R.C. Sproul – Willing To Believe
The Controversy Over Free Will
Although read in Dutch I’ve was motivated to get this work by watching RC Sproul’s teaching series on the book called Willing to Believe. It helped understand the issues surround the question of human freedom and sovereignty. I remember that it was not much later than that I was studying Jonathan Edwards’ The Freedom of the Will, which was somewhat difficult.
In this great work this master theologian gives a historical theological study of important theologians throughout the history of the Christian church on the question of human freedom. He goes through some Christian heroes and giants of the faith like Augustine, Edwards, Luther and Calvin. Also some who were non-Christian and anti-Christian in their theology and thinking like Charles Finney and Pelagius. Lastly, theologians who belong more to the in house debate between Arminianism/Semi-Pelagianism and Calvinism, like Jacob Arminius himself.
Pelagius was a British monk living in the fifth century and he is known to have a huge dispute with Augustine on the nature of man and free will. Pelagius reacted to a seemingly harmless prayer of Augustine which said: Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire. Harmless doesn’t it? Well, that’s not what Pelagius thought. He thought it outrages, because it showed man’s total dependence on God to graciously grant the ability to obey Him. Pelagius believed that commandment presupposes ability. What many nowadays believe. He said that God would never command something that man was not able to do. Therefore, everything that God commands man is able to do. So, away with Romans 8:7-8.
He further taught that Adam was in no sense the federal head of the human race. Adam was created mortal and would have died even if he didn’t sin. All men are born in the state that Adam was in. Adam gave man bad influence, not a sinful nature otherwise known as Original Sin.
He taught that the nature of man was basically good and that sinning didn’t effect that basic goodness of man.
Man has a free will to do good or evil and to obey God in all things.
Jesus’ death was not substitionary, but it was as an example for us.
People can live sinless lives, and in fact some have lived sinless lives.
The grace of God is important, but not essential. What I mean is that it would be awesome if one uses the grace of God for obedience, it will make things much easier, but it is even possible to obey without the grace of God.
This among other things are the things that he believed. I think, for any serious Bible student, they must conclude that this places him outside of Christian orthodoxy. Pelagius and his teachings were condemned in 418 and you would think that it will be the last thing heard of Pelagius, but then arises Charles Finney many centuries later in America.
Charles Finney taught things very similar to Pelagius. In fact, he was more Pelagian than Pelagius.
He rejected the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which is the heart of the Gospel message.
He rejected the penal substitionary atonement of Christ in place of the believers. He posed the Governmental and Moral Influence theories of the atonement. He taught that all that was needed for conversion was good argumentation and persuasion. His influence is seen in the decisional evangelism/regeneration of our day, when people are told to make a “choice” for Christ. Or to make to choose Christ to be born again.
It is interesting to observe that this is the vision of the secular culture. That man is able to do anything possible. We think we are not bound by nature to anything. We think that we are the gods of our destinies.
After Augustine’s sharp critique of Pelagius the church did not stay on the Augustinian position, it’s not surprising seeing that man hates the fact that he’s dependent on God for the good that he does and is unable to do that which he ought to do.
There came a position which was somewhere between Augustinianism and Pelagianism. Which rejected the Pelagian heresy, and out of concern for man’s personal responsibility tried to elevate the freedom of the human will in the matter of salvation. They believed that man was badly wounded by the fall. Death is the punishment of the fall. Man’s dispositions are inclined to evil. But there still is in man the ability to resist the grace of God. Although man is dead in sins and is a slave of sin, yet he is still able to resist the effective grace of God and thereby frustrate the plans of God.
Here RC introduces the difference between mongergism and synergism. Monergism is the teaching that there is One Power which is in work in us when regeneration happens, in that we are passive. Synergism on the other hand teaches that man and God cooperate to bring the salvation of man. Arminians may not like the word synergism, but it describes what they believe. They believe that God does everything that He can to bring men to Himself, and He wants all men to come, but yet some refuse to come. Therefore, the will of man is that which effectuates salvation. The Augustinians disagreed.
Later in the 16th century came Jacob Arminius who studied in Geneva (Calvin’s city) and was a Calvinist, but later came to doubt his Calvinism. He agreed with Calvinism about Total Depravity, but where he differed was the nature of grace. Many of the statements of Arminius about human depravity, could be amen’d by Calvinists, but not those about the nature of grace. Basically, he believed that grace was resistible. It was necessary, but not essential in the sense that for anyone to be saved he needs grace, yet grace alone can’t do it, it must cooperate with man for its effectiveness. Man can resist the grace of God.
He also believed the common belief even of our day that the election of God was based on who would believe or not believe like the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians.
The Augustinians & the Reformed
This book was written to defend and clarify the Augustinian doctrine of free will, which is the Reformed doctrine of free will. Here I want to survey some of the theologians and their thoughts concerning free will. Let’s start with Augustine.
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine was the ardent opponent of Pelagius. He was the one who answered and challenged Pelagius and it was because of his prayer that Pelagius was outraged. They are so radically different from each other.
Augustine believed and taught the doctrine of Original Sin. The doctrine teaches that because of Adam’s disobedience and because Adam was the representative of the whole human race (the root of the tree), therefore by his disobedience the whole human race was thrown into misery and sin. He stood in the place of those born of men and women. He believed that death (both spiritual and physical) was the punishment of the disobedience of our first parents.
He taught that all men have free will (liberum arbitrium). What they lacked was liberty (libertas). Augustine defined free will as the power to make free choices without any compulsion from the outside. In that sense every person has free will and is free to do as he pleases. What man in the Fall has lost is libertas. Augustine (and RC) understands libertas as the ability do that which is required of us. God commands man to be holy and obey Him, but since the Fall man has not been able to do that because he lost the libertas to will to that which is good. Because as Jonathan Edwards later would clearly say is that man choses according to his pleasure and desires, the only problem is that the Scriptures everywhere describe our desires as sinful. Man is free do all that he desires (liberum arbitrium), but in the Fall he has lost his desire to do good (libertas).
At this point RC introduces some helpful Latin phrases (I love the fact that he many times explains what words mean):
- Posse non peccare is the possibility not to sin. This is what Adam and Eve had when they were originally created by God.
- Posse peccare is the possibility to sin. This obviously Adam and Eve did.
- Non posse non peccare is the impossibility not to sin. These all the descendants of Adam until freed by Christ have.
- Non posse peccare is the impossibility to sin. This is what those in Christ will have in the eternal state.
Augustine like all Calvinists rejected Pelagius’ foreknowledge view of election and taught that God predestined according to His good pleasure without “looking into the future.” He predestined not because men believed, but He predestined so that men would believe.
Some more than thousand years later there came a dispute between Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther. Luther taught the Augustinian view of freedom and predestination and Erasmus was on the Semi-Pelagian side, only he seemed to think that ...