Meritorious Self-Faith

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I was a believer in Jesus before I knew about the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereign hand in my salvation. That was something that, over time, I grew into. So it is helpful to me to remember that many who are not in step with me doctrinally are in fact, brothers and sisters in Christ, even though we don’t share similar theological persuasions, no matter how foundational those doctrinal truths have come to be in my thinking.

Specifically, I recognize that my Arminian/free-will friends affirm, like me, that salvation is by grace through faith, apart from works, and that there is nothing meritorious about our great salvation.

The difference between us, of course, is in our understanding of faith and the role of the will in believing in Christ. My understanding is that apart from Christ we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), unable to respond to God with anything other than rebellion, and that before we can believe, we must be made alive (Eph. 2:4-5), and thus it can be said that the entire process, including our response of faith, is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-10).

Now, an Arminian doesn’t cut this passage from his Bible; he just sees it differently. His understanding is that before Christ, we have the innate ability to believe in Jesus, to freely “choose” or reject Christ. Some men believe, some don’t, but this believing is a result of that individual making a free choice of his own accord, apart from any efficacious drawing by God.

This understanding of autonomous faith or choosing of God leads me to ask, if this is so, why do some believe and others don’t? And if the faith comes from the unfettered “free will” of the individual, how is it not considered meritorious?

While an Arminian evangelical would never consider the exercise of his free will in believing in Jesus as a meritorious act, it’s difficult to see it as anything but that when you consider it more deeply. [I owe a debt to author John Samson in his book, Twelve What Abouts: Answering Common Objections Concerning God’s Sovereignty in Election, for these thoughts.]

If self-generated faith, apart from God’s sovereign quickening activity on the heart of spiritually dead sinners, were possible, then the believer could claim some measure of superiority over non-believers, and this could lead to meritorious thinking.

  1. Meritorious intelligence – A believer could think himself to have more “intelligence (that we somehow worked out who Jesus was for ourselves)” (Samson, p.28).
  2. Meritorious humility – A believer would have more “humility (we having conquered our own pride, were able to humble ourselves to be able to respond in faith to the Gospel)” (Samson, p.28). In self-humility, the believer would, of his own free will, be able to give up all self-effort.
  3. Meritorious submission – Having once been hostile in mind toward God (Rom. 8:7), the believer would be able to turn that enmity by himself into surrender, which is impossible (vs.7-8).
  4. Meritorious love for God – If autonomous faith were possible, a person could, of his own ability, take what was despised and rejected and instead desire and treasure Christ as Savior.

So my question becomes, if divine regeneration is not a sovereign act of God leading to repentance and faith as a gift (2 Tim. 2:25; Eph. 2:8-10), how is autonomous free will not meritorious?

While my so-called “Free Will” brothers and sisters would never consider that they have earned their salvation in any way, I encourage them to think about how their doctrine might somehow subtly lead them into a measure of pride and merit (that they were smarter, more humble, more submissive, more loving than one who does not choose Jesus). I encourage them to think deeply about the implications of their doctrine, and to “watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16 NIV).

So what makes a Calvinist?

My last blog postCalv_Arm Divide posts small lead me to think about what it would take in someone’s belief system for me to consider them in the Reformed/Calvinistic/sovereign grace camp (Oh, how I dislike the labels, necessary though they sometimes may be).

I suppose most Christians I’ve known have affirmed the doctrine of Eternal Security, and I could probably get tacit approval of Total Depravity (but not affirmation of the full implications of it). Effectual Grace and Particular Redemption are normally the last points to be affirmed. But when someone comes face to face with the realization that before the foundation of the world, God chose his elect, not as a result of foreseeing any action on their part, but because he did so unconditionally according to his own good pleasure, then that person is well on his way to affirming sovereign grace doctrine. So, if you affirm Unconditional Election vis a vis Conditional Election, you are at the very least, a budding Calvinist.

What think ye?

 

Interesting thoughts on the Calvinist/Arminian divide and how it speaks to our other divides

Calv_Arm Divide postsInteresting thoughts on the Calvinist/Arminian divide and how it speaks to our other divides

Josh Crowe is a good friend of mine, a valued co-worker, a fellow believer in Jesus Christ, and a card-carrying “Free-will Baptist.” There’s about one-third of that last descriptor that would apply to me, and even there, I’m more “baptistic” than Baptist.

So, in conversation one day, he asked me what percentage of “Bible-believing Christians” would I say were Calvinistic. I searched my thoughts and eventually came up with 20%. “Really?” he said, incredulously. See, in his thinking it was more like 80%.

As we talked further, it became apparent to me that the theological dividing line for him was at Eternal Security. A belief in “Once saved, always saved” was enough to put you squarely in the Reformed camp. “Once saved, always saved” might be the sine qua non of most Southern Baptists (the one group I have the most experience with), but as a firm believer in the doctrines of sovereign grace, my observation is that the vast majority affirm mostly classic Arminian doctrines (with the exception of OSAS) or haven’t given the issues any serious thought but recoil at hearing sovereign grace teaching.

I asked Josh a question. “In a Presidential approval poll, why might a liberal express disapproval for President Barack Obama?” He thought for a moment and then answered, “If they think he’s not liberal enough?” Exactly. What Josh saw as Calvinistic from his point of view was not nearly Calvinistic enough from mine.

This conversation has led us both to further reflection, and not just in a theological way. It has been very eye-opening on several fronts.

Could this shed some light on the dynamics of other divides in our culture? We live in a time of increasing polarization. As Josh said, “Perhaps the way of “Them” is wide, and the way of “Us” is narrow.” I think he’s right.

How easy it is to assume that the number of people who are different from us is greater than the people who are like us. We start to generalize and assume that we have nothing in common with this or that group simply because we don’t have XYZ in common.

“fill in the empty spaces with grace”

What’s great is that Josh and I work together, laugh together, and endlessly recite lines from The Office together. We also talk civilly about matters in which we are polar opposites, like our theological persuasion. Someday, he’ll come around. But in the meantime, we’re great friends.

All it takes is a little dialog and an ability to “fill in the empty spaces with grace.” That’s a wise phrase I learned from Josh.