Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Examining Inconsistencies in Calvinistic Monergism Part 1: Intercessory Prayer

I have recently been in a conversation with someone over the proper definitions of monergism and synergism and whether or not Arminianism really qualifies as entirely synergistic. I have written a little on this subject already here and here. I want to dig a little deeper and get into what I believe to be an inconsistency within Calvinistic monergism. Before I do that I want to say that I don’t believe monergism vs. synergism is the proper way to frame the debate. These terms are too ambiguous, and often misunderstood (especially synergism), and I believe that Arminianism has both monergistic and synergistic elements so it is not proper to call Arminianism entirely synergistic. For me the debate is best described as a disagreement over whether or not salvation is conditional or unconditional.

When I say that Arminianism is both synergistic and monergistic I mean that the Arminian sees salvation as a work of God alone. God alone forgives. God alone regenerates. God alone sanctifies. We are not capable of removing our own sin or making atonement for ourselves. We are not capable of creating new life within us. We are not capable of making ourselves holy. All these are monergistic acts of God. When the Arminian says that one needs to believe in Christ to be saved we are just echoing the testimony of Scripture that says that faith is the condition that God requires be met before He will save.

God has sovereignly determined to make salvation conditioned on faith. He could have made salvation unconditional but He chose instead to make it conditional. That salvation is conditioned on faith does not mean faith is a work or a contribution to salvation. It is just the meeting of a condition and the nature of that condition disqualifies it from being something one can boast in before God.

By faith we recognize our inability to save ourselves and cast ourselves on God’s mercy. Faith is surrender to God. It is giving up on ourselves. It is abandoning our own works and clinging to the work of God. If there is one element that is synergistic in salvation it is faith. God enables the depraved sinner to respond in faith, but the sinner must do the responding. God does not believe for us and God does not cause faith in us irresistibly. That is the only synergistic aspect of Arminianism. The rest is monergism. The synergism of faith is the only area where one could say that the sinner in a sense “saves himself”, but that is only in the context of re-positioning oneself in God’s favor through faith and repentance (Acts 2:40).

Yet, Calvinists still insist that faith is a work of merit if it is not irresistibly caused. Some Calvinists will go so far as to say that Arminians believe that man has the capability to save themselves. That is plainly not the case and the burden of proof rests on the Calvinist to demonstrate a necessary correlation between meeting a condition and earning something. That someone must meet a condition to receive something does not mean that by meeting a condition he or she has earned that thing or “worked” for it. Intercessory prayer provides a convenient framework for better understanding the Arminian position and demonstrating the absurdity of the Calvinist understanding of synergism as being analogous to a works based salvation.

Two Systems on Prayer:

I have often heard Calvinists point to intercessory prayer as a problem for Arminianism. The argument says that in Arminianism prayer would be pointless since God will not irresistibly save the sinner. If our prayers cannot guarantee conversion, then they are pointless. As long as free will exists intercessory prayer cannot really be effective.

We will first address this argument and then carefully examine the implications of intercessory prayer in the Calvinistic system of theology.

It does not follow that if intercessory prayer cannot guarantee a result, then it is pointless. Arminians believe that God works persuasively on the human heart through the gospel to bring about a faith response. Prayer can have a profound effect on that process. The Arminian can pray for more opportunities to witness. He or she can pray that God will use circumstances to bring the sinner to a point of desperation. We can pray that God will continue to reveal Himself to the individual. We can pray that God will remove obstacles and barriers to unbelief. All of these things will increase the chance of conversion.

The Calvinist will object at this point that if God was truly as loving as Arminians claim, then He would be doing everything in His power to bring every sinner to repentance regardless of our prayers. That does not necessarily represent the Arminian position, and does not fully comport with the testimony of Scripture. Arminians believe that God desires all to be saved. That does not mean that everyone is given an equal opportunity at salvation.

God has sovereignly decided to allow his creatures to take part in the process. God uses believers to preach the gospel whereby sinners can come to repentance. Paul said that if we neglect this duty sinners will likely be lost (Rom. 10:14, 15). We have a tremendous responsibility as believers commissioned to preach the gospel and make disciples of all men. Arminians also believe that God has the sovereign right to harden hearts. However, we believe that this hardening is always in response to willful rejection of God’s grace. Often times, this hardening is temporal and not necessarily irrevocable (Rom. 11:7-32). Intercessory prayer, then, can impact God’s decision with regards to whether He will continue to show mercy and give further opportunity for repentance, or entirely give the sinner over to his or her depravity and unbelief (Rom. 1:24-32). It may be that through intercessory prayer, the work of God can become so strong in the sinner’s life that a negative response would become almost impossible. The almost preserves the integrity of the response and genuine nature of the subsequent relationship that results from it.

Calvinists may say that prayer that still preserves the sinners will to some degree is just not worth the effort. I guess I will just have to disagree at that point. If we truly loved sinners, we would do whatever we could to increase the likelihood of conversion. If my daughter rejects the Lord when she gets older you better believe that I would pray for her even if my prayers could only slightly increase the chances that she would come to faith in Christ. Yet I maintain that intercessory prayer can accomplish far more than that.

The conclusion that we can draw from all this is that by intercessory prayer the believer can contribute to the salvation of others by strengthening and perpetuating the work of God in their lives. If we can have something to do with the salvation of others through the affects of intercessory prayer then monergism (as Calvinists understand it) goes out the window. If Calvinists want to insist that man can have nothing at all to do with the salvation process then intercessory prayer becomes a waste of time. We will now take a closer look at the implications of intercessory prayer from the Calvinistic viewpoint.

The underlying assumptions of Calvinist theology make a mess of intercessory prayer. Calvinism teaches that one is saved or lost on the sole basis of an eternal and irrevocable decree. Nothing can effectively change that decree. It is fixed. It is permanent. The decision was made for us before we were born. The decision was made before the universe was created. With this in mind the problems of intercession within Calvinist thought become quickly apparent.

The Arminian contends that intercessory prayer within a Calvinistic framework is pointless. Our prayers cannot have any effect on the eternal destiny of any individual. That destiny was fixed from eternity. No lack of prayer can prevent God from saving the elect and no amount of prayer can help the reprobate. Worse yet, the believer might waste countless hours praying for a reprobate who has no chance at heaven without realizing it.

The Calvinist objects on the basis that God decrees the “means” as well as the “ends” and intercessory prayer may well be the means that God uses to bring His elect to repentance. Let us then call on the Calvinist to define “means”. Do “means” have reference to the process by which God accomplishes something? If it does then the Calvinist must still admit that believers contribute to the salvation of the elect by way of intercessory prayer. Their prayer is part of the means and therefore a contribution. If that is the case, then salvation is not monergistic as Calvinism defines it. The only way that I can see to avoid such a conclusion is to deny that intercessory prayer is truly a means to an end (albeit God ordained). The moment that is admitted, we are right back to the problem of intercessory prayer serving no real purpose within Calvinist theology.

We might further ask why the decree of means as well as ends does not equally apply to the reprobate. Does God decree the means of reprobation? If He does then doesn't that mean that God positively decreed sin for the purpose of damning the greater part of humanity (supralapsarianism)? Something to think about.

I think that we can safely conclude that if monergism is defined along Calvinistic lines then this definition leads to insurmountable difficulties with intercessory prayer. We can also see that there is a real sense in which believers contribute to the salvation of others through intercessory prayer. God's heart is moved to action through our prayers for others. We would be foolish to say that believers save sinners by praying for them. Our prayers don't earn or merit salvation for others but only move God's heart to act. In a similar way our faith does not earn or merit our personal salvation, but our faith response does move God's heart to respond in accordance with His promise to save believers (John 3:16-18, 36). In my next post we will examine some inconsistencies in Calvinistic monergism with regards to the process of sanctification.

9 comments:

Reformed Servant said...

Have you written anything about your view on the atonement? Do you take Governmental atonement as your own, or have you made up your own view and given it a fun name?

Pizza Man said...

Hi Reformed Servant,

Ben wrote about atonement in this post: Question to chew on

-Kevin

kangaroodort said...

Hello Mitch,

I think the following link will answer your question:

http://arminianperspectives.blogspot.com/2008/01/provisional-atonement-part-1-dealing.html

God Bless,
Ben

Robert said...

“Reformed Servant” wrote:

“Have you written anything about your view on the atonement? Do you take Governmental atonement as your own, or have you made up your own view and given it a fun name?”

Is this some sort of set up question intended to mock? Note the intentionally false dilemma, the two options presented: (1) “do you take the Governmental atonement as your own [view]”, or (2) “have you made up your own view and given it a fun name?”

What RS apparently is ignorant of is that noncalvinists hold different views in regard to the atonement. If you check out the links provided you will see that Ben holds to the penal view of the atonement (which I would wager the farm on, is also the view of RS). A four views book was put out recently presenting different views of the atonement (with Thomas Schreiner taking the penal view): personally I believe the “kaleidoscopic view” (i.e, that in describing the atonement different metaphors are used, so our view should include all of them if they are presented by scripture) is the best view. If the eclectic view is correct then elements of both the governmental and penal views can be seen as true, rather than being forced to an either/or position. Apparently, RS wants to “trap” Ben in a weak either/or position so that he can then blast the position. In either case it does not appear to me that someone who leads with such an obvious set up question is really interested in honest dialogue concerning different views. No, RS is convinced of his own view, his mind is made up, and he appears to be looking for a “logic” fight. If I were Ben, I would ignore this attempted set up. If RS really wants to know what Ben believes, others have already provided links, that make his view clear.

I am also wondering what relevancy RS’s set up question has in regards to the theme of this thread: the inconsistencies of calvinism with regard to intercessory prayer?

Robert

The Seeking Disciple said...

Good post. Truly interecessory prayer finds its home best within the Arminian frame of reference.

Anonymous said...

Calvinists appeal to Lazarus in as an illustration of the the unregenerate man's encounter with the new birth:

Calvinist, James White, explains: “On the level of spiritual capacity the unregenerate man is just like Lazarus: dead, bound, incapable of ‘self-resurrection.’ It would be patently absurd to demand that Jesus first ask Lazarus for ‘permission’ to raise him to spiritual life. Corpses are not known for engaging in a great deal of conversations. No, before Lazarus can respond to Christ’s command to come forth, something must happen. Corpses do not obey commands, corpses do not move. Jesus changed Lazarus’ condition first: Lazarus’ heart was made new; his mind revitalized. Blood began once again to course through his veins. What was once dead is now alive, and can heart the voice of his beloved Lord, ‘Come forth!’ The term ‘irresistible’ then must be understood as speaking to the inability of dead sinners to resist resurrection to new life.” (The Potter’s Freedom, pp.284-285)

Rather than show why I disagree with this being a valid description of the unregenerate man's experience with the new birth, I will instead offer and explain an alternative illustration for the Arminian view of regeneration.

Mark 3:1,3,5 (ESV, Emphasis mine)
1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand...3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, Come here. ..5 (then Jesus) said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

How is this an alternative view? First, the man with the withered hand had no ability to "heal himself." This parallels the Arminian's view of depravity. Arminians rightly proclaim man could not save himself in the same way this man could not heal himself.

Second, Arminians rightly believe that without prevenient grace, yes, the wooing/drawing influence/direction of the Holy Spirit, the unregenerate man would not repent of sin and come to Christ believing in Him in the same way that the man with the withered hand would not have been healed had Christ not came to him and said "stretch out your hand."

Third, Arminians do not believe that choice to believe with the will from the heart in response to this prior grace gives one room to boast. In the same way, this can be compared to the man with the withered hand's response to Jesus. Does his response which got him healed give room for him to boast? After all, he did choose to do what Jesus told him to (i.e. stretch out the hand). He was healed as he stretched out his hand after Jesus said to do so. If the Calvinist wants to claim that the idea that faith precedes regeneration gives room for boasting, they must also say the same thing with the man with the withered hand, that Jesus gave this man room for boasting. This is something Calvinists wont do/say, and rightfully so. It logically follows then that such their claim against the Arminian is unwarranted and erroneous. Therefore, they need to refrain from making such a claim.

Robert said...

Interesting analogy Anonymous. Just some brief comments on the points that you are attempting to make.

You wrote:

“How is this an alternative view? First, the man with the withered hand had no ability to "heal himself." This parallels the Arminian's view of depravity. Arminians rightly proclaim man could not save himself in the same way this man could not heal himself.”

Your point is valid. In discussing things with calvinist determinists I have seen them repeatedly caricature the noncalvinist view with all sorts of attempts to show that we believe or our view entails that we save ourselves rather than Jesus alone saves. I drive by a very small Baptist church which has on its sign out front simply: JESUS SAVES. I love to see the sign because as simply as possible it states the truth. But calvinists do not want to believe or accept that we really believe that JESUS SAVES, that we do not believe that we save ourselves.

You also wrote:

“Second, Arminians rightly believe that without prevenient grace, yes, the wooing/drawing influence/direction of the Holy Spirit, the unregenerate man would not repent of sin and come to Christ believing in Him in the same way that the man with the withered hand would not have been healed had Christ not came to him and said "stretch out your hand."

A major problem that I have seen with calvinists over and over is that they will argue for a conception of depravity that most noncalvinists that I know have no problem with. They will then argue that noncalvinists do not believe in depravity which is intentional caricature and misrepresentation. I am involved with an extensive prison ministry and myself and all of our staff strongly believes in depravity as presented by the bible. And yet not one of us is a calvinist either. What the calvinist leaves out (whether intentionally because they are arguing for their view, or unwittingly because they are ignorant of scripture or noncalvinist beliefs) is the truth which you describe as: “that without prevenient grace, yes, the wooing/drawing influence/direction of the Holy Spirit, the unregenerate man would not repent of sin and come to Christ believing in Him”.

The calvinists will attempt to proof text from John 6 that the Lord **only** draws the elect (which is never stated in John 6) and also assume that **all who are drawn** will eventually become believers (which is false). The calvinist will squawk about comparing scripture with scripture to determine proper meanings of biblical texts, but then when we bring up John 12:32 that speaks of Jesus drawing all men. They will try to argue that that just refers to the Gentiles or that it is not legitimate to bring in other biblical texts when interpreting a passage. But they are wrong about John 12:32 and they also leave out John 16 which teaches that the Holy Spirit works in a redemptive way with the World. It says that He convicts the World of sin, righteousness and judgment. But this does not mean that all will be saved (similar to John 3:16 says the Father gives the Son to the World out of love for the world; and though the provision of the Son is for the world only those who believe will receive salvation through the Son). It does mean that he works to save all just as He says he desires to save all (the scripture is clear on this as well in texts such as 1 Tim. 2:3-6, which they of course attempt to **reinterpret** and eisegete away). So the clear passages that speak of the drawing and the work of the Spirit in leading people to Christ for salvation (what you call wooing/drawing/influence of the Spirit), being universal, are ignored, put under the rug, “reinterpreted”, and eisegeted away.

You also said:

“Third, Arminians do not believe that choice to believe with the will from the heart in response to this prior grace gives one room to boast. In the same way, this can be compared to the man with the withered hand's response to Jesus. Does his response which got him healed give room for him to boast? After all, he did choose to do what Jesus told him to (i.e. stretch out the hand). He was healed as he stretched out his hand after Jesus said to do so. If the Calvinist wants to claim that the idea that faith precedes regeneration gives room for boasting, they must also say the same thing with the man with the withered hand, that Jesus gave this man room for boasting. This is something Calvinists wont do/say, and rightfully so. It logically follows then that such their claim against the Arminian is unwarranted and erroneous. Therefore, they need to refrain from making such a claim.”

This is another extremely common argument made by calvinist/determinists: if we are able to have a faith response to the gospel, due to the work of the Spirit in leading us to Christ for salvation, without having first been regenerated, then we may end up boasting in our salvation. Two things strongly argue against the calvinist claim. First, there is scripture, specifically Romans 3:27-28 which explicitly and unequivocally states that biblical saving faith will not result in boasting: “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Now if scripture itself says that a saving faith does not result in boasting, why do calvinists keep trying to argue that a faith response will lead to boasting on the part of a believer?

The second reason is extensive personal experience, both my own as well as others whom I have seen come to the Lord. In my own case as well as other friends and with the many inmate conversions that I have seen, I have never seen anyone boast in their faith or act as if they saved themselves. This is easy to explain, while different people’s circumstances and reasons for coming to faith in Christ may vary (i.e., people believe for different reasons and have differing conversion experiences) there are some commonalties. One such commonality is that those who are converted to Christianity go through some experience in which they acknowledge to the Lord that they have sinned against him, that they are unworthy of being saved, that they cannot save themselves and that the Lord Himself must save them. Now if you really are thinking that way, you will humble yourself before the Lord and ask/beg for God’s mercy. In such a state you will not be boasting, not even close to it. Since I do a lot of evangelism and follow up with people who have come to Christ I like to talk to them about their conversion experiences (especially with candidates for baptism). And invariably, every time, without exception, in years of ministry, I have heard countless people describe this state or experience they pass through in becoming a Christian.

I personally call it **“begging faith”** because the person is trusting in God alone to save them, and is literally begging God to do so. There is no pride or boastfulness involved in “begging faith” whatsoever. Yet calvinists/theological determinists will bring up this argument over and over. It suggests to me that they are speaking from the high tower of their computer monitors, that they have very little (or no experience) leading others to Christ for salvation. The bible is explicit on this, that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. And every one of us if we are genuine Christians who has been saved has directly experienced “begging faith” and we all know that we did not save ourselves because as the sign in front of that little Baptist church says: JESUS SAVES.

Robert

kangaroodort said...

anonymous,

Very good comments. I read that same argument in Thomas Ralston's Elements of Divinity and have used it myself. I think there are other similar Biblical examples that make the same point (e.g. the man born blind washing in obedience to Christ's command in John 9, etc.).

Please e-mail me when you get the chance. I would like to talk to you about something privately if you don't mind.

God Bless,
Ben

Anonymous said...

Seems that the guys over at Triablogue answer this post along with the comments made by anonymous and Robert.