This is the third of a series of blogs about R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will. If you haven’t read the first one, “Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?,” or the second one, “A Great Chess Player,” you really ought to do so. They cover some foundational questions about free will. This blog will review Chapter Five: “We Are Voluntary Slaves” & Chapter Six: “We Are Free to Believe” (These are the big two, in my opinion, because they hold such influence over modern Christian thinking – the views of Calvin and Arminius.) Calvin and Arminius both had spiritual insight, unfortunately, they both came to erroneous conclusions in their thinking, which resulted in the teaching of partial truths.
Chapter Five: “We Are Voluntary Slaves”
When the will is enchained as the slave of sin, it cannot make a movement towards goodness, far less steadily pursue it. – John Calvin
Two main concerns that prompt John Calvin to write about free will are first, that people ought not ignore this important subject, and second, that people ought to give God honor for their redemption. I doubt that any person who recognizes their redemption would admit to keeping some of God’s glory for themselves, but they do, nonetheless. They just don’t realize that this is what they are doing. How do they do this? Good question. Glad you asked. Hopefully, the answer will become obvious to you as you continue reading.
In Calvin’s studies, he recognizes a pattern in human philosophy, that man in his intellectual ability is able to live a virtuous life. I can understand why people might believe this to be true, since humanity is capable of distinguishing behaviors that either benefit or harm others. Although we may find cultural variation in the ideas of right and wrong, we are still aware that there is such a thing as right and wrong. Since we possess such knowledge, it follows that we ought to be able to put it to use. But we don’t. Why is that? Various reasons, of course, but the main reason is, if we are really honest with ourselves, we don’t feel like it. Our intellect becomes a tool for evil because we use it to create elaborate excuses about why we ought to be permitted to go against our internal moral compass, that we have some exceptional circumstance or need or whatever.
The trouble is that one part of you is on His side and really agrees with His disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. That is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Can You See the Reign of God?
Calvinism, in many ways, is regurgitated Augustinianism. But since Calvin is closer to us in history, his name usually accompanies any serious discussion on free will and election. Calvin recognizes that human beings have the ability to reason, but he points out that our reasoning is not sound. Our capacity to think about spiritual things has been severely damaged by sin. Calvin cites John 3:3 where Jesus says, “If any one may not be born from above, he is not able to see the reign of God,” and claims (in Sproul’s words), “Regeneration is a requirement for a person to be liberated from the bondage of sin.” If this is true, then the obvious follow-up questions are, what is regeneration, and how does one go about getting it?
Regeneration is the Greek word “palingenesia,” which is a compound word meaning “birth” and “again.” Just as a person is born physically, a person is born spiritually. You’ve heard people call themselves “born again,” and this is the origin of that word combination. In natural birth, the baby does not get to decide whether to be born. Can the same be true of spiritual birth?
Truth is truth, wherever one finds it, even from the mouth of the Arch-villian of the Christian Universalism, himself, Matt Slick. He writes in his article about the basic tenets of Calvinism, known by the acronym, TULIP,
Man’s heart is evil (Mark 7:21-23) and sick (Jer. 17:9). Man is a slave of sin (Rom. 6:20). He does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12). He cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). He is at enmity with God (Eph. 2:15). And, is by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3). The Calvinist asks the question, “In light of the scriptures that declare man’s true nature as being utterly lost and incapable, how is it possible for anyone to choose or desire God?” The answer is, “He cannot. Therefore God must predestine.”
And according to Calvin, unregenerate humanity has no free will:
…man, by making a bad use of free will, lost both himself and it. Again, that the will being overome by the corruption into which it fell, nature has no liberty. Again, that no will is free which is subject to lusts which conquer and enchain it… no man of himself will ever be able to come to Christ, but God must first approach him by his Spirit; and hence it follows that all are not “drawn,” but that God bestows this grace on those whom he has elected. True, indeed, as to the kind of “drawing,” it is not violent, so as to compel a man by force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant. It is a false and profane assertion, therefore, that none are drawn but those who are willing to be “drawn,” as if man made himself obedient to God by his own efforts; for the willingness with which men follow God is what they already have from himself, who has formed their hearts to obey him.
(I am not going to review Sproul’s interpretation of the teaching of Paul from this chapter until the conclusion of this series, because it is in Paul’s writing I find the answer to the centuries old debate on free will and election.)
Is Grace Irresistable?
This raises the question about free will that I mentioned earlier, that is, what if God chooses someone to believe who doesn’t want to believe? In order to explore this further, I am about to quote Francis Turretin, a guy who is so very specific in his study on free will and election, that he can make the casual reader’s head spin. I promise you that what Turretin says makes sense to Turretin, and if you really take the time to slowly think it through, one thought at a time, then you will understand what Turretin is talking about, even if you disagree with him:
…if God not only appeals to and exhorts, but himself works (energei) in us; not only works the power but the very act of willing and believing, who do not see that his action is irresistible which necessarily produces its own effect? For if man can always resist or can actually resist, this would undoubtedly be done because the will willed to resist. And yet how can the will will to resist (i.e., be unwilling to admit grace, in which God efficaciously works to will)?
Sproul sums it up nicely, saying, “For Turretin, as for Calvin and Luther, the ‘irresistibility’ of grace is what makes it so gracious. Irresistible grace denies the converted sinner any basis for boasting… This grace underlies the affirmation that, in the final analysis, salvation is of the Lord.”
Chapter Six: “We Are Free to Believe”
And just when you think you have this whole free will and election thing figured out, along comes Arminius sticking bubble gum in the logical gears…
All unregenerate persons have freedom of will, and a capability of resisting the Holy Spirit, of rejecting the proffered grace of God… and of not opening to Him who knocks at the door of the heart; and these things they can actually do. – Arminius
If one examines the teachings of Arminius, one might at first assume that Arminius actually agrees with Calvin, but eventually the student will discover that Arminius differs in what Sproul calls the “Point of Departure.” Calvinism says that everyone who God calls responds to that call. It is that irresistible grace idea I covered a few paragraphs back. Arminius, on the other hand, says that grace is not a sufficient condition for salvation. In other words, God’s grace provides everything a person needs in order to be saved, but the individual has the ability to resist that grace. This is probably the most popular view in Evangelical circles, even for those who don’t want to admit it. Let me put it this way. If a believer says that a person is saved because the person chooses to believe (instead of choosing to not believe), then that person subscribes to Arminianism. For Arminius, grace makes a person able to believe but not willing. He compares God’s grace to money that is extended and placed in the open hand of a beggar. The open hand represents the willingness of the individual to receive salvation.
Coming soon, the final three chapters. Chapter Seven: “We are Inclined to Sin,” Chapter Eight: “We Are Not Depraved by Nature,” and Chapter Nine: “We Are Able to Believe.” If it seems as though this is an argument that keeps going in circles, you’re right. It is the same old arguments, brought to the table again after the Dark Ages ended. And, unfortunately, you’re also wrong. There are nuances in each of these theologian’s interpretations of scripture that differ from one another. These tiny differences really do matter, if the eternal destiny of the majority of mankind or the Sovereignty and Righteousness of God hangs in the balance. Chapter Seven features Jonathan Edwards, who is most known for delivering the terrifying sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Chapter Eight features Charles Finney, a difficult to define evangelist. Chapter Nine features Lewis Chafer, a Dispensationalist (I’ll define Dispensationalist in the next blog). Until then, check out this vid – a mock dialogue between Calvin and Arminius, Paul Tells Calvin and Arminius the Way It Is.