“The Glory Which Is Ours
Written by B. P. Burnett
~ “God does not wish to do everything, in order not to take from us our free will and that part of the glory which is ours.” (Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘The Prince’ in The Portable Machiavelli (1979) trans. & ed. Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa, p.163.)
As I was reading through Machiavelli’s The Prince I came across a peculiar phrase. Given the vast horde of rhetoric surrounding the citation (it has to do with an appeal to the Medici family of Florence in the early 16th century for the liberation of Italy from foreigners; hence Machiavelli’s salvation metaphors), I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to comment on it by relating it to salvation.
One of the reasons I’m doing this is because in the minds of many Calvinists and other non-Arminians, this is exactly how the economy of salvation must work in the mind of the Arminian! Here, surely, the Arminian could claim Machiavelli as their own. Take, for example, the characterisation of Arminians that Charles H. Spurgeon takes in his so-called “Arminian’s Prayer” he once presented in a particular sermon:
“Lord, I thank thee I am not like those poor presumptuous Calvinists Lord, I was born with a glorious free-will; I was born with power by which I can turn to thee of myself; I have improved my grace. If everybody had done the same with their grace that I have, they might all have been saved. Lord, I know thou dost not make us willing if we are not willing ourselves. Thou givest grace to everybody; some do not improve it, but I do. There are many that will go to hell as much bought with the blood of Christ as I was; they had as much of the Holy Ghost given to them; they had as good a chance, and were as much blessed as I am. It was not thy grace that made us to differ; I know it did a great deal, still I turned the point; I made use of what was given me, and others did not-that is the difference between me and them.”
Spurgeon sure seems to have his eye on the mark… Nevertheless, this “prayer” demonstrates how Arminianism is viewed by the eyes of many: that it revolves around the human free will, power, autonomy and self-centeredness. God’s grace, if at all relevant, is seen as an afterthought; a mere self-help mechanism which I can make use of — or not. Machiavelli’s quote would be quite consistent with that point. Indeed, one of the accusations Calvinists like to cast in the faces of the Arminians is that if we say we accept Christ and believe on Him freely, then we somehow, ultimately, become the authors of our own salvation. Our free choice becomes the difference between life and death, salvation and damnation. We might as well boast of our intelligence in making the right decision. As a minister I knew once generously put it to me, “Even if God were to do 99.99% of the work, you can still hold claim to the 0.01%, in Arminianism!” Marvellous.
But are such accusations valid? Could Machiavelli’s political rhetoric be consistent with Arminian soteriology?
To be completely honest, I have always been puzzled by such accusations in a twofold way: (1) Arminians have never believed that the will is, per se, absolutely free, nor that it is even free at all in the fallen state; and, (2) Arminians have always believed that salvation is all of mere mercy and free grace and that we, the believers, merit nothing.
As to the first, Arminius literally spelled it out: “In this [fallen] state, the free will of man is not only wounded, maimed, infirmed, bent and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they are assisted by grace but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by divine grace” (John D. Wagner, Arminius Speaks, p.3). As R. C. Sproul Snr., a Calvinist, put it, “What more could an Augustinian or Calvinist hope for from a theologian?” (R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe, p.128). The will is not primary in the Arminian tradition, nor has it ever been. In fact, historically at least, the primary motivating factor in Arminian thought has been how we might correctly represent the nature of God in all of His necessary attributes: all-lovingness, all-knowingness, all-powerfulness, all-justice, all-righteousness, complete holiness and absolute sovereignty, etc. But that’s another discussion.
As to the second, this is just really confusing. How can a simple could-have-been-otherwise choice made by me become somehow meritorious simply by virtue of its unnecessitated nature? If the entirety of the salvation itself (the cross and resurrection, grace, calling, justification, new life, sanctification, etc.) comes not from me but from the grace of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, I do not see how I glory in anything, even if I do accept it all as a gift freely. As Arminius himself once put it, “I ascribe to grace THE COMMENCEMENT, THE CONTINUANCE AND THE CONSUMMATION OF ALL GOOD—and to such an extent do I carry its influence, that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will nor do anything good at all, nor resist any temptation, without the preventing [prevenient] and exciting, this following and cooperating grace” (Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology, p.162). Grace carries salvation from beginning to end, and leaves no glory for the sinner who received it. Could a poor man on the street who reached out his hands to receive generous alms boast that he somehow earned them? Could a drowning man saved from the ocean by a rescue boat boast because he put the provided life buoy on and was pulled to safety? It seems just absurd to suggest that a man could boast in such things. How much more the grace of God in Christ saving us from Hell and doom!
But someone might still complain, “But didn’t you ultimately make the free will choice to believe?” I suppose at the end of the day if you wanted to push it then I’d says that I did make the free choice to believe in the Son of God, and thus I am saved. But the bloated consequence commonly drawn from that point often seems so desperate and confused. What about the above analogies of the poor man and the drowning man? I am not saved by virtue of my believing per se, but by Christ’s dying and rising for me applied by the Holy Spirit. What the Arminian wants to stress is God’s kindness. Christ never had to come into the world; without Him there wouldn’t even exist the hope of salvation, we would be ‘without God and without hope in the world’ (Eph. 2:12).
Isn’t it fair to say, in fact, that the very ideas of repentance and submission to God are, themselves, a testimony and/or confession to the hopelessness and weakness in me to save myself, and therefore I cling to the cross of the Saviour, who loved me and gave Himself for me, even when I was His enemy, a child of wrath by nature, to be saved? As John Wesley once said, “[F]or none can trust in the merits of Christ, till he has utterly renounced his own.” (“Works“, I:14.) It reminds one of the words of that great hymn And Can it Be? written by John’s brother Charles (an Arminian), which sings:
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”
How might one compare such an incredible stanza to the diatribe found in Spurgeon’s mockeries! This captures the essence of Arminian thought well: Here we are in this fallen world chained to our sins, ‘without God and without hope’. But Christ, the true light which gives light to every man, came into our tragedy to die and rise again for us. He then ascended and, along with the Father, sent the Holy Spirit, who, seeing us in our misery, woke us up from the deep slumber of our spiritual stasis, broke our unbreakable chains and opened the door our rank cell and said, “Whosoever will, let him [come and] take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17, KJV). Surely that’s majesty; surely that’s free and unmerited grace.
So maybe, after all, Machiavelli’s words should stay right where they are: i.e., in their proper, rhetorical, political context. Nothing of the kind will never amount to biblical Christianity. You can’t say God doesn’t wish to do everything, because in Christ He has already done everything for us. All the glory belongs to God alone for His great and generous gift to us in His Son. Christ is rich in mercy, slow to anger, abounding in love. His grace teaches us to understand that whatever good a man has, he owes it all solidly to God, the author and finisher of our faith. May we ever look to Him and pray: His Name, The LORD, be forever praised! Amen.
See here for original post and comments: http://thearminiusforum.net/2012/03/