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ON “FREE WILL” BY DR. R.C. SPROUL

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The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 9: Of Free Will

Sec. 1. God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.

Sec. 2. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.

Sec. 3. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

Sec. 4. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.

Sec. 5. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only.

We come now in our study of the confession to a separate treatment of the subject of free will. Every time Reformed theology is presented in open discussion, it seems inevitable that the subject of free will arises. For many, the idea of God’s sovereignty is antithetical to one of the most precious and axiomatic principles of human understanding—the idea of free will.

When we examine the question of free will from the viewpoint of biblical theology, we are pressured by the massive impact that secular views of free will have had on our thinking. If there is any place where secular humanism has undermined a biblical view of human nature, it’s with respect to the idea of free will. The prevailing view of free will in the secular culture is that human beings are able to make choices without being encumbered by sin. On this view, our wills have no predisposition either toward evil or toward righteousness, but remain in a neutral state from birth.

This view of human freedom is on a collision course with the biblical doctrine of the fall, which speaks of the radical corruption of our human condition. The whole person is caught up in the fall, including the mind, the soul, the will, and the body. The ravages of sin have affected us profoundly and deeply. Nonetheless, we are still able to think. Similarly, although the will has been tragically marred by the fall, we have not lost our ability to make moral choices. We still have wills, which are able to make choices without being coerced by God. The fact remains, however, that when the Bible speaks of our condition, it speaks of bondage or slavery to sin, which the confession addresses.

Sec. 1. God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.

Here the confession speaks of natural liberty, a liberty that is part and parcel of our nature as human beings. We were given a will that is not coerced or forced to make any decision by any absolute necessity of nature. Here the confession distances itself from every form of moral determinism, which would subject human choices to fixed, mechanical, or physical forces, or even to the arbitrary influences of fate. In a word, Reformed theology categorically rejects fatalism and any determinism based upon the forces of nature. We are not coerced or forced by natural causes, or by our environment, either to do good or to do evil.

Section 2, however, goes on to make an important distinction be- tween the state of the human will as it was created and its state after the fall.

Sec. 2. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.

Here the confession asserts and affirms that in creation the human will had freedom and power to do what is good, to do what is well pleasing to God. Before the fall, human beings had the moral capacity or the moral ability to choose righteousness and obedience before God. But this endowment from God was mutable. Man was capable of change and falling away from his original disposition.

Saint Augustine stated that in creation we had both the posse peccare (the ability to sin) and the posse non peccare (the ability not to sin). After the fall, we continued to have the ability to sin, the posse peccare, but we lost the power or ability not to sin, the posse non peccare. We were left in what Augustine called a state of moral inability. This truth can be illustrated from a rational perspective and from an analytical perspective. According to Jonathan Edwards, free will is our freedom to choose what we want—our ability to choose according to our own inclinations. Not only are we able to choose according to our strongest inclinations, but, in a very real sense, we must choose according to our strongest inclination in order to be free.

This is the essence of freedom: to be able to choose what you want, rather than what somebody else wants for you. We also recognize that we are creatures who have multitudes of conflicting desires. We are torn in more than one direction, and the intensity with which we want things changes and vacillates.

If we desired only to obey God, we would never sin. As Christians, we have some desire in our heart to please Christ. Unfortunately, we still desire to please ourselves, to gratify our own lusts, and to do what we want to do, rather than what Christ wants us to do. Now we are confronted with a choice between obeying Christ and disobeying Christ. If our desire to please Christ is greater than our desire to please ourselves at this point, what will we do? Whenever our desire for obedience is greater than our desire for sin, we will obey Christ. However, whenever our desire for sin exceeds our desire to please God, we will sin. In a real sense, we are slaves to our own freedom. We not only can be free, but must be free. We are volitional creatures, and to be volitional means that we choose according to our will. We make choices according to what seems best or most pleasing to us at the moment of decision.

What does that say for our sanctification? Is there any way that we can fool ourselves? This is important for our realization of how we function as sinners, having conflicting desires in our soul. We want to grow in grace, we want to please God, we want to obey Christ, and yet we still have desires for self-fulfillment that are sinful. We are told in the New Testament to feed the new man and starve the old man. Put the old man to death and seek the renewal of the new man, the strengthening of the inward man.

What can we do to strengthen our sanctification? The level of our desire to obey Christ has to increase, and the level of our desire for the things of this world has to diminish. Because we are always going to follow our strongest inclinations or desires, the only way to grow in grace is to feed and strengthen our positive desires for God and to starve our negative desires.

What are some things that we can do to strengthen the inner man? It certainly helps to spend time in the Word of God. Paul says, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). When we read Scripture and hear the Word of God reinforced, we begin to understand that certain behavioral patterns that are acceptable in the culture in which we live are totally unacceptable to God. When we sin, we know that we are sinning, but we trivialize our sin. We say, “I know I am not supposed to do that, but it’s not a big deal.” As we come under the scrutiny of the Word of God, we begin to see that things that we do not regard as a big deal are indeed very important to God. We get a deeper understanding of righteousness and of evil.

The Scriptures also encourage us to obey God and discourage us from sin. So the Word of God is what we call a means of grace. When we spend time in the Bible, something happens to the inward man. Our mind gets changed. We start to think differently, and we approach decisions in a different way, all because our minds are saturated with the truth of God.

Have you read the whole Bible at least once all the way through? I have asked this question all over the world, and the overwhelming majority of professing Christians have never read the whole Bible. We all know that we should read the whole Bible, and we all know that spending time in the Word will have an impact on our souls and on our decisions. Many times we resolve to spend time in Scripture, but we do not, because something else comes up that we want to do more than we want to read Scripture. The desire is not compelling enough to cause us to act in a diligent and disciplined manner to feed the new man in Christ on the Word of God.

What can we do about that? What do we do about dieting? When we are really struggling at the table and can’t lose weight, even with the best resolve, we go to Weight Watchers, spend money, make a commitment, and enter a group. We become part of a group that is going to root for us every week and cheer when we succeed.

This is not a promotion for Weight Watchers, but in many ways it is an image of the church. We come to church partly to lose the excess baggage that we brought into the kingdom of God with our conversion. We come to church for help in killing the old man. We come to church so that our souls can be nurtured, and so that we can be instructed in the things of God in a way that is going to change our life. It changes our life by strengthening our resolve to do one thing rather than another. If you want to learn the Bible, and you are not doing it on your own, get into a Bible study group. If you want to learn the things of God and you do not have the discipline to start, get into a Sunday school class, not just for one hour a week, but to study and work on assignments for the rest of the week. The whole Christian battle is a battle of the will. It is a battle to overcome a will that by nature is bent in the wrong direction.

I am amazed when I hear people say the will is free, as if our will were indifferent to good or evil, with no inclination to go to the left or the right. I wonder if these people have spent any time in the Christian life or have struggled in the inward man to overcome the appetites, desires, and inclinations that drive our choices all our life. No, the will is not neutral.

Sec. 3. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

The Reformers believed that the will, although in a fallen state, could still achieve civic virtue or civic righteousness. Fallen man can still obey the traffic lights and so on, but he cannot incline himself to the things of God.

Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father” (John 6:65). “No one can” means “nobody can.” Remember your third-grade teacher? You raised your hand and asked, “Mrs. So-and-So, can I go to the pencil sharpener and sharpen my pen- cil?” She replied, “I’m sure that you can, but the question is not whether you can, but whether you may.” May has to do with permission; can has to do with ability. “No one can” means that no one is able.

We argue and discuss the doctrine of sola gratia, “of grace alone.” Does fallen man have the ability to turn to Christ and to choose him before he is born of the Holy Spirit? Most professing evangelical Christians today believe that faith comes first and then rebirth. This presupposes that the unconverted person has the ability to incline himself, or to choose to come, to Jesus Christ. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards said that no one is able to do that. I don’t care if you disagree with them, but you should not stand in defiance of the clear teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you continue to think that in your fallen state you have the moral ability to come to Christ apart from the grace of God, you do so at your own peril. In John 6:65, our Lord clearly says that no one is able to come to him unless the ability to do so is given to him by the Father (“This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father”).

Fortunately for us, Jesus puts the word “unless” in that statement. That word points to what we call a necessary condition, a sine qua non. A necessary condition has to be met before a desired result can occur. The desired result is coming to Christ; the necessary condition is that the ability to come must be given to the person by the Father. Only God gives that ability. Nobody can come to Christ on his own; we are just not able to, unless God gives us the moral ability to do it.

Now, even Arminius agreed with that. How could he not, when he read the same Bible that we do? God, he agreed, has to do something to make it possible for a person to come to Christ. In a narrow sense, even Arminius would say that the Spirit must work in a person before he can choose Christ. However, his understanding of what the Holy Spirit does here differs radically from the Augustinian tradition. Arminius says that God makes people able. However, in his view, even when God gives you the grace to come to Christ, you still have the ability to refuse that grace. Some people accept that grace, that assistance to come to Christ; other people reject the help. Those who cooperate with the offer of grace are saved, and those who refuse the offer perish. So, in the final analysis, the reason why one person perishes and another person is saved is that one person cooperates with grace and is saved, while another per- son refuses to cooperate with grace and perishes. Once again, it all comes down to a person’s choice. One person makes the righteous choice, and another makes the unrighteous choice.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that in the end you must say that you are saved, while your neighbor isn’t, because you are more righteous. You have done the right thing to get saved, while your neighbor has not—and now you have something to boast about. But the Bible says that you may not boast before God, because it is God and God alone who enabled you to choose Christ. He actually worked faith in your heart, not only giving you release from prison, but giving you the positive inclination by which you then willingly came to Christ. Since the fall, the human will has been in bondage to sin, until liberated by God. He gives you what you lack, a positive desire for Christ.

The next chapter of the confession is on effectual calling. When the Holy Spirit gives you the grace of regeneration, its purpose is to bring you to Christ. God does not just give you the ability to come to Christ (John 6:65), but also draws you to him: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (6:44). Many evangelicals look at that text and say, “That means they will never come on their own initiative unless they are enticed or lured or encouraged or wooed. The Holy Spirit comes and woos people, encouraging them and drawing them like the flame draws the moth. But all of that enticing and drawing is merely the external influence of the Holy Spirit. He will not invade your soul or shape your will. He will just try to encourage you, saying, ‘Come on now; it’s a beautiful thing. Come to Christ.’ Some will be persuaded, and some will not.”

I was asked to debate this question at an Arminian school several years ago with the head of the New Testament department. When he quoted John 6:44, I mentioned to him that the Greek verb translated “draw” in this verse is the same verb that is used in the book of Acts when some men in Philippi dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities for casting an evil spirit out of their slave girl (Acts 16:19). Those men did not try to entice them to come before the magistrates; they compelled them to come. The professor interrupted: “But there are references in the Greek poet Euripides (or somebody) where this same verb refers to drawing water out of a well.” Smiling to the audience, he asked, “And Dr. Sproul, does anybody compel water to come out of a well?” Everybody laughed, and I responded, “How do you get water from a well? Do you stand at the top of the well and call, ‘Here, water, water, water’? Or is that water dead in the pit and absolutely inert unless you lower the bucket into the water and you drag it up to the surface?”

Jesus’ point in John 6:44 is that people cannot come to him unless they are compelled to come by the Father—unless God drags them. If you are in Christ, that is exactly how you came to Christ. The Holy Spirit dragged you there. He did not drag you kicking and screaming against your will, because he had changed your will before you came. Had he not changed the disposition of your heart, had he not put into your heart a desire for Christ, you would still be a stranger and an alien to the kingdom of God, because your will, while free from coercion, is still in bondage to sin. That will that you think is so free is, in fact, a slave imprisoned to yourself. You are your own slaveholder. Your will is enslaved to your dispositions, to your desires, which, the Bible says, are wicked continually, prior to conversion.

That sounds like determinism. B.F. Skinner, in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, argued that human decisions are the result of materialistic determinism. He claimed that people have no control over their destiny and no real freedom, because their decisions are determined by the physical forces around and within. I am saying that you do have freedom in the sense that you have the capacity to do what you want to do, but that you are also subject to a kind of determinism, which we call self-determination.

Self-determination is virtually synonymous with freedom or liberty. To be self-determined means that you are not forced or coerced to do something against your will; you are able to do what you want to do; you determine your destiny and make your choices, so it is the self that determines the will. But the problem is that the self is fallen and spiritually dead. It gives us desires and inclinations that are sinful. If we accordingly make sinful decisions, they may be made freely (from coercion), but they are still made in bondage to sin. Therefore, the capacity to make our own decisions does not give us the liberty we need.

Sec. 4. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.

Sec. 5. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only.

Before conversion, we are free to sin; after conversion, we are free to sin or to obey God. In heaven, when we are in glory, we are free only to obey. That is what we call royal freedom, the most wonderful freedom, where our choices will only be good. We will have no inclination whatsoever to do anything wicked or evil. The humanistic view, that true freedom means that we have an equal ability to go to the left or to the right, to do what is sinful or what is righteous, is a myth. It is not only unbiblical, but irrational. We must rid our minds of that notion and realize that at the heart of this matter is original sin. Prior to our conversion, we are enslaved to wicked impulses. But when the Spirit sets us free from bondage to sin, then we are truly free.

Adapted from Dr. R.C. Sproul. Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Volume Two: Salvation and the Christian Life. P&R: Philippsburg, N.J., 2007.

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R.C. SPROUL ON MAN’S MORAL ABILITY TO BE SAVED

Radical Corruption

Sin separates us from God

In God’s work of creation, the crowning act, the pinnacle of that divine work, was the creation of human beings. It was to humans that God assigned and stamped His divine image. That we are created in the image of God gives to us the highest place among earthly beings. That image provides human beings with a unique ability to mirror and reflect the very character of God.

However, since the tragic fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, that image has been subject to serious change and corruption. As a result, we speak of the “shattering of the image.” The term shatter may go too far, however, because it could suggest the idea that the image is now destroyed and that no vestige of it is left in our humanity. Such is not the case. Though the image has been radically blurred and corrupted, there remains some aspect of that image left in our humanity, which remaining vestige is the basis for human dignity. Human dignity is not inherent, it is derived. It is not intrinsic, it is extrinsic. Human beings have dignity because God, who has dignity inherently and intrinsically, has assigned such dignity to us.

When we speak of the fall and of original sin, we are not speaking of the first sin committed by Adam and Eve, we are speaking of the radical consequences of that sin, which followed to all future generations of mankind. In Reformed circles, the doctrine of original sin has often been described by the phrase “total depravity.” That it’s called “total depravity” is explained in one sense because the letter “T” fits so neatly into the historic acrostic TULIP, which defines the so-called “five points of Calvinism.”

Nevertheless, the word total with respect to our depravity may seriously mislead. It could suggest that our fallen natures are as corrupt and depraved as possible. But that would be a state of utter depravity. I prefer to use the phrase “radical corruption,” perhaps because the first initial of each word suits my own name and nature, R.C., but more so because it avoids the misunderstanding that results from the phrase “total depravity.” Radical corruption means that the fall from our original state has affected us not simply at the periphery of our existence. It is not something that merely taints an otherwise good personality; rather, it is that the corruption goes to the radix, to the root or core of our humanity, and it affects every part of our character and being. The effect of this corruption reaches our minds, our hearts, our souls, our bodies — indeed, the whole person. This is what lies behind the word total in “total depravity.”

What is most significant about the consequences of the fall is what it has done to our ability to obey God. The issue of our moral capability after the fall is one of the most persistently debated issues within the Christian community. Virtually every branch of Christendom has articulated some doctrine of original sin because the Bible is absolutely clear that we are fallen from our created condition.

However, the degree of that fall and corruption remains hotly disputed among Christians. Historically, that dispute was given fuel by the debate between the British monk Pelagius and the greatest theologian of the first millennium, Saint Augustine of Hippo. In defining the state of corruption into which mankind has fallen, Augustine set up some parallels and contrasts between man’s estate before the fall and his condition after the fall. Before the fall, Augustine said that man was posse peccare and posse non peccare, that is, man had the ability to sin and the ability not to sin. Not sinning was a possibility that Adam had in the Garden.

In addition to this, Augustine distinguished between our original estate, which involved both the posse mori and the posse non mori. This distinction refers to our mortality. Adam was made in such a way that it was possible for him to die. At the same time, he had the possibility before him of living forever had he not fallen into sin. So both the possibility of sinning and not sinning and the possibility of dying or not dying existed as options for Adam before the fall, according to Augustine.

He further argued that the consequence of the fall upon the human race can be defined this way: since the fall, man no longer has the posse non peccare or the posse non mori. All human beings now have lost the natural ability to keep from sinning and thus to keep from dying. We are all born in the state of sin and as mortal creatures, destined to death. After the fall, Augustine defines our condition as having the posse peccare. We retain the ability to sin, but now we have the dreadful condition of the non posse non peccare. This double negative means that we no longer have the ability to not sin. Likewise, we have now the non posse non mori. It is not possible for us not to die. It is appointed to all of us once to die and then the judgment. The only exceptions to this would be those who remain alive at the coming of Christ.

When we get to heaven, things will change again. There we will no longer have the posse peccare and the non posse non peccare. There we will only have non posse peccare. We will no longer be able to sin or to die. It all comes down to this, to the issue of moral ability. Augustine was saying that apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that God performs in the souls of the elect, no person in His own power is able to choose godliness, to choose Christ, or to choose the things of God. That ability to come to Christ, as our Lord Himself declared in John chapter 6, is an ability that can only be the result of the regenerating power of God the Holy Spirit. That position spelled out by Augustine remains the orthodox position of historic Reformed theology.

© Tabletalk magazine http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/radical-corruption/

 

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Dr. R.C. Sproul on the Essence of God’s Sovereignty in Our Salvation

The Pelagian Captivity of the Church

by R.C. Sproul

Shortly after the Reformation began, in the first few years after Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, he issued some short booklets on a variety of subjects. One of the most provocative was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this book Luther was looking back to that period of Old Testament history when Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies of Babylon and the elite of the people were carried off into captivity. Luther in the sixteenth century took the image of the historic Babylonian captivity and reapplied it to his era and talked about the new Babylonian captivity of the Church. He was speaking of Rome as the modern Babylon that held the Gospel hostage with its rejection of the biblical understanding of justification. You can understand how fierce the controversy was, how polemical this title would be in that period by saying that the Church had not simply erred or strayed, but had fallen — that it’s actually now Babylonian; it is now in pagan captivity.

I’ve often wondered if Luther were alive today and came to our culture and looked, not at the liberal church community, but at evangelical churches, what would he have to say? Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church. Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage of the Will. When we look at the Reformation and we see the solas of the Reformation — sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, sola gratia — Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of solo fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.

In the Fleming Revell edition of The Bondage of the Will, the translators, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, included a somewhat provocative historical and theological introduction to the book itself. This is from the end of that introduction:

These things need to be pondered by Protestants today. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognised by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters? (J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, “Introduction” to the Bondage of the Will. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957: pp. 59-60)

Historically, it’s a simple matter of fact that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points they had their differences. In asserting the helplessness of man in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them these doctrines were the very lifeblood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s works says this:

Whoever puts this book down without having realized that Evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith alone, which became the storm center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is not accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed by Augustine and others, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a more profound level still in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration (Ibid).

That is to say, that the faith that receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which is left to man to fulfill? Do you hear the difference? Let me put it in simple terms. I heard an evangelist recently say, “If God takes a thousand steps to reach out to you for your redemption, still in the final analysis, you must take the decisive step to be saved.” Consider the statement that has been made by America’s most beloved and leading evangelical of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, who says with great passion, “God does ninety-nine percent of it but you still must do that last one percent.”

What Is Pelagianism?

Now, let’s return briefly to my title, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.” What are we talking about? Pelagius was a monk who lived in Britain in the fifth century. He was a contemporary of the greatest theologian of the first millennium of Church history if not of all time, Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. We have heard of St. Augustine, of his great works in theology, of his City of God, of his Confessions, and so on, which remain Christian classics.

Augustine, in addition to being a titanic theologian and a prodigious intellect, was also a man of deep spirituality and prayer. In one of his famous prayers, Augustine made a seemingly harmless and innocuous statement in the prayer to God in which he says: “O God, command what you wouldst, and grant what thou dost command.” Now, would that give you apoplexy — to hear a prayer like that? Well it certainly set Pelagius, this British monk, into orbit. When he heard that, he protested vociferously, even appealing to Rome to have this ghastly prayer censured from the pen of Augustine. Here’s why. He said, “Are you saying, Augustine, that God has the inherent right to command anything that he so desires from his creatures? Nobody is going to dispute that. God inherently, as the creator of heaven and earth, has the right to impose obligations on his creatures and say, ‘Thou shalt do this, and thou shalt not do that.’ ‘Command whatever thou would’ — it’s a perfectly legitimate prayer.”

It’s the second part of the prayer that Pelagius abhorred when Augustine said, “and grant what thou dost command.” He said, “What are you talking about? If God is just, if God is righteous and God is holy, and God commands of the creature to do something, certainly that creature must have the power within himself, the moral ability within himself, to perform it or God would never require it in the first place.” Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? What Pelagius was saying is that moral responsibility always and everywhere implies moral capability or, simply, moral ability. So why would we have to pray, “God grant me, give me the gift of being able to do what you command me to do”? Pelagius saw in this statement a shadow being cast over the integrity of God himself, who would hold people responsible for doing something they cannot do.

So in the ensuing debate, Augustine made it clear that in creation, God commanded nothing from Adam or Eve that they were incapable of performing. But once transgression entered and mankind became fallen, God’s law was not repealed nor did God adjust his holy requirements downward to accommodate the weakened, fallen condition of his creation. God did punish his creation by visiting upon them the judgment of original sin, so that everyone after Adam and Eve who was born into this world was born already dead in sin. Original sin is not the first sin. It’s the result of the first sin; it refers to our inherent corruption, by which we are born in sin, and in sin did our mothers conceive us. We are not born in a neutral state of innocence, but we are born in a sinful, fallen condition. Virtually every church in the historic World Council of Churches at some point in their history and in their creedal development articulates some doctrine of original sin. So clear is that to the biblical revelation that it would take a repudiation of the biblical view of mankind to deny original sin altogether.

This is precisely what was at issue in the battle between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. Pelagius said there is no such thing as original sin. Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. There is no transmission or transfer of guilt or fallenness or corruption to the progeny of Adam and Eve. Everyone is born in the same state of innocence in which Adam was created. And, he said, for a person to live a life of obedience to God, a life of moral perfection, is possible without any help from Jesus or without any help from the grace of God. Pelagius said that grace — and here’s the key distinction — facilitates righteousness. What does “facilitate” mean?

It helps, it makes it more facile, it makes it easier, but you don’t have to have it. You can be perfect without it. Pelagius further stated that it is not only theoretically possible for some folks to live a perfect life without any assistance from divine grace, but there are in fact people who do it. Augustine said, “No, no, no, no . . . we are infected by sin by nature, to the very depths and core of our being — so much so that no human being has the moral power to incline himself to cooperate with the grace of God. The human will, as a result of original sin, still has the power to choose, but it is in bondage to its evil desires and inclinations. The condition of fallen humanity is one that Augustine would describe as the inability to not sin. In simple English, what Augustine was saying is that in the Fall, man loses his moral ability to do the things of God and he is held captive by his own evil inclinations.

In the fifth century the Church condemned Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange, and it was condemned again at the Council of Florence, the Council of Carthage, and also, ironically, at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century in the first three anathemas of the Canons of the Sixth Session. So, consistently throughout Church history, the Church has roundly and soundly condemned Pelagianism  —  because Pelagianism denies the fallenness of our nature; it denies the doctrine of original sin.

Now what is called semi-Pelagianism, as the prefix “semi” suggests, was a somewhat middle ground between full-orbed Augustinianism and full-orbed Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism said this: yes, there was a fall; yes, there is such a thing as original sin; yes, the constituent nature of humanity has been changed by this state of corruption and all parts of our humanity have been significantly weakened by the fall, so much so that without the assistance of divine grace nobody can possibly be redeemed, so that grace is not only helpful but it’s absolutely necessary for salvation. While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t. That little island Augustine wouldn’t even recognize as an atoll in the South Pacific. He said it’s a mythical island, that the will is enslaved, and that man is dead in his sin and trespasses.

Ironically, the Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vehemently as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the time you get to the sixteenth century and you read the Catholic understanding of what happens in salvation the Church basically repudiated what Augustine taught and Aquinas taught as well. The Church concluded that there still remains this freedom that is intact in the human will and that man must cooperate with — and assent to — the prevenient grace that is offered to them by God. If we exercise that will, if we exercise a cooperation with whatever powers we have left, we will be saved. And so in the sixteenth century the Church reembraced semi-Pelagianism.

At the time of the Reformation, all the reformers agreed on one point: the moral inability of fallen human beings to incline themselves to the things of God; that all people, in order to be saved, are totally dependent, not ninety-nine percent, but one hundred percent dependent upon the monergistic work of regeneration in order to come to faith, and that faith itself is a gift of God. It’s not that we are offered salvation and that we will be born again if we choose to believe. But we can’t even believe until God in his grace and in his mercy first changes the disposition of our souls through his sovereign work of regeneration. In other words, what the reformers all agreed with was, unless a man is born again, he can’t even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. Like Jesus says in the sixth chapter of John, “No man can come to me unless it is given to him of the Father” — that the necessary condition for anybody’s faith and anybody’s salvation is regeneration.

Evangelicals and Faith

Modern Evangelicalism almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. You have to choose to be born again. Isn’t that what you hear? In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of “professing evangelical Christians” in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves. These positions — or let me say it negatively — neither of these positions is semi-Pelagian. They’re both Pelagian. To say that we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking in depth, we would find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.

In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists. Now, if Luther was correct in saying that sola fide is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism.

The Island of Righteousness

One thing is clear: that you can be purely Pelagian and be completely welcome in the evangelical movement today. It’s not simply that the camel sticks his nose into the tent; he doesn’t just come in the tent — he kicks the owner of the tent out. Modern Evangelicalism today looks with suspicion at Reformed theology, which has become sort of the third-class citizen of Evangelicalism. Now you say, “Wait a minute, R. C. Let’s not tar everybody with the extreme brush of Pelagianism, because, after all, Billy Graham and the rest of these people are saying there was a Fall; you’ve got to have grace; there is such a thing as original sin; and semi-Pelagians do not agree with Pelagius’ facile and sanguine view of unfallen human nature.” And that’s true. No question about it. But it’s that little island of righteousness where man still has the ability, in and of himself, to turn, to change, to incline, to dispose, to embrace the offer of grace that reveals why historically semi-Pelagianism is not called semi-Augustinianism, but semi-Pelagianism.

I heard an evangelist use two analogies to describe what happens in our redemption. He said sin has such a strong hold on us, a stranglehold, that it’s like a person who can’t swim, who falls overboard in a raging sea, and he’s going under for the third time and only the tops of his fingers are still above the water; and unless someone intervenes to rescue him, he has no hope of survival, his death is certain. And unless God throws him a life preserver, he can’t possibly be rescued. And not only must God throw him a life preserver in the general vicinity of where he is, but that life preserver has to hit him right where his fingers are still extended out of the water, and hit him so that he can grasp hold of it. It has to be perfectly pitched. But still that man will drown unless he takes his fingers and curls them around the life preserver and God will rescue him. But unless that tiny little human action is done, he will surely perish.

The other analogy is this: A man is desperately ill, sick unto death, lying in his hospital bed with a disease that is fatal. There is no way he can be cured unless somebody from outside comes up with a cure, a medicine that will take care of this fatal disease. And God has the cure and walks into the room with the medicine. But the man is so weak he can’t even help himself to the medicine; God has to pour it on the spoon. The man is so sick he’s almost comatose. He can’t even open his mouth, and God has to lean over and open up his mouth for him. God has to bring the spoon to the man’s lips, but the man still has to swallow it.

Now, if we’re going to use analogies, let’s be accurate. The man isn’t going under for the third time; he is stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. That’s where you once were when you were dead in sin and trespasses and walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air. And while you were dead hath God quickened you together with Christ. God dove to the bottom of the sea and took that drowned corpse and breathed into it the breath of his life and raised you from the dead. And it’s not that you were dying in a hospital bed of a certain illness, but rather, when you were born you were born D.O.A. That’s what the Bible says: that we are morally stillborn.

Do we have a will? Yes, of course we have a will. Calvin said, if you mean by a free will a faculty of choosing by which you have the power within yourself to choose what you desire, then we all have free will. If you mean by free will the ability for fallen human beings to incline themselves and exercise that will to choose the things of God without the prior monergistic work of regeneration then, said Calvin, free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to a human being.

The semi-Pelagian doctrine of free will prevalent in the evangelical world today is a pagan view that denies the captivity of the human heart to sin. It underestimates the stranglehold that sin has upon us.

None of us wants to see things as bad as they really are. The biblical doctrine of human corruption is grim. We don’t hear the Apostle Paul say, “You know, it’s sad that we have such a thing as sin in the world; nobody’s perfect. But be of good cheer. We’re basically good.” Do you see that even a cursory reading of Scripture denies this?

Now back to Luther. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received? Or is it a condition of justification which is left to us to fulfill? Is your faith a work? Is it the one work that God leaves for you to do? I had a discussion with some folks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently. I was speaking on sola gratia, and one fellow was upset.

He said, “Are you trying to tell me that in the final analysis it’s God who either does or doesn’t sovereignly regenerate a heart?”

And I said, “Yes;” and he was very upset about that. I said, “Let me ask you this: are you a Christian?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Do you have friends who aren’t Christians?”

He said, “Well, of course.”

I said, “Why are you a Christian and your friends aren’t? Is it because you’re more righteous than they are?” He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to say, “Of course it’s because I’m more righteous. I did the right thing and my friend didn’t.” He knew where I was going with that question.

And he said, “Oh, no, no, no.”

I said, “Tell me why. Is it because you are smarter than your friend?”

And he said, “No.”

But he would not agree that the final, decisive issue was the grace of God. He wouldn’t come to that. And after we discussed this for fifteen minutes, he said, “OK! I’ll say it. I’m a Christian because I did the right thing, I made the right response, and my friend didn’t.”

What was this person trusting in for his salvation? Not in his works in general, but in the one work that he performed. And he was a Protestant, an evangelical. But his view of salvation was no different from the Roman view.

God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

This is the issue: Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it in our own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter, that it ultimately depends on something we do for ourselves, thereby deny humanity’s utter helplessness in sin and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder then that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being, in principle, both a return to Rome because, in effect, it turned faith into a meritorious work, and a betrayal of the Reformation because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the reformers’ thought. Arminianism was indeed, in Reformed eyes, a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism. For to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle than to rely on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.

And yet this view is the overwhelming majority report today in professing evangelical circles. And as long as semi-Pelagianism, which is simply a thinly veiled version of real Pelagianism at its core — as long as it prevails in the Church, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know, however, what will not happen: there will not be a new Reformation. Until we humble ourselves and understand that no man is an island and that no man has an island of righteousness, that we are utterly dependent upon the unmixed grace of God for our salvation, we will not begin to rest upon grace and rejoice in the greatness of God’s sovereignty, and we will not be rid of the pagan influence of humanism that exalts and puts man at the center of religion. Until that happens there will not be a new Reformation, because at the heart of Reformation teaching is the central place of the worship and gratitude given to God and God alone. Soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.

About the Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: The Work of ChristThe Holiness of God; Chosen By God; Reason to Believe; Knowing Scripture; Willing to Believe; The Intimate Marriage; Pleasing God; If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists?, and Defending The Faith) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as Senior Minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL. The article above was adapted from Modern Reformation, Vol 10, Number 3 (May/June 2001), pp. 22-29.

 

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