Bob and I wrote an article called “TULIP or ASSURE?” in which we briefly outlined what we thought was the Biblical alternative to the Five Points of Calvinism (and Arminianism). Our thinking has grown since then.
Previously, we defined “A” as “All have sinned.” That was too general a statement. I now prefer “Able to believe.” It gets at the heart of the issue.
The key issue in total depravity is the idea of total inability. Calvinists and Arminians say that people are born unable to believe. How, then, does anyone come to faith? Calvinists say that God must give the gift of faith to the elect. Arminians say God’s prevenient grace must regenerate everyone enough so they are once again able to believe if they so choose. Both views assume total inability. That is the key assumption. But is it a safe one? And if it isn’t, what’s a Free Grace alternative?
Let me suggest some ideas that need to be fleshed out further.
First, sin affects the whole person. For example, sin affects your body in that you are born mortal, subject to the curses of disease and decay. The mortal body is the source of perverse desires that can develop into lusts that give birth to sin (Jas 1:15). Sin also affects your mind—darkening your understanding, thinking, and emotions (cf. Eph 4:17-19). In sum, sin is a form of bondage (Rom 6:20) that affects every part of you.
Second, sin does not remove the ability to believe. No verse teaches that. I can’t prove a negative, but I can show you where the Bible assumes the unregenerate can believe. For example, Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s unwillingness to come to Him, not their inability (Matt 23:37). Why weep if He already knew they couldn’t believe anyway? Jesus assumed they could have willed to come to Him. In fact, some did. For example, Sergius Paulus, an unregenerate proconsul, wanted to hear the gospel (Acts 13:7). Eventually, he came to faith (Acts 13:12). Or take Cornelius, a centurion, who sought after God, was sent to Peter, heard the gospel, and believed (Acts 10; 15:7-9). Those men illustrate how God expects all unbelievers to grope through the darkness to find Him, which implies their ability to do it (Acts 17:27).
Third, faith is not a gift. The doctrine of total inability assumes that faith is a special gift given to some. Where does the Bible teach that? Ephesians 2:8-9 is often misused as a prooftext: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” People think “the gift of God” is faith. But the gender of “faith” does not match the gender of “that.” As Harold Hoehner explains, “A serious objection to this is that the feminine noun does not match the neuter gender of the pronoun” (Ephesians, p. 342). Faith is not the gift. Salvation is. Hoehner concludes, “In the present passage, the gift of God does not refer to ‘faith’ but rather it refers to the whole concept of salvation” (Ephesians, p. 343). This would agree with the idea that people did not lose the ability to believe because of the fall.
Fourth, God is drawing everyone to faith in Christ. Calvinists talk about irresistible grace while Arminians/Wesleyans talk about prevenient grace. Instead, I think we should use the Biblical language of drawing. Everyone has the natural ability to believe in God and to seek Him out, but before you do, He is already drawing you to Christ (John 6:44; 12:32). That does not mean He’s dragging you against your will. This drawing is not an irresistible process. It is more like a wooing, something the unbeliever can resist or respond to. God draws people through creation, which proclaims His power to everyone (Rom 1:19-20). The light of God enlightens everyone (John 1:9). Jesus removed the sin of the world (John 1:29). He sends preachers out into the world with the saving message, so people can believe and be saved (Rom 10:14). Everyone is being drawn in many different ways, but not everyone responds to that drawing positively.
Fifth, unbelievers actively suppress the truth. God is drawing all and gives a measure of truth to all, but many (not all) actively suppress it: “For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18 HCSB). Why would unbelievers need to suppress the truth if they are born unable to believe it? Suppression is an issue of willingness, not ability. In fact, some unregenerate people do not suppress the truth, but actively seek to know more of it (e.g., Cornelius and Sergius Paulus).
Sixth, Satan is actively trying to prevent people from coming to faith in Christ. While God is drawing all men to Christ, Satan is working to counteract that drawing. For example, in the Parable of the Four Soils, Satan is actively snatching the Word away so that people will not believe it and be saved (Luke 8:12). Likewise, we read that Satan is actively blinding the minds of the unregenerate (2 Cor 4:4). Why would he need to do either if total inability was true? Satan’s anti-evangelistic activity is evidence that the unregenerate can believe.
God is wooing. Satan is resisting. Men are either searching or suppressing. But all are able to believe.
Naturally, there’s more to be said about this topic. But I think the previous six points give you an idea of how Free Grace theology can differ from both Calvinism and Arminianism on the issue of total inability.
The unregenerate can believe—but are they willing?