Sovereign Grace, Regeneration and Humble Calvinism

Salvation is Solely the Work of God
One of the hallmarks of Calvinism is monergism, that is, the biblical conviction that we are born again by God working alone (mono = one). God is the only active agent in our rebirth because the depravity of sin has rendered fallen man totally unable to believe in Christ. God’s sovereign grace actualizes salvation, beginning with effectual calling and regeneration, the process whereby the gracious sovereign action of the Holy Spirit recreates fallen human nature and enables sinners to believe in Christ. In this regard, regeneration precedes faith. In contrast, synergism (Arminianism) teaches that we are born again by divine-human cooperation, each contributing its part to accomplish regeneration (syn = together). Synergism is possible because sinners retain sufficient ability to believe in Christ. Effectively, this mean that God offers potential salvation which is actualized only when a sinner believes.

The Canons of Dort (1618-1619), which is one of the foundational doctrinal documents of the Calvinist Reformation, resolutely rejects synergism in one of its affirmations.

“But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them and powerfully illuminates their mind by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; He opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.” [Canons of Dort, 3-4.11]

Dort adds that salvation is not “effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation, that after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted or to continue unconverted [contra Arminianism], but salvation is “denominated a new creation: a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid.” [Canons of Dort, 3-4.12]

Dort compares the work of regeneration to “new creation,” “resurrection from the dead,” “making alive” in order to accentuate the fact that regeneration is a work that is impossible for man to accomplish. However, what is impossible for man to do, God effortlessly “works in us without our help.”  Indeed, Dort emphasizes that “In this life believers cannot fully understand the way this work occurs.”[Canons of Dort, 3-4.13]

Herman Bavinck accurately outlines the spirit of monergism in Dort,

“God is the primary actor in the work of redemption. He gives a new heart, apart from any merit or condition having been achieved from our side, merely and only according to His good pleasure. He enlightens the understanding, bends the will, governs the impulses, regenerates, awakens, vivifies, and He does that within us quite apart from our doing. From our side there is nothing between this operation of God’s Spirit within our hearts and the fruit thereof, which is termed regeneration in a narrow sense, or new creation, resurrection, vivification. No consent of our intellect, no decision of our will, no desire of our heart comes in between. God accomplishes this work within our hearts through His Spirit, and He does this directly, internally, invincibly.”  [Herman Bavinck, Saved by Grace: The Holy Spirit’s Work in Calling and Regeneration (Reformed Heritage Books, 2020), p. 29]

Matthew Barrett agrees,

[“Notice the emphasis Dort places on making sure it is God, not man, who receives all of the credit and glory (1 Corinthians 1:31). To reverse the order is to rob God of his glory and give man grounds to boast. If, as Dort argues, man’s faith is the result of God’s effectual call and regenerative work, then it also follows that faith itself is a gift. However, Dort is very careful to avoid an Arminian definition of faith. Having Jeremiah 31:18 and 33, Isaiah 44:3 and Romans 5:5 in mind, article 14 states, “In this way, therefore, faith is a gift of God, not in the sense that it is offered by God for man to choose, but that it is in actual fact bestowed on man, breathed and infused into him.”

Dort continues,

“Nor is it a gift in the sense that God bestows only the potential to believe, but then awaits assent—the act of believing—from man’s choice; rather, it is a gift in the sense that he who works both willing and acting and, indeed, works all things in all people produces in man both the will to believe and the belief itself.” [Canons of Dort, 3-4.14]

In other words, the Arminian defines faith in such a way that it is a gift but only in the sense that it is offered so that whether or not it becomes actual is man’s choice, not God’s. To the contrary, faith is a gift that God wills to implant within the dead, lifeless sinner so that upon granting the dead sinner new life he believes necessarily. As Dort states, God produces “in man both the will to believe and the belief itself” (3–4.14). Peter Toon correctly concludes that, on the basis of article 14, Dort taught “that regeneration precedes faith and is the cause of faith.”] [Matthew Barrett, The Grace of Godliness: An Introduction to Doctrine and Piety in the Canons of Dort (Joshua Press, 2013), pp. 89-90. Henceforth, GG.]

Synergism (Arminianism) rejects monergism on grounds that it undermines human freedom and responsibility. Instead, it argues that because of the unlimited atoning work of Christ, God has dispensed universal “prevenient grace” which negates the depravity of sin and restores sufficient ability to fallen humanity so that the unconverted sinner has the freedom to exercise saving faith or otherwise when presented with the gospel.* In short, prevenient grace which precedes regeneration is the grace that enables one to cooperate with or reject God’s saving grace. The inescapable logical conclusion of Arminianism is that it is the sinner and not God who determines his end.

Prevenient grace is attractive but it should be rejected because it cannot be exegetically defended. As Millard Erickson observes, “The problem is that there is no clear and adequate basis in Scripture for this concept of universal enablement. The theory, appealing though it is in many ways, simply is not taught explicitly in the Bible.” [Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Baker, 1985), p. 925. See also Thomas Schreiner, “Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?” in Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, eds. Still Sovereign (Baker, 2000), pp. 229-246]

Arminianism glosses over Paul’s unadulterated depiction of sinners’ dire condition: “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience… were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph. 2:1-3). Those who are spiritually dead and enslaved by sin have no desire or power to cooperate with God in salvation. There is nothing we can do to change our dire condition. As children of wrath, we are headed for eternal judgment.

Paul in Eph. 2:1-3 refutes the teaching that unbelievers who are spiritually dead have the ability to choose Christ. On the contrary, it is the case of God sovereignly choosing us in Jesus Christ for salvation (John 6: 44, 65). But Paul abruptly changes his tone and highlights the fact that God through the Holy Spirit has taken the initiative to make alive (regeneration) those who are spiritually dead and thus enables them to exercise faith to receive salvation. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5).

One popular misconception about Calvinism is that its doctrine of predestination reduces men and women to puppets who have no will of their own as they are coerced by the irresistible force of predestination. This caricature is nothing less than fatalism.** Dort confutes this caricature by insisting that in regeneration, depraved human will is renewed, not abolished: “this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—in a manner at once pleasing and powerful—bends it back. As a result, a ready and sincere obedience of the Spirit now begins to prevail where before the rebellion and resistance of the flesh were completely dominant. In this the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consists.” [Canons of Dort 3-4.16]

Sovereign Grace Elicits Gratitude and Humility
While fatalism generates despair or stoical resignation, regeneration engenders gratitude and spontaneous celebration of the sovereign grace of God. Abraham Kuyper exults:

“He only is the real Calvinist, and may raise the Calvinistic banner, who in his own soul, personally, has been struck by the Majesty of the Almighty, and yielding to the overpowering might of his eternal Love, has dared to proclaim this majestic love, over against Satan and the world, and the worldliness of his own heart, in the personal conviction of being chosen by God himself, and therefore of having to thank Him and Him alone, for every grace everlasting.” [Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans, 1931), page 69]

Since salvation is by God’s sovereign grace and not by works, boasting is excluded (Rom. 3:27). By the same token, Calvinists should never pride themselves as inherently better than those who do not believe. Dort affirms:

“God is under no obligation to confer this grace upon any; for how can He be indebted to man, who had no previous gifts to bestow, as a foundation for such recompense? Nay, who has nothing of his own but sin and falsehood? He therefore who becomes the subject of this grace, owes eternal gratitude to God, and gives Him thanks forever. Whoever is not made partaker thereof, is either altogether regardless of these spiritual gifts and satisfied with his own condition, or is in no apprehension of danger and vainly boasts the possession of that which he has not. With respect to those who make an external profession of faith and live regular lives, we are bound, after the example of the apostle, to judge and speak of them in the most favorable manner. For the secret recesses of the heart are unknown to us. And as to others, who have not yet been called, it is our duty to pray for them to God, who calls the things that are not, as if they were. But we are in no wise to conduct ourselves towards them with haughtiness, as if we had made ourselves to differ.” [Canons of Dort, 3-4.15]

Barrett agrees, “For the Calvinist, man contributes absolutely nothing to his salvation, not even the slightest cooperation of his free will. It is God alone who works to effectually call and regenerate the dead and depraved sinner, bringing life out of death (cf. John 3:5–8). Consequently, the believer has no right whatsoever to then, out of a proud heart, turn with contempt upon an unbeliever. To do so, as Dort says, is to act as if something in us made us more worthy of salvation than they. But there is nothing to be found. The saved sinner, as Edwin Palmer remarks, is left to say: “Truly, Lord, except for thy grace, I would have done the same evil.” Consequently, “Calvinism produces humility.” Such humility is accompanied by sheer gratitude to God and a life of obedience. Additionally, the Christian’s interaction with unbelievers must be characterized by meekness, for only then is he consistent with the doctrine of sovereign grace. True piety and holiness, as well as a love for the lost soul, comes from the heart that realizes that it was nothing within that moved God to save, but wholly and completely the grace and mercy of God through Christ.” [Barrett, GG, p. 94]

Humble Calvinism
Barrett cites Ian Hamilton, “Calvinism cannot ever be proud, cold, clinical and censorious, and that for one main reason: You cannot ‘see the King’ [Isaiah 6:5] in his exalted majesty, and have your sinful heart laid bare before him and yourself, and still remain proud.” Barrett continues, “This truth stated by Ian Hamilton is vividly expressed in the Canons of Dort. For Dort, the doctrines of total depravity and sovereign grace do not produce pride but humility. Those who have had their eyes opened to the omnipotence of regenerating grace see the King high and lifted up. Witnessing the majesty of a sovereign God does not lead one to be puffed up in himself but cast down to the ground, to his knees, in gratitude and self-effacement. As Hamilton continues to explain, “Authentic Calvinism is so far from trampling on humility and promoting pride that it actually breeds by its nature a meek and lowly spirit. How can you or I be savingly united to the meek and lowly Saviour, and be proud, clinical, or metallic in our Christianity? Proud Calvinism is the ultimate oxymoron.” The “proud Calvinist” Hamilton speaks of cannot be found in the Canons of Dort. Rather, when one reads the Canons one discovers that sovereign grace is a tool in the hands of a mighty God by which he brings about true, authentic Christian humility. Therefore, Calvinists are to be the meekest of all people. Hamilton once again explains, “Authentic Calvinism is natively meek-spirited. To claim to believe that God is the Sovereign King, that you owe all you are to his distinguishing grace and love, that you are and ever will be a “debtor to mercy alone,” while behaving proudly and treating other sinners, and even worse, Christian brothers, with supercilious disdain, is not to expose yourself as an inauthentic Calvinist, but to expose yourself as an inauthentic Christian! Dort sees authentic Christians as debtors to mercy alone. The only proper response to divine mercy is gratitude and praise.” [Barrett, GG, pp. 95-96]

Jeff Medders rightly insists that “Humble Calvinism” is no oxymoron because it is focused on God rather than on ourselves: “Real Calvinism is a humble, God-enjoying, and loving-thy-neighbor Calvinism. Arrogance, lack of gentleness, impatience, and thinking we have the spiritual gift of street-fighting doesn’t reveal a problem with the doctrines of grace but with our hearts.” [Jeff Medders, Humble Calvinism (Good Book Co., 2019), p. 154]

Authentic Calvinism based on sovereign grace should lead to humility, graciousness and thanksgiving.

Soli Deo Gloria

Notes
* Erickson highlights the difference between the Reformed teaching of “effectual calling” or “special calling”: “Special calling is in many ways similar to the prevenient grace of which Arminians speak. It differs from that concept, however, in two respects. It is bestowed only upon the elect, not upon all humans, and it leads infallibly or efficaciously to a positive response by the recipient.” [Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 931]

**  Fatalism believes that “deliberation and action are pointless because the future will be the same no matter what we do…Thus all actions and choices are ‘idle’ because they cannot affect the future.” Example: For fatalism, if it is fated for you to recover from this illness, you will recover whether you call in a doctor. Fatalism should not be confused with Determinism. Indeed, “Determinists reject fatalism on the grounds that it may be determined that we can be cured only by calling the doctor.” [Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. 2ed. (Oxford Uni. Press, 2005), p. 291]  Likewise, divine predestination is different from fatalism in that it accords significance of secondary agency and causation for contingent events.

 

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