Combating Semi-Pelagianism

Some thoughts from Arminian theologian Roger Olsen about what other non-Calvinists should (and shouldn’t) believe:

[M]ost American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist.

A classical Arminian would never deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will.  Classical Arminianism strongly affirms the bondage of the will to sin before and apart from prevenient grace’s liberating work.

[C]lassical Arminianism agrees with Calvinism that a sinner is incapable of making the right decision without the influence of God’s prevenient grace.

Classical Arminianism says there is no point in salvation where the sinner-being-saved is autonomous. Arminius talked about it in terms of “instrumental cause” and “efficient cause.” God’s grace is always the efficient cause of any good that we do. Our free will, enabled and assisted by God’s grace, is the instrumental cause of conversion.

[C]lassical Arminianism affirms the necessity of supernatural assisting grace for any good that a person does including the first exercise of a good will toward God.

[W]hat we should all be criticizing is the rampant popular semi-Pelagianism of American folk religion.

taken from Roger Olson’s blog and comments at“a-statement-of-the-traditional-southern-baptist-understanding-of-gods-plan-of-salvation-“


Calvinism in John 3

Recently, I was reading a passage from the third chapter of John, home of the world’s most familiar verse, and was struck by several verses that reflect God’s sovereignty in the choice of his elect.

Verse 19 says, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

The contrasting verse is verse 21, which says, “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.

It seems to me that this is not a case of men seeing the light of Christ and then evaluating how they should respond.  It’s not like they were presented a choice and could go either way.  On the contrary, their response was predetermined by who they were.

Those who love the darkness do so because they are evil doers.  Those who accept Christ do not become lovers of truth as a result of coming into the light; rather, they come into the light because God has awakened them to the truth.

Going back up to verse 8 (and preceding), Jesus compares the Spirit (Gr., pneuma) with wind (also pneuma).  He says that a re-born spirit is the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit is like the wind in that it “blows wherever it pleases.”  The main point is that spiritual rebirth is a very real thing despite the mechanism being unseen.  However, the passage also implies that the Spirit is not only the “mechanism” that does the regeneration, but also the reason why regeneration takes place.

John 3:16 (and 15) is frequently read as if belief is the criteria for being born again, which is in turn the criteria for eternal life.  However, that is not what Jesus said.  He simply said that those who believe will have eternal life.  I contend that it makes more sense in the context of the chapter to think that those who have been born again are those who will believe.  In other words, spiritual rebirth is the criteria for belief, not the other way around.

A Tense Calvinist

My wife likes to say that she is a “Calvinist with tension.”  I’ve been thinking recently about what that means.  Of course, she would be the best person to explain the meaning of what she says, but I’m more given to precise definitions than she is, so I’m going to delve into my thoughts about it.  Who knows, maybe she will adopt my definition and incorporate it into her meaning!

A necessary component of developing precise definitions is understanding how people interpret the things they hear.  I’m going to make some assumptions about what people think about a “Calvinist with tension,” but the most helpful thing would be for you to tell me what you think when you hear this.

One of the things I assume people hear in this statement is a distinction from a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist or a militant Calvinist who is completely unwilling to listen to objections or arguments from another point of view and thinks non-Calvinists are either uninformed, deceived, or worse.  That sort of Calvinist does not feel any tension; instead, they are rigid in their beliefs.  I would say that this understanding is, at least in part, a proper part of what it should mean to be a “Calvinist with tension.”

It’s also possible that hearers may interpret this as saying, “I consider myself a Calvinist, but there are aspects of Calvinism that I have doubts about.”  The understanding here is that the speaker favors Calvinism over other formulations, but isn’t really satisfied that Calvinism has the right answers.  While this is probably true for some people, I do not think this is a good understanding of what I would mean if I said I was a Calvinist with tension.  I think this understanding infers that the speaker is a Calvinist “for lack of a better option.”  If someone could show them a system that relieved their “tension” (doubts about Calvinism), they would gladly accept this other system in lieu of Calvinism.

In contrast, I would not define “tension” as doubts, but as a realization that some aspects of Calvinism may be difficult to grasp (not only for others, but for myself!).  I understand why people might have objections to Calvinism, and I recognize that some of these objections stem from principles that are true.  There are not always simple, cut-and-dried explanations that are satisfying.  It’s not a matter of a simple proof-text for all issues.  The tension comes from the very real need to reconcile things that are true that seem to be at odds with each other.

I think that an intellectually honest Arminian must also be an “Arminian with tension.”  This need not mean that they are not convinced of the truth of Arminianism.  It means that they don’t see objections as smoke-screens or man-made resistance to their position.  Instead, they recognize that a human explanation of divine truth may not be satisfactory to everyone.  There is limitation on both ends, in the human who gives the explanation and the human who listens to the explanation.

I believe that Calvinist positions are faithful to what the Bible teaches, but there is a tension between two (or more) different directions someone may take on an issue, and it is not always easy to explain how everything fits together.


Some people like to categorize things; some people hate to be labeled. It strikes me that labels are useful for categorizing similar practices and/or ideas and contrasting them with different practices and/or ideas. However, when it comes to critiquing practices and/or ideas, labels may cease to be useful and actually become a hinderance.

For example, there is no harm in stating that belief in the total depravity of man, God’s sovereign election, His irresistible grace, and His keeping of His elect are common to Calvinism. By way of contrast, the belief that the gift of salvation can be received by anyone who will accept it, and can also be forsaken are common to Arminianism. To say that these beliefs are common, is accurate, but does not imply that all Calvinists believe the same way.

Now suppose an individual who believes that man is incapable of choosing, or even accepting, God without God reaching down and changing his heart, is confronted by another person who believes that God offers salvation to all and it is up to each individual to accept or reject God’s gift. The latter may say, “What you believe is wrong. That is what Calvinism teaches, and Calvinism is false.” The first individual may protest, “I am not a Calvinist.” Or, he may say, “I describe myself as a Calvinist, but what you say Calvinism teaches is not what I believe.”

The second individual should not address whether Calvinism is true or false. He would do better to address whether the particular belief in question is true or false.

The same comparision can be displayed for the set of beliefs that are common to postmodernism. It may be true that postmodernism in general is inclined to question the validity of conclusions and assumptions that were previously widely accepted. It may be true that postmoderns are generally loathe to take a hard stance on many issues. However, start explaining to someone who is attracted to postmodernism that postmodernism is dangerous and rejects the truth, and they will quickly object that you don’t understand postmodernism. Therefore, it is better to reach acceptance on what they believe, then challenge whether that particular belief is true.


(Also see “Once Saved Always Saved”)

God’s sovereignty does not violate man’s free will. Please understand this…it is very important. God does not force anyone to love Him or choose Him. Please do not let this all-or-nothing thinking be a stumbling block to the biblical principle of man’s total depravity or God’s sovereignty.

I’ve heard lots of objections to God’s sovereignty, usually with the assumption that it overrides man’s ability to choose. I’ve also heard God’s sovereignty explained away such that it’s really man’s choice and God just knows what will happen so He plans accordingly. I don’t recall ever hearing a good explanation of what Romans 9, Matthew 20, and the numerous other passages dealing with God’s sovereignty are really saying if you reject the notion that the choice originates with God, independent of man.

Another thing I’d like to reiterate, as a few people have already mentioned, is that God is the standard of righteousness, justice, and love. God doesn’t just decide what Right is, and then abide with His “rules.” Whatever God does–that, by definition, is Right. If God declared that green was holy and pink was evil, it wouldn’t matter that I think it’s arbitrary and stupid. I would still be sinning if I decided to wear pink anyway. If God decided to eliminate a race of people, it wouldn’t matter if it seemed heartless to us. The fact that God did it, and that alone, makes it Right.

Now, that doesn’t mean that God is inconsistent and contradictory. He has revealed His character to us, and He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We know from the Bible that He is loving; He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. He is very patient, pursuing His beloved even after we reject Him time and time again. Our understanding of salvation needs to be consistent with this.

Our understanding of salvation also needs to be consistent with the biblical principles that have been presented, indicating that man is depraved and does not seek God on his own.

Originally posted 7/15/2005 on

Perseverance of the Saints

Perseverance of the Saints is very much dependant on God’s Unconditional Election and Irresistable Grace. With regards to Calvinism vs. Arminianism, I’m not very interested in proving which of the two opposing views are correct. I believe the Bible gives indications of both, and I am more interested in reconciling the seeming contradictory concepts than picking one versus the other.

However, here are some of the common verses that indicate a Perseverance of the Saints:

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