No one can boast: the case for Prevenient Grace

So the question in the end is; did we respond to God’s prevenient grace when our friend did not because God gave us something He withheld from our friend, or because we are more righteous, or better in some sense, than our friend? This is a dilemma no Arminian would like to answer; they are not arrogant; their position is said to rest solely on grace. They may object, “someone just chooses!” But we saw in the last chapters that this is a non-answer.

The other response offered at times is an illustration, an analogy made with the offer of a gift. If President John offered a cheque on the condition you had to come and get it, and only you of your friends took the offer, could you boast that you earned this money? No, of course not! It was a free gift; you did nothing but accept it! exclaims the Arminian theologian. The problem with this picture is that accepting or rejecting a cheque is not a morally accountable action, but believing is. Now, what if President John made a law that you must come and pick up your check? When you comply and your friends do not, you may not be able to claim you earned the gift, but you can boast in your righteousness — that you obeyed your president’s commands when your friends did not. You shouldn’t, of course, boast, but if we assume you are sinful to your core, you will.

So if Arminians are to retain their view of a universal and unbiased resistible grace, they must conclude that there is something in themselves that made them that much better than their friends and able to respond to God’s offer of salvation. Alternatively, they must accept that their salvation was the result of a completely arbitrary event, without reason — which of course is the logical end of Libertarian freedom  (J. Alexander Rutherford, Prevenient Grace: An Investigation Into Arminianism. Vancouver BC: Teleioteti, September 2016, Kindle Locations 3068-3082).

What is prevenient grace? This is a question worth answering when it comes to the field of theology, for the nature of grace is often a source of contention between Calvinists and Arminians. Prevenient grace, in my view, is the grace that is prevenient (goes before) faith and salvation that enables man’s response to the gospel. Prevenient grace is administered by the Spirit of grace (as He is labeled in Hebrews 10:29), who convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment as Jesus says in John 16:8. The same Spirit is at work in the conviction of men and women and their response of “yes” to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Scriptures mention Jesus as “the grace of God that brings salvation,” but that is covered under believing in Jesus when it comes to the order of salvation. So the grace that comes before faith must be of a nature as to either 1) regenerate someone before they believe (the Calvinist position) or 2) awaken the will and enable someone to believe the gospel without regeneration first (only by faith can someone be saved or regenerated, Romans 10:9 says).

Both camps believe in the proper ordo salutis (the order of salvation), that grace goes before faith and that grace and faith are gifts of God. And yet, the Calvinist always makes the claim that Arminians hold to a man-centered view of salvation, one in which man can boast in himself. The problem? Calvinists don’t seem to understand Arminians, or, if they do, rarely take time to see why the Arminian claims about grace and faith undermine the teachings of Calvinism in the most elegant way.

The quote above is an example. I’ve been reading J. Alexander Rutherford’s book on his case against Prevenient Grace, but have still found myself disagreeing with his view based on the Word of God.

In the quote above, Rutherford says that Arminians have to claim that some are more special than others in that they respond to God’s offer of salvation by believing while others do not. Rutherford won’t accept the idea that man chooses because he’s committed to Calvinism, but my approach to this will come from a few verses of Scripture.

First, Rutherford wants Arminians to find themselves in a dilemma: either God has given believers something special that separates them from unbelievers, or else they can boast of their own righteousness. And yet, his reasoning, his approach to human responsibility to believe is missing what Scripture says about it. Let’s look at a verse that is the cornerstone on the matter, Ephesians 2:8:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8, New King James Version)

We have been saved “by grace…through faith.” Then, Paul says “and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” What is the gift of God: grace, faith, or both? Grace and faith comprise salvation, so what Paul is arguing is that the “been saved,” the salvation we have, is not of ourselves. Salvation is the gift of God.

Salvation as the gift of God is delivered to us in not only Ephesians 2:8 but also other passages, such as Romans 5 where we read of “the free gift” (Romans 5:15, 16), “the grace of God and the gift by the grace of Jesus Christ,” (v.15), and “abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness” (v.17). And, in verse 17, we read that the gift of God that “resulted in justification” (v.16) must be received. A gift is given, but it must be received; it cannot be forced on the recipient, and the Giver is not forced to give it. In this case, God has given the gift of salvation that results in justification (we are justified by faith, Romans 5:1), but the gift of salvation, like all other gifts, must be received. Neither Giver nor recipient are forced to play their roles; they do it voluntarily.

As with Ephesians 2, we cannot boast of ourselves because salvation is “not of works.” The “works” being referred to here are the works of the law, the works of man, that which man can brag about. Even if someone does say that “I believed while others didn’t” and makes his choice to believe to be a bragging match, the bottom line is that Scripture gives honor to the Giver, the Lord Jesus, not mankind. It’s all too easy for us to receive the gift because we didn’t sacrifice for it. And yet, the gift of salvation mandated a sacrifice: that Jesus give His life to purchase our redemption. As Scripture tells us in the same chapter of Ephesians 2 that we’ve been examining here:

11 Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands— 12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-13)

“You have been brought near by the blood of Christ,” Paul says, reminding them that Jesus is the one who deserves credit for our salvation. But Paul doesn’t argue that regenerating grace made it all possible; rather, he says that the blood of Christ has achieved it. They have been brought “near” to God, that they are able to come to God whereas they couldn’t before. Gentiles “can” be saved. This potentiality language is all over Scripture, namely in John 3:17 (“might be saved”).

The gift of God is salvation, and God gives salvation to those who ask, since He is more than willing to give the Holy Spirit (the One who dwells in us after we come to salvation) when we ask for Him (Luke 11:13). The Holy Spirit is referred to as a gift (Acts 2:38; Acts 10:45), and the Holy Spirit, being the sign of salvation, must also be received. The idea of the Giver, the gift of salvation, and the human recipient undoes his idea that Arminians have anything to brag about with regard to their salvation. The Lord gave His life, God so loved the world that He gave Jesus (John 3:16); it was God’s divine initiative that is responsible for our salvation. As John says in his epistle:

In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9-11)

God is credited with loving us, not we with loving Him. The honor and glory go to God, not to man. God gets the glory, but man has the responsibility; remember, all of mankind has sinned and “[continually] fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We fall short of the glory of God because God made us to reflect His glory. When we are saved, we best reflect the glory of God because we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” Paul says (Ephesians 2:10). Being in Christ, we do good works but God gets the glory. The Lord Jesus Himself said so:

14 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

See Matthew 5:16 above? It says that when you do good works (“your good works”), they will “glorify your Father in heaven.” That’s right: we are created in Christ Jesus, we are saved, to do good works, but when we do them, God, not we ourselves, gets the glory. This may be a hard pill for Calvinists to swallow, but it’s no less a real and large one, anyway. We have a responsibility to bring God glory because that’s the purpose for which the Lord created us; and when we do good works, we’re living up to our purpose. One such good work in Scripture is faith. In fact, Jesus calls believing “the work of God”:

26 Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. 27 Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”

28 Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”

29 Jesus answered and said to them, This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:26-29)

The work of God is to believe in Jesus; now, if Calvinists struggle with this being a “morally commendable” action, then that’s their problem…but it doesn’t change Scripture’s response. Jesus says that it’s commendable that we believe, and those who do receive salvation. And yet, salvation is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God. We are to do good (good works, believe in Jesus, live righteously) but, when we do, God gets the glory. Calvinists can’t understand this, not because it’s contradictory to the truth, but because they’re thinking like the world. Calvinist thought on this matter is akin to the way the world thinks. As Jesus told the disciples,

25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

The unbelievers of the world think about exercising authority over people and having great power over others, but this thinking is the thinking of the world, Jesus says. And Calvinists who believe that to believe before faith is a morally commendable act whose glory goes to man are exhibiting the same thinking. In the final analysis, then, it’s not the Arminian who needs his or her thinking changed; rather, it’s Rutherford and Calvinists who need to change their thinking. It’s scandalous to believe that Jesus died for wretched, wicked man and that the same wicked mankind can believe to be saved, but that’s the gospel.

There’s so much more to say, and I’ll be back to say more at an appointed time. God bless.