The late, great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, said many times concerning the doctrines of free will which are commonly labeled Arminianism, that, “The doctrine of justification itself, as preached by an Arminian, is nothing but the doctrine of salvation by works.” In other words, Spurgeon believed, and quite passionately, that the gospel preached by those who hold that men have a free will that can choose Christ is nothing more than a salvation that is based upon works not upon faith in Christ alone.
Such a charge is not a light charge, for when one takes that which is the Gospel and distorts it into a salvation that is based upon human merit and law-keeping, he does not merely tarnish the Gospel, but he destroys it in its entirety. The apostles, for this reason, speak very harshly concerning those who do thus to the Gospel and admonish the church over and over throughout their letters to watch out for those who distort the Gospel in this way and to cast them out of their fellowship. And to demonstrate this great passion of the apostles for the purity of the Gospel, the apostle Paul speaking to the Galatian church regarding the Judaizers (those who sought to add the work of circumcision to the Gospel), wrote:
You [Galatians] were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? [i.e. The Judaizers did.] This persuasion [of the Judaizers] is not from him [i.e. God] who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump [i.e. a little distortion ruins the whole Gospel]. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine [i.e. the Gospel that I have preached], and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who [Judaizers] who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Gal. 5:7-12).
Now, the apostle makes it very clear of how he feels about the Judaizers adding the work of circumcision to the Gospel. He says that their doing thus, first, leavens and destroys the whole Gospel, in that, second, it removes the offense of the cross of Christ thereby demonstrating that it is a false gospel, and, third, that, because of this false teaching, he wishes that they who did this to the Gospel would castrate themselves! In other words, he is saying in not so many words, “I wish that they who wish to cut off the foreskin of your flesh and by it destroy the Gospel would instead keep cutting on their own genitals and leave you and the Gospel alone.”
Was this an overreaction by the apostle? For it is not as though these Judaizers were not preaching Christ crucified for sinners through belief and repentance, but they were simply adding the practice of circumcision to the mix. We can understand this, can we not? Just imagine if you grew up a Jew around the time of Christ and that the sign that God had given to your people concerning his covenant was circumcision. Would it not be difficult for you to let go of that which you grew up practicing? In addition, what is wrong with preserving a tradition here and there even though you have now believed in Christ and the Gospel?
Well, the “innocent” tradition and requirement of the law became wrong, because it became more than a tradition (which traditions have a tendency to do). These Judaizers (who preached Christ, mind you) believed that their tradition was such a wonderful and valid tradition that they sought to impose it on those who had not been raised a Jew–viz. the Gentiles. Therefore, in doing thus–in taking that which was not the Gospel and adding it to the Gospel–they created a false gospel. For when any work of man, be it a work of tradition, deed, or volition, is added to the Gospel, it destroys the Gospel. Why? Because the heart of the Gospel is this: “For God has done, what men weakened by the flesh could not do, by and through and for Jesus Christ” (cf. Rm. 8:3, 4). Therefore, if any deed of fleshly men is added to that which God has done through Christ, then, as the apostle told those who accepted circumcision, “Christ will be no advantage to you” (Gal. 5:2), because in doing thus they forfeit the righteousness that comes from God by seeking a righteousness that they can call their own (cf. Rm. 10:2-4).
It is in this light that we come back to the claim of Spurgeon, namely, “The doctrine of justification itself, as preached by an Arminian, is nothing but the doctrine of salvation by works.” If this is indeed true what Spurgeon claims, viz. that a free will gospel is salvation by works, then such a gospel must be treated as harshly and with the same vehemence that the apostle Paul treated the gospel of the Judaizers. So then the question remains, “Is a free will gospel really salvation by works? Is a free will gospel truly a false gospel?”
However, before this question is addressed, we need to first understand what the Gospel is and what it is not. It is very often the case that when we speak of the Gospel and what it is, we confuse it with the Gospel Call. For the Gospel is not, “Believe on Christ, and you will be saved,” neither is it, “Take up your cross and follow Christ,” nor is it, “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior, and let him into your heart”–all of these statements, whether rightly or wrongly, are Gospel calls, not the Gospel itself. The Gospel, however, is the entire corpus of Redemption. It is the magnum opus of God played out through his creation and climaxing in his glory. Since, therefore, the Gospel is the glorious composition of God’s glory manifested through the history of men, it cannot be summarized in one-sentence phrases. And it is for this reason that the apostle Paul, after stating that he is eager to preach the Gospel to the saints at Rome, spends sixteen chapters of his letter teaching the Gospel to the saints at Rome.
Therefore, when it is supposed that those who preach free will and those who do not preach free will share the same Gospel because they may share the same Gospel Call, it is a presumptive conclusion. For, since the Gospel Call is by design simple–for it is the initial call of men through the power of the Holy Spirit to believe upon Christ–men who share different gospels can certainly share the same Gospel Call (or ones that sound similar). Indeed, even a man who believes a false gospel but preaches a biblical Gospel Call can observe men come to faith and repentance in Christ. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is not confined by men, as some think he is, but he blows where he wishes, and he can blow through a heretic to save his child if he so desires.
Then it will be asked, “If men can be saved through the preaching of the Gospel Call in spite of a preacher’s false gospel, what is the problem, for men are saved regardless?” The problem is inherent in the question, for its asking demonstrates that we believe that the confession of men is the end of the Gospel, and that the Gospel Call, when backed by a false gospel, has no consequence. Despite this belief of ours, Scripture demonstrates that God and his glory are the end of the Gospel (2Cor. 4:4), and that the preaching of the Gospel, when placed in the hands of those who believe otherwise, becomes the work of peddlers and swindlers not of prophets and priests (cf. 2Cor. 2:17; 4:2). For when men believe that the chief end of the Gospel is the salvation of souls and not the glory of God, they will tamper with God’s Word for the sake of getting results. Therefore, those who think thus will do things such as reword the Gospel Call so as to make it less offensive and more accessible. For example, instead of preaching as Christ and the apostles did, viz. “Believe and repent!” they will change the call to, “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior, and ask him to come into your heart.” In doing so, they rip from the Gospel Call the immediate requirement for repentance for the sake of conning men into praying a prayer. Now, while it is indeed true that men have, by grace, been saved through such a distorted call, how many have responded to such a call only to walk away having never repented? What good is such a call and response if men indeed are going to be judged according to their works? (cf. Rm. 2:6).
There, indeed, is no benefit in such distortion, and the results of such distortion are only detrimental to the Body. For the apostle testifies of the effect to Gospel distortion in the Galatian church, writing, “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion [i.e. distortion of the Gospel] is not from him who calls you” (Gal. 5:8). In other words, by accepting this distorted gospel, the Galatian church, though elect by God, was hindered in obeying the truth. Their view of the Gospel directly affected the way that they lived, the way that they preached, and, most importantly, the way that they worshiped God in Christ. For, by accepting a works-based gospel, they reduced Jesus Christ from the Savior of their soul to the One who shortened the stepladder to God. For in adding one, single work to the Gospel, they declared that salvation is not from the Lord alone, but it is from the Lord plus human effort. In doing thus, they vested salvation not in God but in man, and thereby gained for themselves a cause for boasting. The Lord God despises such Gospel-manipulations and will judge those who place the glory for salvation upon men, for he will not give the glory that is due to him to another (cf. Is. 48:11).
So again we come to the question, “Is a free will gospel a false gospel in that it, as Spurgeon claimed, makes the Gospel a gospel of works?” The free will gospel indeed is a false gospel, for it does precisely the same thing to the Gospel that the Judaizers did to the Gospel with circumcision. For it takes the Gospel that is based solely on the work of the Triune God alone (cf. Rm. 8:1-4), and makes it so that any man can make his way to God if he so chooses.
How does a free will gospel do this? It does this by taking the Gospel Call, “Believe in Christ,” and it makes belief a work of man rather than a work of God. Now, it should be noted that no one will claim that men do not believe or that men do not have a will, but it is a question of ability. Yes, men must believe in Christ, but do men have the ability to believe apart from the work of God? And, yes, men do have a will, but do men have the ability to will themselves to God apart from God’s work? The proponent of a free will gospel will say, “Yes, for men’s wills are free.” Therefore they believe that if any man is going to be saved, he must exercise his free will and accept Christ–he must work his free will. Therefore, to them, Christ has met all men halfway, and men merely need to freely extend out their hand and grasp his.
The problem with such a notion, other than the fact that he takes the burden of Salvation off of Christ and places it upon the backs of men, is that Scripture declares that men’s wills are not only not free but that they are bound in slavery to sin. Because of the curse wrought in us by our father Adam, we and our wills are bound in service to another slavemaster–sin. And since we are thus, we can no more choose God than an elephant can choose to fly. For the apostle Paul writes of all men, “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God” (Rm. 3:10, 11). For, since all men are in such a state that they are blind to Christ and deaf to the Gospel and dead in their trespasses, no one can understand, and no one can seek for God. It is for this reason that our Lord and Savior says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44), and, “You must be born again [by the will of the Spirit]” (Jn. 3:7, 8). And it is for this reason that the apostle Paul concludes, “So then [salvation] depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy,” for, “He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rm. 9:16, 18).
However, the proponent of human free will comes in and says, “Surely these things are not true, for I know that I have the ability and power to choose or to reject God.” What a terrible and haughty declaration! You believe against the testimonies of God that you are able by your own fleshly ability to ascend to him by your will so as to bring Christ down to yourself! (cf. Rm. 10:6). Yes, you are right in saying that faith comes from hearing, but where does your hearing come from? Do you have ears on your own volition? Do you somehow hear as you claim that all men hear though Christ cries out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”? (Lk. 9:44). Yes, faith indeed comes from hearing, but the ability to hear comes from the spoken and creative word of Christ (cf. Rm. 10:17). Just as seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ comes from God who says, “Let light shine out of darkness” (cf. 2Cor. 4:4-6), so too does hearing comes from him who calls it into existence.
For this very reason, the apostle John writes concerning those who did not believe in Christ, though they had heard him preach and witnessed his miracles:
When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
….“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
….….and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
….“He has blinded their eyes
……..and hardened their heart,
….lest they see with their eyes,
……..and understand with their heart, and turn,
……..and I would heal them” (Jn. 12:36-10)
Lest what the apostle writes be missed, he says of them, “They could not believe.” Why? Because Christ had hidden himself from them and did not grant them eyes to see him or ears to hear him.
Therefore, it must be concluded that even our faith in Christ is gift from God (cf. Eph. 2:8). For if men cannot see Christ’s glory in their natural state and if men cannot hear the Gospel apart from the work of Christ, then faith must come from God’s work in granting men eyes and ears. For this reason, no man can boast in his own salvation (cf. Eph. 2:9; Rm. 3:21). Why? Because Christ is the Author and Finisher of our faith (cf. Heb. 12:2), so that in all things he might get the glory and that “no man might boast in the presence of God” (1Cor. 1:29), so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1Cor. 1:31).
Yet despite these declarations, the proponent of the free will of man persists. Why? Because of their hard-hearted ignorance and self-righteousness, so that what can be said of unbelieving Israel can be said of them: “For [they], being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rm. 10:3). They persist in their false doctrines and godless philosophies, because they refuse to submit to the Gospel that declares that God has done what men could never do (cf. Rm. 8:3). Therefore they praise themselves, not God, and they lead others into their pit of ignorance. They instead choose to keep for themselves a portion of the glory due to God, and thus they ruin the whole Gospel, for, as it is written, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9). Therefore God will judge them in their arrogance, for, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jm. 4:6).
If you are reading this and are by grace devastated that you have taken for yourself a portion of God’s glory for yourself, fear not, for as Spurgeon rightly said, “We are all born Arminians.” All men are born egocentric, and all presume that when they come to Christ they did so on their own accord. It is for this reason that the apostle Paul admonishes us, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rm. 12:2). Do not continue in worldly philosophies and what you in your ignorance and submission to false doctrine have believed, but repent from it and turn in praise to Christ who alone is the One who saves souls.
If you are a teacher of the church of God and have known these things and yet have remained obstinate, take heed lest you leave yourself with no room for repentance. Your doctrine of the free will of man is nothing but a works-based salvation with your will as the arm by which you pull yourself up to God. Are you so arrogant as to presume that God will have mercy on you in your works-based religion though he gave no mercy to Israel, his own people, who sought him by works? (cf. Rm. 9:31, 32). You, too, if you continue in your falsehood will stumble, as they did, over Christ the stumbling stone.
If you, by humility in grace, have already submitted yourself to these truths of God’s Gospel found in his Holy Scriptures, continue, dear brother or sister, in praising our Lord and Savior for the great Salvation which he alone has accomplished for us. Continue in this, and yet do not grow callous to the horrible distortion that is the free will gospel. It will be tempting (for tolerance has not wholly bypassed the church) to seek peace with those teachers who teach a free will since they may give a Gospel Call similar to your own, but do not be deceived, for this abomination is no more damning than that the distortion of the Judaizers. The free will gospel preaches justification by works, and it is an attack by the Adversary upon the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Do not associate with those who are hardened in their free will distortion, and by no means presume that you can labor with them in the Gospel. For they preach a Gospel that is a false gospel, and their methods for preaching are the same as peddlers and swindlers. You will be wearied by their manipulation of souls, and you will see them turn the Gospel of our Lord into a sales pitch.
However, in spite of these hardened teachers, there are many of God’s people who have been deceived in their ignorance. These, unlike false teachers, do not need disassociation, but they need love in rebuke and knowledge. Show them with love and patience, as the apostle Paul did with the Galatians, the error of their beliefs, and admonish them to understand the greatness of the grace of God demonstrated in his Gospel so that they might be sanctified in truth. They may full well be sheep led astray by a vicious pastor, and they may need time, as we all have, to, by the Spirit, submit fully to the righteousness that comes from God alone.
May God be glorified and his people be sanctified by the pure and unadulterated proclamation of the Gospel of his glory and grace. Amen.