Kenneth Keathley and the Doctrine of Overcoming Grace

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Kenneth D. Keathley, Professor of Theology and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, has completed his latest book, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, published by B&H Academic. Today’s post will interact with his chapter on Overcoming Grace (pp. 101-37).

From the back cover of the book, one reads the following: “Salvation and Sovereignty begins with author Kenneth Keathley asking, ‘What shall a Christian do who is convinced of certain central tenets of Calvinism but not its corollaries [conclusions]?’ Like many, he suspects the usual Calvinist understanding of sovereignty (that God is the cause of all things) is not sustained by the biblical witness as a whole.”

But one thing Keathley is convinced of is the doctrine of Overcoming Grace. This doctrine is opposed to TULIP’s doctrine of Irresistible Grace (also known as Effectual Grace, which is directly opposed to the Arminian’s Resistible, Enabling or Prevenient Grace). Overcoming Grace is a term coined by Timothy George, who constructed the acronym ROSES — a nuanced version of the TULIP.

Keathley, quoting C. H. Spurgeon, rightly states that salvation is all of grace and that damnation is all of sin.1 As far as salvation being by grace alone through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone to the glory of God alone, both Classical Calvinists and Classical Arminians (and all orthodox Christians in between the two systems) entirely agree. Hence the doctrines of salvation and damnation (or reprobation) should never be thought of as by decree, strictly taken — salvation is of grace, not of decree; reprobation is of sin, not of decree.

At the outset, Keathley recognizes that in theological circles one dilemma remains: “On the one hand, when a person responds to the gospel, we understand that it is because of a work of grace in his heart. But what about those who do not believe? Did God choose not to do a similar work in them? If God simply passes over them, then it seems difficult to affirm that He really desired their salvation or that the gospel was genuinely put forward to them.”2

Keathley’s assessment is an honest one. We must attribute one’s response to the gospel invitation of God to His gracious work alone, since no one can in any manner work for one’s salvation. At this point it is significant to remember that faith is not a work. Paul writes: “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” (Rom. 4:4-5 NASB). Arminius teaches: “Free Will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without Grace. . . . And I add to this, That teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to Divine Grace; provided he so pleads the cause of Grace, as not to inflict an injury on the Justice of God, and not to take away the free will to that which is evil.”3

Arminius was careful at all cost to never charge God as being the instigator of evil. If, as many Calvinists maintain, God is the primary cause behind all of our choices and decisions by divine fiat, then it is absolutely unavoidable to conclude that God is the author of evil, as R. C. Sproul Jr. insists.

But what about one’s choice of receiving Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior? Does God grace only certain ones to receive Christ, guided by a decree of single, unconditional election? Keathley writes: “Historically, this is what is known as Calvinism’s ‘problem of the well-meant offer.’ In other words, the typical Calvinist model of irresistible grace seems to render disingenuous the numerous invitations in the Bible.”45 You may be thinking to yourself, “Great! Then what is the problem? Obviously Calvinism is proven false by Scripture itself.” Keathley continues: “But this solution contains its own problem. If I freely believe, but my neighbor freely does not, does not this imply that somehow I was nobler than my neighbor? Did I not use my freedom to a higher end?”6

I have heard and read this argument ad nauseum from Calvinists, as has Keathley as well. I find it peculiar that such a question or argument arises not from pure exegesis of Scripture but rather from one’s philosophical pontification — as if one’s faith in Christ Jesus has anything whatsoever to do with nobility. Even so, did not Jesus Himself claim that “everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man. . . . Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man. . . .” (Matt. 7:24, 26 NASB)? Does not God call unbelievers “fools” (Ps. 14:1)?

Scripture seems to indicate that believers are wiser than unbelievers (fools), and yet the born again child of God can only boast in the work of God (Gal. 6:14; cf. 1 Cor. 2:2), not in his or her faith. The Calvinist tries to call into question the Arminian or “non-Calvinist” position by implying that in the matter of Grace, his or her system robs God of His sovereignty and of the glory due His name. Scripture, however, tells us another story altogether.

The one who trusts in Christ in response to the work of the Holy Spirit is not qualitatively more noble than the unbeliever, as if by some inherent nobility he or she chooses to trust in Jesus for salvation. Though all people are depraved, we have to acknowledge that all people are not equally depraved. Though all people under condemnation have hardened hearts against God and His gospel, we have to acknowledge that all people are not equally hardened. Certainly these truths play their part in our decision-making processes.

We also have to take into account the different “soils,” if you will, of a person’s heart that attributes to the various responses to the gospel (cf. Matt. 13:3-8, 19-23). If one believes that God has predetermined the condition of each person’s heart, then he or she has gone beyond what Scripture confirms, at least at Matthew 13:3-23. The Calvinist’s argument is rendered barren and unsuccessful at this point.

Keathley affirms Overcoming Grace, as does Richard Cross, whom he quotes: “He argued for a monergistic view of overcoming grace, but that this grace is resistible.”7 What is offered here is not an antinomy. Calvinists may wonder how something “overcoming” can be “resisted.” But the Calvinist is still working from his or her Effectual Grace model in asking such a question. In Keathley’s (and the Arminian’s) model, God is overcoming one’s depravity, not effectually or irresistibly regenerating the individual.

In Keathley’s Overcoming Grace model, the Arminian (as well as the Calvinist) wonders, however, how God, aside from His foreknowledge, can be absolutely sure that His unconditionally elect will not resist His grace? Keathley writes:

      Imagine waking up to find you are being transported by an ambulance to the emergency room. It is clearly evident that your condition requires serious medical help. If you do nothing, you will be delivered to the hospital. However, if for whatever reason you demand to be let out, the driver will comply. He may express regret and give warnings, but he will still let you go. You receive no credit for being taken to the hospital, but you incur the blame for refusing the services of the ambulance.

8

Unconditional Election, to which Keathley subscribes, teaches that God’s elect will be saved by His drawing them unto Himself through Jesus Christ (usually argued via the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit); hence regeneration precedes faith. Scripture teaches otherwise (cf. Col. 2:13 &c.), but this is necessary to Calvinism, at least the majority of Calvinists so believe. Keathley, and many other “Calvinistic” persons who are not five-point Calvinists, rightly rejects the theory of regeneration preceding faith, but simultaneously holds to Unconditional Election. Thus he must wrestle with how the unconditionally elect will actually come to faith. This is not explained.

I fail to see the difference between Keathley’s doctrine of Overcoming Grace and the Arminian’s Prevenient Grace. Both affirm mongergism on God’s part, and both affirm the resistibility of His grace on the part of the individual. Methodist theologian Thomas Oden notes that monergistically, grace works to

      enable the will to will the good. The persistent obstacle to grace is the fact that human willing itself has become corrupted by the history of sin, thus digging its own spiritual grave. This social history becomes further entangled each time an individual wills lesser goods than those offered and situationally available.

God’s redemptive will seeks to refashion human willing and loving so as to enable the person once again to will and love the good. Yet this transformation does not occur simply by fiat, because it is the will itself that must be transformed. Such a transformation can only occur meaningfully by the persuasive cooperation of the human will itself.9

Arminius states:

For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, “Is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?” That is, the controversy does not relate to those actions or operations which may be ascribed to grace (for I acknowledge and inculcate as many of these actions or operations as any man ever did), but it relates solely to the mode of operation — whether it be irresistible or not. With respect to which, I believe, according to the scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered.

In another place he states: “The . . . Consequence, and that which is not of itself intended by God, is the rejection of the word of grace, the contempt of the Divine Counsel, the resistance offered to the Holy Spirit: The proper and per se Cause of this Result is the malice and hardness of the human heart.”11

In Keathley’s “ambulatory model,” he reminds us: “you do not do anything to arrive at the hospital. The only thing you have the ability to do is resist.”12 That is the Classical Arminian’s Prevenient Grace position. God works mongergistically initially, but the recipient has the ability to resist. Again, Keathley notes: “If you believe, it is because (and only because) the Holy Spirit brought you to faith. If you do not believe, it is only because you resisted.”13 That is exactly what Arminius and Arminians propose. Faith is the gift of God to those who do not resist His grace.

Keathley also maintains that this model “upholds resistiblity in the genuine sense of the word in that the unbeliever rejects grace that was truly available.”14 The Arminian is left wondering not only how this model differs from Classical Arminianism but also how it is consistent with Unconditional Election. For what if that same individual did not reject God’s grace that was “truly available” to him or her? Would that person be regenerated and saved by God? Yes, he or she would certainly be saved and justified by his or her faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). Keathley holds, and rightly so, that “the difference between those who believe and those who do not is found in the unbelievers.”15 But how is Keathley not a Classical Arminian?

Keathley states: “The evil of unbelief remains a mystery, but this model moves this evil from God to the unbeliever.”16 That is exactly what Arminius was vying for: grace belongs to God and unbelief and its consequences belong to unbelievers. The question, then, remains. What differentiates Ken Keathley’s model from the Classical Arminian doctrine of Grace? Keathley writes:

        On the one hand, John emphasizes God’s sovereign work of election and drawing. Yet on the other hand, he presents Christ as the universal Savior “who takes away the sins of the world,” makes repeated universal appeals, and issues universal condemnation upon unbelief. Sometimes those who focus on the texts which stress sovereignty overlook the strong universal appeals which are also in John. . . . Conversely, those who stress the invitations to “whosoever” in John sometimes go to great lengths to explain away what is said there about God’s sovereign choice of His sheep.

17

If Keathley could be corrected of his error concerning Unconditional Election, I write this in a very lighthearted manner, then he could willingly and consistently embrace Classical Arminianism (even while maintaining an eternal security position, as do many who choose to call themselves “Arminian”), for his doctrine on Grace is such already. Keathley’s chapter defends the Overcoming, Enabling, Prevenient Grace model as well as any I have ever read, even if it is inconsistent, at least in my opinion, with Unconditional Election.

1 Kenneth D. Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 101.

2 Ibid.

3 James Arminius, “A Letter to Hippolyturs `a Collibus: IV. Grace and Free Will,” in The Works of Arminius, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:700-01.

4 Keathley, 101.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 102.

7 Ibid., 103.

8 Ibid., 104.

9 Thomas C. Oden, The Transforming Power of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 95.

10 Arminius, 1:664.

11 Arminius, 2:235.

12 Keathley, 104.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., 105.

16 Ibid., 106.

17 Ibid., 126-27.