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The Five Points of Calvinism – Part 2 by R. L. Dabney

By April 3, 2011June 24th, 2019Five Points of Calvinism, Limited Atonement

II. The Nature and Agency of the Moral Revolution, Named Effectual Calling or Regeneration.

This change must be more than an outer reformation of conduct, an inward revolution of first principles which regulate conduct. It must go deeper than a change of purpose as to sin and godliness; it must be a reversal of the original dispositions which hitherto prompted the soul to choose sin and reject godliness. Nothing less grounds a true conversion. As the gluttonous child maybe persuaded by the selfish fear of pain and death to forego the dainties he loves, and to swallow the nauseous drugs which his palate loathes so the ungodly man may be induced by his self-righteousness and selfish fear of hell to forbear the sins he still loves, and submit to the religious duties which his secret soul still detests. But, as the one practice is no real cure of the vice of gluttony in the child, so the other is no real conversion to godliness in the sinner. The child must not only forsake, but really dislike his unhealthy dainties; not only submit to swallow, but really love, the medicines naturally nauseous to him. Selfish fear can do the former; nothing but a physiological change of constitution can do the latter. The natural man must not only submit from selfish fear to the godliness which he detested, he must love it for its own sake, and hate the sins naturally sweet to him. No change can be permanent which does not go thus deep; nothing less is true conversion. God’s call to the sinner is: ‘My son, give me thine heart.’ (Proverbs xxiii. 26.) God requireth truth in the inward parts and in the hidden parts: ‘Thou shalt make me to know wisdom.’ (Psalm li. 6.) ‘Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart.’ (Deut. x. 16.) But hear especially Christ: ‘Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt.’ (Matt. xii. 33)

We call the inward revolution of principles regeneration; the change of life which immediately begins from the new principles conversion. Regeneration is a summary act, conversion a continuous process. Conversion begins in, and proceeds constantly out of, regeneration, as does the continuous growth of a plant out of the first sprouting or quickening of its dry seed. In conversion the renewed soul is an active agent: ‘God’s people are willing in the day of his power.’ The converted man chooses and acts the new life of faith and obedience heartily and freely, as prompted by the Holy Ghost. In this sense, ‘He works out his own salvation’ (Phil. ii. 12.). But manifestly in regeneration, in the initial revolution of disposition, the soul does not act, but is a thing acted on. In this first point there can be no cooperation of the man’s will with the divine power. The agency is wholly Gods, and not man’s, even in part. The vital change must be affected by immediate direct divine power. God’s touch here may be mysterious; but it must be real, for it is proved by the seen results. The work must be sovereign and supernatural. Sovereign in this sense, that there is no will concerned in its effectuation except God’s, because the sinner’s will goes against it as invariably, as freely, until it is renewed; supernatural, because there is nothing at all in sinful human nature to begin it, man’s whole natural disposition being to prefer and remain in a godless state. As soon as this doctrine is stated, it really proves itself. In our second section we showed beyond dispute that man’s natural disposition and will are enmity against God. Does enmity ever turn itself into love? Can nature act above nature? Can the stream raise itself to a higher level than its own source? Nothing can be plainer than this, that since the native disposition and will of man are wholly and decisively against godliness, there is no source within the man out of which the new godly will can come; into the converted man it has come; then it must have come from without, solely from the divine will.

But men cheat themselves with the notion that what they call free-will may choose to respond to valid outward inducements placed before it, so that gospel truth and rational free-will cooperating with it may originate the great change instead of sovereign, efficacious divine grace. Now, any plain mind, if it will think, can see that this is delusive. Is any kind of an object actual inducement to any sort of agent? No, indeed. Is fresh grass an inducement to a tiger? Is bloody flesh an inducement to a lamb to eat? Is a nauseous drug an inducement to a child’s palate; or ripe sweet fruit? Useless loss an inducement to the merchant; or useful gain? Are contempt and reproach inducements to aspiring youth; or honor and fame ? Manifestly some kinds of objects only are inducements to given sorts of agents; and the opposite objects are repellants. Such is the answer of common sense. Now, what has decided which class of objects shall attract, and which shall repel? Obviously it is the agents’ own original, subjective dispositions which have determined this. It is the lamb’s nature which has determined that the fresh grass, and not the bloody flesh, shall be the attraction to it. It is human nature in the soul which has determined that useful gain, and not useless loss, shall be inducement to the merchant. Now, then, to influence a man by inducement you must select an object which his own natural disposition has made attractive to him; by pressing the opposite objects on him you only repel him; and the presentation of the objects can never reverse the man’s natural disposition, because this has determined in advance which objects will be attractions and which repellants. Effects cannot reverse the very causes on which they themselves depend. The complexion of the child cannot Re-determine the complexion of the father. Now, facts and Scripture teach us (see 2d. Section) that man’s original disposition is as freely, as entirely, against God’s will and godliness and in favor of self-will and sin. Therefore, godliness can never be of itself inducement, but only repulsion, to the unregenerate soul. Men cheat themselves; they think they are induced by the selfish advantages of an imaginary heaven, an imaginary selfish escape from hell. But this is not regeneration; it is but the sorrows of the world that worketh death, and the hope of the hypocrite that perisheth.

The different effects of the same preached gospel at the same time and place prove that regeneration is from sovereign grace: ‘Some believed the things which mere spoken, and some believed not.’ (Acts xviii. 24). This is because, ‘As many as were ordained to eternal life believed.’ (Acts xiii. 48). Often those remain unchanged whose social virtues, good habits, and amiability should seem to offer least obstruction to the gospel; while some old, profane, sensual, and hardened sinners become truly converted, whose wickedness and long confirmed habits of sinning must have presented the greatest obstruction to gospel truth. Like causes should produce like effects. Had outward gospel inducements been the real causes, these results of preaching would be impossible. The facts show that the gospel inducements were only instruments, and that in the real conversion the agency was almighty grace.

The erroneous theory of conversion is again powerfully refuted by those cases, often seen, in which gospel truth has remained powerless over certain men for ten, twenty, or fifty years, and at last has seemed to prevail for their genuine conversion. The gospel, urged by the tender lips of a mother, proved too weak to overcome the self-will of the boy’s heart. Fifty years afterwards that same gospel seemed to convert a hardened old man! There are two well-known laws of the human soul which show this to be impossible. One is, that facts and inducements often, but fruitlessly, presented to the soul, become weak and trite from vain repetition. The other is, that men’s active appetences grow stronger continually by their own indulgence. Here, then, is the case: The gospel when presented to the sensitive boy must have had much more force than it could have to the old man after it had grown stale to him by fifty years of vain repetition. The old man’s love of sin must have grown greatly stronger than the boy’s by fifty years of constant indulgence. Now how comes it, that a given moral influence which was too weak to overcome the boy’s sinfulness has overcome the old man’s carnality when the influences had become so much weaker and the resistance to it so much stronger. This is impossible. It was the finger of God, and not the mere moral influence, which wrought the mighty change. Let us suppose that fifty years ago the reader had seen me visit his rural sanctuary, when the grand oaks which now shade it were but lithe saplings. He saw me make an effort to tear one of them with my hands from its seat; but it proved too strong for me. Fifty years after, he and I meet at the same sacred spot, and he sees me repeat my attempt upon the same tree, now grown to be a monarch of the grove. He will incline to laugh me to scorn: ‘He attempted that same tree fifty years ago, when he was in his youthful prime and it was but a sapling, but he could not move it. Does the old fool think to rend it from its seat now’ when age has so diminished his muscle, and the sapling has grown to a mighty tree?’ But let us suppose that the reader saw that giant of the grove come up in my aged hands. He would no longer laugh. He would stand awe-struck. He would conclude that this must be the hand of God, not of man. How vain is it to seek to break the force of this demonstration by saying that at last the moral influence of the gospel had received sufficient accession from attendant circumstances, from clearness and eloquence of presentation, to enable it to do its work? What later eloquence of the pulpit can rival that of the Christian mother presenting the cross in the tender accents of love. Again, the story of the cross, the attractions of heaven, ought to be immense, even when stated in the simplest words of childhood. How trivial and paltry are any additions which mere human rhetoric can make to what ought to be the infinite force of the naked truth.

But the surest proof is that of Scripture. This everywhere asserts that the sinner’s regeneration is by sovereign, almighty grace. One class of texts presents those which describe the sinner’s prior condition as one of ‘blindness,’ Eph. iv. 18; ‘ of stony heartedness,’ Ezek. xxxvi. 26; ‘of impotency,’ Rom. v. 6; ‘of enmity,’ Rom. viii. 7; ‘of inability, John vi. 44, and Rom. vii. 18; ‘of deadness,’ Eph. ii. 1-5. Let no one exclaim that these are ‘figures of speech.’ Surely the Holy Spirit, when resorting to figures for the very purpose of giving a more forcible expression to truth, does not resort to a deceitful rhetoric! Surely he selects his figures because of the correct parallel between them and his truth! Now, then, the blind man cannot take part in the very operation which is to open his eyes. The hard stone cannot be a source of softness. The helpless paralytic cannot begin his own restoration. Enmity against God cannot choose love for him, The dead corpse of Lazarus could have no agency in recalling the vital spirit into itself. After Christ’s almighty power restored it, the living man could respond to the Savior’s command and rise and come forth.

The figures which describe the almighty change prove the same truth. It is described (Ps. cxix. 18) as an opening of the blind eyes to the law; as a new creation; (Ps. li. 10; Eph. ii. 5) as a pew birth; (John iii. 3) as a quickening or resurrection (making alive); Eph. 1 18, and ii. 10). The man blind of cataract does not join the surgeon in couching his own eye; nor does the sunbeam begin and perform the surgical operation; that must take place in order for the light to enter and produce vision.

The timber is shaped by the carpenter; it does not shape itself, and does not become an implement until he gives it the desired shape. The infant does not procreate itself, but must be born of its parents in order to become a living agent.

The corpse does not restore life to itself; after life is restored if becomes a living agent. Express scriptures teach the same doctrine. in Jer. xxxi. 18, Ephraim is heard praying thus: ‘Turn thou to me and I shall be turned.’ In John 1.12, we are taught that believers are born ‘not of blood, nor of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God.’ In John vi. 44, Christ assures us that ‘No man can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him.’ And in chap. xv. 16, ‘ Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that you should go and bring forth fruit.’ In Eph. ii. 10, ‘For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which Christ hath fore ordained that we should walk in them.’

It is objected that this doctrine of almighty grace would destroy man’s free-agency. This is not true. All men whom God does not regenerate retain their natural freedom unimpaired by anything which he does to them.

It is true that these use their freedom, as in variably, as voluntarily, by choosing their self-will and unregenerate state. But in doing this they choose in perfect accordance with their own preference, and this the only kind of free-agency known to men of common sense. The unregenerate choose just what they prefer, and therefore choose freely; but so long as not renewed by almighty grace, they always prefer to remain unregenerate, because it is fallen man’s nature. The truly regenerate do not lose their free-agency by effectual calling, but regain a truer and higher freedom; for the almighty power which renews them does not force them into a new line of conduct contrary to their own preferences, but reverses the original disposition itself which regulates preference. Under this renewed disposition they now act just as freely as when they were voluntary sinners, but far more reasonably and happily. For they act the new and right preference, which almighty grace has put in place of the old one.

It is objected, again, that unless the agent has exercised his free-will in the very first choice or adoption of the new moral state, there could be no moral quality and no credit for the series of actions proceeding therefrom, because they would not be voluntary. This is expressly false. True, the new-born sinner can claim no merit for that sovereign change of will in which his conversion began, because it was not his own choosing, or doing, but God’s; yet the cavil is untrue; the moral quality and merit of a series of actions does not depend on the question, whether the agent put himself into the moral state whence they how, by a previous volition of his own starting from a moral indifference.

The only question is, whether his actions are sincere, and the free expressions of a right disposition, for:

  1. Then Adam could have no morality; for we are expressly told that God ‘created him upright.’ (Eccles. vii. 29.)
  2. Jesus could have had no meritorious morality, because being conceived of the Holy Ghost he was born that holy thing. (Matt. I. 20; Luke I. 35)
  3. God himself could have no meritorious holiness, because he was and is eternally and unchangeably holy. He never chose himself into a state of holiness, being eternally and necessarily holy. Here, then, this miserable objection runs into actual blasphemy. On this point John Wesley is as expressly with us as Jonathan Edwards. See Wesley, On Original Sin.

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