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The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal To Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free Kindle Edition
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The issue is the freedom of God, what Dr. White calls "the free and proper kingship of God," the belief that "God truly can do as He pleases without getting permission from anyone, including man." Specifically, in the matter of salvation, is God, referred to in Scripture as the Potter, free to have mercy on whom He will have mercy, or is His freedom subject to the autonomous free will of the creature, man? Who's in charge when it comes to our eternal destiny?
Now if the question elicits something of a yawn because the whole debate seems somewhat arcane - a secondary issue that we don't have the luxury of indulging in when there are bigger issues facing us - believe me, I understand, because I used to feel that way too. Election, I thought, was vaguely interesting because I perceived, vaguely, that the Bible taught it. But I was intent on focussing on the primary issue, the firestorm of the Reformation, and that, I thought, was the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Well, I wasn't wrong, exactly. But after reading the following from J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston's introduction to their translation of Martin Luther's "The Bondage of the Will" (part of which is quoted by Dr. White in the book), I came to see that I was missing something important:
"The doctrine of justification by faith was important to them [the Reformers] because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace; but it actually expressed for them only one aspect of this principle, and that not to its deepest aspect. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a profounder level still, in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration - the doctrine, that is, that the faith that receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God..... To the Reformers, the crucial question was not simply, whether God justifies believers without works of the law. It was the broader question, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christ's sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith. .... [Thus] the principle of sola fide [justification by faith alone] is not rightly understood till it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia."
Sola gratia is theological shorthand for the Reformation slogan "justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, and because of Christ alone." The issue then, and the issue now, is not the necessity of grace, but the sufficiency of grace. The heart of the Reformers' theology was "centred upon the contention of Paul....that the sinner's entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only."
Sola gratia points to the reality that there are only two religions in the world: divine accomplishment and human achievement. Christianity is absolutely unique because it proclaims divine accomplishment, which is another way of saying that it proclaims sola gratia, that salvation is one hundred percent of God, from start to finish. The Reformers regarded Rome as guilty of not only obscuring the gospel, but of creating an entirely different gospel, and crossing the line to the religion of "human achievement" because they taught (and still do teach) that God has created a system with which human beings must cooperate in order to be saved. God can't do it on His own.
This is why later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principle a return to Rome because it in effect turned faith into a meritorious work. They saw it as a betrayal of the Reformation because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners.
Let me hasten to add that I don't believe that modern Arminianism is outside of biblical Christianity, but only because of a happy inconsistency in its thinking. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is, I believe, a non-negotiable part of biblical Christianity. Classical Arminianism denied this doctrine, but, happily today most Arminians hold to it because there has been, according to Arminian theologian J. Kenneth Grider, "a spillover from Calvinism to Arminianism."
Nevertheless, happy or not, it is an inconsistency, and serves only to confuse matters when the modern Arminian has one foot on either side of what was, at the time of the Reformation, the dividing line between what the Reformers argued was the monergistic, God-centered, divine accomplishment religion of biblical Christianity on the one side, and the synergistic, man-centered, human achievement religion of Rome (and all other religions for that matter) on the other side.
On the other side of the dividing line, grace may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to save anyone, for man's "free will" is the determining factor. The creature is ultimately in charge of his own salvation. As Rome believes this too, the modern Arminian may well have greater sympathies with Catholicism than with Calvinism. This seems to be evidenced in the harsh words Dr. Geisler has for Calvinism (he refers to it as "morally repugnant" and involving "hideous error"). As far as I know, such strong language is entirely missing from his book on Roman Catholicism.
No wonder there is such confusion today over just what is the gospel, and what the big deal is regarding the Roman Catholic Church. The dividing line which once clearly distinguished Protestant and Catholic has now moved to within Protestantism itself. To quote once again from Packer and Johnston, "we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther's day and our own."
The birthright they referred to was the recovery of the biblical reality that salvation must be by grace alone (sola gratia) or there is no salvation. Grace by definition must be freely given; as soon as one says that God must give grace to each person indiscriminately, or if one says that grace is necessary but not sufficient for salvation, then one is no longer talking about grace. And if one is no longer talking about grace, one is no longer talking about Christianity.
Thus to say that we are "saved by grace" is almost meaningless. Everybody believes that. The issue is whether grace is sufficient. For grace to be sufficient, salvation must be wholly of God. For salvation to be wholly of God, it must be monergistic. If it is monergistic, we must recognize the reality that we are dead in sin and utterly helpless and that God is absolutely free. We are saved by grace "alone."
"The Potter's Freedom" is a sorely needed corrective to the common ethos in Evangelicalism that regards salvation as synergistic, a cooperative effort in which both God and man are regarded almost on equal terms, each doing their part in order to make salvation a reality.
The issue is clear: does God actually save anyone, or does He just set up a system whereby we are saveable and the outcome is ultimately up to the autonomous creature? Is salvation monergistic or synergistic? If one will put aside presuppositions of supposed human "free will" and let the Scriptures speak for themselves, the answer to that question is not hard to determine.
The Potter is indeed free to make from the same lump, some vessels for honour, and some for dishonour. And those of us who know Him as Lord and Saviour are eternally grateful because we know firsthand the meaning of "sola gratia." Without it, we would still be dead in trespasses and sins, unwilling, and indeed incapable of exercising saving faith in God.
R.C. Sproul, Jr. has some enlightening remarks in the foreword to this book: "It seems that while we are all born Pelagians, most of us are reborn as semi-Pelagians. That is, we come into the kingdom as Arminians. Dr. White will, God willing, help many progress to what Spurgeon said was but a nickname for biblical Christianity: Calvinism."
I read this book with a group in my church. I thought the book is clear but many people had trouble following the arguments of the book. One of the main reasons for this was that the book often switched from Geisler's view to White's view. This was necessary and I thought the flow was good but people (especially less studious people) tended to have trouble keeping up with the shifts. Overall though, after several readings through a chapter and a small group lesson, it seemed that people were challenged on their personal views and had growth in their understanding of this topic.
Geisler is a great, conservative Evangelical Christian scholar, and has written many good books that are helpful to edify the church, but his book Chosen But Free, regrettably, is not among them. I own Geisler's 4v theology book and plan to read through it, despite some disagreements, and Geisler's defense of Biblical inerrancy is wonderful. But he lashes out blindly against things he does not understand in Chosen But Free - saying that an almost 100% Arminian position that he takes is somehow "moderate Calvinism" ??? White responds with grace, fairness, and unflinching fidelity to the Biblical doctrines of God's saving grace!
A must read for all who enjoy theology and who desperately want to understand more about the God who saves!
Thank you, James R.White, for teaching the absolute sovereignty of God in saving the elect by nothing less than His all-powerful grace.