Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Necessity of Grace

Article two of the traditional understanding of the SBC view of God's plan of salvation (link) has been called Semi-Pelagian  herehere and here.  What is semi-Pelagianism?  The short answer is the denial that we need grace in order to believe in Christ.  The longer answer is that semi-Pelagianism is probably best defined in the Cannons of Orange (529AD) that condemned the view. (link

Here's the article that gets accused of Semi-Pelagianism:

Article Two: The Sinfulness of Man

We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

The most criticized phrase is the denial of incapacitation of anyone's free will as a result of Adam's sin. However, the very next sentence denies sinners are saved apart from the Holy Spirit's drawing through the Gospel. Per Semi-Pelagianism, we don't need the Holy Spirit's drawing - we just need the man up their preaching. Further, 'drawing' is likely an allusion to 
John 6:44, and John 12:32 - texts commonly cited in support of God’s grace enabling us to believe. So unless the authors of the traditional view are using an abusive definition of drawing, this sentence cannot be read as consistent with Semi-Pelagianism. 

So the options seem to be, A) the Traditionalists are secret heretics hiding their views in plain sight, B) article two is self-contradictory in back-to-back sentences or C) the denial of incapacitation is consistent with man's need for super-natural previenient grace.

Traditionalists should be given the benefit of the doubt that they are not secret heretics. Traditionalists could be inconsistent, but that's not a very charitable thing to assume either – especially if there are viable alternatives. But let's explore the third option, that the denial of incapacitation is consistent with man's need for super-natural prevenient grace.

What if they are talking about incapacitation generally and denying the loss of libertarian free will? So when the Holy Spirit's drawing opens responding to the Gospel as an option to us, we are able to choose it. In this way, these back-to-back sentences can be reconciled without contradiction or semi-Pelagianism.
Many Calvinists assert a link between man’s depravity and the impossibility of libertarian freedom.  While Calvinists and Traditionalists agree that we need God’s grace to be able to trust and obey Him our reservations come when Calvinists demand that the only grace that would work must be irresistible. It’s kind of like saying a door can be opened with an oil can and someone else saying no, it’s going to take a nuclear bomb.  Either way the door can’t be opened, but why does it have to be nuked?

Desire is a necessary condition for choice.  Man, without God’s grace, does not desire to believe and therefore cannot believe without grace. (John 6:44, 15:5, Romans 8:7) The drawing of the Holy Sprit’s drawing shows us our need for Christ and gives us a desire to believe, such that we are able to believe, but do not have to believe. However, even though we agree with Calvinists on the necessity of grace, major difference remain.
1.       On the nature of grace we disagree that it must be irresistible and cannot be resistible
2.      On the extent of grace we disagree God reaches out only to the elect and is not drawing the non-elect.
3.      Without grace, we disagree that a man cannot choose between sinful options (per Calvinism, if God decrees you will smoke pot, you cannot yell at your wife).
4.      With respect to God’s character, we disagree God treats disabled men as if they were able.
So some serious differences remain, even if we agree we need God’s grace to be able to believe.  Article two does not deny our need for grace; it’s targeted at the Calvinist idea that we could only respond to God unless God first monergistically regenerates us using irresistible grace.

When the TS first came out there was a lot of fuss about article two, but many of the clarifications that came out made it clear that the necessity for grace was not being denied.  Specifically, the author of the statement, Dr. Erik Hankins, said:
First, we will never concede the charge of Semi-Pelagianism; it is patently false. Semi-Pelagianism is the view that man initiates his own salvation and that grace attends subsequently. Even a cursory reading of the Statement reveals that such an understanding of salvation could not be further from our intention. The language of the affirmation in Article Two is drawn almost verbatim from the BF&M. Most of the criticism has been directed at the “denial,” which is often divorced from its connection to the affirmation and criticized without respect to the rest of the Statement. Here is what we mean and what we will be glad to debate: We are all ruined by Adam’s sin. We are born with a sin nature. We all persistently, perniciously, and at every opportunity want to be Lord of our own lives. We cannot save ourselves. The power of the Gospel through the initiative and drawing of the Holy Spirit is our only hope, and it alone is sufficient to pierce our spiritual darkness and rescue us. But our real response to the Gospel of Christ in the power of the Spirit matters to God.

...Do the authors and signers of the Statement think that people can save themselves? No! Do they think people can do anything to merit their salvation? No! Do they think anyone can trust Christ apart from the initiative of God and the drawing of the Holy Spirit? No! But they also don’t think that most people are predestined to an eternity in hell no matter what. And they do think that every person has the opportunity to respond to the Gospel under the leadership of the Spirit who is willing to move upon the heart of anyone. In this debate, the charge of Semi-Pelagianism is little more than a “bogeyman.” It’s a label that intimidates and confuses, and we emphatically reject it.  
In addition, just prior to issuing the statement, Dr. Hankins said:
God initiates the process; He imbues it with His Spirit’s enabling. When people respond in faith, God acts according to His promises to seal that relationship for eternity, welding the will of the believer to His own, setting the believer free by His sovereign embrace. (link)
He also said:
Because of sin, humans are in a disastrous state, unable to alter the trajectory of their rebellion against God, unable to clear their debt of sin against Him, unable to work their way back to Him through their best efforts.
To be sure, they are not capable of responding in faith without God’s special revelation of Himself through Christ and His Spirit’s drawing. Any morally responsible person, however, who encounters the gospel in the power of the Spirit (even though he has a will so damaged by sin that he is incapable of having a relationship with God without the gospel) is able to respond to that “well-meant offer.”
The anthropological presupposition is that no one can save himself, but anyone can be saved. No person ever takes the first step toward God. Humankind’s history is broken; its destiny is death; it’s context darkness; its reality is rebellion. This sinfulness has put us out of fellowship with God and under the verdict of eternal separation. Through the person and work of Christ, which is proclaimed through the gospel, God reaches out His hand of “first love,” providing a ground of salvation to which any one can respond in faith. If people do not hear and respond to this gospel, they will not be saved. (link)
So according to the author of the traditionalist statement, man is naturally lost and incapable of saving himself or believing without God’s grace taking the initiative and the Holy Spirit’s drawing and working on our hearts to enable us to believe.  That’s the exact opposite of the semi-Pelagian denial of the necessity of grace.
When I speak with some people about Traditionalism, I get the feeling they think I am going to rip the mask off at some point and reveal that I really am a semi-Pelagian. To the extent that the  “big names” have carelessly thrown out the semi-Pelagian charge they have done some damage. 
Now I doubt Calvinist SBC leaders really think Traditionalists are semi-Pelagians.  If there really thought heresy had infiltrated the SBC, why not bring it up at the 2012 SBC Convention?  Why seek for unity with heretics?  The first Calvinists called their Arminian opponents semi-Pelagian and now history is repeating.  Hopefully anyone reading this will not allow this charge of semi-Pelagianism to prejudice the discussion of Calvinism in the SBC.


rey jacobs said...

Denying that grace is needed to believe is not the same as denying the need for grace altogether. Only those who deny the need for grace altogether should be considered heretical. In fact, quite frankly, those who say you cannot believe without grace are heretics, for faith must come before regeneration, as it is said in John 1:12 "But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:" -- they received him (i.e. believed on his name) first, and then received the power to become sons of God. That is what the passage plainly says.

Godismyjudge said...


Many passages clearly teach we need to be able to believe. Some passages call this drawing (John 6:44), while others simply call it grace (Acts 18:27). I was just reading 2 Tim 2:

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

Note that while God in some sense grants us repentance, this repentance only leads to the knowledge of the truth and we still have to come to our senses and escape the captivity of the Devil. Further, we may not escape, so this grace is not irresistible.

Now please note, this grace is different than saving grace (i.e. justification, adoption...) and if someone thinks we need to be saved before we can believe, I agree that's seriously against scripture.

God be with you,