Salvation belongs to the Lord: A response to Dr. Ken Boa (part 1)

This began as a single post I started some time ago, but it has grown until it has simply become far too long for a single blog post, so I’ve decided to carve it up into parts and post more of it as I write it.

I’ve had the opportunity to teach for an ongoing discussion group/class my church has been hosting, going through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.  I recently was given the opportunity to teach on the doctrine of the Trinity, an opportunity I was extremely excited to take advantage of.  The discussion was good and I was very gratified to spend an extended period walking through large chunks of the Gospel of John to see how the doctrine is revealed by God’s Word: not in a singular verse that says “God is one being made up of three persons,” but by the manner in which God reveals Himself, the perfect cooperation of Father, Son, and Spirit in calling God’s people to Himself in salvation and completing that work perfectly.

And it is about that work, and about that call, that I wish I write.  In our discussion group our leader posted a link to this paper by Dr. Kenneth Boa on the question of God’s sovereignty in salvation versus human responsibility before God.  Dr. Boa says much with which I can agree; it is by no means a thoughtless screed like those so often written against the reformed position, and he goes to great lengths to insure that Scripture is looked at as a whole.  He does not deny God’s election of His people, nor the power of God to save.

Nevertheless, there are a few things I wish to consider in this paper, to discuss at some length and respond to in good faith and brotherly love.  I will argue that Dr. Boa has a tradition that is driving him to certain positions in opposition to what the Scriptures reveal, and I want to try to walk through the relevant texts to demonstrate that.  Not because I have a driving desire to spend my every moment defending reformed theology, but because I take the doctrine of God’s freedom to save His church to His own eternal glory very seriously, and I take just as seriously the doctrine of the depravity of man.

These two doctrines are analogs, they inform each other and are seen, I will argue, very clearly in Scripture: man’s complete inability to turn from his sin and the rule of his desires over his heart to his own ultimate destruction, and God’s perfect ability to take a man in that state of slavery and spiritual death and turn him into a man whose heart beats for the glory of Christ.  I consider myself an example of this by God’s grace, and therefore will say before any reader that the only boasting that will be done here will be done in the cross of Christ.  I believe that Dr. Boa would agree to this as well, and I hope that, should he actually read this, he sees that this is written in a tone of respect and a desire to glorify God by honoring the full measure of God’s revelation.

As I said, Dr. Boa does not attempt to water down or dismiss Scripture’s teachings on God’s sovereignty over His creation.  But he says some things about the nature of man’s will and responsibility, as well as the nature of God’s revelation, that simply must be responded to.  I will start with his basic premise, that God’s sovereign work in His creation and in particular over salvation, and the responsibility of man to God, is a mystery that we simply have to throw up our hands and shrug at, “accepting both truths involved and holding them in tension….”  This, I must reject.  I believe one of this paper’s biggest faults is its complete lack of discussion of the position of harmonization that reformed believers take in regards to Scripture, a position which informs our evangelism and our apologetic defense of the faith.  But this is a matter that requires effort at defining terms, and that is one of my bigger quibbles with this paper: he uses terms and concepts but does not take the time to fully flesh out his meaning.

For example: he goes to great lengths to thoroughly define both God’s sovereignty in all things, as well as man’s responsibility before God.  But when it comes time to actually explain how these interact (what a reformed believer would call “compatibalism”), he grows noticeably reticent to define a position and uses concepts without making sure the definition is clear:

In my view, personal and moral responsibility require free will. While I disagree with those who say that our wills are in total bondage, I am not implying in my use of the terms “freedom” and “free will” that humans are autonomous. We do not control the fundamental realities of our lives (e.g., our time on earth and our abilities), and yet our choices are ours.

Yet he never actually explains what “free will” is, if not autonomously free.  He doesn’t use the “prevenient grace” concept so common to Arminian treatises on the subject, yet the concept seems to be underlying his presupposition in this paper.  A reformed believer would say that we have a will, but it is a creaturely will that is bound to our nature and driven by our desires–in this case, sinful desires.

He also says he denies that “our wills are in total bondage,” and again he does not explain further what he means by “in total bondage” or why he rejects this.  The response of the reformed believer would be to point out that he seems to disagree with the words of Jesus and the apostles:

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.  How is it that you say, ‘You will become free?'”
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.  I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you.  I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”–John 8:31-38

The one who practices sin, does so because it is what drives his walk, it is his master.  Sin is the owner of his desires which drives his actions.  And the apostle Paul emphasizes this in his writings; for example, in one of my favorite passages:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.–Ephesians 2:1-10

Note the language here: in sin, one is “dead,” one is a “slave to sin.”  There is something about our human nature that compels us to follow after something greater than ourselves.  If you’ve been listening to The Briefing recently, the theme of “those who don’t worship God, will worship anything else” has been common.  As Martin Luther put it in “A Treatise on Good Works”:

All those who do not at all times trust God and do not in all their works or sufferings, life and death, trust in His favor, grace and good-will, but seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep this [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments, and in addition had all the prayers, obedience, patience, and chastity of all the saints combined. For the chief work is not present, without which all the others are nothing but mere sham, show and pretense, with nothing back of them… If we doubt or do not believe that God is gracious to us and is pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him only through and after our works, then it is all pure deception, outwardly honoring God, but inwardly setting up self as a false [savior]…[1]

I believe this is exactly what Paul was writing about in Romans 6, when he discusses our nature as being either slaves of “sin, which leads to death,” or “obedience, which leads to righteousness.”  He is speaking to the church about how we handle sin in light of the discussion of the previous 5 chapters, discussing the sinful nature of man in need of grace, man’s fall as a whole in our federal head of Adam, and how all those united with Christ have Him as their new federal head, who imparts righteousness perfectly.  We will worship something, we will serve something, but Christ alone can truly impart life to those worshipping Him.  All others receive the just penalty of idolatry: death.

We see this concept in action in Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler:

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.–Matthew 19:16-30

Jesus reveals through the question he asks that the rich man, while never killing anyone or stealing from anyone, has in fact disobeyed the first commandment, by putting another god in place of the Lord: in this case, his great wealth.  He trusts and loves it far more than he trusts and loves God, and when Jesus calls him to divest himself of his idolatry, he finds his heart broken.  He isn’t discussed further in Scriptures as far as we know, so there is no telling whether he was able to obey the words of Jesus, but we cannot mistake the truth here: love for our idols destroys our obedience.  When Jesus reveals the true danger such a man lies in, the disciples react with amazement as they realize the deeper meaning of what Jesus is saying and ask how anyone can truly find salvation.  Jesus’ response is clear: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  Salvation belongs to the Lord, and as the Scriptures say, there will be brothers and sisters from every walk of life–even the wealthy–who stand and rejoice before the throne of God.

Why am I going through all this?  I’m doing this because I am deeply concerned with a Christian who says he “doesn’t agree” that we are in “total bondage” to sin by our nature.  I do not see any scriptural evidence on his part to suggest that, and I am familiar with no passage of Scripture that would support the idea that, apart from the Trinitarian work of salvation in the calling of the Father, the atonement of the Son, and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, we can do anything except continue to serve sin.  On the contrary, Scripture is filled with statements on the inability of man, and the ability of God.  A couple that come to mind most frequently are Isaiah 64:6 and Psalm 51:5.  The passage from Isaiah, of course, is probably very familiar to many Christians:

We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.

Even the good works we try to bring before God are stained by our idol-clenching hands.  I’ve heard the analogy used of a small child who has scattered food across the living room, and tries to clean it up…of course, spreading it farther and farther, as his own hands are soaked in the same stickiness he is trying to clean up.  A mild metaphor to be sure, but appropriate to visualize the inability of sinful man to do anything satisfactory before a living God, and the absolute need of God to have mercy on such a lowly creature.

Psalm 51, of course, was written by David in the aftermath of God’s rebuke for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah to try to cover up her pregnancy, and it is a passage that has served as both great conviction and solace for me in times of war with my most wicked desires, and in verse 5 David shows why God’s grace is the only path to salvation:

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
    and in sin did my mother conceive me.

David’s very nature precludes him being able to stand in righteousness before God, and the conviction brought to him is not simply one of external sin, but of internal guilt:

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.–Psalm 51:16-17

And the prophet Jeremiah testified clearly to the nature of man’s life when he is acting under his own steam rather than following after God’s truth:

Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
    and makes flesh his strength,
    whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
    and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
    in an uninhabited salt land.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
    that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
    for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
    for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
    and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his deeds.”
–Jeremiah 17:5-10

I could go on, and will if needed, but I don’t wish to belabor the point: the concept of people being free in their capacity to simply decide to do what is right before God is nonexistent in Scripture.  Man’s nature is one of service; our creaturely will is tainted by rebellion and, apart from the work of God to save, will follow after Adam’s rebellion to death.  This is why Paul in Romans 6:23 differentiates between “the wages of sin,” that is, the resultant earnings from a lifetime of rebellion, and the “free gift of God” in salvation through Christ, earlier pointing out that “the free gift is not like the trespass”: not because we are free to choose, but because it is given freely to His people.

In short, man is absolutely responsible before God because, as both Calvinist and Arminian alike would agree, man is not a robot.  Our world is real, and our choices and the consequences thereof are real. That does not mean that man is autonomously free (as Boa says he agrees) or that he is able to choose to pursue behavior pleasing to God on his own.  Man is held responsible for following after the desires of his heart, and apart from the work of the Holy Spirit to bring life to that heart, those desires are ultimately wicked.

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“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.”

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.–Romans 3:9-20

Before I conclude, I would like to quickly define my own terms that will be used in coming parts: in particular I will back off from using words like “Calvinist” or “reformed” in favor of monergist, and “Arminian” or “non-reformed” in favor of “synergist.”  I believe both words are more accurate and more meaningful to our specific discussion.  Monergist comes from the Greek words mono meaning one, in this case “one hand”, and erg meaning “work,” and which is a root of the modern word “energy.”  A monergist believest that there is one agent–God–involved in effecting the work of salvation.  Synergist is a more familiar word to modern ears as “synergy” has its buzzwordy history in American business, but it likewise is a belief that there is more than one agent involved in the work of salvation.  Though Dr. Boa seems to be trying to create some sort of middle ground, I will be arguing that he is, in fact, standing in the position of the synergist.

Coming in part 2: the importance of context.

[1]Sourced from


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