Introductory Session: Calvinism Inductive Bible Study Series – An Overview of Two Key Terms

This post should have been the first post of this 8 (now 10)-part series on Calvinism. It sets forth basic definitions and an overall framework that is useful for understanding the entire series. 

Introductory Session: Calvinism Inductive Bible Study Series – Executive Summary

This is a 9-part series which will explore the question, why are some people saved, and others not? There are three positions on this:

  • The traditional position (we will call this the Free Grace position): people respond differently to God’s free offer of eternal life.
  • The Arminian position: people are spiritually dead and unable to respond to God, but God grants everyone prevenient grace, which enables people to respond to God. People respond differently to God’s free offer of eternal life.
  • The Calvinist position: people are spiritually dead and unable to respond to God. God chooses to save some by sovereign regeneration and granting of faith, and allows the rest to perish.

This study will present the merits of the Free Grace position

A central thesis of this series is that the Fall did not take away the capacity to respond to God, and that as a result, the Free Grace position has Biblical support.

Calvinism is shown to be dependent on the incorrect doctrine that people are unable to respond to God

If people are able to respond to God, the type of response is what separates people into two groups: those with God forever in heaven, and those separated from God forever. What separates people is longer whether we have been unconditionally elected, and grace is no longer irresistible. This removes the T, U, and I from TULIP (L and P will not be considered in this series).

Free grace and Arminianism are very similar, and are united against determinism and uncondictional election, but the two differ on anthropology

The Free Grace position is very similar to Arminianism, and the differences are subtle. Both positions hold that God is actively seeking the lost, through the drawing ministries of the Father and Son (through the Word, which includes the power of the gospel message), and through the conviction ministry of the Holy Spirit, whereby people can be convinced of their sinfulness and need for a savior. Without revelation (hearing the gospel message, which is accomplished by human instrumentality) and these drawing and conviction ministries, people cannot respond to Jesus in saving faith.

However, these two systems differ on their understanding of how these ministries affect people.

  • The Free Grace position holds that they present people with and convince people of the truth about themselves, which they need to accept in the mind, will, and heart.
  • Under the Arminian framework, people are inherently unable to respond to God, but such ministries – called prevenient grace – renders people no longer “totally depraved” and under the bondage of sin, and frees the will so that it can make a choice.

In other words, the Free Grace position holds that people don’t believe because they either haven’t heard the truth, or because they have heard it but willfully suppress it (people have the innate capacity to respond to truth). However, the Arminian position holds that people don’t believe the truth because they, in their natural state of spiritual death, have no choice but to be unwilling, but prevenient grace restores free will. The Arminian also tends to think of responding positively to God’s conviction as a good work (hence the need for divine enablement), while the Free Grace proponent does not see anything of merit in admitting our complete sinfulness and need for a savior.

At first glance, this may appear to be a mere semantic difference, but Section 9 will show how accepting such a faulty anthropology (that unsaved people do not have the capacity to respond to God) renders Arminianism vulnerable to certain Calvinistic arguments. However, the Free Grace position is immune to such arguments because it denies Calvinistic (Augustinian is a more accurate term) total depravity, the very basis of Calvinism.

An Overview of Two Key Terms

Two terms are key to understanding Biblical salvation: believing (or, having saving faith, or trusting); and choosing (or, election). This session will define these terms from a free grace perspective.

Believing / having saving faith / trusting

The Apostle Paul once defined the contents of the gospel as follows: For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Part of the contents of this saving message is the identity of the Christ: Jesus Christ, son of God and son of man, God incarnate.

To be saved from spiritual death to eternal life is to believe this message, and the Bible describes such believing as faith.  The English word trust more accurately captures these characteristics. The term “saving faith” will be used in this section as an umbrella term which describes the necessary human response in order to gain eternal life.

Saving faith has three components:

  • Hearing and understanding the gospel message, and mentally assenting to its objective truth
  • Conviction that the gospel message applies personally – that we are sinful and in need of a savior
  • Appropriation by turning to Jesus for forgiveness of sins and salvation

Hearing and understanding the gospel message, and mentally assenting to its objective truth

Receiving the necessary information, or the gospel message, is a prerequisite to saving faith, as what we believe is a product of the information we have received. Romans 10:17 states that faith comes by hearing.

Understanding the objective truth of the gospel message, and its potential personal application, is accomplished by human instrumentality: people, moved by the Holy Spirit, preaching the gospel message across linguistic, cultural, physical, and spiritual barriers to those who have yet to believe. This is also where apologetics can serve as a tool.

Potential barrier: demonic opposition. Jesus’ parable as told in Luke 8:5 states that A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled on, and the wild birds devoured it. Luke 8:12 clarifies that this is demonic activity: 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 and be saved. One of the darkest manifestations of evil in this world is demonic activity preventing people from hearing and understanding the saving gospel message.

Conviction that the gospel message applies personally – that we are sinful and in need of a savior

Conviction of sins and need for a savior can perhaps be thought of as a concurrent process whereby one understands the gospel message to be personally applicable. Here, the conviction ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the drawing ministries of the Father and Son, through the Word, appeal to heart, mind, and will.

Potential barrier: suppressing the truth. It is possible to hear and understand the objective truth of the gospel message, but to deny its personal application. Such people fight and resist the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, and suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They deny their sinfulness and inability to save themselves, as well as Jesus’ claim to be the only way to eternal life.

Appropriation by turning to Jesus for forgiveness of sins and salvation

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 message, and were convicted of its truth). 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 personal truth of the gospel message (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.

What is repentance in a salvation context?

Repentance means a change of mind. In this context, it is a change of mind concerning who they are, and who Jesus is, and within this context, it involves turning to Jesus for salvation. That inward appropriation of the free offer of forgiveness of sins and salvation was demonstrated outwardly through their baptism.

Repentance and faith are used interchangeably when salvation is discussed in the Bible, and saving faith can also be described as repentant faith. Both result in an act of the will: turning towards Jesus for forgiveness of sins, and appropriation of the offer of free life.

It is God’s choice to save, and God is sovereign in determining the criteria for that election to salvation

The Bible speaks of God electing (choosing) people, and it can be argued that this election is to salvation. A choice made by an intelligent being necessitates criteria, unless it is random.

A critical question is whether God has revealed this criteria to us, and whether we are able to meet this criteria so that we are chosen. If the answer is no, then God’s election is random, or “unconditional,” from a human perspective. If the answer is yes, then we have agency in whether we are chosen or not.

There are 4 scenarios where we, the recipient, have no agency/choice in whether we are chosen or not (and where God’s election is random or unconditional from our perspective):

  • A: God did not reveal election criteria to us;
  • B: God’s election criteria is not humanly attainable;
  • C: People are unable to respond to God;
  • D: There is no criteria as it is random

If any of these four are true, then election (to salvation) is random or unconditional from a human standpoint, as we are unable to affect our eternal destination. If none of these are true, then people have agency in whether they meet God’s criteria and are saved.

Unconditional election depends on Augustinian total depravity

It is universally acknowledged that D is not true given God’s character. B and C are held to be true by Calvinists as a result of the Augustinian doctrine of total depravity, where spiritually dead people are unable to respond to God and therefore are unable to meet God’s criteria of saving faith. However, because people are indeed saved, God must sovereignly regenerate a spiritually dead person so that they respond to the gospel message in saving faith. Since there is no revealed criteria for who is saved and who is not, God’s election criteria is described as mysterious and inscrutable, and God’s election is described as unconditional from the human perspective.

Since unconditional election depends on Augustinian total depravity, if such depravity is shown to be false, then unconditional election is without merit as well. If an unsaved person is able to understand the gospel message and respond to God’s conviction and drawing ministries, then the criteria for election is understood to be saving faith. Indeed, this is the normal reading of passages like John 3:16 should one understand God’s gospel invitation to be genuine to the whole world, and commandments to believe to be a genuine exhortation that is possible for every member of the human race.

Saving faith is more properly described as a response, than a choice

Although saving faith involves an exercise of the will, it is better described as a response than a choice: a sovereign God has imposed the criteria of saving faith upon the world, and people are required to respond. Not to mention, none of us can even respond to God unless God graciously first chose to reveal Himself to us and to die on a cross for our sins. With this in mind, it is inappropriate to view people as “choosing” God or salvation. Indeed, we don’t have a choice in what we believe – what we believe is a product of the information we have received, as well as our response to that information (whether we deny it, or accept it). While our response can technically be described as a choice, it is a choice made under constraints established by God. Therefore, it is better termed as a response.

The person who is led to salvation is the passive recipient, who is guided from ignorance to understanding, and who moves from resisting the Spirit and suppressing the truth to no longer resisting and yielding to conviction of sins and need for a savior. When these conditions are met, that person is led to a saving knowledge of the Lord.

A common objection: such an understanding of salvation undermines God’s sovereignty

God is sovereign in determining the criteria for election. He could have set any criteria He desired, but He determined the criteria to be saving faith in Jesus, and we are required to meet that criteria. God demands a response from us, and to not respond properly is to condemn ourselves to eternal separation. The reality of sin and rebellion proves that God delegates responsibility, since in God there is no darkness at all. To undermine God’s sovereignty would be to come up with an alternate way to be saved.

If God created people free to accept or reject salvation, then it can be said that God would choose everyone for salvation, but permits us to reject Him, in order for there to be love in a genuine sense. Indeed, God is love.

A summary overview of the remainder of this inductive series

The bulk of this series will present the case that Augustinian total depravity is neither necessitated nor supported by Biblical data. Both verses used to support and refute this doctrine will be analyzed. The doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace will be shown to depend on this doctrine, and verses used to support them will be read under the lens of an understanding that people are inherently able to respond to God. These doctrines will then be shown to be without Biblical support.

There will also be a session devoted to more difficult passages, such as Romans 9, as well as a session on the idea of predestination, and a concluding session looking at the bigger narrative in the Bible: one of God genuinely striving with each and every one of us.

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

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

I welcome your feedback!


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