The Potter's Freedom: The Inabilities of Man

Chapter three of James White's The Potter's Freedom (Calvary Press Publishing, 2000) is titled "The Inabilities of Man," a subject which Arminius, the Remonstrants, and all of the Arminian persuasion heartily affirm. Having quoted Spurgeon on depravity, White comments, "The great works of Christians down through the centuries are filled with the same testimony: [humanity] is the slave of sin, utterly undone outside of Christ." (75) He constructed the truth of the matter well, using the same language as Arminius, who affirmed both total depravity and total inability: "the fallen sons of Adam are dead in sin, incapable of even the first move toward God," claims White. (75) Arminius concurs:
In this [fallen] state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and ... weakened; but it is also ... imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.1
One must wonder, then, why some Calvinists still maintain that Arminius, or perhaps the Remonstrants or Arminians, hold to partial depravity, or deny depravity altogether. For an example, provided to me from an on-line friend who comments here, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) erroneously promotes the following, ludicrous error: "He [Arminius] was a theologian in Holland who taught his seminary students to rebel against the teachings of John Calvin, the outstanding theologian of the Protestant Reformation." (link) Yet, we find in Arminius' own words to his students the exact contrary notion:
But, after the Holy Scriptures (the perusal of which I earnestly inculcate more than any other person, as the whole University as well as the consciences of my colleagues will testify), I exhort them to read the Commentaries of Calvin, on whom I bestow higher praise than Helmichius [a Dutch theologian] ever did, as he confessed to me himself.

For I tell them that he [Calvin] is incomparable in the interpretation of Scripture; and that his Commentaries ought to be held in greater estimation than all that is delivered to us in the writings of the Ancient Christian Fathers: So that, in a certain eminent Spirit of Prophecy, I give the preeminence to him beyond most others, indeed beyond them all.

I add, that, with regard to what belongs to [Philipp Melanchthon's] Common Places, his [Calvin's] Institutes must be read after the [Heidelberg] Catechism as a more ample interpretation. But to all this I subjoin the remark that they must be perused with cautious choice, like all other human compositions.2
The OPC site perpetuates other errors as well: "Arminius taught that Calvin was wrong in teaching that unsaved people were unable to believe in Christ until they were 'born again' by the Holy Spirit." (link) This was proven somewhat untrue by the above quote regarding total depravity (Arminius certainly denied that regeneration precedes faith,3 but affirmed that sufficient and necessary grace precedes faith as essential); and many Calvinists promote these errors by neglecting to read Arminius himself. Arminius, regarding depravity, as well as inability, continues (emphases original):
The Mind of man, in this [fallen] state, is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God ...

To this Darkness of the Mind succeeds the Perverseness of the Affections and of the Heart, according to which it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil ...

Exactly correspondent to this Darkness of the Mind, and Perverseness of the Heart, is ... the utter Weakness of all the Powers to perform that which is truly good ...4
Calvinist R.C. Sproul responds to Arminius: "He is not satisfied to declare that man's will was merely wounded or weakened. He insists that it was 'imprisoned, destroyed, and lost.' The language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius."5 Sproul, though no friend to Arminius, the Remonstrants, or Arminians can rightly interpret the theology of the same with regard to depravity.

He further states: "What more could an Augustinian or Calvinist hope for from a theologian? Arminius then declares that the only remedy for man's fallen condition is the gracious operation of God's Spirit. The will of man is not free to do any good unless it is made free or liberated by the Son of God through the Spirit of God."6 Other Calvinists would do themselves and their readers a service by following Sproul's example here.

For example, Calvinist J.I. Packer misrepresents Arminianism as holding: "Man is never so completely corrupted by sin that he cannot savingly believe the gospel when it is put before him."7 Packer is, obviously, wrong. Calvinists David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn perpetuate this same misrepresentation regarding Arminian theology: "Although human nature was seriously affected by the Fall, man has not been left in a state of total spiritual helplessness ... Each sinner possesses a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it."8 Again, these Calvinists are propagating serious errors and misrepresentation of Arminianism -- caricatures and straw men that no more represent Arminian theology than than does Mormonism or any other error.

While we agree with White's presentation of total depravity and total inability, we think that he and most other Calvinists take the doctrine to extremes, bordering on the notion of hyper-depravity, albeit not utter depravity, which would imply that sinners are as sinful or as evil as they could be, disregarding the existence of common grace. We affirm White's remarks regarding sinners being "dead" toward a right understanding and even relationship to God (76) (cf. Eph. 2:1, 5, 12). After all, our sins have made a separation between us and a holy and righteous God (Isa. 59:2). Yet the notion of being "dead" also contains the spiritual reality of separation (cf. Luke 15:32; Eph. 2:12). 

But then White comments: "That is why the unregenerate person cannot understand the urgency of the gospel message" (77), perpetuating the oft-heard complaint against "man's autonomy." From what we have learned of Arminius (and the Remonstrants), autonomy is not a concept with which the Arminian agrees. White's solution, as is the solution among most Calvinists, is that regeneration therefore must precede faith. White assumes that if a person is granted the grace-induced choice to believe in Christ, that "not only makes man's choice equal with God's, but it likewise places the final decision for what takes place in time squarely in the hands of man, not of God." (77) This is a rather embarrassing logical and biblical blunder based on a faulty presupposition, I think.


White engages his opponents according to his own Calvinistic standards. That is poor scholarship indeed. He assumes that God has unconditionally elected to save only some persons from before the foundation of the world, and then he alleges that, if the theology of salvation among the Arminian or non-Calvinist camp is true, then that would contradict what he knows presuppositionally to be true. 

If God wants to save and hence regenerate anyone who would, by grace, trust in His Son, then that is His decision -- His prerogative, even -- and that is His eternal decision as well, given His eternal nature and existence. He does not "leave salvation up to man," as the Calvinist suggests. He has decided to save; He wants to save; and He wants to save believers in Jesus Christ.

No one is saved against God's will, even if the person is graced and granted the choice to believe or to remain in unbelief, since salvation belongs to Him alone. God does not and cannot "leave salvation up to man" since we cannot save ourselves. What God "leaves up to man" is the believing in Christ, not the salvation of the soul. Neither faith nor a freed will saves the soul. Only God saves, and He saves the believer (cf. John 1:12, 13; 3:3, 5; Rom. 10:9, 10, 13; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Heb. 7:25; 11:6). That White and other Calvinists neglect this most significant aspect of Arminian and non-Calvinistic soteriology is very telling.

We affirm White's proof-texts for the doctrine of depravity (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Ps. 51:5; 58:3; Jer. 13:23; 17:9; John 6:43-44; Rom. 1:18, 21-25; 3:10-18; 8:6-8; Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 2:13). (79-84) Such is obvious from even a cursory reading of Arminius and his colleagues the Remonstrants, as well as classical Arminians today. (link) Yet White erroneously claims: "The religions of men, Roman Catholicism, and Arminianism, all share one thing in common: the deep desire to maintain the ability of man to control the work of God in salvation and always have the 'final say.'" (85) Frankly, this is an utterly ignorant and unacademic or unscholarly statement where Arminianism is concerned.

Not once did Arminius or the Remonstrants ever refer to salvation as being an effect of one's faith or free will. Salvation is in God's hands, and He saves the believer by grace. In other words, the grace that opens the heart of the sinner is the same grace that saves the one who believes. How, then, can Calvinists like James White suggest that Arminianism perpetuates the notion of a "deep desire to maintain the ability of man to control the work of God in salvation and always have the 'final say'"? God has the "final say" as to whom He will save, and He has elected to save believers in His Son Jesus Christ. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11), none could graciously believe in Christ and thus experience God's salvation and regeneration. Does this Arminian confession, then, corroborate with White's confession regarding Arminianism? No.

White almost gets the matter correct when he writes, "Something has to change the person who is naturally the enemy of God into one who desires to follow Christ." (86) The sufficient nature of God's grace is the element necessary for the sinner to trust in Christ. White and Arminians call this "the drawing." (86) White and Calvinists believe the drawing to be irresistible, and commensurate with the doctrine of unconditional election; while Arminius, the Remonstrants, the early Church fathers prior to Augustine in the fifth century and all classical Arminians believe the drawing to be resistible. This is because of the purpose of God's drawing: He does not draw an unconditionally elect man or woman irresistibly through the means of regeneration, but draws one to faith by grace and the work of the Spirit (John 16:8, 9, 10, 11), and the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16, 17), thus freeing the will from its bondage to sin in order for the sinner to freely respond in faith. Some do, some do not, and the reasons for the latter can be various.

White argues his case using John 6:39, stating, "No, an often missed truth of the passage is this: all who are drawn are also raised up." (86) He argues that, if everyone is drawn to Christ by the Father, then He would have to raise everyone on the last day. (86) White's taxonomy is, as generally is the Calvinist's in this regard, in error.

Jesus confessed to having come down from heaven to do "the will [thelēma] of him who sent me." (Jn. 6:38) What is God's will? Jesus explains: "And this is the will [thelēma] of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day." (Jn. 6:39) He continues, "This is indeed the will [thelēma] of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day." (Jn. 6:40, emphases added) Who will Jesus raise up? Believers. So, the will of God is that Jesus will not willingly lose or cast away any of the believers whom the Father gives to Him, but that all who "see" and believe in the Son will have eternal life.

St Paul informs us that the will, theló, or desire of God is that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), even though all will not be saved (Matt. 7:21, 22, 23; Rev. 20:11-15). This will, theló, is conditioned, however, on the one who will continue to believe in Jesus the Son. God is willing to save, but too often, fallen human beings are not willing to be saved (cf. Lk. 13:34). To those unwilling to receive Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior (1:11; 6:26; 36), He responds, "Do not complain among yourselves. No one can [dunatai] come to me unless drawn [elkusē] by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day." (Jn. 6:43, 44) 

The Greek word dunatai denotes power, ability, not permission. Jesus is explicitly stating that no one has the inherent capability of coming to Him. This truth has been underscored by Arminius, the Remonstrants, and the history of classical Arminians, as quoted already. But are we permitted to believe that each person who is drawn by the Father by the work of the Spirit is actually given to Christ and will be raised up on the last day? 

In the same way that Calvinists erroneously imagine and argue that, from the Arminian perspective, because Christ died for each person, as Scripture affirms (John 1:29), then He must save each person (and Universalism is true after all); so Calvinists also erroneously imagine and argue that, because God the Father draws each person (John 12:32), then He must also give each person to Christ, and thus raise each person up on the last day (and Universalism is true after all). But this is an unwarranted belief. Just because God loves all (John 3:16) does not mean that all are automatically His redeemed children. Just because Jesus died for all (2 Cor. 5:14, 15) does not mean that all must be saved. Just because the Father draws or woos all (John 6:44, 45; 12:32) toward Christ does not mean that all will be saved, given to Christ, and thus raised up on the last day.

God has promised to save the one who continues to believe in Christ Jesus; He has also promised to not save the one who continues to reject Christ Jesus (John 3:36). The ones who are drawn and thus given to Christ -- those believers who continue in faith -- will also be raised to new life on the final day. This is the summation of Jesus' words in John 6. Calvinists like James White, however, approach the text like scientists from the modern era, misunderstanding, misinterpreting and misapplying the scriptures (like White's and the Calvinist's attempt to strain the false theory of regeneration preceding faith from the texts of John 1:12, 13 and 1 John 5:1). That the Calvinist misrepresents Arminianism comes as no shock to anyone familiar with how many Calvinists misrepresent Scripture. Examples of both are painfully obvious throughout White's The Potter's Freedom.
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1 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2.192.

2 Ibid., 1:295-96.

3 Ibid., 2:498

4 Ibid., 2:192-93.

5 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 126.

6 Ibid., 128.

7 J.I. Packer, "Introductory Essay," in John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (London: Banner of Truth, 1959), 3.

8 David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, second edition (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 5.

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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.