On the 6/24/19 episode of the “Ask Pastor John” podcast, John Piper addressed what he considers to be the heart of the divide between Arminianism and Calvinism. In his mind, it has to do with “two very different views of how God’s grace functions in bringing people from spiritual darkness and deadness and unbelief into the light and life and faith, which we call salvation and union with Christ.” He characterizes the difference between the Calvinist and Arminian views as whether man (on Arminianism) or God (on Calvinism) makes the final, ultimately decisive choice for a person to believe in Christ.1 This is just a way of speaking of the classic distinction between resistible grace (the Arminian view) vs. irresistible grace (the Calvinist view).
Piper is to be commended for accurately articulating, by means of quoting an Arminian theologian, the classical Arminian view of prevenient grace, which Arminianism teaches is necessary for sinners to be able to believe in Christ. Unfortunately, Piper failed to mention that the classical Arminian view is neither the only nor the typical Arminian view of prevenient grace. The classical view regards prevenient grace as a partial regeneration. This allows Piper to argue against the classical view using Ephesians 2:4-7, which refers to regeneration, pointing out that the text cannot “be fairly interpreted to mean that there is a split in regeneration or a split in making alive.” But the more typical Arminian view today does not view prevenient grace as partial regeneration, but as God’s work of helping sinners to believe the gospel in various ways such as enlightening, convicting, drawing, opening the heart, etc. And whether Piper’s argument against the classical view is successful or not, the more typical view of prevenient grace is immune to Piper’s criticism of the classical view. It does not involve a split in regeneration.
On the other hand, Piper’s own prooftext backfires on him because it reveals that faith precedes regeneration. But Piper’s (and Calvinism’s) view is that regeneration precedes faith and, in fact, is what unfailingly brings the sinner to gladly and willingly embrace Christ as Lord, Savior, and Treasure. Notice that Eph 2:5 equates God making us alive together with Christ (regeneration) with God saving us by grace: “even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (ESV). Then, in v. 8, Paul explains that this salvation/regeneration takes place through faith, which places faith logically prior to regeneration as the means through which regeneration takes place: “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8a). Colossians 2:12-13 speaks similarly when it indicates that we were raised up (regenerated) with Christ through faith and that we were made alive (regenerated) with Christ following (at least logically) the forgiveness of our sins, which of course comes to us by faith.
Finally, I would like to speak to Piper’s focus on what is ultimately decisive. His focus seems to be on what is ultimately decisive for our believing, whether our choice/decision to believe or God irresistibly causing us to believe, though at times he seems to conflate this with salvation. That is a strange conflation in this context because everyone agrees that faith is a human act and salvation is a divine act. It is not as if God believes for us. No, we believe in Jesus for salvation rather than God believing in our place or something similar. Moreover, Scripture makes it clear that faith is not a work. As Paul says in Rom 4:4-5, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (NASB). Now as Piper admits, Arminianism and Calvinism agree “that fallen man, apart from special grace, cannot give himself life or produce his own faith.” We cannot believe on our own. We need God to supernaturally enable us to believe. That is what prevenient grace does. But it is still we who believe. And it is not a matter of whether God wants us to believe or not. Scripture makes clear that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4; ESV). Yet Scripture is replete with examples of people resisting and rejecting God’s grace intended to bring them to proper response to God in trust and obedience (e.g., 2 Kgs 17:7-23; Isa 5:1-4; Jer 25:3-11; 26:1-9; 35:1-19; Ezek 24:13; Neh 9; Zech 7:11-14; Matt 23:37; Luke 7:30; 13:34; John 5:34, 40; Acts 7:51-53; Rom 2:4-5; 2 Cor 6:1-2; Heb 10:29).
Regeneration/salvation on the other hand is an act that God alone performs in response to our faith. God, as the Savior, is ultimately decisive in our salvation. For he is the one who has sovereignly planned, initiated, and executed the whole plan of salvation. He is the one who has sovereignly laid down the conditions for salvation, provided for salvation, and the one who actually saves. Without him, there absolutely can be no salvation. Moreover, he pursued us when we were at enmity with him and did not even know the extreme peril we were in because of our sin against him! That he gives us a genuine choice in whether we will receive the salvation that he offers in the gospel is entirely in his control and at his discretion. The one who gives a free, generous gift to someone who is destitute is the one who is ultimately decisive in enriching the pauper.2
1 Piper does not use the language of choice here, but I think it is probably the fairest way to both sides to state his point.
2 This paragraph is adapted from my article, “Clearing Up Misconceptions about Corporate Election,” Ashland Theological Journal 41 (2009) 59-90.