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Leave it to a 'Calvinist' to bring up 'Calvinism' for any reason or no reason at all. I was discussing the 'cold spell'(weather) with a 'Calvinist' some months ago...and, you guessed it, Calvinism got in the middle of our extreme weather. It is bothersome...but even more so, when you hear their 'Calvinist convictions' long before you hear about the Jesus that saved them.

Bob Hadley

Quotes from your piece are in bold

“if there is a genuine biblical paradox—a paradox which Payne himself admits no solution is possible short of eternity (pp.47-48)—why would he propose a solution just the same? Why a need for a solution if antinomy actually exists?” That is really quite simple… it is antimony for those who do not agree with or understand it as Payne does…

“Dr. Payne appears to embrace a questionable born-again-before-faith model of Christian experience. He mentions "Whenever anyone is made alive by the Holy Spirit, he repents and places faith in Jesus only because God breaks the chains of bondage…" This is what I believe is the distinguishing characteristic of Calvinism itself… without regeneration, saving faith is not possible for the Calvinist.

“In other words, unlike the man on the island in chapter 13, these individuals would not be able to repent and place faith in Jesus even if they were presented the clearest plan of salvation before their death. They have no capability to comprehend or understand such truth to respond in faith. For we must remember that faith comes by being able to grasp the Word (Romans 10:17)" (p. 69, italics original)” This raises interesting questions for me; prior to regeneration, what effect does revelation and reconciliation have on a lost individual? Apparently a lot… if as in this statement one is not able to comprehend or grasp the Word… then faith is impossible… to me this whole argument undoes the need for regeneration prior to saving faith in the first place.

Grateful to be in His Grip!


peter lumpkins


Thanks. I do know of Calvinists who do *not* embrace the born-again-before-faith variety (e.g., M. Erickson). Rather, the faith-repentance-conversion experience is more viewed as an experiential "cluster" which happens so closely together, the distinct aspects are effectively inextricable. Unfortunately, so many Baptist Calvinists today have followed popular Calvinists like R. C. Sproul who make the regeneration-precedes-faith formula the essence of Christian salvation experience.

With that, I am...

Bob Hadley

Here is the problem I have with that approach... to me it is more semantics than anything... if saving faith is impossible without regeneration, then it does not matter if it is simultaneous or takes place over a period of time... it is still essential to the process. Since a person without Christ cannot NOT sin, it is impossible for that person to come to Christ... apart from Christ's correcting that "sin problem" first.

Appreciate your work brother!

Grateful to be in His Grip


Aaron O'Kelley

The distinction Dr. Payne has drawn between the man on the island and the mentally handicapped person (though he may not have said so in such terms) turns on the distinction between natural ability and moral ability.

It is typically assumed among Calvinist theologians that we are not morally responsible for something we have no natural ability to perform. If someone commanded me to flap my arms and fly to the moon, obviously I have no natural ability to do so. The reason I cannot fulfill the command is not necessarily because I am unwilling to do so, but simply that it is physically impossible for me to do so.

Moral ability, however, is different. One who lacks the moral ability to do something has every natural capacity to do it, but he is simply unwilling to do it, and his moral condition is such that he cannot make himself willing. This kind of inability is an inability for which we are morally responsible.

This applies to the man on the island and the handicapped person, not so much with regard to their response to the gospel (for the man on the island never hears it and thus lacks the natural ability to believe the gospel!), but rather with regard to their response to general revelation. Romans 1 tells us that God has made himself clear in all that he has made, so that men are without excuse. The man on the island has sufficient revelation to show him that God exists and that he owes total allegiance to God, and yet the man lacks the moral ability obey God. There is nothing lacking in his natural capacities to enable him to obey God if he wanted to, but that is simply the point: he doesn't want to because he is a sinner who has inherited a corrupt nature from Adam.

The handicapped person may (I stress the word "may") lack the natural ability (due to a mental capacity that does not function properly) to process general revelation and thus may not be held accountable for his sin. However, this is by no means certain from Scripture. I would have laid things out differently from the way Payne has done, but I think Payne's instinct is probably related to this kind of distinction between natural (in)ability and moral (in)ability.

But since we simply do not know for sure how God relates to infants and the mentally handicapped, we should make it our practice to preach the gospel to them. John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit from his mother's womb. There is no reason to suppose that God cannot work in the hearts of people through his Word even when we cannot determine through their external response what is going on inside. Preach the gospel, and let God do what he will.

peter lumpkins


Thanks. Though he may have presumed such a distinction, it surely is not clearly evident. Supposing you are correct, however, then Dr. Payne sneaked through the back door philosophical categories to answer his question, questions he assures the reader the Bible itself answers. Even so, the Edwardian distinction between moral and natural ability/inability is far from being philosophically established (e.g Edwards on the Will, Allen C. Guelzo).

You are correct:  if someone commanded you to flap your arms and fly to the moon, obviously you have no natural ability to do so. But we're not talking about just any old someone commanding you to do so, but SomeOne commanding you to do so. Hence, if SomeOne commanded you to do so, and wanted you to do so, then He would miraculously grow you some super-duper wings, and you could be well on your way, could you not? From my perspective, Calvinists squeeze far too much out of the moral/natural ability/inability philosophical distinctions, especially when there remains scant biblical evidence to do so. In fact, to do so when offering a "biblical" answer to a question posed hardly serves well the sufficiency of Scripture so often touted by Calvinists themselves.

In addition, you suggest "The handicapped person may...lack the natural ability (due to a mental capacity that does not function properly) to process general revelation and thus may not be held accountable for his sin." You seem to assume the noetic effects of the Fall does not normally affect the proper functioning of one's mental capacity. Why? Does Calvinism not teach every sphere of human existence is totally depraved? (I am not assuming total depravity to mean "as bad as it could be" but only that all spheres--including the sphere of "mental capacity"--are hopelessly affected). If I am correct, then not only the severely mentally challenged would lack the so-called “natural” ability to sufficiently process general revelation but also everyone else. Hence, I’m unsure how claiming it the way you are toward the severely mentally handicapped works.

More significantly, you assert because the severely mentally handicapped lacks ability—albeit natural ability but ability nonetheless—he “may not be held accountable for his sin.” Is this not a blatant negation of a principle often affirmed by Calvinists:  a person is responsible whether or not he or she is able? God’s sovereign wisdom decides precisely who and who does not receive ability—moral or natural.

Finally, you write, “But since we simply do not know for sure how God relates to infants and the mentally handicapped, we should make it our practice to preach the gospel to them.” Well, the Bible is clear how God relates to them; that is, of course, if we assume they are human beings made in His image. You appear to be open in assuming a mentally handicapped person lacks “natural” ability and, thus, “may not be held accountable for his sin” but nonetheless suggest preaching to babies and the mentally challenged because “There is no reason to suppose that God cannot work in the hearts of people through his Word.” If severely challenged persons lack “natural” ability, is it not proper to assume infants lack the same “natural” ability, and consequently, may not be held accountable for his or her sin? But if through preaching the Word “moral” inability vanishes, what is the point of suggesting “natural” ability is absent?

Nor does any of the moral ability/inability rhetoric deal with the obvious difficulty: for the Calvinist, it seems the most consistent scenario to suggest is that only those whom God predetermined in eternity to possess both “natural” and “moral” abilities—abilities He Himself makes sure are infallibly granted—are those Whom He elects to salvation. All others are reprobate. Hence, the best case scenario may be, some babies and some severely mentally challenged are elected to salvation, and some babies and some severely mentally challenged burn in hell. The worst case scenario may be, since all babies and all severely mentally challenged lack both “natural” and “moral” ability, all are condemned for their sin.

As for me, I embrace neither the “best” nor “worst” case scenario and rather claim, contra Augustianian-Calvinism, a biblically-embedded distinction between inheriting adamic nature but not adamic guilt.  

With that, I am…


Aaron O'Kelley


I'll try to respond to each issue in turn:

(1) Regarding Dr. Payne, I barely know him at all, have not read his book, and do not know exactly how familiar he may be with these concepts. I was simply suggesting that his instinct might have been in this direction, though I do not know for sure and do not speak for him.

(2) Regarding natural and moral ability as philosophical concepts, there are actually two issues here. One is whether or not philosophical concepts in theology compromise the sufficiency of Scripture. Emphatically, they do not. Philosophical concepts are essential to theology, for they help us make sense of Scripture. Anyone who is a Trinitarian is indebted to the philosophical concepts that were employed in the first four centuries of the church to achieve a distinction between "nature" and "person" (the same distinction that came into play in the Chalcedonian formula). These ideas are not explicitly taught in Scripture, but they are demanded by what Scripture teaches. I think the same is true for what we have here. After all, we are commanded by God to be perfect, to obey his Law perfectly, which means to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength for every second of our lives. Obviously, no son of Adam can do this. Our moral inability keeps us from obeying the Law of God (only Pelagians think otherwise). Therefore, God commands us to do what it is impossible for us to do, and he does not give us the ability to do it. That is why we need the gospel.

(3) With regard to total depravity, the doctrine asserts that every part of our being is affected by sin. It does not state that every part of our being is rendered completely dysfunctional. If so, we would no longer be human at all. Paul is clear that the noetic effects of sin cause us to suppress the truth that is clearly revealed in creation, though it is clear that we still know God in some sense (Romans 1 again). Total depravity has never denied this. In fact, I have often used the illustration of Darth Vader as an almost perfect one for total depravity. When the great Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker fell to the dark side, the result was not that he lost all of his powers. It was, rather, that his incredible powers with the Force were turned against everything that is good. This is what has happened to humanity. We are totally depraved, not in the sense that we have lost our God-given capacities, but in the sense that we have turned them all in an idolatrous quest of self-exaltation, which is far worse. (The Darth Vader example breaks down because in Episode VI Luke is able to stir up the remaining good in his father to turn him back to the good side, which is more akin to Semi-Pelagianism than to the biblical teaching; nevertheless, as an analogy it serves as a fairly good one).

(4)Is a person responsible if he is not able? That is the whole point of the distinction between natural and moral ability. Lack of moral ability is no excuse, but lack of natural ability is. God would not hold human beings responsible for flying to the moon with their arms because such is physically impossible, given the nature of humanity as he designed it. But he does hold us responsible if we do not love him with our whole being every second of our lives because the reason for our failure in that sense is related, not to our created nature and design (that is, not to our essence as human beings, for we were created to love God), but to the condition of our hearts. Our hearts are corrupt, and thus we lack the moral ability to fulfill God's commands (again, only Pelagians deny this).

This is really just another way of saying that we are all necessarily sinners by virtue of our descent from Adam, and yet we are still responsible for our sins even though we sin necessarily.

(5) Regarding the most consistent scenario that you have proposed for infants and the handicapped, I am content to say that I simply don't know. There are a number of things that I could say about God's ways that I would consider more consistent than what is revealed in Scripture (or that is not addressed in Scripture), but Scripture simply does not give us insight into those mysteries. Other than the general truth that they are the effects of a fallen world, I don't know why some children die in infancy and some people are born with mental handicaps. And I don't know what their eternal destinies are. I don't know to what degree they may be morally accountable to God. But I do believe that if any or all of them are saved, they are saved by the atoning work of Christ. I also believe that we should preach the gospel to them as though their natural ability is still intact and that they can understand, just as we speak to people in comas in hopes that they can hear and understand us. But as for the specific ways that God works in these situations, he just hasn't told us as far as I can see in Scripture, though there are hopeful signs that at least children of believers are saved (see Wayne Grudem's discussion around page 500 of his Systematic Theology).

Part of me wants very strongly to be able to speak with more certainty on this sensitive pastoral issue, but, in the words of Luther, "My conscience is captive to the Word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe."

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