Session 4: Study of verses used to support total depravity (inability to respond) (part 2)

Session 4: Study of verses used to support total depravity (inability to respond) (part 2)

This is session 4 of an 8-part series which will help readers study the Bible and come to their own conclusions regarding Calvinism. Please see session 1 for an overview of these 8 parts and further background on this series.

A review of session 3

In session 3, we began our look into verses in Scripture which have been used to support the doctrine of total inability, which holds that unsaved people are unable to respond to God’s conviction of sins and need for a savior unless God regenerates them.

The first thing we did was to divorce the concept of being sinful and dead in our sins, from the ability to believe and receive. There is nothing we can do to merit righteousness except through faith, whereby the righteousness of Jesus is imputed onto us. Therefore, verses about the total depravity (sinfulness) of men, are irrelevant to the discussion.

We also reviewed a pattern across Scripture: if people are confronted with revelation but demonstrate that they are unwilling to be convicted, then in time God may pronounce judgment so that they are unable to believe. While most verses concerning inability to believe can fall into this category, there are three which do not: 1 Corinthians 2:14, 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, and 1 Peter 2:7-8. These verses potentially offer support for the position of total inability, but do not dogmatically affirm it. Therefore, they must be weighed against the entire counsel of Scripture. Sessions 4 and 5 will help the reader further investigate this all-important question.

Session 4: Verses which describe faith and repentance as a gift

The focus of this session will be on saving faith and repentance: how they are defined, their relationship to each other, and whether people have a genuine choice whether they come to repentant faith.

A brief discourse on saving faith

Faith, or belief, can be described as the conviction that something is true. Technically speaking, faith is mental assent. However, saving faith is more than mental ascent, because contents of the message we are required to believe include something about us: that we are guilty and helpless sinners and that Jesus, who died on the cross for our sins, is the only way to salvation. More than mental ascent, then, saving faith is also an acknowledgement of this truth from the heart and the conscience. Saving faith also appropriates this acknowledged reality by trusting in Christ for salvation. Another way of describing this appropriation is repentance, or turning to Jesus (away from the person’s previous philosophy or religion) for forgiveness of sins and salvation. The Calvinist may add that repentance includes turning from sins as well, although that is beyond the purview of this discussion.

In summary, saving faith appears to have three prerequisites:

  • Hearing and understanding the Gospel, and mentally assenting to its truth
  • Conviction of sins and need of a savior
  • Appropriation by turning (repenting) to Jesus as savior

Hearing and understanding the Gospel, and mentally assenting to its truth

If I asked you to believe, or mentally ascent, to the fact that the seawater is sweet, you would be met with an impossible task. We really aren’t in control over what we believe; what we believe is a product of what information we have received (Romans 10:17 states that faith comes by hearing). I have received information, through personal experience, that seawater is salty, and therefore I believe so. Similarly, a person cannot believe unless they have heard the facts of the Gospel, either through another person, or through the Bible.

There is nothing inherent in a person that prevents comprehension of the facts of the Gospel. Indeed many atheists have proven to be incredibly articulate in their understanding. There are also plenty of apologetic materials concerning the accuracy of the Scriptures, including archaeological findings dating Isaiah 53’s messianic prophecy to more than century before Christ was born. Therefore, there seems no reason that everyone cannot be made to mentally assent to the veracity of the Bible, just like they can be convinced that the earth is round. So, if anyone can believe the earth is round, why aren’t the masses coming to saving faith?

Conviction of sins and need of a savior

Of course, as we alluded to above, a second ingredient is required for saving faith. This second ingredient is conviction that we are sinful people deserving of God’s wrath and in need of a savior. This is the step where the external truth proclaimed in the gospel message is realized to be true of ourselves, personally. This is where I suspect many people who listen to the Gospel and don’t have a proper response are hung up: they are fighting the convicting work of the Holy Spirit and suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, denying their sinfulness, their inability to save themselves, and Jesus’ claims to be the only savior and way to eternal life. For these people, the seed has fallen on rocky soil or among thorns (we will discuss the third scenario in Matthew 13’s Parable of the Sower in later this session, and in session 5).

Apologetics is far from the only means through which we are convinced Scriptures are true, as millions of Christians believe without the benefit of apologetics. The primary means through is the Holy Spirit, who indwells the regenerated believer, for whom the Truth becomes an experienced reality. The non-Calvinist viewpoint is that this is God’s genuine desire for all people, and is a possibility for everyone who hears and understands the Gospel and is convicted of their sinfulness by the Spirit and need of a savior.

Appropriation by turning (repenting) to Jesus as savior

As recorded in Acts 2:37-38, the people who listened to Peter’s first sermon after Pentecost had met these two requirements (they heard and understood the Gospel, and were convicted). Peter then gave them instructions on how to appropriate that faith: Now when they heard this [Peter’s sermon], they were acutely distressed [or “cut to the heart,” or “convicted”] and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Verse 41 continues, So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added. Those who accepted the truth of the Gospel (that they are helpless sinners in need of a savior, whom God has provided in Jesus) said yes to Peter’s command to repent, and were saved.

The Calvinist objection: saving faith and repentance are granted by God

Although the focus in Acts 2:37-41 is on the human response, this passage by itself does not militate against the compatibilist viewpoint; even if it is not suggested, it is possible that those who accepted the truth did so because God had sovereignly changed their will so that they would be convicted. However, such a prior changing of the will would have to be different than receiving the Spirit or being regenerated (which occurred after the 3,000 had repented, or turned to Jesus in faith).

To support this, it is suggested that repentance and faith are gifts from God

The issue in a nutshell: how is faith acquired?

How would one theoretically “give” faith or repentance to another? To answer this question, we need to revisit the three prerequisites of faith:

  • Hearing and understanding the Gospel, and mentally assenting to its truth
  • Conviction of sins and need of a savior
  • Appropriation by turning (repenting) to Jesus as savior

One passage that has been used to support the idea of saving faith being a gift is Philippians 1:29, For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him. The question needs to be asked, what does it mean to grant someone to believe?

Looking back at the three prerequisites, the first one is to supply the necessary information. God must reveal Himself through the Bible and the person of Jesus. Without this revelation, no one would or could believe. To hear the Gospel is a privilege and a gift from God. The non-Calvinist would say that this is what it means to grant someone to believe.

However, the Calvinist, who holds to total inability, would say that such granting necessarily also includes overriding the person’s will so they become convicted, and so they appropriate the gift.

Either interpretation can be read into this verse. For example, what if there is an ability to believe? Let’s revisit our definition of faith, which is the conviction that something is true. This is not a perfect analogy, but consider, if your taste buds are working and I gave you sweet seawater you saw me gather from the ocean, you would be convinced that seawater can be sweet. I’m assuming that you wouldn’t “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” and willfully deny this reality; I do not have to alter your heart or conscience in order to grant you to believe that seawater can be sweet.

Could it be possible, then, to grant someone to believe is to present them the objective truth? God then grants people to believe through Jesus as revealed in the Scriptures, and the reason some don’t believe unto salvation is because in their souls they suppress the truth that they are sinful people, utterly helpless and in need of a savior.

Verses indicating that God grants repentance unto salvation

A primary verse describing God granting repentance is 2 Timothy 2:24-26: And the Lord’s slave must not engage in heated disputes but be kind toward all, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance and then knowledge of the truth and they will come to their senses and escape the devil’s trap where they are held captive to do his will. 

The Book of Acts also references granting repentance on two occasions, once in 5:31 where repentance is granted to Israel, and once in Acts 11:18, where repentance is granted to the Gentiles. Here, it must be interpreted as granted the opportunity to repent, as not all Jews and Gentiles will be saved.

The idea of opportunity to repent also makes sense in 2 Timothy 2:25 if the principle reviewed in Session 3 is at play, that God blinds those who resist revelation and conviction. An “opponent” of Christianity could fit under this category of people who suppress the truth. They may be under temporary hardening or demonic oppression, or possession, and no longer have the ability to repent unless God intervenes.

It is also possible that this verse does not describe repentance unto salvation, but from a faulty understanding of theology. After all, someone who is recently born again would not describe themselves as having “come to their senses,” as if they had previously known what it is like to saved!

Overview of additional verses used to support the Calvinist position that faith is granted by God

Ephesians 2:8: For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God

This is an instance where it is required to look into the original Greek text, to determine whether the “this,” or the gift of God, refers to

  • A: Faith
  • B: Grace
  • C: The act of believing
  • D: “By grace you are saved through faith” (the entire salvation process)

The word “this” is translated “touto” in the original Greek text (http://biblehub.com/interlinear/ephesians/2.htm), and “touto” is gender neutral. Therefore, it cannot be referring to faith or grace, as both of those words are feminine.

It may be argued that the word “that” refers generally to the act of believing (as opposed to the noun faith), as “that” in neuter gender can be a reference to a phrase. However, this would be reading a phrase into Scripture.

A more tenable interpretation is that the “that” is a reference to another phrase that is already in the text: “By grace you are saved through faith” (the entire salvation process). The entire salvation process is a gift of God, from Jesus as revealed in the Scriptures, to the convicting work of the Spirit, both of which are needed for a person to come to saving faith.

John 1:12-13: But to all who have received him – those who believe in his name, he has given the right to become God’s children – children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God.

Some translations have “human will” or “will of the flesh” instead of “human desire,” and this could connote the idea that it is not through a person’s will, or choice, that they are saved. However, the evident contrast in this verse is between being born of God and being born of the flesh. That is to say, regeneration is God’s will and accomplished only through God’s power, and the plain reading of this is that regeneration is a logical consequence of faith (and not the other way around).

This session’s exercises

The following are additional passages of Scripture which describe saving faith as a gift. Please consider them under the framework of saving faith we have outlined in this session: which requirements or prerequisites of saving faith are germane to these verses?

  • John 6:28-29
  • Acts 3:16
  • 2 Peter 1:1

Next session, we will examine verses which suggest an inherent ability to respond to God’s convicting ministry.

Session 1: Do people really have a choice in whether they end up in heaven or hell?

Session 2: Unconditional election depends on total depravity (inability to respond)

Session 3: Study of verses used to support total depravity (inability to respond) (part 1)

Session 5: Study of verses which suggest an inherent ability to respond

Session 6: Romans 9, Acts 13:48, and 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14

Session 7: Understanding predestination

Session 8: Comparison with Arminianism

Session 9: Big picture suggests one of God genuinely striving with humanity

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8 thoughts on “Session 4: Study of verses used to support total depravity (inability to respond) (part 2)

  1. Pingback: Read for yourself – Does the Bible Support Calvinism? – Session 1 | Virginia Biblical Post

  2. Pingback: Session 2: Nature of Election Depends on Whether there is Inherent Ability to Believe | Virginia Biblical Post

  3. Pingback: Session 3: Study of verses used to support total depravity (inability to believe) (part 1) | Virginia Biblical Post

  4. Pingback: Session 5: Study of verses which suggest an inherent ability to believe | Virginia Biblical Post

  5. Pingback: Session 5: Study of verses which suggest an inherent ability to respond | Virginia Biblical Post

  6. Pingback: Session 2: Nature of Election Depends on Whether there is Inherent Ability to Respond | Virginia Biblical Post

  7. Pingback: Session 3: Study of verses used to support total depravity (inability to respond) (part 1) | Virginia Biblical Post

  8. Pingback: Introductory Session: Calvinism Inductive Bible Study Series – An Overview of Two Key Terms | Virginia Biblical Post

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