By Ronnie Rogers, Pastor
Trinity Baptist Church Norman, OK
Paul Helm demonstrates a common error among Calvinists, which is to evaluate through the grid of compatibilism the cogency of Extensivist’s understanding of God’s salvation plan that includes man being endowed with libertarian freedom, rather than evaluating whether Extensivism provides a comprehensive, coherent, and biblically consistent perspective. In contrast, one of my major objections to Calvinism is that I believe they fail to write, speak, pray, or preach consistently with their chosen perspective of compatibilism and decretive theology. Of course they reject libertarian freedom as I reject compatibilism, but we should be able to evaluate each other’s perspective without superimposing the very idea the other perspective rejects as the only test of cogency. I do argue that their perspective is biblically wrong, but when I focus my evaluation on their commitment to compatibilism and decretal theology, I seek to do so through the lens of compatibilism and decretal theology rather than libertarianism. When they evaluate Extensivism, it should be within the framework of my beliefs, which is libertarian freedom.
Helm argues that libertarian freedom leaves saving grace to be merely the “action of God that is causally necessary, but never causally sufficient, for human salvation . . . For in the incompatibilist view of freedom what must, in addition, be causally necessary for receiving God’s grace is a free, incompatibilist choice . . . Divine grace and such a choice are then together causally sufficient for faith in Christ … such a will has the power to resist or frustrate such grace from God . . . And given that humankind has a nature that is antipathetic to the rule of grace, we might expect such power to be exercised in the rejection of the overtures of grace . . . God’s saving grace is always resistible, and so saving grace can never ensure its intended effect.” (italics added)
Note, this is another example of Calvinism’s attack on otherwise choice. It demonstrates once again that all their talk of God’s salvific love for the non-elect or the non-elect being genuinely offered salvation in the gospel is by Calvinism’s own logic reduced to a hollow palliation under the crushing weight of compatibilism and unconditional election. Further, it makes all of their use of libertarian language all the more objectionable. Additionally telling is that he seems to equate determinism (God’s monergistic unconditional election which predetermines the elect) with grace. That is to say, determinism is grace and grace is determinism; therefore, any concept such as otherwise choice that is not unilaterally and singularly deterministic cannot be comprehended in grace. Of course, such definitional exclusions emanate from Calvinism and not from Scripture or even logic.
Helm places salvational grace in one category and libertarian choice in another by the phrase “in addition,” as though choice is not, or cannot, be a grace-enabled but undetermined component of God’s salvation plan. This leads to the obvious conclusion that faith, thusly categorized, emanates not from God’s gracious creative/redemptive plan but from man alone; it is thereby reduced to nothing more than an external contributor to grace—human virtue or work. Such misunderstandings germinate many errors in Calvinism’s understanding of Extensivism.
To correct his misunderstanding let me say precisely, Extensivists believe that the salvific action of God is both causally necessary and causally sufficient. What we reject is the Calvinist notion that it is causally determinative. Moreover, we believe the action of God in grace was designed with two components in mind rather than just one, and both are equally of grace—I will explain the difference later. Therefore, to propose that the “action of God” is only necessary but not sufficient is misrepresentative of Extensivism. Such thinking is an indefensible superimposition of compatibilism upon Extensivism.
I would mention that it is the unequivocal teaching of Scripture that faith is necessary for salvation—I would argue it is necessary for regeneration as well. Even within Calvinism, most are adamant in their proclamation that a person is saved by faith. Now granted, the faith comes as a predetermined free act that is subsequent to monergistic quickening which cannot be resisted and therefore completes salvation, but it is still essential for one to be deemed saved.
Consequently, the precise distinctions between the two perspectives are; first, libertarian faith is an undetermined free act of faith, whereas the Calvinist faith is a determined free act of faith; second, Extensivists believe that faith initiates salvation (as grace-enabled), whereas Calvinists believe it more closely approximates the consummation of salvation. Inextricably connected with this reality is the question of whether God freely chose to create man with otherwise choice and to restore such prior to actual salvation or not. If so, then grace is understood to restore the ability to choose in salvation, and it is not “in addition” to or instead of grace. Rather it is an integral component of the salvific grace plan of God.
Adam had choice due to creative grace. Subsequent to the fall, the restoration of choice in salvation is due to redemptive grace. That is to say, all that Adam had, including the ability to choose to follow God, was because God desired that for man in his creation plan; therefore, choice was never something that arose merely from man, but rather creative grace bestowed on man in creation. Similarly, man’s ability to choose in salvation is not a work of man or something “in addition” to God’s grace, but rather it exists solely because God desired for that ability to be restored in his salvation plan of grace.
The grace-enablements that overcome the effects of the fall so that man may believe unto salvation do not eradicate or deliver an individual from all the effects of sin. They do not enlighten a person so that he can understand all that he might desire to know. Rather, they do sufficiently hold in abeyance the effects of the fall so that at the time of enlightenment and conviction, an individual may believe or resist the gospel, only now with greater knowledge, which is precisely what is seen in John 12:35–36.
Helm assumes that compatibilism is true, with its exclusion of actual otherwise choice, and man being endowed with otherwise choice is not as quite understandable since he is a Calvinist. What is not acceptable is his evaluation that libertarian freedom is found wanting because it does not measure up to some compatibly derived standard.
His proposed deficiency is not in libertarian freedom or in the Scripture. For example, if we suppose that God created man with otherwise choice (denied in compatibilism), then it seems to follow that it is well within his power to restore such choice through grace-enablements, which seems to be precisely what we see depicted in Scripture. In view of that, we are back to the center of the issue, which is the nature of God and man.
Helm’s proposal seems to indicate that Calvinists must either believe that God is incapable of creating and governing man endowed with otherwise choice, as would be the case if God cannot foreknow actual contingencies (acts of libertarian free beings), as Calvinists and other determinists often argue, or else they simply believe he could have created such a world but did not. The former is a view of God’s sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience that embraces the idea that God only knows what he foreordains (predetermines), which is the view I reject both biblically and logically. The latter option seems to mean that Extensivism is merely unfaithful to the beliefs of Calvinism, which is obviously and unabashedly true. This does nothing to undermine Extensivism’s biblical fidelity. Either option seems to posit the weakness of Calvinism. My comment here has nothing to do with Calvinist’s belief that Calvinism is true and Extensivism is not, but rather that Calvinists do not, or cannot, entertain the idea of Extensivism’s plausibility because they cannot disabuse themselves of compatible definitions and standards.
Furthermore, Helm equates one having the ability to resist the offer of salvation with being able to “frustrate” grace. Once again, he posits otherwise choice outside of God’s plan of salvation by grace, as though it is a competing rogue force outside of God’s sovereignty and against God’s grace plan. Admittedly, assuming compatibilism is true, it is impossible, given the same nature or past, for a person to choose at any time between accessible options regarding salvation.
However, assuming libertarianism is true, it is possible, given the same nature or past, for a person to choose between accessible options. This ability is not limited to salvation, so long as such choice is within the range of options. Subsequent to the fall of man, I do not contend that man can act or think righteously, or make a spiritually restorative choice apart from God’s redemptive grace. Thus, the difference between the two positions is not necessarily the degree of depravity nor whether grace is sufficient to accomplish God’s goal, but rather it is found in the question of what is encompassed in God’s “intended effect” or goal of provisioning grace. What is included and excluded in God’s plan for the creation and redemption of man.
Calvinism maintains that God’s salvific grace is to secure the salvation of the unconditionally elected while denying the same to the non-elect. All of which is accomplished within a compatibilist perspective. To even suggest the idea of God giving man a choice between accessible options within compatibilism is a twaddly distraction. In stark contrast, in Extensivism, God’s goal, “intended effect” of grace, is to provide salvation for everyone and secure it for those who exercise grace-enabled faith; accordingly, the exercise of faith is not “in addition” or some sort of interloper into God’s grace salvation plan but a God-appointed essential component.
Now regarding his conclusion that if the offer of salvation is resistible, saving grace can never “ensure its intended effect,” I would say this statement is only true within a deterministic compatibilism because if compatibilism is true that means God created man without otherwise choice, and it then easily follows that regeneration is irresistible and monergistic.
Whereas, if the “intended effect” is to redeem man whom God created with otherwise choice, it easily follows that salvation by grace includes the necessity of the person having the ability to exercise grace-enabled faith, while maintaining the simultaneous prerogative to resist, all within the range of options during the offer of salvation; even though the person would most assuredly have greater knowledge about what he was rejecting than he did prior to being enlightened by the gospel (John 12:35–36). If one denies man’s creative or redemptive ability to reject God’s grace, then he is actually superimposing compatibilism upon libertarianism, the Calvinist error.
Therefore, what Helm has demonstrated is that a plan encompassing libertarian freedom is incompatible with salvation viewed through a compatibilist grid; to which I say, of course. It does not accomplish the goal of Calvinist compatibilism, and that is the point. Instead the goal is and should be biblical fidelity.
As mentioned, a major difference between Calvinism and Extensivism is how grace operates. In Calvinism, grace is one dimensional and comes determinatively upon the elect from God via unconditional election and selective regeneration. In contrast, within Extensivism, grace operates two dimensionally but still from only one source, which is God. God’s grace provides everything for salvation, including the grace-enabled ability, at the moment of the gospel presentation, to be able to understand enough to exercise faith or turn and walk away. Both are acts of grace. It is true that man in sin can on his own resist God, but even this is only because God permits him to do so because if it were not for God’s plan of grace, man would instantly be annihilated. However, a sinner cannot reject the gospel with a full understanding of what he is rejecting without grace-enablement (Matt 12:30–32; John 12:35–36).
If the ability to resist the gospel was not a part of God’s plan, no one would be able to walk away from a sovereign and omnipotent God. Thus, grace in the libertarian view is causally sufficient for salvation when all aspects of the grace-salvation plan are present. A rejection of such places one in the camp of Calvinism, in which the call of the gospel is actually meaningless since neither the non-elect nor the elect (the latter prior to quickening) is capable of doing anything but rejecting the gospel; hence, deeply imbedded in the bowels of Calvinism, the gospel is not, in and of itself, good news. Rather, finding out you are on the unconditionally elect roster is the only good news.
Our evaluation of whether man is endowed with compatible or libertarian freedom should be determined from what we find in Scripture, rather than whether compatibilism and libertarianism are congruent, which is obviously not the case. As a system, I do not evaluate Calvinism by whether it is consistent with libertarian freedom, but rather whether it is consistent with its chosen moral freedom perspective of compatibilism. Calvinists should do the same when evaluating Extensivism as a system. The biblical cogency of each perspective can only be fairly evaluated when each perspective is properly defined; then which is the more accurately reflective of Scripture can be determined.
The disallowance of otherwise choice in Calvinism should always be as publicly obvious in their preaching, prayers, counseling, and writing as it is in their theological and philosophical rejection of such not being a part of grace.
That is to say, be a compatibilist if you so choose, but be clear and consistent. Do not speak in ways that becloud that commitment by conveniently employing libertarian ideas that confuse the mutual exclusivity of the two perspectives (or lead the hearer to think libertarianly).