Summary: In the movie “Calvinist” several interlocutors take the position of irresistible grace, which they take to mean that regeneration logically precedes faith in the process of salvation. In this article, I demonstrate that they commit several logical fallacies in their argumentation. I show that the text used to support irresistible grace does not fulfill the necessary conditions for irresistible grace. Moreover, I argue that the Calvinists misrepresent the Arminian position as if it was Semi-Pelagianism. Further, I also show that the commenters present a false dilemma regarding models of grace. Finally, I highlight that they inappropriately appeal to mystery regarding God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility when a biblically faithful and viable model (Molinism) is available and left undiscussed. For these reasons I conclude that the commenters are unsuccessful in establishing the irresistible grace position and the particular order of salvation they assert.
The movie Calvinist includes five sections, each detailing one letter of the “TULIP” acronym. This article is the fourth of a five-part series, each in response to a particular doctrine. The aim of this article is to provide defeaters to the irresistible grace position and to demonstrate that Molinism can provide a more theologically, philosophically, and biblically faithful model.
The Calvinist Ordo Salutis
The order of salvation (ordo salutis) is perhaps the most controversial doctrine in Reformed theology. With this in mind, R. C. Sproul states,
The greatest difference between Calvinist theology and all other theology has to do with the order of salvation. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? What comes first, faith or regeneration? Ask 99 evangelicals which comes first: They say, ‘Well you gotta have faith in order to be born again.1
I partly agree with Sproul’s assessment, that the order of salvation is one of the fundamental differences between Calvinism and other systematic theologies. That being said, I believe the Calvinists have swung the pendulum to an extreme position thereby placing their soteriology firmly in the stratum of incoherence. Before demonstrating this, it is important to define terms.
Sproul defines regeneration as:
. . . a sovereign work of God. In other words, God exercises His power and His authority over you in His time and His way to bring about the regeneration of your heart. . . regeneration is not just God standing apart from us and trying to persuade us to come to Him, but God coming inside of us. He invades the soul, because there has to be a substantive change in the heart before we can come to Christ. In order for us to desire the things of God, we have to be made alive, and to be made alive requires a sovereign act of God.2
Sproul’s definition of regeneration and his assertion that regeneration precedes faith evokes an interesting question: If regeneration (being brought to life spiritually) precedes faith, then in what way can one consistently affirm this position while also maintaining that salvation is by faith (Eph. 2:8-9)? Later, we shall demonstrate the inconsistency of this view, but before we do, it is essential to point out that the terms salvation and “born again” are often conflated with regeneration and the Calvinist movie proves to be no exception. To illustrate the point, Oliphint states, “That’s what regeneration is, it’s being born again.”3So, Sproul and Oliphint ostensibly appear to be claiming that one has to be regenerated/saved (spiritually born again) in order to have faith but also one has to possess faith in order to be justified. In the Reformed ordo salutis (order of salvation) regeneration precedes faith and faith precedes justification. Nothing Sproul, Oliphint, and the others have said, is indicative that they are holding to a different logical order of salvation. So, hereafter, we proceed with this assumption.
Issue 1: Picayunish Proof Texts
In the movie Calvinist, Ezekiel 36:26b is cited in an attempt to support the “regeneration precedes faith” position as well as irresistible grace. In this passage God says:4
and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.5
In response, there are some issues with their usage of this particular passage, which demonstrate that it does not lend itself to either the Calvinist ordo salutis or irresistible grace. First, the context of the passage is prophetic and is about the return of the people of Israel to their homeland in the last days (Ezek. 36:17) while undergoing moral and religious reform. It should not be taken as a broad sweeping text to apply to every Christian, everywhere for the reason that it specifically refers to the people of Israel who were to be exiled (Ezek. 36:19). Second, and most importantly, the passage does not fulfill the sufficient conditions for it to denote irresistible grace—God’s causally determining an affirmative response to His grace. A sufficient condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that, if satisfied, guarantees that S obtains. For instance, a sufficient condition for receiving an A in Philosophy 101 is that all work turned in received the grade A. But it is not a necessary condition for the reason that one can receive an A in philosophy 101 without having all A’s on graded work. On that same note, in order for a passage to fulfill a sufficient condition for irresistible grace, it would have to show that God metaphysically drags a person to salvation but the text is completely silent on this matter and so does not fulfill any sufficient conditions. Thus it is hermeneutically flawed to use it as a proof-text to denote irresistible grace.
Further, there are other passages in Ezekiel which prima facie contradict the Calvinist interpretation of Ezekiel 36:26b. For instance, God says to Israel:
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. ‘Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? ‘For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Therefore, repent and live.’6
Notice that this passage depicts God’s pleading with Israel to repent of their sins prior to receiving a new heart. Therefore, if we were to assume that the Calvinist view of the logical order of salvation they say 36:26 represents is correct—that God causally determines your response and gives you a new heart—then Ezekiel 18:31-32 would be in contradiction to 36:26 if it is in fact referring to the logical order of salvation. Moreover, if the Calvinist argues that 18:31-32 is instead referring to a chronological order of salvation, then it would not be compatible with regeneration coming logically prior to faith for the reason that an effect cannot be logically or chronologically prior to its cause.
Upon closer inspection, there are two imperatives given in 18:31-32 and a grammatical construction with two successive imperatives (Cast away . . . and make), this indicates that the second imperative is the consequence of the first. In other words, during repentance one receives a new heart. But, 18:31-32 is underdeterminitive as to whether this is a chronological or logical order. Also, if the logical or chronological orders in 18:31-32 are incompatible with 36:26, then 36:26 cannot refer to a logical order at all, both lead to untenable positions. With this in mind, we must reflect philosophically on these texts and this is precisely where Luis de Molina’s distinction between the divided and composite senses resolves the supposed paradox.
Kirk MacGregor on Molina’s distinction:
The divided sense analyzes each realm of reality (e.g., what happens on earth, what happens in heaven) in and of itself and takes other realms into account only when they determine, or place causal restraints on, what happens in the realm in question.
By contrast, the composite sense examines the full scope of reality by taking all of its realms into account as well as the interplay between the various realms, regardless of whether such interplay stems from cause and effect relationships.7
In the divided sense (sensus divisios) every individual in Israel was responsible for turning away from their sins and are held morally responsible for failing to do so and this is what Ezekiel 18:31-32 reflects.8So, looking at this from the divided sense, the individuals are responsible for their response to God. However, in the composite sense (sensus compositus) God weakly actualized the state of affairs where Israelites would have a new heart (Ezek. 36:26) because God knew via his middle knowledge that if He were to place the Israelites in that circumstance, then the Israelites would freely repent and receive a new heart.9When these texts are examined philosophically and understood in their respective divided and composite senses it demonstrates that faith logically precedes regeneration and that there is not a contradiction between Ezekiel 18:31-32 and 36:26.
From the above, it should now be clear that the text used in support of irresistible grace does not in fact support that position. Also, once these texts are scrutinized philosophically, the need for irresistible grace vaporizes. God doesn’t need to causally determine agents’ choices in order to bring them to faith; God can sovereignly bring about the state of affairs in which an agent freely comes to Christ through God’s divine aid of prevenient grace. With this put to bed, we will see that there were additional oversights in the movie.
Issue 2: Strawman
Moving forward, K. Scott Oliphint gives an analogy which is supposed to represent the Evangelical position, which he believes is Arminianism:
They say the way you were converted is you were out in the ocean and you were drowning and a life raft appeared, but that life raft is no good until you take it. When you take it, then what does God do? He brings you in.10
First, notice that Oliphint is not giving an analogy that properly articulates prevenient grace, which is consistent with Arminianism or Molinism. This analogy in reality parodies Semi-Pelagianism, which is the view that there is enough power left in the depraved will to initiate one’s own salvation, but not enough to achieve it.11Thus, it is painfully obvious that Oliphint is parodying Semi-Pelagianism and presenting it as if it is Arminianism, and this has the effect of making Arminianism guilty by associating it with a heterodox position (Semi-Pelagianism). In Semi-Pelagianism God’s grace is “out there” so to speak and it is “up to” the depraved individual to seize the “life raft.” Therefore, it’s clear that Oliphint has inadvertently presented a straw man; the view he articulated is not the prevenient grace position that Arminians and a number of Molinists espouse. Thusly Roger Olson says:
One of the most prevalent myths spread by some Calvinists about Arminianism is that it is the most popular type of theology in evangelical pulpits and pews. . . Much depends on how we regard Arminian theology. The Calvinist critics would be correct if Arminianism were semi-Pelagianism. But it is not . . . The gospel preached and the doctrine of salvation taught in most evangelical pulpits and lecterns, and believed in most evangelical pews, is not classical Arminianism but semi-Pelagianism if not outright Pelagianism.12
It is possible that Oliphint has followed a similar, but equally false analogy given by the late Edwin H. Palmer, which has been repeated by Calvinist authors and speakers ad nauseum.13Moreover, it’s clear that if Oliphint properly understood the prevenient grace position, then he would have recognized that it is not the view that humans are able to initiate or contribute in any way to their salvation; in their depraved nature, man tout court cannot come to Christ.
Issue 3: False Dilemma
In addition to the above blunder, Oliphint presents a false dillemma:
It’s not a subtle difference, it is a monumental, even contradictory difference. Either faith precedes regeneration in which case we save ourselves at least in terms of the initiation. We start it, we get the process going or God changes us and then we have faith.14
He is presenting this argument as though there are only two possible options, Semi-Pelagianism and Calvinism; either we initiate our salvation by seizing God’s grace or he regenerates us first. But, this by no means exhausts all the models of grace. Prevenient grace is another model unlike the others and since there is at least a third option available Oliphint is guilty of presenting a false dilemma. The prevenient grace position is the view that God’s grace comes before faith and salvation/regeneration and as long as it isn’t resisted, the agent will be saved. At this point, many Calvinists will object and say that libertarian views of free will do not provide sufficient reason why an individual can choose A rather than B, but this objection just begs the question against many conceptions of libertarian free will.15
Issue 4: Inappropriate Appeal to Mystery
Preceding Oliphint is Joel Beeke who holds that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are both taught in scripture, yet they are mysterious and cannot be understood. Beeke cites John 6:37 which says, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” as support for God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.16As was the case with Ezekiel in the above, this passage is silent as to whether or not God’s grace is irresistible. The passage affirms that all believers will be saved and none will be lost, but it is not expounded upon how this is accomplished; thus, the text is underdeterminitive. And, since the text does not fulfill the necessary conditions required for irresistible grace, it should not be used as a proof-text for its support. Additionally, Beeke holds to irresistible grace, yet he doesn’t see the tension between it and man’s responsibility for turning to Christ:
Though Beeke holds that man is responsible for converting and also that God metaphysically drags him to conversion, he does so by appealing to mystery. He said“ yet way in the distance, those two rails seem to come together” and “in eternity, we will fully understand what we cannot grasp here.”18My contention is that this paradoxical mystery has been resolved with Molina’s conception of Middle Knowledge. There isn’t a need to appeal to mystery if a biblically faithful and philosophically viable model can account for sovereign predestination and libertarian free will consistently, and this is precisely what Molinism accomplishes.
As we’ve seen in the above the movie Calvinist does not and indeed cannot properly justify the position that regeneration precedes faith. In the above, it was demonstrated that Ezek. 36:26 did not fulfill the necessary conditions for irresistible grace; none of the terms denote any sort of “metaphysical ‘dragging’ occurring.’” Additionally, the logical order the Calvinists posit that Ezek. 36:26 demonstrates is untenable when compared with 18:31-32. During the explication of the irresistible grace position, Oliphint argued against a straw-man and presented a false dilemma. Finally, Joel Beeke inappropriately appealed to mystery when a biblically faithful and philosophically viable option —Molinism—was available. In summary, this fourth section of TULIP (irresistible grace) fails to persuade.
7 Kirk R.MacGregor, Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge (p. 111). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. MacGregor, Kirk R.. Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge (p. 111). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
9This demonstrates the distinction between strong and weak actualization. God weakly actualized the state of affairs to obtain by placing individuals in the circumstance where they would freely repent, though not without divine aide (prevenient grace); For those unfamiliar with the concept of strong actualization, it occurs when God causes a state of affairs to obtain through a direct exercise of His causal power. This is opposed to weak actualization which occurs when God causes a state of affairs to obtain merely by placing a creature in circumstances such that God knew how that creature would freely respond.
15This objection begs the question because it assumes without argument that there must be an adequate explanation as to why an agent chooses A over B. Many libertarians hold that this is just a brute fact of agent causation.