“And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’”
Steven Hitchcock explains: “While sinful men may respond to these pricks of the conscience by suppressing and distracting the soul with other things, they cannot really get away from those seeds that have made their mark. It is particularly when men fall in great distress, experience calamity, or know some powerful life experience, in which the reality of their mortality and their sinfulness becomes undeniable that they become ‘open’ to those seeds hidden in their consciousness. Many have testified how God spoke to their hearts when He took away their idols or when they came close to death. God’s Spirit humbles a soul in a variety of ways, not just by the Law’s exposing of sin, though this is always present to some degree.” (Recanting Calvinism, pp.77-78, emphasis mine)
One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians writes: “Unlike Calvinism, we see the grace as a constant process: God is constantly acting and wooing people to salvation. Therefore, our prayers are simply involving us in the Prevenient Grace of God. Compare this to Calvinism where your prayers don’t really change anything since, ‘what will be, will be.’” (SEA, emphasis mine)
And just to be clear on that point, Calvinism, by contrast, involves an instantaneous grace, in which one who has been born into the upper caste of Calvinistic Election, as a member of “the elect” (which is unlike the biblical version of the elect, which speaks exclusively of redeemed Christians), these are, in a single moment, birthed into Christ as born again, new creations, with a new heart and a new mind which has an irresistible bent toward Christ. In one setting, Calvinists insist that everyone present, who heard a certain message preached, and who happened to belong to the upper caste, all were instantly transformed and believed. (Acts 13:48) So for Calvinism, it is an instantaneous act of regeneration, whereas with Arminianism, it is a divinely patient process of grace, by which the Holy Spirit goads and convicts the lost, unregenerate sinner, rather than transforming the unregenerate to regenerate, and then goading that instead. Otherwise, it would be a matter of goading against Irresistible Grace. Now consider that Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee who relentlessly persecuted Christians. However, one day, while traveling along the road to Damascus, on his way to arrest Christians, Jesus intervened. (Acts 9:1-9) While his companions saw only a bright light and heard a voice, Saul actually communicated with Jesus:
When Paul, formerly Saul, gave his testimony before the court of King Agrippa, he added an additional detail, namely, that Jesus told him that it was hard for him to “kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14)
Calvinist, R.C. Sproul, writes: “The struggle between the spirit and the flesh is the struggle of the regenerate person. The unregenerate, natural man has no such struggle. He is in bondage to sin, acting according to the flesh, living according to the flesh, and choosing according to the flesh.” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.134, emphasis mine)
With respect to Saul of Tarsus, was God operating upon an “unregenerate” heart?
Sproul has to explain Acts 26:14. Clearly, there was in fact a struggle, and so Sproul is wrong, unless he wishes to suggest that Saul of Tarsus was already regenerate, which is a tough case to make, since Saul was on his way to capture and kill Christians.
One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians writes: “One of the ways that Wesleyans observe prevenient grace in Saul/Paul’s life is also thru his religious training. So, the goads would have been before seeing Stephen martyred. Note that he was a student of Gamaliel who in Acts 5 kept the disciples from being killed. Interestingly, Gamaliel said that ‘you can’t fight against God’ which sounds very similar to Jesus’ statement of ‘not kicking against the goads.’ All of this training/influence can be taken as prevenient grace. ... Note that Paul just wasn’t automatically regenerated. He had to go see Ananias and be ‘confirmed’ (for a lack of a better term). I believe it quite possible that Paul was free to go any where, he didn’t have to go see Ananias but He accepted His calling all the while being free to reject Christ.’” (SEA)
That is an excellent observation on the Gamaliel parallel. The whole sect of the religious leaders were kicking against the goads, and I think that Gamaliel’s quote may reflect some degree of uncertainty within him, and perhaps others as well, which all shows that God does, in fact, goad and prick and kick against unregenerate hearts, in contrast to what R.C. Sproul had stated.
The downside of rejecting the Holy Spirit is that every time you say “No” in your heart, subconsciously, your heart becomes a little bit harder. Paul’s heart had surely grown hard. Yet, Jesus tells him: “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’” The process-goading which unregenerate Saul had been receiving was the inner turmoil caused by the Holy Spirit. (Calvinists cannot say that he was actually regenerate the whole time, because in Calvinistic regeneration, their old “stony heart” is removed, and therefore shouldn’t be suffering from the effects of the old heart, and hence with the newly transplanted heart, with a bent towards God, should make it completely natural to fully embrace Christ, rather than to reject Him. So this leaves Calvinism without a good explanation.)
4-Point Calvinist, William MacDonald, comments: “Goads were sharply pointed instruments used to force stubborn animals to move ahead. Paul had been kicking against the goad of his own conscience, but even more important, against the convicting voice of the Holy Spirit. He had never been able to forget the poise and grace with which Stephen had died. He had been fighting against God Himself.” (Believer’s Bible Commentary, p.1660)
That sounds like Arminian Prevenient Grace, and indeed, it is not uncommon for a person who has come into a saving relationship with Christ, to relay a testimony of someone in their life who had presented them with the Gospel, which planted a seed that stuck with them, causing inner turmoil, which they later surrendered to, when they gave their heart to Christ. The Scriptures state: “‘So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.’” (Isaiah 55:1, KJV)
It is hard to resist the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Men must scale great walls of God’s love in order to plunge into the depths of Hell. Yet, Saul of Tarsus was, in fact, kicking. What does kicking mean except that he was resisting, which is the very opposite of irresistible Grace?
Arminian, Roger Olson, explains: “Arminians believe that if a person is saved, it is because God initiated the relationship and enabled the person to respond freely with repentance and faith. This prevenient grace includes at least four aspects or elements: calling, convicting, illuminating, and enabling. No person can repent, believe and be saved without the Holy Spirit’s supernatural support from beginning to end. All the person does is cooperate by not resisting.” (Arminian Theology, pp.159-160, emphasis mine)
5-Point Calvinist, R.C. Sproul, writes: “The $64 question for advocates of prevenient grace is why some people cooperate with it and others don’t. How we answer that will reveal how gracious we believer our salvation really is.” (Chosen By God, p.125, emphasis mine)
Why did sinless creatures, Adam & Eve, choose to disobey God? Why did certain angels fall, while others remained faithful? The answer cannot be because they were totally depraved, since God had created them as sinless creatures. The answer is Free Will, which was inherited by Adam’s descendants, along with his knowledge of good of evil. This is something that Sproul’s theology cannot answer, as Sproul admits: “But Adam and Eve were not created fallen. They had no sin nature. They were good creatures with a free will. Yet they chose to sin. Why? I don’t know. Nor have I found anyone yet who does know.” (Chosen By God, p.31, emphasis mine) This means that Sproul is in no position to debunk the Arminian answer of free will. Nonetheless, man having the encumbrance of a fallen nature, all the more needs God’s preceding Prevenient Grace in order to repent, believe and be saved.
Sproul adds: “The $64,000 question is, ‘Does the Bible teach such a doctrine of prevenient grace? If so, where?’” (Chosen By God, p.125, emphasis mine)
Calvinist, John MacArthur, states: “The conversion of the apostle Paul was abrupt, startling, shocking, the man was on his way to persecute Christians. He was supernaturally, divinely converted on the spot, transformed and called to be an apostle because God had chosen him to that before the world began.” (Understanding Election, emphasis mine)
In other words, “converted on the spot” = Irresistible Grace. However, never once did Paul include the Calvinistic sentiment of, “I had no choice in the matter...he changed my will without even realizing it.” The fact is that Jesus seeks, draws and knocks while the Holy Spirit, in conjunction, convicts, pricks, pierces and opens hard hearts to respond to the Gospel, all while the supernatural power of the “living and active” Gospel (Hebrews 4:12) gives “faith” to its hearers. (Romans 10:17) This is how God intervenes, but it can be resisted. If, however, a person does submit to Christ, the result is that God will make them a Born Again, as a new creature in Christ (2nd Corinthians 5:17), with a brand new heart.
What happened in the case of Saul of Tarsus is that he had been resisting the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart. Through the living and active Gospel (Hebrews 4:12), the goading of the Holy Spirit must have included convicting, piercing, pricking and opening the old heart of Saul to respond to the Gospel. Having heard the Gospel many times before, and certainly through Stephen whom he had murdered (Acts 7:58), he received the faith to believe (Romans 10:17), but refused. Just feeling guilty isn’t repentance. Just having faith isn’t trusting in Christ. He remained unwilling to submit to the working of the Holy Spirit in his heart, making his heart just that much harder. It was only through his encounter with Christ, that changed his mind. No one changed his mind for him. No one coerced him to submit. It was his voluntarily decision. If God changed his will unilaterally, by involuntarily forcing him to be made willing, as Calvinism teaches by preemptive Regenerative Grace, then God did so against his will. What do you call forcibly changing someone’s will? Brain-washing. Is that how Calvinism would have us believe that God obtains converts and finds fellowship with man, through spiritual brain-washing?
Calvinist, Erwin Lutzer, writes: “Now (and here it gets tricky) Calvinism goes on to say that God grants the inclination and ability to choose Christ to some, namely, the elect. God does not coerce anyone, if that means he saves a man against his will.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.191, emphasis mine)
What about regenerating a man against his will? Isn’t that exactly what Calvinism teaches?
Lutzer explains: “God works in the lives of those who are to be saved, convicting them of sin and giving them the faith to believe the gospel.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.191, emphasis mine)
First of all, the Holy Spirit convicts “the world” of its sin, (John 16:8), and the Gospel produces the “faith” in its hearers, indiscriminately. (Romans 10:17) But that’s not enough. Feeling guilty and having faith is not, in and of itself, repentance and trust in Christ. Saul of Tarsus kicked against such things.
Lutzer adds: “He changes their disposition so they get saved because they want to.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.191, emphasis mine)
How would involuntarily changing their “disposition,” not be coercion?
Lutzer continues: “There is no such thing as a person who doesn’t want to be saved and God saves him anyway because he is elect.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.191, emphasis mine)
This is pure semantics because according to Calvinism, even the elect are “totally depraved” and don’t “want” to be saved, but God [regenerates] him anyway “because he is elect,” with such regeneration irresistibly leading to faith and salvation. So it’s effectively the same thing.
In terms of changing dispositions and effectively, brainwashing, consider another perspective:
I would like to conclude with a comment from Adrian Rogers: “God is the author of everything. God made everything perfect, and when God made man, God man His creature perfectly free. Free Will, then, man’s Free Will, is the origin of evil. God did not create evil. God created perfection, and God made man perfectly free, and freedom therefore gave rise to this evil. You see, this is what makes us moral creatures. Somebody says, ‘Why didn’t God just make us where we couldn’t sin?’ Well if God had made us where we couldn’t sin, He could have no more fellowship with me than I could have with that pulpit or that speaker. Because God made us moral creatures; love is the highest good; and God wants us to love Him. This is the first and great commandment: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength, with all thy mind.’ Love is the highest good, but forced love is a contradiction in terms. Forced love is not love at all. In order to love, we must be free to love, to choose to love, and to choose to love, we have to be able to choose not to love. And so God gave us perfect choice. Adam chose in the Garden of Eden, and the sons of Adam after him, to sin, and that’s where the heart-ache, and the groan and the moan come from, as we’re going to see in a moment.” (Turning Hurts Into Hallelujahs: Romans 8:8-11, emphasis mine)