This morning I listened to a podcast episode by Leighton Flowers (Soteriology 101: Feb. 4, 2019) that was critiquing a review by Sean Cole of John Lennox’s book Determined to Believe? Around the 43 minute mark I noticed a really bad analogy that was given by Leighton Flowers to support the idea that because someone is commanded to do something (in this case, accept the message of the gospel) that they must have the ability in and of themselves to be able to do that thing.
At one point in the podcast episode, Leighton Flowers made it clear that there definitely are some scenarios where a command to do something doesn’t necessarily entail the ability to do so. One of the examples that he gave was a person’s inability to pay off a gambling debt. The fact that a person isn’t able to pay off their gambling debt doesn’t mean that they still don’t have an obligation to pay off that debt. And the fact that they can’t pay off that gambling debt doesn’t mean that they won’t be held accountable if they don’t pay off that debt. So, in some cases, obligation doesn’t necessarily entail ability.
So far so good. But then he went on to outline a different analogy that, according to him, is much closer to what happens when a person is offered the message of the gospel. But it’s a really bad analogy! He said that when is invited to accept the message of the gospel they aren’t being asked to do something that lies outside of their ability (like paying off an enormous debt that they couldn’t possibly ever pay off): when a person is invited to accept the message of the gospel they are simply being invited to accept a free gift. Paying off a debt and accepting a free gift are two totally different things. This is what he said:
“Your inability to pay off your sin debt in no way hinders you from accepting the benevolent offer, the appeal of God, and the Father’s gracious provision. Suppose someone tried to convince you that one’s inability to pay off their debt, their gambling debt, that equaled an inability to accept help when it was offered. Would you believe them? Think about that for a second. This gambler’s inability to stop gambling and to pay off his debt – that proves somehow that he was unable to accept the offer of his benevolent father willing to pay off his debt if he would go into rehab. Those things were the exact same inability. Would you believe them?”
In other words, there definitely are some things that we are obligated to do that we don’t have the ability to do. But accepting a free gift – like salvation, for example – isn’t one of those things. Passive acceptance of a gift is different from actively working for something that is impossible to reach.
Sounds good right? On a certain level it does sound good. Accepting a free gift is clearly different from working toward an unreachable goal. They definitely are two different things. But, in the end, it’s still a really bad analogy. Repenting of your sins, believing in Jesus, and committing your life to serve him – which is what a person needs to do to be saved – is nowhere near the same thing as accepting someone’s offer to pay off your debt if you would simply be willing to go into rehab. There are a number of different problems with the analogy but let me point out what I think is one of the biggest problems with the analogy.
One of the biggest problems with this analogy is that accepting the message of the gospel doesn’t just require you to accept a free gift (assuming that going to rehab equals repentance in this analogy): it requires you to accept certain facts as being true. Or, to put things more bluntly, it requires you to accept certain non-self-evident facts as being true.
- Accepting the message of the gospel requires you to believe in the existence of God. (Now, of course, the Apostle Paul would argue that the existence of God should be self-evident to everyone! But we can leave that aside for the moment.)
- Accepting the message of the gospel requires you to believe the Christian God is the right God.
- Accepting the message of the gospel requires you to believe in the historical existence of Jesus.
- Accepting the message of the gospel requires you to believe that Jesus was crucified.
- Accepting the message of the gospel requires you to believe that the crucifixion of Jesus, somehow, makes it possible for you to be forgiven by God.
- Accepting the message of the gospel requires you to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
- Accepting the message of the gospel requires you to believe that Jesus is the one that God has appointed to be king and judge of the living and the dead (i.e. Lord and Messiah).
- Accepting the message of the gospel requires you to believe in the Christian version of the afterlife.
- Accepting the message of the gospel requires you to believe that Jesus was more than just a human being but that he is God-in-human flesh. (Now, of course, it is debatable whether or not believing this is a prerequisite for being saved or simply an inevitable belief that someone will come to if they are genuinely saved.)
The list could go on. And what’s interesting is that it was precisely this factual information that was often the stumbling block for people accepting the message of the gospel in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:21-25).
But it should be clear that accepting the message of the gospel is nowhere near similar to accepting a father’s offer to pay off a gambling debt. The scenario envisioned by Leighton Flowers would make more sense if we were talking about the rich man in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus being offered a way to get out of Hades after he died and was already in Hades (Luke 16:19-31). Imagine there was a way for him to cross the chasm between Hades and the place of comfort where Abraham and Lazarus were. If the rich man had the opportunity to cross over that chasm and leave that place of torment he clearly would have done it. In fact, he would be foolish if he didn’t! But the reality is that the rich man had information in Hades after he died that he didn’t have while he was alive. Or, to put things a different way, the reality of experiencing Hades convinced the rich man that the things he had access to and should have believed while he was alive on this earth were a reality (see Luke 16:31). But I think it should be fairly clear that if he knew then (i.e. while he was alive) what he knew now (i.e. while he was in Hades) that he would have made different choices in this life.
It should be clear, then, that willingness to accept the message of the gospel isn’t just about accepting a free gift versus rejecting a free gift: a big part of it has to do with either accepting or rejecting certain facts as being true. Now, obviously, the answer can’t simply just be that we need better apologetics to convince people that the facts are true so they can make a decision one way or the other – even though apologetics is really important and has been very instrumental in bringing a lot of people to saving faith in Christ. What we need is the Holy Spirit to open up eyes that are blind (2 Cor. 4:3-6). What we need is the Holy Spirit to remove the veil (2 Cor. 3:15-16). What we need is the Holy Spirit to open up the heart (Acts 16:14). Both Calvinists and Arminians should be able to agree on this (see Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities). In the end, the only difference between Calvinists and Arminians on this point should be how far the Holy Spirit takes a person – part of the way to saving faith in Christ (i.e. prevenient grace) or all of the way (i.e. irresistible grace).
But it should be clear that the Holy Spirit is needed, not only to help a person become willing to accept the message of the gospel, but also to convince them that the facts proclaimed in the message of the gospel are true.
Mark Steven Francois
 Of course, Jesus goes on to say that there is enough information in the Law and the Prophets for people to make the right decision. And he says that if they don’t believe the Law and the Prophets, they wouldn’t even believe it if someone were raised from the dead. So, in the end, the problem is more than just lack of information.