THE THEOLOGY OF DOUG SAYERS
by Bob Wheeler
In our last blog post we began our review of the book Chosen or Not? by Doug Sayers, and we noted that the author tries to use human logic (“evident reason,” as he calls it) to defeat the force of biblical passages that describe what God does in salvation. We might ask the question, what does he offer as an alternative to Calvinism? If the Bible does not teach Calvinism, as he maintains, what does it teach? When we turn to Doug’s own theology we see that his logical method leas to some startling conclusions of his own.
First of all, he maintains that “common grace” gives every human being sufficient ability to repent and believe on his own, apart from any supernatural work on God’s part. “Our non-Calvinist will be teaching that an unbeliever is capable of choosing to repent and embrace the gospel without being acted on by extraordinary and irresistible outside force. He teaches that the ability to repent comes by virtue of the common grace that God gives to everyone” (p. 40). He draws this conclusion from Rom. 1:19,20, which describes God’s revelation of Himself in nature (“His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” – NKJV) and Rom. 2:14,15, which states that even Gentiles have a conscience and “by nature do the things of the law.” But that is very far from saying that mane are able to repent and believe. The texts, in fact, say quite plainly that men do the exact opposite. The “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18); and the conclusion that Paul draws from this part of his argument is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Paul then goes on to say that “sin reigned in death” (5:12-21), that even as a Jew “in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells” (7:5-24), and that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (8:7,8). It is very far from the rosy, optimistic picture that Doug paints of human potential!
Doug thinks that it is outrageous to suppose that the guilt of Adam’s sin could be imputed to his posterity. But he takes the argument one step further. Because small children are essentially ignorant of the law, their own sins are not imputed to them either. “As a result of God’s curse on Adam, our first sins as small children are not really preventable. Thus it is reasonable (for most of us) to think that the guilt of these sins would not be imputed to us. . . ” (p. 126). “. . . it is reasonable to conclude that every child is born with original sin, but may be considered in a state of grace before God. Their sin as children is not imputed to their account” (p. 127).
But then what about adults who have never heard the gospel? Doug extends the principle even further: “Jesus died to reconcile the whole world to God . . . This means that there is hope for those who never hear about Jesus . . . His righteousness will be imputed to them if they humbly trust the truth to which they have been exposed” (p. 250). Doug cites the example of the Old Testament saints in support of his thesis, as well as Paul’s statement the “sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:13).
Doug is, of course, assuming his position on “common grace.” Supposedly there are people in the world who are capable of repenting and believing apart from any supernatural work of grace. Presumably this would include people in remote parts of the world or in closed countries that never have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. But the Bible paints a far different picture. The whole world lies in sin and darkness. People suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They willfully sin against knowledge. Therefore they are justly under God’s wrath and condemnation even if they never hear about Jesus. It is simply not true that there are multitudes throughout the world who want to believe but do not have the opportunity to do so. Typically they have to be awakened by convicting preaching before they want to do anything.
We are told , “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); and Paul asks the very pointed question, “How shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). We are afraid that Doug has undermined the whole basis for missions.
But then this leads Doug to a further conclusion. If infants are born in a state of grace, and no supernatural work of the Spirit is required to bring a sinner to Christ, what is the new birth? Doug denies that it is an instantaneous and miraculous change of heart that results in new life in Christ. “Saving faith is also best understood as the culmination of many choices. It is not something that we do once in a moment of time . . . that counts for all time” (p. 265). Citing Col. 2:13 (“And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses”), he argues that the new birth basically involves the removal of our guilt in the sight of God. Regeneration, then, is essentially the same as justification. “The imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the new birth are two ways of describing the same thing. They both describe our forgiveness” (p. 166).
But the text in Colossians does not necessarily equate the two. It simply states that two occur together; and in the parallel passage in Eph. 2:1-10 the sinner’s spiritual and moral condition is very much in view. And as Doug himself notes, I John makes it clear that a spiritual change is clearly the result of the new birth.
This, then, brings us to the problem that Doug addresses at the end of his book, the problem of assurance and eternal security. He tells us that Calvinism “engenders confusion and is prone to a dangerous presumption” (p. 404). Curiously, the example he cites, that of David Brainerd, is the very opposite of “dangerous presumption.” Brainerd went through a protracted period of spiritual struggle before he arrived at an assurance of salvation. It is a fairly typical Puritan conversion experience.
Doug would have us to believe that “It seems that the poor young man went through all kinds of agony trying to decide if he was unconditionally elect and irresistibly converted” (p. 419). He then adds, “He was probably a believer long before he would dare let himself believe it.” “He was looking for his experience to line up with his flawed doctrines” (Ibid.)
It is with keen anticipation, then, that we look to see what Doug has to offer as the alternative to the alleged “confusion” caused by Calvinism. And when we do we are astonished to find that his overall view of assurance is similar to the Calvinistic one. Like Calvinists Doug encourages us to look for evidence that our faith is real and genuine. “. . .saving faith is best proven by the humble confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, combined with a practice of loving obedience to His commandments” (p. 412). In other words, we must do pretty much what Brainerd did: he looked at his heart to see if the inward graces were present. It is hard to see how we would arrive at a different result.
There are, however, some key differences between Doug’s view and the Calvinistic one. First of all, Doug does not want to tie assurance to a specific conversion experience. “We desperately need to get free from the notion that saving faith is merely done once, in a moment of time. We need to see that saving faith must be maintained until we die” (p. 411). Moreover, Doug would dismiss any notion of the inner testimony of the Spirit. He criticizes those who “are looking for divine revelation that goes beyond the biblical promise of God” (p. 410).
But then there is also this critical difference: “saving faith must be maintained until we die,” and “It remains to be seen if we keep our faith” (p. 411). Obviously if faith is not the result of irresistible grace, then there is no irresistible grace that can keep us in the faith. “It is hard to believe that a finite and fallible sinner could have an ‘infallible’ knowledge regarding any future event, especially an event, which occurs, on the other side of the grave” (pp. 409-410). In other words, we will be saved only if we persevere to the end, and there is no guarantee that that will happen. It appears David Brainerd had good reason to worry! His “dangerous presumption” consisted in his ever concluding that he was saved at all! It is hard to see how assurance is possible at all under these criteria.
We fear that the net effect of Doug’s theology is to minimize the role that God plays in our salvation. To hear Doug tell it, instead of actively saving us, God simply puts an offer on the table and leaves us to our own devices.
In many ways Doug has his own unique way of presenting his case, and for this reason we have hesitated to identify his view with those of some of the vocal critics in the past.of Calvinism. (We’re not sure that some of them would have wanted to be identified with some of Doug’s positions!) But is certain key aspects Doug’s theology is much in line with the general trend in American evangelical thinking over the past two centuries, especially with the emphasis on human ability. And it can be argued that in the case of Evangelicalism generally the spiritual effects of this type of thinking have been catastrophic. We have lost our sense of God’s transcendence. We have ceased to pray. Our worship has become entertainment. Our lives are inconsistent with our profession. And is it not, at least in part, because we have come to rely on human means to promote an institutional church? We have lost our confidence in the sovereign power of God and have ceased to seek it. The results speak for themselves.