Soteriological Summary

Pelagianism

Grace is optional.  Man is inherently capable of obeying God.  As the first man, Adam typified the choice that every human makes to obey or disobey God.  His “original sin” was simply the first sin, and sets a bad example for the rest of humanity, but did not change the subsequent nature of mankind or destroy man’s ability to obey.  As the “second Adam,” Jesus sets a good example of a man who consistently obeyed God.  Jesus’ death on the cross is not necessary for man’s redemption, but represents the ultimate act of selflessness to inspire man to endure suffering and sacrifice his own desires.

Analogy:  A man is swimming in the ocean.  He can make the decision to swim to safety, where God stands on the shore calling, or he can ignore God and stay out in the water where he will eventually drown.

Semi-pelagianism

Grace is necessary, in part.  Man is inherently capable of hearing God’s voice and choosing to obey, but his ability to actually obey has been damaged (the result of inheriting a corrupted nature from Adam).  In response to man’s decision to obey, God extends his grace to enable man to obey.

Analogy: A man is close to drowning in the ocean.  If he tries to swim to shore, he will in fact drown.  He sees and hears God on the shore, and he calls out to God for help.  In response, God provides a life jacket so that the man may safely swim to shore.

Arminianism

Grace is necessary, but not sufficient.  As a result of Adam’s sin, man now has a sin nature that is so thoroughly corrupted that he has lost all ability to please God.  However, God in his grace, has extended prevenient grace to all men, effectively counteracting total depravity, leaving man still depraved (totally depraved, in and of himself), but now with the undeserved (and foreign to his own nature) ability to respond to God’s gift of salvation.  Man can choose to accept God’s grace, receive a new nature, and rely on God’s grace for salvation, or he can choose to reject God’s grace and remain in (or, at a later date, return to) his depraved condition.

Analogy: A man is drowning in the ocean, and has lost consciousness.  God awakens the man, places him on a lifeboat and begins pulling the man to shore.  As long as the man does not intentionally get off the lifeboat, he will be saved.

Calvinism (aka Augustinianism)

Grace is necessary and sufficient.  As a result of Adam’s sin, man now has a sin nature that is so thoroughly corrupted that he has lost all ability to please God.  The only way for man to respond positively to God is for God to replace the dead heart of stone with a new nature, a nature that is inherited from Jesus instead of Adam.  As a result of God’s regeneration, those whom God has elected will freely respond in obedience to God.

Analogy: A man has drowned in the ocean.  God sends Jesus to breathe new life into the man and carry him to shore.

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 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/06/thoughts-about-“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.

Labels

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.