This post is intended to address some comments by Doug Sayers on the sbctoday.com blog. I’m posting this here because the owner of the sbctoday blog has an aversion to honest and robust debate from appearing on his blog. After posting several comments, having a couple of them approved, the blog owner went back and deleted them all. The author of the post then responded to one of them… Needless to say, it seems like only one viewpoint is allowed at the sbctoday.com blog.
I also want to note that while I was a Baptist for many years, I have since left that position for one of paedobaptism, and have embraced Reformed theology as taught by the Continental Reformed position. That said, I believe that even in it’s Credobaptist form, Covenant theology is fairly unified on several of the key issues that Doug Sayers brings up in his article. It is these I want to address.
Doug states that he is a former Calvinist. I’m always fascinated how those who claim to have once espoused a position and left it rarely get the details of their former position right, and seem unable to represent them without strawman argumentation. Doug is no exception. That said, I want to make it clear that I don’t have any personal beef with Mr. Sayers, I don’t even know him. I’m responding to the blog post. I do have an issue with the owner of sbctoday.com, who deletes comments (apparently mine were not the only ones deleted) from those opposed to the position stated.
In his post, There’s a Fire in Adam’s House, Doug Sayers attempts to suggest that there is a disconnect between how Calvinism views salvation and how it views the means.
How can salvation be “all of grace” and yet require a condition, which must be met by the sinner alone?
This is a very important, if not crucial question in understanding the biblical doctrines of salvation. It helps us to identify the differences between the biblical teaching of salvation by grace and the Calvinistic teaching of salvation by irresistible grace. The presence of any voluntary or independent human condition would suggest that salvation might be somehow “merited.” The problem, as most know, is that the word grace means “unmerited favor.” How you answer this second question will help determine whether you are a Calvinist.
Right here we start with our first problem. Doug is going to agree that faith is a condition of salvation. Now knowing the SBC as I do, I’m quite sure that Doug doesn’t believe that salvation is by works, or merited by human effort or action whatsoever. That said, the question he’s posing is equally applicable to both Calvinists and Arminians. How they answer that question will in fact explain their underlying soteriological presuppositions.
If we agree that salvation is by grace alone, and grace is unmerited favor, then the requirement of faith in salvation cannot be contradictory to grace alone. If faith is something man brings to the table of salvation out of his own ability or will, then salvation cannot be by grace alone. If faith, however, is in fact a supernatural gift of God to those whom he has chosen out of the mass of rebellious sinners, then faith is gracious too and all of salvation can truly be said to be sola gratia.
The question therefore becomes, is faith a gracious gift of God, or something conjured up in the ability or will of man? If faith is something that supposedly neutral man can conjure up, how is salvation by grace, and how is that not merit?
I have always felt some sympathy for kids who are told that they can’t do anything to be saved, but they are also told that they must repent of their sin and believe in Jesus, if they want to be saved.
Doug has rightly identified a problem, but the problem is not with Calvinism, but with his understanding of the Gospel and how it saves sinners. Doug seems to be acting on the presupposition that everyone is neutral, and equally able to make a rational decision about the facts of the Gospel. But the Bible indicates otherwise. Being a former Calvinist, Doug should know that we believe in Total Depravity, that everyone comes into this world not neutral, but in a state of war with God.
Of this pre-conversion state, Paul the Apostle writes:
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God,
for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit,
if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who
does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
It’s important to follow Paul’s logic here. Paul is describing the “mind that is set on the flesh”. That is, the same mindset that he speaks of elsewhere as being “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1-2). Of this mindset Paul says that it “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Paul is describing the unbeliever.
So of the person with this mindset Paul says the following:
- They are hostile to God.
- Do not submit to God’s Law
- Cannot submit to God’s Law
- Cannot please God.
- The difference between a person in this mindset and a mind set on the Spirit is the indwelling Spirit of God
You cannot miss this point. The unbeliever, in his natural state, according to Paul, hates God and is unwilling and unable to submit to Him. How does a person who hates God and cannot submit to him come to believe in him? Answer: they must be born again.
So this brings us back to Doug’s conundrum: “kids who are told that they can’t do anything to be saved, but they are also told that they must repent of their sin and believe in Jesus, if they want to be saved.”
What if, instead of viewing the Gospel as a thing that one must do, we view it as the message and the means that God has ordained by which people are saved.
What I mean is this: “the gospel… is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek… How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”
(Rom 1:16, 10
The Gospel is the message and the means by which God saves. The Gospel is a supernatural message, used by the Holy Spirit to bring to life dead sinners and generate faith within them. Yes, the Gospel message includes the command to believe in it, yet, what God requires he provides, even faith.
So when a kid hears the Gospel preached to them, hopefully every week at church, every day at home and throughout their own study and life, they’re not hearing a command to a neutral party to merely accept certain facts about Jesus, they’re hearing the life-giving Word of God that raises dead sinners to life. They, like Lazarus, are hearing Jesus say “Lazarus, come out!” With that command comes the supernatural new life and ability to do so. Thus, the faith commanded in the Gospel is that faith which God gives as part of bringing dead sinners to life anew in Christ.
This is what Paul was talking about when he said, ” If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” Notice that connection back to Romans 8:9
, that those who have the Spirit dwelling in them, are not God’s enemies.
Calvinists, and those influenced by them, often struggle with this question. Some Calvinistic teachers will scoff at the very notion that we each must meet a human condition in order to be forgiven.
I know of know Calvinist who denies that faith is a condition of salvation. Calvinism does not teach that the elect are saved apart from faith, or before they believe. A quote from Doug proving this contention might substantiate his claim, but let me provide the opposing evidence:
Caspar Olevian (1536-87). For this reason the distinction between law and Gospel is retained. The law does not promise freely, but under the condition that you keep it completely. And if someone should transgress it once, the law or legal covenant does not have the promise of the remission of sins. On the other hand, the Gospel promises freely the remission of sins and life, not if we keep the law, but for the sake of the Son of God, through faith (Ad Romanos Notae, 148; Geneva, 1579).
John Ball (1585-1640). The Covenant of Works, wherein God covenanted with man to give him eternal life upon condition of perfect obedience in his own person. The Covenant of Grace, which God made with man promising eternal life upon condition of believing.
Robert Rollock (c.1555-99). Whereas God offers the righteousness and life under condition of faith, yet he does not so much respect faith in us, which is also his own gift, as he does the object of faith, which is Christ, and his own free mercy in Christ, which must be apprehended by faith; for it is not so much our faith apprehending, as Christ himself, and God’s mercy apprehended in him, that is the cause wherefore God performs the promise of his covenant unto us, to our justification and salvation (Select Works, 1.40).
Francis Turretin (1623-87). he federal promise is twofold: either concerning the end or the means, i.e., either concerning salvation or concerning faith and repentance (because each is the gift of God). (4) The covenant can be considered either in relation to its institution by God or in relation to its first application to the believer or in relation to its perfect consummation (Institutes of Elenctic Theology; 12.3.2)… Third, if the covenant be viewed in relation to the first sanction in Christ, it has no previous condition, but rests upon the grace of God and the merit of Christ alone. But if it is considered in relation to its acceptance and application to the believer, it has faith as a condition (uniting man to Christ and so bringing him into the fellowship of the covenant). If, however, in relation to its consummation with faith (obedience and the desire of holiness), it has the relation of condition and means because without them no one shall see God (Institutes of Elenctic Theology; 12.3.5).
Charles Hodge (1797-1878). The Condition of the Covenant. The condition of the covenant of grace, so far as adults are concerned, is faith in Christ. That is, in order to partake of the benefits of this covenant we must receive the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God in whom and for whose sake its blessings are vouchsafed to the children of men… But in other cases, by condition we merely mean a sine qua non. A blessing may be promised on condition that it is asked for; or that there is a willingness to receive it. There is no merit in the asking or in the willingness, which is the ground of the gift. It remains a gratuitous favour; but it is, nevertheless, suspended upon the act of asking. It is in this last sense only that faith is the condition of the covenant of grace. There is no merit in believing. It is only the act of receiving a proffered favour. In either case the necessity is equally absolute. Without the work of Christ there would be no salvation; and without faith there is no salvation. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life. He that believeth not, shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him (Systematic Theology).
So to explain: It is the testimony of historic Calvinism that salvation (the outcome of the Covenant of Grace) is dependent upon faith, as Hodge explains faith is a sine qua non. This condition however is a supernatural gift of God, as Turretin writes, that both faith and repentance are gifts from God and they come from God supernaturally using the means of the preaching of the Gospel to bring dead sinners to life.
Robert Rollock, first principal of the University of Edinburugh stated (quoted above) “God offers the righteousness and life under condition of faith, yet he does not so much respect faith in us, which is also his own gift, as he does the object of faith, which is Christ, and his own free mercy in Christ, which must be apprehended by faith”.
This is historic Calvinism, and Doug should know this, being a former Calvinist.
Next Doug states an analogy:
Adam’s house is on fire and all of his descendants are to blame for starting the fire. They are all overcome by the fire; in fact, they have already died in the fire. God simply chooses some of Adam’s deceased family to be rescued and brought back to life. Jesus drags them from the inferno and leaves the rest to burn. End of story.
In this brand of Calvinism, it is not about having an opportunity to be saved. It is only about God’s choice of whom to save. This understanding is sometimes called “Hyper (or Extreme) Calvinism.” The chosen sinners played no essential role in their own salvation.
Let’s rewrite this analogy to make it more Biblical.
Adam listened to his wife, who listened to the serpent and chose enmity with God. Adam’s entire race is also therefore at war with God. They were born at war with God and are willing participants in the war from before they can even make a fist. (Ps. 51:5, 58:3, Ecc 7:20, Job 14:1-4) They hate God and his law, they invent ways of sinning against it. (Rom 3:23,5:19, 8:7-9) God’s decree against this mass of evil, rebellious sinners is clear, death. (Rom 1:32) But God, gracious and merciful as he is, sent his own Son to live among them and tell them about him. (John 3:16) They in turn killed God’s Son, unknowingly providing a sin-offering according to God’s plan. (Matt 21:33-42) God therefore graciously applies that sacrifice to some of the unworthy mass of sinners who hate him. (Eph 2:1-9)
Doug is correct that in Calvinism, it’s not about having an opportunity to be saved. The Gospel is not an opportunity, it’s not a time share, it is not a used car any one can get cheap. The Gospel is the proclamation of Christ’s life, death, burial and resurrection for sinners and it actually saves those who believe in it. And that’s not an opportunity, it is a divinely instituted appointment, that no sinner wants, but desperately needs.
Everyone already has used their opportunity, they’ve all chosen sin over worshiping the one true God. If the Gospel were merely an opportunity, we’d all throw it back in God’s face. We don’t need an opportunity, we need mercy and grace from the declaration of guilt already against all of us.
Again, the key point to keep in mind here is that we’re all, already condemned. We don’t need an opportunity, we need a divine rescue.
As to Doug’s claim that this is “hyper” (or to use Geisler’s mythological nonsense word, “extreme”) Calvinism, it flies in the face of the historical facts of Reformed beliefs for over 500 years. Doug is simply wrong here.
Most Calvinists will also scoff at the notion of a conditional salvation in one sermon, but then in another sermon, they teach that salvation has a necessary human condition. Thus, they implore sinners to repent and trust Christ, but they really don’t like the idea of an independent condition, which must be met by the chosen sinner.
I know of no confessional Calvinist who scoffs at the notion that faith is a condition of salvation. It would be nice, again, for Doug to support his assertion, but none is provided. I think I’ve already provided ample evidence that the historic position of Reformed theologians is that salvation is by grace, through faith, and it is all a gift of God.
Again Doug attempts analogy:
Every person is trapped by the fire in Adam’s house, which they helped to start. These Calvinists also assume that everyone has already died in the fire. Jesus rushes in and commands everyone to cry out to Him if they want to be rescued. He promises that if they do, then He will take them to safety. However, no one answers because dead people can’t hear and answer the call. So God resuscitates the chosen souls in such a way that they can now cry out for help.
Notice again that the supposed predicament for the human race is that they’re “trapped by fire”. Let’s again note that the Biblical language places the blame for human condition with the human’s themselves. Sin is the condition and the curse, open rebellion against God.
We’re not trapped by a fire, we’ve killed the home owner and set the place on fire ourselves in a drunken orgy. The house has burned down around us and we’re smoldering bones that if possible would shake our fist at God. Jesus comes and commands those dead, dry bones to come to life and they do… not of any will or desire of their own, but because they’ve been supernaturally given new life and desires. The response of these formerly-dead bones is to cry out in faith and thankfulness.
Doug now offers a “personal confession”:
Personal confession: When I was a Calvinist, I had more trouble fending off hyper-Calvinism than non-Calvinism. I really didn’t want to be a hyper-Calvinist, but I came to see that there wasn’t any real and substantive difference.
Historically hyper-Calvinism is a strange, heretical offshoot of Calvinist thought that unBibically denies that sinners are commanded to repent, and that evangelism is pointless. One site rightly states that hyper-Calvinism is: “the belief that God saves the elect through His sovereign will with little or no use of the methods of bringing about salvation.” For more information about this unBiblical viewpoint, one can read here.
As can be seen by the historic quotes I provided earlier, hyper-Calvinism is not traditional historic Calvinism, and if Doug had trouble keeping that straight, the problem is his own, not Calvinism’s.
Doug’s unBiblical analogy and emotionalism now drives the rest of his post:
A Calvinistic pastor teaches that those who are not chosen (the reprobate) will not receive the ability to have faith; therefore, they cannot meet the “condition” which is attached to salvation and they will be consumed by the fire in Adam’s house. They weren’t chosen for rescue. They won’t enjoy God forever. God never really wanted them to enjoy Him forever. They were created as “vessels of wrath” to be eternally destroyed. They would never have a genuine opportunity to be saved. If God had wanted them to trust Him, then He would have given them the ability to trust Him.
Let’s again clarify from the Biblical and Calvinistic perspective:
A Calvinistic pastor has no idea who God has, out of all the rebellious, murderous sinners, God has graciously chosen to have mercy on. A Calvinistic pastor knows that the Gospel is God’s means of salvation for those who he has chosen, and thus, must preach the Gospel every week.
(Side note: The Calvinistic pastor’s primary focus is his flock, by the way, not unbelievers. Unbelievers are to hear the Gospel from the flock that has heard it from their pastor.)
No one, at all, can meet the conditions of perfect righteousness required by God to save themselves. Everyone is already under God’s wrath (Eph 2:1) and apart from believing the Gospel will get what they justly deserve.
God is not obligated to show mercy to anyone, but has graciously chosen some of the wrath deserving hell-bound to bestow mercy and grace upon.
Those who do not believe, who continue in their sin, who get the punishment they deserve for their willing sinfulness are certainly “vessels of wrath” (in perhaps his only quote of the Bible, Doug here mentions Romans 9:22), created, as Paul states that Pharaoh was, for God to show his glory through. That is, that we who do believe in Christ, seeing with sadness the mass of mankind who go to their graves shaking their fist at God, will recognize how merciful and gracious God was toward us, who deserved the same punishment.
Consider what Doug is saying here. It is somehow unfair for the Potter to do with the clay that he made whatever he wishes. It is somehow unfair that God give some sinners the punishment they deserve while graciously saving others. If God saves whomever he wishes, Doug claims it is God who is unfair. Notice here, Doug has put God in the dock, rather than the sinner.
Doug again mentions this “genuine opportunity” for salvation that he feels God owes everyone… but what of those who never heard the Gospel? What of those who God never sent the Gospel to? Was God powerless to send the Gospel to New Guinea or Madagascar? Was God’s plan and purpose thwarted because the steam engine hadn’t been invented? All the native Americans who never heard the Gospel until the Pilgrims and Puritans brought it, was God wringing his hands because he couldn’t save them?
In a comment on the blog I mentioned that in the Old Testament God only sent the Gospel to Abraham. Not because Abraham was better than others, or more spiritually apt, but for His own purpose. God didn’t send the Gospel to the Egyptians, or to the Phoenicians, the Cushites or any of the other people groups. He sent it to one, undeserving pagan named Abram. See, the God of the Bible does exactly what he plans. He gets whatever he wants and is Sovereign over every atom in the universe. (Isa 46:9-11)
Doug’s story goes on:
A non-Calvinist pastor, on the other hand, insists that God’s offer of mercy is genuine for every sinner, since it is backed up by the death of Christ for everyone in the whole world. He teaches that God has given everyone the capacity to repent. In his system, everyone is trapped by the guilt of their own actual sin in Adam’s burning house. They didn’t start the fire, but they have thrown gasoline on it and cannot escape on their own. They cannot put the fire out, but they can actually cry out for help. If they do, then Jesus will drag them to safety. This pastor teaches that God has sovereignly decreed that the individual sinner will play a vital, meaningful, and co-operative role in his/her eternal destiny.
So, to be clear, what Doug’s non-Calvinist pastor is actually saying is this:
Jesus’s death never actually saved anyone, it only made them save-able if they, of their own initiative, will, intelligence and ability recognize the truth of the Gospel and believe it.
That God has made salvation a golden-ring, that if you can grasp it with your own ability he, he’ll give you salvation.
In this system rebel sinners are not worthy of the death they’ll eventually receive, they’re merely trapped by accident, one that God could not prevent. They’re all crying out for help, none of them want to die, but only some who are smarter, wiser, more spiritual, or in some way better than others are able to of their own free will grasp that golden ring and win the prize!
In this system this God is somehow bound by time, unable to truly save anyone but instead, requires these poor defenseless people to jump through hoops to be saved.
Doug now reiterates:
Again, the Calvinistic position is simple:
If God chose you for salvation, then you can’t resist choosing life. If He did not choose you for salvation, then you cannot resist choosing death.
The Calvinistic position IS simple but that’s not it:
If God chose you for salvation, you didn’t deserve it and in fact you hated God and Christ until God graciously chose you and sent the Gospel to you. You were dead in your trespasses and sins, deserving wrath just like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, even while you were still in rebellion and sin, rescued you by making you alive with Christ through the Gospel. It was therefore by grace you were saved, through the means of faith, which is all a gift of God, and not of your own works.
If God hasn’t chosen you for salvation, then, you get the wrath you justly deserve as a sinner and a rebel against the most holy God.
Doug goes on:
In the Reformed system, it is not about having an “opportunity” to be saved. Either you will be saved by God or you will not. An opportunity suggests there would be a meaningful condition for salvation.
Doug is partially correct, Biblically speaking salvation is not about an opportunity, it is about a gracious God saving rebel sinners who justly deserve death.
But God does require the sinner saved by grace to believe in his Son, but this is a condition which God provides to the sinner. He not only gives them Christ’s spotless robe of righteousness, but also gives them a persevering faith which clings to Christ alone for their salvation.
Doug concludes with:
The beauty and brilliance of the biblical gospel is that sinners must meet a condition – one that is impossible to be proud of. The nature of the law of faith assures that “boasting is excluded” (Rom 3:27).
Indeed, but in Doug’s system why shouldn’t one be proud? Doug has provided no reasoning by which the believer cannot boast! In fact, if it was I who chose God, given the number of people who do not believe in him, why shouldn’t I boast? There was something about me, maybe I was smarter, or heard a better presentation, or saw a better actor in the role of Jesus during a play, or perhaps I was more spiritual than others… but there was something about me by which I believed, whereas so many others do not.
Right? What else could it be? If God has given everyone equal ability to believe… the only deciding factor in who does and does not believe is within the individual.
Finally, after writing several replies to Doug’s post, Doug admitted that he denies that Adam’s guilt is applied to his offspring, thus denying Original Sin. This of course means that Doug is a full Pelagian. The fact that Doug also acknowledges that sinners play a vital role in their salvation also adds evidence to this.
Here’s what Doug said:
I would agree that Adam’s sin has brought sin and death onto the entire race. We are born in sin and in need of a Savior. Although, you did not explicitly assert otherwise, I would disagree that the Bible teaches that everyone is born *guilty” of Adam’s sin. He opened the door that leads to hell but nobody was irresistibly pushed out the door into hell as a result of his sin.
Theopedia defines Pelagianism as:”Pelagianism views humanity as basically good and morally unaffected by the Fall. It denies the imputation of Adam’s sin.”
Doug acknowledges that Adam’s fall did something to Adam’s posterity, but what exactly he doesn’t clearly define. Here he attempts again:
It is biblically and rationally unsustainable that the guilt of Adam’s sin could be imputed to his posterity, which is what most Reformed creeds teach. We know that sin is not imputed where there is no law and where there is no law there is no transgression. (Rom 5:13;4:15) Therefore, by His own sovereign decision, God does not impute the guilt of sin via arbitrary decree or natural generation…. We all suffer the consequences of Adam’s sin but not the culpability.
So, to clarify, according to Doug, we are all “born in sin” (whatever that means)… but not guilty. We suffer, for some reason, because of Adam’s sin, but we’re not guilty of it. So God, for some unknown reason, has cursed us even though we bear no guilt!
Since God does not impute the guilt of our federal head Adam to us, how does He impute Christ’s righteousness to us? See, if you deny that Adam’s guilt is our guilt, you can never acknowledge that Christ’s righteousness is ours by faith.
The Bible however states it like this, “through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men” and “through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (not potential sinners, btw.) Elsewhere Paul states: “In Adam, all die…” See, the reason everyone dies is because of our guilt in Adam! If we’re not guilty of Adam’s sin, then we neither need a Savior when we’re born, nor should we die.
Finally, consider the Apostle Paul, writing on these issues:
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
(Historic Reformed quotes collated by Prof R Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California.)