At my new job site with the security company for which I work, I have the privilege of working with a brother of Christ who comes from a Church of God denominational background, and who is presently pursuing a Master of Divinity in Christian Counseling. We have had some wonderful conversations the past two days (and will likely have many more in the future, Lord willing), and I have little reason not to believe that this man is a child of God. He loves the Lord and his Word, and he strives for holiness and likely shares Christianity with more unbelievers than I do.
However, despite these admirable and godly traits, this brother is a full-fledged Arminian and believes the very doctrines that the Synod of Dordt denounced. And while I am convinced that the Spirit of God dwells in this man, I have felt it my duty to share with him at least some differing views on his beliefs since this man aspires to one day be a full-time minister to God’s flock. Here are a few of my thoughts that I have shared with him.
The Problem with a Free Will
In our conversations, the topic that came up the most is that of the “free will of man.” This notion comes chiefly from the exhortations in Scripture to believe upon Christ and to repent by obeying his commandments. It is presumed from these exhortations that if something is commanded by God that it is by necessity possible for men to obey those commands by their own volition apart from any supernatural work of God. This is a natural presumption, and I am sure that most of us who have come to Christ have believed this very thing at one point in our walk with Christ.
The reason that it is such a natural presumption is because we by our nature are radically self-centered. We by nature presume that what is true can be surmised by our five senses, and if we do not detect these things by our senses, we naturally believe that they do not exist. And this is precisely how the doctrines of free will come about, because men in their self-centered state feel as though they are free to make their own decisions, and thus when one follows Christ, he believes that he came to Christ on his own accord not that Christ had by the Spirit drawn that person to himself.
We, therefore, should not be shocked or dismayed when those who come to Christ think that they did so by their own free volition, but we should understand how natural this is and understand that it is an opportunity for instruction and correction not for division and labeling heretics. Much too often we presume that men have received right doctrine and have railed against it, when in fact they may have never been posed with the right doctrine before and may have never been given opportunity to change their minds and hearts accordingly. We must assume this in love with those who are merely new acquaintances and therefore not be so quick to label them as heterodox when they might have never been confronted with the truth. Those who are leaders and teachers in the church are another matter entirely, for they profess to know the Scriptures and also lead and teach others, and therefore they must be dealt with as false, for they have either, one, understood the teachings of the Scriptures and railed against them, or, two, they have not understood the teachings of the Scriptures and therefore should not be in a position of leadership or instruction in the church.
When dealing with those who are not teachers in the church, I believe that it is fitting to deal with the false notion of free will in the same manner which the apostle Paul deals with it in his epistle to the Roman church. In the epistle, the apostle Paul begins by demonstrating the foul, natural state of men apart from God. He demonstrates this both with the Gentiles (Rm. 1:18-2:16) and the Jews (Rm. 2:17-3:8), so that the conclusion to which his reader comes is that neither group is better off than the other, for both are under the slavery of sin apart from God (v. 3:9), and that, “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God” (vv. 3:10, 11). Therefore, all men apart from God are foul and self-seeking, and thus no one is self-justified by the law, for all men are transgressors of the law and are condemned by it.
Since, therefore, men are in such a state under sin and the law that they cannot be righteous, they cannot understand the ways of God, and they cannot seek God, God must do a supernatural work in them before they can be righteous before him, understand him, and seek after him. This is the reason why the apostle begins the next section of his discourse, writing, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law … the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (vv. 3:21, 22; translation mine). This is the same concept with which the apostle begins his discourse in v. 1:17, namely that, “The righteousness of God has been revealed from faith for faith,” or, in other words, from the initiatory and perfect faith of Jesus Christ imputed to those who would have faith. This notion is seen elsewhere in the apostle’s writings that faith is gift (Eph. 2:8), and therefore it is concluded in both instances where this doctrine is shown that its purpose is so that all boasting is excluded (cf. Rm. 3:27; Eph. 2:8).
The problem with the doctrine of free will is that it does not view faith as gift from God, but it views faith as a personal decision about the Good News of Christ without any prompting or revelation from the Spirit of God. It believes that any man can hear the Gospel and believe it in his natural state, though the Scriptures declare that men are blind, dead, and enslaved to sin apart from the work of God (cf. 2Cor. 2:1-6). Therefore, since those who believe in the free will of man believe that any man can believe the Gospel on his own accord, personal boasting is not excluded, for a faith that is based solely upon the freedom of man is a faith that can be boasted in. Contrarily, a faith that comes from the work of the Spirit of God alone cannot be boasted in, for we who believe did not come to Christ, but Christ came to us and removed the veils from our eyes so that we could see Christ as he truly is and believe on him (cf. 2Cor. 3:12-18).
It is for this reason that Christ tells Nicodemus that he must be born again by the Spirit and that the Spirit blows and regenerates whomever he wishes, and why the New Birth by the Spirit of God precedes the declaration, “Whosoever believes on Christ will not perish” (Jn. 3:16). For new birth must precede faith so that, as the apostle declares later in his letter, “[Salvation] depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (Rm. 9:16).
The reality is that men do have a will, but it is not a free will. For because of our creaturely state and the ordinance of God, no man can be free. We, however, perceive that we are free, because we make decisions every day, however, in reality, every decision that we make is dependent upon our slavemaster. For the apostle declares that all men are slaves, and the matter is not whom you choose as your slavemaster, but which slavemaster has chosen you. For, as no earthly slave has subjected himself willingly to his master, so no man has subjected himself willingly to sin or to God. For all of us have been born into subjection to our slavemaster sin by the deed of our father Adam (Rm. 5:12-21), and the only way that we are released from our slavery to sin is to be redeemed (i.e. purchased from slavery) by Christ and brought under the slavery of God (cf. Rm. 6:22). And it matters not our religious background or our desire to keep the law of God for life (cf. Rm. 7:7-25), but it matters that what we could not do in our slavery to sin and fleshliness, God has done through the emancipating work of Christ and his Spirit (cf. Rm. 8:1-4).
However, we who understand these things must realize that this understanding of the work of God is not a part of justification, but it is a part of sanctification. For no man understands perfectly his state before he comes to Christ, but he merely knows the command, “Believe and repent.” However, this understanding of the will of man is a necessity in our sanctification, for through it the fruits of humility and gratefulness are produced, and our God is a jealous God, and he will not give his glory to another (cf. Is. 48:11). Therefore, I exhort you, brothers who understand these things, to realize that all are Arminians until they have been rightly sanctified, and to be patient and loving to your brothers who believe that their wills are free, and to instruct them in love as to the true nature of the Gospel.