Sovereignty or Contingency?

by Dennis Michelson
(Novelty, Ohio)

Romans 9:16 - "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy."

Introduction: The question of the ages is posed in Daniel 4:35 - "And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?"

It is becoming increasingly more difficult to find Bible preachers and teachers who will stand up with lip and life and declare without fear or favor that our God is in absolute control. Some will state this but when it comes right down to practice they appear to have a God of contingency rather than sovereignty.

Their God appears to be reactive rather than active. In short, God could do more if man would just cooperate. If this is your heart-felt belief then you better stop reading this now since the text is taken from a chapter in the Bible that is not very palatable either. One writer said that the great mark of scholarship is simplicity. I am praying that the Lord will help me make this very, very simple.

1. The Principles Stated

(1) Before the Fall man was able to sin (Genesis 2:17)
(2) After the Fall man was not able not to sin (Romans 14:23)
(3) After regeneration man is able to not sin (Romans 6:14)
(4) After regeneration man is able to choose between the flesh and the Spirit (Romans 8:7-9)

2. The Problem Developed

(1) Man, by his Fall, has completely lost all ability of will to perform any of the spiritual good which accompanies salvation (Romans 5:6)
(2) Man is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or prepare himself for conversion (Titus 3:5)
(3) Pick one of the following -
(a) man has the ability to save himself
(b) man has the partial ability to save himself
(c) man has no ability to save himself

3. The Practical Results

(1) Your methodology ought to proceed from your theology as reflected in your answers given above
(2) Some have embraced a methodology which is totally inconsistent with their professed theology
(3) Some have at least been more consistent by replacing an orthodox theology with a pragmatic methodology

4. The Polemics Outlined

A polemic is akin to a mental battle or war between antagonists. The great dividing line in all of our struggles (theological and cultural) is between human self-sufficiency and God's sovereignty. The early church fathers taught that the reception of God's mercy and grace was to some extent dependent on an individual's response.

Augustine concluded that human merit played no part in salvation and that God's grace was indeed utterly gratuitous. In his debates with Pelagius, Augustine was forced to refine his position from synergism to monergism. In other words, he moved from a position of "cooperative salvation" much like the decisional regeneration of our day to a position that held that salvation was of the Lord.

Augustine did this because he saw that a radical view of sin required a radical view of grace. Much of this has been lost in the modern church due to a defective view of the falleness of man. Monergists see salvation as an act of God's will. Synergists see salvation as a product of human will.

Later, the Roman Church condemned Pelagius but did not wholly accept the Augustinian doctrine of grace, especially as it related to predestination. A "modified Augustinianism" was adopted by Rome after the Synod of Orange (529). Pope Gregory (590-604) taught Augustinianism but practiced synergism - that is, salvation consisted of a cooperation between God's grace and man's free will.

This is fairly close to the practice of many evangelical churches in our day. Thomas Aquinas later tried to reconcile the sovereignty of God and man's free will by appealing to God's foreknowledge. He concluded that the free will is not sufficient unless it is moved and helped by God. Thus, fallen man was not dead but he was very, very sick. This view has been adopted by default in many Baptist churches (or "baptistic" churches) who have opted to drop the label.

So to review:

Pelagius: Man's will is such that he can come to God without Divine assistance.

Aquinas: Man's will is such that he can come to God if he can first get a Divine "jump start."

Augustine: Man's will is useless. He needs a new one.

In the 16th century Luther and Erasmus debated over the question of man's free will and free choice. The recurring question was whether unregenerate persons can be held responsible for either accepting or rejecting the gospel if their wills were incapable of good pertaining to salvation (Read Luther's Bondage of the Will or Edwards Freedom of the Will). The conclusion was that God does not cooperate with man's fallen will - He creates a new one (Ezekiel 36:26). He changes an evil will to a good one.

The Canons of Dort (1618-1619); Westminster Confession (1646); and Baptist Confession of 1689 enter the polemics. The Baptists concluded - "The effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not on account of anything at all foreseen in man.

It is not made because of any power or agency in the creature who is wholly passive in the matter. Man is dead in sins and trespasses until quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit. By this he is enabled to answer the call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed by it.

This enabling power is no less than that which raised up Christ from the dead." Some have wrongly concluded that the human will plays no role at all in salvation. Even the Presbyterians (Article 16) sought to correct such a false assumption.

"This Divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and in a manner at once pleasing and powerful - bends it back."

Jonathan Edwards took it a step further - "In efficacious grace we are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some, and we do the rest. But God does all, and we do all. God produces all, and we act all."

What Edwards is saying is that salvation is not a 50-50 matter (Arminian position), or a 100-0 matter (perceived Calvinist position). Rather, it is totally a result of God's sovereign grace, and yet we are totally involved (Philippians 2:12-13).

For those who really care to delve more deeply into this matter, then volume 10 of the works of John Owen is required reading. Listen to this chapter title - A Display of Arminianism: Being a Discovery of the Old Pelagian Idol Free-Will, With the New Goddess Contingency.

A basic issue with Owen was - Is election by grace or is it based upon some ground of foreseen excellence or merit in man. He states it as follows - "What benefit did ever come to this church by attempting to prove that the chief part in the several degrees of our salvation is to be ascribed to ourselves, rather than God?

This hews at the very root of Christianity by denying the fundamental article of original sin. This is the bitter root from whence have sprung many heresies . . .concerning the power of man in working his own happiness, and his exemption from the over-ruling providence of Almighty God."

5. The Product Described

We now have created a dependent God for an independent man. (to be continued . . .God willing)

Comments for Sovereignty or Contingency?

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Jun 12, 2011
100% God
by: Stephen Root

Good message, I was glad that we were able to hear it in person this morning, at least part 1

Jun 12, 2011
by: Bob Schembre

First of all "Rey", it is "Bereans", not Boreans. and Thanks for perverting the Word of God before us all. What a mockery you made of a Sovereign God.

Jun 12, 2011
by: Anonymous

In this context, how does this verse apply? - "God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance."

Jun 12, 2011
by: Bob Schembre

Well brother, having sat in your class on homiletics I am most delighted to see this excellent exegesis of the text.
yay Sovereignty
boo contingency
After having been a champion of the free will of man for over 20 years in the pulpit, God has graciously enlightened to the glorious truth of His Sovereignty. It's all about Him.

bob Schembre

Jun 11, 2011
A Borean view
by: Rey Borean

It is amazing how people lack the discernment to actually lookup the OT passages Paul cites and read them. Despite the mention of the Boreans doing exactly this, still only 1 out of every million Christians seems to bother.

What is the context of the passage where God says to Moses "I will show mercy to whom I will"? It is where God has told Moses he will allow him to see a vision of God (to see God's hinder side). And to justify giving such a vision to Moses, and Moses alone, God says "I will show favor to whom I will, and kindness to whom I will." Paul has translated the first word, favor, as mercy, and the second, kindness, as compassion. The passage is not really about mercy, but about a special favor and kindness, namely the vision of God.

Now what of Pharaoh? Paul implies that God showed him no mercy but forced him to sin. Is that accurate? Exodus 9 has God say to Pharaoh "I could have killed you already with my plagues, but I have spared you, to show you my power." This is surely mercy. In fact, God only hardens Pharaoh by showing him mercy. In the next chapter, it is when Pharaoh asks Moses to have God remove the plague, and when God immediately removes it on Moses' request, that it is said "and Pharaoh hardened his heart when he saw there was relief." That is, Pharaoh hardened his own heart in response to God's mercy, for in Pharaoh's mind, God's mercy betokened weakness; he thought that God's mercy would never end, that he could sin forever and God would always relent.

Paul's conclusion, then, that God "has mercy on whom he will, and hardens whom he will" is not a valid conclusion. God not only showed his special kindness to Moses, but also showed mercy to Pharaoh. It was in fact God's mercy that made Pharaoh harden his own heart. It is not right, then, to say God has mercy on some and hardens others. God has mercy on all, and some harden themselves in response to his mercy.

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