Enabling Power of the Gospel?: A Response to Dr. Leighton Flowers

I’ve listened to a fair amount of Dr. Leighton Flowers.  Not only have I spoken to him three times on his podcast, but I’ve also engaged him in discussion on the subject of Calvinism via Facebook.  One thing I’ve heard him say quite regularly is something along the lines that the power of the gospel message is that it enables people (all people) to believe when it is brought to them.  So recently I asked him to provide me with some Scriptures that he believes teach this view.  Keep in mind that his view is raised in opposition to the Reformed or Calvinistic view that God effectually calls His chosen people through the gospel message.

Following is the list of verses that Dr. Flowers provided.  Several of these verses are similar in character.  Therefore, rather than comment on each verse, I will provide a response to Dr. Flowers’ use of these texts as a whole.  That being said, I will provide specific comments on two of the verses in the list.  I encourage you to read these verses and ask yourself, “Do these verses teach that the revelation of God somehow enables all who hear it to believe, or is Dr. Flowers reading that into the text?”

 

Ps. 18:30 “This God – his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.”[1]

Ps. 119:130 “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.”

Prov. 30:5 “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.”

Isa. 55:11  “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Matt. 7:24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

Lk. 11:28 “But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’”

Jn. 8:31-32 “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

Jn. 20:31 “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Acts 28:23-28 “When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers.  From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.  And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved.  And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people, and say, ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.’  For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’  Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

Rom. 1:16-18 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

2 Cor. 5:20 “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

2 Tim. 3:15-17 “And how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Heb. 4:12 “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

1 Pet. 1:23 “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”

 

What these passages teach us, at least in part, is the necessity of revelation – special revelation.  That is, if someone is to believe the message of Christ, they must first hear that message.  I cannot believe X if I have not heard of X.  The same concept is expressed by Paul in Romans 10.  This, however, is not the same thing as saying that the message itself enables people to believe, only that they must come in contact with the message if they are to believe.

Some of these verses speak of the blessings upon those who obey God’s word, but they do not speak of this enabling concept put forth by Dr. Flowers.  A call to be reconciled, or a statement on the blessings of obedience to the word, is not the same thing as the word having some enabling effect on people.  Dr. Flowers has to assume that.

Dr. Flowers assumes, as do non-Calvinists in general, that if there is a call to believe in the word, that of necessity means that man is morally able to do so.[2]  Yet, in John 6:35 Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  Here is a verse that falls in line with these other verses Dr. Flowers referenced.  However, two verses later, Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (v. 37).  So here we see that the Father’s giving results in the sinner’s coming to Jesus.  Again, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.  And I will raise him up on the last day” (v. 44).  There is an inability of man expressed in this verse that is only overcome by the effectual drawing of the Father, ultimately leading to the glorification of the one drawn (raised up on the last day).

I want to now provide a specific comment on Romans 1:16 and 1 Peter 1:23. First, Romans 1:16.

The power that Paul speaks of here is not a mere enabling of sinners to believe, but a saving power.  As Paul says, it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”.  It is a power unto salvation.  The power of the gospel is that it reveals the righteousness of God through faith.  It destroys the idolatrous ways of the Gentiles and the legalistic ways of the Jews.  Yes, it is through faith; one must believe.  But that is not the same thing as Dr. Flowers has been asserting regarding enabling.  Again, he must assume this.

We see a similar statement in 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”  Here Paul is again saying that God saves those who believe in the gospel, essentially what he asserts in Romans 1:16-18.  Yet, in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, we again find the effectual calling of God:

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” [Emphasis added. Cf. 1:30-31]

God has a chosen people in the world (Jew and Gentile).  To them, Christ is seen as the power and wisdom of God for salvation.  Look, power is used of the gospel again.  Yet, as is obvious to any honest reader, this has nothing to do with a general enabling to all who hear.

Finally, 1 Peter 1:23.  I have to wonder if Dr. Flowers views the statement, “born again through the living and abiding word of God,” as the enabling power of the gospel he speaks of so frequently.  If he does, then he must believe that everyone who hears the gospel is saved because all who are born again are saved, and he believes that all experience this enabling power when they hear God’s word.  If he doesn’t view this statement as the enabling power of the gospel, then I have to wonder why he referenced it.  Again, all this verse teaches us is the necessity and power of God’s word in bringing salvation.  Any concept of enabling all people who hear God’s word is wholly absent from the text.

Now, let me say something to avoid any confusion regarding the Calvinist view of the gospel and its power.  Dr. Flowers has said essentially the following on other occasions:

“We Traditionalists actually believe in the sufficiency of the Bible to lead people to salvation.  According to the Calvinist, the Bible can’t lead a reprobate or non-elect person to salvation.  It doesn’t have the sufficiency to do so.  God has to do an extra work of grace.  They have to be regenerated, made alive, and then the Bible is sufficient.  The Traditionalist perspective is that, since the word is brought by the Holy Spirit, it’s the means by which anybody can be saved.  So we have a higher view of Scripture than Calvinists do.”[3]

There is much that is misrepresentative of Calvinism in this statement, but I will attempt to be brief.  First, the reason why Reformed/Calvinist churches are historically known for placing the Scriptures at the center of their worship services is that they whole-heartedly believe in the sufficiency of God’s word to accomplish that which God wills (Isa. 55:11, to reference one of Dr. Flowers’ verses).  Second, when Dr. Flowers says that, according to the Calvinist, “the Bible can’t lead a reprobate or non-elect person to salvation,” he’s operating on his supposition.  A reprobate is someone that God has justly passed over in the administration of His redemptive grace, leaving them to justice for their sins.  However, Dr. Flowers doesn’t believe the Bible can lead a reprobate or non-elect to salvation either, because he doesn’t believe in the reprobate/non-elect; at least, not in the Reformed perspective.  Further, if God does this “extra work of grace,” then they’re not reprobate/non-elect.  Rather, what we Calvinists affirm is the consistency of God in His redemptive plan.  We see this, for example, in Ephesians 1:3-14:  The Father chooses a people to the praise of His glorious grace; the Son dies in their place, accomplishing the grounds of their redemption; the Holy Spirit applies the redemptive work of Christ, sealing them as a promise of their glorious inheritance.  Lastly, tying the previous two points together, Calvinists believe that the Spirit sovereignly works through the proclamation of the gospel to sanctify and save God’s people.  You see, we don’t believe that the gospel enables people, we believe that the gospel effectually saves people.  In fact, the Baptist Catechism, Q/A #3 reads:

Q. How may we know there is a God?

A. The light of nature in man and the works of God plainly declare there is a God; but His Word and Spirit only do it fully and effectually for the salvation of sinners. [Emphasis added.]

I will end this post with two Scriptures that sum this up well.

1 Thess. 1:4-5 “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction….”[4]

2 Thess. 2:13-14 “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.  To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

 

[I want everyone to know that Dr. Flowers and I have had friendly conversations on this, often inflammatory, debate in the past.  I may have strong disagreements with his perspective, and at times am troubled at some of the things he says, but I view him as a brother in Christ, and I believe he views me as a brother in Christ.  I have not attacked Dr. Flowers in this post, but have sought to explain why I disagree with his theological perspective.

Grace and peace…]

 

 

[1] All Scripture quotations are from the ESV, 2001.

[2] Moral inability is different from physical inability.  Non-Calvinists often confuse the moral inability expressed by Calvinists as a physical inability, leading to straw man characterizations of the Calvinist perspective.  For example, using an analogy that involves a man beating his deaf dog because it repeatedly disobeys his commands is a misrepresentation of the Calvinist perspective, as it references a physical inability, not a moral inability.  I use this analogy as an example because Dr. Flowers has used it before.  This either means that Dr. Flowers is still confused on the difference between moral and physical inability or that he is purposefully misrepresenting the Calvinist view.  All I know is he shouldn’t be confused over it because he’s been corrected several times before.  Instead, a moral inability illustration would involve a dog who can hear just fine and who knows better but continually disobeys his master anyways due to an innate dislike of the master (or of humans in general).  Of course, even with moral inability being introduced, it’s still a woefully trivial analogy when compared to the testimony of Scripture regarding the sinful disobedience of man to his holy Creator.  Again, man’s inability to do that which is pleasing to God is a moral inability.  That is, they cannot because they will not or desire not do.  They cannot because they prefer the life of the flesh and therefore do not will or desire to do that which is pleasing to God (e.g. Rom. 6:20; 8:5-8; Eph. 2:1-3).

[3] This is taken from his podcast episode, “REFORMING THE SBC: 500 Year Anniversary of Calvinism?”, starting at time-stamp 0:29:45. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/soteriology-101/e/52038496

[4] There’s the word “power” used again in relation to the gospel.  Again, this is a saving power, not a mere enabling power.

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