Dr. Alan J. Dunn
Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the only passage in the Old Testament which uses the phrase New Covenant to speak of our present time in Redemptive History. This text describes several main characteristics of the people of God who live in the era of the New Covenant.
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. 33 “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”2
The first article considered the Lord’s description of His New Covenant people as the house of Israel. Dispensational teaching separates Israel from the Church so as to constitute two bona fide peoples of God who each receive their own respective salvations. The New Testament, however, speaks of one people of God and frequently uses Old Covenant vocabulary to describe this New Covenant people. For example, Paul calls the church the Israel of God in Galatians 6:16, and Peter defines the New Covenant church with descriptions used for Old Covenant Israel in 1 Peter 2:9. The second article examined God’s promise, I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it. Contrary to Antinomianism, which over emphasizes grace to the point of neglecting the legitimate role of the Law in the life of the child of God, Jeremiah 31:33 informs us that the new life given to us by the Holy Spirit is a holy, righteous life which innately inclines us to love God and neighbor, which is to say, to obey God’s Law.
This series of studies is admittedly “polemic:” endeavoring not only to examine what Scripture says, but also to refute certain theological systems which are held today. These theological systems differ in matters of interpretation, or “hermeneutics.” As servants of the New Covenant (2 Cor 3:6), we are called to hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that [we] will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict (Tit 1:9). There are teachings which are heretical, which deny Christ and the gospel and which propagate damning lies. This series is not treating heresy. Dispensationalists and Antinomians are not, as such, heretics. Their theological systems, however, are deficient when examined in the light of Scripture. Let us be Berean-spirited, noble-minded, and examine the Scriptures to see whether these things are so (Acts 17:11). If we are compelled by Scripture to reject certain theological systems of interpretation, let us also be compelled by Scripture to be gracious and to recognize and encourage true faith in Christ wherever we find it, even in those with whom we differ in doctrines of secondary importance (Acts 11:23; Phil 3:15-16).
With that caveat, we now turn our attention to Arminianism. In some ways, this theological system is more dangerous than Dispensationalism or Antinomianism, although Antinomianism poses real danger when taken to an extreme. But Arminianism is especially dangerous because it deals with the essentials of salvation. This is not to say that every believer who embraces Arminian teaching is a heretic. Thankfully, we can be better Christians than we are theologians. Nevertheless, we are all theologians and we need to be aware of the heretical tendencies inherent in Arminianism.
Arminianism is associated with the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). At the Synod of Dordt in 1618-1619, Arminius’ followers protested the prevailing convictions of the Dutch Reformed Church in Holland. The Arminian’s five rebuttals were refuted by the Synod of Dordt which was aligned theologically with the French theologian John Calvin. Dordt’s refutations of the Arminians came to be known as “The Five Points of Calvinism.”
At the center of the debate is nature of man’s free will.3 This discussion is yet quite current. Recently a poll was taken among some three thousand Americans.4 Of those who identified themselves as Evangelicals, seventy-one percent affirmed the statement: “People first seek God and then He responds with grace.” The belief that man’s choice precedes the workings of God’s grace is characteristic of Arminianism. If asked, “Who initiates salvation?” seventy-one percent of those polled would say, “Man, not God.”
This question of who initiates our salvation lies at the heart of the debate between Arminians and Calvinists. Seventy-one percent of American Evangelicals see man’s will as the initiating act in salvation, but what does Jeremiah 31:31-34 tell us about this matter? How many times does God say I will in our text? Seven times. When the Lord speaks of His New Covenant grace, He emphasizes His will, His choice, whereas the Arminian puts the emphasis on man’s will, man’s choice. Biblical salvation is initiated by God. God’s will is determinative, not man’s.
Arminianism and Historic Confessional Christianity
How should we view man’s free will? What place does our volition have in matters of salvation? Be aware that beneath this discussion about man’s will, is the question of how the new birth relates to faith. The question is: Must a sinner first be regenerated and thus enabled to exercise repentance and faith, or does the sinner first choose to believe and repent and is thereby born again? What is the relationship between regeneration and faith? Are we born again in order to believe? That is the Reformed and Calvinistic stance. Or, do we believe in order to be born again? That is the Arminian stance.
Ephesians 1:3-14 is instructive. Our salvation is rooted in God’s gracious initiative and terminates in God’s glory. What is praised is the glory of God’s grace, not anything inherent in us. Grace humbles our innate pride. It is not surprising that one of the more offensive teachings of the historic, confessional, Reformed faith is the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace, more precisely, the doctrine of election and predestination. The theologians at Dordt gave priority to God’s predestinating prerogatives while giving full integrity to man’s creaturely, but now fallen, free will. Dordt’s response to the Arminians is encapsulated in “The Five Points of Calvinism.”
The first point concerns human volitional ability, man’s free will. The Arminian Remonstrants5 argued that man, although fallen, yet retains a free will which in effect, is morally neutral and can freely choose either good or evil. Although man is a sinner, his will is yet “free” and not enslaved to sin: he can choose to believe and is encouraged to do so as God’s grace is made available to him in the gospel. The gospel calls the man to choose to believe and, if he so chooses, he will then be born again. His faith is his contribution to his salvation. Dordt responded with the doctrine now known as “Total Depravity” or man’s moral inability. Dordt said that man as a sinner is not merely sick, he is actually dead. He is separated from God legally and all his faculties of soul are dead. His heart is deceitful and his will is natively bent against God. He will not choose God of his own native power because he is separated from God in his sin, and adverse to God in his rebellion. He needs to be spiritually resurrected, to be transformed into a new creature and to be given a new nature. He must be born again and only then will he be able to exercise saving faith, which is a gift given to him by God’s sovereign grace. This is the key issue. Man must be regenerated and only then will he believe in Christ.
The second point concerns God’s electing grace. The Remonstrants said that God does elect sinners, but He does so in deference to the sinner’s free will. God is said to foresee the actions of a man before the man acts, so that He knows in advance who will choose Him and, knowing that the man will choose salvation, God is said to then “elect” them. Election is the outworking of God’s foreknowledge, a peering down the corridor of time to see events before they transpire. Dordt responded with the doctrine now known as “Unconditional Election.” God’s electing grace is not determined by anything other than God’s own free grace in keeping with His own sovereign purposes. Those elected by God are those who are then regenerated by the Spirit and thus enabled to exercise faith in Christ. The sinner is not elected because God saw in advance that he would choose Christ, but because God chose him in advance. God chose His elect in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). We love, because He first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).
The third point concerns the extent of the atonement accomplished by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. The Remonstrants argued that Jesus’ death has made it possible for everyone to be saved, but it does not actually save anyone in particular. Jesus died for all men indiscriminately, but for no man specifically. Christ’s death now allows God to pardon any sinner who chooses to believe in Jesus. Dordt responded with what we know as the doctrine of “Limited Atonement” or Particular Redemption. This view argues that Jesus died as the substitutionary sacrifice in the place of God’s elect who have been given to Christ from eternity according to the Father’s foreknowledge, that is, His before-hand-love (see Rom 8:29-30). By His death, Jesus, as the High Priest of the New Covenant, did not make salvation possible for everyone, but actually redeemed His particular people.
The fourth point concerns the role of the Holy Spirit. The Remonstrants believed that the Spirit can be resisted by the free will of man. The Spirit can appeal to the sinner, but He cannot regenerate him until and unless the sinner first chooses to exercise faith. Man’s free will is simply something God will not (cannot?) violate. Dordt responded with the doctrine of “Irresistible Grace.” The call of the gospel is given indiscriminately, to all men everywhere, for there is no other salvation given to men than that given in Christ Jesus (Acts 4:12). But in that general, outward call, the Spirit sovereignly and mysteriously blows like the wind (John 3:8) and regenerates God’s elect who are thus enabled to hear the voice of Christ in the preaching of the gospel, and to follow Him as His sheep (John 10:27-28).6 Thus regenerated, the believing sinner freely, willingly, voluntarily choses to be Jesus’ disciple. There is a seamless unity in the work of the Father who in love elects His people, and the work of the Son who in obedience dies and rises to redeem His people, and the work of the Spirit who in power regenerates, sanctifies and ultimately glorifies His people. It is inconceivable for the Son to have died for someone whom the Spirit does not regenerate and bring to faith.7 The Father plans our salvation, the Son accomplishes our salvation, and the Spirit applies the blessings of salvation to us.
The fifth and final point concerns the question of whether or not a true Christian can apostatize and fall away from faith in Christ. The Remonstrants, consistent with their esteem of man’s free will, taught that a believer who chose to become a Christian, could also choose to stop being a Christian. If our faith is dependent on our choice, then we can choose to stop believing. Interestingly, there are some Arminians who so value the act of a man’s decision, that they believe that once a man decides to be a Christian and is born again, that he is securely saved regardless of his ensuing behavior. Hence the motto: “Once saved, always saved.” In refuting this teaching, Dordt espoused “The Perseverance of the Saints.” Because salvation is rooted in God’s sovereign grace and the regenerating work of the Spirit, if a man has been truly born again, he will, by virtue of his new life, persevere in faith. He will be preserved by the grace of God, and be progressively sanctified by the Spirit even though he is liable to times of back-sliding. He is saved by grace and kept by grace which is continually effective in true faith, not a dead faith, but a living and fruitful faith (Jms 2:14-26). It is not that we are saved if we have once believed, but that we will persevere in faith if we have truly believed.8 The Arminian focuses on the conversion experience, the more dramatic, the better. But we would do well to pay attention to the life lived by the one who professes to believe. We are not known to be Christians by our crisis conversion experience. We are known by our love and by the fruit of a living faith (Jn13:34-35; Mt 7:16-20).9
These five points are known by the acronym TULIP: Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the Saints. Some refer to TULIP as the sum total of “Calvinism.” It is not. The theology expressed by Calvin and the other Reformers and all who hold to the historic Reformed Confessions of Faith, is much larger than these five points which concern soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation. But when seeking to discern biblical soteriology from the error of Arminianism, TULIP is a handy tool.
As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of self-professed Evangelicals in America identify with Arminianism. The religious history of America shows that the Calvinistic theology which characterized the First Great Awakening (1730’s-40s) was largely displaced by the Arminianism of the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. As our country expanded west, “revivals” became popular. These events often employed techniques that stirred the emotions and called for “decisions.” In the 20th century, Billy Graham, the Jesus Movement, the Charismatic Movement, and a plethora of TV evangelists have made Arminianism the dominant theological system on the landscape of American Evangelical Christianity. Happily however, we are seeing a resurgence of interest in historic confessional Christianity which characteristically is Calvinistic in matters of salvation.10
1 This four-part series follows the main outline of A Reformed Baptist Manifesto: The New Covenant Constitution of the Church by Dr. Sam Waldron (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2004). Although I follow Dr. Waldron’s main outline, I have reshaped the substance of the arguments presented in these articles.
2 I am using the New American Standard Bible. For the sake of space, quotes from Scripture will be limited, but I encourage you to read the passages referenced in your Bible so as to benefit from our study together.
3 These matters had been previously discussed in the fifth century by Augustine, with whom Calvinists would identify, and Pelagius, with whom Arminians would identify.
4 http://ligonier-static-media.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/thestateoftheology/TheStateOfTheology-FullSurveyKeyFindings.pdf. Although you may not live in America, you are not unaffected by American Christianity. America houses many publishing companies, seminaries and churches which have global reach. As England influenced global Christianity in the 19th century, so too America has exerted a global influence in the 20th century. As the Church grows in Asia, China, Africa and South America, the voices in theological discussion are increasingly multi-national, but the topics of debate have often been established during earlier times in the history of the Church. You may not identify yourself as an American Evangelical, but the issues discussed in America likely are not irrelevant to you. Nor are the issues being discussed outside the USA irrelevant to American Christians. We are called to be faithful to Christ as we bear witness to Him among all the nations in our generation.
5 To “remonstrate” is to protest, to oppose. The Remonstrants at the Council of Dordt were those who sided with Arminius and opposed the Confessional Calvinists of the Dutch Reformed Church.
6 We need to differentiate the terms born again from eternal life. If we interpret born again as a synonym of eternal life, Arminianism could appear to have biblical justification. But to be born again is not the same thing as to receive eternal life. John tends to use the phrase eternal life whereas the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) speak of the kingdom. This is not to say that John does not speak of the kingdom. In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless a man is born again, he can neither see nor enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:3,5). Seeing and entering are metaphors of faith. We must first be born again in order to see and enter the kingdom of God. We are first regenerated and given the gifts of faith and repentance (see Acts 5:31; 11:18) whereby we then enter the kingdom. When we then read in John 3:16b that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life, we understand that the one who believes in Him is one who has already been born again. The one believing is then given eternal life, rather than perishing. Eternal life is eschatological life, resurrection life, the life of the kingdom of God. To perish is to be damned in the eternal death of hell. Our Arminian friends correctly teach that one must first believe in order to have eternal life. But when they equate eternal life with the new birth, they place faith before regeneration. This is a mistake. Some would even say it is heretical. The biblical “order of salvation” (“ordu salutis”) places regeneration before faith. God’s eternal kingdom life is then given to faith. Consider 1 John, which was written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 Jn 5:13). 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1; 5:5 and 5:18 describe the one who is born of God. The verb gegennhme,non, translated is born is a perfect passive participle: being presently in the state of having been born of God. This verb tells us that the Christian was passive when God the Spirit birthed him in the past and that prior birthing is the explanation for his present faith which now evidences itself in his doctrinal convictions, personal conduct and ecclesiastical commitments. John teaches that true faith is the effect of having previously been born again. For example, 1 Jn 5:1 reads, whoever believes [present active participle: ‘is believing’] that Jesus is the Christ is born [perfective passive participle: ‘has been born’] of God. The reason that the believer is now believing is because God previously regenerated him. Now, as a believer, he has eternal life in the kingdom of God. See also the temporal sequence in John 1:12-13 which shows the relationship of regeneration to faith and the blessings of adoption.
7 A view which separates the work of the Spirit in salvation from the work of the Son and the Father was articulated by Moses Amyraut (1596-1664) who attempted to blend the Calvinist doctrine of Unconditional Election with an Arminian view of universal atonement. This view is called “Amyraldianism,” commonly known as “Four-Point Calvinism.” Amyraldianism rejects Limited Atonement while accepting the other four points. Evangelicals reject Universalism and therefore acknowledge that God must limit the extent of His saving grace. Scripture teaches “Limited Atonement” by defining Jesus’ death as a priestly sacrifice (see below). Rather than limiting the extent of salvation by the electing purposes of the Father and the atoning work of Christ, Amyraldianism teaches that it is the Spirit who imposes a limit in that He applies the blessings of the atonement to a delimited people.
8 Scripture tells us that we have been saved in the past (see Eph 2:8); that we are being saved in the present (see 1 Cor 1:18); and that we will be saved in the future (see 1 Cor 3:15).
9 Pastorally, when helping someone to gain assurance of faith, it is advisable to do what John does in 1 John: to emphasize their present faith, not to ask them to identify and analyze their conversion experience. Some brethren are converted as was Paul in a “Damascus Road” experience. Others, like Timothy, grew into a realization of their genuine faith (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14-15). The question is, “Are you now believing in Jesus as your Savior and Lord?” If so, the only explanation for present faith is that the Spirit has given new life, regardless of whether or not someone can precisely pin-point the date and place of their conversion.
10 Let me recommend The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. There you will find helpful chapters on man’s free will, effectual calling, saving faith, and the perseverance of the saints, along with other aspects of salvation and the Christian life.
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The New Covenant People of God Series:
The New Covenant People of God and Arminianism (1)
The New Covenant People of God and Arminianism (2)
The New Covenant People of God and Paedobaptism (1)
The New Covenant People of God and Paedobaptism (2)
The New Covenant People of God and Antinomianism
The New Covenant People of God and Dispensationalism