Saturday, March 08, 2008

Are the Reformed semi-pelagian?


I noticed this remark on Timmy Brister's blog in an item about the "John 3:16" Conference which is to be held at First Baptist, Woodstock, Georgia later this year.

This conference could be the place where non-Calvinists decide whether they are either semi-Pelagian or Arminian. In recent years, it certainly has sounded more semi-Pelagian than anything else, and that is not a good thing.

The paradox about this remark is that the current "Reformed" doctrine advocated by Timmy, the Founders, and other Hybrid Calvinists is just as semi-Pelagian as those who are referred to by Timmy as "non-Calvinists" and "Arminian."

Why so? Because the "Reformed" teach that the sinner must be ALIVE and ABLE to believe before faith, just as the Pelagians teach -- therefore, it is not Creedal or Confessional Calvinism.

The Confessional teaching of our Baptist forefathers of the 17th century is that the sinner who is "DEAD in trespasses and sins, DOTH BELIEVE and is converted by no less power than that which raised Christ from the dead," and this believing is "begotten by the preaching of the Gospel, or Word of Christ," which is the means whereby the Holy Spirit gives faith to the "dead" sinner (First London Confession of Faith, Articles XXIV, XXII).

This Confessional Baptist view is clearly in contrast to the semi-Pelagianism of the Reformed camp which denies that the "dead sinner . . . doth believe." Contrary to this Baptist Confession, the Reformed advocates allege that the sinner is "alive" before he believes -- just as the Pelagians teach.

The Creedal view of our Baptist ancestors is consistent with the teaching of Christ that the "dead" hear the Word of God and "live" (John 5:25). The Reformed semi-Pelagian view, however, is that those who are already "alive" are the only ones who "can" hear the Word.

The Creedal view is consistent with the account of the dry bones hearing the Word in Ezekiel 37, where we read of the dry, dead bones responding to the preaching of the Word, which is in contrast to the Reformed view.

The fundamental principle of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism is that the sinner is at least "alive and able" to repent and believe before he repents and believes. This corresponds with the Reformed view that the sinner is "alive and able" to repent and believe before he repents and believes.

This Reformed idea, like Pelagianism, seems to be "logical" enough in the "natural" category, but it is obvious it will not necessarily apply in spiritual matters. What about the case of Lazarus' being commanded to rise from the dead (John 11)? What about those dry bones in Ezekiel being commanded to "hear the Word of the Lord" (Ezekiel 37:4)? What about the case of the man with the withered hand being told to stretch forth his hand (Matthew 12:13)?

The Reformed argument is that a lost person is incapable of believing in Christ until he is first made alive, or -- in Pelagian terms -- has the ability to believe. This is what I call "Backdoor Pelagianism." They denounce Pelagianism on the front porch, but welcome it into the house thru the backdoor. Hybrid Calvinist James White presents the Reformed and semi-Pelagian view in his book, The Potter's Freedom:

"Spiritual birth precedes all actions of spiritual life" (page 286-288).

This theory, as also delineated in Reformed writers such as W. G. T. Shedd (Dogmatic Theology) and Louis Berkhof (Systematic Theology), even denies the "creative" power of the Word of God as a creative, instrumental means in regeneration. For example --

According to Shedd, with whom the Primitive Baptists (Hardshells) agree, the Holy Spirit's operation is "directly upon the human spirit, and is independent even of the word itself" (II:501) ; "regeneration is a DIRECT operation of the Holy Spirit upon the human spirit" (II:506), and "is not effected by the use of means" (page 507). This is exactly the Hardshell Baptist view -- regeneration by the Spirit alone, apart from and without the Word as an instrumentality.

According to Berkhof, this theory holds that the instrumentality of the Gospel "has no effect on the dead" (page 474). Berkhof then mentions but dismisses a few of the passages of Scripture which he admits "seem to prove the contrary" (pages 475-476) and goes on to allege that earlier Calvinistic sources (Puritans) failed "to discriminate carefully between the various elements which we distinguish in regeneration" (page 476).

According to Berkhof, the Word "does not operate creatively" and the Word therefore can "work only in the conscious life of man" (page 470) -- by which Berkhof means, in one who is "alive" and "able" to receive the Word on account of a prior "regeneration" in which the sinner is endowed with a "spiritual ear." With this new ability (which parallels the Pelagian ability), "the gospel is NOW heard by the sinner" (page 471).

It appears to us that many modern or post 17th century Reformed groups and individuals have advocated the same basic principle of Pelagianism with the "pre-faith regeneration" theory, which is -- that the Gospel is believed by the "living," or those already "alive," and not by those who are "dead in the trespasses and in sins."

In fact, I have read materials against invitations which use this very argument against giving public invitations to the unsaved -- the idea being that addressing the Gospel to "dead" sinners, calling on the "dead" to believe, and expecting them to accept the Gospel at that very moment of time is a vain, unrealistic expectation, and can only produce an unregenerate professor. "How can the dead believe?" the anti-invitationist asks.

This argument against exhorting and inviting the sinner to immediately believe the Gospel is tantamount to a denial of the creative power of the Word of God. It makes the "dead" sinner stronger than the Holy Spirit-empowered Word of God.

The Reformed obviously believe that the unregenerate sinner is "dead," but they apparently do not believe that the Word of God is much stronger, being "quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).

In John 6:63, Jesus said:

"It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life."

To address the Word to "dead" sinners is Creedal; to hold to the Reformed idea that the sinner must be "alive" before believing is non-creedal semi-Pelagianism and denies the creative power of the Word when applied by the Spirit to raise the "dead."


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