"Barely Christian" – R.C. Sproul on Arminianism

Image of Willing to Believe: Understanding the Role of the Human Will in Salvation
by R. C. Sproul
Baker Books 2018
Paperback 240

I first encountered the term “High Calvinism” when I read Lewis Chafer’s systematic theology. This term is a bit old-fashioned now, of course. If someone is a “High Calvinist,” it means he’s very Reformed in his soteriology. This surely described R.C. Sproul!

In a book entitled Willing to Believe: Understanding the Role of the Human Will in Salvation, Sproul provided a short historical theology of this topic by examining nine different theologians and their soteriological positions. In this excerpt, Sproul frames one part of this important issue:1

This classic issue between Augustinian theology and all forms of semi-Pelagianism focuses on one aspect of the order of salvation (ordo salutis): What is the relationship between regeneration and faith? Is regeneration a monergistic or synergistic work? Must a person first exercise faith in order to be born again? Or must rebirth occur before a person is able to exercise faith? Another way to state the question is this: Is the grace of regeneration operative or cooperative?

Monergistic regeneration means regeneration is accomplished by a single actor, God. It means literally a “one working.” Synergism, on the other hand, refers to a work that involves the actions of two or more parties. It is a co-working. All forms of semi-Pelagianism assert some form of synergism in the work of regeneration. Usually God’s assisting grace is seen as a necessary ingredient, but it is usually dependent on human cooperation for its efficacy.

The Reformers taught not only that regeneration does precede faith but also that it must precede faith. Because of the moral bondage of the unregenerate sinner, he cannot have faith until he is changed internally by the operative, monergistic work of the Holy Spirit. Faith is regeneration’s fruit, not its cause.

According to semi-Pelagianism regeneration is wrought by God but only in those who have first responded in faith to him. Faith is seen not as the fruit of regeneration, but as an act of the will cooperating with God’s offer of grace.

Evangelicals are so called because of their commitment to the biblical and historical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Because the Reformers saw sola fide as central and essential to the biblical gospel, the term evangelical was applied to them. Modern evangelicals in great numbers embrace the sola fide of the Reformation, but have jettisoned the sola gratia that undergirded it …

I agree with Packer and Johnston2 that Arminianism contains un-Christian elements in it and that their view of the relationship between faith and regeneration is fundamentally un-Christian. Is this error so egregious that it is fatal to salvation? People often ask if I believe Arminians are Christians. I usually answer, “Yes, barely.” They are Christians by what we call a felicitous inconsistency.

What is this inconsistency? Arminians affirm the doctrine of regeneration by faith alone. They agree that we have no meritorious work that counts towards our justification, that our justification rests solely on the righteousness and merits of Christ, that sola fide means justification is by Christ alone, and that we must trust not in our own works, but in Christ’s work for our salvation. In all this they differ from Rome on crucial points.

Packer and Johnston note that later Reformed theology, however, condemned Arminianism as a betrayal of the Reformation and in principle as a return to Rome. They point out that Arminianism “in effect turned faith into a meritorious work.”

We notice that this charge is qualified by the words “in effect.” Usually Arminians deny that their faith is a meritorious work. If they were to insist that faith is a meritorious work, they would explicitly be denying justification by faith alone. The Arminian acknowledges that faith is something a person does. It is a work, though not a meritorious one. Is it a good work? Certainly it is not a bad work. It is good for a person to trust in Christ and Christ alone for his or her salvation. Since God commands us to trust in Christ, when we do so we are obeying this command.

But all Christians agree that faith is something we do. God does not do the believing for us. We also agree that our justification is by faith insofar as faith is the instrumental cause of our salvation. All the Arminian wants and intends to assert is that man has the ability to exert the instrumental cause of faith without first being regenerated. This position clearly negates sola gratia, but not necessarily sola fide.

Then why say that Arminianism “in effect” makes faith a meritorious work? Because the good response people make to the gospel becomes the ultimate determining factor in salvation. I often ask my Arminian friends why they are Christians and other people are not. They say it is because they believe in Christ while others do not. They I inquire why they believe and others do not. “Is it because you are more righteous than the person who abides in unbelief?” They are quick to say no. “Is it because you are more intelligent?” Again the answer is negative. They say that God is gracious enough to offer salvation to all who believe and that one cannot be saved without that grace.

But this grace is cooperative grace. Man in his fallen state must reach out and grasp this grace by an act of the will, which is free to accept or reject this grace. Some exercise the will rightly (or righteously), while others do not. When pressed on this point, the Arminian finds it difficult to escape the conclusion that ultimately his salvation rests on some righteous act of the will he has performed. He has “in effect” merited the merit of Christ, which differs only slightly from the view of Rome.

Notes

1 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: Understanding the Role of the Human Will in Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 22-27.  

2 Sproul is referring to an introduction J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnson wrote for an unnamed edition of Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will, which Sproul quoted in his own book. For sake of space, I removed these quotations for this excerpt.   

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TylerR's picture

Editor

And now, with Bro. Barkman's last comment, we've come full circle to the original article, where Sproul says regeneration preceding faith is the essence of Reformed theology! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

ScottS's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Yes, but...if regeneration is the impartation of life, it must precede faith in Christ and love for God.  Spiritually dead sinners neither desire Christ, nor are they able to love God.

Of course, that's what this whole discussion in this thread has been about, whether "impartation of life" (regeneration) is needed for faith, or whether God turn's a sinner's heart to faith (I use the term illumination) so that faith is needed for "impartation of life." I believe the Scriptures testify to faith preceding life; God can make even a "dead sinner" hear and believe. Others believe as you do.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Paul Henebury's picture

I believe that's because logic is being placed above Scripture

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

 

Paul Henebury wrote:

 

Perhaps you  would delineate salvation from justification and regeneration with indwelling?

 

Yes, and also maybe how these distinctions argue one way or the other?

 

That's not meant as a challenge. Mostly just curious.

The point of all this is to arrive at an order which best represents what the Scriptures actually say.  From my point of view calling must come first.  But then we must understand that regeneration cannot occur without receiving the Spirit, and the Spirit is received through faith (Gal. 3:14).  All agree that justification is after faith.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Larry's picture

Moderator

But then we must understand that regeneration cannot occur without receiving the Spirit

I can't help but notice the lack of Scripture for your first assertion. Is there a reason? 

Paul Henebury's picture

Honestly Larry, how do you suppose a person is regenerated without the Spirit?  But since you asked, see John 3:6-8.  

And just in case this is needed I copy here what I pointed out earlier from Murray:

Here's John Murray:

A man must surely be born again before he can be sanctified.  Regeneration is the inception of being made holy and sanctification is the continuance." - Redemption Accomplished & Applied, 80

See how Murray equates being born again with regeneration?

Again,

God effects a change which is radical and all-pervasive... a change which is nothing less than a new creation... This, in a word, is regeneration." - Ibid, 96

And finally,

Regeneration is the beginning of all saving grace in us, and all saving grace in exercise on our part proceeds from the fountain of regeneration.  We are not born-again by faith or repentance or conversion; we repent and believe because we have been regenerated." - Ibid, 103

Now I suppose that you might argue that being born of the Spirit and being indwelt by the Spirit can be separated somehow, but I don't know how.  

If I have answered your question adequately perhaps you would answer mine.  I am just interested in your theological take since you stress the need for precision.  We don't necessarily have to agree.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Paul, thanks for the quote from John Murray clearly stating that regeneration precedes saving faith.  How can you then use Murray to support faith before regeneration?  I must be missing something.

G. N. Barkman

Larry's picture

Moderator

Honestly Larry, how do you suppose a person is regenerated without the Spirit?

I don't know because I wouldn't argue that. My only point was that in a discussion based on Scripture, there wasn't any supporting that point, and it was tied to Gal 3:14 which may not be speaking about the same thing. I perhaps said that in an indelicate way so I apologize for that.

See how Murray equates being born again with regeneration?

I totally agree. Regeneration is the giving of spiritual life to the spiritually dead. The question is whether that is the same as indwelling or the "reception of the Spirit" in Gal 3. Or is it the same as effectual calling as some say?

Now I suppose that you might argue that being born of the Spirit and being indwelt by the Spirit can be separated somehow, but I don't know how.  

The argument would be that indwelling is the result of salvation or regeneration. One is indwelt because they have been regenerated. The Spirit takes up residence in those that are his. Again, this is a logical order, to a temporal one.

 

Theologically, in terms of precision, I think that regeneration follows faith because faith leads to life and I don't think there are two kinds of life. So my ordo, on that particular point is effectual call (an enabling to believe), faith and repentance, regeneration. In preaching and teaching, and theologically, it is little different since I believe that that there is a sovereign, unilateral, and effectual work of the Spirit prior to belief. I call it effectual calling (the call of 1 Cor 1) while others call it regeneration. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

I don't see why it should be thought difficult to posit a distinction between the Holy Spirit's operation and His indwelling.  Do we not have a number of Biblical examples of the Holy Spirit acting upon someone in a way that is disconnected from indwelling?  (Samson and King Saul come immediately to mind.)  Surely it is not difficult to posit an act of regeneration, which enables the exercise of faith, which is followed by justification and the subsequent indwelling of the Spirit?

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Paul, thanks for the quote from John Murray clearly stating that regeneration precedes saving faith.  How can you then use Murray to support faith before regeneration?  I must be missing something.

Fair question, GN,

I first used these quotes to show JohnBrian that Calvinists do equate regeneration and the new birth (not simply illumination).  I copied it just in case we went down that road again.  I highly respect Murray, but I don't agree with him on the order of salvation, and was only trying to properly represent his position.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

I totally agree with your answer.  In the question of regeneration preceding faith the exact meaning of regeneration is crucial.  If I were being pedantic I would also define "sealing" (Eph. 1:13), since that is what joins reception and indwelling of the Spirit.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

I don't see why it should be thought difficult to posit a distinction between the Holy Spirit's operation and His indwelling.  Do we not have a number of Biblical examples of the Holy Spirit acting upon someone in a way that is disconnected from indwelling?  (Samson and King Saul come immediately to mind.)  Surely it is not difficult to posit an act of regeneration, which enables the exercise of faith, which is followed by justification and the subsequent indwelling of the Spirit?

But your examples are not good ones since they are not referring to regeneration; nor indeed the ordo.  For the rest I refer you to my previous arguments.  Summed up it is, Regeneration is the new birth through receiving the Spirit, which is based on a decision in our favor (Justification), which in turn is predicated on faith.  The call must be enough to convince the elect, but it cannot be the new birth itself.  To say so not only reverses Scripture, but it subverts God's justice, since it has God release the guilty before they have been declared innocent.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Paul, I think I understand what you are saying.  What's interesting to me, is that your ordo is as much based upon logic as mine.  We both claim Scriptural warrant, but each questions the validity of the other's use of Scripture.  We both believe our ordo is demanded because of logic.  Check mate.

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

Well, I am content to leave it there.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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