Why Do Only Some People Believe?

A Calvinist asks: "If all receive equal grace from God," an implied Arminian and Wesleyan interpretation of passages such as John 12:32, "then why do only some people believe in Christ?" The question is designed solely as a means of undermining Arminian theology. The Calvinist assumes the question cannot be answered and, hence, Arminianism is discovered to be false and Calvinism biblical. So, the Arminian counters the question with one of his own, "Since all sinners are equally sinful then by what means does God allegedly unconditionally elect to save one person and not another?" The intent of this question is to expose the arbitrary nature of unconditional election theory and, hence, undermine Calvinism and highlight Arminianism as biblical. But difficult and challenging questions to an opposing worldview, theological or otherwise, do not ipso facto provide evidence in support of the counter position.

The Calvinist cannot answer the question posed by the Arminian without knowing the mind of God -- an inevitable impossibility. But, merely because the Calvinist cannot answer the question in no wise discounts Calvinism as a viable, biblical system. God could reserve His own mysterious reasons or purposes for those whom He unconditionally elected to save. Granted, if He does reserve His own mysterious reasons or purposes for electing to save some and not others, then election is not unconditional. But I am now making an argument against the theory instead of addressing the main issue. Calvinism cannot be judged as false due to a difficult challenge.

Neither can Arminianism. I think the question regarding "equal grace to all" can be answered adequately, but the answers provided may not satisfy the Calvinist, and the answers are merely offerings: they are in no sense purely objective, from the exhaustive perspective of the divine mind of God, but are intended as a way of thinking through the issue from the perspective not of the Calvinist but of the Arminian and within the presuppositions of Arminian theology. In other words, if attempts by Arminians are constructed, by means of viable answers, the Calvinist is demonstrating bias if he outright disregards those answers, because he is improperly judging those answers by his own presuppositional theological system. This is unscholarly.

Calvinists, like James White,1 think that the biblical truth of total depravity, and total inability, necessitates a theory of irresistible grace (also named efficacious grace) and the notion that regeneration must precede faith. John Calvin teaches that faith precedes regeneration. But neo-Calvinists have constructed an elaborate scheme by which the saving (Titus 3:5) act of regeneration (or the new birth, being born again, or being born from above) is the means by which God brings the unconditionally elect unto Himself through Christ by that savingly-regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. Calvinists, again, like White, argue that, since sinners are "dead in sins" (cf. Eph. 2:1), then what "dead" people need is "life," and only by the granting of new life (regeneration) will a person then trust in Christ.2

But the primary issue between the Calvinist and the Arminian on this point is a proper definition and context for "dead." The old canard reads: "Dead people cannot trust in Christ." Well, dead people cannot reject Christ, either. The problem is conceptualizing "dead," at places like Ephesians 2:1, as "dead as a corpse." Granted, a sinner in his unregenerate state is incapable of trusting in Christ on his own, and thus the Calvinist is correct to highlight this truth. But at other places, being "dead" while still being alive does not carry the connotation of "dead as a corpse," but rather as being separated from a right relationship with God (cf. Isa. 59:2; Luke 15:24, 32). We believe the Bible clearly teaches that faith precedes regeneration (Jn. 1:12; 3:16, 18, 36; Acts 16:31; Rom. 3:22, 28; 4:1-25; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:1-18; Eph. 2:8-9; 1 Jn. 5:13) and that the only aspect that precedes faith is the enabling grace of God. In other words, what is needed in order for someone to trust in Christ is not regenerating grace, but enabling grace. Why? Because sin has hampered one's spiritual discernment and, being turned inward, one is incapable of desiring the universally-offered salvation of God in the Gospel of Christ. But why do some not believe?

Calvinists have a ready answer: God has not unconditionally elected for salvation the one who remains in unbelief. If God regenerates a person, that person will believe in Christ, and can then know that he or she is the elect of God. Though we believe these answers are rife with biblical problems, we are asked a question from our perspective, and we ought to offer a biblical answer. The complication, of course, is at least two-fold: 1) we can only offer what we find in the pages of Scripture from our biblical hermeneutic; and 2) we are limited by our inability to read minds. If we were to interview every non-believer, just prior to death, as to why he or she refused to believe in Christ, we may conclude with as many answers as there are interviewees, and still argue that often, throughout their lives, various graces of God were evident.

For example, Jesus encounters a wealthy man, who approaches Jesus asking what good deeds he might accomplish in order to receive eternal life. From a conservative evangelical perspective, here is the opportunity for Jesus to inform the young man to place his trust in Him as Lord and Savior, and then be baptized. But Jesus challenges the motive of the young man calling Him "good," noting that only God is good, and then commands him to obey the commandments! What evangelical today would inform a seeming seeker to keep the Ten Commandments in order to receive eternal life? Does Jesus even know about the Plan of Salvation, the Four Spiritual Laws, or the Way of the Master? His "witnessing techniques," at least according to conservative evangelical standards, are sorely lacking and quite heretical. (I am being facetious.)

To another man Jesus commands to keep the first two primary commandments, loving God and neighbor, and he shall receive eternal life. (Luke 10:28) I have never heard that remark in any conservative evangelical church. But what do these two instances inform us about people rejecting the reception of eternal life? A Calvinist may proffer that God the Father had not unconditionally elected these two individuals and, therefore, they did not believe. But that is far too presumptuous an interpretation when considering the contexts. Both men wanted to justify themselves. (Matt. 19:20; Luke 10:29) However, at least regarding the first man, Jesus genuinely offered to the man eternal life and personal discipleship. (Matt. 19:17, 21) Why would Jesus offer the man eternal life knowing that he was, allegedly, not an unconditionally elect person? Jesus then speaks these intriguing words: "Truly I tell you, it will be hard [δυσκόλως, with great difficulty] for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 19:23, 24) Difficult?

In light of the Calvinist's presupposition of unconditional election, I find Jesus' words here completely contradictory, since an unconditionally elect person is allegedly regenerated in order for him or her to believe in Christ. What is so "difficult" about that? The concept of "difficulty" implies an inner struggle, warring desires, and the use of reason in deliberating between two or more options. Clearly, Jesus is not thinking like a Calvinist. Granted, being asked by the disciples, "Then who can be saved?" (Matt. 19:25), Jesus answers, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26); but this conclusion in no sense distracts us from His two statements that rich people only with great difficulty enter the kingdom of heaven.

Concerning the young rich man, his disbelief can be attributed to his love for wealth, and his unwillingness to love the Lord instead. Regarding the other man, mentioned at Luke 10:28-29, his self-justifying pride kept him from faith and salvation. Here we find two different men, from two different contexts, and two different reasons for lack of faith. What we do not find, implicit or explicit, is any notion that lack of faith is due to lack of being one of God's unconditionally elect persons. Was a demonstrable grace operative within each man?

St John informs us that grace and truth are in Jesus (John 1:17), and that we have all received grace upon grace (John 1:16); we are taught that Jesus, as the Light of the world (John 8:12) is the Light and Life of all (John 1:4), with an intent that by that Light "all might believe" (John 1:7); this Light enlightens everyone in the world (John 1:9), as this Light inwardly draws all unto Himself (John 12:32), through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11). For both of those men to have encountered Grace Incarnate, Jesus Christ, we must confess that a demonstrable grace was evident within their hearts and minds as they encountered the Living Word of God.



If we rely on Scripture, rather than faulty presuppositions, then we are obliged to argue that the reason why some people do not believe is because of their own free rejection of the grace of God. We argue that a person must be convicted by the Holy Spirit of one's sins (John 16:8-11), drawn by God (John 6:44, 45, 65), granted the honor of faith in Christ (Phil. 1:29), bestowed with the proactive grace of God leading one to repentance and faith (Rom. 2:4) and then actually believe in Jesus (Rom. 3:25), in His atoning death and resurrection (Rom. 10:9, 10), in order to be saved (regenerated) by God (John 3:5, 8; Titus 3:5). So, then, sinners are given a gracious enabling that allows them to freely trust in Christ. However, they must trust in Christ, for God does not trust in Christ for them. (Acts 2:21; 4:12; 11:14; 14:22, 27; 15:9, 11; 16:30, 31; 20:21; 26:18; Rom. 1:5, 16, 17; 3:22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30; 4:5, 9, 11, 12, 16, 22; 5:9, 10; 10:9, 10, 13; 1 Cor. 15:2; Eph. 2:5, 8, 2 Thess. 2:10; 1 Tim. 2:4; Titus 3:5; Heb. 10:39) Some believe and others do not believe. The reasons are myriad. Praise for the gracious response of the believer belongs to God, in Christ, by means of the Holy Spirit. Blame for the stubborn rejection of His grace belongs to the sinner. God's integrity is left intact.

The response of the believer to the inner grace of God through faith in Christ is not an indication that she is "more wise" than the non-believer, in any sense "better" than the non-believer, or determined her own salvation. Recall that only God saves and He has elected to save believers. (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) Calvinist J.I. Packer misleadingly argues that Arminianism leads us to think that salvation ultimately depends "on something we do for ourselves."3 R.C. Sproul shrewdly states the matter thusly: "Usually Arminians deny that their faith is a meritorious work." Actually, the apostle Paul is the one who explicitly teaches that faith is not a meritorious work (Rom. 4:4-5), so the following words from Sproul should actually be directed toward the apostle rather than Arminians (words in brackets are mine):
If [Arminians] were to insist that faith is a meritorious work, they would be explicitly denying justification by faith alone. [Fortunately we follow the apostle Paul on that matter and avoid such a denial.] The Arminian acknowledges that faith is something a person does. It is a work, though not a meritorious one [which is exactly what Jesus teaches at John 6:29]. 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. . . . All the Arminian wants and intends to assert is that man has the ability to exercise the instrumental cause of faith without first being regenerated. This position clearly negates sola gratia [grace alone], but not necessarily sola fide [faith alone].4
Not only do Sproul's arguments collapse in on themselves but he, perhaps unwittingly, even contradicts himself. First, he attempts to argue against Arminianism by the slight notion that faith is "a good work," albeit not meritorious. His implication here is that, in Arminian theology, the believer can boast of her faith and, thus, salvation because she made the good decision to respond in faith to Christ. From the perspective of Packer, she saves herself, as she is depending upon herself and her faith for salvation. These statements are nonsensical and not at all related to Arminianism. Both Sproul and Packer are guilty of committing the straw man fallacy.

Arminians have, historically and at present, insisted that no one can believe in Christ unless the Holy Spirit performs an inward work that enables one to respond with faith in Christ. Contradictorily, Sproul even acknowledges as much in the very same book in which he backtracks and accuses Arminians for maintaining an inherent ability to believe in Christ: "Again it seems that Arminius is merely echoing the teaching of Luther and Calvin. He affirms the absolute necessity of grace for man to turn to the good, and he even speaks of the Holy Spirit working 'within' man to accomplish all of this."5 How, then, can Sproul argue above: "All the Arminian wants and intends to assert is that man has the ability to exercise the instrumental cause of faith without first being regenerated"?6 Did the same man write both chapters?

Moreover, Sproul is calling into question the Arminian belief that a person chooses to believe, by the gracious enabling of the Holy Spirit, as already mentioned, and then adds: "But all Christians agree that faith is something we do. God does not do the believing for us."7 (emphasis added) If this is true, then he and all other Calvinists, including J.I. Packer, are equally as "guilty" (allegedly) of saving themselves, of being able to boast in their "good decision to believe in Christ," and their good-yet-unmeritorious work. I admit to being absolutely astounded by the double standards and the straw man arguments presented by these Calvinist scholars. Their errors are so elementary, with regard to Arminianism, and so very obvious that I am surprised the editors and publishing houses that released their works failed to recognize them.

What is obvious from the arguments presented from Calvinists, like James White, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Piper et al., is a reliance upon faulty logic rather than proper exegesis of Scripture. Jesus explicitly states that belief in Him is the "work" required by God in order to be saved. (John 6:29) This "work" is not meritorious, however, as explicitly taught by Paul. (Rom. 4:4-5) That one person believes and another does not believe is never mentioned in Scripture as "goodness" belonging to the former and "badness" to the latter. Had any author of Scripture, or even Jesus Himself, intended to draw such conclusions, in avoidance of someone boasting of salvation, then they forgot to do so. Our conclusion is that some people freely choose to believe in Christ, by the gracious enabling of the Holy Spirit, and that others freely choose not to believe in Christ, rejecting the gracious enabling of the Holy Spirit, and the reasons for such rejection are, without doubt, as we discover in Scripture, myriad. What we do not find in Scripture is that unbelievers remain unbelievers because God did not want to save them. That is Calvinism.

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1 James R. White, The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free (Amityville: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 283.

2 Ibid., 284-85.

3 J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, "Historical and Theological Introduction," in Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Westwood: Revell, 1957), 59.

4 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 25-26.

5 Ibid., 128.

6 Ibid., 25-26.

7 Ibid., 25.

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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.