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Arminianism and Calvinism

Greg Strand – July 15, 2015 4 Comments

Is the EFCA Arminian/Wesleyan (Lutheran) or Calvinist/Reformed regarding the doctrine of salvation?

Historically, Evangelicals affirm that because of sin, God initiates salvation. For one theological stream (Arminian/Wesleyan), they affirm that God initiates through prevenient grace. For another theological stream (Calvinist/Reformed), they affirm that God initiates through effective grace. Though there are differences, in both streams God initiates, and both affirm that He must do so because of the state of all of humankind after the fall of being spiritually dead. Evangelicals deny Pelagianism (condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431) and semi-Pelagianism (condemned at the Council of Orange in 529).

The framers of our 1950 EFCA Statement of Faith wanted to create a statement that was consistent with both Arminian/Wesleyan and Calvinist/Reformed views of salvation, but which required or endorsed neither. This same is true in our 2008 Statement of Faith in which we state “He [the Holy Spirit] regenerates sinners” (Article 6).

What this means regarding the doctrine of salvation, then, is that the EFCA allows Arminian/Wesleyan, Calvinist/Reformed and Lutheran views of soteriology. The fact of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is essential. Both regeneration (the Spirit’s work) and faith (our response) are essential for salvation, and our Statement of Faith affirms both without giving logical priority to either. Whether regeneration precedes faith (Calvinism) or faith precedes regeneration (Arminianism), we have placed this in a secondary category. On a doctrine related to this question, we also allow both perspectives of the possibility of apostasy (one can fall away and lose one’s salvation) and the perseverance of the saints (eternal security).

This does not mean, however, that each and every local church would have an equal number of those positions represented. Each local EFC church would lean in one theological direction more so than another. But whichever way the church leans, the church ought to be welcoming to the person who leans in the other theological direction

In the EFCA this theological doctrine falls into the category of the “significance of silence,” or that area in which we affirm “unity in the essentials, dialogue in the differences,” and without division.

The EFCA strongly affirms that dictum that we “major on the majors, and minor on the minors.” As Rupertus Meldenius stated in the midst of the tragic Thirty Years War (1618-1648), “in essentials unity, in non-essentials charity, in all things Jesus Christ” (with some variation of the last statement).

In the EFCA we refer to this as “the significance of silence,” which means that on those non-essential matters we will debate issues but we will not divide over them.

It is one thing to state this as a policy. It is another thing to live this policy out in practice. It requires a great deal of grace and maturity, without compromising truth.

One of the doctrines that appears to lead perpetually to questions, concerns, and tensions is that of salvation: does faith precede regeneration (generally referred to as the Arminian/Wesleyan position), or does regeneration precede faith (generally referred to as the Reformed/Calvinist position)?

This doctrine has, once again, become a hot-topic issue in the Southern Baptist Convention. Last year at their annual Convention there were “heresy accusation” claims.  (This discussion does not remain in the SBC alone. It affects all denominations that are a place for both of these understandings of salvation, including the EFCA. I will write about our EFCA commitment and practice at a future date.)

Because of this discussion in the SBC, a “Calvinism Advisory Committee” was formed by Frank Page, President, SBC Executive Committee, to respond to the questions being raised, the tension the SBC is presently experiencing. This Committee, made up of 19 members with David Dockery, retired president of Union University, serving as chair, released their statement as they approach their annual Convention meeting: “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension: A Statement from the Calvinism Advisory Committee”:

Here is one of the key conclusions they made of their time together, which is stated as part of the introduction to this Statement, each of the four components – truth, tension, trust and testimony – being delineated thoroughly:

Four central issues have become clear to us as we have met together. We affirm together that Southern Baptists must stand without apology upon truth; that we do indeed have some challenging but not insurmountable points of tension; that we must work together with trust; and that we must encourage one another to testimony.

Dockery affirms this work with these words:

For several years, Southern Baptists have been asking important questions about our identity and our future. At times we have struggled with trying to grasp the breadth of our doctrinal and historical differences, particularly related to matters such as Calvinism. What has been needed is a new consensus that will help point us toward a new sense of cooperation and renewal for the sake of the Gospel. It is our hope that Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension, while not a perfect statement, will, nevertheless, provide a significant and positive step in that direction. The statement reflects the efforts of many diverse voices who have attempted to speak as one with a sense of convictional civility and Spirit-enabled charity toward and with one another. We pray that these efforts will enable us to serve collaboratively and work faithfully, while offering a joyful and Gospel-focused witness to a lost and needy world.

As would be expected, the document has been and will be variously considered. For some, it will be considered good and necessary. For others, it will be considered bad and unnecessary. And one knows there are all kinds of varied responses in between and outside those! Christianity Today has included a brief update.

Because we in the EFCA live with the same doctrinal parameters on the doctrine of salvation, I would encourage you to read the whole document. There is much for us to learn in the EFCA about living and ministering together from the common foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

An Interview with Fred Sanders

Greg Strand – September 19, 2012 2 Comments

John Starke, “You’re a Calvinist, Right?,” The Gospel Coalition Blog (June 25, 2012)

Fred Sanders teaches at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University. He is a first-rate theologian, who has done excellent work on the doctrine of the Trinity, cf. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). He is an excellent theologian who thinks, speaks and writes well. For those of us in the Free Church who live with the “significance of silence” on the soteriologial question of “does faith precede regeneration?” (Arminiamism/Wesleyan) or “does regeneration precede faith?” (Calvinism) (I only included Arminianism/Wesleyan first because it begins with an “A,” just so no one misunderstands!), it is important for us to have a position, to know the best argument for the other position, and then, by God’s grace, to covenant to live life together.

Sanders is an Arminian/Wesleyan. There is much you can learn in this interview about Fred and his theological position, regardless of  your own personal position/conviction, so I encourage you to read the whole interview. I am, however, going to include a number of questions and answers that were part of the end of this interview, when Fred was asked to “finish these sentences . . .” He delineates a good primer on Arminian/Wesleyanism, and offers some wise counsel in the discussion/debate.

Finish these sentences:

You haven’t really considered Wesleyanism unless you’ve read . . .

  1. John Wesley’s Standard Sermons. The first 14 are the most important to read as a set, though all 52 are classic. This is where you get to see Wesley putting first things first, emphasizing the most important elements of his message. God changed the world through this instrument.
  2. William Burt Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology, or at least his Higher Catechism of Theology. Pope was a conservative British Methodist of the 19th century. I think he is one of the finest theological minds in Protestant history, sadly neglected.
  3. I should probably recommend a controversial book that addresses the five points, though that’s not my favorite genre. Jerry Walls and Joe Dongell’s Why I Am Not a Calvinist is a pretty good presentation of the position.

If you think Arminianism is semi-Pelagian, then . . .

You need a more flexible vocabulary of heresiology. John Wesley’s longest treatise was on original sin, and he affirmed it, right down to the bondage of the will. He put a sermon on the subject into his Standard Sermons. The Wesleyan emphasis on sinners being enabled to respond to the gospel has nothing to do with a high view of human abilities, and everything to do with an optimism of grace and a trust in the Holy Spirit’s prevenient work.

Perhaps anti-Wesleyans do this because they are hoping to make the error of Arminianism more obvious by exaggerating it into its supposedly logical conclusion. But if you think Arminianism is an error, you should just call it “the heresy of Arminianism.” If you have to exaggerate its flaws to make it seem terrible, you probably shouldn’t.

It may also be that some anti-Wesleyans are tempted to characterize Wesleyans by their worst exemplars. There have indeed been Pelagians and semi- demi- hemi- Pelagians in the Wesleyan tradition. I don’t know any other way to interpret Charles Finney. But it’s a basic rule of fair discourse that you should meet your opponent’s views at their strongest and most central, not their weakest and most peripheral. Calvinism has generated its fair share of antinomians, determinists, theocrats, anti-evangelicals, and formalists. Anti-Calvinists shouldn’t attack on that front, but at the places where the tradition is strongest.

The one thing I wish Calvinists would stop accusing Wesleyans of is . . .

Being anthropocentric in their soteriology. Caring more about human free will than God’s glory.

I also wish Calvinists would resist the urge to think of Wesleyanism as the secret to Reformed self-definition. I don’t mind sharpening a position by contrast, but Calvinists need a better foil than Wesleyanism. Only if you live in a very small thought-world is Wesleyanism the opposite of Calvinism. A more instructive opposite for Calvinism probably ought to be Roman Catholicism, if we’re going back to origins. About 200 years ago, I believe the Reformed in Europe still thought of Lutherans as their opposites. I would think today’s evangelical Calvinists would think of liberals as their opposites. But if you think “there are two kinds of people, Calvinists and Wesleyans,” you’re on a false trail; your devil is too small (to paraphrase J. B. Phillips). That will lead you to pick fights with other conservative, evangelical, Protestant Christians who really are on your side of the net in the game that counts.

Sure, Calvinists have J. I. Packer, but Wesleyans have . . .

Robert E. Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism and more recently The Heart of the Gospel: The Theology behind the Master Plan of Evangelism. This is a one-volume, popular-level introduction to Christian doctrine that is systematically oriented to evangelism in every doctrine. Sound good? It is.

I could also pile up a lot of influential non-theologians here (C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Bill Bright), but I’m assuming your question was probing for a theological communicator of Packer’s stature.

But it’s hard to beat J. I. Packer in any theological camp. He once called Wesley an inconsistent Calvinist. That’s a cute and feisty way of affirming the common ground we share. I like to think of Packer as an inconsistent Wesleyan. He won’t read this, will he?

 

Russ Rankin, “SBC Pastors Polled on Calvinism and Its Affect on Convention,” LifeWay (June 19, 2012).

LifeWay Research conducted a survey (this past April-May) in which they “presented a slate of statements about Calvinism to a randomly selected sample of senior pastors in the SBC to gauge their theological inclination and whether they are concerned about the impact of Calvinism in the convention.” 

With the discussion that preceded the SBC Convention, that continued at the Convention, this provides another important information piece to the SBC puzzle.

The conclusion to this survey?

Nearly equal numbers of pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention consider their churches as Calvinist/Reformed [30%] as do Arminian/Wesleyan [30%], although more than 60 percent are concerned about the affect of Calvinism on the denomination, according to a new survey from LifeWay Research.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research notes the following:

It is fascinating how much debate is occurring right now on this topic when most pastors indicate that neither end of the spectrum correctly identifies their church. However, historically, many Baptists have considered themselves neither Calvinist nor Arminian, but holding a unique theological approach not framed well by either category.

Stetzer states that the survey was carefully nuanced avoiding the one-word response of yes or no to “capture some of the complexity of the debate.” For example, the survey contained the following kinds of questions: “Christ died only for the elect, not for everyone in the world.” “God is the true evangelist and when He calls someone to Himself, His grace is irresistible.” “Before the foundation of the world, God predestined some people to salvation and some to damnation.” “It diminishes God’s sovereignty to invite all persons to repent and believe.” “A person can not, after become a Christian, reject Christ and lose their salvation.” (For how the responses to these questions breaks down in percentages, see the report at the link above.)

Stetzer’s summary to this survey:

There appears to be a lot of concern among Southern Baptist pastors on the impact of Calvinism, but the beliefs in these doctrines, at least measured by these questions, show quite a mix of beliefs.

Most Baptists are not Calvinists, though many are, and most Baptists are not Arminians, though many are comfortable with that distinction. However, there is a sizeable minority that see themselves as Calvinist and holds to such doctrines, and a sizeable majority that is concerned about their presence. That points to challenging days to come.

For another response to this survey, cf. Jeremy Weber, “New Research Suggests Calvinists Tied With Arminians In SBC,” Christianity Today Liveblog (June 19, 2012).

Ted Olson, “Southern Baptists Debate the Sinner’s Prayer,” reports on the SBC discussion/debate of the Resolution known as “An Affirmation of a ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ As a Biblical Expression of Repentance and Faith‘. ” This Resolution did pass, but the discussion did generally separate into Arminians who supported it, and Calvinists who had concerns about it. 

Here is the complete Resolution: 

AN AFFIRMATION OF A “SINNER’S PRAYER” AS A BIBLICAL EXPRESSION OF REPENTANCE AND FAITH

WHEREAS, The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers full forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God to anyone who repents of sin and trusts in Christ; and

WHEREAS, This same Gospel commands all persons everywhere to believe this Gospel and receive Christ as Savior and Lord (Mark 1:15; John 1:12; 6:25–52; Acts 17:30); and

WHEREAS, The Scriptures give examples of persons from diverse backgrounds who cried out for mercy and were heard by God (Luke 18:13; Acts 16:29–30); and

WHEREAS, The Scriptures also give numerous examples of per- sons who verbally affirmed Gospel truths but who did not personally know Jesus in a saving relationship (Luke 22:47–48; John 2:23–25; 1 Corinthians 10:1–5); and

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 19–20, 2012, reaffirm our Gospel conviction that repentance from sin and personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are necessary for salvation (Acts 20:20–21); and be it further

RESOLVED, That we affirm that repentance and faith involve a crying out for mercy and a calling on the Lord (Romans 10:13), often identified as a “sinner’s prayer,” as a biblical expression of repentance and faith; and be it further

RESOLVED, That a “sinner’s prayer” is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the Gospel (Matthew 6:7; 15:7–9); and be it further

RESOLVED, That we promote any and all biblical means of urging sinners to call on the name of the Lord in a prayer of repentance and faith; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we call on Southern Baptists everywhere to continue to carry out the Great Commission in North America and around the world, so that sinners everywhere, of every tribe, tongue, and language, may cry out, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).