Some time ago this year I critiqued Arminian theologian Steve Sewell’s treatment of James 4:6; and 1 Peter 5:5. In Sewell’s argumentation, I pointed out some of the shortcomings that his Arminian approach to these texts have with regard to grace. Sewell emphatically pushed the point that the Scripture would thereby indicate that God’s grace is not irresistible, and thus the Reformed teaching of sovereign grace would by such an examination prove to be false. I find this interesting, since no Reformed person has seen this claim of prevenient grace, which to put it bluntly, would be a grace that doesn’t really save, but makes people save-able. Sewell has since written a rebuttal, which can be found here.
Now, Sewell has modified his treatment on the issue, but in his rebuttal, I would like to take a look at a few things. I must say I am completely pleased with Sewell’s response, because he is dealing with a very important evangelical dialogue. I would happily worship God alongside Sewell, but I do believe Sewell’s treatment of certain Scriptures do not prove what he is trying to say. I admit though that Sewell probably is far more educated than me on the onset, so I will try approaching the issue with a sincere humility. I would also point out that I criticized Sewell’s utilization of these texts, because he did not present an exegesis or any form of interpretation in-depth in that particular article but merely assumed his points.
Another look at James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5
Sewell commented on these two texts saying, “First I’ll explain why prevenient grace works. As we’ve already discussed, in our regenerate state, we are slaves of sin, and so our wills must be freed so that we’re able to respond in faith or reject in pride. In other words, we’re placed in a position where we’re able to go either way. Those who respond to the gospel message in the humility of faith, are given the “grace” of salvation. Those who reject the truth in pride, He “resists.”” Sewell goes on to assert that “the humility of faith must come before the grace of regeneration.” His overall point is that with Arminianism’s prevenient grace, God would resist those who reject the gospel (in their “freed” will state), and he would give grace to those who accept the gospel. The point I think he is trying to make is that with sovereign grace, we are unable to have this sort of framework play out, since in Calvinism, man always rejects God, by this they would be proud, and God would be giving his grace to the proud.
Firstly, Sewell assumes his theology of prevenient grace is present in these two texts when it is not. He hasn’t given any reason why we should see this as being prevenient, he merely assumes the validity of prevenient grace into the text, which is eisegesis.
Second, with regard to the context of these two texts, I pointed out previously that I am not sure these texts in any way advocate God’s soteriological grace. What I meant by this is that these texts are not didactic passages dealing with God’s grace in the theological context of salvation, which is crucial. They do not. If Sewell wants to deal with texts dealing with soteriological grace, we can take a look at texts like Ephesians 2 or John 6 which emphatically goes into more detail about that.
Third, this point is linked to the first: there is no mention of a “neutral” or “freed” will state present in these texts, or any other text for that matter, it is a theological assumption forced onto the text. This presents us with a classical error of Arminian/Wesleyan thought, is the person still a “sinner” before he “decides to believe” in God? If he is a sinner, how does he choose God, based on what does he decide to choose God? How can a sinner do that which is pleasing to God? You see someone is either “in the flesh,” or “in the Spirit.” (Romans 8) Within Romans chapter 8, nowhere does Paul assert a “neutral” or “freed will” state of man brought by a prevenient grace administered by God’s Spirit. Prevenient grace is a very clever theology in attempt dodge the biblical teaching of total depravity, but it is only that, “too-convenient grace.” A question I would ask any Arminian would be this – is the sinner by means of God’s prevenient grace still a sinner? Prevenient grace begs the question, it does not answer anything.
“Surely he mocks the mockers, but he gives grace to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)
Sewell seems to imply that these texts would still have relevance to his claim, and he simply sets aside my proposition that this text speaks of post-salvific grace. Prevenient grace by definition still undermines Sewell’s position, because grace would still precede their faith.
Are those who choose to humble themselves by prevenient grace wiser than those who do not? On the day of judgement, could those who are not saved say “I chose God, because I was wiser” or would the only thing separating the saved from the unsaved be a four letter word called “grace”? Claiming that free-willed faith is the badge separating us from the world is extremely arrogant, it is the grace of God which separates God’s saved people from the world.
Perseverance of the Saints Defended
Sewell also goes to great lengths to prove not only the doctrine of prevenient grace, but it seems the entire system of Classical Arminianism. Sewell also deals with Hebrews 6, and 10, which to him would indicate that a truly regenerate person can lose their salvation. I would like to deal with these chapters in a separate post, since the scope of this post does not cover the issue of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. However, at first glance, the premise that Hebrews teaches that one can lose their salvation is seriously problematic in light of the entirety of the book of Hebrews, and the entirety of the Scriptures (John 6:38-40; 10:26-29; 17:9-26; Philippians 1:6-7; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; etc.):
- “but Christ is faithful as a Son over his house; whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the glorying of our hope firm to the end.” (Hebrews 3:6)
- The text speaks of Christ’s faithfulness over God’s house that Jesus takes care of the house. This speaks of Christ’s responsibility and ability.
- The verse ends with something important it states that we are (present tense) the house of God, if we endure to the end. Now this is important, since it would then be saying that if we do not hold fast our confidence to the end, that we are not God’s house therefore. The condition is not losing your salvation, but the condition reveals whether or not we are truly God’s house, because if we were, we would have continued (cf. 1 John 2:19).
- Following the polemic of the writer of Hebrews, our holding fast to the end is tied to Christ’s own ability as being faithful as taking care of God’s house. If we are God’s house, and some are lost, Christ’s ability to save to the uttermost would then be in question (7:25), thus calling into question his faithfulness.
- This verse would then by default nullify any claim that the on-going chapters speak of “losing one’s salvation.”
- “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm to the end.” (Hebrews 3:14)
- The same point is repeated here, we are only truly partakers of Christ if we have on-going perseverance; to say otherwise is to undermine the fundamental crux of this text.
- Our becoming partakers of Christ is evidence by perseverance.
- “But, beloved, we are persuaded of better things for you, and things that accompany salvation, even though we speak like this.” (Hebrews 6:9)
- The writer of Hebrews is still sure that there are those who will continue in their faith, they have assurance. Now, I might step on some toes by my assertion – how can someone be assured of something which he can lose later on by his own sin? I cannot have perfect assurance based on something, which I can still lose later on. My assurance is then partially dependent on my striving, and not Christ’s ability.
- Synergism, which includes Arminianism sides with Roman Catholicism on these fundamental issues. Sacramental theology in Roman Catholicism teaches that one is justified up until the point he sins then he loses his justification, and needs to go partake of the sacraments again. Assurance is fundamentally questioned, because someone’s assurance is tied to his own works, which is exactly with Catholicism teaches, it teaches a sacrifice which does not perfect those for whom it is intended.Arminianism essentially agrees therefore with Catholicism since someone’s salvation and security is tied to his own conduct and endurance, rather than God’s work.
- “For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14)
- This text again refutes the premise that salvation can be lost, since the sacrifice of Christ actually perfects those for whom it is made, namely, his elect (John 17:9; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Romans 8:31-39; etc.).
- How can someone who has been perfected fall away? His salvation must be accomplished. If Christ has taken upon himself all of our sin (the sin of God’s elect), how can we claim that he will send those to hell who already had their sins atoned for?
- The salvation of those for whom Christ atoned for absolute.
- “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the saving of the soul.” (Hebrews 10:39)
- The text explicitly teaches that we are not of those who fall away after making a profession of faith, but rather that we continue.
- We might ask ourselves, why do we continue whereas others do not? Is it because we are wiser, smarter or better than they are? No, it is because our faith is of divine origin, our faith is given from God (Philippians 1:29; 2 Peter 1:1; John 6:29-30). Our faith perseveres, unlike those who have a mere fleshly presentation of faith (John 2:24-25), our faith is birthed because of God’s effectual call, his sovereign grace (1 Corinthians 1:24; 1 John 5:1; etc.).
I do not believe that the case for losing or forfeiting one’s salvation can thoroughly be substantiated, only the contrary from these texts can legitimately be established.
In light of the testimony of Scriptures, I cannot by any means take serious the many advocations to agree with the doctrine of prevenient grace because it is assumed and nowhere directly derived from the Scriptures.
The doctrine concerning free will, grace and the like are the hinge upon which the Reformation stands or falls, as Martin Luther himself said. In light of Sewell’s classical Arminianism, or at least outright Semi-Pelagian tendencies, he has sided with Rome, he has sided with Desiderius Erasmus, and he has side against the Reformation. The Scriptures nowhere assumes or even implies prevenient grace as defined by Sewell, the silence is deafening. Sewell may respond to these texts, but I will not continue the dialogue, I will simply let those who have followed the brief exchange consider what has been said.