This is a parable about human ability. When it comes to our salvation, how much do we do? How much can we do? For those who still believe in sin and salvation, there are three main positions: Arminianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Calvinism. In our story below, these positions will be presented in three scenarios that I hope will help draw out the difference between them and show where they are found in the church today. As with any story of this sort, the parallels are hardly exact, but it should get the point across. Further explanation will be given at the end.
The Three Trees
“Oh no, not another one!” Bob exclaimed. There he was, planted in front of his favorite television program at the end of a long week when yet another commercial crossed the screen. A wizened man appeared on screen, surrounded by images of trees. “Hello there, I am Fatherus, part of the Salvictus Sapling Company. We are a family owned and operated business and we think you need a tree in your front yard. Sonus has worked long and hard to ensure we have an adequate supply of trees, and he and Spiritus will come to anyone, anywhere to see to it that you have a tree. Just in case you don’t think you need a tree in your front yard, here is Spiritus to convince you otherwise.” Bob watched as the camera shifted from Fatherus to Spiritus. “Hello everyone, Spiritus here. Let me tell you all the benefits provided by our trees, all the problems this tree will address in your life, all the trouble and toil it will take away…” Spiritus spent the next few minutes of this unusually long and engaging commercial describing in fascinating and amazing detail all the benefits to be had from a Salvictus sapling. He ended his appeal with this warning, “Be aware that this is a time-sensitive offer. These trees won’t be available forever. We will come to anyone, anywhere, anytime! Don’t wait, contact us today!” Bob grabbed another Doritos as the camera panned back to Fatherus, “There you have it, folks. Contact us today and Sonus and Spiritus will be right out. You don’t need to use your telephone or email, just dig a hole in your front yard and we will know you are ready for our tree. We look forward to seeing you soon!”
When the commercial ended, Bob sat and pondered what he had heard. The commercial spoke to him. Spiritus really made that tree look glorious and Bob felt that the tree would make a real difference in his life. The more he thought about the offer, the more excited he became. Despite his fatigue, he jumped from his chair (flipping over the bowl of Doritos in the process) and ran to his shed for a shovel.
Shovel in hand, Bob walked to his front yard. What he saw dismayed him. He had forgotten that his front yard was covered with six inches of concrete.
As Bob stood there, mouth open in dismay, a van pulled up in front of his house and two men climbed out. “Hey, I know you!” Bob said, “you are Sonus and Spiritus! I was just trying to dig a hole to get one of your trees, but I can’t get through this concrete!”
“We know,” Spiritus said, “In fact, it seems that everyone has 6” of concrete over their front lawns. Fortunately, I just happen to have a jackhammer. Sonus and I are going around drilling through the concrete so that people who want our trees can dig the hole. Give us a moment and we’ll get this done. You will be well on your way to having one of our famous Salvictus saplings.”
With that, Sonus and Spiritus set to work drilling through the concrete. True to his word, Spiritus was quickly finished and he stepped back in satisfaction. “Well now, that should do it. You’re halfway there. If you want our tree, just finish the hole and we’ll get it planted in a jiffy.”
Bob was deeply grateful for their help. Taking his shovel, he dug out a spot for the tree. While he dug he heard the encouraging words of Spiritus, “That’s it! You are doing great! Keep going! These saplings are worth it! Remember how wonderful they are! You’re almost there!” Finally, Sonus stepped up and said, “That will do fine. Here, this tree is perfect for you.” Sonus took a sapling from the van and handed it to Spiritus who placed it in the hole and covered it with the loose dirt. “There, the tree is yours. Now take care of it and water it and it will grow and flourish. Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about trees, I will be here to help you every step of the way.”
When the commercial ended, Bob sat and pondered what he had heard. The commercial spoke to him. Spiritus really made that tree look glorious and Bob felt that the tree would make a real difference in his life. The more he thought about the offer, the more excited he became. Despite his fatigue, he jumped from his chair (tripping over the cat in the process) and ran to his basement for a shovel.
Shovel in hand, Bob climbed out of his basement and exited the house to the front yard. As he stood and surveyed his yard, he saw he had a problem. When Bob first bought the house, the soil was rich and clean but it did not take long before rocks began to accumulate in the soil. Over the years, the once rich soil had become rocky and dull. “This will be harder than I thought,” Bob sighed to himself. He pulled off his shirt and set to work.
While he was working, a van pulled up and two men stepped out. “Hey, I know you!” Bob cried out, “Spiritus and Sonus, from the Salvictus Sapling Company!” “Guilty as charged!” Sonus replied. Bob continued his work. As he labored, Spiritus offered regular words of encouragement, reminding Bob why the tree was so worthwhile.
Eventually, Sonus stepped up and said, “That will do fine. Here, this tree is perfect for you.” Sonus took a sapling from the van and handed it to Spiritus who placed it in the hole and covered it with the loose dirt. “There, the tree is yours. Now take care of it and water it and it will grow and flourish. Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about trees, I will be here to help you every step of the way.”
When the commercial ended, Bob spat a wad of tobacco out of his mouth, narrowly missing the flea-bitten cat sitting at his feet. He uttered a stream of expletives with the skill of a seasoned Hollywood movie producer and grabbed for his remote. “If these blankety-blank commercials don’t stop, I’ll just blow up all those blankety-blank businesses! I want to get back to watching Downton Abbey, not sit here listening to some yokels jabber about a tree!” Before he could change channels, Downton Abbey came back on and a little bit more of Bob’s flagging masculinity slipped away.
Suddenly, Bob was jolted from his television-induced catatonia with the sound of enormous banging and clacking. Flinging open his door, he saw a van parked in front of his house. Two men were standing in his yard operating a jackhammer. He watched in amazement as they drilled through a yard entirely filled with concrete. They drilled down deep then cleared away all the broken pieces of concrete, replacing it with rich, beautiful soil. In the middle of the soil they planted a small, sturdy looking sapling.
Bob’s countenance changed. In wonder, he stepped from his house. “What have you done?” he asked, “This is amazing! I saw the commercial, but at the time I wanted nothing to do with the tree. But now that you’ve planted it, this is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me! But how… why? I never called you. I never dug the hole!”
Sonus stepped forward and put a hand on Bob’s shoulder. “Bob, we made that offer to everyone. Anyone who wants a tree can call us and we will come, but Fatherus knew you wouldn’t call us. He chose this tree for you and sent us here to prepare the ground and plant the tree.”
“But why me?” Bob asked, scratching his head, “and what about everyone else?”
Sonus looked at Bob with peace and compassion. “Fatherus has his reasons for choosing to send us to specific people, but he does not choose everyone. The others received the same offer as you, it will be left to them whether or not they ever call.”
“I never wanted this,” Bob said, “I never thought I needed this, but I cannot tell you how grateful I am now to have this! Thank you, thank you.”
The End (although for Bob, it is the beginning)
The Lesson from the Trees
The elements of the story should be pretty obvious. The commercial at the beginning represents the universal offer of the gospel as well as the work of the Spirit to call all people to salvation. The offer goes to everyone. In addition to the offer of salvation, God has provided a picture of the glory of the gospel. Through the Word and through the Spirit, God shows people the beauty of the gospel and the filth of sin. People are shown why they need salvation and the terrible state they are in without it.
All three scenarios affirm that the cosmic work of salvation begins with God. Saving people is God’s plan. His plan unfolds throughout the Old Testament and reaches its apex in Jesus Christ. Jesus does what is necessary to bring salvation (acquire the trees) through his righteous life and atoning work. The three scenarios differ when it comes to the application of individual salvation.
In Scenario A we find the Arminian notion of prevenient grace. Human beings are dead in sin and God must do something to break through our deadness. In the story, Spiritus uses a jackhammer to break through the concrete to give access to the soil below. This is not entirely accurate, of course; Arminians do not suggest that we have a hard outer shell with a soft, gooey center. They recognize that we are dead through and through and God elevates people just enough to enable our response. Though we are dead, we become partially revived through God’s work so that we are capable of accepting or rejecting the gospel. He takes the first step in applying our individual salvation when he breaks through the concrete, but we must take the next step by digging the hole (making a decision or choosing to receive Christ).
Scenario B is a little different. In the semi-Pelagian system, the human heart is tainted by sin but not thoroughly corrupt or dead. There is no outer layer of concrete preventing us from digging the hole and choosing salvation. It is not necessary for God to change our hearts before we choose him. We are born sick, but not incapacitated. We have stones in the dirt, but not a barrier. As with the other scenarios, God presents the gospel and the Spirit still draws and woos, but God otherwise remains hands off until the sinner makes his decision. God does not interfere with human free will, either to enable or to hinder a response to the gospel. God gives the universal offer, but the application of salvation to an individual begins with the individual’s free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.
In the end, Arminianism and semi-Pelagianism are very similar. Even though Arminians affirm the need for God to change the human heart before repentance and faith are possible, what ultimately determines whether or not a person is saved is the action and decision of the individual. God does something for all people; what brings salvation to Bob is his specific decision, not God’s specific action toward him.
In Scenario C, we see the full scope of total depravity. There is nothing but concrete. No soil, no interest, no glimmer of desire. This individual would never choose Christ. He is not the least bit interested in the things of God. It is possible that from the outside he looks and sounds pious enough, but inside his heart is nothing but stone. He wants nothing to do with salvation, and even if somehow he did, he would be unable to change his own heart. Thus we find the Spirit coming to do the work of Ezekiel 11:19: removing his heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh. A lost sinner cannot do this work and wants nothing of this work. God must do it. Once it is done, the response of the sinner is joy and gratitude and faith.
All three scenarios conclude in a similar fashion: the Spirit plants the tree. Neither Arminianism nor semi-Pelagianism nor Calvinism teach that man is able to save himself. All agree that God must save. In Scenarios A and B, even though God does not save us until we have chosen him for salvation, it is still his work, he must save us.
Here we see three different views of human ability, three views of the degree to which humans participate in salvation. Each view affirms that the cosmic work of accomplishing salvation (as opposed to the individual work of applying salvation) begins with God’s eternal plan and the work of Jesus Christ. Each view affirms that salvation is ultimately applied to us by the Spirit, we cannot save ourselves. The first view holds that God begins the work of our individual salvation by enabling our dead hearts to respond to the gospel, but we must choose whether or not to respond. The second view holds that we begin the work of our individual salvation by our free-will response to the Spirit’s drawing; no change is needed to our hearts, we are able to respond. Finally, the third view holds that God does all the work, we are completely unable to respond to the gospel (and we would never want to respond to the gospel) and would be eternally lost if not for the initiative of God to take us and change us and save us, something he does for his elect.
Each of these views is found in the SBC today. None of them are heretical, though the Arminian notion is problematic and the semi-Pelagian notion even more so. Scripture teaches that we are all sinners who love our sin, who never do good, who never seek God, who are dead in trespasses, who are enemies of God, who are blinded by Satan, who will never come to the Son unless the Father himself calls us and chooses us and draws us – and all those so called by the Father will be saved. From beginning to end, from first to last, salvation belongs to our God.