God’s Will, Man’s Will and Free Will – Part 2

Here is chapter 1 of Ernest Reisinger’s book on The Will:

Free Will and Man’s Four-fold State
(Part One)

IN the introduction I emphasized the importance of our subject and pointed out that the subject of the human will is not a new issue, but, as history teaches us, it has been a heated debate for centuries and was one of the chief issues that divided the Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians.

The question of the freedom of the will, or the power of the human will to obey God and to do that which is spiritually good, is inseparably connected to man’s sin and misery (total inability). It is also necessary to know what ability man lost by the fall and what he possessed after the fall.

An important question, then. is whether man can now, in the same way in which he separated himself from God, return to God by his own strength and ability? Can man, by his own will and in his fallen condition, accept the grace that is offered him by God, and recover himself to the position which has been lost by sin? ~n other words, can the will of man be the cause for men to do good or evil?

The Pelagian reply to this question is that so much grace is given by God and left by nature, to all men, that they can in and of themselves return to God and obey Him. The Holy Scriptures, however, teach us no such thing. Rather, the Scriptures clearly teach that no work acceptable and pleasing to God can be performed by anyone without the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, all actions of the will, both good and bad, are performed freely and in no way coerced.

To put it another way, the Bible teaches that man, since the fall, in his natural corrupt state, has lost all ability of the will to do any spiritual good accompanying salvation and is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself.

The State of Innocence or The State of Creation

How great was the liberty of the will before the fall, that is, as God made Adam? The testimony of Scripture answers this question: “Truly, this only have I found: that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Eccl. 7:29).

In this state of innocence, Adam had a mind enlightened with the perfect knowledge of God and a will yielding entire obedience to God by its own voluntary act and inclination. Yet this will was not so confirmed in this knowledge and obedience that it might not fall by its own free exercise, if the appearance of any good were presented for the purpose of deceiving and effecting a fall. In other words, the will of man was free to choose good and evil. It might continue to stand in good, being preserved by God; or it might also incline and fall over to evil, if forsaken by God. Adam had a copy of God’s law written on his heart. As a key is fitted to all the wards of a lock and can open it, so Adam had power suited to all God’s commandments and could obey them perfectly.

Pelagianism, Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, and present day Finneyism all have this one thing in common: they all teach man’s will is neutral—that it is still free to choose either good or evil. But the Scriptures teach that by his fall into a state of sin, man has lost all ability of will for any spiritual good accompanying salvation. Therefore, as a natural man, altogether averse to good and dead in sin, he is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself or to prepare himself for salvation.

The Calvinist does not believe that the will is neutral, but rather, what the Bible teaches: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). Paul, Augustine, and Calvin have as their starting point the fact that all mankind sinned in Adam and that all men, therefore, are “without excuse” (Rom. 2:1).

This doctrine of total inability, which declares that men are dead in sin and are therefore unable to choose any good leading to salvation, does not teach (1) that all men are equally bad, (2) that any man is as bad as he could be, (3) that anyone is entirely destitute of virtue, (4) that human nature is evil in itself, (5) that man’s spirit is inactive, or (6) that the body is dead.

It does teach, however, that fallen man, while unable to perform what is good, is never compelled to sin. Instead, he does so by his own depraved will—he wills to sin.

The State of Nature or The State of Degeneration

In his natural corrupt state, man freely chooses evil, without any compulsion or constraint upon his will. Indeed he cannot do otherwise, being under the bondage of sin. When Adam sinned, he and all his posterity fell into this state of nature and were corrupted. He will stay in this state unless he is recovered by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is where you are if you have not been converted (“born again”).

The biblical description of this state of nature is as follows:

  • The sinfulness of man’s natural state: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).
  • The misery of man’s natural state: “We.. .were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Eph. 2:3).
  • Man’s utter inability to recover himself “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44).

In this unregenerate, fallen state, man has no ability to do anything spiritually good. Man is a slave; he is in Satan’s prison house and does not have the key to get out. Second Timothy 2:24—26 says, “And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance , so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will” (emphasis mine).

In this unregenerate state, men are spiritually blind and cannot see, spiritually deaf and cannot hear, and what is worse, they are dead in trespasses and sins. But there is a God in heaven who can open blind eyes, who can unstop deaf ears, and, bless His holy name, who can and does raise the dead.

How does God influence the will of man? He presents objects or circumstances to the understanding, and through these, effectually moves and inclines the will. Therefore, although they choose that which God wills, they do it nevertheless from their own deliberation and choice and therefore act freely. So men may be said to act freely, not when they disregard every form of government and restraint, but rather when they act with deliberation and when the will chooses or rejects objects by its own free exercise, even though it may be excited and controlled by someone else (God).

If some of you think this is a little heavy, let me give you a little illustration that sets forth how God changes the “willer.” I remember hearing an old country preacher pick his guitar and sing a kind of “hillbilly” song, and though he may not have understood it, that song clearly sets forth a great theological truth, that is, that God makes man willing. I call it:

The Hornet Song

When the Canaanites hardened their hearts against God,
And grieved Him because of their sin,
God sent along hornets to bring them to terms,
And to help His own people to win.

If a nest of live hornets were brought to this room,
And the creatures allowed to go free,
You would not need urging to make yourself scarce,
You’d want to get out, don’t you see!

They would not lay hold and by force of their strength,
Throw you out of the window, oh, no!
They would not compel you to go against your will,
But they would just make you willing to go.

When Jonah was sent to the work of the Lord,
The outlook was not very bright.
He never had done such a hard thing before,
So he backed and ran off from the fight.

Now, the Lord sent a great fish to swallow him up,
The story I am sure you all know.
God did not compel him to go against his will,
But He just made him willing to go.

CHORUS:

God does not compel us to go, oh, no!
He never compels us to go.
God does not compel us to go against our will,
But He just makes us willing to go.

This song is teaching the truth found in the Psalms: “Blessed is the man You choose, and cause to approach You, that he may dwell in Your courts” (65:4); “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power” (110:3 KJV).

What can the will do in the state of sin with reference to good? Some strength still remains in the unregenerate to do some civil good, such as, exercising justice and temperance. He can do acts of mercy and charity. He can abstain from theft and homicide. Some heathens have some virtue; however, they cannot do spiritual or supernatural good—pleasing and acceptable to God. Even “the plowing of the wicked [is] sin” (Prov. 2 1:4). The unregenerate has no strength for heavenly things—either in his intellect or will—from which the free will arises.

The unregenerate cannot do any spiritual good because he is spiritually dead: he must first be made alive by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.

This state of depravity is proof of how we are born into this world since the fall. Man is not born neutral. He is born with a sinful nature. Parents should have no difficulty in believing that children are born with something other than a neutral nature. Parents do not find it necessary to teach their little children to lie. They soon learn what the Bible has to say about the inclinations with which their children are born. “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies” (Ps. 58:3). Parents do not have to teach their children to get angry—we have all seen children get very angry before they can talk or walk—and according to our Lord’s teaching, anger is the mother of murder. (Matt. 5:21—22.)

Children are not sinners because they sin; they sin because they are born sinners—it is in their nature. This underscores the fact that the will, in this state, can only act according to its nature. It is true they are free but only free to act according to their nature. We are not free to fly because we do not have the nature of a bird. A sheep will not eat garbage like a hog. Why? Not because the sheep does not have a mouth and teeth but because of its nature. A hog will not eat grass like a sheep for the same reason: not because it is not free, but because it is free only to act according to its nature. So it is with the freedom of the will in the state of depravity—men are only free to act according to their nature.

Our Lord makes this point very clear when He states that a tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 12:33—37). Our Lord’s illustration of free will here will assist us in understanding a very important but controversial subject. (Walter Chantry of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, has an excellent exposition of this passage entitled Mans Will Free—yet Bound.)

We also see this truth in the most pessimistic verse in all the Bible in which Jesus says to a crowd who are in the state of nature: “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.”(John 5:40) “You are not willing”—this is the will in the state of nature.

The unwilling in this state must be made willing by a mighty power outside themselves—by the power of the Holy Spirit. Man’s will is not his hope. “Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).

The Spirit of God declares that:

  • every imagination of man’s heart from infancy is evil (Gen. 6:5; 8:2 1)
  • there is none righteous, none that understands, none that seeks after God (Ps. 14:3; Rom 3:10—11)
  • all are useless, corrupt, void of the fear of God, full of fraud, bitterness, and all kinds of iniquity, and have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3)
  • the carnal mind is enmity against God and does not even leave us the power of thinking a good thought (Rom. 8:7; 2 Cor. 3:5)

Therefore, we maintain with Augustine that man, by making a bad use of free will, lost both himself and it. Since the will is overcome by the corruption into which it fell, man’s fallen, depraved will has no real liberty. No will is free which is subject to lusts which conquer and enchain it.

In like manner, God declares that it is His own work to renew the heart (Ps. 51:10), out of stone to make it flesh (Ezek. 11:19), to write His law on the heart and put it in the inward parts (Jer. 3 1:33), to make us to walk in His precepts (Ezek. 11:20), to give both good will and the results of it (Phil. 2:13), to put the fear of His name into our hearts, that we may never withdraw from it (Jer. 32:39), and in fine, to finish the work which He has begun in us until the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6).

From this we conclude, again with Augustine, that:

  • the children of God are actuated by His Spirit to do whatever is to be done
  • they are drawn by Him, out of an unwilling state to be made willing
  • since the fall it is owing only to the grace of God that man draws near to Him
  • it is owing only to the same grace that God does not withdraw or recede from him
  • we know that no good thing which is our own can be found in our will
  • by the magnitude of the first sin, we lost the freedom of the will to believe in God and live holy lives
  • therefore “it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs”—not because we ought not to will and to run, but because God effects both the willing and the running.

A Calvinist does not believe that God’s decision to save man by a decree leaves man passive or inert. Rather, the very opposite takes place! The covenant of grace does not kill man—it does not regard him as a tin can or a piece of wood or a robot. It takes possession of the man, it lays hold of his whole being, with all his faculties, and his power of soul and body—for time and eternity.

God’s sovereign grace does not annihilate man’s will: it overcomes his unwillingness. It does not destroy his will but frees it from sin. It does not stifle or obliterate his conscience but sets it free from darkness. Grace regenerates and re-creates man in his entirety, and in renewing him, causes him to love and consecrate himself to God freely.

In the next chapter we will consider man’s will in his regenerate state, that is, the state of grace; and also man’s will in the glorified state in which man will be both freely and necessarily good—both perfect and happy.

God’s Will, Man’s Will and Free Will – Part 1

I have been thinking quite a lot about this over the last couple of years.  Having come from a semi-pelagian background, my world was entirely shaken and turned upside down when I realized that God is absolutely sovereign over everything, which includes salvation (Jonah 2:9).  One way of thinking about it is that God owns salvation just like he owns the entire created universe due to the fact that he created it.  If I walked into a group of people and started handing out $100 bills, who could complain that I didn’t give them one.  It is mine to give to whosoever I will to give it too.  Why is it any different with God?  The problem is, we have a flawed view of God, which is another byproduct of the fall of man, and we do not understand that all he owes us is a one-way trip to hell because of our sin.  It is His shear grace that even allows any of us to come to salvation.  Grace by it’s very definition is ‘unmerited favor’, which means that it is unmerited (wait for it, it will sink in eventually).

Ernest Reisinger wrote a piece on The Will in the late 1990’s and I want to share it here:

Introduction

This book contains a brief study on a very important but neglected subject, that is, the subject of free will. We will be considering in what sense the will is free and how important this subject is to the Christian faith.

Does salvation depend upon man’s willingness to be saved apart from a prior work of the Holy Spirit? We will see that no one is saved against his will; however, God changes the “willer” so as to make the sinner willing. We will see that the subject of free will is at the very heart of Christianity and has a profound effect on our message and method of evangelism. We will see that “whosoever will may come.” We will see that the Bible teaches that salvation depends not on man’s willingness but on God’s willingness, God’s grace, and God’s power—and if God did not have power over man’s will the whole world would go to hell. We will see that God does not exclude anyone in His invitations; however, sinners do exclude themselves.

Listen to these lines from Philip Bliss’s hymn “Whosoever Will”:

“Whosoever heareth,” shout, shout the sound!
Spread the blessed tidings all the world around;
Tell the joyful news wherever man is found,
“Whosoever will may come.”

Whosoever cometh need not delay,
Now the door is open, enter while you may;
Jesus is the true, the only Living Way:
“Whosoever will may come.”

“Whosoever will,” the promise is secure;
“Whosoever will,” forever must endure;
“Whosoever will!” ’tis life forever more;
“Whosoever will may come.”

“Whosoever will, whosoever will!”
Send the proclamation over vale and hill
‘Tis a loving Father calls the wanderer home:
“Whosoever will may come.”

If you cannot sing this hymn from the heart, then you do not understand the Biblical teaching on free will and this book should help you. You will note that the songwriter was very prudent when he wrote “whosoever will” may come. He did not say whosoever will can come.

One of the first questions that faces us in any serious study of the freedom of the will is whether there is power of the will to obey God and to do that which is spiritually good. Continue reading

The Pelagian Captivity of the Church

Shortly after the Reformation began, in the first few years after Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, he issued some short booklets on a variety of subjects. One of the most provocative was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this book Luther was looking back to that period of Old Testament history when Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies of Babylon and the elite of the people were carried off into captivity. Luther in the sixteenth century took the image of the historic Babylonian captivity and reapplied it to his era and talked about the new Babylonian captivity of the Church. He was speaking of Rome as the modern Babylon that held the Gospel hostage with its rejection of the biblical understanding of justification. You can understand how fierce the controversy was, how polemical this title would be in that period by saying that the Church had not simply erred or strayed, but had fallen-that it’s actually now Babylonian; it is now in pagan captivity.

I’ve often wondered if Luther were alive today and came to our culture and looked, not at the liberal church community, but at evangelical churches, what would he have to say? Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church.

Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage of the Will. When we look at the Reformation and we see the solas of the Reformation-sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, sola gratia-Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.

In the Fleming Revell edition of The Bondage of the Will, the translators, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, included a somewhat provocative historical and theological introduction to the book itself. This is from the end of that introduction:

These things need to be pondered by Protestants today. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognised by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters? (1)

Historically, it’s a simple matter of fact that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points they had their differences. In asserting the helplessness of man in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them these doctrines were the very lifeblood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s works says this:

Whoever puts this book down without having realized that Evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith alone, which became the storm center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology but this is not accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed by Augustine and others, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a more profound level still in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration. (2)

That is to say, that the faith that receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God. The principle of soli fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which is left to man to fulfill? Do you hear the difference? Let me put it in simple terms. I heard an evangelist recently say, “If God takes a thousand steps to reach out to you for your redemption, still in the final analysis, you must take the decisive step to be saved.” Consider the statement that has been made by America’s most beloved and leading evangelical of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, who says with great passion, “God does ninety-nine percent of it but you still must do that last one percent.”

What Is Pelagianism?

Now, let’s return briefly to my title, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.” What are we talking about?

Pelagius was a monk who lived in Britain in the fifth century. He was a contemporary of the greatest theologian of the first millennium of Church history if not of all time, Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. We have heard of St. Augustine, of his great works in theology, of his City of God, of his Confessions, and so on, which remain Christian classics.

Augustine, in addition to being a titanic theologian and a prodigious intellect, was also a man of deep spirituality and prayer. In one of his famous prayers, Augustine made a seemingly harmless and innocuous statement in the prayer to God in which he says: “O God, command what you wouldst, and grant what thou dost command.” Now, would that give you apoplexy-to hear a prayer like that? Well it certainly set Pelagius, this British monk, into orbit. When he heard that, he protested vociferously, even appealing to Rome to have this ghastly prayer censured from the pen of Augustine. Here’s why. He said, “Are you saying, Augustine, that God has the inherent right to command anything that he so desires from his creatures? Nobody is going to dispute that. God inherently, as the creator of heaven and earth, has the right to impose obligations on his creatures and say, ‘Thou shalt do this, and thou shalt not do that.’ ‘Command whatever thou would’-it’s a perfectly legitimate prayer.”

It’s the second part of the prayer that Pelagius abhorred-when Augustine said, “and grant what thou dost command.” He said, “What are you talking about? If God is just, if God is righteous and God is holy, and God commands of the creature to do something, certainly that creature must have the power within himself, the moral ability within himself, to perform it or God would never require it in the first place.” Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? What Pelagius was saying is that moral responsibility always and everywhere implies moral capability or, simply, moral ability. So why would we have to pray, “God grant me, give me the gift of being able to do what you command me to do”? Pelagius saw in this statement a shadow being cast over the integrity of God himself, who would hold people responsible for doing something they cannot do.

So in the ensuing debate, Augustine made it clear that in creation, God commanded nothing from Adam or Eve that they were incapable of performing. But once transgression entered and mankind became fallen, God’s law was not repealed nor did God adjust his holy requirements downward to accommodate the weakened, fallen condition of his creation. God did punish his creation by visiting upon them the judgment of original sin, so that everyone after Adam and Eve who was born into this world was born already dead in sin. Original sin is not the first sin. It’s the result of the first sin; it refers to our inherent corruption, by which we are born in sin, and in sin did our mothers conceive us. We are not born in a neutral state of innocence, but we are born in a sinful, fallen condition. Virtually every church in the historic World Council of Churches at some point in their history and in their creedal development articulates some doctrine of original sin. So clear is that to the biblical revelation that it would take a repudiation of the biblical view of mankind to deny original sin altogether.

This is precisely what was at issue in the battle between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. Pelagius said there is no such thing as original sin. Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. There is no transmission or transfer of guilt or fallenness or corruption to the progeny of Adam and Eve. Everyone is born in the same state of innocence in which Adam was created. And, he said, for a person to live a life of obedience to God, a life of moral perfection, is possible without any help from Jesus or without any help from the grace of God. Pelagius said that grace–and here’s the key distinction–facilitates righteousness. What does “facilitate” mean? It helps, it makes it more facile, it makes it easier, but you don’t have to have it. You can be perfect without it. Pelagius further stated that it is not only theoretically possible for some folks to live a perfect life without any assistance from divine grace, but there are in fact people who do it. Augustine said, “No, no, no, no . . . we are infected by sin by nature, to the very depths and core of our being-so much so that no human being has the moral power to incline themselves to cooperate with the grace of God. The human will, as a result of original sin, still has the power to choose, but it is in bondage to its evil desires and inclinations. The condition of fallen humanity is one that Augustine would describe as the inability to not sin. In simple English, what Augustine was saying is that in the Fall, man loses his moral ability to do the things of God and he is held captive by his own evil inclinations.

In the fifth century the Church condemned Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange, and it was condemned again at the Council of Florence, the Council of Carthage, and also, ironically, at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century in the first three anathemas of the Canons of the Sixth Session. So, consistently throughout Church history, the Church has roundly and soundly condemned Pelagianism-because Pelagianism denies the fallenness of our nature; it denies the doctrine of original sin.

Now what is called semi-Pelagianism, as the prefix “semi” suggests, was a somewhat middle ground between full-orbed Augustinianism and full-orbed Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism said this: yes, there was a fall; yes, there is such a thing as original sin; yes, the constituent nature of humanity has been changed by this state of corruption and all parts of our humanity have been significantly weakened by the fall, so much so that without the assistance of divine grace nobody can possibly be redeemed, so that grace is not only helpful but it’s absolutely necessary for salvation. While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell-whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t. That little island Augustine wouldn’t even recognize as an atoll in the South Pacific. He said it’s a mythical island, that the will is enslaved, and that man is dead in his sin and trespasses.

Ironically, the Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vehemently as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the time you get to the sixteenth century and you read the Catholic understanding of what happens in salvation the Church basically repudiated what Augustine taught and Aquinas taught as well. The Church concluded that there still remains this freedom that is intact in the human will and that man must cooperate with-and assent to-the prevenient grace that is offered to them by God. If we exercise that will, if we exercise a cooperation with whatever powers we have left, we will be saved. And so in the sixteenth century the Church reembraced semi-Pelagianism.

At the time of the Reformation, all the reformers agreed on one point: the moral inability of fallen human beings to incline themselves to the things of God; that all people, in order to be saved, are totally dependent, not ninety-nine percent, but one hundred percent dependent upon the monergistic work of regeneration in order to come to faith, and that faith itself is a gift of God. It’s not that we are offered salvation and that we will be born again if we choose to believe. But we can’t even believe until God in his grace and in his mercy first changes the disposition of our souls through his sovereign work of regeneration. In other words, what the reformers all agreed with was, unless a man is born again, he can’t even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. Like Jesus says in the sixth chapter of John, “No man can come to me unless it is given to him of the Father”-that the necessary condition for anybody’s faith and anybody’s salvation is regeneration.

Evangelicals and Faith

Modern Evangelicalism almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. You have to choose to be born again. Isn’t that what you hear? In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of “professing evangelical Christians” in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves. These positions-or let me say it negatively-neither of these positions is semi-Pelagian. They’re both Pelagian. To say that we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking in depth, we would find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.

In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists. Now, if Luther was correct in saying that sola fide is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings-and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism.

The Island of Righteousness

One thing is clear: that you can be purely Pelagian and be completely welcome in the evangelical movement today. It’s not simply that the camel sticks his nose into the tent; he doesn’t just come in the tent-he kicks the owner of the tent out. Modern Evangelicalism today looks with suspicion at Reformed theology, which has become sort of the third-class citizen of Evangelicalism. Now you say, “Wait a minute, R. C. Let’s not tar everybody with the extreme brush of Pelagianism, because, after all, Billy Graham and the rest of these people are saying there was a Fall; you’ve got to have grace; there is such a thing as original sin; and semi-Pelagians do not agree with Pelagius’ facile and sanguine view of unfallen human nature.” And that’s true. No question about it. But it’s that little island of righteousness where man still has the ability, in and of himself, to turn, to change, to incline, to dispose, to embrace the offer of grace that reveals why historically semi-Pelagianism is not called semi-Augustinianism, but semi-Pelagianism. It never really escapes the core idea of the bondage of the soul, the captivity of the human heart to sin-that it’s not simply infected by a disease that may be fatal if left untreated, but it is mortal.

I heard an evangelist use two analogies to describe what happens in our redemption. He said sin has such a stronghold on us, a stranglehold, that it’s like a person who can’t swim, who falls overboard in a raging sea, and he’s going under for the third time and only the tops of his fingers are still above the water; and unless someone intervenes to rescue him, he has no hope of survival, his death is certain. And unless God throws him a life preserver, he can’t possibly be rescued. And not only must God throw him a life preserver in the general vicinity of where he is, but that life preserver has to hit him right where his fingers are still extended out of the water, and hit him so that he can grasp hold of it. It has to be perfectly pitched. But still that man will drown unless he takes his fingers and curls them around the life preserver and God will rescue him. But unless that tiny little human action is done, he will surely perish.

The other analogy is this: A man is desperately ill, sick unto death, lying in his hospital bed with a disease that is fatal. There is no way he can be cured unless somebody from outside comes up with a cure, a medicine that will take care of this fatal disease. And God has the cure and walks into the room with the medicine. But the man is so weak he can’t even help himself to the medicine; God has to pour it on the spoon. The man is so sick he’s almost comatose. He can’t even open his mouth, and God has to lean over and open up his mouth for him. God has to bring the spoon to the man’s lips, but the man still has to swallow it.

Now, if we’re going to use analogies, let’s be accurate. The man isn’t going under for the third time; he is stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. That’s where you once were when you were dead in sin and trespasses and walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air. And while you were dead hath God quickened you together with Christ. God dove to the bottom of the sea and took that drowned corpse and breathed into it the breath of his life and raised you from the dead. And it’s not that you were dying in a hospital bed of a certain illness, but rather, when you were born you were born D.O.A. That’s what the Bible says: that we are morally stillborn.

Do we have a will? Yes, of course we have a will. Calvin said, if you mean by a free will a faculty of choosing by which you have the power within yourself to choose what you desire, then we all have free will. If you mean by free will the ability for fallen human beings to incline themselves and exercise that will to choose the things of God without the prior monergistic work of regeneration then, said Calvin, free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to a human being.

The semi-Pelagian doctrine of free will prevalent in the evangelical world today is a pagan view that denies the captivity of the human heart to sin. It underestimates the stranglehold that sin has upon us.

None of us wants to see things as bad as they really are. The biblical doctrine of human corruption is grim. We don’t hear the Apostle Paul say, “You know, it’s sad that we have such a thing as sin in the world; nobody’s perfect. But be of good cheer. We’re basically good.” Do you see that even a cursory reading of Scripture denies this?

Now back to Luther. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received? Or is it a condition of justification which is left to us to fulfill? Is your faith at work? Is it the one work that God leaves for you to do? I had a discussion with some folks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently. I was speaking on sola gratia, and one fellow was upset. He said, “Are you trying to tell me that in the final analysis it’s God who either does or doesn’t sovereignly regenerate a heart?”

And I said, “Yes,” and he was very upset about that. I said, “Let me ask you this: are you a Christian?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Do you have friends who aren’t Christians?”

He said, “Well, of course.”

I said, “Why are you a Christian and your friends aren’t? Is it because you’re more righteous than they are?” He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to say, “Of course it’s because I’m more righteous. I did the right thing and my friend didn’t.” He knew where I was going with that question.

And he said, “Oh, no, no, no.”

I said, “Tell me why. Is it because you’re smarter than your friend?”

And he said, “No.”

But he would not agree that the final, decisive issue was the grace of God. He wouldn’t come to that. And after we discussed this for fifteen minutes, he said, “OK! I’ll say it. I’m a Christian because I did the right thing, I made the right response, and my friend didn’t.”

What was this person trusting in for his salvation? Not in his works in general, but in the one work that he performed. And he was a Protestant, an evangelical. But his view of salvation was no different from the Roman view.

God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

This is the issue: Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it in our own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter, that it ultimately depends on something we do for ourselves, thereby deny humanity’s utter helplessness in sin and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder then that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being, in principle, both a return to Rome because, in effect, it turned faith into a meritorious work, and a betrayal of the Reformation because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the reformers’ thought. Arminianism was indeed, in Reformed eyes, a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism. For to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle than to rely on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.

And yet this view is the overwhelming majority report today in professing evangelical circles. And as long as semi-Pelagianism-which is simply a thinly veiled version of real Pelagianism at its core-as long as it prevails in the Church, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know, however, what will not happen: there will not be a new Reformation. Until we humble ourselves and understand that no man is an island and that no man has an island of righteousness, that we are utterly dependent upon the unmixed grace of God for our salvation, we will not begin to rest upon grace and rejoice in the greatness of God’s sovereignty, and we will not be rid of the pagan influence of humanism that exalts and puts man at the center of religion. Until that happens there will not be a new Reformation, because at the heart of Reformation teaching is the central place of the worship and gratitude given to God and God alone. Soli Deo gloria, to God alone, the glory.

 


1 J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, “Introduction” to The Bondage of the Will (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957), 59-60.
2 Ibid.

 

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2001 Vol. 10 No. 3 Page number(s): 22-23, 26-29, edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit http://www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.