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Can all freely choose, or are we totally depraved?

Earlier I posted a portion of a conversation I recently had with a friend (Mike) regarding salvation’s availability. Here is the continuation of that conversation (reposted with premission) where our conversation logically turns to whether everyone has the ability to accept the offer of salvation if it were freely offered.

Mike:

I see your questions1, and wanted to ask a few others for my clarification before progressing any further.

You stated, “the question rather is whether everyone has within their power (given, obviously by God) the ability to choose Christ in the first place”, then cited 2 Peter 3:9 in order to answer yes to your question.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but you most likely would assert that God grants a special grace to everyone that would enable them to choose salvation in Christ?  My questions back would be: What does this special grace (that everyone has) help man with?  What causes one to choose Christ and not the other, especially if they were both made by God and were placed in their times and circumstances by Him?

You also mentioned, “I simply question, however, the notion that God’s foreknowledge is logically tied to a causal decree. In other words, I don’t see how God’s foreknowledge is inextricably tied to the causally deterministic notion that God also causes those he foreknew to accept the grace he has offered.”  Based on thisquestion, and highlighting what I mentioned above, do you then believe that God’s sovereign election is a reaction to one’s decision to follow Christ?

Me:

No, I don’t think that special grace is given in order for anyone to accept the gift of salvation. I do think that special grace is given once that gift has been accepted in the form of salvation. What causes one man to choose Christ while another rejects while both have been through the same circumstances is the men themselves.
This is another mischaractarization of Molinism that James White propagated in his presentation where he mistakenly asserts that in Molinism it is presumed that people will act in a given way depending wholly on the circumstances.
People are unique and while we may not know who will and who won’t accept Christ given any circumstances, Jesus’s comments in Luke 10:3 assure us that God knows.
As to your second question I’ll simply say “no” because the decision of which logically possible world to actualize was made far before any of God’s creatures existed in order to be said that God reacted to them. This is another variation on the grounding objection which assumes that there are only two options to the question of who elected whom unto salvation.
God, in knowing (through his middle-knowledge of possible worlds rooted/grounded in His omniscience) who would choose given any possible set of circumstances chose to actualize a world (the one we find ourselves in currently) which necessarily closed the door to some people in terms of salvation because they, like Tyre and Sidon, were not given the signs and wonders that would have caused (or persuaded them rather) to repent in sackcloth and ashes and believe. Conversely, Chorazin and Bethsaida were given, by God’s good pleasure and soverign descision and decree, more evidence and Jesus condemned them all the same because any evidence of God is enough to convict us for failing to take Him at his word. This is, coincidentally, the same argument Paul uses in the first chapter of Romans to convict the pagans who did not have the specific revelation of the law or Jesus but who only had the natural revelation that comes from the world God created which points to himself.
A good question in relation to causal determinism would be: If God is the causal agent who chooses who will and who won’t be saved, then how does He choose? Specifically, in light of the overriding principle of Scripture that God loves all of his creation and is willing that none should perish (something also affirmed by Jonah and the other prophets as they called people to repentance for multiple years in some cases); How can we  claim God loves the world and desires the salvation of all men at the same time we affirm a doctrine that explicitly states that He doesn’t?
It seems that we have far more philosophical and theological reason to reject the notion of a God who causally determines every single thing that happens (including sin and subsequent repentance) than we do to question a system which attempts to answer the entire body of evidence (including God’s holiness and man’s responsibility for his own actions).

No, I don’t think that special grace is given in order for anyone to accept the gift of salvation. I do think that special grace is given once that gift has been accepted in the form of salvation. What causes one man to choose Christ while another rejects while both have been through the same circumstances is the men themselves.

This is another mischaracterization of Molinism that James White propagated in his presentation where he mistakenly asserts that in Molinism it is presumed that people will act in a given way depending wholly on the circumstances.

People are unique and while we may not know who will and who won’t accept Christ given any circumstances, Jesus’s comments in Luke 10:3 assure us that God knows.

As to your second question I’ll simply say “no” because the decision of which logically possible world to actualize was made far before any of God’s creatures existed in order to be said that God reacted to them. This is another variation on the grounding objection which assumes that there are only two options to the question of who elected whom unto salvation.

God, in knowing (through his middle-knowledge of possible worlds rooted/grounded in His omniscience) who would choose given any possible set of circumstances chose to actualize a world (the one we find ourselves in currently) which necessarily closed the door to some people in terms of salvation because they, like Tyre and Sidon, were not given the signs and wonders that would have caused (or persuaded them rather) to repent in sackcloth and ashes and believe. Conversely, Chorazin and Bethsaida were given, by God’s good pleasure and sovereign decision and decree, more evidence and Jesus condemned them all the same because any evidence of God is enough to convict us for failing to take Him at his word. This is, coincidentally, the same argument Paul uses in the first chapter of Romans to convict the pagans who did not have the specific revelation of the law or Jesus but who only had the natural revelation that comes from the world God created which points to himself.

A good question in relation to causal determinism would be: If God is the causal agent who chooses who will and who won’t be saved, then how does He choose? Specifically, in light of the overriding principle of Scripture that God loves all of his creation and is willing that none should perish (something also affirmed by Jonah and the other prophets as they called people to repentance for multiple years in some cases); How can we  claim God loves the world and desires the salvation of all men at the same time we affirm a doctrine that explicitly states that He doesn’t?

It seems that we have far more philosophical and theological reason to reject the notion of a God who causally determines every single thing that happens (including sin and subsequent repentance) than we do to question a system which attempts to answer the entire body of evidence (including God’s holiness and man’s responsibility for his own actions).

Mike:

While I’d like to address your response point-by-point, I think for the sake of limited time and for focus I will hone in on your specific questions.  I think they do a good job at hitting the heart of the issue, and they are ones I wrestled with for a long time myself.

You asked, “If God is the causal agent who chooses who will and who won’t be saved, then how does He choose?

I would answer that in a couple of ways.  First, the reason why He chooses one person over another is not specifically explained in Scripture.  We don’t fully understand the mind of God (Deut 29:29), but we know that He is trustworthy and He always does what is right, and that all that comes to pass will be for the sake of bringing glory to Himself.  This is where our ideas of justice and righteousness must be in submission to God’s revealed word.

We do see, however, that God chooses who are saved in such a way that none can boast (1 Cor 1:25-31), not even in their “decision for Christ”, since this too is a gift extended to the elect (Eph 2:8,9).  It is also not because of anything special about any of us (John 1:13, Rom 9:16), especially we are by nature children of the devil and objects of His wrath (Eph 2:3).  If God were to choose someone based on foreseen faith or some virtuous decision, then He would be contradicting His character since this is showing partiality (Rom 2:11).

You also asked, “How can we claim God loves the world and desires the salvation of all men at the same time we affirm a doctrine that explicitly states that He doesn’t?

To say that “God loves the world and desires all to be saved, but He doesn’t save everyone” is in no way a contradiction.  Here’s a meager example: a judge shouldn’t want to send anyone to jail because he wants to see people obey the law, yet he is charged with upholding justice so he must punish criminals.  One thing we haven’t touched on yet in our conversation is the difference between God’s “revealed will” (that which reflects His character and desires) and God’s “decretive will” (what He decrees will come to pass, either as a direct cause or not).  God obviously does desire all men to obey Him and not to sin.  Does this mean everyone obeys and nobody sins?  Well, of course not, as evidenced by the fall.  God’s desire for all to obey is his “revealed will” for all mankind.  I would argue His desire for all to be saved (2 Pet 3:9, 1 Tim 2:4) is part of His “revealed will” as well.

As far as God loving the world, He does love the world in a general sense by extending common grace to all (e.g., breath in everyone’s lungs, the restraint of people from being as evil as they can potentially be, the rain falling on the just and the unjust, patience with the wicked).

Additionally, I think it’s important to note that what we “should do” does not necessarily imply what we “can do” in and of ourselves.  Even though He desires for us to obey perfectly, we don’t have the moral ability to do so, since we are by nature dead in trespasses and sins (Ps 51:5-6, 58:3, Col 2:13)—morally in bondage to sin as a result of the fall.  Because it is a moral inability, this is why we’re still culpable for our disobedience and rejection of Christ.  And, like you mentioned, we can’t claim ignorance of the law (Rom 1:20, 2:12-16).  Because we absolutely won’t accept Christ because our wills are in such bondage to sin, this is why scripture says in Romans 8:7 that we’re unable.  For example, think of a bad marriage where a wife may scream: “I can’t forgive my husband because I hate him so much!!!”

So, the call goes out for everyone to obey perfectly, though nobody can or will.  Similarly, the call to salvation goes out to all, though nobody can or will (Rom 3:10-18).  That is, except, unless God graciously and mercifully intervenes, regenerates the sinner’s heart, and grants them repentance and faith (Acts 11:18, 2 Tim 2:25).

These evidences from Scripture are why, I argue, that God must be the causal agent for salvation.  Mankind is utterly at His total mercy, and He doesn’t owe salvation to anyone.  All the more reason for all credit to go to His Name alone for the salvation of men.

I hope my answers—though far from exhaustive—were helpful to at least some degree.

Me:

I think one of the problems we are having is that we define “faith” in fundamentally different ways. I read Eph 2:8,9 to mean that the gift of salvation is what is not of ourselves and that we merely obtain it via faith. In other words, you seem to view faith as a work whereas I do not since faith by itself saves no one but rather the object thereof.

The reason I ask how God chooses is to expose the rather curious loophole left intentionally by Calvin and modern proponents of reformed doctrine (like James White) where, after claiming that God grants us even the faith required to fulfill the command to repent and believe we are told “God grants to them the gifts of faith and repentance, which they then exercise by believing in Christ and turning from their sins in love for God.” This begs the obvious question of: If these people were foreordained unto salvation from eternity past, and if God has to grant the even the ability to accept him, why mention their exercising that gift? Why doesn’t God just do it for them?

The point is that while we both agree that God is the author and originator of faith, I maintain that humans have the ability to exercise that faith in positive (though not wholly salvific in itself) ways or not. I also don’t see where such a claim about faith makes it any more meritorious than, say, choosing to believe in the giver of a gift somehow merits the gift unto myself.

This leads to the other reformed doctrine you bring up above (which I also maintain is logically linked to the others once you take a causally deterministic view of sovereignty) which is the doctrine of total depravity.

While the Bible does clearly teach that we are, by nature, on death-row heading for an eternity separated from God I don’t think it’s fair or proper to compare our spiritual and, baring salvation, inevitable state with that of a dead man. Several issues arise if we take the analogy laid forth in certain passages about our being spiritually dead too far.

Primarily we are faced with the fact that while dead things can do no good, they can do no evil either. I like to use the analogy that if my son or daughter were to drop dead right before bedtime I wouldn’t beat them for refusing to put on their pajamas before bedtime. That would be far from just (or rational!). Similarly I don’t see how we can claim that God issues decrees we are unable to uphold, whether it be in our power or power we are to co-opt from some other source (but that is still in our power to go ask for and receive said power per Luke 19:21).

Another issue with taking the “we are dead in our trespasses” too far out of the limited scope of spiritual deadness intended in the original use is that death releases the dead person from obligation to the law. If our death is a complete inability to choose anything other than death at all, then why do you suppose we are still “under the law” and not released by it per Romans 7:2?

I think the major problem with the doctrine of total depravity lies in how low of a view it puts forth of man and the inherent damage such a view does to the imago dei or image of God we bear. I think this doctrine also fails to account for the fact that if we were all sinners and enemies of God (and, by nature children of wrath) then how were we saved at all if, according to reformed theology, the elect are predestined unto salvation apart from anything they do or decide?

In closing, I apologize for not addressing each of the verses you mentioned individually but suffice to say that I believe that it is far easier to harmonize them with a view of man’s libertarian freedom than it is to harmonize the rest of scripture with the competing notion of complete bondage that was set forth by Luther and Calvin (though not to the degree that Beza took it).

If you’ve read this far I hope you find this conversation as fruitful as Mike and I did. Feel free to join in below!

  1. He is referring to the questions I raised towards the end of my previous correspondence which can be found here. []
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