As I announced two days ago, I am tackling the theological debate regarding dispensationalism and covenantal theology. Yesterday, I decided to read some on Michael Horton’s “The God of Promise: An Introduction to Covenantal Theology.”
In Horton’s chapter five, titled “From Scripture to System: The Heart of Covenant Theology,” Horton quotes from the Westminster Confession regarding the Reformed Theology covenants of works and grace:
“...The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. Man, by his Fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ORDAINED UNTO LIFE, HIS HOLY SPIRIT, TO MAKE THEM WILLING AND ABLE TO BELIEVE” (Westminster Confession, Chapter Seven; quoted by Horton in “The God of Promise: An Introduction to Covenantal Theology.” Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008, page 82).
I’ll tell you up-front without hiding it: Michael Horton is a Calvinist, so the above quote from the Westminster Confession is not surprising (taking his theology into context). In any case, I desire to examine Horton’s quote from the Westminster Confession here and see whether or not this is what Scripture teaches about belief and salvation.
Notice that the Confession says that the Holy Spirit is given to those “ordained unto life,” and that the Spirit “make[s] them willing and able to believe.” According to the second portion of the capitalized quote, the Spirit makes the person able and willing to believe. True, without the Spirit, man cannot believe (John 6:44, 65). However, is the Spirit given BEFORE belief?
I’m gonna use one of the classic Calvinist passages regarding how belief and salvation operate--- the text of Ephesians 1.
In this text, we find these words:
“In Him you also trusted, AFTER you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, HAVING BELIEVED, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13, NKJV).
Paul gives us an order of the process of salvation: first, the person hears the word of truth, the gospel; “after” so hearing, the person trusted (“you also trusted, after you heard the word”); once they trusted, they were sealed (“having believed”). The word for “having believed” is “pisteusantes,” which is an Aorist Active Participle. The tense is “aorist,” which means that the event itself (belief) occurred in the past or has already happened. This is why the word “pisteusantes” is translated in most bible versions as “having believed.” Secondly, the voice of the verb “pisteusantes” is “active,” which means that the person is doing the action (the person is the one believing). The active tense demonstrates that belief itself is not passive: in other words, the person is not being made to believe, but is choosing to believe, acting on his or her own volition.
But notice the end of the verse: “having believed, YOU WERE SEALED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT” (1:13). The person is not sealed until after confession and belief (Rom. 10:9). This leaves us with a question: if we are not sealed until AFTER we believe, but the Spirit must draw us in order to believe, then exactly how does the Spirit work to bring us to faith in Christ? This is indeed, a good question.
According to the Westminster Confession, God “makes” a person willing to believe, not just “makes them able.” But if the Spirit is the only one who can “make someone willing,” why does He not make everyone willing? If the Spirit is the only one who can do this, why then, does He not force Himself on everyone? If you listen to Calvinist theology, God does not make everyone because He doesn’t desire everyone to be saved; this, my friends, is a direct violation of Scripture (1 Timothy 2:4). If everyone does not believe, then, the root of the problem is not the Spirit’s willing, but THE PERSON’S WILLING!!
Now, go back to the role of the Spirit in salvation. If the Spirit does not seal a person until AFTER belief, then how does the Spirit affect a person PRIOR TO belief? If the Spirit is not within a person up to the moment of belief, how then, does the Spirit affect a person’s coming to faith? The person cannot be regenerated, for to be regenerated means “to be born again”...and the person cannot be born again until he or she believes. So, while the Spirit will not force a person to believe, He will draw a person to come to faith, will woo a person to believe. This drawing influence, however, is not one that guarantees a person’s faith, but one that enables a person to believe.
The Westminster Confession, then, only has half of its statement right: while the Spirit does enable us to believe, He does not guarantee human willing. Why then, may you ask, would the Westminster Confession bear such a statement? It does so because it is committed to the idea that “faith is a work.” Let’s follow Calvinist logic in a syllogism:
a. Faith is a work.
b. A person must believe in order to be saved.
c. We are not saved by works (Eph. 2:8-9).
d. Faith, as a work, must be given by God.
e. Therefore, man must be made to “work,” he must be “made willing” to believe.
As a result, the Calvinist will always argue that regeneration precedes faith. If, however, we come to understand that faith is not a work (Rom. 4:5), then a person can believe on the Lord Jesus Christ with the Spirit’s enablement, but without the Spirit’s “forcing” belief.
It’s amazing how studying on other subjects such as dispensationalism and covenantal theology can still bring us back to the Calvinism-Arminianism debate. And much of our study this summer (and the rest of the year) will bring us back to the Calvinism-Arminianism debate. But such is the nature of theology: it is an unbroken circle of doctrines, all reinforcing one another, again and again.