Our Wills: Created and Corrupted (Owen)

The Works of John Owen, Vol. 10: The Death of Christ In Reformed theology, following Augustine and ultimately Paul/Scripture, we deny the Arminian position that all people have free will which gives them the power and innate ability to believe in Christ as they wish.  John Owen brilliantly countered this Arminian position of free will in his book, A Display of ArminianismBelow is a section of chapter 12 where he discusses the nature and power of free will.  Notice how Owen refutes the Arminian position by noting that our wills are created (therefore dependent) and corrupt (therefore in bondage to sin):

That, then, which the Arminians claim here in behalf of their free-will is, an absolute independence on God’s providence in doing any thing, and of his grace in doing that which is good,—a self-sufficiency in all its operations, a plenary indifferency of doing what we will, this or that, as being neither determined to the one nor inclined to the other by any overruling influence from heaven. So that the good acts of our wills have no dependence on God’s providence as they are acts, nor on his grace as they are good; but in both regards proceed from such a principle within us as is no way moved by any superior agent.

Now, the first of these we deny unto our wills, because they are created; and the second, because they are corrupted. Their creation hinders them from doing any thing of themselves without the assistance of God’s providence; and their corruption, from doing any thing that is good without his grace. A self-sufficiency for operation, without the effectual motion of Almighty God, the first cause of all things, we can allow neither to men nor angels, unless we intend to make them gods; and a power of doing good, equal unto that they have of doing evil, we must not grant to man by nature, unless we will deny the fall of Adam, and fancy ourselves still in paradise

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 10 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 118–119.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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He Inclines Their Wills (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.5: Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings In 1 Kings 12 Solomon’s son Rehoboam had just become Israel’s new king.  Israel begged him to lighten the yoke of hard service.  To make a longer story short, Rehoboam flatly refused and told them that he’d instead add to the hard service (1 Ki 12:11, 14).  Scripture gives us this insight in the middle of the story: So the king did not listen to the people; for it was a turn of events from the Lord, that He might establish His word, which the Lord spoke through Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. (1 Ki 12:15 NASB).

While reflecting on this passage and others like it, Augustine (d. 430) wrote some helpful comments concerning God’s sovereign will, man’s actions, and divine grace:

Who can help trembling at those judgments of God by which He does in the hearts of even wicked men whatsoever He wills, at the same time rendering to them according to their deeds? Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, rejected the salutary counsel of the old men, not to deal harshly with the people, and preferred listening to the words of the young men of his own age, by returning a rough answer to those to whom he should have spoken gently. Now whence arose such conduct, except from his own will? Upon this, however, the ten tribes of Israel revolted from him, and chose for themselves another king, even Jeroboam, that the will of God in His anger might be accomplished which He had predicted would come to pass. For what says the Scripture? “The king hearkened not unto the people; for the turning was from the Lord, that He might perform His saying, which the Lord spake to Ahijah the Shilonite concerning Jeroboam the son of Nebat.” All this, indeed, was done by the will of man, although the turning was from the Lord.

Read the books of the Chronicles, and you will find the following passage in the second book: “Moreover, the Lord stirred up against Jehoram the spirit of the Philistines, and of the Arabians, that were neighbours to the Ethiopians; and they came up to the land of Judah, and ravaged it, and carried away all the substance which was found in the king’s house.” Here it is shown that God stirs up enemies to devastate the countries which He adjudges deserving of such chastisement. Still, did these Philistines and Arabians invade the land of Judah to waste it with no will of their own? Or were their movements so directed by their own will that the Scripture lies which tells us that “the Lord stirred up their spirit” to do all this? Both statements to be sure are true, because they both came by their own will, and yet the Lord stirred up their spirit; and this may also with equal truth be stated the other way: The Lord both stirred up their spirit, and yet they came of their own will. For the Almighty sets in motion even in the innermost hearts of men the movement of their will, so that He does through their agency whatsoever He wishes to perform through them, even He who knows not how to will anything in unrighteousness. 

After listing other similar passages in Scripture, Augustine comments again:

From these statements of the inspired word, and from similar passages which it would take too long to quote in full, it is, I think, sufficiently clear that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills whithersoever He wills, whether to good deeds according to His mercy, or to evil after their own deserts; His own judgment being sometimes manifest, sometimes secret, but always righteous. This ought to be the fixed and immoveable conviction of your heart, that there is no unrighteousness with God. Therefore, whenever you read in the Scriptures of Truth, that men are led aside, or that their hearts are blunted and hardened by God, never doubt that some ill deserts of their own have first occurred, so that they justly suffer these things. Thus you will not run counter to that proverb of Solomon: “The foolishness of a man perverteth his ways, yet he blameth God in his heart.” Grace, however, is not bestowed according to men’s deserts; otherwise grace would be no longer grace.9 For grace is so designated because it is given gratuitously.

 Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on Grace and Free Will,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 462-3.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Luther on the Term “Free Will”

If you know a few things about Martin Luther, you probably know that he wrote Bondage of the Will in response to Erasmus’ book about the freedom of the will (Discussion Concerning Free Will).  Luther argued from Scripture that man, since Adam’s fall, is born in sin, dead in sin, and in bondage to sin.  This means because his nature is corrupt and his will is sinful, an unregenerate person cannot obey and please God.  A bad tree brings forth bad fruit.  Luther did not like the term “free will” since it implies that fallen man is free to choose what is good and pleasing to God:

“This false idea of ‘free-will’ is a real threat to salvation, and a delusion fraught with the most perilous consequences.”

In other words, if man’s will even plays a little part in salvation, it robs God of glory and exalts man in a very unbiblical way.  Luther did make a minor concession, however.  He did say if we want to keep the term “free will,” we should use it differently than the semi-Pelagians or Pelagians use it:

“If we do not want to drop this term altogether – which would really be the safest and most Christian thing to do – we may still in good faith teach people to use it to credit man with ‘free-will’ in respect, not of what is above him, but of what is below him.  That is to say, man should realize that in regard to his money and possessions he has a right to use them, to do or to leave undone, according to his own ‘free-will’ – though that very ‘free-will’ is overruled by the free-will of God alone, according to his own pleasure.  However, with regard to God, and in all that bears on salvation or damnation, he has no ‘free-will’, but is a captive, prisoner and bondslave, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan.”

Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, p. 106-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Free Will or Free Grace? (Toplady)

The Works of Augustus M. Toplady (6 vols.)In 1773, Augustus Toplady wrote to a friend about his dialogue with an Arminian, Mr. Oliver.  It’s a longer discourse, but here’s a section where Toplady, who himself was an Arminian when young, recounted his own story:

When I was a lad of 15 or 16 years old, I was haranguing, in company, on the doctrine of free-will, as you are now. A good old gentleman rose from his chair, and coming to mine, held me by one of my coat buttons, while he spoke as follows: “My dear sir, you have been talking largely in favor of man’s free agency. Allow me to leave argument, and come to experience. How was it with you, when God first laid hold on you by effectual grace? had you any hand in procuring it? Nay, would you not have resisted and baffled God’s Spirit, if he had left you to your will?” I was more embarrassed with this question, than I was willing to show. Yet I had then too much pride to confess how much I was nonplussed by this calm and single interrogation. However, before I was eighteen, God was graciously pleased to enlighten me into that precious chain of truths which, through his good hand upon me, I still abide by.

Permit me, Mr. Oliver, to put the above question to you. I trust, you have experienced something of a work of God, upon your heart. What say you? Did you choose God, or did God choose you? Did he lay hold on you, or did you lay hold on him?

Oliver: I must own to you, that, before my conversion, I was one of the most abandoned swearers and drunkards in England. I received my serious impressions from Mr. Whitefield. On the day of the evening in which I first heard him preach, I suppose I had not sworn so few as forty profane oaths.

Toplady: Then it is very clear that your conversion, at least, was not conditional.

Oliver: I will not say, that I procured grace of myself. Nor will I say, how far I might have resisted it.

Toplady: I plainly perceive, that you are not disposed to return a direct answer to my first question. But, if you will not answer it to me, let me request you to take an early opportunity of answering it on your knees before God in prayer. Go to your closet, and pour out your heart in his presence: and beg him to show you, whether you was converted by free-will, or by free-grace alone. —— To this he gave little or no reply.

Augustus M. Toplady, The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 6 (London; Edinburgh: William Baynes and Son; H. S. Baynes, 1825), 175–177.

Shane Lems

“One Grain of Arminianism” A. Toplady

The Works of Augustus M. Toplady (6 vols.) I’ve recently been enjoying the writing of Augustus Toplady (d. 1778).  As you may know, Toplady wrote “Rock of Ages” and “A Debtor to Mercy Alone.”  He was a defender of the doctrines of grace and debated John Wesley’s Arminianism.  Here are a few sections from his sermon on Ps. 115:1 (Not to us, LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. NIV).  In this first section, he compares idolatry to relying on one’s works/righteousness for justification:

But let me ask, If it be so very absurd to worship the work of other men’s hands; what must it be to worship the works of our own hands? Perhaps you may say, “God forbid that I should do so.” Nevertheless, let me tell you, that trust, confidence, reliance, and dependence for salvation, are all acts, and very solemn ones too, of divine worship: and upon whatsoever you depend, whether in whole, or in part, for your acceptance with God, and for your justification in his sight; whatsoever you rely upon, and trust in, for the attainment of grace or glory; if it be any thing short of God in Christ, you are an idolater to all intents and purposes.

Here’s a note on God’s glory in salvation:

And thus will it be, when God has accomplished the number of his elect, and completely gathered in the fullness of his redeemed kingdom. What, do you think, your song will be, when you come to heaven? Blessed be God, that he gave me free-will; and blessed be my own dear self, that I made a good use of it? O no, no. Such a song as that was never heard in heaven yet, nor ever will, while God is God and heaven is heaven. Look into the Book of Revelation, and there you will find the employ of the blessed, and the strains in which they sing. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God, by thy blood, out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation (a). There is discriminating grace for you! Thou hast redeemed us out of every kindred, etc. that is, from (b) among the rest of mankind. Is not this particular election, and limited redemption?

Finally, here’s Toplady on the “rust” of self-righteous pride and how we lose it when we enter glory:

I will venture to assert, that not one grain of Arminianism ever attended a saint into heaven.  If those of God’s people, who are in the bonds of that iniquity, are not explicitly converted from it, while they live and converse among men; yet do they leave it all behind them in Jordan (i. e. in the river of death) when they go through. They may be compared to Paul, when he went from Jerusalem to Damascus, and the grace of God struck him down: he fell, a free-wilier; but he rose a free-gracer. So, however the rust of self-righteous pride (and a cursed rust it is: may God’s Spirit file it off from all our souls) however that rust may adhere to us at present; yet, when we come to stand before the throne, and before the Lamb, it will be all done away, and we shall sing in one full, everlasting chorus, with elect angels and elect men, Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us.

Augustus M. Toplady, The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 3 (London: Richard Baynes, 1825), 163-4, 168-9.

shane lems
hammond, wi

An Illustration of Arminianism

When we who are Reformed Christians talk about Arminianism we have to be careful not to set up straw men or be misleading when we explain it.  Telling the truth is, of course, what the 9th commandment is all about.  This is one reason I purchased Why I Am Not A Calvinist by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell.  I realize that there are different groups within the Arminian camp, and I realize that there is more to Walls and Dongell’s argument than the following illustration.  But it is a good basic illustration that explains Arminian soteriology (partial depravity, unlimited atonement, resistible grace).

“The classical Arminian believes that God steals into the prison and makes it to the bedside of the victim.  God injects a serum that begins to clear the prisoner’s mind of delusions and quell her hostile reactions.  God removes the gag from the prisoner’s mouth and shines a flashlight around the pitch-black room.  The prisoner remains mute as the Rescuer’s voice whispers, ‘Do you know where you are?  Let me tell you!  Do you know who you are?  Let me show you!’

“And as the wooing begins, divine truth begins to dawn on the prisoner’s heart and mind; the Savior holds up a small mirror to show the prisoner her sunken eyes and frail body.  ‘Do you see what they’ve done to you, and do you see how you’ve given yourself to them?’  Even in the dim light, the prisoner’s weakened eyes are beginning to focus.  The Rescuer continues, ‘Do you know who I am, and that I want you for  myself?’  Perhaps the prisoner makes no obvious advance but does not turn away.  The questions keep coming: ‘Can I show you pictures of who you once were and the wondrous plans I have for you in the years to come?’”

“The prisoner’s heartbeat quickens as the Savior presses on: ‘I know that part of you suspects that I have come to harm you.  But let me show you something – my hands, they’re a bit bloody.  I crawled through an awful tangle of barbed wire to get to you.’  Now here in this newly created sacred space, in this moment of new possibility, the Savior whispers, ‘I want to carry you out of here right now!  Give me your heart!  Trust me!”

“This scenario, we believe, captures the richness of the Bible’s message: the glory of God’s original creation, the devastation of sin, God’s loving pursuit of helpless sinners and the nature of love as the free assent of persons.  Here also is room for tragedy, for the inexplicable (but possible) rejection of God’s tender invitation by those who really know better and who might have done otherwise.  Sin shows up in its boldest colors when it recapitulates the rebellion of Eden and freely chooses to go its own way in the face of divine love and full provision.  The tragedy of such rejection is the risk God took in making possible shared love between creature and Creator, the very love shared between the Father and the eternal Son (Jn 17:23-26).”

Even though I very much disagree with this illustration, it is a clear and simple picture of Arminian soteriology from the pens of those who hold these views.

Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I am Not A Calvinist, p. 69-70.

shane lems
hammond wi

The Cage Phase

  Here’s a great excerpt from M. Horton’s new book, For Calvinism.

“Critics have frequently confused Calvinism with hyper-Calvinism, and sometimes contact with hyper-Calvinists proves the caricature.  Often, bowled over by a sense of God’s majesty and grace, new Calvinists enter what we call ‘the cage phase.’  Like any new convert, we can be hard to live with when we’ve just experienced a radical paradigm shift.  Why weren’t we taught this when it seems so evident in Scripture?  How can our fellow Christians ignore these doctrines and even squelch any discussion?  In this condition, enthusiasm can turn to frustration and even to arrogance and divisiveness.  Only superficially acquainted with Reformed teaching at this stage, we swing from one extreme to the other, misunderstanding and misrepresenting these doctrines.  This often proves the caricature.  No doubt, many critics of Calvinism have encountered this, and it puts them off from taking a second look at the position.”

“However, mainstream Calvinism has been associated with personal renewal as well as doctrinal reformation.  In fact, Reformed piety has resisted the false choice between head and heart, doctrine and life, church and individual.  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both Lutheran and Reformed traditions reflected a concern for doctrine and life as one integrated pattern.  Like the Reformers themselves, the evangelical movement was deeply impressed with the significance of Christian truth for daily living.  That is why the Bible was translated into the common languages of the people and widely distributed to parishes and households, along with catechisms, prayer books, and psalters.”

Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 13-14.

shane lems