The post written by one of the irenic hosts of Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton, explained why he rejects the tenets of Arminianism, which is primarily due to the Arminians’ view of Prevenient Grace. Patton writes,
- In our depraved state, God comes into our lives and opens our eyes to His beauty. This intervention happens by means of saving or “irresistible” grace. In our helpless and angry position, while shaking our fists at God, God sovereignly and autonomously regenerates us. Once regenerated, we trust and love the Lord because our nature has been transformed by Him. Therefore, God is the only one to credit for our salvation, seeing as how we did not play a part in its genesis (this is sometimes referred to as monergism). But, according to Calvinists, God does not give this gift of saving grace to all people, only the elect. Otherwise, all would be saved.
What was utterly shocking about the post was its lack of biblical support for Irresistible Grace (i.e. regeneration precedes faith). Usually Calvinists have a ton of proof-texts as arsenal against the “philosophical pleas” of the Arminian. Perhaps Patton was secure enough in his theology, believing the New Testament to explicitly teach this concept, that quoting various verses would have seemed superfluous. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Patton is a godly man who loves the Lord and his Word, and is not anxious to stir up conflict by rhetoric against those with whom he disagrees (as is the habit of many Internet Calvinists).
Noting that both Calvinists and Arminians believe in Total Depravity, Patton writes,
- How do Arminians deal with our depraved condition? Well, they reject the Calvinistic doctrine of “irresistible” grace, believing that it does violence to the necessary freedom that must exist for God to have a true loving relationship with man. But something, nevertheless, must make belief possible in such a depraved condition. In comes Prevenient grace. This is an enabling grace [and of course it must be, John 6:44, 65] that comes to the aid of all people (don’t miss the “all”) so that their disposition can be made capable of receiving the Gospel. It does not save them, as the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, but it makes them savable.
Arminians prefer to narrow this definition of prevenient grace with this caveat: Prevenient Grace works solely in accordance with the Gospel (Rom. 1:16) and the convicting power of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11) and not on “all” people indiscriminately at “all” times. Without the Gospel and the work of the Spirit there is no prevenient grace. Please re-read that statement: Without the Gospel and the work of the Spirit there is no prevenient grace. Grace must precede faith and salvation (hence prevenient grace), for a person is only justified by faith (Rom. 5:1). And faith comes from hearing the Gospel (Rom. 10:17) ~ it is only effectual by the power of the Spirit freeing a sinner from his or her bondage to sin in order to freely (as Patton noted) receive Christ Jesus (John 1:12), or not (2 Cor. 6:1; cf. Lk. 7:30; Acts 7:51; 13:46).
The Arminian is most certainly not arguing with the Calvinist over God’s grace but over the doctrine of Irresistible Grace (that regeneration precedes faith). For example, many Calvinists make it their aim to find the notion that regeneration precedes faith from 1 John 5:1. The English Standard Version best translates the Greek as, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God . . .”
The phrase “has been born” is, technically, a perfect indicative passive. The perfect tense represents an action that was completed in the past (i.e. “has been“) but has continuing results, and is most likely why the NASB translates it as “is born.” The indicative mood makes an assertion of fact (i.e. “Everyone who believes . . . has been born of God . . .”). The passive voice represents the subject as receiving the action (i.e. “Everyone who believes . . . has been born of God”). What the Calvinist concludes here is that the only reason a person “believes that Jesus is the Christ” is because he or she “has been born of God,” and thus regeneration precedes faith. But the subject (i.e. “Everyone who . . .”) receives the action (i.e. being “born of God . . .”) only by believing that Jesus is the Christ. Therefore the Bible, yet again, affirms that faith precedes regeneration, and that here at 1 John 5:1, where some Calvinists try to employ it as support for their presupposition.
The opening phrase, “Everyone who believes” is literally, “All who are believing . . .” The word “believes” is a present participle denoting continued action. “It does not in itself indicate the time of the action [emphasis mine], but when its relationship to the main verb is temporal, it usually signifies action contemporary with that of the main verb.”1 Thus the Calvinist has no exegetical ground for suggesting that a person “believes” as a result of having been “born of God.” There is certainly a relationship with believing and having been born again, but the Greek denotes a contemporaneous relationship, even if one will logically precede the other.
Now, if we are to take the Calvinistic approach in interpreting this verse as supporting regeneration preceding faith (i.e. Irresistible Grace), then what shall we make of apostates? How could this concept be reconciled with one whom Jesus noted as he “on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matt. 13:20-21)?
According to the Calvinistic caste system, this person, whom Jesus admitted heard the word and then immediately received it with joy, could have only received the Word by having first been born again. But then, lo and behold, this same regenerated person had “no root in himself,” but believed only temporarily and later fell away (which Calvinists concede as an impossibility).
Yet, the one who fell away, so Calvinists claim, never really believed in the first place. That is convenient but not scriptural. Furthermore, that is not what Jesus said! He said that the one in whom seed (the Word, the Gospel) was sown is the one who not only heard that Word (cf. Rom. 10:17) but also received it with joy (cf. the same reception of the Word at Acts 8:14; 11:1; and 17:11 in connection with salvation). And Calvinists say that the one who believes does so by having first been born of God (1 John 5:1). They want their cake and eat it as well, but Scripture will not afford them that luxury.
The problem with exegeting 1 John 5:1 in a Calvinistic manner should be obvious. Have they forgotten the first three rules of biblical Hermeneutics is 1) context, 2) context, and 3) context? Chapter 4 of 1 John instructs believers to test the spirit of prophets. Beginning at verse 7 John instructs believers to love one another, concluding that, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20, cf. v. 21). This instruction sets the stage for chapter 5. John begins expounding on his thesis with, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 John 5:1 ESV). Given the surrounding context, is there any warrant whatsoever to eisegete the notion that regeneration must precede faith? Is John explaining how a person comes to faith in Christ? Or is he giving a command to those who already believe in Christ? Obviously, the latter is the biblical answer.
What is John’s point? Simply this: those who believe in Jesus Christ have been born of God, as have all who believe in him. Therefore, since all believers of Christ have been born of God, and God is the Father of all believers, then all believers should have the same, immense love for one another. To read anything else into this text is not exegesis (e.g. James White, The Potter’s Freedom).
Patton complains that Prevenient Grace lacks biblical support. Is that a moot argument? The Bible does not explicitly teach that regeneration precedes faith (but implicitly affirms the contrary, cf. Col. 2:13; 1 John 5:1), but it does explicitly teach that grace must precede both faith and salvation. Now, since the doctrine of Prevenient Grace affirms its necessary precedence (Eph. 2:5, 8), then how is it not a biblical concept?
Patton then complains that Prevenient Grace does not really solve any problems where free will is concerned. For even if the will of the unregenerate, which is in bondage because of sin, were freed by God, then, according to him, “their will [would not] have any predisposed inclination toward rejection or acceptance of the Gospel . . .” since it is in a “neutral” state. He has really only opened up a can of worms by using this brand of philosophy. For how do we then explain how Adam fell into sin, since he did not have “any predisposed inclination toward” it?
This line of reasoning will just not work well in defending Calvinism. As a matter of fact it only supports Arminianism, for we are then admitting that Adam, in his “neutral” state, before the fall, had the genuine choice before him to either obey or disobey God’s commandment, without any predisposition to disobey God. Thus if God does bring an unregenerate sinner to a “neutral” state (and I am not necessarily arguing the case in those terms), then that individual, too, has a genuine choice before him or her to either obey or disobey God’s commandment to trust in Christ alone for his or her salvation (John 3:36).
I will let Patton’s conclusion be mine as well, but nuanced slightly. In conclusion, I don’t believe that there is a reason for Irresistible grace outside of a prejudiced view of what some believe must be in order for God to sovereignly save sinners.
1 Spiros Zodhiates, Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2008), 1706.