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God Producing Both the Will to Believe and the Act of Believing Also

God Producing Both the Will to Believe and the Act of Believing Also

By Martyn McGeown, author of Grace and Assurance: The Message of the Canons of Dordt.


“The true doctrine having been explained, the Synod rejects the errors of those: Who teach: That in the true conversion of man no new qualities, powers or gifts can be infused by God into the will, and that therefore faith through which we are first converted, and because of which we are called believers, is not a quality or gift infused by God, but only an act of man, and that it can not be said to be a gift, except in respect of the power to attain to this faith. For thereby they contradict the Holy Scriptures, which declare that God infuses new qualities of faith, of obedience, and of the consciousness of his love into our hearts: "I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their hearts will I write it," Jeremiah 31:33. And: "I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and streams upon the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon thy seed," Isaiah 44:3. And: "The love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which hath been given us," Romans 5:5. This is also repugnant to the continuous practice of the Church, which prays by the mouth of the Prophet thus: "Turn thou me, and I shall be turned," Jeremiah 31:18.” (Canons 3-4.R.6)

Canons 3-4.14 and 3-4.R.6 complement one another, the first being the positive article and the second being a rejection of the corresponding error. In the positive article we read that in regeneration “[faith] is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused” into us so that God produces in us “both the will to believe and the act of believing also.” The Latin verb efficiat (from efficio, to effect, cause, produce) is used. If God causes (efficio) something to happen, he brings it about. Efficio (produce) does not mean that God himself believes, but that he causes the elect sinner to believe. In fact, a previous article (Canons 3-4.12) says, “Man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.”

In the negative article the Arminians are quoted as denying that “new qualities, powers, or gifts can be infused by God into the will [of man].” The Arminians believed that the will of an unregenerate man is morally neutral, and that, when God regenerates a man, he does not in any sense change a man’s will, but simply frees his will from certain hindrances so that it can freely choose Jesus Christ. The Reformed fathers insisted that God acts powerfully by his grace upon man’s will in regeneration and conversion: “[he] infuses new qualities into the will… [he] quickens [the will]... he renders [the will] good, obedient, and pliable” (Canons 3-4.11). Similarly, in Canons 3-4.16 we read, “[God] spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and powerfully bends [man’s will] [so] that … a ready and sincere obedience begins to reign.” God’s gracious operation, however, is not such that he “takes away [man’s] will and its properties” or “does violence thereto” (ibid). Man, whether unregenerate or regenerate, is, and remains, a willing creature with the faculty of choice. God changes our wills in regeneration; he does not force or compel them.

Therefore, although it is true that the will of the unregenerate sinner is in bondage to sin, this is not true of the believer into whose will new qualities have been infused, so that he believes in Jesus Christ. Did you know that about yourself, believing reader? By virtue of regeneration your will is good, obedient, and pliable; and no longer evil, disobedient, and refractory (stubborn or unmanageable). You are, as a regenerate child of God, able to will and to do good: the purpose of regeneration is that your will, having been rendered good like a good tree, “may bring forth the fruits of good actions” (Canons 3-4.11). This is because God works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure, so that you work out your own salvation (Phil. 2:13). Your will, unlike the enslaved will of the unregenerate, is spiritually restored and free (see Canons 3-4.16). Of course, that is not the full story because we must still contend with the sinful flesh, but it is a fundamental difference between us and the unregenerate for which we owe God eternal gratitude (Canons 3-4.15). If you believe that, even after regeneration, your will is still totally depraved so that you cannot will or do anything good, then you deny that God has infused into your will new qualities, powers, or gifts, which is the essence of the error rejected in Canons 3-4.R.6.

All of that was anathema to the Arminians. They said, in effect, “Hands off man’s will! Man’s will is off limits, out of bounds!” They taught that the gospel is externally preached as an offer to man’s will so that the sinner is able to choose or reject the gospel. They allowed the teaching that the Holy Spirit illuminates and enlightens man’s mind so that he can understand the gospel. They taught that God advises the will (Canons 3-4.R.7) or employs “moral suasion” (Canons 3-4.12). But they steadfastly rejected any idea that God changes man’s will by infusing new qualities into it. As far as the Arminians were concerned, man’s will was neutral in creation so that Adam was able to choose good or evil; it was unaffected by the fall; and it remains unchanged in regeneration/conversion. The will, said the Arminians, “has never been corrupted, but only hindered through the darkness of the understanding and the irregularity of the affections” (Canons 3-4.R.3). If those hindrances are removed (and God can do that, argued the Arminians) “the will can then bring into operation its native powers, that is… [it] of itself is able to will and to choose, or not to will and not to choose, all manner of good which may be presented to it” (ibid).

The Arminians, however, had to reckon with God’s Word which teaches that faith is the gift of God They could not easily get around texts such as Ephesians 2:8 and Philippians 1:29 which clearly teach that faith is God’s gift, so how did they explain such language and preserve their doctrine of free will? The answer is that they viewed faith only as a gift of God “in respect of the power to attain to this faith” (Canons 3-4.R.6). In other words, if God removed the hindrances or obstacles which hold man back from believing (such as the darkness of his understanding and the irregularity of his affections), then man could believe if he wanted to. He could attain to the gift of faith which God desires to give him, or he might choose not to believe. The choice is his, not God’s. Thus in Arminianism man, not God, determines if and when a person is regenerated.

Contrary to this, Scripture teaches that when God regenerates a man, he does not leave it to the good pleasure of the man’s will to believe or not: “not such a mode of operation that after God has performed his part it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not” (Canons 3-4.12). Rather this: when God works faith in a man, that man believes: When God confers repentance on a man, that man repents. Thus, as Homer C. Hoeksema puts it, “there is a necessary and inevitable relationship of cause and effect between God’s turning of us and our turning: if God turns me, I shall be turned. Hence God’s converting grace is irresistible, or, if you will, efficacious” (The Voice of Our Fathers [Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 1980], 603).

The Arminians inserted man’s will between the cause [God’s regenerating grace] and effect [faith or our believing], so that the effect [faith or our believing] depended on man’s will. So then God would work the power to believe in a man and, if the man willed, he would believe; God would confer the power of repentance on a man and, if the man willed, he would repent. “Not so,” responded Dordt. “[Not because] God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of salvation and actually believe in Christ” (Canons 3-4.14). Rather, “all those in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe” (Canons 3-4.12). Or “[God] produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also” (Canons 3-4.14).

Our regeneration or conversion, then, is not the work of man, but the delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable work of God (Canons 3-4.12). All praise, glory, and honor to him for his marvelous grace!

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