Thursday, January 23, 2014

Avoiding Several Sovereign Grace Pitfalls

 Among those Christians affirming the sovereign grace of God in salvation, there are several in-house discussions and friendly disagreements about topics such as the Sabbath/Lord’s Day and the nature of the New Covenant. There is a variety of opinions about elders, Bible versions, and worship styles. Charity and brotherly love should be exercised regarding secondary issues, even as we encourage deeper dialogue.

The reason for my writing, however, concerns several unhealthy pitfalls centering on the central doctrines of regeneration, justification and faith. In an effort to stress sovereign grace and the truth of election, a minority have fallen into some unbiblical beliefs concerning these core doctrines.

Most of these soteriological errors bear the marks of Hyper-Calvinism. Sadly, the majority of hyper-Calvinists have not historically been Confessional Presbyterians or the Reformed, but have largely been Baptists. Hardshellism is mostly a Baptist error. Therefore, as a Calvinistic Baptist missionary, I want to warn you of several of these pitfalls below.

Eternal justification:   As people discover that God foreordains all things whatsoever that comes to pass, many come to marvel that we, as Children of God, are predestined from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4,5). Some who are zealous to stress God’s eternal purposes, however, forget that God’s decreed things come to fruition in time. Enamored with the work of God from all eternity some believe erroneously in “eternal justification” – asserting that God not only decrees to justify His Elect from all eternity but also actually does so, justifying the Elect before time began.

The truth, however, is this: God has decreed to justify His Elect from all eternity, and yet He does so in time. The Elect, too, were once, “children of wrath even as others” (Ephesians 2:1-3). God’s children “were once darkness, but now are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8, c.f., I Peter 2:9-10). God quickened us at a point in time and declared us “not guilty” at that point, imputing the righteousness of Christ to us whereas before we were unsaved, unjustified, and guilty before a Righteous God.

This belief in Eternal Justification, or Justification from Eternity, is a dangerous soteriological error into which some Calvinistic Baptists have fallen. In a zeal to stress God’s works from eternity, some ignore God’s works in time. God’s decrees are sure and are guaranteed to come to pass. However, a decreed thing of God does not actually come to pass in time until its own specific pre-ordained temporal moment arrives.

Again, God has decreed to justify His Elect from all eternity, and yet He actually does so at a moment in time. We are predestined eternally in order to be justified and saved in time. Beware of this first pitfall.

The denial of duty-faith: Another common error is misunderstanding the role of human response to the Gospel. Many rightly affirm that we can do nothing pleasing to God in the flesh. However, though natural ability lacks, sinful man still stands obliged to obey the Gospel and believe savingly in Jesus Christ. God everywhere in Scripture commands what man cannot supply. We can only pray as Augustine did, “Demand what You will, O Lord, and give what You demand.”

Some Calvinistic Baptists deny this truth. Some have accused me of holding to “Duty-Faith” and others have called me a “Fullerite” and a “hypo-Calvinist” for vigorously stressing that God commands men everywhere to turn away from their evil ways and embrace the Gospel  (Acts 17:30). We cannot peer into the eternal counsels of God and see clearly, but we can vigorously attempt all which God clearly and explicitly commands in His Word, praying all the while for God’s enabling power in the performance of these same commands.

The deniers of duty-faith reason thusly: How can God command faith if natural man is unable to provide it? If Faith is a gift, how can it also be a duty? If faith is a duty, then how is faith not a condition placed upon free grace?

Immediate regeneration:  Closely related to the denial of “duty-faith,” many Calvinistic Baptists have fallen into the severe error of “immediate regeneration” whereby God saves men without any means, to include the instrumentality of the Word of God and the instrumentality of faith.

The instrumentality of the Word of God:
The truth is that God ordains that the Elect should ordinarily be saved through faith, upon the hearing of the Gospel. Infants and the mentally infirm constitute extraordinary cases, yet ordinarily the witness of Scripture states the following:
  •   “Ye are already clean because of [or through] the word I have spoken to you.” (John 15:3).
  •  “Of His own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures.”(James 1:18).
  •  "...knowing, beloved brethren, your election by God. For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance." (1 Thess 1:4, 5).

Many who deny the instrumentality of the Word are often admirers of John Gill, and yet not even Gill supports their claims of “immediate regeneration.” Gill affirms, on page 534 of his Body of Divinity, the instrumentality of the Word:

"Though after all it seems plain, that the ministry of the word is the vehicle in which the Spirit of God conveys himself and his grace into the hearts of men; which is done when the word comes not in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost; and works effectually, and is the power of God unto salvation; then faith comes by hearing, and ministers are instruments by whom, at least, men are encouraged to believe: 'received ye the Spirit', says the apostle, 'by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith': Ga 3:2 that is, by the preaching of the law, or by the preaching of the gospel? by the latter, no doubt."

The same God who has ordained the ends of all things, has also ordained the means. God works through His Word. Chapter 14 of the Westminster Confession, as well as the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, states that saving faith “is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word” and the Second Helvetic Confession quoting Romans 10:17 on this point asserts, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (16:2).
The instrumentality of Faith
Chapter 14, “Of Saving Faith”, in both the Westminster Confession of Faith as well as the 1689 Confession of Faith, summarizes the role of faith as an instrument through which God saves the Elect: "The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word..."

The Belgic Confession (Article 2) explains further:
“Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He hath done for us and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits…”  
Below is an explanation concerning the instrumentality of faith that I sent to one Primitive Baptist man who vigorously denied this truth, calling it a form of “works-righteousness.” Examine my explanation yourself to see if it accords with Scripture:
“The Elect are justified by or through faith (Rom. 1:17; 3:25, 28, 30; 5:1; Eph. 2:8; Gal. 2:16; 3:11, 24; Phil 3:9).  
Faith is not the reason or ultimate grounds for the Elect’s justification. We are not saved because of our faith or on the grounds of our faith, as if we can produce a certain sufficient measure of this substance from within ourselves which God would then honor and allow us into heaven.  This would be to make faith into a meritorious act and our work of producing enough faith of sufficient quality to be a work of righteousness, able to commend us before God. This would be yet another form of works-righteousness. 
This may be part of your zeal in denying “duty-faith” – your legitimate desire to guard against any form of “works-righteousness.”
However, though we are not saved because of our faith, faith is the instrument through which God’s Elect are united to Christ. The expressions are thus—dia pisteos, ek pisteos, and pistei, which can all be translated as “by means of” or “through” faith. 
Faith is the instrument which lays hold of Jesus. God, through free grace, enables a person to believe. It is a gift of grace, yet God does not believe for the man; the man must believe. 
Therefore, being an instrument and channel, faith does not come at some later time after a person is united to Christ, but a person is united to Christ by faith itself. Therefore, though it is proper to speak of a logical priority of regeneration over faith/conversion, God monergistically taking initiative to move the man, let us not mistake a logical priority with a chronological one; there is no perceptible chronological gap in time, nor are there any who are regenerate but who have yet to exercise saving faith. Everywhere we see faith we will see the new birth, and where we see the new birth we will see faith. 
Again, Ek pisteos (“by” or “from” or “out of” faith) describes faith as that which logically precedes a person’s justification. Faith is the gift of God which is given to us so that we may cling to Christ, though it is never the efficient or ultimate cause of justification, the dative use of the noun pistis being used in an instrumental sense (see also Rom. 3:28).”
Likewise, not only faith but repentance as well, is an essential grace-gift that the Elect must possess for salvation. Though faith and repentance are not produced within ourselves by our own merits, we still must possess these gifts of grace, wrought by the work of Christ for His Elect on the Cross, for us to see heaven. 

The Westminster Confession of Faith guards us from error in regard to the necessity of repentance:

"Although repentance be not to be rested in as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God's free grace in Christ; yet is it of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.”  (The Westminster Confession of Faith, 15:1-3).

      Thus, we see that an “instrument” is not the effective cause of a thing, and that God unites us to Christ by the instrumentality of faith upon the hearing of the Word. To believe these things is not “works-righteousness” but are truths defended both biblically and historically.

Placing regeneration chronologically prior to faith:  Placing regeneration at some point in chronological time prior to faith is the 3rd sovereign grace soteriological pitfall.

Perhaps this error is an understandable reaction to the prevalent error in many churches today. Many falsely believe that mankind summons up some measure of man-produced faith, which then commends them to God in such a way that God then grants them the new birth. Thus, our faith produced from within causes God to regenerate us in a synergistic cooperation. Thus, man’s initiative is critical in salvation.

This common view is contrary to Scripture, which speak of a divine monergism, whereby God is the one who initiates the work as well as completes it (Philippians 1:6). Thus, the new birth, regeneration, is the cause and not the effect of our faith. Thus, many sovereign grace theologians rightly defend the logical priority of regeneration over faith.

However, some have mistaken a logical priority with a chronological one. Instead of seeing regeneration/conversion as a “package deal” even as God takes the initiative, some have defended a scheme of salvation whereby regeneration occurs chronologically first and then faith comes later (in time). 

The truth is this: There are no regenerated people walking around that lack faith. We should not expect to encounter faithless persons who nonetheless possess regenerate souls.  God moves the wheel, yet all the spokes of the wheel turn at once. A logical priority does not necessitate a gap in chronological time. Some Primitive Baptists speak of regenerate people walking around that just need to know that they are already regenerate. However, if you are saved, you surely know it – now – through faith in Christ.


            I love the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. To know that all things work for God’s glory and His People’s good is a great comfort during times of trial. The knowledge that God has a People that He will unfailingly call to salvation motivates my missionary activities. God’s eternal decrees and His works from eternity cause us to marvel, as does God’s free grace in salvation apart from human contribution. However, in our zeal to defend these great doctrines, let us also remember the instrumentalities that God ordains and that God’s eternal decrees are decreed to unfold in time. Let us beware of these pitfalls above.

1 comment:

  1. "For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13 Soteriology 101. The law he is referencing is not the Sinai code. Rather it is the law that has been added after Jesus' crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. It is only those who have the faith to obey this law who are justified to be righteous.