Today, I wanted to take a brief moment to give my own thoughts in response to an article that I recently read by Haden Clark (here), whose contention is that our belief precedes our regeneration. A belief common to many Evangelical Christians today. In this response I hope to offer a counter balance to his conceptual argument against Reformed thought. I am admittingly intrigued by his proposed biblical support forthcoming, so I refrain entering into that water until a later date.
A QUESTION OF ORIGINS…
Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The question puzzles millions, but only because of a difference in starting points. If you believe in an evolutionary style process where little by little information was added until you have a semi-final product (if its evolving, it can never be final), then no doubt you assume that the egg needed to come first. If you believe in biblical creation, then you realize that the chicken necessarily came first. God created birds, fish, various land creatures, and human beings according to their kinds, and He made them male and female.
The solution to the question is found in the authority that is acknowledged and appealed to. No one was there in the beginning. At least you and I were not, and so our beliefs about what was and how it came to be is decided on what we are found submitting to.
Although, the question of the chicken and the egg is not exactly the same it is similar to the question regarding belief: Which came first, faith or regeneration. Faith speaks of action. While, the world will often see faith as a “blind-leap,” a wishful hoping and wringing of the hands, true faith is the trust one places in another. This trust is not just by word of mouth—an expression of mental assent—but by a purposeful activity towards something.
A QUESTION HISTORICALLY WEIGHED: BY WHOSE AUTHORITY
Salvation is an important Christian doctrine that is often seen as an intramural debate within the body of Christ. The argument that often occurs in Christian circles regarding the issue of creation vs. evolution is the same sort of argument that occurs in the area of soteriology (salvation). Who has the final word? Who gets the final “say-so?” Who has ultimate authority?
One of the key doctrines that sparked the reformer Martin Luther to address the Roman Catholic Church with his grievances was on this very issue—salvation. Who saves who? Is it the Church or is it God? Is it something man must first assent to? Or is it something that God must first move upon? Who is responsible for our belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ? God or man?
Erasmus and Luther debated this very issue in the Bondage of the Will. Erasmus believed that it was strongly implied that man has some ability to believe in God. For, why would God command something that we the creature could not respond to? If God commanded it, then we must be able to respond properly (i.e. exercise faith). Luther strongly disagreed because Scripture does not imply the creatures ability, but strongly denies it. The denials are not implications, but rather direct rebuttals of any form of goodness in man.
Is belief in Jesus Christ a good or bad thing? Is having faith in the gospel of God—trusting in what God has done in history, specifically in Jesus of Nazareth—a good thing? Obviously, it is we would be foolhardy to deny it. But, that leaves us in a bit of a conundrum for the Bible is very clear on this: there is no goodness in fallen man. Not even a tiny, little spark.
SEEMINGLY AGREED UPON ASSUMPTIONS AND HOW THEY FALL APART
And yet, our faith in Christ, is an exceedingly good thing. Why? Because it is a gift from God, something that we did not originally possess, but was given to us. Haden Clark agrees,
- “Faith being a gift is another concept worth pointing out. All are in agreement on this point. Calvinists, Arminians, and Traditionalists all agree that salvation, faith, repentance, and the whole nine yards are a gift from God” (par. 18).
That is to say, it is the grace of God that brings about our salvation, faith, and repentance. It is the unmerited favor of our Lord that bestows upon us such wonderful treasures. Ironically, where we seem to agree is where we are found in strong disagreement. The problem is that we do not define grace in the same way.
Clark’s analogy serves as a good example of what I mean. He writes,
- “If I freely gave you a one-hundred dollar check that you took to the bank and cashed, and then proceeded to march around town boasting about how you had earned it, who would take you seriously? No one who knew the truth of the matter” (par ).
Well, what is the truth of the matter? According to Clark it appears that God grace is similar to a person offering you a gift of money, and you reaching out and taking it. However, what are the underlying assumptions? First that the person being offered the gift is fairly neutral to the prospect of a free gift. There is no apparent hostility between the two individual’s. Second, that the person who “receives” the gift is free to take it. Nothing binds the person. Shackles of any kind are non-existent. Third, that the individual “receiving” the gift is capable of discerning between that which is good and that which is not. Spiritual depravity is denied.
I am familiar with this line of argumentation. I used to believe it, even taught it for a time. What changed my heart/mind regarding it? My belief did not find allegiance with the text of God.
A better analogy might be offered at this point.
You are a criminal standing before the judgment seat. The books are opened, and the evidence is stacked heavily against you. “What say you?” says the Judge. Our mouths at that moment are found shut. In the past, we may have offered excuses to others in our lives for our sin, but before Him in the light of His holy Law we know in our hearts that we are rightly condemned. “Guilty! The verdict is punishment by eternal death.” When all hope seems lost, another opens His mouth. He says to the Judge of all the Earth, this one is spoken for. I have paid the price, laying down my life for his. I have already bore His punishment on the cross.” At that moment, the Judge looks at you and says, “Though your sin is deserving of death, One worthy and able of paying your debt has stepped in. Rather than receiving wrath—which you deserve—I give to you mercy. You have received the gift of life, when death was all that was promised to you. At that moment, you look to your Savior, your new Lord and pour out praises and undying fealty to Him. In Him you trust alone, for He has done what you could not do for yourself. He has given you eternal life—the gift (grace) of God.
To be fair, I will point out to you my own assumptions.
We are not basically good, but fully evil. Though we assume that we are free and nothing binds us, the reality is that we are slaves of sin. Our crimes are against a Holy God whose Law, which is perfectly spiritual and good, shuts our mouths. Had no one acted on our behalf we would all be damned. Our choices in life do not lead us to Him, unless He has been the one guiding our steps. The gift of God’s grace is not that we reached out to Him in hope, but that He reached out to us in love, and placed that love in our hearts. He first demonstrated this love by taking our place on the cross, and we return this love in faith because He changed our hearts, giving us new life. His grace He poured into us, we did not seek to do this for ourselves.
DEFINING TERMS WITH SHADES OF DIFFERENCE
Clark points out rightly that Calvinists believe, “If God grants you faith, you will necessarily believe” (par. 20). That is true. In Reformed thought, salvation—which includes our faith—necessarily leads to belief in the Triune God of Scripture.
Understandably so, given his own presuppositions, Clark finds this very distasteful. Why? It has to do with the way in which we defines “gift” or “grant” or the “grace of God.” He concludes,
- “If I give you a gift that you cannot resist, I didn’t give it to you. I forced it upon you to the extent that you could not reject it” (par. 22).
So, it is a violation of man, if God does for the creature what the creature is incapable of doing himself? It is a violation of man if God opens the eyes of the creature showing them the light of glory by giving him eyes to see? It is a violation of man, if God saves the creature from his own destructive living, stopping him from running headlong off a cliff chasing after the hounds of hell?
Perhaps, this is easier for me to see that this is not a violation of the creature, since I have children of my own. I pour my love into my kids lives doing for them what they do not intend to do for themselves. Perhaps, they sometimes view it as a violation of their own precious wills, but they are fools. It is my duty before God, and out of love for them, to correct their waywardness. To do for them what they cannot do for themselves.
Clark does not like mischaracterizations of a person’s position, and I agree with him. But he is mischaracterizing what Calvinists believe when he says that our view of God’s saving us is in reality Him “forcing upon” us the gift of eternal life. We believe that it is God doing for us what we are incapable of doing for ourselves, because of our fallen condition and inward hostility towards Him. If He did not act in such a manner, we would be left in our sinful state. His giving us such mercy, rather than wrath is not seen as violating us, but loving us.
IMPORTANT QUESTIONS TO BE ASKED
Why do we need a new heart? Why do we to be made alive? If we are fully capable of turning, trusting, and responding to God apart from receiving these things, then why do I need them?
If faith comes before regeneration (i.e. being born from above), then why do I need a new life? I can already run to God, choosing the good. It seems to follow that I could likewise be obedient to the Law, for the gospel is also a law which demands that I repent of my sins and swear allegiance to Christ anyway. The consequence of failing to do so guarantees my damnation, just like the consequence of refusing to obey all of God’s other instructions.
Scripture identifies the order of life as a gift of God. Something that He brings about, and we the creature enjoy the benefit. What is true of our natural birth, is likewise true of our spiritual birth. “The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help” (John 6.63a; NET). That’s why we have nothing to boast in; even our belief.