Thoughts on Justification – Understanding Man’s Condition and Need – Part 3

Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism

As has been previously discussed, the UPC and OP holds a very diminished view on the sinfulness of man and how this translates into his inability to do good as defined by God.  In other words, the UPC holds man up with a much higher regard than scripture would otherwise seem to permit.  Let’s take a look at the UPCI and OP view of man in light of the controversies with respect to Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.

Pelagius was a monk who lived during the late 4th century and early 5th century.  He taught that man was born innocent and free from the original sin of Adam.  His view, known as Pelagianism, taught that man had the ability on his own to fulfill the commandments of God.  Thus, man through his own free-will has the ability to choose between good and evil without the assistance of the Holy Spirit and that man has the free-will ability to choose God.  The grace of God aids individuals in coming to God.  Pelagianism was thoroughly condemned by councils throughout church history as not representing faithfully the scriptures.

While Pelagianism was condemned, a weaker form of this view continues and is referred to as Semi-Pelagianism.  Semi-Pelagianism affirmed the idea of original sin and its harmful effects on man and his will but it continues to hold that essentially man is not really all that bad.  Man has the ability on his own to initiate belief in God and the view holds that God’s grace is a response to man’s taking the first step towards God.  Man makes the first move towards God by seeking God out of his own free-will and then God responds by extending grace to man.  Further, man must cooperate with God’s grace through maintaining his own faith through his own human efforts.

Along this continuum we also find Arminianism.  Arminianism is closer to Calvinism than the Semi-Pelagian perspective and Arminianism will hold that the first steps of grace are taken by God and not as a result of God responding to man’s steps toward him.

Yet, when Bernard makes statements such as, “When we submit to water baptism according to God’s plan, God honors our obedient faith and remits our sin.”  (Emphasis mine. The New Birth, pg. 131) this sounds quite a bit more like man taking obedient steps towards God and then God extending grace to man in remitting his sins.

As has been previously discussed, the scripture is rather abundant in its assertions with respect to the state of unregenerate man without God and the means by which man finds himself in relationship with God.

Ephesians 2:1-3 teaches us that man’s natural state is dead in trespasses and sin.

The wrath of God is presently being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  Sinful man is currently under the wrath of God.  Sinful man is actively involved in suppressing the truth.  They know God but refuse honor God or give him thanks.  God has given man over to the lusts of his heart and to impurities.  He gave man over to his dishonorable passions.  As man refuses to even acknowledge God, God has given them over to a debased mind.  Not only do they know that their acts are wrong, they continue in them and take pleasure in those who practice such evil things.  (Romans 1).  Man is free and he is free to do as he will – but his will is only to do evil.  He is constrained by his sinful nature.

Quoting a series of passage from Psalms, Paul reiterates that all are under sin:

“None is righteous, no, not one;

No one understands;

No one seeks for God.

All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

No one does good,

Not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave;

They use their tongues to deceive.”

“The venom of asps is under their lips.”

“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood

In their paths are ruin and misery,

And the way of peace they have not known.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

There is none that is righteous, no one understands and no one seeks God.  No one does good.  There is no fear of God.

Romans 7:18 – For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I have the desire to what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  Even as Christian, Paul understood that in his flesh he completely lacks the ability to carry out good works.

Romans 8:7 teaches that those who are in the flesh are hostile to God and not only don’t but are incapable of submitting to God.

Yet, the UPC holds a view of salvation in which man in this state of spiritual deadness must act in a manner that appears completely contrary to his abilities and be obedient to the faith in order for God to extend his grace him.

Matthew 12:34 – You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

John 6:44, 65 – No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.  And I will raise him on the last day. … And he said, this is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father.

This view that creates dependence on man to bring about his own salvation through his conjuring up sufficient faith and obedience to God is a view that is dangerous on many fronts.  The UPCI view seems closer to that of Semi-Pelagianism than simple Arminianism as it stresses man’s obedience in bringing about his salvation.  Any view that emphasizes man’s performance in justifying his position with God is a dangerous and tenuous one.

When man’s actions are the basis for our judging our status with God, man will typically fall into one of two positions.  First, the man, lacking a proper understanding of grace and recognizing his inability on his own to measure up to the standard of God will continually live in a state of being subject to condemnation and feeling that his salvation is tenuous at best.  Second, the man who feels that he is performing pretty good may well be deluded into thinking he has something to offer God – he will be presenting a self-righteousness and not the standing before God with the righteousness of Christ.

The UPCI makes salvation a very performance based process – it is dependent on your repentance, your baptism and your receiving the Holy Spirit as evidence by the physical/spiritual performance of speaking in unknown tongues.  This performance based mentality continues throughout the life of the Christian and is then marked by adherence to holiness standards, dress codes, refraining from any and all activities deemed worldly by the church and an emphasis on spiritually based activities.  While the Christian should put off the works of the flesh and produce the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, the UPCI emphasis tends to focus heavily on performance of or refraining from certain activities and conformity to the standards of the organization.  Outward manifestations do not always reflect inward changes – sometimes they are actions reflecting a desire to be acceptable to God or simply obedience to the local ministry.

Rather the scripture provides a liberating and freeing message reflecting my utter need and dependence on God.  God has provided everything to bring about my salvation and to keep me through until the end.  I have confidence in God and what he has done for me and he creates within me the desire to good and obedient works. It is not out of a sense of needing to appease my God but of thankfulness and the changed nature that he has brought about in me.  I appreciate that many in the UPCI share this sense but it would be in spite of the teaching that they receive.


Thoughts on Justification – Understanding Man’s Condition and Need – Part 2

In the previous post, we discussed bit about the nature of man and the extreme Arminian view of the UPCI with respect to the contributions that man must make through obedience to the faith in bringing about his own salvation.

It must be noted that if man has the ability to contribute faith and obedience in response to God’s offering of grace to bring about regeneration and salvation in man, it could be argued that this view holds a rather elevated view of man as compared with the view that appears to be espoused in scripture. One might argue that this view is born out of man’s rebelliousness against God in denying God sovereignty in the area of salvation and making it about man and man’s freewill decision. It is certainly a denial of God’s ability (whether self-imposed or not) to alone bring about salvation or work his will to his own glory in bringing about the salvation of man. God cannot bring about man’s salvation for God is limited to the extent man is willing to cooperate.

The alternative view is that salvation is entirely the work of God. Man can contribute nothing towards his salvation. His salvation is unconditionally by grace through faith. Faith itself is a gift from God and is not the cause of man’s salvation but evidence of God’s regenerative grace having worked in man. There is absolutely nothing meritorious on the part of man to warrant the work of God in his life but it rests completely on the good pleasure of God’s sovereignty. God knows that man, based on his rebellious nature, spiritually dead in his trespasses and sins, is both unwilling and incapable of doing good and believing on his own. Therefore, God’s working his salvation in our lives is completely an unmerited gift of grace based on nothing in man.

Again, this view begins with the premise that man is unable on his own to come to God because the “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (I Cor 2:14). As a result of man’s having no spiritual life in him and being spiritually dead in his, man has no moral ability to come to Christ apart from the drawing of the Father (Eph 2:1-3, Col 2:13, John 6:44, 63-65). Man is in the business of repressing the knowledge of God and creating idols – of elevating the role of man to that of God – he can do nothing in accordance with the standard of God’s law (Rom 1:18-25, 3:9-12). Man is the enemy of God, in rebellion against God and incapable of acting in according with God’s law. Therefore, God must supernaturally act in the heart of man to bring him to a place where he will have faith and repent. If unregenerate, sinful man is to believe in God, God must initiate a change in man to bring man to a place where he will place faith in Christ. Thus, regeneration or new birth is the change that God brings about in man to initiate relationship with him rather than the ultimate goal of salvation as asserted by the UPCI.

John 3 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [Greek here is uncertain/ambiguous and can both ‘again’ and ‘from above’] he cannot see the kingdom of God….Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sounds, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of Spirit….. Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

The UPCI views this passage as teaching both the need for baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit with speaking in other tongues as part of the new birth/regeneration. As noted in the passage, the Greek is ambiguous and may be more properly rendered as born from above rather than born again. This is evidenced by the emphasis on contrasting born of flesh and spirit and the earthly rather than heavenly source of these things. Nicodemus understood this to be a rebirth. What we can see is that this birth is a spiritual birth that originates from God. As man has no control over the wind, man has no control with respect to the blowing of the wind – the wind blows where it blows, and so is everyone that is born of the Spirit. Being born of the Spirit is a sovereign act of God.

Ezekiel 36:2-7 – I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will be careful to observe my rules.

Many cite to this passage in Ezekiel when looking at John 3 and being born from above. As the Spirit is does what it does and being born again is initiated as an act from above, in Ezekiel we also see that God is the one taking the initiative to remove our heart of stone and to give us a heart of flesh – a new heart and a new spirit within us. It is once we have this heart of flesh and a new spirit that we come to believe and obey.

This is demonstrated in the example of Lydia. When Lydia was taught the gospel by Paul, the “Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” (Acts 16:14). Lydia did not open her own heart and the ability to give heed or pay attention to the words of the gospel as proclaimed by Paul were a direct result of God opening her heart to pay attention. The UPCI would say that the Lord opened her heart but it was still up to her as to whether she would pay attention to the word of the Lord. Lydia could have resisted the will of God. This would appear to be a contrary statement to the express statement of scripture – the Lord opened her heart with a purpose, that Lydia would pay attention to the words of Paul.

When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus declared that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 16:17). The revelation of Christ is a direct result of the act of God in regenerating the heart of man.

John 1:12-13 – Those who receive Christ are those who believe in his name. Those that receive Christ have been born of God. Verse 13 emphasizes that being born of God is a divine action and not something that is tied to the will of man. The person who receives Christ has first been born of God.

If man is truly in this lost state of sin and incapable to act on his own, it requires a sovereign act of God to move in the heart of man to bring him to a place of repentance and faith. This is not something that man can bring about on his own – faith and obedience – to merit salvation but man must be utterly dependent on the sovereign grace of God to bring man to a place where he will bow the knee in faith and repentance. Further, if God is to sovereignly act in this respect in man’s heart, it is inevitable that man will bow the knee. There is an inevitability in the notion that, “For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30).

The UPCI view tends to elevate man beyond that which scripture would seem to dictate. The UPCI would ascribe to man a moral and spiritual capability to possess and act according to faith in obedience to God’s will even while in an unregenerate state. It must necessarily follow that the UPCI also diminishes the idea of sin. The scriptural teaching on the doctrine of man’s sinful state and nature and what that ultimately means. The UPCI also must diminish the sovereignty of God and his role with respect to salvation. God would be unable to accomplish his will – man has the ability to thwart the will of God. Thus, man is not as bad and God is not as capable or powerful as scripture would seem to indicate.


Thoughts on Justification – Understanding Man’s Condition and Need – Part 1

As a Oneness Pentecostal, the term justification was not something that was in my vocabulary.  Recall that the UPCI hermeneutical approach to understanding salvation is to start and end with Acts 2:38 and to understand the rest of scripture through the lens of that one verse, even if it means twisting other scriptures to make them fit within an Acts 2:38 viewpoint.

Justification is a concept that is foreign to people within the UPCI.  Looking back over my 25 years in the UPCI, I can confidently state that I never heard any teaching about justification.  I asked others – some of whom have been in the UPCI for 40 or more years – and none recalled hearing teaching on justification.  I asked a UPCI pastor who had been raised in a pastor’s home if he had ever taught about justification and the response was no.  The concept of being ‘justified by faith’ was spoken of by this pastor like some unfamiliar concept and doctrine.

Before looking more closely at this critical concept, I think it is important to step back and look at man and attempt to understand the state of man without God.  What is the condition of man in his sinful state.  In my experience, I have been in UPCI churches that preached and taught very strongly on the subject of sin and its consequences.  I have been in another church where the subject of sin rarely is mentioned.  Where sin is rarely mentioned, living a life for Christ is more about the benefits that one can receive from being in relationship with God.  Regardless of where one finds himself – in a church that emphasizes the sinful nature of man and his need for God or the church that emphasizes benefits of living for Christ rather than man’s need, seeking to follow Christ in either place can be rather precarious for the Christian if he does not have an adequate understanding of what it means to be saved by grace through faith.

As a member of a UPCI church, you are a part of the Arminian tradition as opposed to Calvinism.  I address this subject now because, in my experience, the distinctions between Arminianism and Calvinism were never taught as a part of our study of scripture in the UPCI and I believe that the vast majority are unfamiliar with these concepts.

This a subject for deeper exploration another time but at its most fundamental level the difference between the two positions relates to how an individual comes to salvation.  Arminianism espouses the view that God provides a degree of grace to all people (something called “prevenient grace”) but that man has the free will to make the final determination as to whether or not he will respond to the call of God.  Man, even while in his sinful state, has the ability to choose the right, to do the good and spiritual thing of responding in faith.  Thus, man is tainted by sin but not to the extent that he is unable to place faith in God of his own accord.

In his book, The New Birth, David Bernard reflects the Arminian view in some of his comments regarding man and his sinful state.  “The Scriptures teach that God gives everyone the ability to believe and therefore He is the source of a Christian’s faith. ‘God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Romans 12:3).”  (page 37).  This reflects the Arminian view of unlimited atonement versus the view of Calvinism which holds to particular redemption or limited atonement (a point of considerable debate).  Bernard states further:

Due to our sinful natures, none of us could ever seek God on our own in the absence of His drawing power (John 3:27; 6:44; Romans 3:10-12).  No one would ever have faith if God did not grant it.  However, Christ died for the whole world so that He could bestow grace upon all (John 3:16).  Although man on his own is so depraved and sinful that he cannot of himself choose God, God gives every man the ability to seek after Him and respond to Him.  This grace that precedes salvation and is given to all mankind is what theologians call “universal prevenient grace.”  (page 37).

Calvinism, on the other hand, holds that man is corrupted by sin and unable to come to God of his own accord.  Calvinism would say that man is totally depraved or radically corrupted.  Total depravity does not mean that man is as sinful as he could possibly be.  The depravity reflects the brokenness and inability on the part of man on his own to do good.  Even the “good” that man does is tainted by his sinful nature.  Within the scope of salvation, total depravity or total inability holds that man is unable and not even inclined to love God but are instead inclined to serve his own nature, desires and will and to reject God.  Therefore, salvation must be brought about exclusively through the sovereignty of God who elects, calls and justifies a people for himself.  Man brings nothing to the table – man, according to his nature, does not seek God and is unable to submit himself to the will of God.  God does the work of salvation in us.

R.C. Sproul describes the problem of man as follows:

The ability to make righteous moral choices requires righteous desires and inclinations. Without a righteous inclination to the good, no one can choose the good. Our choices follow our inclinations. For man to be able to choose the things of God, he must first be inclined to choose them. Since the flesh makes no provision for the things of God, grace is required for us to be able to choose them. The unregenerate person must be regenerated before he has any desire for God.

I wish to lay these thoughts out briefly now as to demonstrate that there is a vast difference of view with respect to the nature of our salvation and how it is brought about.  Fundamentally, this difference of view on the sinful state of man is particularly important in light of the gospel proclaimed by the UPCI.  As Calvinist, Dr. James White, noted in his book The God who Justifies, “Every fundamental error regarding the doctrine of justification that man has ever invented flows from a denial of the nature and impact of sin in man’s life.”  (page 53).

The Arminian view of the UPCI is, fundamentally, that faith is something that the natural man must add or contribute towards his salvation independent of the actions of God’s grace.  Man, in his unregenerate (pre-new birth) state has the freewill and natural ability to either believe in or reject God and his extension of grace.  God’s grace is extended to all and takes man part of the way to salvation but fallen man will determine the final outcome with respect to whether he will respond in faith, become regenerate or new born, and ultimately saved.  Thus, grace is an offer and a help to man but will not change man.  Grace is merely Jesus standing at the door and knocking but he is waiting for us to respond and open the door.  God will only respond to and reward those who, in their fallen state, are able to produce sufficient faith to contribute to their salvation.

Thus, the view of your typical Arminian is that God extends this prevenient grace to all to draw men to him but man himself, in his unregenerate state, must contribute his faith to bring about his regeneration/new birth and salvation.  Man has the ability to decide for himself whether he will respond in faith or reject God.   Once man has received the grace of God through the exercise of his faith, his is regenerated/born again.  From here, man is progressively sanctified or conformed to the image of God’s son and would participate in baptism, the Lord’s Supper and be a part of the church.

The UPCI takes your typical Arminian view and moves it to the further extreme.  Not only must man, in his unregenerate, fallen state contribute faith to salvation.  Unregenerate, fallen man must bring faith and obedience.  Bernard, throughout his book The New Birth reiterates obedience, particularly obedience to Acts 2:38, as man’s responsibility in contributing to his salvation.  While lip service is offered to the work being on the part of God and received through faith, man must contribute to his salvation through the acts baptism in the name of Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in unknown tongues.  As Bernard states, “Regeneration…occurs at the time we repent, are baptized in the name of Jesus, and receive the Holy Spirit.”  (Page 329-30).  Thus, the new birth/regeneration is a process that begins with repentance and is not completed until such a point in time when we are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit – in the UPCI view baptism must be in Jesus’ name to be effective in the remission of sins and the reception of the Spirit is to always be accompanied with the initial evidence of speaking in unknown tongues.

The question must be asked, does the scripture teach that man, in his unregenerate state, have the ability to respond in both faith and obedience to the extension of God’s grace in salvation?  Is man capable of contributing anything to his salvation, even in the form of simply faith, much less obedience to baptism and tongue speaking.

In another post we will need to address those scriptures that would affirm man’s ability and responsibility to choose God and those that seem to stress man’s inability to come to Christ.  It is clear that there are many scriptures that include a general call to all to repent and to come to Christ but there seems to be an absence within those passages regarding man’s ability to come to Christ on his own.  Yet the scriptures seem to make clear that within this general call, there is a particular or effectual calling for some.  In the end, many are called but few are chosen.

The question is, does the scripture teach that man, who is universally guilty of sin, and “storing up wrath” for themselves for the “day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed”, who is dead in his trespasses and sin, following the course of this world, living in the passions of his flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and mind, a child of wrath, hostile and in rebellion to God, who has his mind set on the things of the flesh, which is hostile to God, unable to please God and both unwilling and unable to submit to God’s law, able to contribute faith and willingly on his own accord to choose God?

A similar question was asked in Jeremiah 13:23:  Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?  Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.  The answer is no.  Just as a leopard cannot change his spots, man is unable to change something that is a part of his fallen nature – that is his inclination to do evil and his natural state being in rebellion against God.  As Paul stated in Romans, the mind set on the flesh does not submit to the will of God, “indeed it cannot.”  Thus, the image of Jesus standing at the door and knocking (which, if we were to look at that passage in context, is a picture of his knocking on the door of the church and not an image of the state of the relationship between Christ and sinner) is misguided.  The sinner will never come to the door and open to Christ of his own accord.  It is contrary to his nature.

The image that would more accurately reflect the relationship of sinner coming to Christ is that of Christ standing before the tomb of the dead Lazarus.  The effectual call of God will bring forth the dead to life – the dead brings nothing to the equation, indeed he cannot by his nature and state.

In my next blog, we will take a look at the alternative view of scripture on the condition of man and God’s role in bringing about his salvation.