This article first appeared as an editorial in the May 1, 1997 issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.73, #15) and was penned by Prof. David J. Engelsma, then editor of the magazine.
Free-Willism: Another Gospel
There is one gospel. This gospel is the message of salvation in Jesus Christ by grace alone. "Grace alone" means that God saves sinners. God saves sinners according to His own attitude of favor (grace) toward those sinners whom He saves. God saves sinners by His own quickening power (grace) in the hearts of those whom He wills to save. "Grace alone" means that grace is without supplement, condition, or assistance.
"Grace alone" means that the salvation of sinners does not depend on, is not due to, and is not accomplished by the worth, will, or work of those sinners. Not at all! Not any aspect of salvation! "Grace alone" means that man does not save himself.
This is why the gospel is good news. This is why the gospel exalts God.
This is also why the gospel is offensive to men.
Offended by grace—free, sovereign, particular, almighty grace—men change God's gospel, creating other gospels more to their liking. There are many of them. All have one thing in common: they are gospels of man.
One such gospel is free-willism. This is the message that God's salvation of the sinner depends upon the activity of the sinner's will. The sinner's will is free, that is, it is able to choose for God as well as against Him. By the free, sovereign activity of his will, the sinner makes God's willingness (grace) to save him effectual. By this act of his will, the sinner allows God's quickening power (grace) to have its way with him. The salvation proclaimed by the gospel of freewillism is man's salvation of himself by choosing God, opening up his heart to let Jesus in, making a decision for Christ, accepting the offer made well-meaningly to all, and fulfilling the prerequisite for regeneration and conversion.
This gospel is wildly popular.
But it is "another" gospel. It is "another gospel" precisely in the sense in which the apostle speaks of "another gospel" in Galatians 1:6-9. It is a gospel that adds a work of man to the work of God in Jesus Christ. It is a message that makes the grace of God dependent upon some act of man. It is a message that calls the sinner to cooperate with God in Christ. It is a message that rejects "grace alone" for "grace and" (or, "grace but"). The other gospel in the Galatian churches was "grace and human circumcision" Free-willism is the gospel of "grace and human will."
As "another gospel," free-willism is not an acceptable, though somewhat deficient, version of the gospel, but a perversion of the one gospel. It is not an encouraging, though undeveloped, beginning of the gospel, out of which the full gospel can be expected to grow, but an enemy of the one gospel that nurses a murderous hatred toward the one gospel and those who confess it.
Free-willism is no gospel. It is not the good news that the gracious God conceived in eternity and revealed in time in Jesus Christ. It is not the faith of the Bible. Freewillism sets forth another way of salvation than the way of faith in Christ: the .decision for Christ by the dead sinner. It proclaims another savior than Jesus Christ: the willing sinner. It worships another god than the God of the one gospel: a nice, well-intentioned, loving, helpless, bumbling deity, who is perfectly, willing to share the glory of salvation with every Tom, Dick, and Harry.
Free-willism denies the cross. The cross redeemed no one. The cross accomplished nothing. The cross was not substitutionary satisfaction of the justice of God regarding those for whom Christ died. Many for whom Christ died perish in hell. Those who are saved by the cross are saved, not because of their decision for Christ, their acceptance of the well-meant offer, their act of believing.
This condemnation of free-willism is not the private opinion of the author of this article. Much less is it the eccentric stand of the denomination of churches in which he is a minister.
That free-willism is another gospel, which is no gospel, is the official confession, and urgent testimony, of the Reformed churches in the world. They have voiced their confession, once for all time, in the Canons of Dordt. Free-willism, which at that time took form in the heresy of Arminianism, the Reformed churches have damned as "the Pelagian error out of hell." Many Reformed churches require all their officebearers to subscribe this creed. Subscription explicitly expresses that the one subscribing agrees with Dordt's condemnation of free-willism. It binds the subscriber "to refute and contradict" this false teaching and "to exert (himself) in keeping the Church free from such errors."
Presbyterians who affirm commitment to the system of doctrine set down in the Westminster Standards likewise express condemnation of free-willism as another gospel. For the system of doctrine set down in the confession and catechisms of Westminster is the gospel of salvation by grace alone, to which free-willism is diametrically opposite. God judges free-willism as another gospel in His inspired, clear, and authoritative Word. He does this in every passage that teaches salvation by His own gracious will and work. "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that (faith) not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8, 9).
God exposes free-willism by name as one of the leading forms of the false gospel that always threatens to supplant the one gospel: "So then it (salvation) is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy" (Rom. 9:16). Salvation is not of man's will. Man's will and willing have nothing to do with the saving of elect sinners. They are excluded as much as is man's running, or working. But the teaching that salvation is at least partly a matter of man's will is as much an enemy of the gospel of salvation by God's mercy alone as is the teaching that man's own works cooperate in salvation. The one gospel is the message that salvation is alone of God who shows mercy.
Against the one gospel stand two other gospels, which are no gospels: salvation by man's willing, and salvation by man's working. Both agree that man saves himself, at least in part.
To teach that salvation depends on, or is due to, or is made effectual by man's choosing Christ, or opening his heart to let Christ come in, or accepting an offer made well-meaninly to all, or fulfilling a condition in order then to be born against and converted is the lie. It is not merely a lie. It is the lie. In comparison with this gross blasphemy, this monstrous robbery of God of His glory in the work of salvation, women in church office is a small sin.Free-willism is a real threat today to the true churches of Christ. Free-willism has always been the heart of the false church that is Rome. Luther taught us this in his On the Bondage of the Will. Now free-willism has infiltrated and corrupted much of Protestantism. Many of the self-styled "evangelical" churches and preachers are free-willist. These are the churches and churchmen represented by the magazine Christianity Today. These are the preachers who dominate religious radio and television. This is the reason why Billy Graham and his associates cooperate with the Roman Catholic clergy in their "evangelical" endeavors. This is the reason why prominent Protestant "evangelicals" are defecting to Rome. This is the reason for the recent union of "evangelicals"' and Roman Catholics. The "evangelicals" have the same gospel that Rome has: man saves man by his free-will.
The threat is graver.
There are toleration of, compromise with, and even approval of free-willism within the Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Men who profess Calvinism (a mere identifying label of the gospel that God saves men-elect men-by sovereign grace alone) and who are esteemed as Calvinists speak well of, and defend, freewillism as gospel. Arminian freewillism is not the best and highest form of the gospel. It definitely leaves something to be desired. It could be wished that it would shake off certain of its weaknesses. But it is, for all this, gospel. It is the one gospel. James I. Tacker, who, though not ecclesiastically Presbyterian or Reformed himself, nevertheless has tremendous influence on Presbyterian and Reformed churches and Christians, compromises with Wesleyian free-willism in an article that is bearing bitter fruit in Reformed circles. Packer is intent on defending the gospel preached by John Wesley-Wesley, who blasphemed God's eternal predestination (source and foundation of the gospel of grace) as few enemies of grace have ever done. Packer speaks of "evangelical Arminianism." He claims that "Wesley's teaching included so much Reformation truth." Packer diagnoses Arminianism, that is, the gospel of free-willism, as "an impoverishing reaction from it (Reformation teaching), involving a partial denial of the biblical faith in the God of all grace. The lapse is less serious in some cases ..." "Calvinists should ther,efore approach professed Arminians as brother evangelicals itrapped in weakening theological mistakes, and seek to help them to a better mind" ("Arminianisms," in The Manifold Grace of God, Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, 1968).
Free-willism is not "another gospel." The condemnation of Dordt does not apply to this brand of free-willism. The Presbyterian theologian John M. Frame tolerates, if he does not approve, free-willism in his recent work on C. Van Til:
There is a great gulf between Christianity and unbelief.... Is there also a "great gulf" between Reformed Christians and non-Reformed Christians . . . ? Arminianism . . . (is) erroneous in some measure, I would say, but (it has) much in common with the Reformed faith at the deepest level. Thus, we should not criticize (it) in the same terms that we use to criticize unbelief.... I am confident that Reformed believers are, in general, of one heart with their Arminian brothers and sisters (Cornelius Van Til, P&R, 1995, pp. 211, 212).
Free-willism is not "another gospel." Dordt was wrong in its condemnation of free-willism.
The acceptance of free-willism within the nominally Reformed churches is evident from the murderous opposition on the part of these churches to churches and ministers that condemn freewillism as soul-destroying, God-dishonoring heresy. The "Conclusion" of the Canons of Dordt indicates the enraged slander of the Reformed churches by the freewillists at the time of the synod of Dordt. Today, all these slanders are wrapped up in one epithet, and hurled at the churches that are faithful to Dordt: "hyper-calvinist!"
There are ministers who are being killed all the day long by nominal Calvinists for no other offense than that they preach the gospel of grace in such a way that they expose and condemn free-willism as the lie.
As might be expected from the expressions of tolerance for free-willism and from the rage at those who dare to condemn free-willism, the error itself now corrupts the confession and preaching of many Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Wherever the doctrine of a love of God in the gospel for all me and a desire of God in the preaching of the gospel to save all men is accepted and defended, there free-willism has established its stronghold. In time, the entire system of the doctrine of salvation by sovereign grace alone will be systematically destroyed.
And the end will be sheer thrological modernism.
In his Crossed Fingers, reviewed in this issue of the Standard Bearer, Gary North demonstrates that the apostasy of the Northern Presbyterian Church began with the toleration of Arminianism. The history of the Christian Reformed Church provides the same terrible lesson. Herman Bavinck gave the warning long ago when he wrote, "Remonstrantism (Arminianism) paved the way for rationalism" (The Doctrine of God, Eerdmans, 1951, p 366). Reformed churches must preach and teach salvation by sovereign grace alone. As they do, they must condemn free-willism.
Reformed Christians must confess salvation by sovereign grace alone. As they do, they must condemn free-willism.
This stand will preserve us, as Reformed churches and as Reformed Christians, in the dangerous times in which we live and are called to glorify God by a sound confession and an obedient walk. It will keep us as churches out of ungodly, destructive ecumenical alliances. We have no unity with free-willist Rome. We have no unity with free-willist "evangelical" Protestantism. We have no unity with compromising Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
It will keep the Reformed Christian out of such a movement as Promise Keepers. The Reformed Christian may not subject himself to free-willist preaching. He may not worship with those who claim to have saved themselves by their free will. He may not pretend spiritual oneness with those who hold "another gospel." He may not promise to help break down the denominational barriers between Calvinist and Arminian churches. God forbid!
It will keep the Reformed Christian out of interdenominational Bible studies. How can a Reformed Christian tolerate study of the Word of God that professes to be neutral and non-committal regarding the doctrinal difference between Calvinism and Arminianism, that is, between the one gospel and "another gospel"? How can a Reformed Christian participate in a Bible study that gives equal time to free-willism and sovereign grace? How can a Reformed Christian be involved in a Bible study that does not defend salvation by grace alone and condemn free-willism?
The good and right stand for grace and against free-will must govern our church membership, our Iively church membership.
Where is sovereign grace faithfully and uncompromisingly preached and defended, with an accompanying condemnation of free-will?
There, and nowhere else, every child of God belongs, come what may.
There, and nowhere else, I belong, with my family, come what may.
For there, and nowhere else, is the one gospel.
Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)
Ordained: September 1963
Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof_D._Engelsma
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