The Doctrine of Man (part 12)

May 03, 2009     Time: 00:37:58

Today we turn to the last section of our discussion of man as a sinner. Man is fallen before God. We are going to talk about the controverted issue of freedom of the will.

[Opening prayer]

We want to first look at some of the biblical data pertinent to this question of freedom of the will. Our focus here is not on whether or not there is such a thing as free will but rather on whether or not there is freedom for fallen man to embrace salvation or not. That is to say, given that man is fallen, given that he is sinful, given that gifts of God’s grace are necessary if natural man is to come to God, given that natural man does not seek God on his own, do we really have freedom of the will to respond to God or is salvation something that takes place, as it were, independent of our will? That is the question that we are focusing on today – our freedom as fallen creatures before God to respond to his grace.

Some of the biblical data that would be pertinent to this would include Ephesians 2:8-9. I’d invite you to turn in your Bibles with me as we look at these passages.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.

I’ll comment on these passages later. We want to simply read them now. Now turn over to Romans 9:6-33. Paul says,

But it is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants. For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, she was told, “The elder will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills.[1]

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me thus?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,

“Those who were not my people
I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved
I will call ‘my beloved.’”
“And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”

And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; for the Lord will execute his sentence upon the earth with rigor and dispatch.” And as Isaiah predicted,

“If the Lord of hosts had not left us children, we would have fared like Sodom and been made like Gomorrah.”

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written,

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

On into Romans 10:6-13,

But the righteousness based on faith says, Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Finally, the last passage I want to read is in Galatians 3:6-9, starting with a quote as well from the Old Testament – from Genesis,

Thus Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith.

That is the biblical data concerning this issue of whether or not fallen man has the freedom or ability to appropriate God's salvation. I want to contrast now two different understandings of the process of salvation found in Protestant Reformers and then in the Roman Catholic Council of Trent.[2]

According to the Reformers, they accepted what has been called the bondage of the will. That is to say that fallen man is bound in sin by his fallen condition and therefore has no freedom, no ability, to respond to God on his own and be saved. For example, Luther thought that although the will is free in things below, it is not free in things above (as he put it metaphorically). That is to say in earthly things – worldly things – Luther thought the world is free. I can choose to get green jello or red jello when I go through the cafeteria line. I can choose to work for Northwestern Mutual Life or for Smith-Barney. I have the freedom with respect to these worldly things to exercise my will that God has given me. But Luther thought with respect to salvific things – with respect to things pertinent to salvation – my will is bound. I am a fallen sinful creature and therefore I have no ability to respond to God on my own or to appropriate his salvation.

Calvin went even further than Luther. Calvin accepted a complete bondage of the will. He thought that everything is determined by God and that while you can do things voluntarily nevertheless that just means you are not coerced by earthly or worldly causes. Really everything is predetermined by God including salvation and damnation. Part of the Calvinistic central points or Five Points of Calvinism would include what is called “total depravity” (the first point). That is to say that we are sinful, fallen creatures and that sin affects every aspect of our personality. It is not as though the will is somehow untainted by the affects of sin. On the contrary, the will is fallen, too, and therefore has no ability to respond to God or his grace. “Unconditional election” is thought to therefore follow. Since we have no freedom on our own to respond to God's saving grace, it is God by his unconditioned choice who predetermines who shall be saved and who shall be passed over and damned. It is God who looks at humanity and says, I am going to save him and her and him and him, and I am going to pass over the rest, and they shall be damned. It is unconditional because it is not based upon God's foreknowledge of our free choice or our disposition or anything of that sort. Given that we are totally depraved it must be God who selects who will be saved and who will not.

The third point follows on that – “irresistible grace.” That means that God's will or grace acts unilaterally. It is not cooperative. It is not something that the human will cooperates with. It is God's unilateral action in saving and regenerating some sinful person whom God has elected to be saved. It is irresistible – it cannot be resisted by the human creature. If God wants to save someone then he just does it and that's . . . well, that is not the end of the story because God will then preserve him for glory and so forth. But that is something the creature cannot resist.

On the Calvinistic scheme, we should not think of salvation as a sort of human response to God's grace or the offer of salvation because given that we are dead in sins we are incapable of responding. Some Calvinist theologians will put it this way. They say you can go ahead and put the life-giving potion next to the corpse in the casket but that won't do any good unless it is administered. The dead corpse in the casket can't reach out and take the life-giving potion. It has to be unilaterally administered to the corpse if it is to come back to life. So in our fallen condition we are simply predestined and then saved by God's irresistible grace.[3]


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I wasn't going to speak to those because they were relevant here to the issue that we are focusing on which is the freedom to respond to God's offer of salvation. There are other points to the Calvinistic scenario that we don't need to look at this morning.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: OK. What you are expressing is something that is more akin to Molinism which you will remember was the view based in God's middle knowledge – God knows who would freely respond under what circumstances to his acts of grace so that the grace is not irresistible but it is just that God knows that the person would not resist it if it were offered to him in those circumstances. Luis Molina, the author of this Molinist alternative, was a Jesuit Counter-Reformer who thought of his work primarily as a response to Luther and Calvin because he thought they had removed human freedom and therefore turned people into puppets. There would be that possibility.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: What you are saying . . . if God only gives you a part of that grace then insofar as you are confronted with it it is not irresistible. If he just zaps you . . .

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: The question is: does this undermine the call to world evangelization and the Great Commission? The Calvinist would say no because God has selected people out there in the world to be saved and we have the tremendous privilege of being the means by which the Gospel message will come to them and they will then be saved. We have the privilege of being God's conduits, as it were, to reach these people that he has unconditionally elected for salvation. One isn't going out in a sense of urgency that if you don't go these people are going to be lost; but you go more in the sense of I am God's spokesman. As Paul says, I think in 2 Corinthians, We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. So the Calvinist would say this is all the motivation we need for fulfilling the Great Commission.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That's a good question. What would be the Calvinst's typical view of pre-fall freedom of the will? Somebody like Luther would have thought that there would be freedom of the will prior to the fall. But I must say on Calvin's view, his denial of libertarian freedom (that I have the ability to choose A or not-A in some circumstance) isn't really in the end rooted in sin and fallenness – it is rooted in his doctrine of divine sovereignty and providence. That God is so sovereign and provident over everything that happens that everything that occurs is the result of his decree. So in that sense there really wouldn't even be freedom prior to the fall given this very strong view of divine providence.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Ephesians 1:11, he says, is often used which says, “In Christ according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the council of his will . . .” There it speaks of God as the one who accomplishes all things according to his will and his decree.[4] Certainly there are other views like Molinism which would say that everything that happens does happen by God's decree but God takes into account how people would freely respond in various circumstances in decreeing which circumstances and which persons to create.


I want to go on to the next view which is the Roman Catholic response to the Reformers so that we can get that in this morning.

The Roman Catholic Church did not accept the denial of significant human freedom on the part of Luther and Calvin. At the Council of Trent, which was a response to the Reformation, the theologians at Trent laid out a kind of order of salvation, if you will, that goes like this:

1. Prevenient grace.

Prevenient, as you can see from the word “pre,” means “before.” “Venient” comes from the Latin word venire which means “to come” as in the word “advent” - it comes to us. So prevenient would be grace that comes to a person before that person is saved or makes a decision to follow Christ. Prevenient grace means that it is God who takes the initiative and therefore this is not Pelagian. Remember Pelagius thought God will forgive you if you come to him and ask. But the view at Trent says, no, it must start with God's initiative – his prevenient grace. That would be God's role.

2. Preparation.

This would be the human response to God's prevenient grace. God's grace comes to the human being, and then the human being has some sort of a response to prevenient grace that will prepare him for God's justifying grace or salvation. This might be a response, for example, of the will or something of that sort.

3. Justification.

This is God's act of imparting justifying grace to the sinner to bring regeneration and new life. This is God's act. It is not a human act; this is not anything that human beings can do. This is something that God alone can do.

Having been justified that then leads to the fourth step.

4. The merit of good works which will merit salvation.

This will be the human response to God's justifying grace. As a result of God's grace, one will then do good works that will merit salvation. This is what Protestants have found so objectionable in Trent – this notion of good works meriting salvation. The Catholic will insist of course those good works are only done by God's grace. So it is a very paradoxical or subtle position. You do good works which merit salvation but these works are only able to be done because of God's grace that he imparts to a person.

5. Eternal life.

This will be the result of the merit of good works.

On this view, you can kind of see there is a divine-human interplay in the process of salvation. God takes the initiative. Then man responds. Then God does something. Then man does something. Then God gives eternal life. So there is a kind of interplay between God and man in achieving salvation.


Student: [inaudible][5]

Dr. Craig: I am glad that you believe that! Whether or not that accurately represents Trent or not is part of the controversy.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: It certainly is true that Trent theologians thought that these good works were performed by the grace of God. That is true. It is God's grace that does the works. Ephesians 2:10 where it says, As a result of being saved by grace God is at work in you both to do and to will his good pleasure. Yeah. OK. That would be one way of saying that this is not salvation by human merit. It would be to say these are the works that God does in us that merit salvation.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: This is a good question. You are right that there has been considerable rapprochement between Protestants and Catholics in our day with respect to justification by faith alone. But in all honesty, in my view, I think that what they are just talking about is step 3 when they say that. Justification by faith alone is what Luther was talking about. Catholic and Protestant theologians seem to be coming to a rapprochement with respect to step 3. But I think it is step 4 that is still the real sticking point. Granted, we are justified by faith and not through our own merit. Nevertheless, is salvation something that then is kind of a reward for these meritorious works?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: The evangelicals and Catholics together?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yes, it still is an issue. I think your conservative, evangelical Calvinist and Reformed theologians like R. C. Sproul and others are still very suspicious of the whole evangelical and Catholics together movement because the Roman Catholic Church has never repudiated Trent. In that sense it is true that they have said, yes, we do agree with Luther's view – justification by faith. But they have not repudiated Trent. The question is: how do you understand step 4? I think that is the real sticking point.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That is what 4 and 5 are meant to express.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think that there are Scriptures that one could cite. For example, I read Ephesians 2:8-9 but then verse 10 goes on to say, “For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Or in James where James says, So we see that a man is justified not by faith alone but by works and faith without works is dead. There are passages like that.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Not meritorious of salvation. Right.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I don't know the reference for that.

Student: [inaudible][6]

Dr. Craig: I think that is the difficult part. How that is to be understood, because it is a kind of paradoxical view, I think, that is hard to make sense of. But we want to be fair to all sides here. I think it is, as I said, thought to be works of God's grace that you do, and that you couldn't do them on your own power or ability. Yeah, it is very difficult, I think.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: It is certainly true that neither party to this dispute thinks that a person can go forward at the Billy Graham crusade or walk the aisle, make a profession of Christ, and then go live like the devil the rest of his life and have any assurance of salvation. Both sides, whether the Reformers or Trent theologians, would say that a person whose life isn't manifesting the work of the Spirit or the gifts of the Spirit or the sanctifying life that is in Christ doesn't have any basis for salvation, or for assurance of salvation. The question that remains for me as I wrestle with this is: are these good works that we do as Christians meritorious in some way of eternal life or not? I think that however you massage it, that is the position in the end at Trent – these are meritorious works. That makes me feel uncomfortable. I'll say something more about this by way of evaluation next time.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That still exists – when I had my debate with Bart Ehrman at Holy Christ College in Massachusetts with one of the theologians there. Indulgences still exist. You can get them for, say, reading the Bible on a daily basis or prayers or other sorts of things and get indulgences where either the merit of Christ or the merit of the saints can be applied to your account. This merit of good works that earns salvation can come not just from you but there can be, as you say, this accumulated merit from saints of the past which can be applied to your account as well.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: It would reduce time in Purgatory, right?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: You mean in the sense that you can do an indulgence instead of doing a penance for something?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Because they were definitely thought to reduce time in Purgatory for people that were dead. That is one reason . . .

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: When you said “temporal” I thought you meant “this life.” In that sense, temporal is a little bit misleading because . . .

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: OK. I think the word “temporal” is misleading. What you are saying is it is not something that counted toward salvation. This would be in the life of a Christian who dies but isn't really prepared for heaven and so has to go through this further purging in order to be prepared for heaven. You are on your way, as it were. All right.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Or you think of the passages from Romans 9 that we read where it says that Israel stumbled at the stumbling stone because they sought it not by faith but by works. I think this is what occasions Protestants' squeamishness about step 4 and makes me squeamish quite honestly and causes misgiving with regard to this.[7]

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Obviously he didn't. I think we want to try to be charitable in the way we interpret what people say. I don't think it would be fair to say this sort of bureaucratic kind of thing because, as I say, the emphasis is clear that though these good works merit salvation these are works that are performed by the grace of God. So the Catholic theologian can say ultimately it is grace, not just works. It is not a simplistic doctrine of saying, If you work hard enough you are going to merit heaven. It is not that kind of simplistic thing. It is God's grace at work in you to produce these acts that would merit eternal life.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: He says “by faith alone” in James.


I want to bring it now to a close. What we'll do next time is have some evaluation of this debate. We've begun to air the differences. I think this is helpful. It contributes to mutual understanding, and I think it helps us to ask ourselves, What do I really believe about these things? Next time what I'll do is I'm going to present what I conceive to be a reorder of salvation that will differ from both the Reformers and from Trent that I hope will appropriate the positive insights of both but without falling into what I perceive to be negative consequences of either of these. I'll lay that out for your consideration next time.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Very quickly – Reformed and Presbyterian churches are Calvinistic denominations. Episcopalians and Anglicans as well are also in that tradition. Lutherans are similar to that.


[1] 5:01

[2] 10:01

[3] 15:07

[4] 20:04

[5] 25:06

[6] 30:02

[7] 35:19

[8] Total Running Time: 37:58 (Copyright © 2009 William Lane Craig)