In regard to salvation, Calvinism understands God’s grace to be irresistible, while Arminianism understands God’s grace to be prevenient and resistible. I believe at the center of this debate is the subject of pride and humility. What role does pride and humility have in how God deals with humanity in general? What role does pride and humility have as it specifically relates to salvation? I believe the answer is found in the following statement made by both James and Peter:
(Jam 4:6; 1 Pe 5:5) “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Both James and Peter make this statement in the context of the Christian life. However, this is a truth that applies to how God deals with humanity in general. Although it’s not described like this in the Bible, I believe we can rightly call this, “The Law of Humility and Grace.” James and Peter were applying it to their particular situation. As it relates to our discussion, we’re concerned with how it relates to salvation and election — specifically in regard to God’s grace.
The following Five Points reveal the Arminian view of God’s grace to be in perfect harmony with this “law,” while demonstrating the Calvinist view to be completely out of harmony with it.
Five Points that Support Prevenient Grace
1 – Universal Truth
James and Peter probably had Proverbs 3:34 in mind, which reveals a general and universal truth about pride and humility, and is clearly seen throughout Scripture. In context, James and Peter were instructing believers, and so they were applying this principle to their own situation. God, in general, deals with humanity according to this “law.” God hates pride and loves humility. As it relates to salvation, sinners must humble themselves before God in order to receive the truth, in order to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. God receives those who humbly receive His Son. On the other hand, God opposes those who reject His Son in pride.
Calvinists may object that since James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 does not pertain to salvation in the context in which they talk about it – but to issues dealing with Christians – that it doesn’t pertain to salvation. But that’s nonsense. The general truth that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble, demands – above all things – the necessity of its particular application to salvation, as well as election. Does salvation require humility? Of course it does. Does God grant the grace of salvation to those who humble themselves in faith? Of course He does. Does God oppose those who reject the gospel message in pride? Of course He does. Therefore, whether James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 refer to salvation in their respective contexts or not, it’s still a universal principle that is to be applied to any given situation where humility and pride are in view.
Everyone who hears the gospel of Jesus Christ must turn away from pride and respond in the humility of faith. Jesus said that “Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). Unless people humble themselves before God as little children, salvation is not possible. Jesus also said: “This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil” (Jn 3:19). People don’t come to faith in Christ because of the fact that they “love darkness rather than the light.” People love their sin so much that they’re not willing to turn away from those things. That’s pride. Paul, too, said that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” ESV (Ro 1:18). People suppress the truth of Christ because they would rather live a life of unrighteousness. In pride they cling to their sinful lifestyle and their own ways. They’re unwilling to humble themselves before God because it would require them to give those things up. God opposes those who reject the truth in pride. Unless they someday respond to the truth in the humility of faith, they will never experience God’s grace of salvation.
Over and over throughout Scripture we see that one must believe in order to receive forgiveness of sins, which requires humility. Faith and humility cannot be separated. One cannot believe apart from humility.
[It’s important to note that the above scriptures reveal that the reason people don’t come to faith in Christ is not because they’re not among “the elect,” but because they don’t humble themselves as little children – because they love darkness rather than light – because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. These scriptures also reveal that God’s grace is resistible].
2 – Prevenient grace provides opportunity for humility and faith, while irresistible grace forces it.
Prevenient grace reveals truth in order to provide the opportunity for the humility of faith that is required for salvation. Irresistible grace via regeneration not only reveals truth, but also eliminates all possibility of pride and rejection. In other words, Calvinism has God taking pride out of the picture and providing (causing) humility in its place. However, God simply can’t ignore pride, because of the fact that He “opposes the proud.” The pride of rejection that God sees in sinners prevents Him from granting the grace of regeneration and humility and salvation.
How many people humble themselves before God upon hearing the gospel the first time? I think it’s fair to say, not many. From the Calvinist perspective, how many people would turn to Christ in the humility of faith if God didn’t regenerate them and provide it? No one. However, God cannot overlook the pride of rejection that He sees. With the Calvinist perspective in mind, how many times does a person reject the gospel message before God regenerates them so they can respond in humility and faith? I doubt if there would be very many Calvinists who would disagree that a person may hear the gospel of Jesus Christ many times before God regenerates them so that they can believe unto salvation. The fact that many people reject Christ over and over and over before he or she finally receives Christ as Lord and Savior, shows that pride is at work. Therefore, granting them the grace of regeneration and the grace of humility and faith, would require God to violate His own principle about humility and pride.
Arminianism teaches that the gospel of Jesus Christ is accompanied by prevenient grace, that God is at work in a person to convict and reveal truth and enable faith — but not irresistibly so. Everyone hearing the gospel message has an opportunity to respond in the humility of faith or reject in pride. However, in Calvinism, a person can hear the gospel message many times and reject it in willful pride for many years before God finally regenerates them. However, this is in conflict with the fact that God opposes the proud. Calvinism has God giving the grace of regeneration and the humility of faith to those who previously rejected Him in pride, perhaps for many years.
Those who hear the gospel message are accountable to respond in faith. If they refuse, it’s because of pride. Whatever the reason for one’s rejection, pride is always the root cause. To say otherwise would contradict such Scriptures as those quoted earlier (Matt 18:3; Jn 3:19; Ro 1:18). As long as a person continues to reject Christ, God will continue to oppose. It’s only when a person humbles himself before God in faith, that He extends the grace of salvation. For God to grant the grace of regeneration would be a violation of His own law, because regeneration is tantamount to salvation. It’s rewarding pride with salvation. It has God ignoring pride while providing (causing) humility in its place.
On the other hand, with prevenient grace, the gospel message is presented, the Holy Spirit does the necessary work in bringing about conviction and revealing truth and freeing the will and enabling faith — and then extends the grace of salvation to those who humble themselves in faith, according to a genuine willingness of the heart. Likewise, God refuses those who refuse His Son in pride. This is a very simple truth that Calvinism severely complicates.
3 – For humility to be genuine, there must be the availability and possibility of pride.
Calvinism has God changing the way He normally deals with pride – which is in opposition – by making prideful rejection impossible, and giving the humility of faith in its place via irresistible grace. However, I contend that in order for humility to be genuine, there must be the availability and possibility of pride. If pride is not present or is not an option, how then, can there be humility? Humility must be measured by something else. There must be the possibility of the response of pride in order for the response of humility to be revealed as such. Yielding in humility, necessarily, requires a turning from that which counters. True humility is defined by that which would challenge one to respond in the other direction. Yet, in Calvinism – upon regeneration – pride is not even a possibility, which reveals a false humility.
The Calvinist version of humility only applies to God. Humility is an inherent attribute of God, and therefore, doesn’t need the possibility of pride to validate His humility. But we’re not God. As sinful beings, whether regenerated or not, there must be the availability and possibility of pride in order for the response of humility to be valid. The Calvinist version of humility isn’t genuine.
4 – Regeneration doesn’t eradicate our will to choose.
There’s yet another reason why the Calvinist version of grace is invalid, and that has to do with their inconsistent view of the operation of regeneration in the context of obedience. As Christians, even though we’ve been regenerated, sin and pride and self-will have not been eradicated. Pride and self-will is still a present possibility in our lives. With that being true, it’s a total fallacy that regeneration guarantees the obedience of faith unto salvation (Acts 6:7; Ro 1:5; Ro 16:26), as Calvinism teaches.
While Calvinists reject the idea that sinners can resist the Holy Spirit as He’s drawing them to faith in Christ, what do we do as Christians? Does the fact that we’ve been regenerated and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, guarantee that we will always obey the Word of God or the promptings of the Spirit? Even Calvinists would say no. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be any sin among God’s people. We would all be living perfect lives before God. But the truth is, we walk in the influences of the Spirit, not in the irresistible control of the Spirit as though we had no will of our own. While we as believers are drawn to obedience, it’s not in a manner that locks our will into submission. We’re given the freedom to choose which way we will go — and sometimes, if not often, we choose to go our own way. To that, even Calvinists would agree.
Therefore, why would it be any different at the initial point of regeneration? Regeneration is the same at every point in one’s life, and it’s the same Holy Spirit who works within a regenerated life at every point. Nowhere does Scripture indicate that the composition or the operation of regeneration changes at any point in a person’s life.
Calvinists would have us believe that a person is under the irresistible control of the Holy Spirit one moment, and then suddenly in a resistible state the very next — that the sinner is irresistibly drawn to the obedience of faith, but then as a believer he or she is enabled with the freedom to choose to obey or not to obey. Thus, we see the inconsistency of the Calvinist version of grace.
Moreover, I contend that irresistible grace goes beyond the purview of grace. Rightly defined, grace is Divine favor. I don’t believe irresistible grace can be correctly defined as such. I think a more accurate term would be Divine exertion, or irresistible exertion. In the Calvinist scheme, God not only regenerates, but He overpowers a sinner’s will so that at the moment of conversion he or she has no will of their own, but God exerting conformity to His own will. At that moment in time, they lose their true identity, and in effect, it’s God doing the believing for them. Once the decision for Christ has been made, they then regain their true identity and are once again given the freedom to choose according to their own will. As discussed above, as regenerated Christians, at no time throughout our lives does the Holy Spirit irresistibly draw us to obedience. He never overpowers our will so that we have no will of our own. But that is exactly what irresistible grace must do to “draw” a person to faith in Christ. But if a person’s will is overpowered or overcome, then according to true definition, a person is not being drawn, but being subdued, being brought under subjection. Calvinism has God overlooking pride before regeneration, and overpowering the will upon regeneration in order to prevent pride. This is not the biblical definition of God’s grace.
Before and during and after conversion, we retain the will to choose to go either God’s way or our own way. At no point does God overpower our will and replace it with His own will. Regeneration places us in the influences of the Holy Spirit, but never under total control (as a robot) to where we lose the freedom of will that gives us our very identity. We each have a personal identity that is linked directly to our individual wills. If we lose that even for a moment, we become someone we’re not. Conformity of our wills to the will of God is a growing process that continues throughout our lives, which still requires the personal yielding of our wills to His.
5 – Prevenient grace does not make a person spiritually neutral.
In answer to any Calvinist objections that prevenient grace makes a person “spiritually neutral,” that hardly describes the work of the Holy Spirit! The Spirit of God is powerfully moving to open spiritually blind eyes, to pierce the darkness with the light of Christ, to bring conviction of sin and of the need for forgiveness, to free the will and enable faith, calling and drawing and wooing the sinner to Christ. He graciously influences the will, but does not overpower it. This is the true, biblical description of Divine grace.
Let’s be clear, as sinners, we’re rooted in pride. We’re also spiritually blind. If the Holy Spirit didn’t open our eyes to the truth, no one would ever be saved. Accordingly, what we’re talking about in regard to prevenient grace, is the opportunity to respond to revealed truth, either according to the humility of faith or the pride of rejection.
Therefore, even though prevenient grace is granted to sinners who are rooted in pride, it doesn’t conflict with the fundamental principle of “opposition to the proud but grace to the humble,” because it, ultimately, still allows the sinner to respond between the two options of humility or pride as it relates to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Again, If the Holy Spirit didn’t open our eyes to the truth, no one would ever be saved. Accordingly, the grace to see, must be granted. When discussing this with another SEA member, he gave an illustration that I think is helpful:
“Prevenient grace does not violate the principle of “opposition to the proud but grace to the humble” because everyone is proud in their depraved state, too proud to receive the gospel. There is no possibility of humility that would receive grace apart from grace to make humility possible. It is sort of like a charity that says it gives financial rewards to those who use their money well among the totally destitute (to encourage proper money use). But the totally destitute do not have money to use well. So that principle does not apply to the fact that the charity also gives all the destitute that it serves a basic amount of money to meet their needs. It only kicks in once the people are able to use money, and show poor or good usage.”
Calvinism’s irresistible grace and regeneration doesn’t allow the options of pride or humility. The difference between the opportunity to respond either way, and having one of those two options removed, is no small distinction between prevenient grace and irresistible grace. There cannot be faith without humility. There also cannot be humility without the option of prideful rejection. What makes humility, humility, is the fact that pride is being set aside. We can only make a humble decision when we first set aside pride. Turning to God in humility, means that we are turning away from self in pride.
However, in Calvinism there’s not even the possibility of pride, because that option has been taken away. Humility and faith is the only option in the irresistible grace of Calvinism. If it’s not possible to turn away from, then it’s not possible to turn to. Clearly the option to go either way must be present in order for the decision to be valid. Each way validates the other, which invalidates Calvinism’s position of irresistible grace.
The bottom line is, even if James and Peter never made that statement about God’s grace in regard to pride and humility, it remains a biblical truth that God only grants salvation to those who humble themselves before Christ in faith. Therefore, the principle of James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5, as it relates to salvation (and election), is clearly taught in the Bible whether it’s specifically stated or not.
I believe the points made here reveal Calvinism’s irresistible grace and regeneration to be a totally flawed representation of God’s grace. It disregards pride and overpowers one’s will – which results in a false humility – turning God’s grace into something that contradicts the very definition of it. It’s easy to see that the Arminian view of God’s grace doesn’t have all the issues that the Calvinist version has.