Theology Does Matter - II



Is not the Word of God more important than these systems of theology especially as Calvinism and Arminianism came much later in time?

Yes, the Word of God is more important than any system of theology. However to say that and then deny the issue of Calvinism and Arminianism is possible only if we have done the following:

1. The Word of God has been studied carefully.

2. Calvinism and Arminianism has been studied and found to be unscriptural.

3. Since it is neither Calvinism nor Arminianism, which has got the Bible correct, we can do away with both.

I wonder how many people who have made the objection of the Word of God being more important than these systems of theology have done all of the above three steps. It is my observation that most people who have made this objection, to me, has neither studied Calvinism nor Arminianism and most importantly their Bibles, regarding these issues.

If you sincerely believe that you are neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian, then I want you to consider the following facts from church history.

Orthodox Christianity has always consisted of people who either affirmed both the necessity and sufficiency of grace (Calvinistic Christians) or those who affirmed the necessity of grace while denying its sufficiency (Arminian Christians).

Now they might not all have held the labels Calvinist or Arminian. Those labels came to the scene only in the 16th Century. However the theology they represent, especially regarding the nature and efficacy of grace has been present even before the 16th Century.

So a valid question to ask yourself is, if you are neither of these, then what are you? Where do you stand on this central issue regarding God’s grace?

Historically, orthodox Christianity can be classified into these two camps, based on their conviction regarding God’s grace. There is no third camp. If so, how can you claim to be in neither of these? Is it so, that all of a sudden after 2000 years of church history, just because you came to the scene, there arises a third category: A new understanding of God’s grace? I feel it is pretty arrogant to think that we got it all right while generations of Christians got it all wrong, especially when we are so reluctant to study what these preceding generations believed. Speaking of a third category, the only group of people who were of a different persuasion were the Pelagians who denied both the necessity and sufficiency of grace. I am sure most Evangelicals do not want to be in that camp.

So the crucial question we need to be asking is: Does the Bible teach grace as both necessary and sufficient for our salvation or just necessary but not sufficient for our salvation?

Since both the camps affirm that grace is necessary (i.e. grace is needed for our salvation and that there is no salvation without the grace of God), our discussion should then be on the sufficiency of grace. Hence we should confine ourselves to know whether the Bible teaches grace as efficacious enough to save sinners, without any human effort or not? Though not comprehensive, here is a sample of the Biblical data that deals with this issue.

1. The Ministry of Jesus

It is noteworthy that Jesus affirmed the sufficiency of grace in his teachings. He always affirmed the sovereign hand of God in the conversion of people. He did not just point out that God would work sovereignly, but spoke of it as an infallible and efficacious work of God. In other words it was a sure and sufficient work of God, needing no human aid.

When Nicodemus asked Jesus about how he can be regenerated or born again, the answer Jesus gave was not an imperative, but rather a comparison of the free, powerful and mysterious work of the Holy Spirit to that of a wind. The wind is free to blow where it wishes and we do hear its sound. In the same way the Spirit of God is free to work ”when and where, on whom, and in what measure and degree as He pleases.” [1] Moreover the Spirit of God does work so powerfully to produce notable effects. Thus Jesus is saying that the work of the Spirit of God in conversion is both sovereign and sufficient to produce the desirable effect namely new birth.

Jesus taught the same truth again in John 6:44 saying,

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”

Now is that drawing of the Father a sufficient drawing that all those whom are drawn are saved without fail? Jesus gives the answer in verse 37:

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”

So Jesus is very clear that no man can come to him on his own, but that the Father should draw him. Moreover Jesus says all those who the Father so draws shall come to Him.

Please note what the verses do NOT teach. It does not say God is drawing all men and all those who yield to this universal drawing, the Father takes and gives to Jesus. No. It rather speaks about how we come to Jesus and that is precisely and exclusively because of the drawing of the Father and thus it is an effectual work, which Jesus emphatically states as an infallible work.

So Jesus teaches a grace that is both necessary and sufficient for our salvation, an infallible and efficacious work of the Holy Spirit. Thus a grace, which tries and fails to save, is not found in the teachings of Jesus. [2]

2. The Apostles’ and The Early Church

Moving on from Jesus to the Apostles', the Epistles also contain sufficient evidence to prove that the understanding of the Apostles regarding grace was that of being effectual and sufficient.

Take for example 1 Corinthians 1:21-24

“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

First of all, it says that God in His wisdom has so designed that we could never know Him through our own wisdom. It then says that God is pleased to save only those who believe the foolishness of what is preached. And even though Jews and Gentiles in their natural state find our gospel foolishness and a stumbling block, those whom God has called – both Jews and Gentiles find our message – the power of God and the wisdom of God. Thus it is a divine act, which separates the believing from the reprobate (and not their free will). Both the believing and the reprobate are thus made up of the same people - Jews and Gentiles and hence it is nothing inherent in them, which makes some the children of God. It is rather His effectual calling which makes all the difference. Paul goes on to say about this calling in the later verses of this chapter, finally concluding that it is because of God alone that we are in Jesus Christ (v 30) and this so that no man may boast in his flesh but in the Lord alone (v 29, 31).

So to summarize, we see the following truths here:

1. We cannot know God on our own; the necessity of grace.

2. We, in our natural state, find the gospel both as foolishness and a stumbling block; the depravity of man.

3. Because of God’s effectual working, we experience a change in our disposition towards the gospel, resulting in our believing of the gospel; the sufficiency and efficacy of God’s grace.

4. Both the unbelieving and believing camp are made of the same group of people and hence it is nothing inherent in them which makes the difference; Refutation of the Arminian teaching that it is one’s free will which makes one believing or unbelieving.

Paul speaks of the same regenerative work of God in 2 Corinthians 4:6, as the God who said in Genesis, “Let light shine out of darkness”, shining in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is again a divine act, which brings forth our salvation, and it is presented as an infallible and efficacious one. Not as one which merely tries to or depends on some human act for its efficacy.

Due to this understanding of the grace of God, when Paul makes his readers look back at their salvation, he wants them to remember it as follows:

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3: 2-7)

It is to be noted that he describes our salvation entirely as a work of God: An efficacious and sufficient work of God, which is neither given nor completed on the basis of any human effort.

It is also noteworthy that in the entire New Testament, there is not a single retrospective passage or verse where the inspired Apostle wants his readers to see their salvation as a successful operation of their free will. Contrary to Arminian beliefs, we do not believe and then receive grace, rather we believe because we have received grace. Hence in the book of Acts, believers are described as “those who by grace had believed.” (Acts 18:27).

Thus for our salvation, grace is not only necessary but also sufficient. We can neither offer anything to make grace efficacious nor does God’s grace need anything from us. For in Jesus own words salvation is impossible to man, “but with God all things are possible” (Mat 19:26)

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Footnotes:

[1] Matthew Henry Commentary on John 3.

[2] This obviously will raise questions about why the whole world is not saved, if grace is this efficacious. It is here the doctrine of election – God sovereignly choosing His people, the subjects of His salvation, comes into the scene.

Theology Does Matter is a series aimed at answering common objections raised by people who are new to Reformed theology. The series is consciously succinct in its answers and seeks to be a good introduction to these biblical doctrines and the glorious God they teach.

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By Jay Dharan
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