Who Makes the Final Choice in Salvation? Brown vs. Bennett

Here is Dr. Michael L. Brown’s debate with Pastor Bruce Bennett on the subject of Who Makes the Final Choice in Salvation – God or Man?

Adam Clarke on Acts 13:48

Notes from Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible on Acts 13:48:

“As many as were ordained to eternal life believed—This text has been most pitifully misunderstood. Many suppose that it simply means that those in that assembly who were fore-ordained; or predestinated by God’s decree, to eternal life, believed under the influence of that decree. Now, we should be careful to examine what a word means, before we attempt to fix its meaning. Whatever τεταγμενοι may mean, which is the word we translate ordained, it is neither προτεταγμενοι nor προορισμενοι which the apostle uses, but simply τεταγμενοι, which includes no idea of pre-ordination or pre-destination of any kind. And if it even did, it would be rather hazardous to say that all those who believed at this time were such as actually persevered unto the end, and were saved unto eternal life.

But, leaving all these precarious matters, what does the word τεταγμενος mean? The verb ταττω or τασσω signifies to place, set, order, appoint, dispose; hence it has been considered here as implying the disposition or readiness of mind of several persons in the congregation, such as the religious proselytes mentioned Acts 13:43, who possessed the reverse of the disposition of those Jews who spake against those things, contradicting and blaspheming, Acts 13:45.

Though the word in this place has been variously translated, yet, of all the meanings ever put on it, none agrees worse with its nature and known signification than that which represents it as intending those who were predestinated to eternal life: this is no meaning of the term, and should never be applied to it.

Let us, without prejudice, consider the scope of the place: the Jews contradicted and blasphemed; the religious proselytes heard attentively, and received the word of life: the one party were utterly indisposed, through their own stubbornness, to receive the Gospel; the others, destitute of prejudice and prepossession, were glad to hear that, in the order of God, the Gentiles were included in the covenant of salvation through Christ Jesus; they, therefore, in this good state and order of mind, believed.

Those who seek for the plain meaning of the word will find it here: those who wish to make out a sense, not from the Greek word, its use among the best Greek writers, and the obvious sense of the evangelist, but from their own creed, may continue to puzzle themselves and others; kindle their own fire, compass themselves with sparks, and walk in the light of their own fire, and of the sparks which they have kindled; and, in consequence, lie down in sorrow, having bidden adieu to the true meaning of a passage so very simple, taken in its connection, that one must wonder how it ever came to be misunderstood and misapplied.”

The Asbury Bible Commentary on Acts 13:48

Notes from the Asbury Bible Commentary (available online here) on Acts 13:48:

“Galatian Mission to Gentiles (13:13–14:28)

A number of significant features cluster around Paul’s ministry in Pisidian Antioch. First, Pisidian Antioch was a Roman colony, the highest political status in the Roman world. Second, this is the longest account of Paul’s work in any place he visited. Third, up to now, Luke’s order of names has been Barnabas and Saul (see 9:27; 11:25, 30; 12:25; 13:1, 2, 7); now it becomes Paul and Barnabas (see 13:13, 43, 46, 50; 14:19-20; 15:2, 22, 35-36), except when Jerusalem is the focus (14:12, 14, where “apostle” is applied to Paul for the only time, a term elsewhere associated only with Jerusalem; 15:12, 25, in Jerusalem). Fourth, the term God-fearers (10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26, a Jewish reference) is replaced by the secular term devout (13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7) to describe the Gentiles who worship with the Jewish community. This signals a shift from a Jewish to a gentile perspective. Fifth, “the word of God” (4:31; 6:2, 7; 8:14; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, 7, 44, 46) becomes the word of the Lord (13:44 [variant], 48, 49; 15:35, 36; 19:10). By all these activities, Luke is indicating the profound nature of what takes place in Pisidian Antioch. This is the radical shift of the Christian outreach from a Jewish to a gentile frame of reference.

The shift becomes reality because the Jews rejected the proclamation of God’s fulfillment of the old covenant in the new (13:16-45). Jewish Christians in Jerusalem had experienced the same rejection, but Paul has an option not available to them: outreach to the gentile world (13:46-49). God often has to leave behind a community of “faithful” who have become closed to the possibility that God might do something new. The response is great because God had already prepared the way. All who were appointed for eternal life believed (v. 48), rather than some kind of deterministic predestination that would leave some doomed, more likely represents the awareness that God had already been at work preparing the way for this response by Gentiles; in Wesleyan terms, they were the recipients of prevenient grace.

A typical pattern now emerges. The old covenant community allies itself with the political power structure to act against the new work of God (13:50). A community of faith that takes refuge in the secular power structure to maintain its status quo reflects the institutionalization of belief.

Iconium (14:1-7) was an instant replay of Pisidian Antioch. First Jews and Greeks (i.e., God-fearers) in the synagogue believe; then unbelieving Jews drive the Christians out and enlist the support of secular authorities to persecute them.

Lystra (14:8-20), however, is different. For the first time, Luke portrays the Christian outreach to a purely gentile community. The synagogue, with its God-fearers who form the usual bridge to the gentile world, is absent. Paul clothes the Gospel in the worldview of his audience who clearly perceive Paul (Hermes) and Barnabas (Zeus) from their own pagan outlook. This is always a difficult enterprise. The Gospel must be presented in a frame of reference capable of being received by the hearers, yet it must not be confined to that frame of reference. When God’s work begins to become indiginized in such a way, institutionalized belief tends to become most violent in its reactions.

The one who had stoned Stephen at the point where Christian outreach was pressing against the limits of purely Jewish involvement, now himself is stoned for crossing the boundary to the gentile world. Paul’s restoration and return to Lystra, however, was a witness to the Resurrection and to the reality of the new order being proclaimed. This kind of witness should be a characteristic of Christian life. Whenever we are left for dead by those who attack us, we should, in God’s grace, rise up and return to them as a witness to the reality of God’s presence and power.

Luke notes the ministry in Derbe (14:20-21), which prepares the way for Paul’s second mission (16:1).

It is significant to note that an essential part of Paul’s mission was the establishment of structure for the communities of faith (14:22-23), a structure that would enable the believers to continue in the faith and to endure the tribulation that accompanied faith.

The return to Syrian Antioch highlights the radical nature of what had happened: God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles (14:27)!

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

Prevenient Grace

“Christian theology teaches the doctrine of prevenient grace, which briefly stated means this, that before a man can seek God, God must first have sought the man.

“Before a sinful man can think a right thought of God, there must have been a work of enlightenment done within him; imperfect it may be, but a true work nonetheless, and the secret cause of all desiring and seeking and praying which may follow.

“We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit.  ”No man can come to me,” said our Lord, “except the Father which hath sent me draw him,” and it is by this very prevenient drawing that God takes from us every vestige of credit for the act of coming.  The impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him.”

Tozer, The Pursuit of God (1961: Marshall Morgan & Scott Ltd.), pp. 11-12

Is the Human Decision to Accept God’s Grace a Meritorious Work?

Is the human decision to accept God’s grace a ‘work’ that we contribute towards our salvation? Roger Olson writes,

“Isn’t the bare human decision to accept and not resist God’s grace and mercy unto salvation a meritorious work?  Arminians respond with a resounding no.  In sum, and by way of preview, classical Arminianism argues that anyone who shows the first inkling or inclination of a good will toward God is already being influenced by grace. Grace is the first cause of genuine free will as liberation from bondage to sin, and grace is the source of anything good.  In its prevenient (going before) form, it is the ‘quickening ray’ Charles Wesley wrote about in his famous Arminian hymn ‘And Can It Be?’  It awakens the prisoner lying helpless in the dungeon of nature’s night and breaks off his chains so that he can rise up and follow Christ.  There is no hint in traditional Arminian theology of salvation by works righteousness; all good is attributed solely to God’s grace…  All that is required for full salvation is a relaxation of the resistant will under the influence of God’s grace so that the person lets go of sin and self-righteousness and allows Christ’s death to become the only foundation for spiritual life.  Was Arminius’s soteriology then synergistic? Yes, but not in the way that is often understood.  Calvinists tend to regard synergism as equal cooperation between God and a human in salvation; thus the human is contributing something crucial and efficacious to salvation.  But this is not Arminius’s synergism. Rather, his is an evangelical synergism that reserves all the power, ability and efficacy in salvation to grace, but allows humans the God-granted ability to resist or not resist it.  The only ‘contribution’ humans make is non-resistance to grace.  This is the same as accepting a gift.  Arminius could not fathom why a gift that must be freely received is no longer a gift, as Calvinists contend.  To explain the ‘concurrence and agreement of divine grace with free will’ he offered an analogy:

To explain the matter I will employ a simile, which yet, I confess is very dissimilar; but its dissimilitude is greatly in favour of my sentiments.  A rich man bestows, on a poor and famishing beggar, alms by which he may be able to maintain himself and his family. Does it cease to be a pure gift, because the beggar extends his hand to receive it?  Can it be said with propriety, that ‘the alms depended partly on the liberality of the Donor, and partly on the liberty of the Receiver,’ though the latter would not have possessed the alms unless he had received it by stretching out his hand? Can it be correctly said, because the beggar is always prepared to receive, that ‘he can have the alms, or not have it, just as he pleases?’  If these assertions cannot be truly made about a beggar who receives alms, how much less can they be made about the gift of faith, for the receiving of which far more acts of Divine Grace are required!

At this point, of course, some Calvinist critics still maintain that Arminius makes the free acceptance of the gift of salvation, including faith, the decisive factor in salvation; so the human act of acceptance, and not God’s grace, becomes the ground of righteousness. No Arminian, including Arminius, will agree with the formula that the person’s mere acceptance of redemption from Christ is ‘the decisive factor’ in salvation. For Arminius, as for all classical Arminians, the decisive factor is the grace of God – from beginning to end. Using Arminius’s analogy of the rich man and the beggar, would it be normal speech to say that the beggar’s acceptance of the rich man’s money was the decisive factor in his family’s survival?  Who would say that? All attention in such a case would focus on the benefactor and not on the poor receiver of benefaction.  We might extend the analogy a bit and suggest that the rich man bestowed the gift in the form of a check, which needs only to be endorsed and deposited in the poor man’s bank account.  What if someone claimed that the act of endorsing the check and depositing it was the decisive factor in the poor man’s family’s survival?  Surely even the Calvinist must see that no reasonable person would say that.  So it is with Arminian evangelical synergism; the bare act of deciding to rely totally on God’s grace for salvation and to accept the gift of eternal life is not the decisive factor in salvation.  That status belongs to God’s grace alone.” 1

J.P. Holding writes,

“And a point I have yet to see explained as well is how making a decision qualifies as a “work.”  The Jews were forbidden to work on the Sabbath; did this prohibit them from thinking or making a decision?  Is there any evidence that the Greek word behind “works” (ergon) ever refers to a thought or a decision?  It seems to me that this is a flawed premise upon which the Calvinistic case rests.” 2

So is the human decision to accept God’s grace a meritorious work that we contribute toward our salvation?  So far, all the evidence is to the contrary, but if making the decision to accept a gift is a work, the burden of proof is on the Calvinists to show how it is.

Notes

1 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p. 161-66; According to Olson, the Arminius quote is from ‘The Apology or Defence of James Arminius, D.D.,’ Works [Of Arminius], 2:52

2 Holding, J. P. ‘On Unconditional Election’ (Link)