July 2, 2016

Causal vs Social Centered
Part VI: Security


So what is the debate about security really about? Well, there are two realms within which this debate takes place: pastoral and theological. So instead of looking at the two positions in succession, we'll being looking at these two realms instead, once we define the positions in play.


So the Calvinist position goes by several names, but it is worth distinguishing between three concepts. First there is the idea of eternal security or ES. This is the belief that once a person has been regenerated, justified, and elect, it is impossible for those works of God to be undone and for a person to return to a depraved state. Second, there is the position of what I call Once Saved Always Saved or OSAS. This is the belief that once a person has accepted Jesus in their heart, that they remained saved regardless of what they do. OSAS is considered to be an aberrant take on the eternal security doctrine, and isn't considered to be proper Calvinism. I would also personally call it heresy, and I believe most Calvinists are in agreement with me on that. Finally there is the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints or PS. PS is the belief that if we are ever saved, then you will remain faithful for your entire life. Thus those that do fall away were never truly saved to begin with.
So we can see OSAS and PS as two different interpretations of ES1 . Since the average Calvinist typically rejects OSAS2, from here on out, when I am referring to eternal security, I really just mean PS.

Arminians instead focus on the notion of present assurance. This is the belief that it is possible to know whether or not you are truly saved by the internal witness of the Spirit and the demonstration of His fruit in your life. Also, we stress that our sense of security comes from our relational knowledge of God Himself instead of unknowable decrees. This said, some Arminians hold to eternal security and some do not.

However, those of us who don't, myself included, believe in what is known as conditional security. That is, you will remain protected against all of the wiles of the enemy as long as you have faith in Christ. It is important to note that security is conditioned on the same ground as election.

Pastoral Concerns

The pastoral concern comes from the person who comes into the pastor's office and asks, "Am I saved?" Let's call this person Leonard. So what is the pastor to say?

Well, let's talk about Leonard really quick. Leonard accepted Christ when he was 19. He has been in Bible study every week since then. He has been the first volunteer for every evangelistic outreach. He demonstrates all of the fruits of the Spirit. Therefore, it is easy for the pastor to say, "of course you are. Don't you remember Christ coming into your heart?"

Now here comes the key confession. Leonard replies, "Yes. And I know that Christ is real. But I have a secret sin in my life, and I am afraid that God has rejected me because of it. I can't feel His Spirit as I once did." So what is the pastor to say.

Let's look at the response of the eternal security pastor first: "Leonard, you have to remember that you were born again in Christ. Take comfort in that. Our salvation doesn't hinge upon our daily commitment to some law. It isn't something that comes one day and is gone the next. If you were born again, then you are saved. This is simply something God is working out through you, and this fear that you have is God's conviction, bringing you into a deeper level of sanctity."

That sounds really good. That is the kind of encouragement Leonard needs. The problem of course is that it is kind of a lie. The truth is that given the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, neither Leonard or the pastor has any real reason to believe the key premise in the argument: that Leonard is born again. They have no idea. Therefore, for the theologically reflective person, this word of comfort is rather hollow.

Now the causal aspect of things doesn't really factor in here3 , but I'll get to it in the second section. However, when we come to the Arminian perspective, our social centeredness comes in strong. Here is how the conditional security pastor would answer:

"Leonard, who do you go to when you are feeling guilty?"
"Well, you. God."
"So you pray when you feel guilty. Why? Do you believe that God is the only one that can right your sin?"
"Yes, of course"
"Do you believe that He is the only one who can give you assurance that you are saved?"
"Then you are saved. Yes you are sinning, but God is convicting you of that sin, drawing you to repentance and wholeness. But if you weren't saved, your sin would cause you to curse God, not run to Him. Remember, our salvation doesn't hinge upon our daily commitment to some law. It is our faith that God looks at. Our trust in Him. If you believe that God can deliver you from the sin, then you have a penitent heart, and your faith in Him is intact. That's the key to salvation: not our perfection, but Christ's perfection."4

This is key. It isn't some event that happened in the past, or some declaration in heaven that we appeal to. It is the person's relationship with God. It is who they are in Christ that matters, for it is Christ who saves. That gives the person assurance, and it is assurance, not security, that they really need. To give a person a sense of security by sacrificing assurance is like selling the car for the gas: it gets you no where. Instead, teach faith, for salvation is free.

Theological Concerns

The principle concern that Arminians have is the present assurance issue mentioned above. There is a secondary concern, and that has to do with security being grounded in decrees rather than in Christ Himself. However, I'm not really going to address that concern here because I don't think it speaks to the issue at hand."5

However the Calvinist does have an issue here which is worth pointing out. It is similar to the defeat issue mentioned in the Atonement installment of this series.6 Here they'll say that if God has saved the person, then how can that be undone? That seems to imply a kind of weakness in God's salvation.
Now again, notice the emphasis on power. This is, again, a very causal concern. Indeed if we look deeper we'll see that the casual nature is still there. They'll often point out certain acts such as regeneration, election, or predestination, and ask how these can be undone. The emphasis here is on the nature of the actions! The actions accomplish a certain thing, so some kind of equally powerful counter action would have to undo it.

Now, to me, I have trouble seeing the issue. Election for instance is simply understood completely different by me.7 And predestination isn't undone, but it isn't presently experienced either, so it simply isn't in the purview of the discussion.8

The real issue is regeneration from what I can see. We can define an apostate as one who has been regenerated, and yet turns away from God. Such a person will not inherit eternal life. The Calvinist says that this person wasn't truly regenerate, but I just don't see why. I see nothing about the concept of being reborn which entails that you cannot re-die. And I've never really had a Calvinist point out why they think this is the case.

Now it may be connected to the idea of Total Depravity. If Total Depravity implies one is unable to turn towards God, and regeneration is the opposite, then it should imply the opposite. But again, I don't see the entailment here. Especially since every Calvinist I know will fully admit that a regenerated person is capable of sinning, even though they would say a depraved person cannot do good. So I'm not sure if that is what they are thinking here, and I don't want to put words in their mouth.

But I do think that this emphasis on ability is what is really motivating the Calvinist. In other words, there is no logical implication going on here, but a casual concern about giving humanity the ability to leave God. I believe that they are afraid that if this is true, than apostasy is somehow inevitable (though I don't see why since our depravity is gone). Here, I simply have to give my skepticism. Other than their vehement insistence on this point, I see no real argument. Indeed, in terms of ability, I don't see how the regenerate is any different than Adam and Eve.

However, the concern is something that we as Arminians should take seriously. If we are going to convince a Calvinist of their error, we cannot be dismissive of their concerns, but we must seek to understand them, and show why they are unimportant or how Arminianism satisfies the concern better.

And this is really been the point of this exercise. To understand our opponents so we can be effective in communicating with them. I'm not interested in simply winning debates. I'm interested in spreading God's truth and protecting the church from error. This means not out arguing the Calvinist, but convincing them. I hope that this series has been helpful for you in doing precisely that.

1 It occurred to me as I wrote this sentence that every one of these acronyms ended with an S. Never noticed that before. I've learned something today.

2 And rightly so.

3 Unless you consider the idea of finding comfort in mechanical inevitability, trying to be assured of salvation as one is of one's car starting in the morning. Meanwhile, the kind of assurance that God grants us is more of the kind of a child trusting his father to catch him at the bottom of a slide.

4 It is worth pointing out that this is a real conversation I had with someone some 6 or 7 years ago. It was with the mother of a friend of mine who had spent her entire life wrestling with trying to be good enough for the church and for God, coming out of the holiness movement. The husband had actually stopped going to church because she was addicted to serving the church to the point of self-detriment.

After the conversation above, she was shocked, never hearing an answer like that before. A year later, when I saw them again, the husband thanked me, telling me that she had never been more sure of her salvation in her life. This was with her speaking to many Calvinist pastors before she had spoken to me. I'm not saying this because I think I did a good job. I'm saying this because simple Arminian theology really works! Calvinists who claim that we have no words of comfort to give to such a person simply doesn't understand what Arminian theology is.

5 Namely the centeredness of the theologies.

6 Indeed they often will also point out the defeat issue here as well, but since I already went over this I saw no reason to repeat it.

7And may I note that corporate election is very socially centered. We are the family or people of God!

8 This would of course depend on your definition of predestination. Calvinists basically use it as another name for election, or the effects of election. Arminians typically have two definitions that we tend to use, depending on which Greek verb is in context, and to some degree which Arminian you talk to.

One definition we can call "being preset", which is simply to say that you are on a kind of established path to a destination. So like a train is preset towards a certain destination: it isn't simply an open field. However, this clearly could be changed. One could change tracks or get derailed (or shipwrecked :-)). The other definition we can call "foreknown". God simply knows what our ultimate destiny is going to be. Clearly, this can't change for God does not change His mind. But we don't have access to the Book of Life. But that isn't really what one is talking about when we are talking about apostasy, so it strikes me as moot.

Above I have used the second defintion.

July 1, 2016

Causal vs Social Centered
Part V: Grace


The fourth point immediately follows from the doctrine of depravity. If we are born depraved, separated from God, and incapable of coming to Christ on our own, then God is the one that needs to act first. Furthermore, our depravity also means that we do not deserve God helping us either. This makes whatever act God does to help us to be "grace".

However, Arminians understand grace very differently. And it probably won't surprise you that I believe the difference is a causal understanding vs a social understanding.

Irresistible Grace

So how do Calvinists understand the concept of grace? With a misnomer like "The Doctrines of Grace" you would expect a pretty detailed account of what grace is. However, I find grace to be unrecognizable within Calvinism.

For the Calvinists, grace is basically what God does to save us. There isn't anything necessarily wrong with that, however it is a rather incomplete conception of grace. I'll get into why later. If you look at the way that Calvinists treat it though, they treat it simply as a cause. Most interestingly, grace in the Calvinist system is extremely mechanical.

The way I picture it is that in Calvinism there is this grace package, and once the package comes to you, it does everything that it is supposed to do. You're walking around, being depraved and what not and then God sends His grace upon you. You become regenerated, then you have faith, and then you are justified, and then you are saved. Bam! Bam! Bam! It happens in a flash. One thing causes the next, and it happens the same way to every person. Now I might be exaggerating a little here1, but this is how a Calvinist sounds to me when they talk about it.

This has always struck me as bizarre. When I think of the concept of grace, I think about two people, where one is betrayed and yet is kind and forgiving to the other person. To me grace is a relational term: it describes the relationship between two people. Grace on the Calvinist view seems to cut out the personal nature of the term. Now I know deep down Calvinists affirm its personal nature. When they talk about grace apart from the theology, it is clear that the word carries intense personal weight for them. But that doesn't seem to me to be connected to the actual theology.

But none of this is necessarily wrong or bad. It merely strikes me as odd. Where I think that the Calvinist goes wrong here is that they seem to think that any expression that isn't like this isn't truly grace. But this makes no real sense. We never experience grace between people that is like this. Now, this point doesn't mean of course that the Calvinist view is not grace, but it does mean that their definition is too restrictive.

Enabling Grace

Calvinists really, and I mean really, misunderstand the Arminian view of grace. Indeed, their analysis of our view of grace is so baffling that it was my trying to understand their criticisms that allowed me to recognize their causal centeredness.

Typically, myself included, Arminians say that prevenient grace is God preparing and enabling a depraved person, freeing their will to be able to do good, and encouraging them to come to the truth of the Gospel (which is Christ's lordship and atoning power). I've always considered that a rather sufficient definition, and I still do for most people. But it is too ambiguous for the Calvinists because they make some assumptions of our view that the above definition doesn't clarify.

Calvinists talk about Arminian grace in the same way as they talk about their own view of grace. They assume that we have a similar grace package concept, but that we think this package is extended to all people at the beginning of their life. Additionally, in their perception of our view,  there's less stuff in the package, in the sense that it merely make a person neutral, rather than radically transforming them. However, this is completely alien to Arminians. It is not at all what we actually thinking. I think they get it so wrong because they are attempting to describe our view from a causally centered thought process, and we simply don't think that way.

We see grace as a kind of quality of an act, rather than a type of causation. For instance, I could ask someone what the word "sweet" means. One person answers, "it means that there are simple and cheap carbohydrates in your food that your body can readily use as fuel". Another can answer, "It is a kind of flavor. One that we associate with desserts, treats, and junk foods." Note how both are correct in a sense, but one is more like the way we commonly use the term. For us, you can have two actions that are completely the same, but one is gracious and the other not because of the reasons and motivations of the one doing it. Therefore, it isn't what an act does that necessarily makes it grace, but the heart of the person performing the action.

More simply though, prevenient grace is not an act of God. It is a set of acts that God does throughout a person's life, not bringing them to "life", but keeping them "alive". Some of these acts are resistible, but some are actually irresistible. It depends on the person because God does not do the same acts of grace in every person's life. Rather what God does is based on where our relationship with Him is and who we are  and our circumstances. They are personal intimate acts of one wooing His beloved to come to Him like Hosea. It is merely the final offer of the gospel that is never presented in an irresistible way.

Think of a child who doesn't know how to swim in a pool with her father. His father holds the child in the water. He doesn't simply make the child buoyant, but stays there, holding his child until she starts to swim on her own, instructing her, loving her. It is constant and dynamic. The father holding the child doesn't show a change of state in the child, for the child is the same before the father holds her and while the father holds her. However, it is the father's hands that enables her to swim and rescues her from drowning.2

What makes it grace isn't that we are passive, but that we don't deserve it. We deserve to be condemned and rejected by God. Instead, He woos us anyway. That's grace! Undeserved favor! The only way this isn't grace is to so restrict one's definition of the word that it looses all semblance with the act of love and care that should come with the term.
1 Emphasis on "might". This is literally what the Calvinist sounds like to me, but I want to give them the benefit of the doubt here.
2 Be careful not to overextend the metaphor here. This metaphor isn't meant to describe salvation. The metaphor is simply meant to describe how enablement doesn't entail the idea of a change in state.