In my last post we began looking at a common rebuttal (knee-jerk reaction) to the concept of God giving grace (a gift) in the sense of regeneration. When it comes to the subject of regeneration—to which saving grace specifically speaks—there are two schools of thought within Christian circles. The first states that regeneration must come after faith. The second argues that faith is a byproduct of regeneration (i. e. Logical order; blinded eyes need healed before they can see). In other words, the debate is centered on whose activity—God or man—is primary (takes precedent) and whose is secondary?
To be fair, those who hold to a position different than Reformed theology (my own) would more than likely identify God as the primary mover when it comes to salvation. They would point to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and the Holy Spirit after the Lord’s ascension to the Father’s right hand as the grounds on which an individual’s salvation stands or falls. Without this act of “grace” on God’s part, no one would be saved.
So far, so good. At a glance, it appears there is not much of difference between the two camps (i.e. Reformed and non). However, this is not the case.
The Point of Contention
The Non-Reformer (a.k.a. non-Calvinist) argues that if grace is truly grace (a gift), then God must offer it and we must actively reach for it. Salvation comes down to a matter of choice for the fallen creature. God did the groundwork, but the person must put the finishing touches on it. In other words, man has the final say in choosing or rejecting the grace of God found in Christ. As noted in the following statement by Norman Geisler:
- “In short, it is God’s ultimate and sovereign will that we have free will to resist His will that all be saved.”[i]
This is called synergism, where salvation is seen as a cooperative effort of God and the creature. God does the majority of the work (the heavy lifting), but the finale is decided by the person who wills.
Herein lies the point of contention. They reject the concept of grace being a gift, if God does not consider the choice of the individual in question. If God changes a person’s heart without asking whether or not they want it, then that action of God (regardless of what adjectives we place before it—i.e. good, loving, etc.) is seen as nothing more than forceful coercion. This makes it a violation of the sanctity of the person in question, from their point of view.[ii] If you are not Reformed, you believe this from some degree to another.
An Argument over the Condition of Mankind Post-Fall
The reason for this accusation of force or coercion is tied to how one views the state of mankind. Depending on how serious the consequences of Adam’s rebellion is viewed, determines where one sets his flag. While the synergistic camp agrees that salvation necessarily needs to be based on the person’s decision, they differ on how this is actually accomplished.
Classical Arminianism holds to the doctrine of prevenient grace[iii]—a preventive measure that heals the will of fallen man. Not entirely, but the grip of sin’s dread curse is loosened just enough that the person is free to respond positively to the gospel call. Well, that is, if they will it.
Another position (the traditionalist? What I’d call the naturalist)[iv], which is gaining ground in some circles, is the idea that man’s will is not affected by sin to the point that he/she cannot choose between the good or the bad. Man is not so sinful that he/she is not able. If he/she desires it, whatever that desire might be, then that is what they do.
Synergistic thought dabbles along this broad spectrum. Prevenient grace acts like a dam that holds back the river of sin, allowing us to see the gospel of Jesus as a precious gift. Or, you’ve been created with a capacity that is impossible to have been tarnished, harmed or maimed by the fall in the garden. The first attempts to deal with sin, biblically defined, seriously. The other leans on her daddy Pelagius for comfort.
Helping Identify the Reason for Disagreement over the term Gift
While I strongly disagree with these positions I can at least understand where in the world the charge of “force or coercion” comes from; when, it is stated that regeneration must come first, before faith, as a logical step in the gracious activity of God. The Synergist believes, they have the ability to choose. If God does not ask them—when they can make the decision on their own—then this amounts to an instance brute force.
So when it is said with a bit of sarcasm that this form of grace (i.e. the Reformed understanding) is comparable to, “…patients [being] dragged kicking and screaming into the operating room, but once they are given a head transplant, they (not surprisingly) feel like an entirely different person!”[v] I am able to see what drives this conclusion.
Geisler charges, that irresistible grace “force[s]…a person from not loving Christ to loving Christ. Hence, irresistible love is forced love. And forced ‘love’ is not love at all.”[vi] Why, because it removes the choice of the fallen man.
From the Reformed position this is why God’s grace (irresistible/effectual grace) is necessary. Apart from saving grace the individual is left in sin. The natural human condition leaves him in a position of hopelessness.
However, the synergist views such activity by God on an individual as not loving, but the work of a power-hungry monster that makes the poor little fella do what he doesn’t want to do. Comparable to a man on his porch enjoying the view, but then being attacked by an angry nest of hornets. In case you don’t see the connection, God is viewed as the angry nest of hornets forcing the man to do what he doesn’t want. Even though the man chooses to go inside, Geisler thinks “…this…was not a truly free choice. He was coerced into doing it.”[vii]
Not Liking the Options Makes it a Fake Choice?
I’ve already revealed my disagreement with Geisler’s conclusion. He says it wasn’t really a free choice, but why? Because there were other mitigating factors that motivated the man on the porch to make his decision. Geisler writes, “…Free will demands that the act is not coerced, whether externally or internally.”[viii] Says who? Geisler or God? He concludes, “This is in accord with what both good reason and a proper understanding of Scripture teach.”[ix]
Umm…that’s just blatantly false. Reason, which I’m guessing he’s speaking to some extent in light of human experience, and the Scriptures teach very clearly that there are always mitigating factors (both internally and externally) that determine human choices. Do those factors remove the reality of free choices? Did they do so for the man on the porch in Dr. Geisler’s analogy? No, on both counts.
The man freely chose to do as he desired. Originally, that desire was to enjoy the view from his porch, but factors changed that and he preferred in the end to preserve his life. Though, I’m pretty sure Geisler didn’t intend the analogy to be used in this way, he unwittingly provided the grounds for proving what he denies.
**Pause for just a moment please…
- Before I move on, I want to debunk a myth that is deeply entrenched in Christian-American thought. Man is not born in a morally neutral position towards his/her Creator. Neutrality is false in apologetic reasoning, and it is false in theological reasoning. There is no neutral ground between God and man. The Bible does not teach that anywhere. This is why analogies like the drowning man or the sick woman fail. Our disposition towards God (Father/Christ/Holy Spirit) is tyrannical rebellion, not objective reasoning. Please, if you are convinced otherwise, show me the text (contextually) that states it!
**Back to the Analogy…
Now Geisler’s analogy shows us one person who is confronted with two options. The first is geared towards pleasure seeking (enjoying the view from the porch). The second is geared towards self-preservation (fleeing from the angry hornets). This is a wonderful picture of fallen mankind.
Fallen People Love? This Causes Them to What?
What do sinners love above all else? Their sin (e.g. Jer 14.10; Prov 8.36; Matt 6.24). This is demonstrated in what they pursue daily throughout their lives. As sinners, we constantly seek gratification for the flesh. How that gratification is sated depends upon the person’s idol of choice. For some this is false religion, others it is power, wealth and social status, and yet still others turn to family (spouses or children) to worship, or drugs, alcohol, sex, food, animals, nature, etc. Many are the ways that sinful man gratifies his pleasure seeking self.
But above all else, fallen mankind seeks to preserve his/her own life. Self-preservation is the chief way in which sinners attempt to be like God. They want to know good and evil, and God is evil! We see many expressions of this in our society today.
My only point is that when the man was confronted with a danger to himself, his primary desire at that point shifted from pleasure seeking to live preserving. His choice was real, it was freely made, even though it was beset by mitigating factors in the decision-making process.
What is ironic, I think, is that Geisler (and those like him) fail to see that the gospel is not a sweet-smelling savor to all people (cf. 2 Cor 2.16). To fallen mankind the gospel is very much like the hornets in the story.
“Kris, why would you say that?” My answer to you is this,
- “This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed” (John 3.19-20; HCSB).
People love darkness, people love their sin and the light is offensive to them. They prefer to preserve their lives rather than be brought into the light. The gospel is beautiful to those who are not perishing, not to those who are.
Who are the perishing ones? Anyone who has not been born-again.
Not and Invitation, but a Command
It is the natural state of mankind to flee from the gospel, because the gospel is a violation of what they hold dear—both their sin and existence. The gospel is not a flowery invitation, but a command of repentance:
- “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent…” (Acts 17.30).
To the unbeliever the gospel of God, of Jesus Christ, is comparable to a nasty hornet’s nest (e.g. Exod 23.28). God does not plead with us by wringing His hands like a wishful mother. The command to repent means to throw down your arms! To stop your rebellion! To bow the knee and submit to Christ’s/God’s will! Acknowledge that He is King or face the dire consequences of your betrayal!
The self-preserving nature of fallen man immediately recognizes his/her enemy. They refuse to change their mind and instead flee to the darkness from which they came. This individual willfully chooses this option over bending the knee and acknowledging the authority of another over them.
- “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh…[which] is death…For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8.5a, 6a, 7-8).
Thus, the need for God’s effective grace. Doing for the sinner what he can’t, what he won’t do for himself/herself. Delivering us from…well…ourselves.
[i] Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, , 2001), 98.
[ii] Ibid, 96-101.
[iii] Roger E. Olson identifies prevenient grace as the source of human libertarian free will. Saying prevenient “…grace…precedes and enables the first stirrings of a good will toward God.” Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 20.
John Wesley stated that “Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him.” John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” in The Works of John Wesley: Sermons 1 &2, Vol 5-6, Reprint (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 6.509.
Nazarene theologian W.T. Purkiser explains prevenient grace in this way: “Salvation is by the grace of God, but it is not restricted to a group arbitrarily limited by an unconditional election. It is for all men. Through the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ all men, not merely the elect are given a gracious (as opposed to natural) ability to hear and heed the gospel…Prevenient grace, then, enables the sinner, otherwise dead in trespasses and sins, to hear the gospel call, repent, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved.” W. T. Purkiser, Exploring Christian Faith (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1960), 272.
[iv] I realize that the term “naturalist” may have a different connotation than I am assigning it. To be clear, I am not talking about a person who thinks that nature is all there is or a person who steers clear of processed foods. In using this term, I am merely tying it to the belief that Adam’s original created condition is still the natural condition. The fall, while changing some things (what exactly, I’m not sure?) did not affect the internal nature of mankind when it came to be capable of choosing good or evil. From the little that I have read on the “traditionalist” this seems to be the natural state that they believe mankind is in. Therefore, the label naturalist.
[v] Geisler, Chosen But Free, 99, 100.
[vi] Ibid, 100.
[vii] Ibid, 186.
[viii] Ibid, 187.
[ix] Ibid, 187.