the future. But when He planned the future with regard to human beings who were made in His image and thus were personal beings with a mind, heart, and will, He chose to work with them in accord with the influence and response model. He has a cause and effect relationship with the material universe, but such is not the case with human personality.

The cross of Christ was a predestined event. At the same time, numerous human beings were involved in one way or another in effecting this event. Since human beings with free will were involved, in the crucifixion event, we must understand the role of God's foreknowledge in predestinated events...It is the kind of God that I have just attempted to describe [a God who was not a mere spectator] who foresaw the future from all eternity. As He foresaw the future, He saw it as it would progressively unfold from: (1) The result of His creative activity and His divine influence. (2) The result of the devastating influence of sin. (3) The result of the response that human beings would give as a result of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the ministry of the Word of God, and the ministry of the redeemed. (4) The result of all influences that would come from outside Himself. (5) The result of all influence that He would bring on people through His power and His infinite wisdom. He saw, then, everything that He sees and is doing now. He is the same God now that He was then. Everything that He is doing now is just as real as it would be if He had not known it in advance.

God's omniscience and wisdom furnished Him with all the information and the 'know how' that was needed for Him to arrange the death and sufferings of Jesus Christ as the means of atonement for the sins of the world. With the aid of His infinite knowledge and wisdom, the determinate counsel was able to predetermine the crucifixion of Christ in eternity past. In this arrangement foreknowledge was aiding, but foreknowledge as foreknowledge did not bear a causal relationship to the plan for the crucifixion to occur. Without foreknowledge, the determinate counsel could not have prearranged and predetermined the plan." [The Quest For Truth, pg. 396]

I find this explanation far more satisfying then the "compatibilistic" approach of Calvinism. While there is mystery in how God can perfectly arrange an event like the crucifixion without violating the free will of His creatures, it is a true mystery on par with the Trinity, incarnation, and creation Ex Nihilo. It is not hard to accept given God's unfathomable wisdom. Compatibilism, on the other hand, wants us to accept two completely contradictory assumptions under the umbrella of "mystery". It tells us that God causes people to engage in sinful activity, and yet also tells us that God is not the author of sin. It tells us that the one who sins in accordance with God's infallible decree is responsible for that sin while the God who ordained that sin is not. That is not a "mystery". That is a flat contradiction and an abuse of normal human language.

It seems to me that when it comes to the scope and nature of God's sovereignty, the Arminian God is far wiser than the God of Calvinism. A God who controls His universe like a puppet master is not that impressive to me. A God who can control His universe and accomplish His will without having to override or meticulously control the will of His creatures seems far more impressive and worthy of worship. I believe that Calvinism does not exalt God's sovereignty but rather limits it by not properly incorporating God's infinite wisdom into the equation. The Arminian view exalts God's sovereignty within the balanced context of His omnipotence and omniscience. It also allows for divine mystery within its proper context and definition, without expecting us to accept disturbing contradictions.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Challies: Defending Arminians Unfair to Their Accusers

Recently, Tim Challies did a review of Roger E. Olson's Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities,

He cites a paragraph from the book:

"When conservative theologians declare that synergism is a heresy, they are usually referring to these two Pelagian forms of synergism. Classical Arminians agree. This is a major theme of this book. Contrary to confused critics, classical Arminianism is neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian! But it is synergistic. Arminianism is evangelical synergism as opposed to heretical, humanistic synergism."

To which Challies responds,

"Such claims always make me nervous. Much like those who hold to Open Theism or the New Perspective on Paul, their claims depend on suggesting that other theologians of the past and present just haven’t properly understood. When Steve Lawson, R.C. Sproul and countless others have examined Arminianism and declared it to be Semi-Pelagian, they just haven’t quite understood the details. They unfairly typified Arminianism, confusing it with Semi-Pelagianism. Or so men like Olson have to conclude. Careful and skilled researchers that they are, I think this is unfair and uncharitable to the large number of Reformed scholars who, based on honest assessment, have reached such a conclusion. To redefine Arminianism before defending it seems more than a little disingenuous."

Keith Schooley points out Challies' mischaracterization of Arminianism at on his blog; what I wish to address is Timmy's accusation that Olson is being unfair and his reasoning for doing so.

First let's look at the accusation that Arminianism is Semi-Pelagian. I've written on this subject before, but to recap: What exactly is Semipelagianism?

[Semi-Pelagianism], while not denying the necessity of Grace for salvation, maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that Grace supervened only later.
(Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F.L. Cross, Oxford Univ. Press, rev. 1983, p.1258)

[Speaking of Semipelagianism] An early theology which accepted original sin, but taught that a person could initiate faith in God first, and God would grant the grace for one do continue on.
(A Handbook of Theological Terms, Harvey, Van A., p.218-219)

Easy enough. Semipelagianism says that God's grace is needed to be saved (as opposed to full Pelagianism which denies this), but man takes the first steps towards salvation apart from the grace of God. Both Pelagianism and Semipelagianism are heresies, so for someone to be a Semipelagian necessarily entails that he or she be a heretic. Thus when Calvinists identify anyone who disagrees with their theology as a Semipelagian, they are effectively saying that such a person is a heretic, making this label an oft-employed bludgeon against Arminians and other Non-Calvinists. But what exactly is actually taught in classical Arminianism? Does it line up with Semipelagian doctrine?

"That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of an by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, "Without me ye can do nothing." "
Article 3 of the Remonstrance

"That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ, but respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible; inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places."
Article 4 of the Remonstrance

Man "has not saving grace of himself," and God's grace is "the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good." Thus from virtually its very inception Arminianism strongly distinguishes itself from the ancient heresies of Pelagius and Cassian by directly contradicting their defining points of doctrine. The only major common denominator is that all three belief systems espouse some measure of free will, but it is the belief that free will enables man to come to Christ apart from God's grace that makes Pelagianism/Semipelagianism heretical; free will by the Arminianism definition is still in bondage apart from the grace of God. So why do many Calvinists such as Lawson and Sproul try to equate Arminianism with the Pelagian heresy? It's simple. They've been so thoroughly entrenched in Calvinist dogma that they will make any accusation or slander, regardless or merit or truthfulness, in a panickingly confused and fanatical attempt to color all of their opponents as heretics. There's simply no way around it, Reformed scholars who make this accusation about classical Arminians are either impetuous liars who are guilty of the worst kind of blatant equivocation, or simply ignorant of basic doctrinal terms and history. It being quite obvious upon examination that many of the more educated in their number are either raving madmen or among the most terrible of fact-checkers, the blundering false allegations made by many of the elite of Reformed Theology cast serious doubt upon their objectivity and basic interpretation of facts as well as their general abilities as biblical expositors. The judgment of the venerable heroes of their doctrinal system being called into serious question as well as the loss of their favorite club to bash Arminians over the head with is too much for many of Calvin's disciples to deal with rationally. Challies retreats straight into the la-la land of faulty appeal to authority, asserting that Sproul and Lawson simply couldn't have been wrong. Sorry Timmy: Facts are facts, Sproul's a quack (at least in this matter). Then in one of the single dumbest statements ever written (yes, even on the internet), he states, "...I think this is unfair and uncharitable to the large number of Reformed scholars who, based on honest assessment, have reached such a conclusion."

Yeah, how dare that Olson contend that he and other Arminians aren't heretics! That's completely insensitive to the hard-working Calvinists who for years have striven to sustain their damning allegation!

Defense: "So you see lady and gentlemen of the jury, my client was nowhere near the scene of the slaying, he was over 200 miles away at the time as can be verified by footage from CNN, as well as several hundred eyewitnesses..."

Prosecution: "Objection your honor! The defense's claim that his client is not guilty is both rude and unfair to the very capable staff of the prosecuting party that have put such earnest effort into indicting this man."

What kind of brainwashing is needed for a man to accuse another of heresy, and then unfairness to his accusers for issuing an intelligible defense? That's the absolute pinnacle of egocentrism and arrogance. Such theological prejudice and conceit fueled Calvin's Geneva. His theology bred the same prejudice into his followers in the Netherlands, which sparked their cognitively diseased attempt to condemn any opposing views, culminating in their persecution of the Dutch Arminians and their sympathizers (including the execution of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt). And as Challies succinctly demonstrates, that same blind prejudice is exactly what the swing towards militant Reformed Theology is breeding in its adherents today. Defense rests.

Clarification: I am not indicting all Calvinists as errantly accusing all Arminians of Semipelagianism. Calvinists Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams both examine the issue much more objectively and reach a conclusion about Arminianism quite contrary to Sproul's in their work, Why I am Not an Arminian. Perhaps Challies will take them to task next for being 'unfair and uncharitable.' Examination fueled by intellectual honesty rather than the militant prejudice befits children of God, and our assessments of what is fair and unfair should be determined by the God's word and fact, not hero-worship of some faddish authors.

Arminian Perspectives Welcomes JC Thibodaux

I met JC about a year ago while visiting his website . I sent him an e-mail and we have been corresponding ever since. I have come to know him as not only someone who argues forcefully against Calvinism but as someone with a genuine concern for others and a true heart for God. I am honored that he will now be posting periodically at Arminian Perspectives. I encourage anyone to check out his website as well.

Fletcher on Being "Dead in Sin" Part 2

Fletcher demonstrated that the Scriptures use the word "dead" in more than one way, and to understand the term "dead" with regards to spiritual issues as meaning dead as a physical corpse renders many of these passages, like Rev. 3:1-4, nonsensical. Fletcher also demonstrates the inconsistency in Calvinist thought between what it means to be "dead in sin" and "dead to sin". He states:

"I wonder at the partiality of some persons. If we assert, that “strong believers are dead TO sin,” they tell us very properly that such are not so dead, but they may commit sin if they please, or if they are off their watch. But if we say, that “many who are dead IN sin, are not so dead, but in the strength imparted, together with the Light that enlightens every man, they may leave off some of their sins if they please,” we are exclaimed against as using metaphysical distinctions, and dead must absolutely mean impotent as a corpse."

I believe this to be Fletcher's most significant argument. Calvinists will often appeal to Eph. 2:1, "you were dead in your trespasses and sins", and Col. 2:13 which also speaks of being "dead in your transgressions". From these passages the Calvinist deduces that one can no more respond to God's grace than a dead corpse can respond to outside stimuli. It is said that there must first be a resurrection [spiritual regeneration] before one can respond to God's gracious offer of salvation. We are then told that the regenerated person will "freely" choose Christ according to this new nature. There are several problems with this Calvinist argument.

1) When the Scripture speaks of death it is speaking of the separation of the spirit from the body. To be "dead in sin" is to be separated from a holy God who cannot tolerate sin. Our sin has caused separation from God and has effected our spiritual death (Rom. 6:21; James 1:14, 15). The only cure for our pitiful state is to come into vital union with the only source of life: Jesus Christ (Jn. 15).

2) The Scripture speaks of the believer as being "dead to sin" and a "slave to righteousness" while acknowledging that those who are so dead are still capable of sinning. Paul draws a strict parallel between being "slaves to sin" and "slaves to righteousness" and being "dead in sin" and "dead to sin" in Rom. 6:12-23. Since the believer who is "dead to sin" and a "slave to righteousness" can still yield to the influences of the sinful nature, the world, and Satan, there is no reason to believe that one who is "dead in sin" and a "slave to sin" is incapable of responding to the gracious working of the Holy Spirit without first being regenerated. The Spirit of God bridges the gap of deathly separation and enables the sinner to yield to Christ.

3) There is only one way that a sinner can experience the new life, and that is by union with Jesus Christ. Just as surely as separation from God caused spiritual death, union with Christ is the only way that the sinner can experience new life. It is impossible to have life outside of Jesus Christ. This poses a serious problem with Calvinist doctrine. Calvinism has sinners being regenerated before coming to be in union with Christ. We can only experience the benefits of the cross, however, through union with Christ. Through that union His death becomes our death, His life becomes our life, and His blood cleanses us from all unrighteousness. None of this can happen prior to union with Him. The Bible is clear that we come to be in union with Christ through faith. Consider the following passages:

"But God being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no man may boast." Eph. 2:4-9

Many Calvinists like to quote portions of the above text because they believe it supports their conclusions that regeneration precedes faith and that faith is a "gift" that God irresistibly gives to the elect. When one reads these passages together such a conclusion cannot be drawn. All of the gracious spiritual benefits of verses 4-7, including the spiritual resurrection described in verse 6, are "through faith" (verse 8). The grammar of verses 8 and 9 do not allow for the interpretation Calvinists often assign to them. The "gift" of God does not refer to "faith" but to the gracious gift of God's salvation. To interpret the gift as faith would render verse 9 nonsensical. It would essentially say that "faith" is not "of works" which would be a meaningless statement of the obvious.

All of these spiritual blessings are said to be "with" and "in" Christ [verses 5-7] which is a recurrent theme in Ephesians and in all Pauline writings. It is especially prominent in Ephesians Chapters 1 and 2. Ephesians 1:13 explains how one comes to be in union with Christ and Ephesians 3:17 tells us how Christ comes to dwell in our hearts. In both cases this union is by faith.

This same thought is paralleled in Col. 2:9-12:

"For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." (see also Rom. 6:4)

Again the theme of union with Christ is obvious. We can also see that our spiritual resurrection is "through faith" in the working [or power] of God, who raised [Christ] from the dead".

It is undeniable that the unregenerate need a spiritual resurrection. It is also undeniable that this resurrection comes by the faith that brings us into saving union with Christ, whereby we can experience all the benefits of His death and resurrection.


There is no Biblical reason to accept the Calvinist understanding that being "dead in sin" means that one must first be regenerated before being capable of exercising saving faith. This does not discount the need for a powerful working of the Holy Spirit on the unregenerate, but demonstrates that this working does not result in regeneration until the sinner first meets the condition of faith. When the sinner responds in faith to the gracious working and enabling of the Holy Spirit, he or she is immediately grafted into Christ and receives all the benefits of His atonement, which includes regeneration.

I would also like to point out a problem with the Calvinist insistence that one who is regenerated will "freely" choose to put faith in Christ. I believe that it would be more honest for the Calvinist to say that God "causes" the regenerate to put faith in Christ. To say that one freely chooses is misleading. Most Calvinists understand such "freedom" in a compatiblist sense in which we "freely" do what God causes us to do [whether directly or indirectly through circumstances, etc.]. If the Calvinist wants to insist that one freely chooses to put faith in Christ in a libertarian sense [without being caused of necessity], then it quickly becomes apparent that one could not guarantee that the newly regenerated individual would choose to put faith in Christ.

The Calvinist wants us to believe that once a person is regenerate he or she will naturally choose according to the new regenerated nature. The problem with this explanation is that Calvinists also affirm that one is never completely free of the sinful nature until after death. If this is the case then the newly regenerated person can now choose to either yield to the new nature or the old sinful nature. This would mean that there would be no way to be sure that a regenerated person would choose to follow Christ if one is free in a libertarian sense. He or she could choose instead to yield to the sinful nature which still dwells within. The only way to be certain that the regenerate person would choose Christ is to admit that God must irresistibly cause him or her to do so. If that is the case then Calvinist should be honest enough to drop the "freely choose" rhetoric.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Whole Armor of Calvinism

The following link is satire. It is all in good fun and not intended to be insulting to anyone. Like they often said in the juvenile shelters I used to work in, "If it don't apply, let it fly." On the flip side it may help some of our Calvinist friends take an honest look at some of their unfair debating tactics and controlling traditions. Yes, that's right, Calvinists have traditions. If that is hard for you to swallow, then this link is especially for you. Enjoy.

The Whole Armor of Calvinism

I will be away from the computer until next Wednesday. I hope to make a follow-up post to being "dead in sin" sometime next week. If you leave a comment, please know that I will not be able to respond until late next week.

Friday, September 7, 2007

John Fletcher on Being "Dead in Sin"

In my interactions with Calvinists the conversation always seems to go back to their conception of being dead in sin. I can show them in Scripture where it plainly teaches that faith must precede regeneration but such efforts often amount to nothing as they will ignore the Biblical evidence and fall back on the unregenerate being "dead in sin" and hence the necessity of regeneration before faith. The question I have always wanted answered is why we must understand "dead in sin" as meaning impossible to respond to God's grace without first being regenerated. The Calvinist will then draw the analogy of the inability of a dead corpse. A corpse cannot hear or see; therefore, one who is dead in sin cannot hear the gospel or see their need for Christ until they first experience a resurrection [i.e. regeneration]. We will soon discover that there are several problems with this approach.

John Fletcher was an early Methodist preacher and theologian. He was close friends with John Wesley. John Fletcher's character mirrored the doctrines of holiness he preached and wrote about. He wrote one of the strongest polemics against Calvinism ever written called "Checks to Antinomianism". To my knowledge no Calvinist has ever tried to refute the strong arguments he put forth in "Checks". Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to get your hands on this book today, and if you do you will pay a high price. Ages Digital Library has provided his entire "Works" on The Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD. There is a link to this CD-Rom in the right column of this blog. Below is a small excerpt regarding the Calvinist conception of being "dead in sins" which plainly controls their thinking with regards to the necessity of regeneration preceding faith. In my next post I will make some further comments on this subject and carefully consider what I believe to be Fletcher's most significant argument. He writes,

I. Availing yourself of St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians and Colossians, “You hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; and you, being dead in your sins, hath he quickened together with him;” you dwell upon the absurdity of “expecting living actions from a dead corpse,” or living works from a dead soul.

1. I wonder at the partiality of some persons. If we assert, that “strong believers are dead TO sin,” they tell us very properly that such are not so dead, but they may commit sin if they please, or if they are off their watch. But if we say, that “many who are dead IN sin, are not so dead, but in the strength imparted, together with the Light that enlightens every man, they may leave off some of their sins if they please,” we are exclaimed against as using metaphysical distinctions. and dead must absolutely mean impotent as a corpse.

2. The word dead, &c, is frequently used in the Scriptures to denote a particular degree of helplessness and inactivity, very short of the total helplessness of a corpse. We read of the deadness of Sarah’s womb, and of Abraham’s body being dead; and he must be a strong Calvinist indeed, who, from such expressions, peremptorily asserts, that Sarah’s dead womb was as unfit for conception, and Abraham’s dead body for generation, as if they both had been “dead corpses.” Christ writes to the Church of Sardis, “I know thy works; thou hast a name to live, and art dead.” But it is evident, that dead as they were, something remained alive in them, though like the smoking flax, it was “ready to die.” Witness the words that follow: “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die.” Now, sir, if the dead Sardians could work for life, by “strengthening the things” belonging to the Christian “which remained” in them’ is it modest to decide è cathedra, that the dead Ephesians and Colossians could not as well work for life, by “strengthening the things that remained and were ready to die,” under their own dispensation? Is it not evident that a beam of “the Light of the world” still shone in their hearts, or that the Spirit still strove with them? If they had absolutely quenched him, would he have helped them to believe? And if they had not, was not there something of “the Light which enlightens every man” remaining in them; with which they both could, and did work for life, as well as the dead Sardians?

3. The absurdity of always measuring the meaning of the word dead, by the idea of a dead corpse, appears from several other scriptures St. Paul, speaking of one who grows wanton against Christ, says, “She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.” Now, if this means that she is entirely devoid of every degree of spiritual life, what becomes of Calvinism? Suppose all that live in pleasure are as dead to God as corpses, what became of the everlasting life of Lot, when he lived in pleasure with his daughters? of David with Bathsheba, and Solomon with his idolatrous wives? When the same apostle observes to the Romans, that their “body was dead because of sin,” did he really mean they were already dead corpses? And when he adds, “Sin revived and I died,” did Calvinian death really pass upon him? Dead as he was, could not he complain like the dry bones, and ask, “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?”

Again: when our Lord says to Martha, “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” does he not intimate, that there is a work consistent with the degree of death of which he speaks? A believing out of death into life? A doing the work of God for life, yea, for eternal life?

4. From these and the like scriptures, it is evident, that there are different degrees of spiritual death, which you perpetually confound.

(1.) Total death, or a full departure of the Holy Spirit. This passed upon Adam, and all mankind in him, when he lost God’s moral image, fell into selfish nature, and was buried in sin, guilt, shame, and horror.

(2.) Death freely visited with a seed of life in our fallen representative, and of course in all his posterity, during the day of their visitation.

(3.) Death oppressing this living seed, and holding it “in unrighteousness,” which was the death of the Ephesians and Colossians.

(4.) Death prevailing again over the living seed, after it had been powerfully quickened, and burying it in sin and wickedness. This was the death of David during his apostasy, and is still that of all who once believed, but now live in Laodicean ease or Sardian pleasure. And,

(5.) The death of confirmed apostates, who, by absolutely quenching “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” the second Adam, are fallen into the miserable state of nature and total helplessness, in which the first Adam was when God preached to him the Gospel of his quickening grace. These are said by St. Jude to be twice dead; dead by Adam’s total apostasy from God, and dead by their own personal and final apostasy from “the Light of the world.” [Fletcher's Works, Vol.1 pp. 199-201, The Wesleyan Heritage Collection]