Doctrine of Man (Part 17)

January 05, 2014     Time: 00:39:07

In our lesson we have been talking about the relationship between sin – this fallen world in which we live – and the freedom of the will, in particular the freedom to appropriate God’s grace and salvation. You will remember last time we contrasted the view of the Protestant Reformers with the view of the Roman Catholic Church as enunciated at the Council of Trent. And we saw that for the Reformers like Luther and Calvin there is no freedom of the will with respect to the reception of God’s grace or finding salvation. The initiative comes entirely from God’s side and his grace is irresistible. It selects certain persons to be recipients of that grace and then it irresistibly wins the effect of the consent of the creaturely will and a person’s salvation. So there is no freedom of the will. We are dead in sin, we are slaves to sin, bound to sin and darkness, and it is only by God’s grace that anyone can be saved.

By contrast, we saw that in the Roman Catholic view as enunciated at the Council of Trent following the Reformation that both God and human beings play a role in the process of salvation. You will remember (1) first is God’s role in providing prevenient grace. No sinner comes to God on his own initiative. That is the error of Pelagius. Rather, God must take the initiative by seeking out sinful people by his prevenient grace. Then (2) there is the preparation of the human heart as we respond to that prevenient grace of God. So this is the human element in step two as we respond or not to God’s grace. For those who respond affirmatively to God’s grace then (3) God infuses into them the grace of justification so that they are now justified before God by his grace. Through the inner grace of God empowering us and filling us (4) we are then enabled by that grace to perform good works which then merit salvation. So God’s grace works itself out in our lives through meritorious works, the result of which is finally, number (5), eternal salvation. On the view enunciated at Trent God plays a role but human beings also have their role to play in the process of salvation.


How might we evaluate these competing views?

I want to suggest that man is indeed free to respond to God’s grace. He is not simply a passive participant in the process of salvation but does participate actively and has the freedom to respond to God’s grace. So God does take the initiative. I think the Catholic view and the Reformed view is correct here. The natural man left to himself does not seek God. So apart from the prevenient grace of God, no one would ever be saved. God must take the initiative in convicting of sin and drawing persons to himself. But then at some point along the line human beings have the freedom either to accede to that drawing of God’s grace and to go with it or to resist it and push back and refuse to receive God’s grace of salvation.

Someone might say, but doesn’t Romans 9 (which we read together) teach that human beings are completely passive in this process? That it is entirely of God’s will who is elect and who is reprobate or passed over and left unsaved. Doesn’t Romans 9 teach a strong doctrine of predestination and election that excludes any sort of human role in terms of a free response such as I have suggested?[1] Well, I would like to suggest for your consideration a very different reading of Romans 9 today than the one that you usually hear. Usually, people think of Romans 9 as God’s narrowing down the scope of election to just those few people that he wants to save. And he passes over the broad mass of humanity to selectively save those few that he has picked out. I want to suggest that Paul’s burden in Romans 9 is exactly the opposite. What Paul wants to do here is to broaden the scope of salvation, not to narrow it down to a select few. He wants to broaden it as wide as possible.

The problematic that Paul is dealing with in Romans 9 concerns Jewish persons who think that because of their Jewish ethnicity they have a sort of leg up on salvation on approval by God. Those who are ethnically Jewish would find it unthinkable that God would reject his chosen people Israel and instead allow these execrable Gentiles to go into the Kingdom of God rather than his own people. How God could prefer these Gentile dogs over his own people and save the Gentiles and pass over the Jews was just unthinkable to these Jewish persons. So what Paul wants to emphasize in Romans 9 is God’s sovereignty in electing and saving whomever he wants regardless of their ethnic background. Whether Jew or Gentile, it is God’s choice as to who will be saved.

So you notice at the beginning of chapter 9 Paul expresses his anguish at those Israelites to whom all of the promises of the old covenant belong but who are not believers in Christ. He says in verse 6 that it is not as though God’s Word has failed. Rather what he says in verse 6 is not everyone who is descended from Israel belongs to Israel. Not everybody is a real child of Abraham just because they are his physical descendent. Just because you are ethnically Jewish doesn’t mean that you have some sort of favored status with God. Rather, as he illustrates with the story of Jacob and Esau, God has the freedom to choose whom he wills to be saved. Just being descended from Abraham physically is no guarantee.

So in the verses 6 until 24, Paul says God is free to save whomever he wants and no one can call into question God’s choice. No one has the right to talk back to God; no one has the right to say that God has to prefer his own people Israel over these Gentiles. If God wants to broaden the scope of salvation to include Gentiles in addition to or even instead of those who are ethnically Jewish, no one can talk back to God. It is God who has mercy upon whom he has mercy and has compassion on whom he has compassion.

So who is it then, according to Romans 9, that God has chosen to elect if it is not just those who are ethnically Jewish? The answer is all of those who have faith in Christ. Those are the ones that he has chosen to elect and save. So in verse 30 he says,

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.

So what God has done is that he has decided to save and elect all those who have faith in Christ Jesus – whether Jew or Gentile it doesn’t matter. It is those who have faith in Christ Jesus. Therefore, given God’s sovereign choice, ethnically Jewish people cannot complain if God has preferred to save Gentiles over certain Jewish persons.[2]

This is all based upon the principle of faith that Paul explains back in Romans 3 and 4 with respect to Abraham himself. Turn back to Romans 3 and look at verse 21 and following:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

In verse 27 he says,

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.

Then he asks specifically,

Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.

So it is through faith that one becomes a true child of Abraham, a member of that elect body that will inherit the Kingdom of God. If you look over at the book of Galatians, which is almost like a précis of the argument of the book of Romans, you see this very nicely summarized in Galatians 3:6-9. He says,

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.

So who are the true sons of Abraham? Not simply those who are descended physically from Abraham, it is those who have faith in Christ.

That is why Paul can go on then in Romans 10 to say in verses 8-13,

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.”

Now, you can’t make sense of Romans 10 on the interpretation of Romans 9 that interprets this as God’s electing some minority of people irrespective of their will, entirely dependent upon God’s choice. The only way I think you can make sense of Romans 10 is by interpreting it in the way that I have done. God has chosen to elect not just ethnically Jewish people; he has chosen to elect everyone who has faith in Christ regardless of their ethic background. That is why everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

If I am understanding Romans 9 correctly, this is not meant to be teaching a kind of predestinarianism that takes no cognizance of the human free response to God’s grace. Quite the contrary, it seems to me it is broadening out the scope of God’s election to say that it is going to include everybody who meets the condition of having faith in Christ. That is the human response to God’s grace. God’s grace comes preveniently, that is to say it seeks out sinful, alienated, spiritually estranged people, and draws them to himself to that point where one can respond or not by faith.[3]

You might say, but didn’t we read in Ephesians 2:8-9 that faith is a gift of God, not something that we can produce. Look at Ephesians 2:8-9 again. Paul says, “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.” Doesn’t this show that faith is simply God’s gift to you and not something that you do on your own? I think that is incorrect and I think demonstrably so. Let me ask those of you who are our vigilant Logos software users to tell us what is the gender of the word for “faith” that is used in verse 8? I should mention here that in Greek, as in modern day German, every noun has a gender. There are three genders – masculine, feminine, and neuter. It is the same in Greek. Now, what is the gender of the word pistis or faith? Feminine. So it is feminine gender for pistis or faith. What is the gender of the pronoun in verse 8 “this.” Neuter! Touto is the word. It is neuter. So the antecedent of “this” is not the word “faith.” You would have to have a feminine pronoun in order to refer to “faith.” Rather, what the word “this” refers to is the whole preceding clause, namely, salvation by grace through faith. That is not your own doing. This is the gift of God. This is the way God has elected to set it up; he is going to save by his grace everyone who has faith in Christ. That is not your own doing. But it does not teach that saving faith is the gift of God. That is grammatically prohibited.

In fact, I want to say here something about the way our Reformed brethren treat the idea of faith. For many of them they think that if I exercise faith in Christ, if I respond to God’s grace by receiving it through faith, that this is somehow my meriting or winning salvation. It is something I do; I have faith and so I have somehow done some meritorious work which is excluded of course by Paul because salvation is by grace not by meritorious works. But in so saying I think they have completely misunderstood Paul. When you read Paul, he always opposes faith to works. For Paul, faith is the antithesis of works. He does not think that placing your faith in Christ is a work much less a meritorious work. Paul always contrasts faith and works. So, in receiving Christ by faith in acceding to God’s grace, you are not doing anything meritorious to save yourself. You are simply yielding, as it were, to the grace of God and allowing it to do its saving work and justifying work in your life. That is not in any sense a meritorious work.

I think this connects with the point someone was making last time about the parable of the soils where you remember the Word of God falls upon the rocky soil and it also falls upon the good soil. One soil produces fruit for the Kingdom; the other one doesn’t persevere and falls away. It is not as though one of the soils is more meritorious in terms of winning salvation. The analogy would be that some people have faith in Christ whereas others don’t. This isn’t a meritorious work. It simply is a human response to the grace of God that is not something that merits salvation.

So I want to agree with the Roman Catholic view that there is prevenient grace of God that seeks out sinners and that we have the ability to respond to that.[4] So I would substitute for the second step (“the free response of the creaturely will to the grace of God”) simply acceding to the grace of God in your life rather than resisting it. Not a meritorious work that you do but simply a grateful and humble reception of God’s grace.

So it would follow from this that God’s grace is not irresistible – it can be resisted. Those who do not resist do not do anything to merit it; they just allow it to do its work in their lives. So there is no credit that accrues to you for responding to God’s grace. It is not a meritorious work that you do. Faith is in fact the antithesis of works.

What God has done is he has chosen to elect and save all of those who have faith in Christ Jesus. The result of that will be justification. To think then that we by God’s grace merit good works seems to me utterly unacceptable. As we’ve already read, it is not of works. It is entirely of God’s grace. The only way you could possibly defend this idea that we perform good works that merit salvation would be to turn us into robots, into puppets, so that the works that we do are wrought in a kind of robotic fashion by God and we don’t do anything. But then that excludes human freedom. The whole point of this rubric was to include an element where human beings freely participate. So it seems to me that instead of the merit of good works, what we ought to substitute here is perseverance. If one doesn’t persevere to the end then one will not experience eternal salvation. Perseverance is necessary in order for eternal life. This will be, again, the working out of God’s grace in your life and sanctifying you, filling you with the Holy Spirit, conforming you to the image of Christ as you walk in the spirit. He will help you to persevere to the end and so finally be saved. There is nothing of your doing that is meritorious, that earns salvation, but nevertheless there is an element of human freedom in the process of salvation that makes us more than passive puppets in this process.

That is the perspective I wanted to share on freedom with respect to salvation.


Question: I don’t think the Reformers would disagree about “the who,” which you have been talking about – the who. I’m still stuck on “the how.” I don’t believe you’ve discussed that as well as I would like. It seems like to me you are very close to the Reformers in saying some of the things about what they – you’ve changed their idea of how a person does it. My question is if a person is dead in his sins – Ephesians 2:5 – and God draws him, that idea of drawing is like you are taking something from a well. God does it all. We are dead. We are not sticking our hand up saying please help me. We are dead. We can’t do anything if you believe in total depravity. So the whole thing to me goes back to total depravity. We are not able to do any of this. So God must change our will. And where you say he draws us, I think the Reformers would say he does draw us in that the Holy Spirit changes our “want to.” We never do want to, we are all sinful, all of us, everyone is sinful. So we can’t do it all ourselves. He must change us in some ways so we are able to do that work, and that is through the Holy Spirit not of our own self.

Answer; Well, I think the difference between what I am saying and the Reformers would come out most clearly with regard to whether grace is irresistible. On the view that I am suggesting, it is not irresistible.

Followup: I would say we are always resisting. We are constantly resisting until he changes our “want to” to resist.

Answer: Yeah, and I am disagreeing with that. I am saying that a person can freely respond to God’s grace and the drawing on his heart and that it is not irresistible.[5] Now this gets into other issues but it is related to whether or not God really wants all persons to be saved. I take very seriously these passages in the New Testament that says God is not willing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance.[6] God’s desire is that all persons be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. If you take those passages literally and at face value, that must mean that God does not choose to give saving grace to some persons. He doesn’t change their “want to” as you put it. On my view, I would say that God does offer saving grace to every person but some obstinately push it from them. They resist it and so they fail to be saved. So I may be wrong but I think that it is clear that this is a different view than Luther and Calvin’s at least. I think you’ve got to give me that – this is a different view. This is a view that does allow for significant human freedom where theirs doesn’t.

Let me say something about this analogy that is often used by persons in the Reformers camp of a dead person. Paul says we are dead in our trespasses and sin.[7] This is interpreted by Reformed people to mean that we are utterly comatose, that we have no will or ability to respond whatsoever. I think that that is reading things into the text that isn’t there. The idea of being dead in trespasses and sins means that there is no spiritual life in us; we are under the condemnation and wrath of God. We are destined for hell. We are not saved. But, it doesn’t mean that we are like cadavers. We are still persons who have mental cognitive faculties that are functioning and can choose to respond or resist God’s grace.

Followup: Doesn’t the Bible say that no one seeks the Lord, no not one?

Answer: Yes, and that is the necessity of prevenient grace. Remember I said the natural man doesn’t seek the things of the spirit of God. Apart from the prevenient grace of God, no one would come to him. So you’ve got to have, as your first step, God taking the initiative – convicting and drawing people to himself. But the fact that people are dead in trespasses and sins doesn’t mean that they are no longer rational individuals endowed with libertarian freedom who can respond to God’s grace. That is reading things into the text that just isn’t there. It seems to me that what Paul is saying, as we’ve seen, is that you have the ability to have a response of faith to the preaching of the Word and that it is up to you then whether or not you will respond.

Followup: Last thing I would say is that R. C. Sproul says man has free will but God’s is freer.

Answer: Yeah, I don’t know what that means. That’s a sort of catchy slogan.

Followup: Well, it means we can’t trump God, God always trumps us. So his will – the high view of the sovereignty of God should always be in our view.

Answer: If by saying God’s will is freer that means that God negates man’s free will, that he obliterates it in the process of salvation, that is exactly what I’m disagreeing with. He doesn’t treat us as though we were puppets and he pulls the strings and that is what makes us then respond. As I say, I don’t think that can make sense of the passages about God’s will that everyone be saved, which I take seriously. So, that does get into other issues but at least I think you can see the difference that I am suggesting here which is a view that defends freedom.

Question: It sounds like you are saying that God doesn’t know who is going to choose him?

Answer: Oh, on the contrary! On the contrary! Were you in the Defenders class when we talked about the attributes of God? No? OK. You’ve got to go back and look at the section of doctrine of God, particularly the doctrine of divine omniscience where I gave a robust defense of God’s knowledge of future contingents and in particular defended the doctrine of divine middle knowledge which says that God not only knows everything that will happen but that he even knows everything that would happen under different circumstances.[8] So he knows how you would respond to the preaching of the Gospel if you had been born in North Vietnam during the 1960s. He knows how you would have responded to the Gospel if you had been one of Billy Graham’s children. He knows how you would have responded to the Gospel if you had been born in the dumps of Manila in the Philippines in the 1980s. So on this view, God most certainly does know everything that not only will happen but everything that would happen under different circumstances. This can be a means by which he accords to you those gifts of grace, of prevenient grace, to which he knew you would freely respond. It is not irresistible – you could resist. But he knew you wouldn’t. He knew that if you were born in those circumstances, you would freely respond to these gifts of prevenient grace. So although I haven’t defended that view here, this fits in beautifully with this rubric that I’ve laid out. I definitely want to affirm that God knows this.

Followup: It just sounded like you were giving too much credence to free will.

Answer: All right. Well, I don’t mean to do that, as you’ve seen what I just said.

Followup: God chooses everyone who has faith in Christ. Well, that faith came from where? It came from God. It didn’t come on their own, they didn’t one day say . . .

Answer: Well, that is why we dealt with Ephesians 2:8-9. There isn’t any passage in the New Testament that says saving faith is a gift from God. Saving faith is something that we exercise in response to God’s grace. It is not as though you are a puppet and God pulls the strings and makes you have faith in him.

Followup: Well, he knows who is going to choose him, right?

Answer: Right. Right. I have this very strong view of divine sovereignty that is being expressed here. We shouldn’t let that distract us.

Question: Could you elaborate on what you were meaning by perseverance? I don’t think that you were saying that we can’t be assured of our salvation until the very end depending on if we hang in there as it were.

Answer: No, it is not a matter of assurance. What it is a matter of is what Paul says; he who endures to the end will be saved. So we must constantly, as Paul says, exercise vigilance. He says test yourselves, examine yourselves, to see if you are holding to the faith. So perseverance is required in the Christian life. This is a reminder to those who went forward at the altar when they were eight years old and had an emotional experience but lived like the devil since then. They have no basis for assurance because just because you had some emotional experience in the past is no guarantee that you are in fact walking in the grace of God now. So perseverance is necessary but that is not at all to say that you don’t have assurance of salvation. I think for the person who is walking in the Holy Spirit, who has the witness of the Spirit, certainly has assurance of salvation. Paul says the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. If children then heirs – heirs of Christ and joint heirs with Christ, Romans 8. Certainly, assurance will belong to this. When we get to the subject of salvation – we are on the doctrine of sin now – but when we get to salvation we will talk more about perseverance and whether or not it is possible to fall away from God’s grace. There again there is a difference between some of the Reformers like Calvin and others like, say, Luther or Catholics with respect to whether or not a person can fall from grace and fail to persevere.

Question: Someone like a D. A. Carson is going to object and say, hey you strawman’ed my position here. You said this is irrespective of our will, but hey, we believe in a type of compatibilism and this isn’t just the compatibilism where we say divine sovereignty is compatible with free will. All Christians believe in that kind of compatibilism. This is a stronger kind of compatibilism. This is like we believe that theistic determinism is compatible with free will, as the Westminster Confession says. Even though God determines our salvation and our faith, man comes most freely. Now the question is – how do you respond?[9]

Answer: You are drawing our attention to a very important point. Really, in one sense, everybody believes that we come to Christ freely. But, they define the word in different ways. The question here is: is freedom compatible with being causally determined to do something, or is freedom incompatible with causal determinism. So that is really the issue that needs to be decided here. What kind of freedom are we talking about? Obviously, what I am talking about is this view of freedom as incompatibilism. If you are causally determined to do something by factors outside yourself, you don’t really do it freely. In order for it to be free, it can’t be causally determined by other things. So if God determines you, like the puppet by pulling the strings so the puppet lifts its arms (the puppet doesn’t really lift its arms freely), you could say it lifts them voluntarily, but it is not free. I think that what the compatibilist shows is a kind of compatibility between doing something voluntarily and doing it determinately but it is not really compatible with doing it freely. It is not up to you on compatibilism. On compatibilism, it isn’t up to you what you do. It is up to these causally determining factors. So that is a good point.

Question: Could you elaborate on the two vessels and chapter 9 of Romans where he is talking about the vessels made for destruction and one made for glory?

Answer: I take it that the passage in Romans 9 where he talks about the potter having right over the clay to make one vessel of wrath fit for destruction and the other vessels of mercy prepared before hand for glory is simply part of the whole argument to say that God is the one who determines who is going to be saved and who is going to be damned. Who is going to be a vessel of wrath and who is going to be a vessel of mercy? And I agree with that. It is up to God whom to save and whom not to save. But then the point I want to go on to say, well, what has he decided to do then? What is God’s sovereign decision? The rest of the chapter says his sovereign decision is to choose or to elect all those who have faith in Christ Jesus. Those are the vessel of mercy. So on this view, election – and this may help – election is primarily corporate, not individual. He chooses to elect a body, a group; namely, those who have faith in Christ Jesus. But it is up to you whether or not you want to be part of that group by how you respond to his prevenient grace.

Next time we will move on to our next locus and begin to talk about the Doctrine of Salvation.[10]


[1] 5:07

[2] 10:06

[3] 15:12

[4] 20:01

[5] 25:03

[6] cf. 2 Peter 3:9

[7] cf. Ephesians 2:5

[8] 30:17

[9] 35:13

[10] Total Running Time: 39:06 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)