Feedback: Arminians Limit the Power of the Atonement

This week’s feedback comes in response to the post If Christ Died For All, And All Are Not Saved, Did Christ Die In Vain?  This week’s chosen respondent raises the old accusation that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement.

Question: “See this is why I could never be Armenian.  At least us Calvinists beleive that Christ actually did something on the cross.  We say the atonement was of infinite value and powerful beyond limitations, but the extent of the atonement is limited for the elect.  We say Christ actually secured our salvation at the cross.  You Armenians believe that Christ only makes men ‘savable’ whatever that means.  You believe that Christ died for the whole world, but the whole world isn’t saved.  It you who limits the atonement, you limit it’s power…Why do you say the power is a “non issue”, when you clearly limit the power?”

Answer: Thanks for taking the time to write in.  The accusation that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement is certainly not a new one.  From my experience, it is one of the most common objections to Arminianism, as far as debates about the extent of the atonement go.  Sometimes, those of us within the Arminian (or at least ‘non-Calvinist’) camp ‘shoot ourselves in the foot’ by not defining our beliefs and our use of terms as well as we should, which serves to feed the conception, or more correctly misconception, that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement.

From the outset, I want to make it clear that Calvinists such as yourself are not wrong to charge Arminianism with limiting the atonement in some measure.  In fact, Calvinists are quite right to point out that Arminianism limits the atonement as certainly (but not necessarily in the same way) as does the Calvinist.  I realise that not all Arminians would agree with me on this point.  Notable Arminian Roger Olson, for example, expressly denies that Arminianism limits the atonement in any way.  I have no objection to a Calvinist claiming that Arminianism in some measure limits the atonement.  Indeed, unless we are going to embrace Universalism (the belief that all will be saved), I believe that we must accept at least some measure of limitation.  

What I object to is the assertion that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement. 

I believe that there are two main reasons for the assertion that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement.  The first being an apparent flaw within the Calvinistic view of the atonement whereby they make the atonement and its application the same thing, and the second being a misconception of true Arminian beliefs, and thus a faulty idea of what the logical conclusion of Arminian beliefs are (as stated above, this is sometimes our own fault for not articulating our beliefs and use of terms as well as we should).  For the sake of providing a response to your actual question, my focus will be mainly on correcting the misconception of Arminian beliefs, rather than attempting a full-scale refutation of the Calvinistic view.

First of all, what do Arminians mean when they say that they believe in ‘universal atonement’, ‘unlimited atonement’, or ‘atonement for all’?  Those terms, taken at face-value, may lead many to conclude that Arminians believe in Universalism, the belief that all people will eventually be saved.  This is most certainly not what Arminians mean, however, when they use terms such as above.  What we actually mean, and this is why we should be more careful with our use of terms, is ‘universal provision’, or ‘unlimited provision’.  

Provision and Application

When we use the word provision, we are implicitly making a distinction between the universal provision of the atonement and the individual application of the atonement.  In other words, provision has been made for the whole world through Christ’s death, but the benefits of Christ’s death (specifically salvation) are not received by an individual until such time as they apply the blood.  

We believe that there are good Scriptural precedents for making the distinction between the provision and the application of the atonement.  Five examples shall suffice.  The first three examples are Old Testament types of Christ (later confirmed in the New Testament), the fourth example is how the Apostle Paul describes God as Saviour, and the fifth is how Paul describes a couple of other believers.

The Passover Lamb

The blood of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:6, 21) was provided for all of Israel (Ex. 12:3), without a hint of it being only for an ‘elect’ group within Israel.  But the fact that the blood of the Passover lamb was provided for all Israel didn’t automatically guarantee that all Israel would benefit from it.  The blood became effectual only after it was applied to the door posts (Ex. 12:7, 22); the blood itself didn’t save anyone.  Any Israelite who failed to apply the lamb’s blood to their doorpost would thus have failed to receive any benefit from the death of the Passover lamb, in spite of the fact that they could have, as they were provided for.

It is obvious that even if an Israelite did fail in receiving a benefit from the death of the Passover lamb, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the lamb. The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.

That the Passover Lamb was for all of Israel speaks of provision; that the Passover Lamb saved only those that applied the blood to their doorpost speaks of application.

The Passover Lamb is confirmed in the New Testament as being a legitimate type of Christ, for the Apostle Paul refers to Christ as “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7).

The Serpent in the Wilderness

Because the people of Israel became impatient and complained against God and Moses (Num. 21:4-5), God sent fiery serpents among the people, and the serpents bit the people, so that many people died (Num. 21:6).  When the people acknowledged their sin, they asked Moses to pray to God for them (Num. 21:7). God answered Moses’ prayer, saying,

“‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’  So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Num. 21:8-9)

The bronze serpent was a provision for “everyone” and “anyone”. But the fact that the bronze serpent was provided for all Israel didn’t automatically guarantee that all Israel would benefit from it.  The bronze serpent became effectual only after someone looked at it by faith. The serpent itself didn’t save anyone. Anyone who refused to look by faith at the serpent would thus have failed to receive any benefit from the bronze serpent, in spite of the fact that they could have, as they were provided for.

It is obvious that even if an Israelite did fail in receiving a benefit from the bronze serpent, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the serpent.  The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.

That the serpent was for “everyone” and “anyone” speaks of provision; that it healed only those who looked to it in faith speaks of application.

The serpent in the wilderness is confirmed as a legitimate type of Christ by Jesus Christ Himself, when He drew an explicit comparison between the serpent in the wilderness and His own death (Jn. 3:14).

The Cities of Refuge

The cities of refuge were a provision for the manslayer (Num. 35:9-15). Furthermore, it was a provision for any manslayer – the people of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner (Num. 35:15).  But the fact that the cities of refuge were provided for any manslayer did not automatically guarantee that any manslayer would benefit from them.  The city of refuge was only effective as long as the manslayer entered, and stayed within, the boundaries (Num. 35:26-28).  Any manslayer who refused to either enter in (in the first place), or remain in, the cities of refuge would thus fail to receive any benefit from said cities, in spite of the fact that they could have, as provision was made for them.

It is obvious that even if a manslayer did fail in receiving benefit from the provision of the cities of refuge, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the cities. The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.

That the cities were for any manslayer speaks of provision; that they protected only those who entered and remained within the boundaries speaks of application.

The author to the Hebrews makes reference to the fact that we have fled to Jesus for refuge (6:18).  Even the hyper-Calvinist John Gill explicitly declared 1) that the cities of refuge were each types of Christ, and 2) that Hebrews 6:18 is referring to this fact.

The Saviour of All People, Especially of Those Who Believe

Paul writes that God is “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10).  That God is the Saviour of all people speaks of provision; that God is the Saviour especially of believers speaks of application.

In Christ Before Paul

Paul writes that Andronicus and Junia, his kinsmen and fellow prisoners, “were in Christ before me [Paul]” (Rom. 16:7).  The fact that someone can be “in Christ” before someone else implies that there is a difference between the atonement itself, and the application of that atonement.  

If not, and the atonement and its application are the same thing, then we would have to believe that the elect were actually literally saved at the moment of Christ’s death, a belief which entails the elect being saved, and thus “in Christ”, all at the same time.  This would also entail the elect being born saved, and thus never being “dead in trespasses and sins”, nor “children of wrath” (Cf. Eph. 2:1-3), and therefore, being saved before ever having exercised faith. 

The distinction between the provision and the application of the atonement is therefore deducible from Paul’s description of Andronicus and Junia as being “in Christ” before him.  

As the above examples show, there is indeed a distinction between the atonement and the application of the atonement.  In other words, the atonement is provisional in nature, until such time as it is applied.

Unless the Calvinist is going to affirm that the elect were born saved, then in principle, he must affirm a provisional aspect of the atonement, in some measure at least.

Provision and Intention

Following on from the distinction between the provision of the atonement and an individual’s application of the atonement, it is helpful to recognise the distinction between the provision and intention of the atonement.  As the application of the atonement refers to a human action, namely, an individual’s application of Christ’s blood by looking to Him in faith, the intention of the atonement refers to a Divine action, namely, who God actually intends to save.

When we speak of God’s intentions, two fundamental questions need to be asked:

1) Why did Christ shed His blood in the first place?

2) Who does God intend to save?

At the risk of oversimplification, I believe a very basic answer to the first question would be that Christ shed His blood as a means of providing the redemption of those whom God has intended to save. This then raises the second question, Who does God actually intend to save?  It is my position that even though He desires that all would come to faith and repentance, God has only ever intended to save those who believe (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21, Gal. 3:22, 1 Tim. 4:10). As Richard Baxter said, “it was never the intent of his mind, to pardon and save any that would not by faith and repentance be converted”.

Once again, referring back to the aforementioned Old Testament foreshadows of Christ is helpful.

Just as God intended the blood of the Passover Lamb to be effectual only for those who applied it to their doorposts (Ex. 12), so He intends the blood of Christ (our Passover Lamb, 1 Cor. 5:7) to be effectual only for those who apply the blood.

Just as God intended the serpent in the wilderness, lifted up, to be effectual for those who looked to it in faith (Num. 21), so Christ (our Serpent in the wilderness, Jn. 3:14), lifted up, was only ever intended to be effectual for those who look to Him in faith.

Just as God intended the cities of refuge to be effectual only for those entered, and stayed within, the boundaries (Num. 35), so Christ (our City to whom we have fled for refuge, Heb. 6:18) was only ever intended to be effectual for those who enter into union with, and remain in union with, Him.

Christ’s blood accomplishes exactly what God intended: it saves those who by faith and repentance believe the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21).  Therefore, to say that Arminians limit the power of the atonement is just plain nonsense.  The fact that Christ’s blood does not save every single person without exception, in spite of the fact that provision has been made for every single person, says nothing about the power of the atonement, for 1) God has never intended to save anyone who would not by faith and repentance believe the Gospel, and 2) the atonement accomplishes exactly what God intended, namely, the salvation of those who believe.  

To say that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement amounts to nothing more than saying that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement to being able to achieve exactly what God has intended it to achieve, which is a redundant criticism.  If the atonement accomplishes exactly what God intended, then its power cannot reasonably be said to have been limited in any meaningful sense of the word.

Best regards,

Arminian

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Feedback: If Christ Died For All, And All Are Not Saved, Did Christ Die In Vain?

This week’s feedback raises the old accusation that Arminianism pictures God as “weak and helpless”, and having died in vain for those who ultimately perish:

Question: “The problem with Arminianism is that it paints Jesus as a weak and helpless Savior, trying and yet failing to save everyone.  If Christ died for all, but all people aren’t saved, then at least some of Christ’s blood was wasted.  If any of Christ’s blood was wasted, then He died in vain and is a failure as a Savior.  The theology of Arminians make Christ less than God.”

Answer: This is by no means a new criticism.  Personally, I’ve never found this claim to be particularly strong or convincing.  When dealing with issues such as these, I’ve found it helpful to refer to what I see as God’s intentions in the atonement.  These can be expressed in two inter-related questions:

1) Why did Christ shed His blood in the first place?

2) Who does God intend to save?

I believe a very simplified answer to the first question would be that Christ shed His blood as a means of providing the redemption of those whom God has intended to save. This then raises the second question, to which I would reply that even though He desires that all would come to faith and repentance, God has only ever intended to save those who believe (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21, Gal. 3:22, 1 Tim. 4:10). Does Christ’s blood accomplish the salvation of those who believe? If so (and I believe that it does), then the blood is not wasted, insofar as it accomplishes exactly what it set out to achieve: the salvation of those who believe.

A look at three Old Testament foreshadows of Jesus Christ is helpful:

Just as the blood of the Passover Lamb was intended to be effectual only for those who applied it to their doorposts (Ex. 12), so the blood of Christ (our Passover Lamb, 1 Cor. 5:7) was intended to be effectual only for those who apply the blood.

Just as the serpent in the wilderness, lifted up, was only ever intended to be effectual for those who looked to it in faith (Num. 21), so Christ (our Serpent in the wilderness, Jn. 3:14), lifted up, was only ever intended to be effectual for those who look to Him in faith.

Just as the cities of refuge were intended to be effectual only for those entered, and stayed within, the boundaries (Num. 35), so Christ (our City to whom we have fled for refuge, Heb. 6:18) was only ever intended to be effectual for those who enter into union with, and remain in union with, Him.

Christ’s blood accomplishes exactly what God intended: it saves those who by faith and repentance believe the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21).

Another point worth making is that it’s not as if part of Christ’s blood saves one person, and another part of the blood saves another person. Christ’s blood, in its entirety, saves every person who repents and believes the Gospel. The same blood that saved the Apostles is exactly the same blood that saves you and me. The same blood that saves one repentant sinner is exactly the same blood that is sufficient to save billions upon billions of repentant sinners, and then some more. This same blood is available to anybody who will turn to Christ. If anyone does not look in faith to Christ and in so doing be saved, it is that they have wasted the opportunity for salvation. It is not as if Christ’s blood was wasted, for if just one person was to be saved, the same amount of blood would have to have been shed as it would for the entire world to be saved.

The claims that Arminianism “paints Jesus as a weak and helpless Savior” and that Arminians “make Christ less than God” are unfounded, as they rest on the claim that “If Christ died for all, but all people aren’t saved, then at least some of Christ’s blood was wasted” which is shown to be an unconvincing accusation against Arminian theology.

One final point I’d like to make is that the claim that Christ’s blood is wasted if all are not saved can actually be applied (though just as unconvincingly) to the Calvinistic scheme. Most Calvinists that I’ve come into contact with will typically make reference to the ‘sufficiency/efficiency’ distinction, namely, the claim that Christ’s blood is sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect.  So in your Calvinist scheme, the blood of Christ is sufficient to save all, and yet it does not save all. This means that the original claim that Christ’s blood was wasted may just as easily be applied to your own Calvinistic worldview.  Now, the way you Calvinists get around the apparent problem is, admittedly, quite easy and persuasive.  That is, by showing that the intention of Christ’s death was to save only the elect (on the Calvinist view), the problem disappears (i.e., the blood accomplishes exactly what was intended).  As the problem is so easily resolved, it would be silly for an Arminian to charge Calvinism with entailing the conclusion that some of Christ’s blood was wasted.

And the fact that the claim is so easily resolved is precisely the reason that I brought it up in the first place, as this is the same type of reasoning that we Arminians use to resolve the apparent problem.  Just as a Calvinist appealing to the scope/intention of the atonement as he sees it resolves the problem for his worldview, so we Arminians appealing to the scope/intention of the atonement as we see it resolves the issue for our worldview.1  The fact that the same charge can be brought against Arminianism and Calvinism alike, and that it can be so easily resolved, is indicative of two things: 1) the charge that any of Christ’s blood was wasted is such a weak argument that it should not be used by either Calvinists or Arminians, and 2) Calvinists and Arminians alike should have no problems in principle with the other’s explanation, as both explanations (similar in principle, yet still different) are perfectly consistent with their respective worldviews.

Best regards,

Arminian

Note

1 From my perspective, Calvinists and Arminians alike limit the atonement in some way. In my personal experience, Calvinists have typically claimed that they limit the scope of the atonement, while we Arminians limit the power or efficacy of the atonement.  Now, I don’t presume to speak for all Arminians, but I personally reject that distinction.  My view is that Calvinists and Arminians both limit the scope of the atonement.  The power of the atonement is a non-issue; the real issue is differing views on the scope of the atonement, Calvinism limiting the scope of the provision and intended benefit to only those whom God unconditionally elected before the foundation of the world, and the Arminian limiting the scope of the intended benefit to those who believe.

What is an Arminian?, by John Wesley

The Question, “What is an Arminian?” Answered by a Lover of Free Grace

By John Wesley

1. To say, “This man is an Arminian,” has the same effect on many hearers as to say, “This is a mad dog.” It puts them into a fright at once.  They run away from him with all speed and diligence and will hardly stop, unless to throw a stone at the dreadful and mischievous animal.

2. The more unintelligible the word is, the better it answers the purpose.  Those on whom it is fixed do not know what to do.  Not understanding what it means, they cannot tell what defense to make or how to clear themselves from the charge. And it is not easy to remove the prejudice which others have imbibed, who know no more of it than that it is “something very bad,” if not “all that is bad!”

3. To clear the meaning, therefore, of this ambiguous term, may be useful to many.  To those who so freely pin this name on others, that they may not say what they do not understand; to those who hear them, that they may be no longer abused by men saying what they do not know; and to those on whom the name is fixed, that they may know how to answer for themselves.

4. It may be necessary to observe, first, that many confound Arminians with Arians.  But this is entirely a different thing; the one has no resemblance to the other.  An Arian is one who denies the Godhead of Christ – we scarcely need say the supreme, eternal Godhead because there can be no God but the supreme, eternal God, unless we would make two Gods, a great God and a little one.  Now, none have ever more firmly believed or more strongly asserted the Godhead of Christ than many of the (so called) Arminians have done; yes, and do at this day.  Arminianism therefore (whatever it is) is totally different from Arianism.

5. The rise of the word was this: James Harmens, in Latin: Jacobus Arminius, was first one of the ministers of Amsterdam and afterward Professor of Divinity at Leyden.  He was educated at Geneva, but in the year 1591 he began to doubt of the [Calvinist] principles which he had till then received.  And being more and more convinced that they were wrong, when he was vested with the professorship, he publicly taught what he believed the truth till, in the year 1609, he died in peace.  But a few years after his death, some zealous men with the Prince of Orange at their head, furiously assaulted all those who held what were called his opinions.  And having procured them to be solemnly condemned, in the famous Synod of Dort (not so numerous or learned, but full as impartial, as the Council or Synod of Trent), some were put to death, some banished, some imprisoned for life, all turned out of their employments, and made incapable of holding any office, either in Church or State.

6. The errors charged upon these (usually termed Arminians) by their opponents are five: (1.) That they deny original sin; (2.) That they deny justification by faith; (3.) That they deny absolute predestination; (4.) That they deny the grace of God to be irresistible; and, (5.) That they affirm, a believer may fall from grace.

With regard to the first two of these charges they plead, ‘Not Guilty.’  They are entirely false.  No man that ever lived, not John Calvin himself, ever asserted either original sin or justification by faith in more strong, more clear and express terms than Arminius has done.  These two points, therefore, are to be set out of the question. In these both parties agree.  In this respect, there is not a hair’s breadth difference between Mr. Wesley and Mr. Whitefield.

7. But there is an undeniable difference between the Calvinists and Arminians with regard to the three other questions. Here they divide; the former believe absolute, the latter only conditional, predestination.  The Calvinists hold: God has absolutely decreed from all eternity to save such and such persons, and no others; and that Christ died for these and none else.  The Arminians hold: God has decreed from all eternity touching all who have the written word, “One who believes will be saved; one who does not believe will be condemned.”  And in order to this: “Christ died for all, all who were dead in trespasses and sins”; that is, for every child of Adam, since “in Adam all died.”

8. The Calvinists hold, secondly, that the saving grace of God is absolutely irresistible; that no one is any more able to resist it than to resist the stroke of lightning.  The Arminians hold that, although there may be some moments in which the grace of God acts irresistibly, yet in general any one may resist, and that to his eternal ruin, the grace whereby it was the will of God he should have been eternally saved.

9. The Calvinists hold, thirdly, that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace.  The Arminians hold that a true believer may make ‘shipwreck’ of faith and a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:19), so that he may fall not only foully but finally, so as to perish for ever.

10. Indeed, the two latter points, irresistible grace and infallible perseverance, are the natural consequence of the former, of the unconditional decree.  For if God has eternally and absolutely decreed to save such and such persons, it follows both that they cannot resist His saving grace (else they might miss salvation) and that they cannot finally fall from that grace which they cannot resist.  So that, in effect, the three questions come into one: “Is predestination absolute or conditional?”  The Arminians believe it is conditional; the Calvinists, that it is absolute.

11. Away, then, with all ambiguity!  Away with all expressions which only puzzle the cause!  Let honest men speak out, and not play with hard words which they do not understand.  And how can any man who has never read one page of his writings know what Arminius held?  Let no man bawl against Arminians till he knows what the term means, and then he will know that Arminians and Calvinists are just upon a level. And Arminians have as much right to be angry at Calvinists as Calvinists have to be angry at Arminians. John Calvin was a pious, learned, sensible man; and so was James Harmens. Many Calvinists are pious, learned, sensible men; and so are many Arminians.  Only, the former hold absolute predestination; the latter, conditional.

12. One word more: is it not the duty of every Arminian preacher, first, never, in public or in private, to use the word Calvinist as a term of reproach, seeing it is neither better nor worse than calling names? a practice no more consistent with good sense or good manners than it is with Christianity.  Secondly, to do all that lies in him to prevent his hearers from doing it, by showing them the sin and folly of it?  And is it not equally the duty of every Calvinist preacher, first, never in public or in private, in preaching or in conversation, to use the word Arminian as a term of reproach? Secondly, to do all that lies in him to prevent his hearers from doing it, by showing them the sin and folly of it; and that the more earnestly and diligently if they have been accustomed to do so? perhaps encouraged in such by his own example!

– The Essential Works of John Wesley (2011: Barbour Publishing), pp. 1171-3

Q&A: If God’s Grace Can Be Resisted, Isn’t the Decisive Factor in Salvation Man’s Choice Instead of God’s?

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST IS CURRENTLY IN THE PROCESS OF BEING REVISED AND UPDATED

Question: If God’s Grace Can Be Resisted, Isn’t the Decisive Factor in Salvation Man’s Choice Instead of God’s?

Answer: In a sense, the decision solely rests on the individual.  The responsibility to repent and accept Christ as Saviour is man’s and man’s alone.  God won’t do our repenting for us.  But it’s important to note that the ability to repent is not inherent to the individual – it is only by God’s grace that we can repent.  As Arminius said,

“No man believes in Christ except he has been previously disposed and prepared, by preventing or preceding grace, to receive life eternal on that condition on which God wills to bestow it, according to the following passage of Scripture: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17 )” 1

So God does the enabling, but if a man wants to be saved, he must personally make use of the fact that he has been enabled by God’s grace, and choose to accept God’s gift of salvation.  The responsibility is on man to enter by the narrow gate, and not by the wide gate (Matt. 7:13-14); the responsibility is on man to seek for glory and honour and immortality in order to receive eternal life (Rom. 2:6-7); the responsibility is on man to sow to the Spirit and not give up in order to reap eternal life (Gal. 6:7-9).

So there is a sense in which the final decision is man’s, but it must be remembered that the decision is not based on man’s inherent ability; it is based on God’s grace, for it is only by the grace of God that man is enabled to respond in the first place. As Roger Olson said,

“The moral ability to respond to the gospel freely – by the graciously freed will – is a free gift of God through Christ to all people in some measure.  It does not mean that anyone can now seek and find God using natural ability alone!  It is a supernatural endowment that can be and usually is rejected or neglected.  According to Arminian theology, because of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit all people are being influenced toward the good; the deadly wound of Adam’s sin is being healed.  And yet their fallen nature is still with them.  This dual reality is analogous to the simul justus et peccator, or the war between flesh and Spirit within every Christian.  The inability to will the good is not merely hypothetical; it is the state of nature in which every person (except Jesus Christ) lives.  But no person is left by God entirely in that state of nature without some measure of grace to rise above it if he or she cooperates with grace by not resisting it.  Arminians agree with Peterson and Williams that ‘without the Holy Spirit there would be no faith and no new birth – in short, no Christians.’” 2

Note especially the last sentence: “without the Holy Spirit there would be no faith and no new birth – in short, no Christians.”  So yes, the final decision to resist or to not resist God’s grace is man’s, but without that grace, the decision couldn’t be made to not resist.  The decision to repent and believe the Gospel is the responsibility of man, but without God’s enabling grace, we cannot make the decision to repent and believe the Gospel. As Arminius said,

“This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.” 3

The fact that human choice plays a vital role in salvation can be illustrated by the words of Jesus when He was dealing with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30).  When the young ruler asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 18) we do not read of Jesus rebuking the young man for having the audacity to presume that he himself could make a decision and inherit eternal life.  Instead, Jesus told him that there was something he could do: sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor (v. 22).  Jesus’ words, of course, were not as much about money as they were about the heart.  The young ruler loved his money, possessions, and the myriad privileges that his position granted him.  So much so that he just couldn’t bear to live without them.  But Jesus was not going to grant the young ruler eternal life while he was proud, self-sufficient, and unwilling to forsake all to follow Christ.  The young ruler needed to humble himself and quite literally forsake everything he owned to follow Christ.  Unwilling to forsake all and make a full commitment to Christ, the young ruler went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions, the passage says.  Noting the young ruler’s unwillingness, Jesus said that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (vv. 24-5). 

The implications of this encounter are clear and undeniable – Jesus is suggesting that salvation is, in some measure at least, tied up in man’s response and commitment to Him and His calling.  Surely if the Calvinistic doctrine of Irresistible Grace were true, then Jesus would never have said that it was harder for rich persons to be saved than poor persons.  Surely their wills would be irresistibly and invincibly bent to faith and conversion upon hearing the effectual call of God.  Surely it would be no harder for a rich person to be saved by God’s monergistic and irresistible call than it would be for any other person.  But of course, what Jesus is suggesting stands in stark contrast to the Calvinist’s doctrine.  Surely there can be no doubt that human choice is vital for salvation.

While human choice is certainly vital for salvation, it does not contribute anything to salvation:

“[I]n and of themselves, people’s choices accomplish nothing. Perhaps the best model is the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. Naaman, the commander of the Aramite army, had leprosy. He asked for help. The prophet Elisha told him to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman initially rejected that notion, complaining about having to bathe in the dirty Jordan River. Finally, after his servants prevailed upon him, he did it, and his leprosy was cleansed. What was it that cleansed Naaman’s leprosy? Was it his dunking himself in the Jordan River seven times? Of course not! He could have dunked himself in the river a thousand times and nothing would have happened. On the other hand, what happened when he did not go bathe? Nothing! God allowed him to suffer the results of his own rebellion. But when Naaman responded obediently to God’s direction through the prophet, Naaman was healed.

So it is with our salvation. Humans do not do anything to earn or deserve salvation. Humans are too sinful in nature to seek God independently or take the initiative in their own salvation. Humans can come to salvation only as they are urged to by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and they are drawn to Christ as He is lifted up in proclamation. Cooperation contributes absolutely nothing to human salvation. God’s grace provides the necessary and sufficient conditions for salvation. However, God in His freedom has sovereignly decided that He will give the gift of salvation to those who believe, who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. So salvation truly is monergistic – only God provides for human salvation, and He alone. Before He does so, He requires humans to respond. If humans do not respond, then He does not save. If humans do respond, He surrounds them with overpowering grace impelling them forward until they come to the point of repentance and faith.” 4

Notes

1 Complete Works of Arminius, Vol. 2, Letter to the Reader, ‘Certain Articles to be Diligently Examined and Weighed’, (On Faith)

2 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p. 155

3 Complete Works of Arminius, Vol. 1, Declaration of the Sentiments, (5)(3)

4 Steve Lemke, “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, p. 159

A Puritan’s (Deluded) Mind

“Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit.” – Prov. 12:17

A Puritan’s (Deluded) Mind

Calvinist C. Matthew McMahon, of A Puritan’s Mind, writes the following with regards to what he thinks Arminius taught:

“Arminius also taught that his “god” can be frustrated by the will of man because men choose their own destiny and that “god” allows them to do what they want to do without interfering.  Not only is this “god” later to be deemed the “god of deism”, but it demonstrates that Arminius’ “god” plans salvation in a way that may not be effectuated. This “god” has offered salvation, but cannot actually bring about the happiness of the creature since man is autonomous and has, as Arminius taught, “a free will.”  This means that man’s neutrality (denying total depravity) in “willing anything” is based on a choice that is never inclined toward good or evil.  Arminius though is very wrong not only about how salvation works, but the nature of man as well.  This “neutrality” is actually a smokescreen.  Not only is everyone born under the fall of Adam totally depraved and sinful, but their wills are never neutral.  Men only have sinful inclinations (Gen. 6:5).  They are not neutral in any choice they ever make.  Neutrality would mean they have an aversion to good or evil, but the Bible teaches men are inherently evil as a result of Adam’s fall and disobedience.  Romans 5:12 emphatically states, “… just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned…” Arminius taught that there was an island of righteousness in every man which was unaffected by the fall and thus able to do “good.” … With Pelagius, Arminius said that all men are inherently free, and have a “free will”.  The fall of Adam has not rendered them incapable of doing good things.” 1

What strikes me is that McMahon constantly uses the term “Arminius taught,” or “Arminius said,” but not once does he quote Arminius, or at least cite his writings to substantiate his claims.  Either McMahon hasn’t done his research and doesn’t know what Arminius actually taught, in which case he has no right to presume to teach others about what Arminius taught, or he has done his research and knows what Arminius taught, in which case he is being dishonest about the issue.  

No other option exists, as McMahon is demonstrably dead wrong about the issue.

Letting Arminius speak for himself:

“In the state of Primitive Innocence, man had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God, and his works and will, as far as was sufficient for the salvation of man and the glory of God; he had a heart imbued with ‘righteousness and true holiness,’ and with a true and saving love of good; and powers abundantly qualified or furnished perfectly to fulfill the law which God had imposed on him.  This admits easily of proof, from the description of the image of God, after which man is said to have been created, (Gen 1:26-27) from the law divinely imposed on him, which had a promise and a threat appended to it, (Gen 2:17) and lastly from the analogous restoration of the same image in Christ Jesus. (Eph 4:24, Col 3:10)

But man was not so confirmed in this state of innocence, as to be incapable of being moved, by the representation presented to him of some good, (whether it was of an inferior kind and relating to this animal life, or of a superior-kind and relating to spiritual life) inordinately and unlawfully to look upon it and to desire it, and of his own spontaneous as well as free motion, and through a preposterous desire for that good, to decline from the obedience which had been prescribed to him.  Nay, having turned away from the light of his own mind and his chief good, which is God, or, at least, having turned towards that chief good not in the manner in which he ought to have done, and besides having turned in mind and heart towards an inferior good, he transgressed the command given to him for life.  By this foul deed, he precipitated himself from that noble and elevated condition into a state of the deepest infelicity, which is under the dominion of sin.  For ‘to whom any one yields himself a servant to obey,’ (Rom 6:16) and ‘of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage,’ and is his regularly assigned slave. (2 Pet 2:19)

In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost.  And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.  For Christ has said, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’  St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: ‘Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can 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.’  That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man.” 2

Arminius further taught:

“This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him.  Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace.  But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good.  When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.” 3

McMahon is dead wrong.  End of discussion.

Notes

1 McMahon, C. Matthew, The ‘god’ of Arminianism is Not Worshippable

2 Arminius, J., Complete Works of Arminius, Vol. 1, Public Disputations of Arminius, Disputation 11 (On the Free Will of Man and its Powers)

3 Ibid., Declaration of the Sentiments, 5:3

Do Arminians Believe in Total Depravity?

Leading Calvinist John MacArthur asserts that,

“THE contemporary idea today is that there’s some residual good left in the sinner.  As this progression came from Pelagianism to Semi-Pelagianism, and then came down to some contemporary Arminianism, maybe got defined a little more carefully by Wesley, who was a sort of, ah, um, messed up Calvinist, because Wesley wanted to give all the glory to God, but as you well know, but he wanted to find in man some place where man could initiate salvation on his own will… So that the sinner, un-aided by the Holy Spirit, must make the first move.  That’s essentially Arminian theology: The sinner, un-aided, must make the first move.” 1 (Emphasis mine)

Loraine Boettner writes,

“AS we read the works of various Arminian writers, it seems that their first and perhaps most serious error is that they do not give sufficient importance to the sinful rebellion and spiritual separation of the human race from God that occurred in the fall of Adam. Some neglect it altogether, while for others it seems to be a far away event that has little influence in the lives of people today. But unless we insist on the reality of that spiritual separation from God, and the totally disastrous effect that it had on the entire human race, we shall never be able properly to appreciate our real condition or our desperate need of a Redeemer.” 2

Not only does Boettner explicitly say that Arminians “do not give sufficient importance to the sinful rebellion and spiritual separation of the human race from God,” his last sentence is a slap in the face if ever I’ve seen one: Arminians are not able to properly appreciate the need for a Redeemer.

Calvinist duo Steele and Thomas claim that Arminianism teaches that,

“ALTHOUGH human nature was seriously affected by the fall, man has not been left in a state of total spiritual helplessness. God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe, but He does not interfere with man’s freedom. Each sinner possesses a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it. Man’s freedom consists of his ability to choose good over evil in spiritual matters; his will is not enslaved to his sinful nature. The sinner has the power to either cooperate with God’s Spirit and be regenerated or resist God’s grace and perish. The lost sinner needs the Spirit’s assistance, but he does not have to be regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe, for faith is man’s act and precedes the new birth. Faith is the sinner’s gift to God; it is man’s contribution to salvation.” 3

The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) claims,

“TOTAL Depravity is the doctrine that fallen man is completely touched by sin and that he is completely a sinner. He is not as bad as he could be, but in all areas of his being, body, soul, spirit, mind, emotions, etc., he is touched by sin. In that sense he is totally depraved. Because man is depraved, nothing good can come out of him (Rom. 3:10-12) and God must account the righteousness of Christ to him. This righteousness is obtainable only through faith in Christ and what He did on the cross.

Total depravity is generally believed by the Calvinist groups and rejected by the Arminian groups.” 4

William MacLean writes,

“ARMINIANS deny the total depravity of man, in that they hold that the will of man is free and has the ability to choose Christ and the salvation that is in Him.” 5

Despite how convinced the above Calvinists are regarding the beliefs of Arminians, their claims are quite baseless.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth; Arminians wholeheartedly affirm the total depravity of man.

Jacob Arminius writes,

“IN the state of Primitive Innocence, man had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God, and his works and will, as far as was sufficient for the salvation of man and the glory of God; he had a heart imbued with ‘righteousness and true holiness,’ and with a true and saving love of good; and powers abundantly qualified or furnished perfectly to fulfill the law which God had imposed on him.  This admits easily of proof, from the description of the image of God, after which man is said to have been created, (Gen 1:26-27) from the law divinely imposed on him, which had a promise and a threat appended to it, (Gen 2:17) and lastly from the analogous restoration of the same image in Christ Jesus. (Eph 4:24, Col 3:10)

But man was not so confirmed in this state of innocence, as to be incapable of being moved, by the representation presented to him of some good, (whether it was of an inferior kind and relating to this animal life, or of a superior-kind and relating to spiritual life) inordinately and unlawfully to look upon it and to desire it, and of his own spontaneous as well as free motion, and through a preposterous desire for that good, to decline from the obedience which had been prescribed to him.  Nay, having turned away from the light of his own mind and his chief good, which is God, or, at least, having turned towards that chief good not in the manner in which he ought to have done, and besides having turned in mind and heart towards an inferior good, he transgressed the command given to him for life.  By this foul deed, he precipitated himself from that noble and elevated condition into a state of the deepest infelicity, which is under the dominion of sin.  For ‘to whom any one yields himself a servant to obey,’ (Rom 6:16) and ‘of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage,’ and is his regularly assigned slave. (2 Pet 2:19)

In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost.  And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.  For Christ has said, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’  St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: ‘Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can 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.’  That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man.” 6

Arminius further writes,

“THIS is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him.  Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace.  But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good.  When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.” 7

Dr. Brian Abasciano and Martin Glynn, President and Vice-President respectively8 of the Society of Evangelical Arminians, write thus concerning the depravity of man:

“HUMANITY was created in the image of God, good and upright, but fell from its original sinless state through willful disobedience, leaving humanity sinful, separated from God, and under the sentence of divine condemnation … Total depravity does not mean that human beings are as bad as they could be, but that sin impacts every part of a person’s being and that people now have a sinful nature with a natural inclination toward sin, making every human being fundamentally corrupt at heart … Therefore, human beings are not able to think, will, nor do anything good in and of themselves, including merit favor from God, save ourselves from the judgment and condemnation of God that we deserve for our sin, or even believe the gospel … If anyone is to be saved, God must take the initiative.” 9

The Opinions of the Remonstrants:

“MAN does not have saving faith of himself, nor out of the powers of his free will, since in the state of sin he is able of himself and by himself neither to think, will, or do any good (which would indeed to be saving good, the most prominent of which is saving faith).  It is necessary therefore that by God in Christ through His Holy Spirit he be regenerated and renewed in intellect, affections, will, and in all his powers, so that he might be able to understand, reflect upon, will and carry out the good things which pertain to salvation.  We hold, however, that the grace of God is not only the beginning but also the progression and the completion of every good, so much so that even the regenerate himself is unable to think, will, or do the good, or to resist any temptations to evil, apart from that preceding or prevenient, awakening, following and cooperating grace.  Hence all good works and actions which anyone by cogitation is able to comprehend are to be ascribed to the grace of God… The will in the fallen state, before calling, does not have the power and the freedom to will any saving good.” 10

Roger Olson, author of Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, and Against Calvinism, writes that,

“ARMINIANS together with Calvinists affirm total depravity because of the fall of humanity in Adam and its inherited consequence of a corrupted nature in bondage to sin.  A common myth about Arminianism is that it promotes an optimistic anthropology.” 11

Even Calvinists Peterson and Williams acknowledge that Arminians hold to the doctrine of total depravity:

“ARMINIANS and Calvinists alike believe in total depravity: because of the fall, every aspect of human nature is tainted by sin.” 12

John Wesley, commenting on Genesis 6:5, openly taught that,

“CONCERNING man in his natural state unassisted by the grace of God… every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is still evil, ‘only evil,’ and that ‘continually.'” 13

Arminians thus wholeheartedly affirm the following definition put forth by Calvinist Charles Ryrie:

“BECAUSE of the effects of the fall, that original relationship of fellowship with God was broken and man’s entire nature was polluted.  As a result no one can do anything, even good things, that can gain soteriological merit in God’s sight.  Therefore, we may concisely define total depravity as the unmeritoriousness of man before God because of the corruption of original sin.

The concept of total depravity does not mean (1) that depraved people cannot or do not perform actions that are good in either man’s or God’s sight.  But no such action can gain favor with God for salvation.  Neither does it mean (2) that fallen man has no conscience which judges between good and evil for him.  But that conscience has been affected by the fall so that it cannot be a safe and reliable guide.  Neither does it mean (3) that people indulge in every form of sin or in any sin to the greatest extent possible.

Positively, total depravity means that the corruption has extended to all aspects of man’s nature, to his entire being; and total depravity means that because of that corruption there is nothing man can do to merit saving favor with God.” 14


Notes

1 Sermon: The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing – The Doctrine of Absolute Inability, preached at the Together for the Gospel (T4G) Conference, 2008.  Relevant Time: 31:54 – 33:15

2 Boettner, L., ‘Man’s Totally Helpless Condition,’ in The Reformed Faith

3 Steele, D., Thomas, C., and Quinn, S., The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented (2004: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2nd Ed.), pp. 5-6

4 ‘Total Depravity,’ in the Dictionary of Theology: <http://carm.org/dictionary-total-depravity&gt;

5 MacLean, W., ‘Arminian Errors,’ in the tract Another Gospel

6 Arminius, J., Complete Works of Arminius, Volume 1, Public Disputations of Arminius, Disputation 11 (On the Free Will of Man and its Powers)

7 Ibid. Declaration of the Sentiments, 5:3

8 According to announcement made on 20 July 2011: <http://evangelicalarminians.org/node/1179&gt;

9 Abasciano, B., and Glynn, M., An Outline of the FACTS of Arminianism vs. the TULIP of Calvinism: <http://evangelicalarminians.org/Outline.FACTS-of-Arminianism-vs-the-TULIP-of-Calvinism&gt;

10 The Opinions of the Remonstrants, 1618: The Opinion of the Remonstrants regarding the third and fourth articles, concerning the grace of God and the conversion of man, sections 1, 2, and 4

11 Olson, R., Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (2006: InterVarsity Press), pp.55-6

12 Peterson, R., and Williams, M., Why I Am Not An Arminian (2004: InterVarsity Press), p.163

13 Wesley, J., Sermon XLIV: Original Sin, in The Essential Works of John Wesley (2011: Barbour Publishing Inc.), p.128

14 Ryrie, C., Entry for ‘Depravity, Total,’ in Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2001: Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2nd Edition), p. 337

On Spiritual Death

Calvinists are fond of drawing a parallel between spiritual death and physical death, and upon this comparison comes the theory that ‘regeneration precedes faith’.  For example, one Calvinist writes:

“Could the Word of God show more plainly than it does that the depravity is total? and that our inability to desire or procure salvation is also total? The picture is one of death — spiritual death. We are like Lazarus in his tomb; we are bound hand and foot; corruption has taken hold upon us. Just as there was no glimmer of life in the dead body of Lazarus, so there is no “inner receptive spark” in our hearts. But the Lord performs the miracle — both with the physically dead, and the spiritually dead; for “you hath he quickened — made alive — who were dead in trespasses and sins.” [Eph 2.1]. Salvation, by its very nature, must be “of the Lord.”” 1

Calvinist duo Boice and Ryken write:

“Abraham Kuyper observed that, prior to regeneration, a sinner ‘has all the passive properties belonging to a corpse … [Therefore] every effort to claim for the sinner the minutest co-operation in this first grace destroys the gospel, severs the artery of the Christian confession and is anti-scriptural in the highest degree.’  Like a spiritual corpse, he is unable to make a single move toward God, think a right thought about God, or even respond to God – unless God first brings this spiritually dead corpse to life.” 2

Edwin H. Palmer defines the issue graphically:

“[T]he Calvinist holds to the plain teaching of Scripture and says: ‘No; he is dead.  He cannot even open his mouth.  Nor does he have any desire to call a doctor to help him.  He is dead’ … The Calvinist … would compare man to one who jumps off the top of the Empire State Building and is spattered over the sidewalk.  Even if there were anything left of him when he landed, he could not know that he needed help, let alone cry out for it.  That man is dead – lifeless – and cannot even desire to be made whole … And that is the picture of the sinner.  He is dead in his sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:1, 5).  He does not want to be made whole, let alone even know that he should be made whole.  He is dead.  When Christ called to Lazarus to come out of the grave, Lazarus had no life in him so that he could hear, sit up, and emerge.  There was not a flicker of life in him.  If he was to be able to hear Jesus calling him and to go to Him, then Jesus would have to make him alive.  Jesus did resurrect him and then Lazarus could respond.” 3

It is undeniable that the unregenerate are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13).  In other words, Calvinists and Arminians both agree that unregenerate men are dead; that’s not the issue.  The issue is: what does it mean to be spiritually dead? 

As shown above, the Calvinist equates spiritual death with physical death, but the Arminian is not convinced about said comparison.  While the Calvinist defines spiritual death in terms of physical death, the Arminian defines death in general and spiritual death in particular, in terms of a separation, or a departure, namely, the separation/departure of the spirit from the body (physical death), the separation/departure of the spirit from God (spiritual death), or the eternal separation of the spirit and God (the second death). 

Ben Henshaw defines the terms thus: “To be dead in sins means that we are cut off from the relationship with God that is necessary for spiritual life.  Our sin separates us from a holy God and causes spiritual death.  This is both actual and potential. The sinner is presently ‘dead’ because, in the absence of faith, he is not enjoying life giving union with Christ.  The sinner is potentially dead because if he continues in this state he will be forever cut off from the presence of the Lord in Hell (2 Thess. 1:9).”4

Even ‘moderate Calvinist’ Norman Geisler rejects the standard Calvinist definition of spiritual death, and offers a much more Biblical one:

“[S]piritual death in the Bible means fallen people are totally separated from God, not completely obliterated by Him.  They lack spiritual life, but they’re still humans with all their God-given faculties.  Isaiah put it this way: ‘Your iniquities have separated you from your God’ (59:2).  In brief, it does not mean a total destruction of all ability to hear and respond to God but a complete separation of the whole person from God.” 5

As shown, the standard Calvinist definition of spiritual death is in terms of physical death, i.e., “… prior to regeneration, a sinner ‘has all the passive properties belonging to a corpse …’”6  The problem, however, is that such a comparison between spiritual death and physical death is unfounded. 

The Calvinist will object to that statement, and refer us to Ephesians chapter 2 and Colossians chapter 2.  The error of the Calvinist in doing this is assuming that the Calvinist definition of spiritual death is the same as the spiritual death spoken of in Ephesians and Colossians.  To put it another way, the Calvinist first assumes that his definition of spiritual death is the correct definition, and then proceeds to simply latch on to the word ‘dead’ in Ephesians and Colossians, and claim that his position is thus Scriptural.  The problem with this approach is evident: the Calvinist is making the Bible conform to his theology, when it should be our theology that conforms to Scripture. 

By simply reading the Bible (i.e., starting with the Bible rather than theology), the Calvinist definition of spiritual death is seen to be unfounded.  The passage in Colossians doesn’t add a great deal, though by what Paul says, it can be reasonably inferred that even though the Colossians were dead in trespasses and sins (2:13), they could still exercise faith in God (2:12).  In other words, their spiritual ‘deadness’ did not mean that they could not respond to the Gospel. 

The passage in Ephesians, however, is more enlightening.  Paul, after saying that the Ephesians were dead in trespasses and sins, describes what this meant.  While they were dead, they also walked (in trespasses and sins), they followed the course of this world, they followed the prince of the power of the air, they lived in the passions of the flesh, and they carried out the desires of the body and mind (Eph. 2:2-3).  Hardly a fitting description if the dead in sin do indeed have “all the passive properties belonging to a corpse”. 

That’s not all Paul has to say either.  He goes on to describe the state of spiritual death as being “separated from Christ,” “strangers to the covenants of promise,” “without God in the world,” “far off,” “strangers and aliens” (Eph. 2:12, 13, 19), and “alienated from the life of God” (Eph. 4:18).

So we see that although the Calvinist is not wrong to point to Ephesians (and Colossians) in order to show that the unregenerate are spiritually dead, they are wrong to assume that the passages support the standard Calvinistic definition of spiritual death.  The fact of the matter is: according to the passages in Ephesians, spiritual death is 1) a separation (Eph. 2:12, 13, 19; 4:18), and 2) spiritual death is not to have all the passive properties belonging to a corpse (Eph. 2:2-3). 

The fallacy of the Calvinist apologists is latching on to the single word ‘dead’ while ignoring the surrounding text, and then proceeding to draw un-Biblical analogies, from a man jumping off the Empire State Building to a man at the bottom of the ocean, whose heart has been eaten by sharks7.  Palmer even dares to call this “the Biblical picture,”8 yet for some strange reason, he can’t show from Scripture such an analogy.  

Funnily enough, it is typically those from the Reformed crowd that shout ‘Sola Scriptura’ (Scripture alone) the loudest, yet had they followed their own advice on this issue, they wouldn’t be able to escape the conclusion that there is nowhere in the pages of Scripture where mankind’s spiritual death is described in such terms as a man splattered on a sidewalk, or a man at the bottom of the ocean with his heart eaten out.  ‘Sola Scriptura’ indeed.

There is also more Scriptural proof that spiritual death cannot be equated with physical death.  For example, even though the unsaved are spiritually dead, they can still perceive the truth of God.  Irrespective of their spiritual state, they are still made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6; Jas. 3:9), which, as Geisler says, “was effaced but not erased by the Fall.”9

And fallen men still retain that which was gained from the Fall, namely, a conscience.  This means that, irrespective of their spiritual state, they can (and do) know, and thus discern between, the good and the evil.  When Paul was writing about unrighteous men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, he wrote that what can be known about God is plain to them, and that His invisible attributes have been clearly perceived, so that they are without excuse (Rom. 1:18-20).

As soon as Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they died spiritually.  Yet this did not mean that they were incapable of hearing God, or even responding to God.  From the Scriptures, it is as clear as day that Adam and Eve both heard God, and responded to Him (Gen. 3:10-13).  Clearly, the burden of proof rests squarely on the Calvinist to show how the spiritually dead are incapable of hearing and responding to God.

Yet another Biblical example of death that contradicts Calvinism is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  After the prodigal son is restored, his father describes him thus: “… for this your brother (the prodigal son) was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”  (Luke 15:32)  Anyone remotely familiar with the parable will readily acknowledge the fact that even while the prodigal son was in the state of ‘deadness,’ he still made choices.  In other words, even while dead, he did not have all the passive properties belonging to a corpse, as the Calvinist would have us believe.  And what’s more, the prodigal son also recognized his sin and resolved to return to his father penitent, all while he was still ‘dead’ – hardly the picture we would expect to see, if indeed the standard Calvinistic doctrine is to be believed.

It would seem obvious that the Calvinist is in error with regards to what the Biblical picture of spiritual death is.  That is, the Calvinist defines spiritual death in terms of physical death, whether it simply be in terms of a corpse, or sometimes more graphic, as in the case of Palmer, who describes spiritual death in terms of a man jumping off the Empire State Building and being splattered, and also in terms of a man at the bottom of the ocean, whose heart has been eaten out by sharks, whereas the Bible paints a very different picture, namely, in terms of a separation, where the spiritually dead can still hear and respond to God, as in the case of Adam and Eve, or even the unrighteous men spoken of in the first chapter of Romans. 

That being said, there is yet another area where the Calvinist errs.  This time, it is not so much to do with how one defines death, but what the results of mankind’s depravity are.  The Calvinist will typically make a remark along the lines of: ‘man is not simply sick, he is dead.’  For example:

“Man is dead in sins and trespasses, not just sick or injured but nevertheless alive.  No, the unsaved, the unregenerate, is spiritually dead (Eph. 2).  He is unable to ask for help unless God changes his heart of stone into a heart of flesh, and makes him alive spiritually (Eph. 2:5).  Then, once he is born again, he can for the first time turn to Jesus, expressing sorrow for his sins and asking Jesus to save him.” 10

The issue that comments like these raise is not over what spiritual death means, but rather, whether man is indeed spiritually dead.  Of course, Palmer, the author of the above quote, is setting up a straw man, for no Bible-believing Christian, regardless of where he stands on the Calvinism/Arminianism issue, denies that man is spiritually dead. 

But that’s not all, for statements like the one above reveal that Palmer in particular, and Calvinists in general, employ what has sometimes been called ‘cafeteria hermeneutics.’  That is, the practice of picking what you like, and leaving what you don’t like.  In other words, the error of the Calvinists is latching on to particular ‘golden bullet’ passages, while ignoring other portions of Scripture, viz., the Calvinist errs by failing to take into account all the Biblical data. 

The simple truth is: in the Bible, the unsaved (i.e., the unregenerate or spiritually dead) are described as being sick, in spite of the Calvinist’s claims to the contrary.  None other than Jesus Christ Himself said, when questioned on why he stayed in the company of sinners: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mat. 9:12). 

So, taking into account all the Biblical data, the unsaved are described as: Sick (Mat. 9:12); Dead (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13); Perishing (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:10; an interesting point, considering it shows that the death has not yet reached its completion); Separated from God (Isa. 59:2); Separated from Christ (Eph. 2:12); Strangers (Eph. 2:12); Without God (Eph. 2:12); Far off (Eph. 2:13, 17); Strangers and aliens (Eph. 2:19); Alienated from the life of God (Eph. 4:18).

And further taking into account all the Biblical data, the unsaved (i.e., the spiritually dead) have the ability to: Walk in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:2-3); Follow the course of this world (Eph. 2:2-3); Follow the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2-3); Live in the passions of the flesh (Eph. 2:2-3); Carry out the desires of the body and mind (Eph. 2:2-3); Act in accordance with their conscience (e.g. Gen. 3:7); Hear God (Gen. 3:10-13); Respond to God (Gen. 3:10-13); Know the truth about God (Rom. 1:18-20); Clearly perceive God’s invisible attributes (Rom. 1:18-20); Repent of sins (Luke 15:18-19); Seek God (John 3); Fear God (Acts 10:2); Pray to God (Acts 10:2).

After taking the Biblical picture into account, it is clear that the spiritually dead do NOT have all the passive properties belonging to a corpse, nor are they viewed as corpses.  They also have the ability to hear and respond to God.  Clearly, Calvinism is weighed and found wanting. 

At this point, it should be re-stated that man does not naturally possess the ability to respond to God.  Indeed, it would be erroneous for anyone to believe that man possesses that natural ability apart from God’s grace, for it is only in God that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).  It would therefore be terribly inconsistent to say on the one hand that man cannot even take a breath without God’s continued grace, and then on the other hand say that man can make the first move in the salvation process without Divine aid. 

The truth is: just as man needs God’s continued grace to even draw a breath, so he needs God’s continued grace to be convicted of sin, and to respond positively to the Gospel.  This grace: Draws men (John 6:44; 12:32); Is universal (John 1:9; 12:32; 16:7-11; Titus 2:11); Convicts men (John 16:7-11; Acts 16:14; 16:29-30; 24:25); Is designed to make us seek God (Acts 17:26-27); Is designed to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4); Encompasses the Holy Spirit’s work of convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11).


Notes

1 Seaton, W. J., The Five Points of Calvinism, available online at Monergism.com (<http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/fivepointsseaton.html>).  Retrieved 19 Sept. 2012

2 James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace, (Crossway,Wheaton,IL, 2009), p. 74.

3 Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, pp. 17-18.

4 Ben Henshaw, What Can The Dead in Sin Do?  (<http://evangelicalarminians.org/node/178>) URL correct at 4th June, 2011.

5 Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free, (Bethany House Publishers, Third Edition, 2010), p. 63.

6 Boice and Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace, p. 74.

7 Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, p. 18.

8 Ibid.

9 Geisler, Chosen But Free, p. 63.

10 Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, p. 19.