When God draws us with His grace, does He take away our power to resist that grace?
This past July 10th, many Protestants- especially those involved in theological education- recognized the 500th birthday of John Calvin by reflecting on the contributions his writings have made to Christian thought. On The Albert Mohler [Radio] Program guest host Dr. Russell D. Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary led a discussion about the doctrines most often associated with Calvin in popular thinking: namely, election and predestination. Dr. Moore’s guests on the July 10th program were Dr. Mark Dever, President of 9Marks ministries Dr. Matt Pinson, President of Free Will Baptist Bible College. Dr. Moore observed that in the past couple of years discussions of “Calvinism” in Baptist circles have, to a large degree, been more amicable and less vitriolic than in times past, and he wished to model an irenic discussion of “Calvinism” by having these guests: one (Dever) a Calvinist and one (Pinson) an Arminian.
I would like to draw readers’ attention to one question from Dr. Russell D. Moore (“RDM” below) and (especially) to the answer given by Dr. Matt Pinson (MP below). In examining Dr. Pinson’s answer to Dr. Moore, it is not my intention to disrupt the irenic spirit established by Dr. Moore, but I do think that it is instructive for us who hold to a “Calvinistic” position to be able to interact with words from an actual Arminian.
RDM: “When you think about that question, ‘What makes you to differ, as a Christian, from a lost man?’ How would you answer that?”
MP: “I would follow Arminius, who was very much like Calvin in his exaltation of the sovereign grace of God, and that God must draw us with His grace because we are totally depraved; we’re completely unable to will ourselves into His favor, and our heart is desparately wicked. I think the difference is that, like Arminius, I would see that grace as being resistible. I think ‘prevenient grace,’ as it’s often called by Calvinists and Arminians, is the real big difference between how we would see Calvinism and Arminianism. I would say that God comes to people with His grace, and yet He treats them as persons- who have an intellect, will, and emotions- and He’s dealing with them in relationship; and so, as Arminius says, He uses ‘suasion.’ He doesn’t operate on them in a cause and effect way, but in an influence and response way. So He gives them the freedom, by His grace, to resist and even to reject that grace. So you can’t do anything- you know, Arminius was fond of quoting Augustine, ‘Without Me ye can do nothing,’ and he says- let me quote here- says, ‘Christ does not say, Without Me ye can do but little, neither does He say, Without Me ye cannot do any arduous thing, nor, Without Me ye can do it with difficulty, but He says, Without Me ye can do nothing. Nor does He say, Without Me ye cannot complete any thing, but, Without Me ye can do nothing.’ So- you know- we would say, ‘Without the grace of God in Christ and the drawing power of the Holy Spirit, we can do no spiritual good- not the least spiritual good.’ But that doesn’t mean that when He draws us with His grace, that He takes away our power to resist that grace.”
[The entire radio program can be heard HERE.]
In his statement above, it is certain that Pinson’s intention is NOT to belittle the grace of God nor to exalt the pride of man; no Christian teacher could have such motives. RATHER, Dr. Pinson is attempting to give an explanation of why some people resist the grace of God; an explanation that places the blame for such resistance squarely upon the sinner. In his explanation, Pinson wishes to demonstrate that God is not the author or approver of the sin of unbelief. But is Dr. Pinson’s explanation satisfactory, from a biblical perspective?
Dr. Pinson identifies “prevenient grace” as “the real big difference” between Calvinism and Arminianism. This “prevenient grace” restores the power of free choice to otherwise totally depraved sinners, and allows the sinner the opportunity either to choose or reject Christ, according to the decision of the sinner’s own ‘free-will.’ This idea of “prevenient grace” is problematic both biblically and theologically. Biblically “prevenient grace”- as an activity of the Holy Spirit that frees the will, but does not necessarily regenerate the heart unto God- is not found in Scripture; it is simply assumed before any text of Scripture is examined. Theologically “prevenient grace” is problematic in that it is not enough to save anyone; all that “prevenient grace” would do is to restore a person to the position of Adam before the Fall. This semi-restoration to a neutral internal disposition (yet one that is possessed within a fallen world-system) is not what sinners need; rather, we need a new birth (John 3:3) with a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19) with new affections- affections in line with the law of God (Hebrews 8:10). It is God alone who must accomplish this radical change within the sinner, as indicated by the fact that God is the only active agent mentioned in the texts just cited.
Heart surgery is more than just a matter of “influence and response”- while the patient is under the knife, the surgeon is the one in control of the outcome; when my son (Christian) was being born, he was not the one in control- in fact, he did not even breathe for the first few seconds after birth and had to be resuscitated. And these are the kinds of pictures that the Bible uses to describe salvation. It is not a matter of the sinner being brought to a neutral position and then being persuaded to accept Jesus, but there is a fundamental change that takes place due to the effectual grace of God working upon the sinner as the gospel is proclaimed.
[As a side note: the quotes that Dr. Pinson gives from Augustine demostrate a point of agreement between Calvinists and Arminians- it should be remembered that Arminius was educated in the Calvinist school of thought- and these quotes remind us that evangelical Arminians are, at most, semi-Pelagians, rather than heretically Pelagian in their theology.]
Notice that Dr. Pinson does not exactly answer the question that Dr. Moore poses to him in the above discussion. Dr. Pinson’s answer to the question, “What makes you to differ, as a Christian, from a lost man?” seems to be, ‘Because the lost man resisted God’s grace, whereas I did not.’ And it is this kind of answer that raises an alarm among those who hold to the doctrines of grace, commonly called “Calvinism.”
Consider the following example conversation from R.C. Sproul:
Any Christian who wants to be biblical knows that they have to have some doctrine of election- some doctrine of predestination- because its on every page. So you gotta deal with it. So then the question is, ‘How do you understand election?’ And the way that this is usually done is that they say, -“Well, yes God elects people but He elects them on the basis of what they do. And He knows in advance- from all eternity- what they’re going to do when they come to certain crossroads. And on the basis of that foreknowledge- or prescience– then He issues His election.”
But election, then, is rooted and grounded in the work of the individual.
To get this very simple- down and dirty- I say, “OK, are you a Christian?”
“Do you have a family member or friend who’s not a Christian?”
“Please tell me why you are a Christian and that other person isn’t.”
-“Well, I believed and the other person didn’t.”
And I say, “I understand that, but why did you believe- why did you say ‘yes’ to the Gospel- when your friend said ‘no’ to the same Gospel? Is it because you’re better than they are?”
And what do they say, a hundred times out of a hundred?
-“No! Of course not!” They know they can’t say that.
I say, “Is it because you’re smarter?”
“Let me ask it again, when you’re neighbor said ‘no’ to the offer of the Gospel, is God pleased with that?”
“Is that the right decision?”
“Is that the wrong decision?”
“Is that a bad decision.”
“Is it a sin to say ‘no’ to God?”
“Well, you didn’t commit that sin, you did the right thing, the good thing, and the virtuous thing. So, in reality, you’re telling me that the reason you’re a Christian and that your neighbor is not is because you did the right thing, and they did the bad thing. And so, though you protest as loudly as you can, if you really believe what you’re telling me, you’re trusting in your ultimate salvation in your good behavior. You may say, ‘Well I couldn’t have done it except for the grace of God!’ But its the same grace He gave to your neighbor. In the final analysis, there was some ‘island of righteousness’ in you that caused you to say ‘yes’ to that grace where you wicked neighbor said ‘no’. You have something of which to boast. Not to mention how Paul not only destroys that position, but wipes off the spot where it stood in Romans 9 when he makes it emphatically clear that it is ‘not of him who runs, not of him who wills, but of God who shows mercy'(Romans 9:10).”
[from Sproul, R.C. Put on the New Man. Audio recording. St. Andrew’s Chapel, Sanford, FL. October, 2001.]
And so, while Dr. Pinson does not intend to establish a grounds of boasting before God, his theological position- if consistently held- would promote pride rather than humility, and is thus very dangerous indeed.
In the comment thread below I would like readers to, of course, post thoughts on anything written above, but I would also like some help in considering the following question, adapted from an assertion made by Dr. Pinson: When God draws us with His grace, does He take away our power to resist that grace?