Free grace or free will?

In their book Why I Am Not a Calvinist, Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell opine that the greatest weakness of contemporary Arminianism may be its view of sin, which tends to equate sin with guilt for doing bad things that create a liability for future judgement.

This seriously misunderstands the deep-seated effect of sin on us, the authors argue. They appeal to John Wesley for a better conception of sin.

For his part, Wesley affirmed the dreadful effects of the Fall in the strongest terms, agreeing fervently with his Calvinist contemporaries that sinners, left to themselves, stand utterly hopeless and helpless before God. Yet in the generations succeeding Wesley, and especially in American Methodism, the pendulum has swung from Wesley’s emphasis on free grace to an emphasis on free will, with an accompanying tendency to consider free will a natural human possession fully capable in its own right of assessing and accepting divine truth.

The upshot of this shift toward free will is that all that is necessary is for people to be educated better. If they know enough and are taught properly, they will choose the right path.

Walls and Dongell give us the old Wesleyan view that stands at odds with our assertions of free will.

In the past, Arminians have agreed with Calvinists that salvation can only occur if God radically, powerfully and graciously invades the human heart. Given the human condition, this invasion will take place without human invitation and prior to any human interest in God or inclination toward the good. Only as God opens blind eyes, stirs the desire and loosens the grip of sin can saving faith follow.

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15 thoughts on “Free grace or free will?

  1. Wesley clearly held to Arminianism on the issue of original sin / total depravity, in fact he wrote that there was no difference between what he taught and what Calvinism/Reformed theology taught on this particular area.

    What is interesting is that Wesley seems to suggest that prevenient grace, which is needed for one to be saved, is given to all people . I think this differs from Arminius himself who agreed that it was required before one can be saved but suggested that not all people received this grace.

  2. This is merely a question….and I am in no posture to debate. But, I have some serious questions about this prevenient grace. I am asking only if I am misunderstanding Scripture, because I don’t see prevenient grace as being Biblical. Okay….so here goes my limited understanding…First and foremost, it turns Paul’s words “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:6) on their head. The Greek term used here means to “accomplish” or “perfect,” similar to how the writer of Hebrews says Jesus is the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). The doctrine of prevenient grace affirms that a work is done in the sinner but it denies that the efficacy of the grace is guaranteed. This makes no sense to me if we are assured that God will perfect what He starts in a person.

    Second, there is no reason to believe that the two “him’s” in John 6:44 are different groups of people. Two Greek words separate the first “him” who is drawn by the Father from the second “him” who is raised up on the last day. Grammatically and contextually, there is nothing that would begin to support the idea that the verse means not all who are drawn will be raised up on the last day. We find a similar idea in Romans 8:30, where we read that all whom God calls, referring to the inward calling, will be justified and later glorified.

    Lastly, 1 John 5:1 states clearly that the cause of a person’s believing in Jesus Christ is that he was born again (i.e., regenerated), which John had already told us is “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13) and is something necessary in order to even perceive the kingdom of God (John 3:3), let alone enter into it. As long as we recognize the biblical truth of the natural man’s deadness in sin (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13), his need of a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26), and that man is a pile of bones needing to be breathed on by God to be brought to life (Ezekiel 37:3-7), we can see that man does not need to be made “better” or “partially alive” but that man needs to be resurrected. Therefore, the doctrine of prevenient grace is without biblical support from my understanding of Scripture.

    If I am missing something…please guide me into the right direction through Scripture. Often times in this blog I seem to need to confront my understanding of Scripture and I just don’t want to find myself on the wrong course of understanding. Thanks

    1. Duane, this deserves more of an answer than I have time for right now.

      Here’s what St. Wikipedia says: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prevenient_grace#In_The_Bible

      The notion of preventing grace is that it is the grace that first stirs us to awareness of God and the things of God and births in us a desire to please God, which gives rise to conviction by grace.

      It is an attempt to comprehend salvation by faith alone in a way that does not require predestination to hell as part of God’s plan. (That is overly simplistic, but I think it is fair to say that is part of it.)

      So, the doctrine does not arise first out of individual texts, but out of some Scripture-based beliefs about God and original sin.

    2. Duance
      But, I have some serious questions about this prevenient grace. I am asking only if I am misunderstanding Scripture, because I don’t see prevenient grace as being Biblical.

      As John noted, going through Scripture x Scripture would take some time and effort.

      But here are 3 thoughts for you:

      1. Reformed and Arminians both hold to original sin/total depravity. Man cannot initiate a relationship with God or come to faith w/o God’s help.

      2. Reformed and Arminians both hold to prevenient grace. A grace given by God that precedes faith and is given to help a person come to faith.

      3. The difference between Reformed and Arminians is whether prevenient grace is resistible or not.

      Therefore most (if not all) verses used to support a Reformed view of prevenient grace can be used to support the Armininan view as well.

      That said I agree with John, that the doctrine (#2) is mostly derived from Scripture rather than plainly taught because of #1, much like the Trinity is implicitly taught in Scripture.

      1. Thank you, John and Mike….but could you give me just a bit more?
        Okay….so lets use the scene of Peter standing up shortly after the day of pentecost as an example. He shared the Gospel with a multitude and a few thousand came to be believers and followers of Christ….Christians if you will. But clearly not everyone who heard walked away with that same experience. Was it a type of prevenient grace that was given to just a select group from that multitude of people who heard? I’m probably missing something really simple….but I have no formal biblical studies background and rely for the most part on what I read in the Bible alone. Can you give me some specific scriptures that prove what you are saying without conjecture…..something plain and simple….black and white? You don’t have to list a bunch ….but can you give me at least three that I might follow up and study for myself? I would truly appreciate it. Thanks.

        The Trinity I believe without doubt….and there seems to be Scriptural evidence that make it easy to come to that belief. I just don’t see the same with prevenient grace.

        1. Duane,

          Preventing grace was not present only in the moment of Peter’s proclamation. It came before Peter ever got up to speak.

          Here is the way Wesleyans talk about it. Grace works in these different ways.

          Preventing grace is the grace that is poured out to all God’s creatures that allows us — sinners that we are to respond to the leadings and drawings of God. It is God’s grace received even before we are aware of God or have the first inkling to please him. The scripture that gets pointed to are references to God knowing us before we knew him, loving us before we loved him, and going before us. The “experiential” part of it is that lots of people who are not Christians still live with a moral compass. It is why even pagans have a conscience, for instance.That is not a natural conscience, we say. That is God’s preventing grace at work in them, even if they do not know it as such.

          Preventing grace draws us to desire to know God. And in that knowing, convicting grace reveals to us the depth and distance we are — the way we all fall short of God’s glory.

          Justifying grace is that work of grace that makes us aware — in our repentance (being cut to the heart) — of the pardon of God made freely by Jesus Christ.

          Those who are justified receive assurance — the spirit speaks with our spirit that we are children of God — and if we work out our salvation with fear and trembling in response to sanctifying grace do go on to perfect love.

        2. First, I need you to know that I really do respect you and your teachings and thoughts. Having no formal Bible education myself, I do look to you and a few others from your blog as sort of teachers if you will. I have been studying the Bible for a lot of years on my own….but your insights usually, if not always, cause me to read and re-read again to see if I may have erred in my understanding.

          Having said this…..although I see the course of thought you are on…..and it certainly does not seem to be something necessarily wrong…..it just isn’t setting well within me. The first time I even heard the idea of prevenient grace was a few years ago. At that time I spent the next several months studying the writings of John in particular and countless hours simply meditating and pondering before God. The conclusions I finally came to peace with just don’t follow the same course you have explained to me.

          Again….using the Scriptures I previously posted…. doesn’t 1 John 5:1 states clearly that the cause of a person’s believing in Jesus Christ is that he was born again , which John had already told us is “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13) and is something necessary in order to even perceive the kingdom of God (John 3:3), let alone enter into it? For so many years now I have believed it to be unquestionable biblical truth of the natural man’s deadness in sin (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13), his need of a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26), and that man is a pile of bones needing to be breathed on by God to be brought to life (Ezekiel 37:3-7). I may be wrong….but it seems that you are saying is that God needed and therefore did… make man a little “better” or “partially alive” prior too and as a substitute for needing to be singularly resurrected.

          I know that you are busy…and I do not want to take up to much of your time so I understand and accept the explanations you have given without more unless you have some specific Scriptures that will speak your course and redirect my course of thought. I understand the work of God’s grace after we believe….I’m not having a hard time with that portion.

          Thanks for taking time out to share with me, John

        3. Duane, thank you for the kind words. Where I part company with you are in a couple places. First, I don’t read in 1 John 5:1 the assertion that you do:

          “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God …”

          I don’t think the intent of this verse is to explain how it is that people come to believe that Jesus is the Christ. For instance, demons and devils clearly believe Jesus is the Christ, but they are not born of God in the sense of being regenerate. So, I’m not persuaded that we can use 1 John 5:1 as a statement about the relationship between new birth and belief in Jesus Christ.

          I do think that it is grace that allows us to see and that is the cause of new birth, and grace alone. But God does open our eyes before he justifies us. Repentance itself (Psalm 51) is a response to grace that allows us to see ourselves in our true condition.

          As you say, you do not want to debate. Sorry I don’t have more time to be a better conversation partner.

          Tom Oden has written a good book on called The Transforming Power of Grace that gets into more of the argument than I have.

  3. I’ll see if I can get that book on kindle. Thanks, John. Just one more request if I may…just keep me in your prayers….even just one time….I’m trying to sort out a reformed/pentecostal/non-denom/self studying spiritual walk. I’m striving….and I stress striving….to know truth to the fullest I am capable.

    Thanks

    1. The pitfalls of living in Europe…..very limited book availability. But, I did find one of his books on kindle. Classic Christianity. I’ll check out the sample of it tonight. Have you heard of that book? I guess I’ll check and see if the base library can’t get it in for me. Thanks for the reference direction. No need to respond. Have a great night.

      1. Classic Christianity is Tom Oden’s systematic theology. It’s a good read, but definitely as heavy reading as you might expect a textbook to be.

        1. In the past year I’ve read The Essential Works of EM Bounds….Immanuel Velikovsky’s 2 books…..The Antiquities of Egypt, Greece, and Rome….The Antiquities of Rome and Jerusalem….the Books of Enoch….and A.D. 381 Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State by Charles Freeman. I’m trying to get a grip on the people of antiquities as well….kind of a picture of the whole and not just the small Scriptural glimpses. I so very much appreciate the author you suggested. I began reading the book I mentioned above last night. Of course I approached it with a bit of pre-existing skepticism and defensiveness….but before I even got out of the introduction I was completely disarmed and eager to read more! Thank you so much for the link below….I’ll check that out tonight. Thanks for actually caring….actually.

          Have a great night, John

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