Was the atonement necessary?

In conducting some theological research, I came across a summary of Arminianism written by Roger Nicole in Baker’s Dictionary of Theolgoy. In it, Nicole delineates 24 “commonly held” tenets of Arminianism, where Arminianism has become characterized by “increasing differences from the traditional Reformed faith.”

One of those tenets surprised me: “10. The atonement was not absolutely necessary, but represents merely one way which God chose among many to manifest his love without prejudice to his righteousness.”

It didn’t surprise me that anyone would hold to this; I’ve encountered this line of thought before. I just hadn’t tied it to Arminian theology before.

Let’s unpack this: “The atonement was not absolutely necessary.” By “atonement,” we are referring to Christ’s work on the cross whereby he paid the debt of wrath that sinners owe, and reconciled men to God, so that we are “at-one” with God. Was it not absolutely necessary? By itself, this statement is true; God, having seen his human creation disobey and fall in the Garden, was not required to offer an atonement for sins. God could have blasted Adam and Eve right then and there. He could have simply allowed humanity to play itself out without hope, and face only wrath and judgment in the end. So, in this sense, it is correct to say that the atonement was not absolutely necessary.

But, when the statement goes on to affirm that the atonement represents merely one way, it is clear that we have moved on from a raw necessity to one that assumes that God has desired to save and atone for sin. This Arminian idea is that of the hypothetical necessity view, the idea that God, being infinite, could have found any number of ways to redeem his elect. But he chose this one as the best way to accomplish his purpose.

Continuing on: [the atonement] represents merely one way which God chose among many to manifest his love without prejudice to his righteousness.” So much to unpack here. Was God in the atonement trying to manifest his love? Well, yes. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This issue is not the love that Jesus manifested; at issue is if you believe this was the entirety of what he was doing at the cross. For many Christians, especially in mainline churches, Jesus’ death was only the ultimate act of love and self-sacrifice. It becomes a moral example for us to follow and earn our favor from God. However, the key words of the verse just referenced is “Christ died for us.” This speaks of the substitutionary nature of Jesus death, when he took our deserved punishment and appeased the wrath of God.

Over against this line of thinking stands what has been called the consequent absolute necessity view: God did not have to save anyone, but consequent to his determination to do so, redemption must be accomplished through atonement. Let’s not get bogged down in the terminology as if we’re merely defending a theological system. Let’s look at the biblical evidence for this.

First of all, God’s promise in the Garden was that “the day you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil], you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). Now, we know that they didn’t physically die that very day, being covered by God’s gracious provision of animal skins. But they were immediately spiritually dead, and physical death was an inevitability. So then, death was the rightful punishment for sin and rebellion. This is a strong indicator that if there were ever to be “at-one-ment” with God, there would have to be a substitutionary, wrath-satisfying death.

Secondly, we come to Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night he was arrested: “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Would the Father have denied his only Son’s prayer if another way were possible? It is scarcely thinkable that the Father would have subjected his Beloved Son to such a horrible and shameful incarnation and death by crucifixion on the cross if there had been another way. We are given this prayer to show this explicitly.

Finally, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he met with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He calmed their distress over the events of the weekend with the words, “‘Was is not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:26-27). Oh, to have been in that Bible study, with Jesus, explaining from the Scriptures, why it was necessary for the Messiah to die. Notice that he taught this before it was revealed to them that it was the risen Jesus himself who was teaching! So before the message even got to the hope of his resurrection, he assured them that the events of the past weekend were necessary and foretold. Let not your hearts be troubled!

To affirm that the atonement could have been accomplished in any other way than the cross, is to belittle the cross and Jesus’ suffering on our behalf. Oh, may that never be! May we be deepened in our understanding of the greatness of the sin that made the atonement necessary and the magnitude of the sacrifice given for us.

Dragged kicking and screaming into the Kingdom?

In the doctrines of grace, the concept of “irresistible grace” is often caricatured and disparaged.

Now, I don’t like it when biblical doctrine is misrepresented, caricaturized, trivialized, straw-manned, mocked and ridiculed.

It is caricatured in that many people picture God as dragging unwilling sinners kicking and screaming into the Kingdom. Election has set things in stone, and God’s going to get his way by sheer power. “God has chosen you, and you’re going to heaven whether you like it not!” Worse, and more disturbing is the idea that there would be this poor sinner, grasping desperately for the gates of heaven, but being rejected because “you’re not one of the elect.”

It is also disparaged because irresistible grace doesn’t seem to jibe with experience. We have all heard people testify of their faith story and tell of extended time resisting the gospel call before finally coming to faith in Christ. Indeed, even pre-conversion Paul (as Saul) is told by the Lord, “Why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Apparently, even as dramatic as Saul’s conversion was, there was some time before when God was drawing him, convicting him, and Saul was fighting it like a stubborn ox would kick against the cattle prods used to drive it.

I suppose for this reason, I have tended to avoid using the word “irresistible grace” and instead have employed “effectual grace” – meaning that God’s operating grace toward his elect ultimately has its desired effect. However, interestingly enough, the debate at the Synod of Dort (1618) – where the ideas of Jacobus Arminius were put forward and ultimately rejected – centered around the very verbiage of “resistible”/”irresistible.”

To Arminius and his followers, the Remonstrants, God’s operational grace is necessary for salvation but not sufficient. “Regenerate man cannot, apart from the prevenient or assisting, awakening, consequent and cooperative grace, think, will or do the good…All good works or activities which can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ” (The Remonstrance of 1610, appendix C). But the document goes on to say, “But with respect to the mode of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many that they resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51) and elsewhere in many places.”

In Arminian theology, there is a sense in which a person may be regenerated by the grace of God but may still resist the Holy Spirit and in the end, reject salvation.

What shall we make of Acts 7:51, where Stephen cried out, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit”? Is this evidence of a regenerated person still being able to resist the gospel call and reject salvation? I think not. Yes, they were resisting the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t mean they had first been regenerated. Stephen calls them “uncircumcised in heart and ears.” These people were not the recipients of God’s special grace; they were still in their sins.

There is a ministry of the Holy Spirit that falls short of regeneration, whereby he convicts sinners. “And when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement” (John 16:8). This conviction is accomplished through the preaching of the gospel (which includes God’s law and its demands). Sinners may feel a subjective sense of conviction. This is the work of the Spirit in the Word and the gospel. This, of course, may be resisted. Stephen indicates as much when he accuses them of being like their fathers, who rejected every prophet. This is Saul’s story, who “kicked against the goads” of the Scriptures he knew so well. This is anyone’s story, who fought against the gospel they heard preached before finally coming to faith.

In the Reformed view, this general gospel call is accompanied by the special call of the Holy Spirit to God’s elect. Within the preaching of the Word, the Spirit calls to the elect and says, “Come.” And just as Jesus’ call to Lazarus – “Come forth!” – created life in his dead bones, so too does the Holy Spirit regenerate the soul, so that the person is made alive and made willing to believe.

This work is “effectual,” meaning, it effects the change for which it is intended. “Those whom he called he also justified” (Rom. 8:30). In that sense, it is not resistible; it is an effectual work of God. Now, this leads us to the image of the sinner being dragged against his will to God. This is not the case. When a sinner is regenerated by God, he is given life whereby he willingly trusts in Christ.

The Canons of Dort affirmed this in strong terms: “All in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Wherefore also man himself is rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.”

I certainly understand that historically, the debate centered around the terms “irresistible” and “resistible.” Because these words are subject to misunderstanding and caricature, it is perhaps best to substitute “effectual.” But we do not need to shy away from the biblical teaching that when God calls his elect, they are “certainly, infallibly, and effectually” made alive and brought to faith in Christ.

To God be the glory, forever and ever. Amen!

Even foreseeing is foreordaining

The “U” of the Calvinistic acronym “TULIP” stands for unconditional election. This is the idea that for those that God chose to be his own, there was no conditional reason in them that caused him to choose them and not others. No merit, no inherent value, no perceived future action on their part. Just God, for his own good pleasure and his own sovereign purpose, choosing an elect people made up of those he set his heart upon.

This is not to say that God’s choice of his people is arbitrary. Rather, the reasons are unknown to us but are hidden in the eternal counsel of his will.

On the other hand, those of a more Arminian viewpoint take a different tack when it comes to God’s election.

First of all, no biblical Christian denies that God has chosen and predestined his people. After all, these are biblical terms that cannot be denied (Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:4, 5, 11; 1 Peter 1:1-2). The difference comes in how God elected people to be saved.

Based on Romans 8:29-30 (“For whom he did foreknow he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified”) and 1 Peter 1:1-2 (“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect…according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”), the Arminian builds his understanding on the idea that election is based on foreknowledge. This is biblical and true, but it is how he defines “foreknowledge” that is the key to his understanding.

As we have said, God’s sovereignty commonly conceived may consist only in affirming that God knows what will happen before it does. This is the Arminian understanding of foreknowledge when it comes to God’s election. Foreknowledge is foreseeing, and God elects based on that kind of knowledge.

It is often expressed this way – In eternity past, having decided that he would offer salvation to fallen humanity, God looked down through the corridors of time to see which individuals would respond positively to the gospel message. He “foresees” Joe and Mary and Steve and Chloe and countless others freely placing their trust in Jesus. Based on that “foreknowledge,” he then elects them unto salvation and predestines them to conformity with Jesus (Rom. 8:29) and to adoption (Eph. 1:5). This is “elect according to the foreknowledge of God” according to the Arminian understanding.

This solves the problem of election and free will in the mind of these theologians, because God’s election does not violate the free choice of those chosen. In fact, his election is based on the free will choice of those who will believe. The problem, they believe, with a sovereign grace understanding is that in unconditional election, God chooses people first, rendering it certain that they come to faith, and this is without regard to their free will and choice. Choice and free will become meaningless, because in sovereign grace teaching, humans necessarily become puppets.

I will address in a later post the issue of whether this is the proper understanding of the term “foreknowledge” as applied to God. But for now, let’s grant the assumption that foreknowledge is merely foreseeing what will happen, and ask the question, does this really solve the problem for the Arminian line of thought?

I believe it does not. It simply moves the problem to a different spot in the “equation.”

If God chooses people based solely on what he foresees they will autonomously do, doesn’t that still render it certain? Anything that God foresees will happen, will happen, and this is just as certain and locked in as if he directly foreordains that it will come to pass. And if it is certain, wouldn’t that render void the “free choice” of the person? For when the time comes, the person responds positively to the gospel in faith, as God has foreseen, and since it was foreseen, does he really have any choice?

As John MacArthur has somewhere said, “There is really no difference between what God foresees, what God allows, and what God ordains.” Even foreseeing is foreordaining. So the Arminian still has a problem in his mind with the certainty of God’s sovereign will and what he thinks about man’s free will.

In reality, there is no problem to be solved. We must simply affirm those things that the Bible affirms and hold them in tension if necessary without trying to explain or reconcile the irreconcilable. I have said before that nowhere does the Bible treat us like machines, like puppets. We are implored, commanded, and invited to believe the gospel. This is how God has ordained to call his elect to faith and repentance. We can hold in tandem God’s sovereign choice and our responsibility to respond.

And so we return to the affirmations we have made before (which the confessions have declared), that God decrees or ordains whatever comes to pass, but that God is not thereby the author of sin, nor is violence done to the agency or responsibility of humanity. We affirm these without trying to reconcile them, for they are only reconciled in the mind of eternal God, to him be all glory!

Meritorious Self-Faith

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I was a believer in Jesus before I knew about the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereign hand in my salvation. That was something that, over time, I grew into. So it is helpful to me to remember that many who are not in step with me doctrinally are in fact, brothers and sisters in Christ, even though we don’t share similar theological persuasions, no matter how foundational those doctrinal truths have come to be in my thinking.

Specifically, I recognize that my Arminian/free-will friends affirm, like me, that salvation is by grace through faith, apart from works, and that there is nothing meritorious about our great salvation.

The difference between us, of course, is in our understanding of faith and the role of the will in believing in Christ. My understanding is that apart from Christ we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), unable to respond to God with anything other than rebellion, and that before we can believe, we must be made alive (Eph. 2:4-5), and thus it can be said that the entire process, including our response of faith, is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-10).

Now, an Arminian doesn’t cut this passage from his Bible; he just sees it differently. His understanding is that before Christ, we have the innate ability to believe in Jesus, to freely “choose” or reject Christ. Some men believe, some don’t, but this believing is a result of that individual making a free choice of his own accord, apart from any efficacious drawing by God.

This understanding of autonomous faith or choosing of God leads me to ask, if this is so, why do some believe and others don’t? And if the faith comes from the unfettered “free will” of the individual, how is it not considered meritorious?

While an Arminian evangelical would never consider the exercise of his free will in believing in Jesus as a meritorious act, it’s difficult to see it as anything but that when you consider it more deeply. [I owe a debt to author John Samson in his book, Twelve What Abouts: Answering Common Objections Concerning God’s Sovereignty in Election, for these thoughts.]

If self-generated faith, apart from God’s sovereign quickening activity on the heart of spiritually dead sinners, were possible, then the believer could claim some measure of superiority over non-believers, and this could lead to meritorious thinking.

  1. Meritorious intelligence – A believer could think himself to have more “intelligence (that we somehow worked out who Jesus was for ourselves)” (Samson, p.28).
  2. Meritorious humility – A believer would have more “humility (we having conquered our own pride, were able to humble ourselves to be able to respond in faith to the Gospel)” (Samson, p.28). In self-humility, the believer would, of his own free will, be able to give up all self-effort.
  3. Meritorious submission – Having once been hostile in mind toward God (Rom. 8:7), the believer would be able to turn that enmity by himself into surrender, which is impossible (vs.7-8).
  4. Meritorious love for God – If autonomous faith were possible, a person could, of his own ability, take what was despised and rejected and instead desire and treasure Christ as Savior.

So my question becomes, if divine regeneration is not a sovereign act of God leading to repentance and faith as a gift (2 Tim. 2:25; Eph. 2:8-10), how is autonomous free will not meritorious?

While my so-called “Free Will” brothers and sisters would never consider that they have earned their salvation in any way, I encourage them to think about how their doctrine might somehow subtly lead them into a measure of pride and merit (that they were smarter, more humble, more submissive, more loving than one who does not choose Jesus). I encourage them to think deeply about the implications of their doctrine, and to “watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16 NIV).

So what makes a Calvinist?

My last blog postCalv_Arm Divide posts small lead me to think about what it would take in someone’s belief system for me to consider them in the Reformed/Calvinistic/sovereign grace camp (Oh, how I dislike the labels, necessary though they sometimes may be).

I suppose most Christians I’ve known have affirmed the doctrine of Eternal Security, and I could probably get tacit approval of Total Depravity (but not affirmation of the full implications of it). Effectual Grace and Particular Redemption are normally the last points to be affirmed. But when someone comes face to face with the realization that before the foundation of the world, God chose his elect, not as a result of foreseeing any action on their part, but because he did so unconditionally according to his own good pleasure, then that person is well on his way to affirming sovereign grace doctrine. So, if you affirm Unconditional Election vis a vis Conditional Election, you are at the very least, a budding Calvinist.

What think ye?

 

Interesting thoughts on the Calvinist/Arminian divide and how it speaks to our other divides

Calv_Arm Divide postsInteresting thoughts on the Calvinist/Arminian divide and how it speaks to our other divides

Josh Crowe is a good friend of mine, a valued co-worker, a fellow believer in Jesus Christ, and a card-carrying “Free-will Baptist.” There’s about one-third of that last descriptor that would apply to me, and even there, I’m more “baptistic” than Baptist.

So, in conversation one day, he asked me what percentage of “Bible-believing Christians” would I say were Calvinistic. I searched my thoughts and eventually came up with 20%. “Really?” he said, incredulously. See, in his thinking it was more like 80%.

As we talked further, it became apparent to me that the theological dividing line for him was at Eternal Security. A belief in “Once saved, always saved” was enough to put you squarely in the Reformed camp. “Once saved, always saved” might be the sine qua non of most Southern Baptists (the one group I have the most experience with), but as a firm believer in the doctrines of sovereign grace, my observation is that the vast majority affirm mostly classic Arminian doctrines (with the exception of OSAS) or haven’t given the issues any serious thought but recoil at hearing sovereign grace teaching.

I asked Josh a question. “In a Presidential approval poll, why might a liberal express disapproval for President Barack Obama?” He thought for a moment and then answered, “If they think he’s not liberal enough?” Exactly. What Josh saw as Calvinistic from his point of view was not nearly Calvinistic enough from mine.

This conversation has led us both to further reflection, and not just in a theological way. It has been very eye-opening on several fronts.

Could this shed some light on the dynamics of other divides in our culture? We live in a time of increasing polarization. As Josh said, “Perhaps the way of “Them” is wide, and the way of “Us” is narrow.” I think he’s right.

How easy it is to assume that the number of people who are different from us is greater than the people who are like us. We start to generalize and assume that we have nothing in common with this or that group simply because we don’t have XYZ in common.

“fill in the empty spaces with grace”

What’s great is that Josh and I work together, laugh together, and endlessly recite lines from The Office together. We also talk civilly about matters in which we are polar opposites, like our theological persuasion. Someday, he’ll come around. But in the meantime, we’re great friends.

All it takes is a little dialog and an ability to “fill in the empty spaces with grace.” That’s a wise phrase I learned from Josh.