A Conversation with a Calvinist Friend

The post before last was about “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” which was a response by several non-Calvinist, prominent SBC leaders to what they saw as the growth of what they labeled “New Calvinism.” The “new Calvinism” is understood by the authors of the “statement” to be a more subversive form of Calvinism that seeks to, somewhat secretly, change the traditional identity of many SBC churches through non-traditional (and ethically questionable) methods, including preying on the lack of theological education of many lay persons. The statement, it seemed to me, was a way to give language to the view that many already held, but lacked the training to properly express or defend.

While I acknowledged that the statement was not worded the best it could have been, nor was the timing of its release ideal, I nevertheless was largely in agreement with it. The statement caused a bit of a flutter on the internet, as I described in that post, which included accusations that it was semi-Pelagian. I maintained that either it was not semi-Pelagian, if they meant the heresy condemned in 529, or if it was semi-Pelagian, it was so only in the sense of less than full Augustinian (and thus still not fitting with the heresy condemned in 529).

By and large the controversy seems to have died down a little bit, though likely will reprise itself again. Away from the rhetorical attacks, and the self-affirming words present in some areas, I do think that some useful dialogue may have come out of it. Contrary to what some may have inferred, I don’t hold anything against my Calvinist brethren. I even hold out the possibility that they may be right; I don’t think that is very likely, but it would be too arrogant of me to assume that I know, beyond all doubt, that one group is right or another is absolutely wrong, especially given the positive impact they have made historically. These things should be approached with humility, openness, and clarity. In that vein, at least I hope in that vein, I’d like to post below a conversation I had on the blog of one of the first persons to suggest that the “Statement” might be semi-Pelagian, Chris Roberts. Christ and I went to seminary (or more correctly “Divinity School”) together and are friends. I think he does some really great stuff over at his blog “Seek the Holy” (yes it is rather Calvinist in most of the posts, but still a good blog) and has been a model for how a Calvinist should act, both with regard to purpose/mission and openness, in the SBC, which is still overwhelmingly not Calvinist. At any rate, if you want the conversation in its raw form, click here to visit that page. Otherwise, I’ve cleaned up a version below (just for clarity sake) and reformatted it to read more like a dialogue. I think it has brought some good clarity. I’ll start it by reprinting the post he had, and then having the written conversation.

The Original Post

Monergism recently posted a link to an article by R. C. Sproul titled The Pelagian Captivity of the Church. Read his description of semi-Pelagianism:

Now what is called semi-Pelagianism, as the prefix “semi” suggests, was a somewhat middle ground between full-orbed Augustinianism and full-orbed Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism said this: yes, there was a fall; yes, there is such a thing as original sin; yes, the constituent nature of humanity has been changed by this state of corruption and all parts of our humanity have been significantly weakened by the fall, so much so that without the assistance of divine grace nobody can possibly be redeemed, so that grace is not only helpful but it’s absolutely necessary for salvation. While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t. That little island Augustine wouldn’t even recognize as an atoll in the South Pacific. He said it’s a mythical island, that the will is enslaved, and that man is dead in his sin and trespasses.


Trey: [While, I don’t know that semi-Pelagian is a fair term for a view that is just not Augustinian, we’ll use it] We don’t think there is an island of righteousness. Rather, part of the image of God is the ability to causally affect the world, to make volitional decisions that have future impact, i.e. to be genuinely free to choose something. This weakened, as opposed to “enslaved,” will is not a measure of righteousness, but is a morally neutral faculty of our humanity (like the sense of smell, or the ability to reason mathematically). We can’t necessarily see the full impact of our decisions, or the merit they may or may not achieve and when it comes to moral decisions, we always choose wrongly and that is the result of Original Sin.

The salvation offered is not a moral decision, though. It is akin to a drowning man surrendering his struggle so that he may be saved. On that account, it’s not even necessarily that we choose anything. Rather, it’s that we accept our inability to choose and simply stop actively refusing/resisting. On this account grace is something that is resistible, but not something that may be chosen. That seems to fit well with how I understand Scripture, has never been condemned as heresy, and I am fairly certain is what most of the signers of this statement would agree with. God still does all of the saving.

Going back to the drowning man scenario, it may be a question of whether the drowning victim willingly stops trying to save himself/stops struggling (the position of the “statement”) or whether the life-saver incapacitates the drowning man before dragging him to shore (a more calvinist sense). In neither case can the newly saved man claim any credit at all, it all goes to the one who actually saved his life. It’s an imperfect analogy, but might be more helpful than Sproul’s misunderstanding of the position of most of us who are neither Calvinist nor Arminian (there is no “island of righteousness” from which to act, we are vicious to the core until God transforms that core).

Chris: [When you say] “This weakened, as opposed to ‘enslaved,’ will is not a measure of righteousness, but is a morally neutral faculty of our being human (like the sense of smell, or the ability to reason mathematically),” [I see a problem].

On the one hand, what Sproul refers to as an island of righteousness is not so much righteousness based on prior merit, but a capacity for doing righteous. It is good and righteous for people to repent of sins and confess the name of Jesus. If I am able to do this of myself, then I retain the ability to do a righteous act.

As for a morally neutral faculty, I’d be even more concerned with that phrase as it is much closer to full Pelagianism. You clarify yourself some when you say, “When it comes to moral decisions, we always choose wrongly and that is the result of Original Sin.” but then I would want to ask, in what sense is the will morally neutral if original sin always leads us to choose wrongly?

When you say that salvation is not a moral decision, I think we need to clarify what is required of us in salvation. More is required of us than simple surrender. It does require a work of the will to turn from sin and turn to the righteousness of Christ, confessing our sin and embracing by faith the work of Jesus and the glory of God. Doing this is good, and doing this is impossible for fallen man.

[Also your claim that] “we accept our inability to choose and simply stop actively refusing/resisting” [as distinct from freely choosing to accept Grace in your human capacity] isn’t a valid distinction. We cannot say accepting our inability is something different than making a choice. How do I accept my inability unless I choose to accept my inability? A work of the will is still required. If I accept my need for Christ because of my inability, then I have chosen to yield myself to Christ.

[You conclude by saying] “it may be a question of whether the drowning victim willingly stops trying to save himself/stops struggling (the position of the “statement”) or whether the life-saver incapacitates the drowning man before dragging him to shore (a more calvinist sense).”

The first position still requires a choice, as I’ve already noted. To willingly stop trying to save myself is to choose to stop trying to save myself. It is a work of the will, a work that requires recognizing that I need saving, a work of the will that fallen humanity can never perform.

As for the Calvinist position, the drowning man does not need to be incapacitated before being saved because he is no longer a drowning man: he has already drowned, he is already dead, he is already incapacitated. To be rescued he must be brought back to life.

[As a sidenote,] one thing that came to mind a few times as I read your comment is that some of the things you say sound like pietist beliefs such as found in the Keswick movement – surrender, yield, let-go-and-let-God type of approach to salvation and sanctification. Would this be correct?


Trey: [First to address your sidenote], it’s difficult to argue that Keswick has not had influence among baptists, particularly given its connection to R.A. Torrey, D. L. Moody and Billy Graham. How much of it I’ve imbibed? Well I haven’t actually studied to movement enough to know exactly how much of it has influenced me or not. It’s likely, given what I have read, it has influenced me greatly. I would add as a caveat that I believe John Stott spoke at one of the Keswick conventions at some point and it really seems to be much broader than Calvinist or non-Calvinist in its theology.

[Now moving on to the substance of your response, let me clarify.] I’m saying it is not possible, on your own, to repent of sins and confess Jesus. Such a step is only available after initial surrender. This is the key distinction, Calvinism preaches an irresistible Grace that overwhelms and accomplishes its goal for the predestined elect. What I am talking about is a resistible Grace that, once it is no longer resisted, functions the same way as the Calvinist understanding of Grace. I think the key distinction between the position being described by Sproul and my own is that Sproul seems to think that I actively choose this grace. That is not the case. Like the Calvinist, I hold that it is God who has chosen me and sent his grace to me.

The only “choice” is whether to exercise the will, and thus be unable to choose it because by that active action we are working against what Grace fundamentally is, or whether to recognize the futility of our own ability surrender the will over to God.

I do think I make a valid distinction between stopping to exercise the will and actively engaging the will to choose grace. It’s a difference between active and passive. The Arminian perspective accepts the active role of choosing God’s grace and thus, in order to avoid semi-pelagianism, must add in the extra step of “prevenient grace,” a concept I would maintain is completely alien to Scripture and smacks more of a holdover from medieval Roman Catholic understandings of Baptism than the Protestant idea of Grace.

Sproul’s perspective seems to assume that their can be no passive function of the will as distinct from the active function of the will. So Sproul denies both, while the Arminian accepts only the active function of the will after prevenient grace. The key difference is whether there can conceivably be a distinction made between an active and passive will.

In both my perspective and the Calvinist one, God chooses you first and last, and you don’t choose. Yes, I would accept that we are dead, in a sense, but also alive in a sense, though only alive in our death. The reason I chose the drowning man analogy, however, is this: when a man who was drowning is rescued, do any of his actions deserve merit? It doesn’t matter if he was knocked unconscious (the Calvinist view) or merely gave up struggling (my view), once the rescue has been accomplished no one looks back and says he did anything to contribute to that rescue. He didn’t. His was a passive role and if he had taken an active role he either would have saved himself, or he would have only hastened his own demise. Thus, in my view, if you are saved it is entirely God’s doing, if you are damned, it is entirely your own fault. The Calvinist perspective, however, can only (logically) accept a double predestination view. If you are saved or damned, it is because God saved or damned you. If that is not the case, either it is not Calvinist or else it declares God somehow impotent to save others.

Chris: But am I hearing you right that in your perspective, what begins the process of surrender is still something that originates in you? I will not be saved unless and until I surrender, etc., and if I never surrender, I will never be saved.

As for the merit to the drowning man, he doesn’t deserve merit for being saved, but it remains the case that he was at least partially for his rescue because of his action. Had he done other than what he did, he would have drowned. Because of what he did, it was possible for him to be saved.

Trey: Let me draw possibly another analogy to possibly help clarify. It’s like a fish swimming against the stream. The fish is resisting the current that’s all around it swimming towards what is his death. It’s only when the fish stops resisting the current that its force overwhelms him and takes him far away from that death and brings life. The fish did not do it, only stopped resisting the current already in place. So I don’t think it originates with you. While with the drowning man his inaction made it possible for his rescue, he was not, in fact, responsible for any portion of his rescue. His only possible action would have resulted in the failed rescue. So, as I’ve said, on my view it is entirely possible to resist grace, but it is not possible to save yourself or even, really, choose grace. Now while that may not be a Dortian Calvinist position, I don’t think it can be called heretical and it certainly has grounding in Scripture. That’s really what I’m trying to say. It’s not that I’m necessarily right or you’re wrong, but that my view is, nevertheless, a valid perspective.

Chris: Why does the fish stop resisting?

Trey: The fish stops resisting (now I’m really going to stretch the analogy) because its eyes were  opened to the genuine possibility, or even likelihood that it was going the wrong direction despite every instinct it had (by the Holy Spirit). Then it had to choose to either stop resisting or continue to follow its instinct. When/if the fish chose to stop resisting, it began to receive some sort of confirmation (now the analogy is getting really thin) along the way, though it was only assured it was correct once it reached the destination at the end of the current into the pool of water (or Grace). Again the key distinction is that, for the fish, even once the eyes are opened the stream (Grace) can continue to be resisted.

Chris: [When you say] “The fish stops resisting… because its eyes were  opened… that it was going the wrong direction,” that’s where I’d see the distinction between what you propose and semi-Pelagianism, or even Article 2. The semi-Pelagian would argue there is no need for someone to open our eyes, at least on the matter of changing directions/being saved, because our eyes are already capable of seeing and we are already capable of choosing. But if the argument is that no, God must open our eyes, God must make it possible for us to see, then we move away from semi-Pelagianism.

Trey: Then I think we can agree I’m not semi-Pelagian, but I would posit that one can hold to the statement (including Article 2) and accept this, even if it is not made explicit in the document. There, I think, is where one of the problems of the document actually is: it’s wording was not very careful. Still, that alone does not make it semi-Pelagian.

Well that’s our conversation. If you’ve managed to read the whole thing (I’m realizing how verbose I can be, and wow!), then what do you think?


3 thoughts on “A Conversation with a Calvinist Friend”

  1. Trey,

    The fish analogy really takes the cake. 🙂 Seriously, for Chris to relate our position in Article Two as to our belief that we do not think our eyes need to be opened is preposterous. We clearly state in our Denial of that Ariticle;

    “While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.”[Emphasis Mine]

    Our position has always been the clear presentation of the Gospel message from Scripture is what illuminates the darkened eyes of the fish to open them to the Grace of God This is done only by the drawing of the Holy Spirit.

    1. Thanks so much. Though, in fairness, I think Chris was looking to clarify my personal position at the point he asked about who opens the fish’s eyes and not necessarily that of the statement. Though my position is in fact the same as the statement. Thanks for your kind comment.

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