The Potter's Freedom: The Will of Man

Chapter four of James White's The Potter's Freedom (Calvary Press Publishing, 2000) is titled "The Will of Man," in which he seeks to correct Norman Geisler's notion that God's grace must be synergistically received in order for that grace to be effective. From my perspective, the grace of God commences monergistically, and is not necessarily received as much as it is responded to -- that response being faith in Christ. The act of salvation is also considered to be a monergistic act, since God alone regenerates -- our faith does not regenerate us; our faith does not justify us: God both regenerates and justifies us. Yet He will only save and thus regenerate the one who first believes. The response of faith, though Spirit-induced, is our response. This engagement is synergistic, since the human being is responding and interacting with the work of the Spirit. God's act of salvation and regeneration follows this response. 

In parsing our beliefs about the proactive grace of God, Arminians at times speak varied language, even if they agree on the essentials: 1) that God's grace is not tantamount to regeneration, as with Calvinists; 2) God's grace is resistible; and 3) God's grace arrives in the heart of a person monergistically initially, meaning, no one asks to be convicted of one's sins by the ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11). Such is a necessary working from God if one is to believe in Christ, due to total depravity and total inability. The gracious enabling belongs to God; the response of faith belongs to the sinner; for God does not believe for the sinner, nor does He manipulate one's response in faith.

James White tries ever so desperately to make Arminianism and Roman Catholicism synonymous with regard to synergism and salvation. (92) He has to, else Arminianism is a threat to Calvinism, given its Reformed roots. But by placing Arminianism in heretical hues, as with Roman Catholicism, he thinks he scores points with Calvinists and would-be Calvinists who are sitting on the fence, not ready to swallow all that Calvinism offers. By insisting that Arminianism -- the orthodoxy of the early church1 -- is heretical, the Calvinist can gain converts, since no one wants to be considered a heretic. 

"Synergism is the hallmark of man's religions: monergism the mark of the biblical gospel." (92) What White lacks in scholarship he more than makes up for in rhetoric. Calvinists are at times hard-pressed to admit that they are actually believing in Christ for salvation. This I learned from my experience among Calvinists. For them, their salvation is so hyper-monergistic, that to admit that they are believing in Christ just might betray the work of God in their hearts. Even if they claim that faith is a special gift given by God to the unconditionally elect, what they cannot claim is that 1) God is believing for them; 2) that they are not themselves actually believing in Christ; and 3) that we are not saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, meaning, faith is the instrumental cause of one's salvation, not merely grace, and yet not the primary cause, which is God Himself.

White continues his rhetorical crusade: "While God," in Arminianism, "tries to save as many people as possible (limited, however, by human free will), one thing He manages to do without hindrance is to sovereignly will the freedom of man to resist His salvific will." (92-93) Is this not mere nonsense? God does not try to save anyone. "Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him [Christ]." (Heb. 7:25 TNIV) White vies to portray our view of God as a helpless wife pleading for her wayward husband to come home. His agenda is merely to undermine Arminian theology, not rightly understand it, and thus rightly represent it.

From our biblical perspective, God's purpose is not to monergistically regenerate a person, apart from initial faith, nonetheless, and then somehow -- we are not informed as to how -- cause the individual to believe in Christ -- the individual He unconditionally chose to save from before the foundation of the world. This is Calvinism. God's purpose is to free one's will from its bondage to sin in order to warrant a free response in faith in His Son Jesus Christ. When accomplished, He then saves and regenerates the individual, justifies the individual, sanctifies the individual, having caused the Spirit of God -- indeed, even the triune Godhead -- to dwell within the now-redeemed individual. What Calvinists want to know from us is how God accomplishes the free aspect of the faith-response in our hearts.

Granted, the Calvinist does not inform us as to how, exactly, God actually causes His unconditionally elect to believe in Christ. They merely insist that faith is a gift given by God to the ones whom He unconditionally elected unto final salvation and ultimate glorification. Yet they demand specifics from us. Should we claim Antinomy! or play the mystery card, that will be deemed unacceptable, though they employ the same when questioned on the mechanics of the work of God in salvation among His unconditionally elect ones. If a Calvinist answers that regeneration is the primary cause of faith, that still fails as a proper answer, since the question is asking how regeneration causes faith.

Much banter from White about "free will" is granted in this fourth chapter as he rightly responds to and critiques Geisler's errors and sloppy thinking. (93-96) The problem with White's response, however, is his misrepresenting of classical Arminianism on the issue of free will, believing that Geisler's errors are also our errors. Yet we do not so much admit of free will, with regard to soteriology, as we do to freed will. Note the difference. The Spirit of God must engage our sin-bent wills if we are to freely choose to believe in Jesus. Apart from this activity, none could believe in Christ. That subject was addressed in the previous post regarding the inabilities of fallen humanity. What this post is responding to is the idea of the response of the will to the gracious, proactive working and activity of God's Holy Spirit within us toward faith in Christ, by which, and on account of which God regenerates and saves the soul. 

Initial monergistic grace of the Holy Spirit in the conviction of our sins (John 16:8-11) is a welcomed one in a gracious context, even if that activity is uncomfortable in its initial stages. We are not arguing that God would never intrude upon our free will, as White and other Calvinists frame the discussion (98-99), even if people like Norman Geisler make such comments. We recognize that we are "dead" in our sins, "dead" being a state of utter helplessness spiritually, involving also a separation from right relationship to God (cf. Isa. 59:2; Luke 15:32; Eph. 2:1, 5, 12). While Calvinists insist that "dead men" do not receive Christ (100-104), we insist that "dead men" do not reject Christ, either. "Dead men" do nothing: they do not work righteousness or evil; they neither believe in Christ nor reject Him. The image of a corpse, then, is a faulty one on the part of White and Calvinists.

White begins addressing Geisler's proof-texts for total depravity (John 8:34-48; 12:39, 40; Rom. 3:10-11; 8:7, 8; 1 Cor. 2:14), which were addressed in the previous post, both classical Arminians and Calvinists agreeing that all sinners are totally depraved and totally incapable of believing in Christ apart from a gracious work of God's Spirit. Arminian theology insists that a gracious work of God on our behalf is essential if anyone is to have faith in Christ and thus be saved and regenerated by God. Whatever Geisler may claim in this regard, the Arminian insists that God's operative grace must precede any semblance of faith in Christ, or any "move" in that spiritual direction. Again, though, the direct and explicit cause of this faith is the main question here. Our answer is not merely "free will," nor even "freed will."


Those expressions are an insufficient answer because they do not tell enough, at least, not with regard to causality. Yet, in Arminian theology, we speak less of cause and effect and more to influence and response. Dr. F. Leroy Forlines, quoted at length here, argues:
Calvinism has oversimplified the way that God carries out His sovereignty. In so doing it has oversimplified the relationship of God to man in the application of redemption. It is very important to distinguish between cause and effect relationships and influence and response relationships. In the relationship of the physical to the physical, or the relationship of the parts of a machine to one another, we are dealing with cause and effect relationships. The concepts of active and passive apply in their simple meaning. When a hammer hits a nail, the hammer is active and the nail is passive. The hammer causes the nail to be driven into the wood. The nail had no choice. A force outside the nail caused the nail to be driven into the wood.

Interpersonal relationships do not submit to such a simple analysis. Influence and response are more appropriate terms. A person is one who thinks with his mind, feels with his heart, and acts with his will. In the simple sense of the terms cause and effect, one person cannot cause another person to do anything. This does not depend on the lack of ability that one person has to influence another. Rather, the inability of one person to cause another person to do something grows out of the nature of what it means to be a person. When an appeal is made to a person, it is inherit within the nature of a person to consider the appeal and then make a decision. There is no such thing as a person's doing or not doing something without having made a decision. This is true regardless of how strong the influence may be upon him or her.3
The gracious activity of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11), and the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16, 17), are sufficient degrees of influence to garner a response from a sinner. The person must respond in faith, yes, but the person can only respond in faith because of the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. The response itself is graced-induced, grace-influenced, and does not in itself save or regenerate the individual. God is still the one who saves; He wants to save; and He has elected to save the believer in Jesus Christ. 

Why do some respond in faith and others persist in unbelief? We could suggest the different types of soil by way of answer (Matt. 13); that there are as many answers as there are people who reject God's grace; or that varying factors are involved, such as personal histories, biases, diverse and negative experiences with believers, predispositions, presuppositions, upbringing and a whole host of answers. Yet, even if these answers will not satisfy our theological opponents -- indeed, cannot satisfy our theological opponents, given that they are holding to opposing presuppositions -- such rejection, at least from our perspective, still does not necessitate any notion that regeneration must precede faith, which is built upon the foundation of unconditional election, which we think is unbiblical. 

White uses proof-text John 8:34-48 to promote the implicit notion that regeneration must precede faith.2 In this passage, Jesus is directly addressing the hardened hearts of the Jewish leaders. (8:37a) He began exposing their true, inner nature, as they sought for few opportunities to have Him killed. (8:37b) Jesus then informed them that His Father and their father were not the same Father. (8:38) They claimed Abraham as their father (8:39a), but Jesus enlightened them, insisting that if Abraham was their father then they would do what Abraham did (8:39b). Presently, however, they were vying for His death (8:40), something Abraham would not have done. He again informs them that their father is not His Father (8:41); if God were their Father, then they would follow Him, even love Him, since God the Father had sent Him into the world (8:42).

They did not understand what He was saying, and their misunderstanding and confusion was due to the fact that they could not (dýnamai -- inability) accept (akoúō -- hear, listen to by faith) His words. (8:44) Why? Because they originated from their father, the devil (8:44a), and thus they wanted to do what their father the devil wanted them to do. (8:44b) White writes: "He is not saying they are confused: He is saying they lack the spiritual ability to appraise spiritual truths." (112) We can agree with White here. Many (not all) of the Jewish leaders refused to believe in and follow Jesus, some rejecting Him as another irrelevant Jewish heretic and charlatan, and others as a threat to the Jewish nation and hence should be killed. They would not believe and thus they could not believe. Why? White offers the following by way of answer:
While Arminians would say "If you act upon what you hear you will become one that belongs to God," Jesus says just the opposite: until one "belongs to God" one will not "hear" the words of Jesus. As in John 6 we see that something must happen before a person can "hear" or believe in Christ: and that is the work of God in regenerating the natural man and bringing him to spiritual life. (112-13)
Let us examine this argument more closely. While White may be consistent within his framework and presupposition, I fear his presupposition is the cause of his erroneous interpretations of Scripture (as he clearly and in no uncertain terms claims of us). 

First, just because someone is resisting Christ does not mean that God is not at work in the heart by the Spirit of God (John 16:8-11); that work can be resisted (Acts 7:51). This statement and concept cannot be reconciled with the notion that regeneration must precede faith, certainly. But I am not operating under that presupposition. Many who first reject Christ end up believing in Him: St Paul, for example. So we cannot assume that, just because someone rejects Christ or the gospel initially, then God has not unconditionally elected him or her unto salvation, or that regeneration must precede faith. The one scenario does not necessitate the other.

Second, the Pharisees' views of Christ were distorted, thus perpetuating their disbelief in His works and message. Like Pharaoh's already-hardened heart against the LORD, so some of these Pharisees (and others) were already predisposed against Christ's claims and Person. Not everyone in first-century Jerusalem was already predisposed against Jesus, though; and even some that were, eventually came to believe in Him. So we cannot assume that, just because the hearts and minds of some people are predisposed against Christ initially, then God has not unconditionally elected him or her unto salvation, or that regeneration must precede faith. The one scenario does not necessitate the other.

Third, Christ's admission that some of the Jewish leaders cannot listen to and thus tolerate or accept His message may just as well have referred to their own stubborn refusal than to total depravity, strictly taken. "Why do you not understand what I say?" asks Jesus. (8:43a) "It is because you cannot accept my word." (8:43b, emphasis added) Rather than focus on the word cannot, as does White and other Calvinists, what if Christ's emphasis was upon the word you? "It is because you cannot accept my word."

To suggest that Jesus was here teaching a lesson on total depravity or inability, or even of unconditional election and irresistible grace, is to transgress the text itself, commit the presumptuous cognitive distortion of mind reading, and betray authorial intent. So we cannot assume that, just because the hearts and minds of some people stubbornly refuse to receive Christ initially, then God has not unconditionally elected him or her unto salvation, or that regeneration must precede faith. The one scenario does not necessitate the other.

Some of the Pharisees (and others) resolutely would not trust in Christ as Son of God, a reality over which Jesus wept (Luke 13:34) -- and we should ask why -- and a reality that exposes the deceitfulness of sin. If we mistreat the text of Scripture in the manner as do Calvinists, we also mistreat human beings created in God's image. How so? We end up treating human beings as mere objects than as image-bearers -- objects with which to be discarded -- objects void of personality, history, emotions, influences and intellect.

White and Calvinists are wrong to suggest that sinners cannot understand the gospel, due to their fallen will, or that Christ even confuses non-elect people in His gospel lessons. The gospel, or the plan of salvation, is not intellectually challenging but rather spiritually challenging. The fallen will is, indeed, unable of itself to respond in faith to the gracious message of salvation. But with God all things are possible. (Matt. 19:26)

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1 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

2 That the Bible teaches faith precedes regeneration and hence salvation is proven in many texts throughout the Christian scriptures. We know from Colossians 2:13 that forgiveness precedes being made alive, or being regenerated. How is one forgiven of his or her sins? By grace through faith in Christ. (Rom. 3:25) Therefore faith precedes regeneration. From John's message we learn that faith in Christ precedes becoming a child of God. (John 1:12) How does one become a child of God? Such must be born again. (John 1:12, 13; 3:3, 5) Therefore faith precedes regeneration. If we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8), then faith is the instrumental means of being saved, and thus being regenerated, since regeneration and salvation are intimately connected at Titus 3:5 and James 1:18. Salvation is God's idea; He has established in His word whom He shall save; and God has elected to save those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Heb. 7:25)

3 F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 47-50.

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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.