The Heart of the Calvinist-Arminian Divide
Pastor John, today’s question will prompt a lot of thoughts about the distinction between Calvinism and Arminianism when it comes to the power of God’s grace. As listeners may know, you are hoping to finish up a big, new book project on God’s providence this summer. I know these questions about God’s sovereignty are on the front of your mind. Here’s the email.
“Hello, Pastor John! I’m a 26-year-old man in full-time ministry working primarily with collegiate golfers. In a recent Bible study, one of the older men in our group brought up the topic of ‘prevenient grace’ — the idea that the Holy Spirit enables everyone to potentially believe, if they choose to cooperate. I was unprepared in the moment. I am Reformed and believe wholly in the sovereignty of God in salvation. I believe we are saved by grace, through faith, and this faith is not our ‘own doing’ but is rather a ‘gift of God,’ coming to the elect from outside of us (Ephesians 2:8). But I was really unprepared to respond in that moment. I’d love to hear your answer. How do you address ‘prevenient grace’?”
Two Historical Views
There are two very different views of how God’s grace functions in bringing people from spiritual darkness and deadness and unbelief into the light and life and faith, which we call salvation and union with Christ.
If it helps, you can call the one view Arminianism because one of its early and foremost advocates was Jacob Arminius. You can call the other view, the one I’m going to argue for, Calvinism because one of its foremost advocates was John Calvin. But the names Arminianism and Calvinism are not important in comparison to what’s really at stake: Is one of them more biblical than the other?
“There are two very different views of how God’s grace functions in bringing people from spiritual deadness into life.”
Now, both of these views agree that until the grace of God is active and powerful in the human heart, there is only deadness and rebellion and unbelief, with no possibility of man bringing about the changes in his own heart that are necessary for salvation. We need to get that clear because sometimes Calvinists don’t describe Arminianism correctly there.
Historic Arminianism agrees with Calvinism that fallen man, apart from special grace, cannot give himself life or produce his own faith. The difference lies in what this divine grace does in the human heart, and how it relates to the will of man. Prevenient grace, which is what we’re being asked about, is a phrase used by Arminians usually to describe the work of God’s grace prior to faith. Hence the word prevenient (which means coming before). Without this, faith would not be possible. That’s what an Arminian would say.
Let me read some words from a prominent Arminian theologian, Roger Olson, from his book Against Calvinism, to make sure that I express the view fairly. I want you to hear the very words of Dr. Olson as a historic, faithful, insightful Arminian. Here’s what he says:
If anyone comes to Christ with repentance and faith, it is only because they are enabled by God’s “prevenient grace” to do so. (66)
Arminianism has always insisted that the initiative in salvation is God’s; it is called “prevenient grace,” and it is enabling but resistible. (169)
[Wesley] affirmed original sin, including total depravity in the sense of spiritual helplessness. But he also affirmed God’s universal gift of prevenient or enabling grace that restores freedom of the will. (129)
Classical Arminian theology . . . attributes the sinners’ ability to respond to the gospel with repentance and faith to prevenient grace. (67)
Now, let me insert a comment here. Just to be clear, he says the ability to respond is given with prevenient grace. But it’s an ability to believe or not to believe. And he’ll make that really plain in just a minute. Continuing the quote now,
“God’s saving grace does not merely restore a kind of free will that can accept or reject Christ.”
[Prevenient grace is] the illuminating, convicting, calling, enabling power of the Holy Spirit working on the sinner’s soul and making them free to choose saving grace (or reject it). (67)
So prevenient grace brings one out of bondage to the point where you can receive or reject the work of God in your heart.
So in Arminian theology, a partial regeneration does precede conversion, but it is not a complete regeneration. It is an awakening and enabling, but not an irresistible force. . . . [Prevenient grace is] God’s powerful attracting and persuading power that actually imparts free will to be saved or not. (171)
Now, that’s the end of my quotations so that you could hear how a historic Arminian would describe his own understanding of prevenient grace. Those are all quotations. The question is whether that understanding of how grace works to bring about our faith is biblical, or whether the Calvinist view is biblical.
What’s Ultimately Decisive?
Calvinism says God’s grace doesn’t just bring us up to a point of “partial regeneration” (that’s Olson’s term). Calvinism says God’s grace doesn’t stop and leave the outcome to our ultimate self-determination — now, that’s my term, ultimate self-determination. Olson doesn’t use that. I think it’s fair, and I think it’s right in trying to get across the fact that man, not God, does the final and the ultimately decisive act.
I know that the word decisive is a little slippery, and I’m trying to be clear and fair: ultimately decisive. According to Arminianism, the very final act that brings me into Christ, that decisive moment in conversion, is one that I perform, not God.
Calvinism says that God does more in our conversion; namely, he overcomes all of our resistance and opens the eyes of our hearts to make Christ so real and so beautiful and so compelling that our will gladly embraces Christ as our Savior and Lord and Treasure.
Raised from the Dead
The question is, Which of those is the biblical view of how God’s grace brings us to faith and salvation? Does it make us free to choose grace or reject it? Or does it overcome our rebellion and blindness so that we are drawn triumphantly by the beauty of Christ to embrace what is true and real?
“God’s grace brings us all the way to the point of conversion so that we give him all the glory for our receiving of Jesus.”
Now, as you ponder which of these two views is biblical, and you search the Scriptures, I would just point to one passage. We could point to others, but just to save time, I’ll point to one passage of Scripture that I think shows the complete saving effectiveness of God’s grace and that God provides more than a partial regeneration in order to bring us to faith. That passage is Ephesians 2:4–7. So let me read it.
“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses” — now come the two verbs of what God, being rich in mercy, does. Number one: he “made us alive together with Christ.” That’s what he does for dead sinners. He made us alive with Christ. Not just alive to reject Christ, but alive with Christ. And then he adds this parenthetical phrase: “by grace you have been saved.” You have been saved in order to show, I think, what grace actually does: it makes us alive with Christ.
And then here’s the second verb: “and raised us up with him.” So he made us alive together with Christ and he raised us up. So he brings us up alive out of the grave of our fallenness, and he raises us up with Christ. Paul continues, “and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4–7).
I don’t think that text can be fairly interpreted to mean that there is a split in regeneration or a split in making alive. It is not as if he does part of it, and then he waits to see what we will do with the rest of it, if we will finish the making alive and bringing ourselves into union with Christ. I don’t think that will work.
The Real Difference
The difference between me (and I think I speak for virtually all Calvinists on this point) and Arminians is not that one believes in total depravity and the other doesn’t. No, that’s not it. And the difference is not that one believes that grace must precede faith and the other doesn’t. No, that’s not the difference either.
Rather, I believe that God’s saving grace not merely restores a kind of free will that can accept or reject Christ, but rather opens our blind eyes and grants us to see the compelling truth and beauty and worth of Jesus in such a way that we find him irresistible. Then we gladly and willingly embrace him as our Savior and Lord and Treasure. He brings us all the way to the point of conversion so that we give him all the glory for our receiving of Jesus.