The A Priori of Particular Grace

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If it were not for a priori, the Calvinist would be an Arminian. If that statement brought a smile to your face, then you are most likely in the Arminian camp (or at least label yourself a “non-Calvinist,” not that “non-Calvinist” is a legitimate title, mind you). If, however, you felt your blood pressure rise, then you are most definitely a Calvinist.

The Calvinist will retort: “But does not everyone work with an a priori?” No, not necessarily. Every student of Scripture works with presuppositions based upon one’s systematic theology, a hermeneutical grid by which he or she interprets all of theology, but not everyone works with a priori notions. What I am arguing against is the adequacy of the Calvinist’s a priori soteriologically, especially with regard to unconditional election. For example, Calvinists claim that the “covenant of redemption” is really between the Father and the Son. Thus the Father elects whomsoever he wants to save. The Son gave up his life to atone for the elect. And the Holy Spirit effects salvation in the elect in his sovereign time. “Where is this taught in the Bible?” you ask. Robert E. Picirilli answers:

      This may be answered in more than one way.

1. In the first place, such discussion of a covenant between the Father and the Son ought to proceed, if at all, with great hesitation. Nowhere is there direct indication that such a covenant was made, and even more important is the fact that the terms of such a covenant are not revealed — especially not whether those promises were or were not conditional.

Calvinists generally take the lead in insisting that the secret things belong to God [Deut. 29:29], that His eternal counsels are not directly revealed. If there was such a covenant of redemption (and I do not object to the idea in principle), the only way we have of “reading” its terms respecting salvation is by reading in the New Testament how salvation is actually effected and applied. If, then, the New Testament makes clear that salvation really is conditional [and it does], then we dare not “read” the unrevealed terms of an implied covenant of redemption in such a way as to destroy that conditionality.

2. More briefly, this argument is in fact the same as the preceding argument, simply stated in a different set of terms. Both the concept and delineation of the terms of the “covenant of redemption” are expressed by Calvinists in ways that match the underlying concept of unconditional salvation. If election / salvation is unconditional, so is inclusion in the so-called “covenant of redemption.” If the former is not, however, then neither is the latter.1

It is not a little puzzling as to how the Calvinist makes such ado over mystery and antinomy, but then dogmatically insists on such a doctrine as the “covenant of redemption,” which is not explicitly taught in Scripture. They not only affirm mystery when encountering plausible contradictions in their system, but then they postulate teachings which are not explicitly taught in the Bible as if they are irrefutable.

Considering what Picirilli highlighted above, about the Calvinist’s “covenant of redemption” between the Father and the Son, what is it exactly that causes the Calvinist to espouse such an idea? Stephen M. Ashby considers:

      Picirilli has truly caught the essence of the point here. In order to assert the Calvinistic understanding of salvation, one must assume a priori particularism and an unconditional notion of salvation. Once that is assumed, it is clear to see how one might read many biblical texts in light of that assumption.

However, the pressing question should be: Do the scriptural texts concerning salvation require particularism and unconditional election? I do not think they do. I believe, in fact, that the exact opposite is seen: Christ’s atonement was for “all,” indeed for the whole world, and God’s salvation is conditional — that condition being faith in Christ. Herein is the Reformed Arminian understanding of how one may be found in Christ. It is simply by faith and it is open to all.2

If there is a condition attached to salvation (and there is), then there is a condition attached to election. Thus the Calvinist’s unconditional election is assumed but not substantiated by Scripture. Again, Picirilli notes, “Arminius’ way of presenting this strikes me as the most appropriate and properly cautious. His definitions . . . indicate that he saw people elected as believers (or reprobated as unbelievers). Consequently faith is the ‘condition’ for election. For Arminius, if salvation is by faith, then election is by faith. If salvation is conditional, election is.”3 This concept is hard for the Calvinist to grasp because they are “conditioned,” forgive the pun, by the unconditional nature of election in their system. Let me try to explain.

For Arminius, God did not necessarily “foresee” who would accept Christ Jesus by faith and who would reject him apart from the operation of his grace. Arminius explains,

      From these follows a Fourth Decree concerning the salvation of these particular persons, and the damnation of those: This rests or depends on the prescience and forsight of God, by which he foreknew, from all eternity what men would,

through such administration

      [emphasis mine], believe by the aid of


      or preceding [prevenient] grace, and would persevere by the aid of


      or following grace; and who would not believe and persevere. Hence God is said to “know those who are his;” and the number both of those who are to be saved, and of those who are to be damned, is certain and fixed . . . .


God has always known, in a familial sense, his people, those who by faith would be in Christ Jesus. God elected, if you will, to save those believers (1 Cor. 1:21). Thus he chose to save believers and reprobate unbelievers.

However, he did not proactively cause certain people to be unconditionally reprobated; nor did he proactively cause certain others to be unconditionally elected unto salvation. For God to do such a thing would run counter to all that he has revealed in Scripture concerning his intentions in saving humanity (Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; John 1:9; 3:15-18, 36; 12:32; Acts 16:31; Rom. 2:4; 10:13-17; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Tim. 2:4; Titus 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 2:2). God’s salvific “call” goes out to everyone through the proclamation of the gospel.

Ashby anticipates the Calvinist’s rejoinder, that it is

      surely that if one says that the call of God goes out to all and that the grace of God comes to all, then one cannot believe in total depravity. But this is not so, for the Calvinist is once again reading in a priori his or her particularistic mindset. Reformed Arminians will agree with Calvinists on the problem. Fallen humanity is “dead in trespasses and sins.” Human beings are unable to perform the least spiritual good on their own. We do not disagree on the problem. Our disagreement is on how God has sovereignly chosen to solve the problem of the human predicament. Calvinists argue that the only way God can be sovereign and gracious is if he


    elects certain ones to salvation [their a priori] and then effects their salvation by acting on them with grace that cannot be resisted.

Reformed Arminians, along with other Arminians, respectfully demur from this understanding of God’s sovereignty [rightly and biblically so]. Once again, we believe that caution is required when considering the eternal counsels of God. Calvinists have generally warned that, when considering God’s decrees as relating to the ordo salutis, we should keep in mind that we are talking about a logical, not a chronological, order. If indeed that is so, then what should follow therefrom? The obvious implication is that we are considering a logical question concerning how God would sovereignly choose to effect salvation for humanity. When Calvinists look at fallen individuals, they see them “dead in sins” and “unable to do any spiritual good.” Hence, Calvinism teaches that God acts on people in a cause-and-effect relationship with “irresistible grace,” thus bringing about their salvation.

Yet if we are talking about logic here, then God could have sovereignly chosen to remedy hunanity’s situation differently than by the particularistic, cause-and-effect means proposed by Calvinism. In other words, when God saw his fallen human race in as bad a condition as it could possibly be in — “dead in sins” and “unable to do the least spiritual good” — logically, nothing would have precluded him from sovereignly choosing to reach out to all people with enabling grace (often referred to as prevenient grace). In fact, the apostle Paul has said that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11).

Nor is there any illogic involved in saying that God’s enabling grace might be proffered to fallen humankind in conjunction with God’s initiation of salvation on their behalf, that is, by drawing all people toward himself. Indeed, Jesus claimed, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Of course, the Calvinist recoils and says, “If all are enabled and all are drawn, then universalism must surely result ~ all would be saved.” To which, I would say, “Yes, if God’s grace were irresistible grace” [the Calvinist’s a priori]. Once again, however, God can sovereignly choose that his salvation is not going to proceed along the lines of a deterministic, cause-and-effect relationship. Rather, he is going to allow the sinner to resist the offer of grace, which grace he has sovereignly enabled the sinner to accept.5

Simply put, if Calvinists are right, in that God must first regenerate the sinner (whom he elected unto salvation before the creation of the world, an unfortunate misinterpretation of Ephesians 1:4), then there is no power in the gospel (Rom. 1:16), nor is there any power in the Holy Spirit’s conviction; for these aspects of God’s grace were employed to effect repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. But if all God need do is regenerate his elect at a certain, sovereign time, then the gospel and the convicting power of the Spirit are quite superfluous.

1 Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, and Free Will (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2002), 189-90.

2 Stephen M. Ashby, “A Reformed Arminian View,” in Four Views on Eternal Security, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 144-45.

3 Picirilli, 53.

4 James Arminius, “Certain Articles to be Diligently Examined and Weighed. Article XV: On the Decrees of God which Concern the Salvation of Sinful Men, According to His Own Sense,” in The Works of Arminius, Vol. II, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 719.

5 Ashby, 145-46.