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#599 Can an Unbeliever Accept Christ?

October 06, 2018

I believe that God doesn’t make us to believe in Him; Faith/repentance is not a gift from God but it comes in us as we exercise our freewill as people. However, I have difficulty with regards to these passages: 2 Timothy 2:25-25, Act 11:18 and 2 Corinthians 2:14. If I am being faithful to these passages, they suggest that God grant us repentance/faith and natural man ( unbeliever) cannot ACCEPT( this word is very specific in that we cannot respond or freely choose to respond on God’s preceding grace) things of the spirit because he doesn’t understand them. Can you help me by interpreting these passages specifically coz I find these scriptures agreeing with reformation theology


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Dr. craig’s response


Neither do I believe in unilateral, divine, causal determinism with regard to a person’s response to the message of the Gospel, Mlondi. The main reason that I am not a Calvinist or Lutheran in this regard is that I take at face value all those passages of Scripture which imply the universal, salvific will of God (e.g., 1 Timothy 2.4; 2 Peter 3.9). We must weigh the passages you cite in light of these other, seemingly plain passages.

Here are the passages you mention:

“God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2.25-26).

When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life’” (Acts 1.18).

The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts 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 Corinthians 2.14). 

Acts 1.18 is easy to explain from a libertarian perspective: God, as Paul emphasizes in Romans 9, has graciously chosen not to restrict salvation to the Jewish people but to extend it to Gentiles as well. This is a corporate widening of God’s mercy, such that whosoever will may come.

A much more difficult verse from Acts would be Acts 13.48, where Paul and Barabbas turn from proclaiming the Gospel to the synagogue in favor of the Gentiles. Luke remarks, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” Here corporate election does not seem adequate; individual persons are said to be ordained to salvation. 

Therefore, I think that the best resolution of this question is the Molinist perspective on divine providence. According to this view, God has chosen a world in which sufficient grace for salvation is extended to every individual. Persons who would freely respond to God’s grace in the circumstances in which they find themselves are ordained to eternal life. They did not choose the circumstances in which they were born and raised; nevertheless, they are free in whatever circumstances they find themselves to choose to accept God’s grace and be saved. As one French Molinist put it, “It is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined; but it is up to us whether we are predestined in the world in which we find ourselves.” This is not the place for a full discussion of Molinism or its signature doctrine of middle knowledge; for more on these see my book The Only Wise God (Wipf & Stock, 1999), chap. 12, or my Defenders 3 lectures on “Doctrine of God (Part 15)” and “Doctrine of Creation (Part 10).”

Finally, as for the last point about one’s inability so much as to accept the Gospel, I want to commend to you Eleonore Stump’s discussion of this question in her new book Atonement (Oxford University Press, 2018). While I disagree with her critique of the Reformers’ atonement theory, as well as her own unconventional atonement theory, her discussion of our ability to accept God’s grace is very helpful. Stump rejects not only the view of Pelagius that we have the ability to come to God but even that we have the ability to accept God’s grace and salvation. But she thinks that we do have the ability to cease resisting the Holy Spirit’s efforts to save us. We cannot actively receive the Holy Spirit but we can stop resisting his efforts to draw us to God. If we just stop resisting, then the Holy Spirit unfailingly draws us to saving faith.

Seen in this light, Mlondi, your mistake is the assumption that “Faith/repentance is not a gift from God but it comes in us as we exercise our freewill as people.” Stump would say that repentance/faith is not something that lies within our power as fallen people to exercise. Repentance/faith is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, not our work. What we do have the power to do is to just quit actively resisting the Holy Spirit, so that he will do his work in us. This seems to make good sense of the passage you cite.

- William Lane Craig