This is session 5 of an 8-session series which will guide the reader through an inductive study of the Bible regarding Calvinism. Please see Session 1 for an overview of this series.
The previous two sessions (Session 3 and Session 4), we reviewed verses which have been argued to support the doctrine that unsaved people are inherently incapable of responding to God’s conviction of sin and need for a savior, and therefore cannot unless God supernaturally regenerates them, thereby changing their will. We have found that the majority of these verses do not speak to such a doctrine. Three verses, 1 Corinthians 2:14, 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, and 1 Peter 2:7-8, were shown to potentially offer evidence for the doctrine of total inability; however, tenable alternative explanations for these were reviewed. Session 2 showed that unconditional election hinges on this question of total inability.
We will now look into verses which suggest the opposite – that unsaved people are capable of responding positively to God’s conviction.
Verses indicating that spiritually dead people believe and are saved
Ephesians 2:1-8: And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path … But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! And he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.
This verse very plainly states the following:
- We were once spiritually dead
- We have been made alive (regenerated) by God
- This regeneration was accomplished by grace through faith
In other words, while spiritually dead, we were saved through faith. Romans 6:17 has the same idea: But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to
Both Ephesians 2:1-8 and Romans 6:17 testify that while we were still spiritually dead, we obeyed God’s teaching (revelation) from the heart. God’s Word has one command for the spiritually dead unbeliever to obey: believe in and receive Jesus for forgiveness of sins. The result of obedience is we were made spiritually alive.
With regards to faith and regeneration, this does not necessarily speak about chronological order (it appears that the two occur simultaneously in a temporal sense), but about cause and effect. This verse suggests that faith causes regeneration, and not the other way around.
What are the implications of this on the Calvinist viewpoint? It would appear that two possibilities remain for the Calvinist:
- Faith is a sovereign gift from God (we have reviewed such passages in the previous session and showed that there isn’t a dogmatic case to be made for this)
- God sovereignly does something else (other than regeneration) to an elect person, for example, a sovereign changing of the unregenerate will such as the person becomes willingly convicted of sin and need for a savior. Whatever this something is, it is only done towards the elect, and not the rest of humanity.
However, with regards to this second point, there is no explicit Scriptural support for this either, and so it must be inferenced as a result of an understanding of total inability. Yet if that very doctrine of total inability rests on such an inference, then the logical progression becomes circular and self-referencing, without actual support.
Examples from the Book of Acts and the Epistles
The Book of Acts recounts several conversion experiences of people who were receptive to God’s initial revelation of truth and conviction, prior to hearing the gospel message. These suggest that people have the inherent capacity to respond to God. To review, this does not mean that people are the initiators in the salvation process or that they can do anything apart from God’s grace. Rather, to revisit our definition of the libertarian viewpoint, the Lord is the active seeker and those who stop resisting God’s conviction of sins and need for a savior are led to salvation.
The following are some examples:
Lydia: worshipped God prior receiving gospel message from Paul
After Paul spoke Lydia in Philippi, God opened her heart and she responded to his message and believed. However, she was already described as a worshipper of God prior to meeting Paul. She had been receptive to God’s conviction, and God granted her more revelation and illumination so that she saw the truth of what Paul was speaking of, that the Scriptures point to Jesus.
Jailor: “what must I do to be saved?”
After Paul and Silas were miraculously delivered from prison through an earthquake, their jailor rushed over and asked, trembling, “what must I do to be saved?” This occurred prior to the jailor’s salvation, and it shows an unsaved, unregenerate person willing and desperate for salvation. Paul’s response was to believe, which the jailor did, and he was saved.
Bereans: received Paul’s message with eagerness and examined Scriptures to confirm Paul’s message, prior to believing
The Bereans received Paul’s message with “great eagerness” and studied the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true, and it was only afterwards that they believed Paul’s message.
Unsaved people in Pisidian Antioch urged Paul and Barnabas to preach, and believed unto salvation
As recounted in Acts 13, many Jews and God-fearing gentiles urged (also translated as begged, or invited) Paul and Barnabas to continue to speak to them about salvation. They heard, they believed, and were saved. Their pre-salvation posture was one of seeking and openness to receiving the truth.
- Acts 13:48 states, When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed. Such a rendering of the text suggests that it was an “appointment” which led to their belief. Next week, we will review this verse in its original language in further detail and suggest that it should not be translated “appointed” but rather “positioned themselves.” Such a translation fits better with the context, since these same gentiles, while still unbelievers, had a positive initial response to, and were eagerly seeking more of, God’s revelation.
The “hard case” for Jesus – it was hard for Saul to continue kicking against the goads
Saul received God’s revelation and conviction in a very different manner than Lydia, the jailor, the Bereans, and the gentiles in Antioch: his initial response was to harden his heart and murder Christians. But the Book of Acts shines some insight into what was going on inside Saul’s heart during this time: Jesus asked Saul on the road to Damascus: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by [or, it is hard for you to continue] kicking against the goads (Acts 26:15).
Saul was evidently resisting God’s grace (kicking against the goads) up to this point in time by persecuting Christians, however, it was hard for Saul to continue to do so. The word “hard” is key here: Jesus didn’t say, it is natural for you to kick against the goads, and it is all you are capable of doing on your own. Rather, it had been a difficult undertaking for Saul. The suggestion here is that people are inherently capable of yielding to God’s conviction of sins and need of a savior, so much so that it may be a difficult undertaking for some to not to yield and to continue to suppress that truth.
A dispensational understanding of pre-Pentecost salvation (for example, how people were saved in the Old Testatment) presents a possible alternative view that can bolster the Calvinist position
Lydia, the Bereans, and many other persons whose conversion stories are told in the Book of Acts (such as Apollos, and the Ethiopian eunuch, and many more) have one common characteristic: they had been actively seeking God, and fearing God, even worshipping God, prior to hearing the Gospel message (this is not a universal characteristic, as the example of Saul/Paul illustrates). This can be viewed as evidence that people inherently have the capacity to respond to God.
However, a dispensational framework provides a possible alternative explanation regarding how some of these people could have worshipped and feared God for a period of time prior to receiving Paul’s message. In its essence, the dispensational framework posits that the required content of saving faith changes from age to age (or, from dispensation to dispensation), in accordance to God’s progressive revelation.
For example, Adam and Eve weren’t told about Jesus Christ and Calvary; they were only told about a promised redeemer through Eve’s bloodline. It appears that Eve demonstrated her faith when she gave birth to Seth, the “appointed” one, and thanked God for “appointing” him. Indeed, Jesus came through Seth’s line thousands of years later, but Eve didn’t know this.
Similarly, Abraham believed God’s promises and left Ur for the promised land, and this was credited to him as righteousness. Neither Abraham, nor Eve, nor everyone else who believed in the Old Testament, trusted Jesus as their personal savior, but they were saved in accordance to God’s progressive revelation.
It is possible, then, that some of these people in Acts, such as Lydia and the Bereans, were already saved in accordance to an older dispensation, which had yet to receive the full canon of 66 Books of the Bible for example, but had not yet been baptized by the Spirit into the Church and indwelt by the Spirit (a privilege given only to members of the Church). Perhaps had they never heard Paul’s message, they would have been saved nonetheless like Abraham and Moses, and the wise men from the Orient, for they had yielded to and accepted the revelation they had been granted.
In this instance, the Calvinist interpretation is possible: that their eternal salvation had been accomplished sovereignly, against their natural will and inclination, prior to Paul’s preaching. However, this should not be the only dogmatic way to understand the conversion stories of Lydia and the Bereans (and every Old Testament saint), for Scripture does not explicitly explain these dynamics. In fact, since saving faith is always ascribed to the person, the normal understanding is that saving faith is a genuine possibility for every person.
Further, this does not include the instances of Saul/Paul and the jailor, for they cannot be described as God fearers and worshippers prior to their conversion. Additionally, this is not a viable alternative explanation for the salvation testimonies of Cornelius and Timothy, since Scripture records instances of a correct posture towards God’s illumination and conviction prior to their salvation:
Cornelius, already a devout man who feared God, heard Peter’s message and was saved
In many ways, the account of Cornelius mirrors the accounts of Lydia and the Bereans. He was already a devout man who feared God, prayed, and gave alms. God even answered his prayer (Acts 10:31). When Peter preached to him about Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins, and Christ resurrected, the Holy Spirit came upon everyone who heard, and he was among the first group of gentiles who were baptized by immersion.
However, the argument that Cornelius was already saved according to an earlier dispensation is contrary to Acts 11:14, where Peter recounted Cornelius’ conversion to other Jewish brothers: At that very moment, three men sent to me from Caesarea approached the house where we were staying. The Spirit told me to accompany them without hesitation. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. He informed us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter, who will speak a message to you by which you and your entire household will be saved.
This is an unequivocal statement that Cornelius, already a devout man who feared God, believed unto salvation, passing from death to life, during Peter’s preaching, not before, as that was the message through which Cornelius was saved. Cornelius had a positive response to God’s initial conviction of truth. His testimony is in line with our definition of the libertarian viewpoint, for God granted Cornelius more revelation and illumination unto salvation. It is the opposite testimony of some other people who reject God’s initial conviction, and who in time are blinded from being able to receive truth anymore.
Unbelievers like Timothy can be made wise unto salvation
2 Timothy 3:15 states, You, however, must continue in the things you have learned and are confident about. You know who taught you and how from infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
This is Paul’s final exhortation to Timothy, when he asks his protégé to revisit his childhood, where he was taught Scriptures from infancy. Timothy must have had a positive reaction to these “home Bible studies,” for he is described as having “known” them, or understood them. As a result, they gave him wisdom for [eventual] salvation. While this could be viewed as a long-term effectual and irresistible call, the normal, plain reading of this is an unregenerate person hungry for more of God’s truth, leading to eventual salvation, a testimony very similar to that of Cornelius.
Viewing 1 Corinthians 2:14 through the lens of Cornelius and Timothy
Since Scripture must be non-contradictory, we must harmonize the salvation experiences of Cornelius and Timothy with 1 Corinthians 2:14 (which was reviewed in Session 3 and found to potentially support the Calvinist position).
1 Corinthians 2:14 states that the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Cornelius and Timothy, while unregenerate and yet to be saved, did the following:
- Feared God (Cornelius)
- Prayed to God (Cornelius)
- Had a prayer (presumably, to be saved) answered by God (Cornelius)
- Learned from and knew the Scriptures, and was made wise unto salvation (Timothy)
From this, one of the following two possibilities concerning 1 Corinthians 2:14 must be true:
- The “natural man” is an unsaved person, such as pre-conversion Cornelius and Timothy, but the “things of the Spirit of God” does not include things that lead to salvation, such as understanding the gospel and being convicted of sin. This is because Cornelius and Timothy evidently had a correct response to that initial conviction.
- The “natural man” refers to everyone, whether saved or unsaved, who suppresses God’s conviction. In this case, Cornelius and Timothy would not fall under the category of “natural man” even during their unregenerate state.
Neither of these two conclusions demands the Calvinist position.
Some people do not believe because of the devil, not because of inability
Luke 8:12 Those along the path are the ones who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe [or, lest they believe] and be saved
2 Corinthians 4:3-4 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe [or, lest they believe] so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God.
Both passages makes the devil (and not inability) the cause of unbelief. The normal reading of “lest they believe” (or, “so that they may not believe”) is one of unsaved people who have the inherent ability to respond to God and be led to believe, but are prevented from doing so by the devil. The logical extension of this is that there are other people who have the inherent ability to respond, and who do believe.
This is a reality that has caused me grief and anguish, perhaps more so than any other passage of Scripture, that there are spiritual forces of wickedness in high places who work to prevent people from eternal life. Our only response can be to press on, and preaching the gospel and praying with desperate urgency.
Three of the passages we have reviewed this session, from Ephesians 2:8, Acts 13:48 (which will be reviewed next week), and 2 Corinthians 4:4, are common Calvinistic proof texts, only we have examined their immediate context here and found them to suggest a non-Calvinist viewpoint. This goes to show the importance of never reading a passage by itself, and always with context.
A simple Calvinist rebuttal requires extra-biblical assumptions
There is a simple Calvinist rebuttal for all of these verses, that everything was the sovereign work of God. For example, God made Lydia a worshipper of God prior to meeting Paul, the jailor willing and desperate for salvation, Saul kick against the goads (and stop kicking against the goads), and so on. There is no Scriptural support for this, but no explicit Scriptural rebuttal either.
However, such a “reading in” of a Calvinist interpretation into these verses is different than reading in a libertarian viewpoint into Calvinist proof texts that was done in Session 1. This is because reading in the libertarian viewpoint was an alternative reading of Scripture itself (considering possible interpretations given immediate context), while this Calvinist rebuttal relies on a philosophically “high” understanding of God’s sovereignty over whether people are saved, which isn’t explicitly presented in Scripture. This lends further support for the argument that Calvinism is built more upon a philosophical understanding, than a plain reading of Scripture.
For example, demonstrating that spiritually dead people have believed unto salvation could be considered evidence in a normal sense that people are inherently capable of responding to God. In order to maintain the Calvinist position, then, God must intervene “earlier” in the process (for example, as stated above, a sovereign changing of the unregenerate will such as the person becomes willingly convicted of sin and need for a savior). God can be argued to intervene earlier and earlier, to the point where everything is determined, if necessary, in order to support the Calvinist position. This can be labeled eisegesis, or reading a pre-existing understanding into the text in order to support that understanding.
At this point, it becomes a philosophical argument, which is perhaps the reason this debate has continued for centuries. However, the goal of sessions 3-5 has been to demonstrate that a plain, normal reading of Scripture, without pre-suppositions, leans towards the understanding that people are inherently capable of responding to God’s conviction. Because of this inherent ability, unconditional election is no longer required logically.
Looking ahead to session 8
In our last session, we will move close to the realm of philosophy by considering God’s command to believe and ask the question, is it characteristic of a loving God of truth to command us to do something (to believe) if we are incapable of it? This will be a continuation of this session. However, we will first review some additional Calvinistic proof-texts next session.
This week’s exercises
This week, we put 1 Corinthians 2:14 through the test cases of Cornelius and Timothy, and found that the two viable interpretations which survived no longer demanded the Calvinist framework.
Review 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 and 1 Peter 2:7-8, this time with the salvation testimonies of Cornelius and Timothy.
Read through the Book of Acts and make a running account of all conversion stories, and bucket the people into whichever category that seems to be more appropriate:
- Possibly already saved under an older dispensation, and transferred into the Church
- Saved from death to life
- Could reasonably fit into either category
For each conversion case study, how was the individual’s (or group of individuals’) overall posture towards the revelation they had received prior to hearing the Gospel message?
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