Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What's A Guy Gotta Do?

Jesus was asked one day, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" His answer, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

I am Arminian in theology, not because I feel any particular bond or loyalty to James Arminius, but because I believe the Bible clearly teaches that salvation is not accomplished without, and is predicated upon, the the conscious choice of the saved. It's not that God isn't involved nor even providing the impetus toward salvation, but that belief in Christ is a response made by, not for, the saved. It's a question of personal faith, and, given the wooing of the Holy Spirit, it is possible for everyone.

Believing in Jesus is, in fact, the work that God requires of us. As Mark Knopfler might say, "that ain't workin'!" But that is the way we do it! Faith is not the product of sweat and toil, nor the fruit of planning and vision. It's a response to a circumstance, a reaction to a stimulus. The word of the Lord (stimulus) came to Abraham, faith was his response, righteousness his reward. Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead on the third day for our justification (circumstance), faith is the reaction of the saved, eternal life is the repercussion. Where's the work in all this?

The answer is that it is excluded. The work was done by God, we only respond to it. It is by grace that we are saved, through faith, not of works so that no one can boast. Jesus was being tongue in cheek when he answered that question that way that day. It must have struck a perplexing note in his hearers--"what kind of work is that?" they might have asked themselves. That's just it, it isn't one, and that is what the Lord wanted to highlight.


  1. I am a Presbyterian (a denomination deeply rooted in "predestination"). However, I might I agree on your point with regards to this topic (in some degrees, but I can't explain it fully, need to research and gather my thoughts:) ).

    What I strongly believe is, this topic "should not" cause division on the body of Christ. It might be a discussion, but never destruction (I am not against your post, just expressing my thoughts on general terms).

    I don't know if what I'm saying relates to the topic (lol) or making sense at all :)...

    Anyway, good point pastor, keep the thunder rolling (or roaring?)...

  2. Marvin,
    I have many Calvinist friends, I'm glad you're among them.

    Practically, there's not that much difference between the two camps-- every good Calvinist evangelizes like an Arminian, and every good Arminian walks humbly under the umbrella of God's grace like a Calvinist.

    Some folk get ascerbic about the differences: like you, I think they can be overblown. Of course that doesn't stop me from arguing for my side of the equation! ;-)

  3. Not to begin an unproductive argument (I also believe in charity on this soteriological matter), but I happen to enjoy puzzling over this point of theology. Several thoughts and clarifications I'd like to offer:

    Calvinism (or Reformed Theology) does not necessarily teach that there is no human will involved in the faith equation. It is simply a matter of why one would choose to follow Christ in the first place. If the mind is regenerated by the Holy Spirit (the veil is lifted), then choosing Christ becomes the obvious choice to make. It is the natural act of a spiritually healed soul, but it is still an act made by that soul even if it is inevitable.

    Works are always preceded by acts of will. We do not blame the hand that strikes; we blame the person who owns and controls that hand by force of will. Consequently, it is the will that is paramount in any equation. Works are merely the ripples which extend outward from the will of the heart. So faith, which is the willful root of our works, is not to be minimized.

    If all humans are equally inclined or disinclined (and able) to believe, then there is something else that must tip the balance toward belief. Since Arminianism suggests that the Spirit does not do anything special to secure belief in one person over another, then there must be something else that acts in our salvation. That something is found in one human who chooses to believe over another who will not make that choice. If that decision hinges upon the individual, then we could rightly say that there is something about a believer that is smarter, more perceptive, or more virtuous that cause them to make the right choice where the other was simply stubborn, blind, or unwise. Consequently, there is room for the believer to boast, even though it was not he who personally secured the means of his salvation (that being Christ on the cross).

    Think about this. What do we pray for regarding our unbelieving loved ones? Do we pray that God send His Spirit to lean more heavily upon them, thus negating their stubborn will? Is it fair that God weight the scales for some over others? Does God try and fail to do anything?

    I hate to post this and run, but I'll be out of pocket for the next several days. Enjoy your holiday too!

  4. Paul: yes I agree. And I wonder why many Calvinist insist on "predestination only with no human choice".

    slw: I don't really consider myself a full "Calvinist". With regards to Arminians and Calvinists, I have Armenian friends studying in a Presbyterian Seminary (very Calvinist seminary). And I knew Armenian Pastors pastoring a Presbyterian church. No conflict at all. Though we discuss this topic, it's a friendly discussion.

    Hehehe, I'm walking away from the post's main topic. Forgive me for that. It is just that I wasn't able to comment on your blog for sometime and I'm flooding it now. Lol.

    God bless...

  5. thought I would respond to a few things Paul said,

    "If that decision hinges upon the individual, then we could rightly say that there is something about a believer that is smarter, more perceptive, or more virtuous that cause them to make the right choice where the other was simply stubborn, blind, or unwise."

    If someone rejects Christ they are stubborn, blind or unwise........ YES. What scripture am I violating by saying that? Doesn't the parable of the sower describe these people?

    Now for those who decide to place their faith in Christ does that signify they are more virtuos, smarter or more preceptive? Not really, because we know unless one sees himself as a dirty rotten sinner faith will not take root. But there is something to being able to say like Paul, "I kept the Faith". That statement tells me it was an option for him to walk away from the faith.

  6. Amen! Great post (and incidently I have been a very dogmatic and abnoxious arminian and calvinist at one time or another haha, but hopefully I'm neither or both now...if you know what I mean...)

  7. This all takes me back (oh so many years ago) to Bible studies in college. It seems this is one of Christians' favorite things to argue. But from all of the verses (share the hope we have, or conversely, to keep from falling) that the argument is not all that important. Whether we are pre-destined or not, our instructions are clear.

  8. Paul,
    Thanks for the thoughts.

    The puzzle of the origin of faith in the saved, it seems to me, ends up being a chicken or the egg argument. I think the scriptures say that faith comes first and then regeneration, but I understand how that begs the question of what makes it possible in the first place. Ultimately, God's behind it, of course, but in what fashion?

    If the difference between the damned and the saved rests wholly in the choices God makes, virtually the entire Bible becomes senseless to me. Why would God "rather" that wicked turn but not turn them when it was in his power alone to do so, or why would God put the onus on the watchman when the ultimate arbiter of the outcome was himself? Is God the ultimate blame shifter? Why would God invite people to reason with him when they had no ability to enter such a discussion. Why would God want all men saved, but not save them? I could go on, but I think that's sufficient for now.

    Although it takes a stimulus from God to awaken faith in the effective object (Christ, the promise of God), I believe all humans are built with the capacity for it, and that its use is left to each person's discretion. That doesn't leave an opportunity to boast, any more than those who jumped at the sound of a horn have any reason to admire themselves above those that didn't and got run over by the bus. If anything is to blame, it was the horn. The sensible response would be, "I'm glad the driver honked," rather than, "those idiots, I'm so much smarter than they."

    I don't honestly pray for anyone's will to be overcome. I do, however, pray that he honk again, louder. :-)

  9. Marvin,
    I'm glad for the comments! I hate to admit it, but I LOVE comments, they make my day (as long as they're not snarky).

  10. Jul,
    I suppose it would be nicer if we could just all self-identify as followers of Christ.

  11. Cred,
    So many years ago? You're not that long of tooth! Yep, following our instructions is more important and productive than musing on those things unassessible in the heart of God.

  12. Ian,
    Thanks for the input. I'm sure Paul will respond when he gets back after the holidays.

    I do like the "logic of humility" you espoused: iow, to be saved requires a self-assessment that precludes boasting anyhow.

    I agree as well, with the notion of "falling away" you mentioned, and would add that everyone who walks into heaven will be able to say without batting an eye, "it's because I believed what Christ has done."

  13. we all spout off sometimes.
    just a bunch of little teapots is what we are.

    no matter what we do, there will be someone that can find fault and want to use that as an argument against believeing in the truth of God. it is easy to find these things. belief does not come easy.

    the thing is, that we can not prove, for anyone, the truth of God. we can only tell others of our own belief and experience.

    we can only relate the Good news as we got it ourselves.

    we can relate our story of how we came to that place of belief and what happens after that step of belief is made.

    then the person will have that information at hand if he or she ever comes to a place in their own life where this information comes in useful to their choices and need.

    i can understand joe's frustration with wanting to see the perfect truth. with wanting to see a difference between a believer in Christ and those that do not believe. but, if joe is looking for perfection in the believer, he will not find it on this earth.

    the believer, is a person that at one time came to a place that to believe our need for God, we saw our own broken sinfulness. and believers are still broken and sinful, but, God now sees us as perfect and acceptable, because of the blood of Jesus. we are still broken, but, God has made us different "in His sight". not in other human's sight, but, in His sight.

    so all the glory is God's glory.
    not ours.
    our belief, is in a Savior because we need to be saved.

    it is for sinners, that be saved.

  14. Thanks Nanc, for understanding.

  15. Yes indeed, "a credible source", Calvinism is one of those basement-level topics that all theologians (armchair or otherwise) eventually must visit. The mere fact that conservative, Bible-believing Christians are still debating it is testimony to the fact that there are compelling arguments on both sides. I happen to favor (at this time) Reformed Theology, even though I could make a respectable case for the Arminian view. The unity in this lies in the fact that both parties believe in the same Gospel, but merely differ on the means by which one arrives at faith in that Gospel.

    From my observations, the arguments against the Reformed view fall into two categories.

    1) The philosophical arguments, such as "it doesn't seem fair," and "what about free will." I think most of these fail because they are based on subjective notions about how God ought to operate. If they were to succeed, then one might reject the doctrine of hell also because "it just doesn't seem fair." Additionally, I think adequate responses can be given to most of the philosophical objections, some of the objections actually apply to Arminianism equally (though from a different angle), and other additional philosophical objections can be tossed back at Arminianism.

    2) Biblical support. Ultimately, any theological position must stand or fall on its Biblical support, or at least not run contrary to it (that's why we believe in hell, not because we simply like it). The problem with this issue is that there are verses which either seem to explicitly teach, or at least infer, both positions. Consequently, the task is for each party not simply to engage in scriptural ping pong, but to find a way to explain the opposing verses according to their own system. (That is, unless one wishes to suggest contradictions in Scripture.)

    It is Scripture that ultimately persuaded me of the Reformed view. My natural inclination is to believe the Arminian view, but of course my natural inclination is to sin and rationalize it away, so I am not much persuaded by my own biases. It seems to me that there are explicit statements in Scripture in support of the Reformed view, but only implicit statements in support of the Arminian view (statements that only hint at or imply the Arminian view). I think that the Arminian passages can more easily be accounted for (and without collateral theological damage) by Calvinism than the contrary.

    I'm not looking to get into a debate on this, and I hesitated to make my original comment, since I've got some interesting things I'd like to blog about right now regarding a long conversation I had with an atheist family member. However, I will throw out a few thoughts to demonstrate how hard this fire is to put out.

    Ian, you mention the Parable of the Sower as an example of those who have something about (or within) themselves making them able to believe where others will fail. These were those representing the "good soil." But Jesus does not explicitly say that it relates to anything intrinsic to the individual (though Luke's version comes the closest to that), only that it is an individual who accepts (or understands) the word he has received. The question still remains: Why is it that some were able to accept the word? What is the "good soil?" Is it the good person, who is capable of understanding, or is it the soil that is tilled and prepared for the planting by the sure and effectual work of the Holy Spirit?

    Second, Ian, you minimize exactly what it is that we have to "boast" about by rightly pointing out that one must first understand himself (or herself) to be a sinner deserving of judgment by God. This is hardly a position of pride from which to boast, I agree. But the fact remains that one has still obtained a state, through the virtues of perception and humility, that the non-believer is too blind, prideful, or stubborn to achieve. There is still grounds for boasting even if there is not inclination, and Paul seems to be telling us that even the grounds to not exist.

  16. SLW,

    In answer to some of your questions (which fall into the philosophical category) I will say these things:

    Of course the Bible will seem senseless under a Reformed perspective if one has thus far only been looking at things through the lens of an Arminian view. Under an Arminian view there are whole passages of Scripture that sometimes get bypassed in Bible studies. Adrian Rogers once did a verse-by-verse series on Romans, but left out certain key sections that happen to be troubling to his semi-Arminian view.

    To me, there are many things in Scripture that hammer home the theme of God's all-encompassing sovereignty. The entire project of creation and human redemption seems to be a parade of God's will and action in the midst of human weakness and enslavement to sin. It seems that God makes a special point to choose the unlikely hero in order to emphasize that the glory in all things is His alone. Indeed, so many of the stories begin with the theme of His choosing this people or that individual. Some are even chosen for their role (and presumably salvation) from the very womb, before they had done any work or exercised their will to faith (e.g., Jacob and John the Baptizer). And we cannot suffer exceptions to the rule in our systematic theology.

    Additionally, the language of Scripture in relation to belief and faith is often excessively pessimistic regarding our own natural ability. Saying that we are dead in sin, enslaved to sin, deaf and blind, or in need of being born of the Spirit are all things which are not emblematic of self-correction.

    As to why God would not save everyone, I have only speculation, though it could also be asked why He should choose to save anyone in this rebellious creation. However, the Arminian shares a similar burden in this, since it is asserted in Scripture that God is capable of making even the rocks themselves sing His praises if need be. Human will is surely no match for the will of God, and I would think that if God heals a broken soul it will naturally fly to its maker just as a bird with mended wing will take to the sky.

    Your question regarding our responsibility is the one Erasmus raised and Luther answered in his book-length treatment, "The Bondage of the Will." He suggests that it is possible to have a moral stake even in what one is presently unable to do. We should glorify our God even if we do not desire to do so. It is all-the-more condemnable that we do not! Remember that this creation is under judgment and we are "born into sin." I might ask how it is fair that we should find ourselves born into sin. Why must I have faith at all? Why threaten me with hell? I didn't ask to be born!

    But there is one more thing to consider. Even if some find in themselves the ability to believe and others do not, it suggests that there is something in their nature or circumstance that facilitated such believe. Now we must ask where that nature and circumstance has originated. Did God not make all persons? Did God not arrange all births? Did He not know who would believe and who would not? Why, then, did He choose to make some who would be destined for hell? This is either the back door into Calvinism or it is the trap door into Open Theism.

  17. Paul,
    I just realized this response will follow immediately after my rebuke of a testy commenter. Sorry about that.

    I don't consider my objections to Calvinism philosophical, but scriptural. As you said, if there's one scripture that does not, or cannot, fit into one's schema, the schema must be incorrect.

    1 Timothy 2:4 is a pointy dagger, because the Calvinistic schema says that God does not want all men to be saved, save the elect. This verse says not true, God wills (thelo) everyone to saved, and yet not all men are. I find this supported (a little more indirectly) by 2 Peter 3:9 and Ezekiel 18:23 & 33:11, among others. The conclusion I see as unavoidable is that if it was up to God alone, everyone would be saved; ergo, there is something within the purview of man which God does not overrule that makes the difference between one fate and the other. Many other scriptures tell me that something is faith enacted.

  18. Paul,

    Thanks for coming back and responsding,

    Here is how I understand the parable of the sower,

    Most importantly the parable begins with the farmer sowing seed on all types of soil. This tells me the word of God is available to all. Then the rest of the parable ....... I believe Jesus was being optimistic in His outlook, despite initial failures eventually the word of God (seed) will be succesful, the key word, IF. If we prepare our hearts (soil) in such a way to receive it. How? By removing the thorns, resisting the devil, etc everything the bible instructs us to do. I believe this is the meaning of "working out our salvation". Eventually it produces a crop. So the the point of the parable is not to show that some will be saved and some won't.

    As for boasting. I think we both agree that salvation is a free gift from God to those who don;t deserve it. Even in that understanding of salvation there still remains the possibility of boasting in that God thinks us as special to extend it to us. I would suggest the Calvinistic view promotes that possibilty more. Didn't Paul warn of "high mindness". So I think the best understanding of boasting is the idea of working FOR it. The Jewish mind was so custom to working for their salvation through the law and sacrifices that they couldn't accept a free gift. I thnk the catholic church would be a good example of working FOR one's salvation and boasting.

    God Bless and thanks for reading

  19. SLW,

    I'll agree that verses like those are possibly the best defense of the Arminian view — ones I would have appealed to myself. They are pointy, as you say. However, there are pointy verses on the Calvinist side. Even pointier, I would suggest. Since we have "opposing" verses, we would have to ask ourselves which can more easily be understood in a different way or context.

    The verses you cite are compelling, but notice that you had to add an "ergo" in order to get your "conclusion." You had to add assumptions to the mix (which I'll not unpack now). They are not unreasonable assumptions, but this is categorically different from a direct statement needing no further clarification. I see those kinds of statements in Scripture in support of the view of unconditional election. I do not see any direct and unequivocal statements supporting the Arminian view. If I found a verse like the following, this debate would be over in my view: "Christ has made general atonement for sins on the cross. The Holy Spirit woos all persons to aid in belief. But we must each exercise our decisive will to accept the gift of salvation."

    It seems to me that the Arminian task is to defend assumptions and explain away the plain-sense reading of competing passages. The Calvinist's task is to examine assumptions and exegetical maneuvers. Let me close by giving some sample passages that I find supportive of the Calvinist view of election.

    John 6:44 — No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.
    John 6:37 — All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.

    Between these verses alone, we see Jesus saying that it requires the Father to draw one to faith; that whoever the Father gives will come to Jesus; and those drawn will be raised up on the last day. And just for grins, do a Greek word study on the word "draws" in v.44. Particularly, see where it is used elsewhere in Scripture and how it is alternately translated.

    When we appeal to Paul's letters we find many more passages where it seems as though Paul is going out of his way to make the case for sovereign election. If he were not, then it is odd that he could not have chosen other language to get his point across more clearly. I won't burden you with further passages, since I find John's text to be suitably difficult.

  20. Ian,

    You said, "This tells me the word of God is available to all."

    Yes, available. The question is whether it can/will be received by all. Obviously not, for whatever reason, since not all ARE or HAVE the good soil.

    You said, "I believe this is the meaning of 'working out our salvation'."

    I would urge you to look at both Philippians 2:12 and 13. In v.13 you will notice that it says, "for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure."

    You said, "So the point of the parable is not to show that some will be saved and some won't."

    But it very much shows that, and it shows that some are uniquely equipped to successfully, deeply, and truly receive the Gospel.

    You said, "I would suggest the Calvinistic view promotes [the possibility of boasting] more."

    The Calvinistic view says that we are unconditionally elect. There is nothing special about any particular believer that caused God to choose them. In fact, God seems to delight in choosing the unlovely above all else, and in this way He can rightly claim the glory for Himself. I may be grateful that God has selected me, but there is absolutely nothing I can point to in myself to justify pride in that selection. On the other hand, it would seem that you may say about your salvation, in the end, "I had prepared my heart. I removed the thorns. I resisted the devil. Etc." You may not have gone to the cross yourself, but you certainly brought to it a fist full of verbs. :)

  21. Paul,

    "The question is whether it can/will be received by all."

    2:10 And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.

    2:11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:

    2:12 That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness

    If their wills are aleady determined why would it be necessary for God to send the delusion?

  22. Ian,

    These verses (from 2 Thessalonians) speak of what God will do to those who already do not believe. Encouraging them to believe the great lie is a part of their judgment. It says, "That they all might be damned who believed not the truth". It does not say, "So that they will not believe the truth."

    This text would seem to be problematic for your position, since it indicates that God is willing and able to tamper with human will in order to insure certain beliefs. And again, I would point you to the text that immediately follows these passages:

    "But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth."

    Paul uses most unfortunate language if he really means to be teaching us Arminian theology.

  23. Paul,
    I agree, there are pointy verses on both sides of the argument: those you cited amongst the pointiest (more so, imho, than the usual suspects in Romans 9 and 11). I would, however, take exception to the apparent hermeneutic you used in weighing out the relative importance of texts seemingly at odds, and I do not see the verses you cited in the same unequivocal manner that you do.

    It is true enough, that in understanding the message of the scriptures one must defer to the clear rather than the unclear, but I see that as a process hermeneutic rather than an interpretive finality-- a position ones holds "until". Scripture must interpret scripture. The Holy Spirit is the singular author of a message untainted by internal contradiction. Sometimes, we must embrace the paradox in the text (and maybe that is the reason we have been arguing about this since the days of Augustine), and sometimes we need to hold in flux our understanding, dig deeper and wait on the Spirit to clear the fog. Though each statement of scripture must be allowed to state what it states in its own context (i.e. stand in its own right), it does not follow that one statement has "veto" power over another. So I cannot interpret John 6 without a view to those passages I've cited earlier. I cannot decide either/or when both are clear and germane to each other, I have to say both.

    I will admit that John 6 is a field of landmines for an Arminian perspective. However, a big obstacle in making too much of the word translated "draw," is its use in John 12:32. It seems to me a double-edged sword to rely on too heavily on that. As for coming to Christ, is there a better metaphor for faith? I think Romans 10:12-17 is cut and dry about where faith comes from, its answer is not regeneration.

    I will agree with all my Calvinist brothers and sisters, no one comes to God without his "interference" within the soul. Grace, yes, more specifically, the Holy Spirit. I disagree with them that this grace is active in the elect alone because it is irresistable. John 12:32, Peter's interpretation of Joel in Acts 2:14-21, the passages I've cited earlier, and others beside, tell me God is presently engaged in wooing all people to Christ. The elect are those that respond with faith. I think this schema passes the smell test in John 6 without so much as a sniffle.

  24. SLW,

    Yes, oddly enough, John 6 is one of the lesser attended chapters that speak to this issue (Ephesians 1 and part of 2 as well). I find it to be a huge stumbling block. Most of the chapter seems to be teaching sovereign election, and the entire reason that many of the disciples walked away looks to be in response to this statement: "For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father." No one ever balks at Arminian theology.

    There is no dispute regarding your other passages that make it clear that faith is required for salvation. As I said earlier, faith is still exercised by the believer. It is the natural effect of having been born of the Spirit (remember, it says you cannot see the kingdom unless you are first born again, not that once you born yourself again then you get to see the kingdom). All the passages that speak of the necessity of faith and the availability of the Gospel can be rolled into one and answered by asking what motivates the believer to exercise a saving faith in the first place. These passages are not evidence for Arminianism; they are only evidence that faith itself is a part of the redemptive process. They are effectively employed against those who advocate a works-based salvation.

    As to your final verses supporting a universal drawing of the Spirit, I think you must take them in a more general (or temporal) sense, since not all persons are privileged to hear the Gospel, and not all men in fact prophesy and see visions.

    Since we are very far apart on this and not likely to make quick (or any) headway (and I wouldn't risk impacting our friendship), I propose we untangle ourselves from this issue. My main concern is to dispel any misconceptions and clarify the doctrines of Reformed Theology. To that end I would be happy to assist. Perhaps someday I will make a comprehensive case for it on my blog, though I am hesitant to introduce theologically divisive topics into a forum meant more for the defense of mere Christianity (as C.S. Lewis terms it).

  25. Paul,
    You are ever gracious, thank you.

    We agree, beyond a doubt, that it takes the experience of faith to be saved, and that the experience cannot occur apart from God's gracious ministrations. As to how and why this occurs, we have differences of opinion. Each of us, in our own minds, believe scripture is on our side of the argument and our own case seems air tight.

    Can we let it go, and clasp hands in friendship and brotherhood? Absolutely! We have more in common in Christ than we'll ever have in opposition soteriologically. So until we take it up again, or even if, blessings to you, my brother, you are always a pleasure to talk with.

  26. Great, I'm learning from this...


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