“I often ask my Arminian friends why they are Christians and other people are not. They say it is because they believe in Christ while others do not. Then I inquire why they believe and others do not? ‘Is it because you are more righteous than the person who abides in unbelief?’ They are quick to say no. ‘Is it because you are more intelligent?’ Again the reply is negative. They say that God is gracious enough to offer salvation to all who believe and that one cannot be saved without that grace. But this grace is cooperative grace. Man in his fallen state must reach out and grasp this grace by an act of the will, which is free to accept or reject this grace. Some exercise the will rightly (or righteously), while others do not. When pressed on this point, the Arminian finds it difficult to escape the conclusion that ultimately his salvation rests on some righteous act of the will he has performed. He has ‘in effect’ merited the merit of Christ, which differs only slightly from the view of Rome” (R.C. Sproul, “Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will,” Fifth Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007, page 26).
I’ve dealt with the Calvinist idea that “faith is a meritorious work” here at the Center for Theological Studies. In this post, however, where I will differ from most posts that contain a quote similar to R.C. Sproul’s above is that I will spend far less time on defending faith as a response to the merit of Christ, and more time on the concepts of divine sovereignty and human responsibility and their roles in salvation. The concepts of divine sovereignty and human responsibility are both affirmed by the Scriptures; and a sound theology will properly incorporate both into its system without negating, diminishing, or nullifying the other.
From the outset, Sproul’s belief that faith is “to merit the merit of Christ” shows his view of the relationship between the concepts of sovereignty and responsibility: that is, that sovereignty brings about salvation, while responsibility acts post-salvation to confirm new life in Christ (regeneration). In other words, divine sovereignty is SOLELY responsible for a person’s salvation: one is either saved or unsaved because of the choice of God. God saves some and damns others, and He does so because of His own choosing. One’s responsibility does not “kick in” until a person is regenerated.
There is a problem here, though: what do we do with the person who does not believe? If a person does not gain responsibility for accepting Christ until “after” they are already saved, does the unsaved person bear any responsibility? To affirm Sproul’s scheme above would mean that those who are unsaved find themselves in unbelief because of God’s sovereignty. God then becomes guilty of unconditional reprobation (which is something that moderate Calvinists shy away from), and the sinner has no responsibility.
Next, the idea of being saved (regenerated) before belief is contrary to the
Scriptures themselves. What about Romans 10:9, for example? The verse does not read, “if one is first saved, then one shall confess and believe”; rather, the verse says, “If one shall confess and believe, then one shall be saved.” To affirm regeneration before faith would “put the cart before the horse” in salvation, so to speak.
Last but not least, to affirm Sproul’s view that regeneration (salvation) precedes faith would mean that divine sovereignty and human responsibility do not work together, but apart; that is, that God requires nothing of the individual to be saved. But what about Paul’s words in Romans 4 that “Abraham believed God”? What about Jesus’ distinction that the one who believes is saved but the one who does not believe is condemned (John 3:16-18)? Surely, God requires the individual to profess faith! If God does not, then the Bible is nothing more than a book of mass deceit.
Let’s explore Sproul’s view of regeneration before faith a little more. Were Adam and Eve responsible in the Garden to obey God’s commands? Yes; and the fact that they did not is what forced them to flee the Garden and guaranteed for them spiritual and physical death. Did man ever lose his responsibility to his Maker after the fall in the Garden (Gen. 3)? No. Despite the fact that man fell from the grace of God, he still had the human responsibility to obey God...even though he could not obey God without the aid of divine grace. So, up until the moment of salvation, man still has human responsibility. If human responsibility exists before regeneration (which it does), then Sproul’s scheme cannot fit: for how can responsibility (professing faith) come after salvation, if human responsibility already exists “before” salvation? Responsibility cannot come into existence before and after salvation simultaneously. One must win: either responsibility exists before salvation, and man is responsible for professing faith...or, responsibility is absent until salvation, and the unsaved man is not responsible for his unbelief. Calvinists cannot have it both ways. Here is a simple syllogism:
#1) Regeneration brings the responsibility of professing faith (Calvinism)
#2) the unsaved are those who are not regenerated
#3) then the unsaved do not have the responsibility of professing faith
As a result, the unsaved bear no responsibility whatsoever for their unbelief and thus, lack of salvation. They are unsaved because of God: God is responsible for their eternal damnation. But why then, does Jesus say that “he that believes not is condemned already” (John 3:18), if what He really meant was “he that is not regenerated to believe is condemned already”? That’s a question that Calvinists cannot shy away from.
Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are two biblically-cherished concepts. The Bible does not nullify or exclude either concept. But I fear that Calvinism does nullify and eliminate human responsibility...and replaces human responsibility with “divine responsibility.” But the Bible never tells me that God “makes” me believe. Rather, what it tells me is that the Spirit draws me (John 6:44) to the truth of the Gospel and that I believe because I exercise the grace and faith that are given to me by God (Eph. 1:13; 2:8-9). I’ll leave it to you to decide which camp (Calvinism or Arminianism) is most faithful to Scripture.