Editor’s note: This article is the eighth in a series of 12 columns that will be published in 2012 addressing the always controversial theological issues surrounding how Southern Baptists understand the doctrine of salvation. The Witness welcomes letters to the editor on this subject as the series is published throughout the year, keeping in mind the irenic spirit modeled by Mark Rathel, who teaches theology at The Baptist College of Florida.
Both Arminianism and Calvinism are frequently misunderstood today. For example, James Arminius and classical followers of his system of theology affirm as robust a doctrine of total depravity as Calvinists. Arminians affirm two corollaries of total depravity: total corruption and total inability. Further, both Calvinists and Arminians affirm that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. What then separates the Calvinistic and Arminian understandings of salvation? A major demarcation between the two groups is how each group understands the nature of God’s grace.
What characterizes the Arminian understanding of grace?
First, Arminians affirm the necessity of God’s grace for salvation. The necessity of grace arises from the condition of humans as totally depraved and unable to choose or respond to God. James Arminius wrote: “In this state [fallen human nature], the free will of man towards the true good [God] is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by divine grace.”
Second, Arminians affirm that God grants grace enabling salvation universally to all humans.
Arminians label this understanding of universal enabling grace as “prevenient grace.” Arminian Baptist Roger Olson, a professor at George W. Truett Seminary of Baylor University, identified “prevenient grace” as the key distinctive of Arminianism.
The term “prevenient” means “anticipating” or “preceding.” What does prevenient grace precede? Prevenient grace precedes a positive free-will response to the Gospel. Arminius wrote, “No man believes in Christ except him who has been previously disposed by preventing or preceding grace.” Arminians often utilize other descriptive terms such as “assisting grace,” “enabling grace,” or “cooperating grace” as synonyms with “prevenient grace.” According to Arminian theology, God grants “enabling grace” to every individual counteracting the effects of the fall into sin, namely bondage, thus enabling an individual ability to believe. By the term “cooperative grace,” Arminians define “cooperation” in a negative manner. Cooperation is merely a failure to resist God’s grace.
Third, Arminians understand “prevenient grace” as sufficient. God’s Word will not return empty and will accomplish God’s purpose (Isa. 55:11). The Holy Spirit “cooperates” with the Word of God by means of internal, persuasive internal prevenient grace to sufficiently enable consent and belief.
Fourth, Arminians characterize prevenient grace as effective. The individual that responds with consent and believe will experience conversion.
The concept of a universal, enabling, sufficient, and effective grace is appealing. How do Arminians defend the doctrine of prevenient grace biblically?
Arminians appeal to diverse Scriptures to support the concept of universal, enabling grace. The following are two of the primary passages to which Arminians appeal. First, John affirmed a universal revelation given to all people. “The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9 HCSB). Some Arminians interpret “light” as a reference to the light of reason conquering the effects of sin on the human mind. Second, some Arminians understand Titus 2:11—“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (NASB)—in the sense that the saving grace of God has appeared to all people.
Charles Wesley set forth the doctrine of prevenient grace as a “quickening ray” in his hymn “And Can It Be?”
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray –
I woke the dungeon filled with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Roger Olson identified prevenient grace as the distinguishing mark of Arminianism. Yet, I am unaware of any Southern Baptist theologian that espouses prevenient grace in the sense described by Arminians. Can Southern Baptists, therefore, receive the label Arminian?
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