By Christopher R. Cole
I’m not the smartest theologian on the planet. In fact, I don’t even really consider myself to be a theologian at all. I am a pastor who is currently appointed to two Free Methodist Churches, one on either side of the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Even so, I am the resident theologian of those churches, and I need to have a good grasp on theology. All my life I have been raised in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, first with The Wesleyan Church, then with the Church of the Nazarene, and finally as an ordained elder in the aforementioned Free Methodist Church. Combine that with my education at Houghton College, I am certain I know my position fairly well.
Still, it can be intimidating when I find myself receiving an invitation to participate in a “spur of the moment” video conference with Dr. Leighton Flowers. While not a Reformed/Calvinist theologian, having eschewed that position, he isn’t what one could consider to be an Arminian, whether Classical or Wesleyan. The biggest bone of contention between his position and that of the Arminian camp is of Prevenient Grace.
I knew that I was going into his territory, onto his platform, and adhering to his terms. He would be directing the discussion about Prevenient Grace, and how he doesn’t see evidence for it in the Bible. How could we Arminians (whom on this issue seems to equate us with Calvinists) possibly believe such a thing?
Now I will admit that, as he stated his position, there wasn’t a whole lot that I disagreed with initially. I, like him, believe that scripture is sufficient to bring about salvation in a person. [Editor’s note: SEA holds that sinners are totally unable to believe the gospel apart from God helping the sinner to do so. Therefore, Scripture is NOT sufficient to bring about salvation in a person. There is need of the Holy Spirit’s work in the sinner alongside the gospel. The author has clarified that he believes Scripture is sufficient, but that sinners cannot believe the gospel apart from the Holy Spirit’s aid. Readers should keep in mind that individual articles on SEA’s site do not necessarily represent SEA’s position.] I also happened to mention that I believe God uses other means to reach out to us. Some look at nature and see God’s handiwork. Others receive visions. I believe all of these point us toward God. None of this he disagreed with. As the conversation went further though, I understood where the difference in our positions rested.
He said that neither Calvinists or Arminians believe that one can even confess they are sinners without the Holy Spirit working in them first, but scripture says we can confess our sins when they are presented to us.
At first I was wondering if I misheard him. I’ll admit the audio/video quality wasn’t great, so that was a real possibility. Then I heard it again, and again, and again, and I began to wonder where he got the idea that one could not even confess their sin without the Holy Spirit working in them first. Growing up I heard that we could not save ourselves, but if we were presented with the gospel message, we could choose to believe it or reject it. This lesson was reiterated time and time again in my classes at Houghton College, and it’s what I believe.
So when I was finally given a chance to speak, I brought up that a person can confess that they are a sinner when presented with the evidence. In the Old Testament, the Law served as the standard, and people, even an entire nation, could admit that they violated the Law. That didn’t take some divine effort. And perhaps even the people could do right for a little while, but then they would go right back to what they did before. I stated that confession is not the same as repentance. In my mind, how can we know how badly our sin has hurt God unless His Spirit communicates that with ours? While confession is good, it must be followed by a change of heart and mind that only God can bring about.
As I was trying to explain this, Dr. Flowers stated that he believed confession and repentance to be one and the same, and asked me if I had any scripture that would prove otherwise.
There were a couple of thoughts that went through my head at that point:
First, though he does not consider himself to be a Calvinist (and I believe him not to be), I believe it to be a tactic that Calvinists will use quite often. Maybe we Arminians are guilty of it too to an extent, but I see it more with Calvinists. They will cite tidbits of scripture and create an entire theology out of it. Rather, scripture is God’s revelation about Himself to us, not an instrument to beat one another over the head with. And while scripture is God’s revelation about Himself, it also reveals more fully who we are. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. Our ways are not His ways. To think that we could simply confess our sin and say “Oops, I’m sorry for doing that” without even the slightest hint as to how bad our sin hurt God (His Son had to die because of it), that somehow that counts as repentance? Never in all my years growing up in church, taking Bible and theology courses, or studying scripture have I ever come across anyone who stated they believed that. Yet, Dr. Flowers seemed to think that his position was the Biblical position.
Second, in going through scripture in my mind, I thought of many examples of people, or types of people, who likely confessed their sin at some point, but never truly repented. Consider those whom Jesus said would come and say to Him “ Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:22-23 NASB). To fool others (and maybe even themselves) I would think had to have begun with confessing that they were practitioners of sin. Yet Jesus 1) never says they didn’t do those things they claimed, and 2) says He never knew them, and 3) He tells them to depart because they practice lawlessness. They may have confessed their sins, but Jesus makes it clear they didn’t turn away from them.
Earlier in the conversation someone mentioned Judas. When He saw Jesus getting ready to go on trial, he realized what he had done. In desperation he tried to return the money, perhaps that could be seen as a confession of his guilt. When the priests would not take the money back, he threw it on the ground. Yet his realization of his sin did not lead him to repent. Instead it led him to despair and anguish, and he killed himself, never realizing despite being one of the twelve, that forgiveness was there for him had he simply repented.
I went on to mention Simon the Sorcerer, a man who had demonstrated some power and developed a following. When Philip came to Samaria and preached the gospel, it was said that Simon believed and was baptized. Yet when the Apostles Peter and John went to Samaria and the Holy Spirit fell on the believers there, Simon wanted to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit for himself. Peter told him that his heart was not right. In essence, he had not truly repented from his sin, though he had likely confessed it. And there is no indication in scripture that Simon ever repented.
Then I also think about John the Baptist, and Jesus, how they preached repentance. They did not say “Confess, for the kingdom of God is at hand”, they said “repent.” Don’t get me wrong, I believe both are necessary, but I do not believe they are one and the same. I especially do not believe that one can truly repent of their sin without the Holy Spirit bringing about a certain level of awareness of just how much their sin cost our Lord.
Dr. Flowers did not seem to have a response to that, though he didn’t really seem to address it either. He seemed to just leave it there. It wasn’t really my intention to stump him, if that’s what I did. I am also fairly certain I didn’t convince him of what I believe, but then again that’s not what I was trying to do. I don’t look to scripture to win an argument, or to even pick a fight with someone. I have more important things to do. I do hope though that, perhaps, someone else heard that outside of God’s intervention, we have no hope of saving ourselves. Salvation is more than just saying we’re sorry, and I believe that’s where too many churches just leave it. Confess, be forgiven, and go along your way. No, there needs to be a change of heart and mind. We need to have the old flesh cast off, replaced with the likeness of Jesus, and there is nothing we can do to bring that about ourselves. All we can do is believe that He has already done the work for us, and accept it.