Calvinism and Arminianism 31

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

Is our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who deny the latter (as the Arminians later did) thereby deny man’s utter helplessness in sin, and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder, then, that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principle a return to Rome (because in effect it turned faith into a meritorious work) and a betrayal of the Reformation (because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the Reformer’s thought). Arminianism was, indeed, in Reformed eyes a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favour of New Testament Judaism; for to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle from relying on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other (Johnson and Packer’s introduction to Luther’s Bondage of the Will).

Using the analogy of the tip of the iceberg, we have looked at (to some degree) how the doctrine of free-will collides with free-grace. They collide, not only because they are directly contradictory, but because the beliefs that support them and are inextricably intertwined with them collide beneath the surface where people are not looking. Luther said (as in quote above) that “This false idea of ‘free-will’ is a real threat to salvation, and a delusion fraught with the most perilous consequences.” The reason he said that was not only that he believed it, but because of all the other beliefs that one must hold to when one holds to free-will.

One of the main beliefs that a person must hold to if a person holds to free-will is that a person is not dead in sin and is not utterly helpless in the bondage of sin. Rome denied that and taught that men could come to the Church (Roman Catholicism) and use their system to obtain grace and then have an enabling grace to do works and as such there was a form of salvation. The doctrines of the will are always linked to the depth of depravity and inability and the doctrines of how men receive grace and what kind of grace they receive. Once a person denies the Reformation doctrine that men are dead in sin and have no ability at all in the spiritual realm, it becomes a question as to how much freedom they have and how that freedom can be exercised in obtaining grace.

The subject of free-will is, as it were, the connecting link between the doctrines of original sin and of divine grace—between man’s natural condition as fallen, involved in guilt and depravity, and the way in which they are restored to favor, to holiness, and happiness. William Cunningham

As Cunningham shows, the will is the place where the doctrines of original sin (depravity and ability or inability) and of divine grace meet. What one believes about the will has necessary implications for what one believes about depravity and the degree of that and of the nature of grace. What one believes about the will has a necessary connection to other vital doctrines. One can even trace what one believes about the will to the doctrine of justification. This is, once again, an effort to point to the vital nature of the doctrine of the will and the dangers inherent in the doctrine of “free-will.” Whether one holds to the bondage of the will or free-will has enormous consequences for other doctrines and the well-being of the soul. These must not be diminished or laughed off by saying that at least those who hold the different doctrines are preaching the same Christ. I would argue that the doctrine of the will has a great influence on how people preach Christ.

If the minister believes that he is preaching to men with free-will and all that they have to do is make a choice or pray a prayer to be saved, the minister will preach to those men in a way as if it all depended upon them and their choice. Christ will be preached in a way that will enable men to make a choice. But if the minister truly believes that men are dead in sin and unable to make some choice that will lead to their salvation, he will preach Christ in such a way to get men to look to Christ alone. That minister will preach to men in such a way as to get them to look away from their own wills and choices and look to grace alone. When a man professes to be Reformed and yet preaches to men as if they had free-wills, that man is not truly Reformed. The bondage of the will is a necessary teaching to the freeness of grace in the Gospel and getting men to look to grace rather than self.

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