Neutral Zone Infraction


The neutral zone is an area that is no larger than the width of a football. It is the zone that separates the offense and defense before the play starts. When a defensive player enters the neutral zone and causes an offensive player to commit a false start (move before the ball is snapped) they are flagged with a penalty known as a neutral zone infraction.

This is also a penalty that Calvinists are quick to charge Arminians with as well.

In “A Calvinist’s Understanding of Free Will”, C.Michael Patton writes (emphasis added) that

Arminians, […] believe in the doctrine of prevenient grace, which essentially neutralizes the will so that the inclination toward sin—the antagonism toward God—is relieved so that the person can make a true “free will” decision.

Later he writes that a “neutralized will amounts to perpetual indecision”. Patton asserts (emphasis added) the same thing in “Why I Reject the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace”:

Prevenient grace neutralizes the will, making the will completely unbiased toward good or evil. Therefore, this restored “free will” has a fifty-fifty shot of making the right choice. Right? This must be. The scales are completely balanced once God’s Prevenient grace has come upon a person.

Finally,  Randy Seiver (over at Truth Unchanging) echoes the idea of a neutralized will:

 If the will is free to choose other than it has chosen, would that not suggest that it is as inclined to choose what it does not want as it is to choose what it does want? Would that not suggest that, according to this view, the sinner is in a state of absolute neutrality?

Why do Calvinists throw the penalty flag?

When the referee throws a penalty flag it is because, from their vantage point on the field, that is how they saw things. This is often true in all theological discussions and why working through definitions is very important.

Calvinists, like the referee who has a specific view of the playing field, throw the penalty flag because of the way they understand “free will”, which is called “compatibilism”.

What is compatibilism? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “a thesis about the compatibility between moral responsibility and determinism” or the “unencumbered ability of an agent to do what she wants”.

The following are common characteristics of compatibilism:

  • assumes that determinism is true such that given a set of prior circumstances (c) at time (t), the person (p) will always choose to do X. Further it will not be possible for the person (p) to choose otherwise (not-X) at time (t) unless the prior circumstances (c) are also changed.
  • requires the absence of external coercion and external restrictions for an action to be free.
  • requires the ability to choose what we most want (strongest desire) for an action to be free.

The choice of the mind never departs from that which, at that time, and with respect to the direct and immediate objects of that decision of the mind, appears most agreeable and pleasing, all things considered. – Edwards

How does Compatibilism work within Calvinism? Kevin DeYoung, a Reformed writer known for being able to explain complex topics, describes the idea in “Does Calvinism Teach Puppet Theology?”

While we believe that God’s grace is irresistible and flows from his electing love, we must be clear that this grace renews us from within. It does not coerce us from without. God is not a puppet master pulling on our strings so that we do what he wants apart from our own willing or doing. His will precedes our will, but it does not eradicate it.

Monergism is clear. When a person is regenerated God has given them the strongest desire, which is to be saved through faith. Since this is now the strongest desire it necessarily follows that the person will choose to place their faith in Christ.

DeYoung argues that Augustinian and Calvinist thought “vehemently reject[s] any notion of necessity which entail[s] external coercion or compulsion”. We need to catch that important distinction. As long as the compelling occurs from within us then it will be considered a free act. Even if this internal desire is the result of an external agent, God, using His powers of “omnipotence [to] potently and infallibly bend man’s will to faith and conversion”, which is how the Canons of Dort describe this process.

With this understanding of “free will”, the Calvinist has a hard time grasping the Arminian view of Prevenient Grace. It is inconceivable for a person to have the choice to either accept or resist the Gospel because that choice is determined by the strongest desire.To have the ability to accept the gift of salvation (X) or reject the gift of salvation (not-X)  implies that there is no strongest desire. The only conclusion is to throw the flag and charge synergists with a neutral zone infraction.

Picking up the flag?

If the Calvinist wants to object to Prevenient Grace on the grounds of a neutralized will they will have to step up and explain their ruling just like the referee in the game. They need to admit that they are “throwing the penalty flag” based on how they see the field, or in this case understand “free will”. However, Arminians understand and define free will very differently.

At this point in our football analogy, another referee sees the flag on the ground and comes running from across the other side of the field, waving their arms. The play looks a lot different from where he was standing. The penalty only makes sense if people choose according to their strongest desire and cannot re-order their desires.

In Disputation #11, Arminius described free will as “a freedom from necessity, whether this proceeds from an external cause compelling, or from a nature inwardly determining absolutely to one thing”.

Many proponents of LFW would argue that the person making a decision, although influenced by numerous internal and external factors, is able to wrestle with numerous competing desires. In this view the person chooses the desire that is strongest and therefore determines the desire upon which they will act.

The person can “count the cost”, fight temptations, prioritize information differently, apply what they have learned, react to how they are feeling, and choose what they will focus on during their decision making process. It is during this “processing” that the person will decide which desire they will act on.

The Calvinist does not have to accept the LFW definition of free will. But their objection to Prevenient Grace based on a neutral will comes from using their definition of free will and imposing that on the Arminian view. It is not something the Arminian view teaches. A neutralized will only makes sense if one understands free will in a compatibilistic way.

Things should become more interesting with the book Deviant Calvinism, which argues for the idea of Libertarian Calvinism.

5 thoughts on “Neutral Zone Infraction

  1. “Many proponents of LFW would argue that the person making a decision, although influenced by numerous internal and external factors, is able to wrestle with numerous competing desires. In this view the person chooses the desire that is strongest and therefore determines the desire upon which they will act.”.

    And, exactly in what way do you think Calvinists would disagree with that statement? How is “. . .the person chooses the desire that is strongest and therefore determines the desire upon which they will act,” different from “we choose according to our highest inclination?”

    What you have stated [I acknowledge that it may not be your position since you stated “Many proponents of LFW would argue. . . .] is in agreement with our view but in disagreement with what Arminius stated.

    This is a capacity that does not need to be restored by grace, since it was never lost. It seems that you, my friend, are the one who has thrown the flag in error.

    I fail to see how Arminius’ statement is contrary to what I have alleged. He has posited a view of the will as autonomous. Only if it is autonomous is it truly “free.” But, if it is autonomous, then it is neutral because it is free from “external cause” or “inward nature.” The will is not a little man running around inside the man doing as he pleases independent of the rest of the man.

    You seem to think Monergists believe God programs people like computers. The computer has no mind of its own. It cannot reason, make choices, feel guilt or shame, etc. it can only do what it has been programmed to do. There is a flag you need to pick up right away.

    As I believe you know already, I prefer that this discussion be centered around exegesis of biblical texts rather than philosophical speculation. Universal PG is a nifty idea, but the one who posits it bears the burden of showing biblical texts that 1. state that it is a reality, 2. show when and how it is granted to all sinners, 3. show why all sinners without the Spirit are, until the point of effectual calling, described as hostile toward God, etc.

    Perhaps it would be helpful if you explained where you think desires originate in people 1. before PG is granted, 2. after PG is granted, and 3. after regeneration. In what ways does a regenerate person differ from an unregenerate person who has been granted PG?

    Perhaps I have misunderstood your position. My understanding is that you [and I have come to this understanding from reading the Articles of the Remonstrance] believe everyone is born in a state of Total Depravity. Can you explain what that phrase means in your theology? In what ways do you distance yourself from the Remonstrants who stated that a person must be regenerated before he can perform any work that is good, such as faith is? I think it is clear you don’t believe that but I have always wondered what they meant. Perhaps you can shed some light on it for me. Did they mean all sinners are regenerated at some point?

    • Randy

      Thanks as always for stopping by. And thanks for being the motivation for writing this post when you wrote about Prevenient Grace sometime ago.

      And, exactly in what way do you think Calvinists would disagree with that statement? How is “. . .the person chooses the desire that is strongest and therefore determines the desire upon which they will act,” different from “we choose according to our highest inclination?”

      This describes agent causality, which is considered a characteristic of LFW and not compatibilism. Most Calvinists object to the underlying principle that a person could have chosen otherwise (at least when it comes to faith) which is what agent causality makes possible. The person could have chosen differently,even when the circumstances are the same, b/c they can act on a different desire and thus make a different decision.

      Not all Calvinists are compatibilists when describing all the day-to-day decisions (what will I eat today). In fact if you “google” the term “Libertarian Calvinism” you will see several posts debating this idea within Calvinism by Calvinists due to the book Deviant Calvinism).

      … in agreement with our view but in disagreement with what Arminius stated.

      Maybe you could explain that further. How does agent causality match Calvinism/compatibilism & not Arminianism/LFW?

      You seem to think Monergists believe God programs people like computers.

      First, I want to acknowledge up front that Calvinists reject the idea that the decision to accept Christ is programmed. I try to be very clear that this is not what Calvinists teach. However, it is Calvinists at Dort who described salvation as God “powerfully and infallibly bending” the human will, which does not sound very “free” to me. And, after all, salvation is a monergistic action (God only acts) in Calvinism. I have been told in discussions of this nature that if the person was actually involved in the choice they would have a reason to boast. Perhaps you can explain how monergistic salvation involves a free human choice.

      if it is autonomous, then it is neutral because it is free from “external cause” or “inward nature.”

      LFW means being free from an external cause that compels but not free from their influence. And LFW means being free from an inward nature that is “determined” to “one thing” (ie no contrary choice). LFW involves influences, state of mind, and multiple desires all competing to be acted out and thus is anything but neutral. However, it is also not determined to a single outcome.

      Can you explain what that phrase (Total Depravity) means in your theology?

      Total Depravity is the corruption of the entire nature of every person so that it is inclined to worldliness and sin. It describes a person under only common grace (the rain falls on the good & wicked). People can be aware of God and His commands, have a conscience knowing right from wrong and thus feel convicted of sin (Rom 1 & 2) but they cannot (in this natural state) exercise saving faith.

      In what ways do you distance yourself from the Remonstrants who stated that a person must be regenerated before he can perform any work that is good, such as faith is? I think it is clear you don’t believe that but I have always wondered what they meant. Perhaps you can shed some light on it for me. Did they mean all sinners are regenerated at some point?

      I assume you are asking about Article III of the Remonstrance, which contains the phrase “nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ”. This certainly could be interpreted as the Arminians advocating regeneration prior to faith.

      However, Arminius saw regeneration as a process in which the “Holy Spirit completes regeneration after faith and it is an entire change: the old man being mortified and the new arising. Thus those undergoing regeneration are able to have faith in Christ, but regeneration does not complete till after the person believes.” With this understanding, a person receiving PG might be considered “partially” regenerated so that “when he feels grace affecting or inclining his mind and heart, he freely assents to it, so that he is able at the same time to withhold his assent”. This article goes to great lengths to try to explain this. It is in this way that the Remonstrants likely meant regeneration is required before faith.

      In an nutshell Arminians are clear that regeneration occurs after saving faith when one is placed into the body of Christ.

      The SEA statement of faith states it this way:

      But the prevenient grace of God prepares and enables sinners to receive the free gift of salvation offered in Christ and his gospel. Only through the grace of God can sinners believe and so be regenerated by the Holy Spirit unto salvation and spiritual life. … We believe that God’s saving grace is resistible, that election unto salvation is conditional on faith in Christ, and that persevering in faith is necessary for final salvation.

      I agree with this.

      Rather than describe regeneration as a process or as partial, I think it is more clear to describe people as being in one of three states like this:
      1) unregenerate & natural state (see note on total depravity above)
      2) unregenerate & enabled state (can respond in faith thru prevenient grace)
      3) regenerated (after exercising saving faith & being placed in Christ)

  2. Hi Randy!

    Are we talking about this again? 🙂

    “And, exactly in what way do you think Calvinists would disagree with that statement? How is “. . .the person chooses the desire that is strongest and therefore determines the desire upon which they will act,” different from “we choose according to our highest inclination?”

    I am wondering how this happens from a reformed perspective? How does a person who has just been regenerated but has not yet chosen Christ have the time to wrestle with the issues as Mike described? How can they weigh their options, count the cost and do all those kinds of things, in the time between regeneration and conversion?

    Or does the reformed view teach that people “prior to regeneration can prioritize information differently, apply what they have learned, react to how they are feeling, and choose what they will focus on during their decision making process?”

  3. “In this view the person chooses the desire that is strongest and therefore determines the desire upon which they will act.”

    When i first read “Chooses the desire that is strongest,” I read it as identical to the compatibilist sequence: “The person chooses their strongest desire.” The cause or order of the statement isn’t necessarily clear: Does he choose the desire that is already the strongest, or does he choose the desire that, due to his choosing, BECOMES the strongest? While it might be just me that suffered that initial confusion, the confusion of Randy above makes me think not.

    Might it be more clearly stated as “The person chooses to elevate one desire above another”, so as to eliminate that potential for confusion and make it clear that the choice is the reason for the strength of the desires?

    • Mackenzie:

      Thanks for stopping by the blog and for your excellent observations.

      Does he choose the desire that is already the strongest, or does he choose the desire that, due to his choosing, BECOMES the strongest?

      In LFW, the agent/person chooses the desire upon which he will act. So I would say (keeping with the Edwardsian language) that he is choosing the desire which becomes the strongest desire.

      I agree that it might be more clear to say that the person elevates one desire over another. However, Calvinists could probably claim to agree with this notion as well.

      To fully differentiate the two ideas we would have to ask: can a person act upon a different desire (ie choose a different desire to be the strongest), without anything prior to the decision changing (ie make a contrary choice)?

      Now, the Calvinist, holding to compatibilism, would have to answer no. The person would always choose (or elevate) the same strongest desire (X). After all that is what an irresistible influence insures.

      The non-Reformed, rejecting compatibilism, could answer yes. The person may have given into the temptation to sin or rejected the gospel (X), but could have chosen to not give into the temptation to sin or could have accepted the gospel (not X).

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