An Open Letter To R.C. Sproul: By: John M. Platanitis
In “Getting The GOSPEL Right’, R.C. Sproul does a superb job of showing why and how attempts in the late 90’s between a few notable Protestant scholars, among whom was Anglican J.I. Packer, and some Roman Catholic Clergy to try and achieve “unity” on a joint-statement of faith, for all of its lofty intents, failed! Appealing to scripture, the Reformation, and the unwavering position of Rome through the centuries, Sproul correctly reasons’ “IF ‘Sola Fide’ is essential to the gospel (meaning that without the SOLA, we don’t actually have THE gospel. Rome denies Sola Fide, therefore, Rome denies the gospel”. He correctly argues. Regardless of how many other parts of agreement and similar language we use, to reject Sola Fide – which is theological short form for the Reformation teaching that we are justified through Faith ALONE, By Grace ALONE, in Christ ALONE, to the glory of God ALONE, is to reject the gospel. Therefore, true unity was not achieved by that attempt or any attempt before or after between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Because Protestants by definition, affirm what Rome denies. Therefore, although there can be and no doubt are truly “born of God” people within the Roman Catholic Church, who in their heart do embrace Sola Fide, which of necessity requIres that they reject much of what Rome teaches, but for whatever reasons have chosen to remain in the Catholic Church, the institution itself is apostate and is not a true church, biblically speaking.
Much Agreement Is Not Unity IF Disagreement Is An Essential Truth:
Sproul correctly argues that having many points of agreement with Rome, does not in fact equal true unity with Rome, concerning the gospel. Because while Rome does not reject the truth that Christ, grace and faith are all necessary, Rome does deny the “Sola” of each. So while Rome affirms Christ, grace and faith are certainly necessary for salvation/justification, they are not sufficient! Hence, “Sola Fide” is denied by Rome. Thus, whatever else we do have mutual agreement about – the dual-nature of Christ being Divine and human, together in one person the unique Son of a God, the only begotten of the Father, the Trinity, the Virgin-Birth, the historical facts of the life, death, resurrection of Christ; for all of this, we nevertheless do not agree on “THE GOSPEL” – what it actually is, how it’s benefits are obtained, what is involved. In the intended scope of his context, I believe Sproul did a superlative job! For what it was written to clarify – that issue in particular, it excels! I highly recommend it as a valuable resource in that regard and for that specific purpose.
However, as I read it a second time, urgent questions began popping into my mind. Questions – almost identical in nature and substance to those Sproul asked of those who suggested Evangelicals and Rome had achieved unity in the gospel. Only my questions, using the very same premise Sproul did, are concerning the unity of Protestant Arminians with those of us among Protestant Evangelicals who affirm Sovereign-Grace.
A Transfersble Principle:
My question to Mr. Sproul is this, Ok. So if having many points of agreement with Rome does still not constitute true biblical “unity” about the nature of the gospel and means or basis of justification, as long as what is not agreed to is so significant that it’s exclusion or omission nullifies any true unity regardless of whatever else is agreed upon; Then why would there be “unity of faith” between Protestants who faithfully affirm Arminianism, with Protestants who affirm Sovereign-grace? As with Rome and Protestants, many points of congruity does not constitute true unity, so why is the principle not also true between Protestant Arminians who reject sovereign-grace and Protestants who affirm Sovereign-Grace?
An Ongoing Wrestle
I’ve wrestled with this question for many years. And as I get older, it becomes more and more apparent, that while Protestant Arminians and we who affirm Sovereign-Grace, do appear to have much agreement, using many of the same terms, singing many of the same songs, the fact is, we have as much strong disagreement with Protestant Arminians as we have with Rome!
The Doctrine Long Pre-Dated John Calvin:
We are often mislabeled only as ‘Calvinists’, (often intended as a derogatory term, slandering our intelligence and credibility), which title I personally eschew. Not because I am ashamed of the truth of scripture much of which Calvin also happened to affirm. But because my faith in the truth of scripture – that the New Testament everywhere affirms that in the positive, saving faith is wrought entirely in the human heart by the Spirit of God, through the Grace of God, using the preached word of God, is in NO way dependant on, or on account of, or based on anything Calvin may have said. If 600 years ago God showed him the same things pertaining to the truth of Sovereign-Grace, He has also shown me, fine. I however, am not a follower of John Calvin’s teaching! I feel sad for those who spend as much time trying to defend the man John Calvin, as they do the truth of scripture. God never once called or asked me to contend for anything John Calvin said or did. He called me to contend “for the faith once delivered to the saints”. If and where what John Calvin taught agreed, fine. But I do not look to him for any verification, much less authority. The SOLA’s really do matter! And since the case can be made from scripture, I personally think that any appeals to anything Calvin said, are at best redundant and at worst, needlessly divisive. If on that great day, God commends Calvin as a “good and faithful servant”, that is for Jesus to say. Not myself. Same is true for any of us. Only His verdict will matter then!
Surely Sovereign-Grace Is Germane To “Sola Gratia”:
We who affirm the truth of Sovereign-grace, argue that keeping the “Sola” in “Sola Gratia” is as essential to Sola Gratia as the “Sola” is in Sola Fide! It has to be, otherwise, either the meaning of “alone” in grace alone, is open to personal whim, or the meaning of “grace” can be modified to suit either side’s preference. In which case, both sides can employ the exact same language, yet as long as the definition of terms is allowed to be defined at will, then yes, there can be “unity”. But just as Sproul inquired and exposed in his excellent book, that so called “unity” is not really worth anything. It is built on a house of theological quicksand…there is no solid foundation underneath it. So, by definition “Grace alone” leaves zero, for human wisdom, will or effort! Otherwise, while it could then still be rightly affirmed that grace was necessary in some way, to some degree, it would not be grace-alone! One of the simplest summaries in the New Testament for both the why and the how of saving-faith was stated in Acts 18:27 – “Apollos when he had come, was a great help to those who through/by grace, believed”. Luke felt no need to qualify this statement with a caveat “and their choice to believe”! This was no mere omission on the part of the inspired writer. Rather Luke meant what he said and said what he, moved by the Holy Spirit meant. Where Luke left it by grace, period. So must we!
Where No Other Cause Is Cited: It’s Grace Alone:
Now, no doubt someone could object “Wait, Luke did not use the word ‘alone’ in the sentence either!” And it is true, that while Luke did not use the word ‘alone’, nevertheless his summary statement was an affirmation of the truth of Sola-Gratia! Since there was no mention of any other basis for their faith, other than grace, we confidently assert that Acts 18:27 is in fact, absolutely an affirmation of the truth of Sola Gratia! The word ‘Trinity’ is not in scripture. Yet the summation of the texts which show that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and that these three are distinct as they relate to and with each other, but that there is nevertheless only One GOD, lead to only one possible and correct conclusion – the Trinity. The same is true of the truth that the only reason why any sinful, fallen person comes to understand that in and by the gospel alone, is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, and who therefore, by reason of that understanding does believe, is by grace alone! If this were not so, then manifestly, a person could rightly boast of their own wisdom, effort or will to whatever degree such was determinative in their faith! The sriptures everywhere deny and denounce all grounds for boasting of self. The only alternative to boasting of self in any way, to any degree, is to boast only “in the Lord”! To the degree we truly boast in the Lord, we do not boast of self. To the degree we boast of self, we demean grace and the Lord!
We who affirm the truth of Sovereign-grace, insist that the ‘Sola’ in Sola Gratia, is as essential to the true gospel as the ‘Sola’ in Sola Fide!
Taking Sproul’s argument and applying it here, to deny any Sola in the truth, is therefore to deny the truth! So Mr. Sproul, why is the same principle you so correctly applied to Rome, not also applied to Protestant Arminians? Is it because unlike Rome, they say they do affirm the Sola in Sola Fide? But since they deny the Sola in Sola Gratia, why is this any less serious? Since Sola Fide , by definiton encompasses all the “Sola’s”? And all Arminians absolutely deny that they believe because of grace alone! They themselves added the crucial, determining part. Like Rome, they will acknowledge grace was and is necessary for their faith – though they cannot define or articulate where the influence of grace ended and their “own” will began, or where the illumination of grace ended and their own “choice” began. And like Rome, they deny grace alone was sufficient for their faith!
The Nature Of The Atonement IS Essential To The Gospel:
We who rightly insist on the whole truth of Sola Fide, also therefore necessarily affirm its inescapable corollaries of definite, particular, accomplished atonement. And Sovereign-election. Unfortunately this truth of definite, accomplished redemption/atonement has been marred by the acronym of “T.U.L.I.P”. An acronym where each letter stands for the 5 points of the Remonstrants who refuted the 5 Points of the Arminians. But in today’s vernacular, “TULIP” is often dubbed as “Calvinism”. The L in the acronym stands for “Limited Atonement”. This however, was a most unfortunate way of identifying the truth the Acronym merely stood as a short-form for. So to be clear: There was nothing in any way shape or form, that was “limited” in Christ’s suffering! Any suggestion by anyone or either side that there was, is therefore the result of either genuine, unintentional ignorance. Or, arrogance. Or varying degrees of both.
The Atonement Was Actual Not Limited Or Potential In Any Regard:
Rather, that suffering of Christ – horrific beyond words, terrible, actual, excruciating, was 100% effective! Meaning, it fully satisfied the claims of Divine Justice, so that there is nothing left to pay by the indebted, and nothing more to do to be reconciled to God, or “redeemed” (which in biblical lingo means the same thing as forgiven according to Eph 1:7; Col 1:14) . Since the price to purchase our ransom from the debt we owe God’s Divine justice, was fully paid by Christ Himself, the idea is spoken of as a “redemption”. Christ in His own person, by His own work and His own merit as the only Mediator between God and man, being Himself fully God and man in one person, fully accomplished and obtained eternal redemption for all of His people (Heb 9:12). Paul sums it up thus, “We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Rom 5:10). Not by anything that we did! Jesus did it and paid it all! This is a truly significant point for those of us who affirm the biblical truth of definite (meaning, for a specific people “the called), accomplished atonement. It is not our faith that reconciled us to God, nor our sincerity. Nor our repentance. Nothing that we did reconciled us to God. Only what Christ did. Which is why Paul says we were reconciled to God by the death of Christ! Notice, not the error that Jesus’ death made reconciliation possible. Rather, His death actually reconciled us to God. When scripture admonished “Therefore be reconciled to God”, it means believe what Christ has accomplished!
There is zero merit in our faith . The only value our faith serves, is as an instrument. Meaning, it is the instrument by means of which we grab hold of Christ, and the benefits He Himself wholly and solely obtained by His sinless perfect life of obedience “even unto death, the death of the cross”. As the God/Man – who alone qualifies to be our substitute and our only representative and mediator, His sacrificial, vicarious (meaning for others), atoning death and literal, bodily resurrection was enough! God does not save us because we believe the gospel. He saves us by His grace – His unmerited favour and divine enabling, by means of which alone we have obtained the faith we possess, but did not ourselves produce (2 Peter 1:1), because His Son fully, completely satisfied all that God’s justice required on our behalf to both atone for, forgive, and impute the righteousness of Christ to us. And how is this righteousness of Christ imputed to us? Only by faith. Those who would add merit to our faith, making it the reason why God saves us, demean, distort the gospel. BY grace alone, THROUGH faith alone, IN Christ alone.
This is the only value faith has – it looks to and trusts in Christ alone. And it does so only by grace alone. This is essential New Testament truth. Otherwise it’s emphasis would not be as present as it is.
Thus, 100% of His work is applied 100% to 100% of those for whom it was actually, truly offered (Matt 1:21; Jn 11:52-53; 17:2, 10, 20-24; Acts 26:18; Eph 5:25). This is the only correct, consistent message of the New Testament, which often employs the very common ancient Jewish habit of using synecdoche to express the truth that God’s promises and salvation extend to more than Jews only. But rather to people from “every nation, tribe and tongue” (Rev 5:9). Or, in the synecdoche of ancient Jewish language “the whole world”, “all men”. So, in no way, shape or form was or is the atonement “limited”. Of course, no “Calvinist” who still uses the acronym TULIP actually means anything less or other than I have here expressed. But if I may be so bold, I believe this to be a much better and more accurate way to express the truth first decreed about Jesus and who He came to save in Matt 1:21. The New Testament begins with the certain declaration that Christ “will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). It concludes stating Christ did exactly that! (Rev 5:9). Thus, as is His custom, God declared the end from the beginning. And so, Matthew 1:21 and Revelation 5:9 are the definitive statements on the mission of Christ. Definitive because the first is predictive – telling us what Jesus will do. Not “offers”, “tries” or “wants” to do. The second is descriptive -telling us from the perspective of eternity, what Christ actually did! Therein is the ministry and mission of Christ stated. Everything in between must be understood in the light of them. …just the details.
Nothing was merely “possible” or “potential” in the atonement. The price required was actual. The savagery and brutality endured by Christ was actual. The Father accepting that offering, and showing it by raising Christ from physical death was actual. And the redemption obtained for those whose sins He actually bore (Isa 53:11-12), was and is actual. There are only actualities where the atonement is concerned! Anything which therefore reduces the accomplished redemption wrought entirely by Jesus Christ through His sinless life and perfect, vicarious suffering, must be rejected as being opposed to, falling short of, and therefore, a denial of the actual atonement. To speak of the atonement in any way that reduces it to a denial of the actuality of what it was, is and accomplished, is to demean it.
By now it ought to be obvious: We who affirm Sovereign-Grace do NOT affirm the same work, extent and effect of the “atonement” as consistent Arminians! How therefore, Mr. Sproul can there be unity among Protestant Arminians and Protestants who affirm and insist that Sovereign-Grace is the ONLY message the New Testament truly teaches?
Both Sides Can Affirm “Grace” But Define Differently:
Nor do we both understand or affirm the SOLA’s the same way either! How can we? No consistent Arminian who understands what they claim to believe, can truly or consistently affirm SOLA-GRATIA. Yes, they may say they do. And based on how they define “grace”, they no doubt sincerely do so. So wherein then lies the problem? Press any consistent Arminian in discussion/debate on who and where the faith they profess came/comes from and while they will in some way acknowledge “grace” which they conveniently, rarely if ever define, it becomes very evident that ultimately, they affirm self and not grace alone! Some, no doubt trying to honour God, will say “Grace had to come first” (this is the classic Arminian reference to “prevenient grace”. Meaning grace preceding, coming before). Well, this shows they in fact do affirm Sola-grace, right? Wrong…sadly. Why do I say this?
Because just like Rome, Arminians talk about “grace” being a truly necessary element in our faith. And just like Rome, they deny it is the sufficient cause of it! In both cases, Rome and Protestant Arminians deny the “SOLA” of grace. Because they say and insist grace alone did not and could not produce their faith-response to God or the gospel. They themselves added the essential part. Thus, in both cases, the SOLA of “Sola Gratia” is denied by both Rome and Protestant Arminianism!
“Not true!”, Arminians would say. “Salvation is completely out of and by means of the sheer graciousness of God. It is not earned or merited in any way, by any work which we can do.” But then, many of them will turn, and in a glaringly open contradiction, cite Jn 6:29 where Jesus said “The work of God is to believe in the One He sent”. And by such a reply, they mistakenly conclude that contrary to everything Paul taught, that Jesus affirmed that faith is indeed a “work”, and a work that we must do! That this interpretation is absolutely forced onto the text, and is in no grammatical way supported by ought to be obvious from Titus 3:5 and Eph 2:5, 8-9! Here’s why:
Not By Works (ergon) Of Righteousness Which WE Have Done:
1st: In Titus, Paul expressly denied that we are saved by any “works of righteousness” which we have done! Yes, the same Greek word “ergon” translated “work”, is in Jn 6:29; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5. So IF faith is indeed a “work” as many Arminians I’ve engaged in discussion or debate insist based on Jn 6:29, and IF it is a righteous “work”, (it surely is not an evil work), and IF it is something we do, THEN manifestly, Paul got it completely backwards in Titus 3:5! And it would still not be “the reason why He saved us”, according to Paul anyway. So while true that saving-faith is indeed an “ergon”, it is not true that it is of ourselves! But if not of ourselves, then whose “work” is faith?
By Grace You Are Saved Through Faith And THAT Not Of Yourselves:
2nd: The unstrained natural flow of thought in Eph 2:8-9, in the sentence “For by grace are you saved through faith – and that not yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast” clearly supports that, that which Paul insists “is not of yourselves, IT is the gift of God”, is faith! No believer would ever assume that “grace” was of themselves. Nor salvation – this is obvious and affirmed even by Rome. Both grace and salvation are of God. Thus, Paul need not correct a false perception that does not exist. The only part of the equation that is subject to debate, is faith. Thus, both grammatically and logically, faith is the “It” which most professing believers claim is of themselves! And that my friends, is the error Paul so cleary refuted in Eph 2:8-9!
His divine power has given us all things for life
3rd: Peter concurs, writing “His divine power has given us all things we need for life and godliness, through our knowledge of Him” (2 Pe 1:3). Does “all things” exclude the important thing – faith? Of course not. Surely, faith is necessary for life and godliness? Indeed, it is! And how do we acquire faith? His divine power has given it to “us”. Do pronouns matter in grammar? Who is the “us”? All humanity without exception? Or those of “us” who evidence faith? Peter began his second epistle thus, “To those who through the righteousness of God our Saviour have obtained a faith as precious as ours” (2 Pe 1:1). The Greek word “obtained” as in the KJV, ESV, BLB, Young’s Lit, or “received” as in the NIV, NASB, does not mean “chose”! There are Greek words which would have easily signified such an idea, had Peter so intended. However, the word he chose to use, does not mean “chose”! The irony is intended here. It means “to obtain, as by lot, to allot”. It is passive, not active. They did not receive it by an active action they did, as one would welcome a present on their birthday. Rather, they obtained it, by the allotment of God to them. As in ancient times, people “cast lots”, our modern “draw straws” to see who would get a thing.
Completely absent from both 2 Peter 1:1, 3 is the Arminian concept of faith produced by choice! Peter and Paul agreed; Faith is produced by the grace of God in those who possess it. Luke agreed! (Acts 16:14; 18:27).
The Work OF God:
Finally, in Jn 6:29, Jesus most assuredly did not say “the work (ergon: doing, accomplishment, act, action, deed) “of man” is to believe. But that is precisely how most, if not all Arminians misread it to mean! Jesus used the genitive of possession to change the premise of the question posed to Him in verse 28. Rather than affirming that belief is the work of man, Jesus expressly affirmed it is the work (deed, doing, act, action, accomplishment) of God! Grammar actually matters folks! Do Arminians, humbly thank God for what He accomplished in their hearts by His grace? Meaning, acknowledge that He accomplished their faith? No. In fact, they despise this truth, argue against it, denying Jesus, Paul and Peter in the process! Where the Lord and His apostles truly had “Sola Gratia”, Arminianism says, “Not true! We had to choose, will, and do as well!” Thus, as I said earlier, there is no doubt whatsoever that when push comes to shove, consistent Arminians do in fact deny the “Sola” of grace! They affirm self…They must! So while it most certainly appears that Protestant Arminians do in fact affirm the “Sola” of Sola Gratia, sadly, the truth is, when exposed for what they really believe, when pressed on it, they do not.
A Necessary Caveat:
To be fair, I am CERTAIN that not all Protestant Arminians are intentionally, knowingly denying “Sola Gratia”. The law of love and the biblical admonition to humility, requires such a concession here, which I sincerely state. The vast majority of them are “innocent Arminians”, I have no doubt. Meaning, they have assumed they correctly understood “grace” in its saving context and they trusted the all too often sloppy exposition of scripture by their leaders…just like Roman Catholics trust their leaders however. And as Mr. Sproul correctly observed concerning Roman Catholics, personal sincerity is not sufficient where a person does not embrace the truth of “Sola Fide”, which always remember, incorporates the intertwined truth of “Sola Gratia, Sola Christus, Soli DEO Gloria”!
I say “saving-context”, because there are other applications and contexts of how “grace” is employed in scripture, which do not and cannot refer to the grace of God that saves. But can and must refer to that post-salvation element of “grace” God continues to give to the humble. That James and Peter both admonish believers “God gives grace to the humble”, shows that grace in this aspect, does and can not refer to saving-grace. Since all who believe the gospel, are already saved. Paul speaks of “the grace of giving”, and employs grace when referring in context to God’s ability to supply more than enough material provision so that believers can “abound in every good work” of giving. “God is able to make all grace abound to you”, Paul told the Corinthians. Thus yet again, “grace” here does not and cannot refer to saving-grace, since those Paul is admonishing are saved already (1 Cor 1:29-30).
Saving Grace Is Much More Than Graciousness:
So it is, that many Protestant Arminians, assume a meaning of “grace”, define it as “graciousness”,”kindness” or something similar, and then say “See! We do affirm the Sola in ‘Sola Gratis’.” And by such a narrow definition, it could be rightly said that they do. However, the sheer amount of textual references which clearly attribute the faith of believers TO the working of God via His grace, with NO mention in any of those texts of the choice or will of the believer, yields only one possibility – saving-grace is far more than mere graciousness. It is empowering, enabling Grace! So that grace is set forth by the writers of the New Testament, as the sufficient/efficient cause and means, of not merely an objective Saviour to believe in, but the very understanding from whence all true saving-faith itself flows! (Matt 13:19, 23; Lk 24:45; Jn 6:37-44, 65; Acts 16:24; 18:27; Eph 2:5, 8-9; Gal 1:14-15; 1 Tim 1:15; 2 Tim 2:24-26 etc).
Why Thank God For Faith Unless He Is Directly Responsible For It ?
That Paul gave thanks TO God for faith in people, asking GOD to increase it, rather than merely commend the choice, wisdom or will of the believer (2 Thess 1:3; 2:13; Rom 1:8), is also proof positive that for Paul, God alone was responsible. Which is why Paul thanked God when he saw faith in people! For Paul, such was manifest evidence that GOD loved and chose those who possessed this faith! (1 Thess 1:4-5). The Arminian spin, twist on this would sound like this, “We know that you love God and chose Him, because our gospel did not come to you in word only, but you chose to accept it!” How vastly different, this is from what Paul actually wrote,
“Brothers who are beloved by God, we know that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit and with great conviction” (1 Thess 1:4-5).
An Inconsistent Application Mr. Sproul?
So Mr. Sproul, IF SOLA FIDE is essential to the gospel, and it is short hand for the Reformation truth that anyone who is saved is saved “BY grace ALONE, through faith ALONE, IN Christ ALONE, to the glory of God ALONE”, and both Rome and Protestant Arminianism deny the “SOLA” of grace, with Rome also denying the SOLA of faith, then why Mr. Sproul do you call consistent Protestant Arminians “brothers” in Christ? But Roman Catholics are apostate? Or unregenerate?
Are Our Differences Semantic? Trivial?
In his book, Mr. Sproul spends time emphasizing that the “urgent necessary differences” between Catholics and Protestants with respect to Marian Devotion, Purgatory, Papal Indulgences, The Assistance Of The Saints, The Eucharist, are indeed strong enough to preclude true unity on the gospel itself, regardless of whatever else may be agreed upon. So again, taking that very same principle, I ask him, then Mr. Sproul, what about the differences of those who do not merely ignore, but openly attack, deny, slander Sovereign-grace, election, definite acccomplished redemption? Are such open attacks merely an innocent misunderstanding? Are such things really “up for grabs” theologicalically? Take it or leave it, it doesn’t really matter to God, since in the final analysis, sincerity (quite contrary to your conclusion in your book), really does matter more to God than truth?
May God give light.
John M. Platanitis
June 25, 2017