When Calvinists Lose Credibility: Sproul and Sproul

In 1997, in his book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will, Dr. R.C. Sproul Sr. wrote, when asked if he believes Arminians are saved, "Yes, barely. They are Christians by what we call a felicitous inconsistency."1 This answer is actually predicated upon his reaction to an article by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston which names Arminianism as "un-Christian" or "anti-Christian."2 Sproul Sr. asks, "Does this mean that Packer and Johnston believe Arminians are not Christians?"3 He attempts to soften the blow delivered by Packer and Johnston -- a blow against Arminian theology that has yet, to this day, to be publicly retracted:
Every Christian has errors of some sort in his thinking. Our theological views are fallible. Any distortion in our thought, any deviation from pure, biblical categories may be loosely deemed "un-Christian" or "anti-Christian." The fact that our thought contains un-Christian elements does not demand the inference that we are therefore not Christians at all.4
Had Dr. Sproul's qualifying remarks been written by Packer and Johnston then much confusion and misrepresentation could have been avoided. I think, however, his conclusion remains problematic: it is a speculative conclusion of his own views that may not accurately reflect that of either Packer or Johnston. But at least Sproul's conclusion grants that sincere Arminians who are trusting in the Lord are Christians; as well that his own theology, if we understand his remarks in consistent fashion, could be littered with the sort of distorted thinking that relegates segments of Calvinism as being un-Christian or anti-Christian.

What Dr. Sproul cannot properly qualify, however, is his comment of Arminians who are trusting in Christ being "barely" saved. That is a non-sensical statement. No one is partially or barely saved -- not even by "a felicitous inconsistency" -- and to state otherwise is not only unbiblical, or anti-biblical, but is entirely unChristian and terribly offensive. The writer to the Hebrews explicitly states, in no uncertain terms, "Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." (Heb. 7:25 ESV, emphasis added) Christ saves completely, not partially, not barely. Arminians are saved "to the uttermost" in and through Christ as are Calvinists. Christ does not make a distinction between saved Calvinists and saved Arminians, even when Calvinists like Drs. Sproul Sr., Sproul Jr., Packer et al. do.

Curious is how Dr. Sproul arrives at his conclusion that we are barely saved by an felicitous inconsistency: J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, as noted by Sproul, claim that seventeenth-century Calvinists (Dortians) condemned Arminianism as being a "return to Rome," because it "in effect turned faith into a meritorious work." But in his own critique I think he denies his own Calvinistic ideology:
We notice that this charge [of Packer and Johnston regarding Arminianism being a return to Rome] is qualified by the words in effect. Usually Arminians deny that their faith is a meritorious work. If they were to insist that faith is a meritorious work, they would be explicitly denying justification by faith alone. The Arminian acknowledges that faith is something a person does. It is a work, though not a meritorious one. Is it a good work? Certainly it is not a bad work. It is good for a person to trust in Christ and in Christ alone for his or her salvation.5
The demons believe that there is one God (James 2:19). Is that belief tantamount to the gift of God that is allegedly granted strictly to the unconditionally elect? Of course not! Yet, according to Sproul's philosophical reasoning, since belief is good, and we can already intuit that he is about to construct his complaint against Arminianism and faith in Christ by the grace of God, then what are we to conclude about the faith of demons? (More on this below.)

He admits that "all Christians agree," and we assume Calvinists in this category, "that faith is something we do. God does not do the believing for us."6 So, at the outset we are obliged to insist that Calvinists perceive of faith as something we do, since God is not believing for us, even though He graciously enables us to do the believing (Eph. 2:8, 9; Phil. 1:29). This accords with Arminian theology on the subject thus far. Faithing or believing or trusting in Christ is not considered a work, nor a meritorious act, since St Paul explicitly teaches that believing in Christ is not a work to any degree (Rom. 4:4, 5); even though we must include the discussion of Jesus' answer to those who asked what work they were required to perform in order to inherit eternal life: "This is the work of God," or the work which God requires, "that you believe in him whom he has sent." (cf. John 6:27, 28, 29)

Dr. Sproul continues his eminently philosophical argument against Arminianism, proffering a reason how we allegedly "in effect" transform faith into a meritorious work: "Because the good response people make to the gospel becomes the ultimate determining factor in salvation."7 (emphasis added) Dr. Sproul's supralapsarian son (supralapsarianism was condemned by the early Church fathers at the Council of Orange in 529 CE), R.C. Sproul Jr. -- who advocates that God actually is the Author of sin and evil (link) -- as of two years ago still repeats his father's errors:
My own earthly father has been known to answer this question [whether Arminians go to heaven when they die] this way -- Arminians are Christians, barely. What he is getting at, one should not be surprised, is wisdom. First, the problem. Why would we even have to ask? The difficulty is two-fold. First, we are blessed with the atoning work of Christ when we repent for our sins, and trust in His finished work on our behalf. How much of our sin must we repent for? All of it. In the Arminian scheme there remains in man a part of him that is still righteous, that part out of which comes his ability to choose the good as it is offered in the gospel. The Arminian is not, according to his theology, fully repentant.

Second, we must trust in the finished work of Christ alone. In the Arminian schema, he trusts a great deal in the finished work of Christ, but trusts some in his own ability to choose the good. If a man believes that God does 99% of the saving, and man 1%, then that man is not truly saved. (link) (emphases added)
Both Drs. Sproul and Sproul misrepresent Arminian theology with their eminently philosophical wrangling -- philosophical wrangling that the authors of Scripture never employ -- confuse faith for works, misunderstand the nature of faith itself, and misunderstand repentance and, thus, Who saves whom.

Dr. Sproul Jr. above writes, "In the Arminian scheme there remains in man a part of him that is still righteous, that part out of which comes his ability to choose the good as it is offered in the gospel." Both Calvinist scholars conflate the act of believing as, not only a work in the Arminian system, but as deriving from an inherent righteousness.



First, Arminians do not teach that one believes in Christ apart from the gracious enabling of the Father through the Spirit. (Read the FACTS statement at the Society of Evangelical Arminians site.) That both scholars neglect to consider and engage this historical Arminian fact is telling.

Sproul Sr. himself, in the book from which I quote, admits that Arminius holds that, in order for one to believe in Christ, God the Father must grant an ability to believe through the agency of the Spirit.8 In this sense, then, faith itself, in Arminian theology, is a gift, can in no sense be treated as a work, or as merit, and thus does not derive from any imagined, inherent, inner righteousness. These facts also undermine Sproul Jr.'s remarks that Arminians have not fully repented, but are trusting in their own ability to choose the good. Whatever he just complained about, it is not Arminian theology.

I might add that if the act of belief in God is indicative of an inherent righteousness, then do demons maintain an inherited righteousness, since they, too, believe (James 2:19)? James uses the same root Greek word for belief/faith/trust, πιστεύω, when referring to the demons in relation to God, as does Jesus at John 6:29, commanding all people to believe in Him for salvation. No, I am not suggesting that the demons believe savingly in God. Arminians carefully parse the difference between the faith of demons and the faith of human beings. But we have to at least concede that, where the same Greek usage is found, belief in God is present. (The authors of Scripture do not set out to strictly parse the faith of demons and the faith of mortals.) If Sproul Jr. insists that belief in God (or Christ) requires an inherent righteousness then we are at a loss as to how he could explain the belief of demons.

Second, if the act of believing in Christ is, somehow, a return to Rome, and Sproul Sr. insists that all Christians agree that "faith is something we do," and that "God does not do the believing for us," then Calvinism is merely a return to Rome (a consistent fact which logically undermines Sproul's Reformed position). We are, then, all Romish. But, in fact, we are not of Rome: neither Arminians nor Calvinists. Both groups of believers maintain that faith in Christ is a grace-enabled act by which God saves and justifies us. The sole difference between Calvinists and Arminians on this point is that the former believe that God causes faith in His unconditionally pre-selected ones via regeneration; while the latter hold that God enables people to believe: those that do God saves, i.e., regenerates, and justifies; and those that continually do not remain in their separated and sinful condition.

An old Calvinist canard against Arminianism is that, in effect, people save themselves by their own free choice to believe in Christ, as have both Drs. Sproul Sr. and Sproul Jr. reiterated. This is not merely false but patently offensive. Faith neither saves nor justifies anyone: God, in Christ, by His Spirit saves and justifies. He has elected to save, not who shall believe, but, as Scripture teaches, those who believe (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20). God does not save unbelievers (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13). Therefore, no mortal's decision for Christ is "the ultimate determining factor in salvation," as Drs. Sproul and Sproul and other Calvinists argue. God is the ultimate determining Factor of who is saved, and who is not saved, and He has elected to save those who believe.

If Arminian theology actually taught what the Drs. Sproul and Sproul attempt to prove, then I would reject Arminianism, leading me to conclude that Arminianism is sheer semi-Pelagianism, a revival of the old heresy of Pelagius. Dr. Sproul Sr.'s philosophical complaints are a bit surprising, though, given his comment here:
In the perennial debate between so-called Calvinism and Arminianism, the estranged parties have frequently misrepresented each other. They construct straw men, then brandish the swords of polemics against caricatures, not unlike collective Don Quixotes tilting at windmills. As a Calvinist I frequently hear criticisms of Calvinistic thought that I would heartily agree with if indeed they represented Calvinism. So, I am sure, the disciples of Arminius suffer the same fate and become equally frustrated.9
But we, unfortunately, find Dr. Sproul Sr. himself, as well as his son, guilty of misrepresenting Arminianism, constructing philosophical straw men against Arminian theology, lighting it up in effigy, and instrumentally causing the misunderstanding of others regarding Arminianism. When Calvinists like Drs. Sproul and Sproul misrepresent Arminian theology, and perpetuate such by constructing and destroying straw men, they lose credibility not only by their detractors, and opponents, but also among those who are investigating the claims of both sides of the Arminian-Calvinist soteriological debate.

__________

1 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 25.

2 Ibid., 24-25.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 25.

5 Ibid. Arminius became quite accustomed to the rhetoric of Calvinists claiming his theology was a return to Rome. He responds: "A man who is ignorant of those things which ... are here the order of the day, and who reads this article, will undoubtedly think that, in the point of Justification, I favour the party of the Papists, and am their professed defender. Nay he will suppose that I have proceeded to such a pitch of impudence as to have the audacity to maintain a conclusion directly contrary to the words of the Apostle, who says, 'We conclude, therefore, that a man is justified by faith, without the works of the law.' But when he shall understand the origin of this [Calvinistic complaint], and why it is charged on me, then it will be evident to him that it arises from calumny and from a corruption of my words. I deny, therefore, that I made [any such declaration], or ever intended to draw that conclusion, or to propound those things from which such a conclusion might be deduced.

[ ... ]

"From these things thus laid down according to the Scriptures, we conclude that Justification [including the preceding act of salvation], when used for the act of a Judge, is either purely the imputation of righteousness ... bestowed through mercy from the throne of grace in Christ the Propitiation, on a sinner, but on one who believes: or that man is justified before God, of debt, according to the rigour of justice, without any forgiveness. And this is so far true that, how highly soever any one of the Saints may be endowed with Faith, Hope, and Charity -- and how numerous soever and excellent may be the works of Faith, Hope, and Charity which he has performed -- yet he will not obtain from God the Judge a sentence of Justification, unless He quite the tribunal of His severe Justice, and place Himself in the throne of Grace, and out of it pronounce a sentence of absolution in his favour, and unless the Lord of His Mercy and Pity graciously account for righteousness the whole of that good with which the Saint appears before Him: For woe to a life of the greatest innocence if it be judged without mercy!" (Works, 2:46-47)

He also writes: "Evangelical faith is an assent of the mind, produced by the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel, in sinners, who through the law know and acknowledge their sins, and are penitent on account of them: By which they are not only fully persuaded within themselves, that Jesus Christ has been constituted by God the author of salvation to those who obey Him, and that He is their own Saviour if they have believed in Him; and by which they also believe in Him as such, and through Him on God as the Benevolent Father in Him, to the salvation of believers and to the glory of Christ and God." See Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XLIV. On Faith in God and Christ," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:400.

6 Sproul, 25.

7 Ibid., 26. Arminius argues: "The Author of Faith is the Holy Spirit, whom the  Son sends from the Father, as His Advocate and ... Substitute, who may manage His cause in the world and against it. The Instrument [of faith] is the Gospel, or the word of faith, containing ... the meaning concerning God and Christ which the Spirit proposes to the understanding, and of which ... He there works a persuasion." (Works, 2:401) The efficient Cause of a calling unto salvation is also the Author of salvation: "God the Father in the Son. The Son Himself, as appointed by the Father to be the Mediator and the King of His church, calls [people] by the Holy Spirit." The inner mechanism is "the grace, mercy, and ... 'love of God our Saviour toward man' ... by which He is inclined to relieve the misery of siful man, and to impart unto him eternal felicity." (Works, 2:232) People are the objects of salvation and can, thusly, not be the author of salvation. Drs. Sproul and Sproul are mistaken.

8 Sproul, 126-28. (See the above footnote.) Arminius further insists: "That faith and works concur together to justification is a thing impossible. Faith is not correctly denominated the Formal Cause of justification; and when it receives that appellation from some [theologians] of our profession, it is then ... improperly so called. Christ has not ... obtained by His merits that we should be justified by the worthiness and merit of faith, and much less that we should be justified by the merit of works: But the merit of Christ is opposed to justification by works; and, in the Scriptures, Faith and Merit are placed in opposition to each other." (Works, 2:407-08)

9 Sproul, 125-26.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.