Salvation by Grace:
The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration
(by Matthew Barrett, P&R, 2013)
An evangelical audience rarely grows tired of questions about personal salvation. In this revision of his Southern Baptist Seminary dissertation, Matthew Barrett undertakes a comprehensive examination of the biblical evidence for monergism, that is, he provides an exegetical defense of irresistible grace.
This is relevant, not only as a replay of the Protestant debates about grace and election stemming from Jacob Arminius and the Reformed response at the Synod of Dort (1619), but also given Barrett’s own baptist context, in which the 2012 “Traditional Baptist Understanding” of salvation has led to the ongoing work of the “Calvinism Advisory Committee.”Barrett’s book is polemical theology at its highest pitch, and readers who are afraid to have their own view declared unbiblical will find it a challenging ride. Nevertheless, as a source-book for broadly Calvinist commentary on the relevant texts, it is comprehensive. Barrett surveys the best arguments for emphasizing God’s sovereign and selective work in bringing men and women to Christ. He addresses exegetical objections to irresistible grace and attempts to show how any allowance for “synergism,” or divine-human cooperation in the decisive stages of personal salvation, does not line up with biblical evidence. While the frontier where theology and biblical studies meet is uncharted territory for many, Barrett maps out how one’s theology has to stand up to the test of reading Scripture.
This book does not blaze a new academic or theological trail, but it does plant a fork firmly in the road, so that a decision by the reader is inevitable. Barrett conceives his task as “a call to evangelicals to reject the temptation of synergism in its various forms and return to the traditional Calvinist position, which is most faithful to Scripture” (xxvii). As someone sympathetic to Barrett’s exegetical and theological commitments, I am happy that the “call” has been made. But, given several aspects of the book’s style, I have a hard time envisioning how effective this call will be.
The book has seven content chapters with an introduction framing the issue for contemporary Calvinist/Arminian debates and a brief conclusion.
Chapter 1, “Monergism and the Calvinist Tradition,” begins, not with Calvin, but with Augustine. After outlining Augustine’s debates with Pelagius and the varying traditions of Augustinianism, Barrett focuses on Calvin’s distinction between general and special calling, the controversy surrounding Arminius, the Synod of Dort, and the Westminster standards.
Chapter 2 presents biblical texts that support the doctrines of original sin and total depravity. The preponderance of evidence provides the decisive blow: “Scripture everywhere affirms the doctrine of total depravity” (42) and “Scripture is abundant with texts that prove the doctrine of spiritual inability.” (34) But, some further acknowledgement of alternative exegesis would be helpful here. The observation that Paul was less sanguine than his Jewish contemporaries about human ability in Rom 1–3 is certainly helpful, but it seems a jump in one page to conclude, “If Paul repudiated the synergism of some Jews, who denied total depravity in order to maintain man’s ability, then so also would Paul have repudiated some Arminians today.” (48)
Chapters 3 & 4 provide the exegetical core for Barrett’s challenge. They address scriptural evidence for “effectual call” and for “monergistic regeneration.” When the general, well-meant gospel call is preached, “God secretly, irresistibly, and effectually calls his elect and only his elect through this gospel to new life, faith, and repentance” (85). Barrett presents New Testament texts to support this and concludes that God works effectively (or irresistibly) to bring his elect to faith. The longer chapter on regeneration surveys texts that relate personal conversion to the giving of life. In concluding a lengthy definition of regeneration, Barrett hits the rub of his argument, “man’s faith does not cause regeneration but regeneration causes man’s faith.” (127)
Chapters 5 & 6 provide a presentation and rebuttal of the “Arminian” position, which Barrett associates most closely with Roger Olson’s “classical Arminian” approach. Barrett identifies “libertarian freedom” and “prevenient grace” as defining marks of this position and challenges their claim to biblical support. A brief section attempts to identify philosophical problems with libertarian freedom because of the “liberty of indifference,” but he argues primarily that his opponents have interpreted various Scripture texts incorrectly.
The final chapter argues against Millard Erickson’s “modified Reformed” view of the order of salvation as well as against Kenneth Keathley’s peculiar use of “monergism” for his own classical Arminian position. In both cases, Barrett’s criticism is primarily semantic, since neither of these present a position truly distinct from their respective Calvinist and Arminian traditions.
Given that it is a revised dissertation, this book never really decides on its genre. The historical chapters present a competent survey of the Augustinian tradition on effective grace and the need for it because of total depravity. As an introduction to contemporary debates, this is helpful, but I have trouble seeing how these chapters advance the thesis that synergism is “unbiblical.” The exegetical chapters provide more fruitful ground for debate, but a casual reader may be excused for thinking that only Calvinists write biblical commentaries. When Barrett does bring in an interlocutor (e.g., his discussion of 1 John 5:1, pg. 161–64), the argument is forthright and convincing, but too often he leaves the reader with the impression that the view of his favorite commentator is plain to all but the most intransigent (shall we say “resisting”) Arminians. After quoting Thomas Schreiner six times in three pages, Barrett concludes that “Schreiner is indubitably right.” (101) That may well be the case, but without a statement of alternative views in their authors’ own words, it is difficult to tell.
A persistent frustration with this book is the tendency toward lengthy quotations. Bruce Ware and Thomas Schreiner write a forward to the volume, but it must be noted that their own work is brought in throughout as the deciding voice on a host of issues. Significant sections and several chapters conclude with lengthy quotes from Reformed theologians or commentators whose words serve as Barrett’s own thesis statements (e.g., 15 lines by John Murray to close the discussion of John 3 (156–57)). Despite his affection for his mentor, it was also a bit disappointing to reach the last page of the conclusion and read, “Ware’s statement cannot be improved upon.” (317)
Finally, after clawing through lengthy exegetical argument, we learn that this book is not Barrett’s full statement. Unfortunately, an appendectomy has occurred since the dissertation, leaving his excurses available only in an ebook. For instance, sympathetic Arminian readers might find it helpful to read how Barrett handles God’s desire that everyone be saved (2 Pet 2:9; 1 Tim 2:4), but after stating a distinction between God’s decretive will and will of disposition, we are directed to Appendix 2 of the ebook.
In the heat of controversy, Salvation by Grace lays out arguments for interpreting Scripture along Dortian Reformed/Calvinist lines in regard to the doctrine of salvation. This is eminently suitable for the particular discussion partners Barrett engages, especially within the broadly North American baptist scene.
But several aspects of Barrett’s argument need further clarification and may even indicate areas where the tradition needs refinement. (1) The narrow sense of regeneration, while convenient and perhaps necessary for dogmatic reflection, is not as close to the biblical term as we might like. Given that theologians before Dort often used “regeneration” to refer to all of sanctification, and given the recognition by biblical scholars today that this is the language of “new creation,” perhaps more flexibility is in order over what we name God’s action that leads people to faith. (2) On this note, Barrett’s appendix on the relationship between “regeneration” and “effectual call” (again, in the ebook!) ought to receive further treatment. He introduces the suggestions made by Michael Horton and Kevin Vanhoozer for understanding God’s converting work in communicative terms, but doesn’t provide a judgment or argument in support or against. The relationship between justification and sanctification, or really the “ontology” involved in converting change, is a continuing challenge for Reformed thinkers. (3) Reformed theologians need to find vocabulary for describing the change that occurs in “regeneration” in the narrow sense. To say that we are given a “new spirit” simply pushes the question back to an additional level of abstraction. Discussion here is tense (especially in conversation with confessional Lutheranism) because of the Reformed belief in perseverance of the saints.
We will not have to wait long for more from Prof. Barrett, now at California Baptist University. I look forward to his continuing contribution to refining and explaining God’s supremacy in personal salvation.
Thanks to P&R Publishers for an advance review copy!