Steve Witzki, “Free Grace or Forced Grace”

, posted by SEA

Steve Witzki, “Free Grace or Forced Grace,” The Arminian Magazine 19.1 (Spring 2001)


In his well known sermon “Free Grace,” John Wesley said that the “grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, AND FREE FOR ALL” [Works, 7:373].  In this sermon he responded directly to the Calvinist teachers of the day that taught that God’s loving grace is not free for all but irresistibly forced on only some — the elect.   Wesley believed that the Scriptures did not support such a teaching.

Just as in Wesley’s day, Calvinists today teach that God’s grace is not free for all but forced on only some.  Some of my Calvinist brothers would object to me using the word “force” to describe the irresistible working of God’s grace on the hearts of the elect.   Yet, it seem to me that I am justified in using such a word since Calvinists use the equivalent of it in their writings.  This will become clearer as one moves through the article.

Calvinists typically appeal to the irresistible grace of God from John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul says that this verse “teaches at least this much: It is not within fallen man’s natural ability to come to Christ on his own, without some kind of divine assistance” [Chosen by God, p. 68].  Wesley can be seen to be in complete agreement with Sproul’s statement when he writes, “Natural free-will, in the present state of mankind, I do not understand; I only assert, that there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which ‘enlightens every man that cometh into the world’” [Works, 10:229-30].

Wesley taught that divine assistance was absolutely necessary for any person to come to Christ in faith.  This gracious assistance comes before or prevenient to any movement of man towards God.  Mankind is unable to make the slightest move towards Christ in his fallen condition without God first taking the loving and redemptive initiative.

The disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians would be over the meaning of the word draw in John 6:44; whether this divine drawing or assistance is irresistible or resistible, and whether it extends to all people as John 12:32 suggests, or just to some people.  We need to keep in mind that there is a huge difference between being irresistibly compelled or forced to believe in Christ and being graciously enabled to believe.

Sproul’s position is obvious from his following words: “Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines it [draw] to mean to compel by irresistible superiority.  Linguistically and lexicographically, the word means ‘to compel’ ” [Chosen by God, p. 69; Grace Unknown, p. 153].  He goes on argue for this meaning by appealing to two additional texts:  James 2:6 and Acts 16:19.  He points out that both of these texts translate the Greek word helkuo as “drag” and therefore John 6:44 cannot mean woo or lovingly persuade as some Arminians argue [p. 70].

Another Reformed theologian Loraine Boettner would be in agreement with Sproul as seen in how he inserts the following words in John 6:44: “No man can come unto me except the Father that sent me draw [literally, drags] him” [The Reformed Faith, p. 11].

Calvinist Robert W. Yarbrough sets forth the same argument that Sproul does but in more detail.  He writes,

“Draw” in 6:44 translates the Greek helkuo.  Outside John it appears in the New Testament only at Acts 16:19: “they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace. . . . ”  John’s Gospel uses the word to speak of persons being drawn to Christ (12:32), a sword being drawn (18:10), and a net full of fish being hauled or dragged to shore (21:6,11).  The related form helko appears in Acts 21:30 (“they dragged him from the temple”) and James 2:6 (“Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court”).  It is hard to avoid the impression that John 6:44 refers to a “forceful attraction” in bringing sinners to the Son [“Divine Election in the Gospel of John,” in Still Sovereign, p. 50, fn. 10].

There are a couple of problems with both Yarbrough’s and Sproul’s approach to understanding draw in John 6:44.  First, their procedure of looking at helkuo is an example of a word-study fallacy known as “word-loading.”  This occurs when a person takes a meaning of a word in one context and then seeks to apply that same meaning into a different context.  They both do this when they appeal to the use of helkuo in James 2:6, Acts 16:19 and other places, as justification for understanding John 6:44 as meaning drag or force.

Secondly, while Yarbrough does not cite from any reference work to support his conclusions, Sproul at least cites  one, Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT).  After investigating “Big” Kittel’s definition for myself, I was surprised to find that it did not agree with Sproul’s definition of draw.   Albrecht Oepke comments that in John’s usage of helkuo “force or magic may be discounted, but not the supernatural element” [TDNT, 2:503].  Yet for Sproul’ s definition to hold up, John’s usage must mean to compel or force.  When I turned to find out what “Little” Kittel (the one-volume abridged edition of Kittel’s massive ten volume work) had to say on “draw,” I was shocked at what it had to say in comparison to Sproul’s dogmatic assertions.  Here is the entire comment as translated and abridged by Geoffrey Bromiley:

The basic meaning is “to draw,” “tug,” or, in the case of persons, “compel.”  It may be used for “to draw” to a place by magic, for demons being “drawn” to animal life, or for the inner influencing of the will (Plato).  The Semitic world has the concept of an irresistible drawing to God (cf. 1 Sam. 10:5; 19:19ff.; Jer. 29:26; Hos. 9:7).  In the OT helkein denotes a powerful impulse, as in Cant. 1:4, which is obscure but expresses the force of love.  This is the point in the two important passages in Jn. 6:44; 12:32.  There is no thought here of force or magic.  The term figuratively expresses the supernatural power of the love of God or Christ which goes out to all (12:32) but without which no one can come (6:44).  The apparent contradiction shows that both the election and the universality of grace must be taken seriously; the compulsion is not automatic [p. 227].

What  The compulsion is not automatic  But this is exactly what Sproul and other Calvinists argue that helkuo means in John 6:44 — God literally and irresistibly compels, drags, or forces the elect to come to Christ.  Yes, helkuo can literally mean drag, compel, or force in certain contexts (John 18:10; 21:6,11; Acts 16:19; 21:30; and James 2:6), but it is not the lexical meaning for the context of John 6:44, nor for that manner, John 12:32.  Sproul confidently states that “linguistically and lexicographically, the word means to compel,” but where is the citation of all the lexical evidence to support this statement

The Lexical Meaning for the Word “Draw” in John 6:44 and 12:32

I have surveyed every available Lexicon, Exegetical Dictionary, and Greek-English Dictionary, that I could find in bookstores, Seminaries, and College libraries available to me.  Here is a sampling of the evidence:

•           A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, says helkuo is used figuratively “of the pull on man’s inner life. . . . draw, attract J 6:44” [Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, p. 251].

•          The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, states that helkuo is used metaphorically “to draw mentally and morally, John 6:44; 12:32” [William Mounce, p. 180].

 •          The Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament has, “met., to draw, i.e. to attract, Joh. xii. 32. Cf. Joh. vi. 44” [W.J. Hickie, p. 13].

 •         The Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament by Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller says, “figuratively, of a strong pull in the mental or moral life draw, attract (JN 6.44)” [p. 144].

 •         Calvinist Spiros Zodhiates, in his Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible,   says, “Helkuo is used of Jesus on the cross drawing by His love, not force (Jn. 6:44; 12:32)” [New Testament Lexical Aids,  p. 1831].

I could cite at least eight more reference works but it is unnecessary because not a single one of them defines draw in John 6:44 as “compel or force.”   Clearly, R.C. Sproul has not done his homework.  Without warrant or justification, he has appealed to a single source that does not even support his Calvinist conclusions.  He has, knowingly or unknowingly, ignored the overwhelming lexical evidence that militates against his reformed theology.  To further compound his error, he has committed a basic word study fallacy in attempts to bolster his dogmatic assertions.  It is surprising to find a philosopher and theologian of his caliber committing such obvious errors in his work.  Calvinism relies heavily upon this erroneous understanding of draw to support their doctrines of predestination and irresistible grace.  Yet, they are left without any lexical justification for their view.

Let us review the last few comments on the word draw from “little” Kittel:

There is no thought here of force or magic.  The term figuratively expresses the supernatural power of the love of God or Christ which goes out to all (12:32) but without which no one can come (6:44).  The apparent contradiction shows that both the election and the universality of grace must be taken seriously; the compulsion is not automatic.

What is rather ironic in all of this discussion is that the above definition coincides beautifully with the Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine of prevenient  grace — a doctrine that R.C. Sproul denies that the Bible teaches [pp. 123-125].  Wesleyan-Arminians believe that divine grace works in the hearts and wills of every person to elicit a faith response or as Thomas Oden states so well, “God’s love enables precisely that response in the sinner which God’s holiness demands: trust in God’s own self-giving” [The Transforming Power of Grace, p. 45].

God’s prevenient or assisting grace is morally drawing all people to Himself (John 12:32).  This gracious working of God does not compel or force anyone to believe but enables all to respond to God’s commands to turn away from sin in repentance, and towards the Savior Jesus Christ in faith.  Thus, with all the strength of Calvinism, salvation can be ascribed completely to God, but without denying genuine human responsibility that Calvinism does.

What is also ironic is that Wesley’s understanding of “draw” in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament is fully in agreement with the lexical evidence that we have already witnessed.  He says of John 6:44:  “No man can believe in Christ , unless God give him power.  He draws us first by good desires, not by compulsion, not by laying the will under any necessity; but by the strong and sweet, yet still resistable, motions of His heavenly grace” [pp. 328-329].

I would like to note that several times in Wesley’s teachings we see him dispelling this notion that God uses irresistible grace to force or compel people to believe in Christ.  I would like to first mention those instances in Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament and then those in his Works.

Jesus said in Matthew 16:24-25, “If any man be willing to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”  Wesley replied to these words with. . . “None is forced; but if any will be a Christian, it must be on these terms.  Let him deny himself, and take up his cross— A rule that can never be too much observed” [Explanatory Notes, p. 83].  At the end of the  Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke’s gospel Jesus said, “And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled” (14:23).  To this Wesley replied, “Compel them to come in — With all the violence of love, and the force of God’s Word.  Such compulsion, and such only, in matters of religion, was used by Christ and His disciples” [Explanatory Notes, p. 258].  Paul’s argument found in Acts 17:24-28, that God has revealed Himself through His creation and providential care so that people “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him,” is interpreted by Wesley as meaning:   “The way is open; God is ready to be found; but He will lay no force upon man” [Explanatory Notes, p. 465].  When Paul defended himself before King Agrippa in Acts chapter twenty-six he said these words, “Consequently, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision [of Christ on the road to Damascus]” (vs. 19).  Wesley commented, “I was not disobedient — I did obey; I used that power (Gal. i. 16).  So that even this grace whereby St. Paul was influenced was not irresistible” [Explanatory Notes, p. 501].  In response to the familiar words found in 1 Timothy 2:3-4 Wesley says, “. . . willeth all men to be saved.  It is strange that any whom He has actually saved should doubt the universality of His grace!  Who willeth seriously all men–Not a part only, much less the smallest part.  To be saved–Eternally.  This is treated of, verses 5-6.  And, in order thereto, to come — They are not compelled.  To the knowledge of the truth — Which brings salvation” [Explanatory Notes, pp. 774-775].  In Revelation chapter two Jesus says that he gives a false prophetess in the Church of Thyatira “time to repent” yet, “she does not want to repent of her immorality” (vs. 21).  Wesley ’s notes read, “And I gave her time to repent — So great is the power of Christ!   But she will not repent — So, though repentance is the gift of God, man may refuse it; God will not compel” [Explanatory Notes, p. 948].

In the sermon, “The General Spread of the Gospel,”  Wesley responds to a gentlemen concerning the idea that God acts irresistibly upon the souls of men.  He writes,

You know how God wrought in your own soul, when he first enabled you to say, “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”  He did not take away your understanding; but enlightened and strengthened it.  He did not destroy any of your affections; rather they were more vigorous than before.  Least of all did he take away your liberty; your power of choosing good or evil:  He did not force you; but, being assisted by his grace, you, like Mary, chose the better part.  Just so has he assisted five in one house to make that happy choice; fifty or five hundred in one city; and many thousands in a nation; —without depriving any of them of that liberty which is essential to a moral agent [Works, 6:280].

In Wesley’s sermon “On the Wedding Garment,” taken from Matthew 22, he concludes his message by saying:

The God of love is willing to save all the souls that he has made.  This he has proclaimed to them in his word, together with the terms of salvation, revealed by the Son of his love, who gave his own life that they that believe in him might have everlasting life.  And for these he has prepared a kingdom, from the foundation of the world.   But he will not force them to accept it; he leaves them in the hands of their own counsel; he saith, “Behold, I set before you life and death, blessing and cursing:  Choose life, that ye may live.” [Works, 7:317].

In “Predestination Calmly Considered,” Wesley argues that God’s free and assisting grace is far more in line with the wisdom and plan of God to save sinners than through irresistible grace.  He says,

how gloriously does the manifold wisdom of God appear in the whole economy of man’s salvation!  Being willing that all men should be saved, yet not willing to force them thereto; willing that all men should be saved, yet not as trees or stones, but as men, as reasonable creatures, endued with understanding to discern what is good, and liberty either to accept or refuse it” [Works, 10:232].

Wesley goes on to say that God accomplishes this wise plan by enlightening mens understanding concerning good and evil and by convicting them of his sin when they violate their God given conscience.  He adds that God also “gently moves their will, he draws and woos them, as it were, to walk in the light” [Works, 10:232-33].  God, in his wisdom, proceeds in this way “to save man, as man; to set life and death before him, and then persuade (not force) him to choose life” [Works, 10:233].  With God graciously moving is this way men are held responsible for their response to His loving grace.  Since God has taken these gracious initiatives toward fallen man to redeem him, Wesley said God could rightly reply, ” ‘What could I have done for’ you (consistent with my eternal purpose, not to force you) ‘which I have not done’ ” [Works, 10:233]

This is indeed a wise and marvelous plan by a sovereign God to save sinners.   Wesley has explained well that a sovereign God does not “force one into everlasting glory,” and another “into everlasting burnings” for such an action would be entirely inconsistent with the character of God our righteous and just Governor [“Thoughts Upon God’s Sovereignty,” Works 10:362-363].

To be an Arminian is to be as Wesley has said — a lover of free grace.  All people partake of God’s free and enabling grace.  Therefore, God can justly grant eternal life or eternal death depending on how people use their grace enabled freedom.  Calvinism do not have the word “draw” from John 6:44 to use in their favor to teach their doctrines of predestination and irresistible grace.  On the other hand, Wesleyan-Arminians have the lexical evidence in their favor to teach that the “grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, AND FREE FOR ALL.”  Let us, in the power of God’s Spirit, powerfully proclaim this biblical truth in our churches today.

[This article was taken from The Wesley Center Online.]