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A Presbyterian Arminian? ::: Book Review

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have some concerns about one of the required readings for my course in Evangelism at Southern Seminary, A Pastor’s Sketches by Ichabod Spencer.  He was a Presbyterian minister in Brooklyn New York who journalized some of his evangelism encounters.  My last post on this topic attempted to demonstrate that he confused Calvinism with the gospel.    

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Oddly enough, although Ichabod is a Presbyterian minister and confuses the gospel with Calvinism, there is an Arminian principle from which Spencer seems to operate.  It seems clear to me that he is either a Calvinist or at least very Calvinistic (he is after all a Presbyterian minister, see “Introduction to Spencer and his Sketches”).  Yet, he seems from time to time to speak as though he believed in the sort of grace that lingers in the heart of an unbeliever just long enough to give them the chance to either accept that grace or resist it (137).  This belief is confirmed throughout the book, especially when he bases the obligation of the unconverted to repent and believe, not only on the grounds of the divine command, but also in their supposed ability to obey the divine command because of the aid he indiscriminately assumes is given to them:

The Holy Spirit is their offered aid; and surely that aid is enough.  They should know and feel it to their heart’s core, that they are now, on the spot, to-day, under the most solemn obligations to repent, not only because sin is wrong, but because God offers them the aids of the Holy Spirit: ‘In me is thy help.’  Their impenitence not only tramples under foot the blood of the covenant, but also does despite to the Spirit of grace (142). 

When people are aware of a need for effectual saving grace, and they honestly evaluate themselves as yet unable to come to Christ, Spencer sees fit to remove any such impression from them as quickly as he can (161).  Spencer seems to be convinced that unbelievers are all indeed able to come to Christ.  As he said to the man who claimed he could not repent: “You say you cannot repent.  He has not said so.  He commands you to repent” (161).  Spencer seems to be Arminian at this point, assuming that if the Lord commands it, we must be able.  He argues that ability is the ground of duty.  Or to say it another way—since it is the gracious work of the Holy Spirit that he assumes makes everyone able—he believes that grace is the ground of duty.  He seems to operate on this principle more than once, but his belief in this is most clearly seen in his dealings with the man who claimed that he could not repent:

You reject his offered help—the help of the omnipotent Spirit.  And for this reason you will be the more criminal if you do not repent. . . You can repent, just in the way that others repent—just because God is your help (164, emphasis mine). 

Perhaps it is most abundantly clear in the following reflection:

Sinners certainly ought to repent, for God commands them to repent.  But in my opinion, he does not design to have them understand his command as having respect only to their own ability to repent, and not having respect to the proffered aids of the Holy Spirit.  Such aids constitute one grand ground on which his command is obligatory, and sweep away ever possible excuse (165, emphasis mine). 

What I am calling Spencer’s Arminian principle conflicts with my understanding of grace.  The scriptures do not teach that everyone has the ability to come to Christ, but only those who are effectually drawn by the power of the Father (John 6:44, 64-65).  We should not assume in our evangelism (as Spencer does), that the Holy Spirit works on all in such a way that morally enables them to accept or reject the gospel.  Unbelievers are responsible to repent and believe simply because God commands it, not necessarily because they are morally able.  If moral ability is a prerequisite to duty, all those who are not under the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit would be exempt from their duty (hence the teaching of hyper-calvinism).  However, Spencer never wants to let the unbeliever think that she is unable to come to Christ.  This is the whole point of his chapter labeled “I Can’t Repent,” where he expends no little amount of time and energy to convince a man that he is indeed able to repent (161). 

Another example of this principle at work can be seen when the man who struggled with the doctrine of election responded to his admonition for him to pray.  He said, “But the prayers of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord” (233).  Spencer rejects this claim as though it were not in the Bible:

‘That,’ said I, ‘is your own declaration.  God has not said so.  Such a declaration is not to be found in the Bible, though people often suppose it is, and though there may be some expressions which appear to resemble it (233).  

Yet this man quoted a biblical passage almost word for word: “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination.” (Proverbs 28:9).  This is not the only time Spencer seems to be embarrassingly ignorant of pertinent biblical texts.

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