Tag Archives: Arminianism

Follow the Evidence?

There was a refrain frequently heard on early episodes of TV’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.  Gus Grissom was training rookie crime scene investigators, sharing with them his many years of experience in the field.  Grissom would often say, “Follow the evidence…”  The understanding was that just following the evidence would lead to the perpetrator of the crime.  Following the evidence would lead to the truth. 

In the world of TV crime scene investigation, that might usually work as a sound philosophy.  Even there occasionally writers and producers have explored the possibility that the evidence can be tainted by factors related to those investigating it.  The evidence isn’t always interpreted objectively and thus conclusions (right or wrong) can still ultimately be reached on the basis of prejudice or gut feeling.  The philosophy sounds good in principle, but it doesn’t always work out in practice.

Moving into the real world, the principle of “follow the evidence” is the basic philosophy behind much of Christian apologetics today.  Walk into a vanilla Christian bookstore these days and if they have an apologetics section, likely everything there will be based on this principle.  Lee Strobel is popular with his The Case for a Creator, The Case for Faith, and The Case for Christ.  I won’t discount everything he writes in these books, but it should be noted that his basic principle is the same as CSI Grissom:  follow the evidence.  The same is true for the majority of others writing on the subject of apologetics today.  For that reason alone, this principle needs critical evaluation.

In discussions about theistic evolution, the allegation has sometimes been made that young university students are sent into turmoil when encountering the evidence for evolution.  As the story has it, these Christian students were taught creation science at home, church, and school.  They were told how the evidence made it clear that God had created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing) in six ordinary days some thousands of years ago, not millions or billions.  Arriving at university, they encounter a different batch of evidences not previously considered.  This sends their faith into a tailspin and, so the story goes, some of them even end up committing suicide.            

On a superficial level, we can join in bemoaning this approach to such issues.  We can agree that something has gone awry with those young university students.  From the perspective of theistic evolutionists, the problem rests with creation science producing faulty evidence because of certain faith convictions regarding creation.  From our perspective, staking your faith on extra-biblical evidences is always problematic.  Let me explain why.

The Theological Background of Evidential Apologetics      

Evidential apologetics is a method of defending the faith which rests upon the use of evidence.  This system of apologetics is usually traced back to Joseph Butler (1692-1752), an Anglican bishop.  Butler lived during the time of the Enlightenment, also known as “The Age of Reason.”  Serious challenges were being posed against the Christian faith.  Rationalism, the belief that reason could provide the basis of all knowledge, had infiltrated not only society, but also many churches.  Even Reformed theology was affected (or better: infected). 

Butler recognized that Enlightenment philosophy endangered the Christian faith.  In particular, he saw the danger deism posed.  Deism is the belief that God is a clockmaker.  He created the universe and then wound it up like a clock.  He removed himself from it and is no longer intimately involved with it.  According to deism, God takes an arms-length approach to the world.  Butler rightly saw that this philosophy was in conflict with the teachings of the Bible.     

In 1736, Butler published a book entitled The Analogy of Religion.  This work was a response to deism.  It was a defense of the faith.  Butler aimed to show there are no sound objections to the Christian religion.  He said all the evidence, especially the evidence in the natural world, points to the very probable truth of Christianity.  As long as a person doesn’t ignore the abundance of evidence, he or she shouldn’t reject the Bible or any of its teachings.  Unprejudiced minds, said Butler, would see the design inherent in the world and almost inevitably reach the conclusion that there is a Creator.  A fair evaluation of the external evidence would likely push the open-minded unbeliever to accept the Bible.  Butler purposed to demonstrate the truth of the Bible through facts, evidence and logic – and he believed it was not only possible to do this, but also pleasing to God.

When evaluating Butler’s approach, we have to remember the importance of what we call presuppositions.  These are our most non-negotiable beliefs or assumptions about the way the world really is.  Butler was an Arminian and one of his presuppositions was that man hadn’t fallen so far as to completely corrupt his thinking.  He didn’t confess the doctrine of pervasive (or total) depravity found in the Canons of Dort, but repudiated it.  This had consequences for his system of apologetics.  So did another related presupposition:  the freedom of the will of fallen man.  According to Butler and other Arminians, fallen man retains free will to choose for or against God.  He need only use his faculties rightly in order to make the right choice. 

While Butler saw the dangers of the Enlightenment and wanted to combat deism in particular, the weapons of his warfare were earthly and unscriptural.  We might wish that Butler was a mere footnote in the history of Christian apologetics, but unfortunately his approach became widely accepted.  Much of what we see today in non-Reformed (“evangelical”) apologetics finds its historical roots in the Arminian apologetics of this Anglican.

Evidential apologetics, historically and in its modern form, makes its case based not only on the evidence (and the nature of evidence), but also on a certain understanding of human nature.  According to this system, human nature isn’t pervasively depraved.  The human intellect isn’t fallen or dead in sin, only weakened or sick.  Neutrality isn’t only possible, but a reality.  When confronted with the evidence, and with perhaps a little help from God, an unprejudiced person will recognize the truth and turn to the Bible and believe it.  This is Arminian theology applied to apologetics.              

Unfortunately, this system has been appropriated by many involved with creation science.  Many creation scientists have been Arminian in their theological convictions, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  It’s only consistent for Arminians to adopt evidential apologetics, whether in general, or whether specially applied to the question of origins.  Inconsistency emerges when Reformed believers adopt this approach.  “Following the evidence” isn’t our way.      

A Biblical Approach

When we approach the question of evidence, we need to do so with biblical presuppositions.  There are several of them we could discuss.  However, in the interests of time and space, let me restrict our discussion to two of the most important.  These are the presuppositions — the non-negotiable beliefs that will govern how we consider the place and use of evidence in apologetics.

The first is our confession regarding the nature of fallen man.  As Ephesians 2:1 puts it, the unregenerate person is dead in transgressions and sins.  This spiritual death extends to all the parts of a fallen human being:  heart, mind, and will are all without a sign of life.  When it comes to the Christian faith, fallen humanity doesn’t have the capacity to interpret the evidence rightly.  What fallen people need is regeneration.  They need to be made alive by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit needs to open eyes so that they may see, understand, and believe.  The Holy Spirit does this work of regeneration through the Word of God.  Therefore, the Word of God, not external evidences, needs to be the focus of our apologetical efforts.  From a Reformed perspective, apologetics involves bringing the Word of God to bear on unbelief to expose its futility and to vindicate and commend the Christian worldview.     

A second necessary presupposition builds on that.  We always start with a belief that the Bible is God’s inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word.  Those doctrinal positions are not conclusions that we reach through reasoning and proofs.  They are held in faith.  We hold to what is called the self-attesting authority of Scripture.  That means the Bible attests or confirms its own authority.  It doesn’t need to be proven.  The Bible claims to be the Word of God and we receive it as such.  This is a settled truth for Christians.  Therefore, the Bible is the basis and standard for all our apologetics.  We’re defending the Bible and the biblical worldview, but the Bible is also the guide for how we defend the Bible.  The Bible gives us the means and strategies to use in defending the Bible.

Where does that leave external evidences?  Well, for one thing, we don’t build our system of apologetics upon them.  Instead, our system has to be grounded on the Word of God.  The Word is the supreme authority, not outside evidence.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t promise to regenerate people through external evidences.  He does promise to do that through the Scriptures, though it isn’t inevitable in every case, obviously.  What’s more, because evidence is always interpreted evidence, and the interpretation is always done by sinful minds, evidence must always be evaluated according to the supreme standard of the Word of God.  Since there are no neutral facts or neutral methods for considering the facts, the Word must always be recognized as standing over the facts.  It must be the grid through which the “facts” are sifted. 

There is a place for evidence in apologetics and in the debate about origins.  Evidence from outside the Bible can corroborate the Bible’s teachings.  However, it isn’t the starting place, nor is it the authority.  Moreover, external evidences can be fickle.  What was thought to be evidence in one generation can turn out to have been misinterpreted by the next.  How do you stay off what one writer called “the evidentialist roller coaster”?  How do you stand firm against humanists and theistic evolutionist compromisers?  Not by retreating to evidence, but by standing firm on what the Word of God teaches.  And by evaluating all evidence in the light of the Word of God.  That also means being open to the possibility that external evidences, whether for or against biblical teaching, may be wrongly interpreted.  When it comes to evidences, one should retain a level of skepticism.  After all, creation scientists and humanists/theistic evolutionists are all human beings, prone to sin and to mistakes.  The only firm foundation is the Word of God.              

Conclusion

“Follow the evidence” might be acceptable for fictional TV characters, but in God’s world his children can’t accept this procedure when it comes to apologetics.  To “follow the evidence,” as if we are all neutral observers of the world is to sell out on our fundamental presuppositions.  It’s regrettable that the surge of interest in apologetics has led some in our Reformed community to dabble with evidentialist apologetics.  It’s sad too that we have often imbibed these apologetics as mediated to us through some creation scientists and their organizations.

Thankfully, in the last number of years, some creation scientists have adopted a Reformed, presuppositional approach to the question of origins.  Most notable are Dr. Jonathan Sarfati and Dr. Jason Lisle. Dr. Sarfati is associated with Creation Ministries International, and Dr. Lisle with Answers in Genesis.  Some time ago I reviewed Lisle’s book, The Ultimate Proof: Resolving the Origins Debate, and I commend it to you as a good example of how to apply Reformed apologetics to this issue.  Some of Lisle’s final words in The Ultimate Proof provide a suitable conclusion:  “Our defense of the faith comes from learning to think and to argue in a biblical way.  God is logical, and we should be too.  God tells us that all knowledge is in him (Col. 2:2-3), so we should train ourselves to recognize this fact” (173).


Discern God’s Sovereignty and Providence

In his book Is God to Blame?, Gregory Boyd tells the story of a woman named Melanie.  After preaching a sermon on living with passion, he was approached by this distraught middle-aged woman.  She used to be on fire for God, but a tragedy in her life deadened her spiritually and sent her into a pit of deep depression.  She said, “I used to love to read the Bible and pray, but now I find it both laborious and aggravating.  I just feel dead!”

She hadn’t gotten married until she was in her mid-thirties.  After three years, she and her husband still hadn’t been able to conceive a child.  Doctors told her it was unlikely she ever would because of a medical condition.  But then suddenly, it happened.  She was pregnant.  It seemed to be a miracle.  The pregnancy went fine, but as the baby was being delivered, something terrible happened and the baby died.  Their miracle had turned into a nightmare.  Melanie and her husband were left with a question that tortured them:  “Why would God miraculously give them a child, only to take the baby away while coming into the world?  Why did this happen to them?  Even more tormenting, why was God preventing them from conceiving again?”  Those are tough questions and the answers they received from other Christians didn’t satisfy them.

Greg Boyd’s answer is that God didn’t have anything to do with it.  God didn’t bring this tragedy into Melanie’s life.  Instead, God sees what happened to her and he wants to free her from her pain and help her get beyond it.  Boyd says, “…we have no reason to assume God put Melanie and her husband through this tragic ordeal.  Rather, we have every reason to assume God was and is at work to deliver Melanie and her husband from their ordeal.”

That sounds like a nice answer.  It’s an answer that appeals to many people today.  It’s an answer that comes out of a trend in theology known as open theism.  Open theists like Gregory Boyd don’t believe God is sovereignly in control of all that happens.  Instead, they believe God has given up control and allows the universe to take its course.  Events that happen are just as surprising to God as they are to us.  Open theists speak about God taking risks and chances and respecting and allowing for human freedom to the fullest extent.  Open theism is the logical endpoint of the Arminian view of God and his sovereignty – Boyd and others like him admit as much.   Moreover, as you can see from the story about Melanie, this is not some pie-in-the-sky ivory tower academic discussion.  How you view God and his sovereignty and his providence impacts how you reflect on what happens in your life, both the pleasant and the not-so-pleasant, even the ugly and heart-breaking.

As always, our plumb line for discerning truth has to be the infallible and inerrant Word of God.  We have to set aside our own feelings and opinions and let God speak.  When we do that, we discover three important related truths in the Bible.

First, the Bible speaks about God’s overarching absolute sovereignty.  He is fully in control of all things.  Psalm 135:6 says, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.”  God is, as we say, omnipotent — all-powerful.

Second, the Bible speaks about God in his providence is in control of all good.  He sovereignly ordains all the things that we experience as being good and immediately perceive as beneficial.  For example, Psalm 65:9-13 speaks of how God waters the earth so that crops grow.  God crowns the year with his bounty.  Few people have difficulty accepting this biblical teaching.

The third truth is far less palatable, but just as biblical.  God also sovereignly ordains and controls all the things that we experience as being difficult and have trouble perceiving as being beneficial for us.  There are numerous Scripture passages which teach this.  Here are a few:

I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.  (Isaiah 45:7)

Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:38)

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
you will bring me up again. (Psalm 71:20)

In addition, you could also see Psalm 60:1-4, Psalm 66:10-12, Psalm 102:10 and Deut. 32:39.  Moreover, the Bible also teaches that all things (both the things we experience as good and those we experience as troublesome) work together for our good (Romans 8:28).  In the beautiful words of Answer 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism, God will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in his life of sorrow.  Nothing happens to us by chance — it’s all in the hands of our good, loving heavenly Father.

Sadly, open theism has made significant inroads.  Quite some years ago, I wrote about how Philip Yancey in some of his books used the language of open theism.  In books like Disappointment with God, Yancey writes of God having taken various risks and chances.   Today these kinds of views are widely accepted.  In fact, research just released by Barna shows that even among American Christians with an orthodox view of God, only a third believe that he is actively involved in their lives.   This reflects the kind of deist theology being peddled by Gregory Boyd and other open theists.  It’s a huge departure from the Word of God.

Anyone who’s experienced significant personal loss and suffering is likely going to struggle with what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty and providence.  Speaking personally, I struggled with it enormously after the loss of my mother to suicide in 2002.  The temptation is there to let your feelings dictate how you’re going to view God.  We need to resist that temptation and build on the only sure foundation:  God’s Word.  In the wake of my mother’s death, what got me through and helped me accept my Father’s will was what I knew for certain from the Bible:  the cross.  I looked at the cross and with my suffering and dying Saviour I saw the love of my Father.  The cross was a horrible tragedy, far worse than anything anyone will ever experience.  Yet out of that tragedy, our sovereign God brought the greatest good, both for the one who suffered (he was crowned with glory!) and for those who believe in him.  I came to see that the cross is how God proves his children can trust him.  I’m like a little child and I don’t understand all my Father’s ways and why he does things the way he does.  But I look at the cross, and I know he loves me and I know I can trust him.  That’s enough for me.


Discern Regeneration

Read this quote carefully:

We believe that all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.

Did you find anything wrong with that quote?  The first two clauses are fine — it’s the last clause that needs a careful look.  Does repentance and faith result in regeneration by the Holy Spirit?

We’re discussing regeneration.  It’s a doctrine where there’s often confusion and misunderstanding, even among confessionally Reformed believers.  Let me try and make it as clear as I can.

Regeneration has several aliases.  The Bible calls it being born again (John 3:7), being born of the Spirit (John 3:6), and being born of God (1 John 5:1).  Whatever expression may be used, it’s clear that this is something that happens at the beginning of a Christian’s spiritual life, whenever that may be, and however that may be experienced.  It is something that happens once — it’s not an ongoing process in the Christian’s life.  This much is clear from passages like 1 Peter 1:23 which says of believers, “you have been born again.”  There the perfect tense is used in Greek, which indicates a completed action with effects into the present.  We find the same thing in 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1 and 5:18, except in these passages the Holy Spirit speaks of being born of God.

Why is there a need for human beings to be born again or regenerated?  Jesus tells us in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”?  It’s the same thing as entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5).  It’s the same thing as not perishing but having eternal life (John 3:15-16).  In other words, unless you are born again, you cannot be saved.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper.  What does the new birth do?  It brings someone to spiritual life.  Without spiritual life, there’s no possibility of faith and repentance.  Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…”  Before regeneration, before being born again, a person is a spiritual corpse.  It’s categorically impossible for a spiritual corpse to repent of sins and believe in Jesus Christ.  Regeneration precedes repentance and faith.  It must.

Now it must be said that there is a development in the historic Protestant formulation of this doctrine from the Scriptures.  Amongst the Reformers, there was sometimes a tendency to collapse what we call sanctification and regeneration together.  You can find this in John Calvin’s Institutes — for example, “I interpret repentance as regeneration…” (3.3.8).  Under the influence of Calvin, this phenomenon is also in the Belgic Confession, in article 24, “We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man.”  Here regeneration is being used to denote the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, the life-long process of growing in holiness.  However, that wasn’t the way Christ was speaking of regeneration/being born again in John 3 — as if the Pharisee just needed to grow in holiness some more.

In time, doctrinal controversies forced theologians to become more precise in their formulations and terminology.  The most important controversy was with the Arminians or Remonstrants in the early 1600s.  Here we have to tread carefully, because it’s easy to lump all Arminians, past and present, together into the same camp.  The views of Arminius himself are quite complex — it would be too simplistic to just say point blank, “Arminius believed that regeneration follows faith.”  He did, but he also taught that there was a sense in which it precedes (see here for a lengthy essay with far more detail from a sympathetic perspective).  Whatever the case may be, the views of Arminius and his Remonstrant followers led the Synod of Dort to express the Reformed doctrine of regeneration with more precision.  In chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort, in articles 11 and 12, regeneration is described as a work of God’s sovereign grace “which God works in us without us.”  Moreover, those who are effectually regenerated “do actually believe.”  Regeneration unambiguously precedes faith in the Canons of Dort.

In the years since Dort, Arminians have become clearer as well.  These days we find unambiguous declarations in statements of faith that repentance and faith result in regeneration.  The statement I quoted at the beginning was taken from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website.  Numerous other organizations and churches use the same or similar wording.  When you see anyone suggesting these days that repentance and faith result in regeneration, you can be almost 100% sure that such a person is an Arminian.  It’s a big tip-off to the presence of Arminianism.

Regardless of how imprecisely Calvin and his immediate heirs used the terminology, today we have no excuse.  Historical theology teaches us how important it is to use terms with as much precision as possible.  For the sake of truth and God’s honour, let’s do that.  The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith which makes a dead sinner come to spiritual life is regeneration.  The work of the Holy Spirit after repentance and faith which transforms a believer’s life, and in which the now-spiritually alive believer has a role to play, is sanctification.  If we maintain that distinction and use those terms, it becomes a lot easier to discern when we’re being faced with Arminian denials of God’s sovereign grace.

 


Billy Graham: The Last of the Great Revivalists

Without a doubt, Billy Graham has had a huge role in shaping American Christianity.  His death on February 21, 2018 signals the passing of an era.  American revivalism was a movement of spiritual wakening that began in the 1700s with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.  It carried on with celebrity preachers like Billy Sunday and Dwight Moody – but it really reached both its climax and end with Billy Graham.

He was born and raised in a Christian home.  His parents were members of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  His wife Ruth was also a Presbyterian.  He dates his conversion to 1934, when he was sixteen years old.  Billy Graham says his conversion happened during an evangelistic campaign.  Before he became a full-time evangelist, he served as a pastor of two churches and was also the president of a Bible College.  By this time, he was a member of the Southern Baptist Church.  Many Southern Baptists are monergistic in their doctrine of salvation, but sadly, Billy Graham is not.

Let’s be up front with this fact:  Billy Graham was an Arminian.  The “Statement of Faith” of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association signals this clearly when it says:  “…repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.”  Rather than regeneration resulting in faith (the biblical view found in Reformed theology), the BGEA says faith results in regeneration.  First you believe (using your free will) and then you are born again.  Regeneration follows faith, rather than preceding it.  That’s Arminianism and it was also evident in Graham’s 1977 book, How to be Born Again.  Ever since that book was published, Reformed critics have pointed out that you can’t lay out steps for people to follow to be born again – regeneration is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit who works this, as the Canons of Dort say, “in us without us” (CoD 3-4.12).  Telling someone how to be born again is just as absurd as telling a baby in the womb how to be born.

Graham began doing evangelistic work in about 1944.  The first few years were spent in obscurity in the United States and England.  But this changed dramatically in 1949.  It happened in Los Angeles where Graham was doing a series of revival meetings.  William Randolph Hearst was the head of an American newspaper chain.  Somehow word about Graham reached him.  He liked what he heard.  Graham was patriotic and young people were attracted to him.  Hearst was also an American patriot, and because this was the time of the Cold War, he was deeply concerned about the communist threat from the Soviet Union.  He saw Graham as a figure who would encourage and support American values.  Graham could be helpful in shielding America from the Soviet Union’s plans to dominate the world.  Hearst sent a two-word telegram to all his newspapers to “puff Graham.”  And they did.  Newspapers all over the United States were covering Graham’s crusade in Los Angeles.  He soon appeared on the cover of leading American news magazines.  His crusade in Los Angeles was planned for three weeks, but because of the news coverage, Graham extended it to eight.  And this is where the story of Billy Graham’s celebrity status begins.

In 1950, he started the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  The Association started organizing crusades around the world.  It also started a radio broadcast called “The Hour of Decision,” and eventually that led to his appearance on television as well.  When I was a boy, I can remember watching the Billy Graham crusades on television sometimes.  I grew up in a church of Dutch immigrants and I wasn’t used to hearing a preacher without a Dutch accent.  He preached clearly.  He often had a Bible in his hand, and he seemed to be preaching about what the Bible says.  Billy Graham was a skilled communicator.  He was simply a preacher, a man who preached with sincerity and seriousness.

Over the years, Graham did over 400 crusades in 185 countries.  His largest event ever was in Seoul, South Korea in 1986 where one million people attended a single crusade evening.  His last crusade was in 2005.  Through television and radio, he has preached to millions of people.  Consider this fact:  more people have heard Billy Graham preach than any other single preacher in the history of the world.  That’s amazing.

So what were some of the features of Billy Graham’s revival ministry?  He preached for individual decisions for Christ.  Following in the footsteps of revivalists before him, public relations campaigns were crucial.  So was getting the sponsorship of local churches.  Graham also made efforts to involve churches by having them send volunteers for his crusades.  They would work as counsellors and in other capacities.  Local churches would also be involved with follow-up.  Billy Graham wanted to make sure that the people who made decisions would be contacted by local churches soon afterwards.  Graham even said this was the most important aspect of his work.

This became controversial in the late 1950s because of who he was working with.  He worked with evangelical churches, but he also worked with the large mainline churches that were friendly to liberal theology.  Converts from his crusades would be directed to become members of these liberal gospel-denying churches.  That caused many fundamentalist Christians to become angry with Graham.

Eventually Billy Graham even came to cooperate with Roman Catholic Churches.  If someone would come to a crusade and make a decision and identify as a Roman Catholic, then they would be directed back to the Roman Catholic Church for spiritual care.  Billy Graham was surprisingly open to Roman Catholicism.  At one point he said, “I have no quarrel with the Catholic Church.”  In another place, he said, “I feel I belong to all the churches.  I am equally at home in an Anglican or Baptist or a Brethren assembly or a Roman Catholic Church.”  He was invited to worship alongside Pope John Paul II at a service in South Carolina in 1987, and he would have if not for an unexpected invitation to China.[1]  Doctrinal differences were minimized and became irrelevant.

Carrying on the tradition of previous revivalists like Dwight Moody, another important feature of the Billy Graham crusades was the music.  Especially at the “moment of decision,” it was important to have the right music played and sung by skilled musicians.  Billy Graham had a long-standing relationship with George Beverly Shea.  Shea began working with Graham in 1947.  Shea would sing a solo before Graham gave his message.  That was to prepare the crowd to receive his words.  After the message, however, Shea turned the singing over to the choir.  They would sing the well-known hymn “Just As I Am” and people would be invited to come forward and make their decision.  The music set the mood.

Billy Graham retired from active ministry in 2006.  Since then, there hasn’t really been anyone to replace him in American revivalistic evangelism.  His son Franklin has done some crusades, but he’s not as popular as his father was.  The phenomenon of revivalism appears to have run its course.  Revivals as big events with preaching and music can hardly compete with television, movies, and the Internet.  With Graham’s death, the era of American revivalism definitely seems to have drawn to a close.

[1] All of this from Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, 68-69.


Do We Have Free Will?

There is an assumption amongst some Reformed people that free will is a completely unbiblical concept.  This may be owing to the fact that often we only hear about free will in the context of Arminianism.  The Arminians, we’re told, believed in free will and so denied God his full credit for our salvation.  On the flip side, the popular belief with some is that Reformed theology denies there is any free will.  In the popular mind, free will is therefore a bad thing.  This is a far too simplistic approach to the matter.  If we dig a little deeper and think a little more, we’ll soon discover that there is a place for free will in Reformed theology.

We need to begin with a definition and an important distinction.

I’m using the term free will in the sense of humans being able freely to make choices in life.  When I say “freely,” I mean “without outside compulsion.”  These free choices always entail full moral responsibility for the one who makes them.  If these choices were not free, you could not be fully responsible for them.

The important distinction is a four-fold one about human nature.  In Reformed theology, we distinguish between human nature in four states.  In each of these four states, there is something we need to say about our ability to sin.

First, there is our original condition as created by God.  Adam and Eve were created upright (Gen. 1:31).  They were also endowed with free will — they were able freely to make choices.  They would be morally responsible for whatever choices they made (Gen. 2:16-17).  In their original condition, in true righteousness and holiness, Reformed theologians say that they were created able not to sin.  Before the fall, Adam and Eve could choose not to sin.  But if they did choose to sin, they would be held fully responsible for it.

Second, there is the human condition after the fall into sin.  After Adam and Eve misused their free will, corruption has spread to the entire human race (Gen. 6:5).  We are all fallen.  In our fallen, unregenerated condition, we are not able not to sin.  Unregenerated human beings still have a free will, but they can only use it in a sinful way (Jer. 13:23).  As free will is exercised in that fallen human nature, there continues to be full moral responsibility (Acts 3:14-15).

Third, there is the human condition after regeneration.  When the Holy Spirit causes someone to be born again, he creates a massive change which includes our will and our ability with regard to sinful choices.  We are now new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  In our regenerated state, we are again restored to being able not to sin.  This is what the Heidelberg Catechism is getting at in QA 8, “Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  A. Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  Note well:  if we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, then we are able again to begin doing good.  We are free to make good and God-pleasing choices.

Fourth, there is the glorified human state.  After we die, or when Christ returns, we will be perfected (1 John 3:2).  We will not only be sinless, but incapable of sinning.  In our glorified condition, we are even better off than Adam and Eve, for we will not be able to sin.  Our wills will still be free, but we will use our freedom to consistently glorify God.

To summarize:

  • Original state:  able not to sin
  • Fallen state:  not able not to sin
  • Regenerated state:  able to sin or not to sin
  • Glorified state:  not able to sin

Taking all that together, we can speak about free will in this way:  human beings are free to do what is according to their nature.  There is free will, but it is always in the context of one of those four human conditions.  For us as we live on this earth now, it is always in the context of the two middle conditions.  If you are not born again by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your sinful human nature.  Your free choices, for which you are responsible, are always reflective of your spiritual state as a fallen human being.  If you have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your restored human nature.  You can and do still sin (though you shouldn’t), but you can also say “no” to sin in growing measures (Gal. 5:16 and Titus 2:11-12).

So, where did the Arminians go wrong then?  They didn’t go wrong in speaking about free will as such.  Reformed theology does too — see the Westminster Confession 3.1 or chapter 9 of the Second Helvetic Confession.  The Arminians went wrong in how they view humanity in the fallen state.  They argued that, because of God’s prevenient grace (a grace which comes before salvation), all fallen human beings are able to use their free will to have faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, they credited all fallen people with the ability to do what Reformed theology claims is only possible for the regenerated.  So, in the Arminian view, non-Christians are free to do what Christians are free to do:  believe in the Saviour.  That’s the problem.  That view runs up against Ephesians 2:1 (and other passages) which maintain that unregenerated people are dead in sin.  If you’re dead in sin, you don’t move towards God — you can’t.

Another question people will sometimes raise:  if there’s human free will, then what about God’s sovereignty?  How can we speak about human beings as free moral agents when the Bible teaches that God is in control of everything?  The short answer is that the Bible teaches both human responsibility and divine sovereignty, without directly laying out how these two fit together.  I think the best expression of this is found in Westminster Confession 3.1:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

What this means is that God is completely in control of the universe, yet creatures still have a will, and these two truths are not in conflict with one another.

Last of all, what about article 14 of the Belgic Confession?  It says:

Therefore we reject all teaching contrary to this concerning the free will of man, since man is a slave to sin (John 8:34) and a man can receive only what is given him from heaven (John 3:27).

The Belgic Confession does not deny that human beings can and do make choices for which they are morally responsible.  The Confession’s argument is here directed against Roman Catholicism which, like Arminianism later on, runs into trouble on the question of the ability of fallen human beings to choose what is right and pleasing to God.  Rome said that fallen man is not dead in sin, but merely injured and in need of some help.  In spite of the injury, fallen man can use his free will to choose what is good.  So, again, the problem is not free will as such, but how it’s understood.

It’s important to understand these things properly because moral responsibility is at stake.  If human beings have no free will, then we cannot be held accountable for the wrong choices we make.  If human beings have no free will, then you can point your finger at God and say, “It’s his fault.  I’m just a robot and he’s at the controls.”  As it is, the Bible is clear that we are fully responsible for our sinful choices.  And, further, as Christians we need not be fatalistic about our sanctification either (“Nothing will ever change!”).  No, our wills have been transformed so that we are free to follow God.  If you have a choice between sinning and not sinning, by God’s grace you can make the choice to not sin.  The Holy Spirit has given you that ability.  Through him, your will is already free and someday it will be fully free!