Sunday, January 11, 2015

S3. God was reaching out to us far before we knew it.

This is the third post in a unit on salvation in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first section had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished units on Christology and Atonement.
God was reaching out to us far before we knew it.

1. Grace is God's "unmerited favor." That is to say, it refers to the fact that God gives us gifts and blessings that we have not earned and do not deserve.

There are some common misconceptions about such grace in the New Testament. For example, it is often suggested that grace comes with "no strings attached," that grace is unconditional. This idea, although frequently repeated, neither is what the New Testament says nor what we would expect given the background of this language in the Greco-Roman world.

First of all, to say that grace is, by definition, undeserved, unearned, does not imply that it is unsolicited or that the patrons who dispensed it had no expectations in return. Grace language was patron-client language. In the Mediterranean world, patrons were individuals who gave gifts to others. As gifts, they were not earned or paid for and, true, there were no contractual obligations involved. The arrangement was informal.

But a person could ask for grace (charis), and grace usually came with some informal expectations. For example, if a person was given a gift (charisma) from a patron and then went on to shame or disgrace the patron, it was not at all likely that the gifts would continue. Grace often came with certain informal expectations of the recipient.

So the New Testament concept of grace did not in any way suggest that a person might not ask for it. The idea that we must put our faith in God and Christ order to receive God's grace in no way contradicted the meaning of the word grace, for the key is that the gift be disproportional to any human action, not that it be completely unrelated to human action.

2. John Calvin had a sense that God had bestowed on all humanity something he called "common grace." In other words, all humans share in common good gifts from God that we have not earned and that we receive whether we do good or evil. The model for common grace is Matthew 5:45, where God causes the sun to rise on both the righteous and the unrighteous. Similarly, he gives rain to farmers whether their hearts are turned toward or away from him.

3. John Wesley further suggested that God's grace reaches out to us in hope of our salvation long before we know it. Indeed, he has been reaching out to us long before we were even born. He called this sort of grace, "preventing grace," but most in the Wesleyan tradition now refer to it as prevenient grace, God's grace that comes before we are even aware of it.

This grace goes back to God's plans to save the world through Jesus Christ. [1] In that sense, God's overall plan, of which each of us is a potential beneficiary, was in action millennia before we even existed. It was existent in God's walk with his people Israel before Christ came to earth. It was most evident in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus himself. It has been playing out in the church these last two thousand years.

In our individual lives, God's prevenient grace takes hold of our lives before we are conscious of our need for God. If we are born in a church, we are hopefully surrounded by God's grace in people who love us and pray for us. We are under the ministry of God's servants. We hopefully fellowship with God's people  In some churches, we experience baptism as a child in a way that both is God grabbing hold on us from the very beginning and a community of faith binding itself to pray and nurture us in faith.

All this can happen long before we have any sense of our need for God. It is part of God "wooing" us to him. He draws us toward faith and toward himself.

4. Yet even for those outside the direct influence of the church, God is leading each person toward him. Wesley himself believed in total depravity as Calvin did, meaning that humanity is not empowered to reach up to God. Our default state is one of moral powerlessness.

However, while Calvin believed God either "turned on" our coming to him or "left the switch off," Wesley taught that God's prevenient grace brought everyone up to a point where we could either continue to move toward him or might ignore his invitation. Philosophically, there is a great difference between these positions. Both indicate that we come to God on the basis of his grace and, indeed, that no one would come to God without God's grace.

The contrast is that, for Wesley, God has made it possible for everyone to come to him and thus puts the ultimate responsibility for our possible condemnation on us as individuals. For Calvin, God effectively decides for us whether we will choose him or not. For Wesley, God makes it possible for us to choose him, so that choosing him is still a matter of God's power but we are each responsible for the choice we make. No one is condemned without an opportunity to have been saved.

For Calvin, God is ultimately responsible for our condemnation. For Wesley, we are. Yet for both, God's grace is the basis of our salvation. [2]

5. Wesley himself did not draw the logical conclusion of his own theology. If God truly gives light to everyone in the world, if God's prevenient grace truly makes it possible that everyone can, in theory, be saved, then God must shine this light even on those who have never heard of Jesus or have heard of Jesus in a hostile or vastly erroneous way.

True, there are stories of individuals having visions and dreams of Jesus. Then when they come into contact with Christians, they immediately recognize in Christ the person of their vision.

Yet what are we to make of the Old Testament saints, who did not yet know of Jesus? What do we make of the Ninevites, whose repentance God accepted even though they had no knowledge of Christ? What do we make of Job, who by all reckonings was not even an Israelite but someone who worshiped God as best he knew how?

Indeed, Paul himself uses the uncircumcised Abraham as a model of justification by faith, but the faith of Abraham is not a faith directed toward Jesus but toward God the Father (Rom. 4:17). God has chosen to reconcile the world through Christ, but he did not justify the Old Testament saints on the basis of their knowledge of Christ but on the basis of their faith in God. "Whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Heb. 11:6). Note that not a single instance of faith in Hebrews 11 is directed specifically toward Jesus.

The point here is not in any way to diminish the centrality of Christ in atonement. It is to say that the heart is the location of faith rather than the understanding. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner once suggested that there may be "anonymous Christians" who have responded to God in faith on the basis of Christ who do not yet, with their heads, know the name of the one in whom they have believed. [4]

This position is not without its difficulties, but it is the logical outworking of Wesley's theology, which both affirmed God's prevenient grace and the heart as the center of human response to God. It's greatest objection is the urgency of spreading the gospel, and the fact that faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17).

Theology is of course worked out over the whole of Scripture, rather than by a war of individual verses. What Wesleyan theology wishes to affirm is what Scripture itself says, that God wants everyone to be saved, which implies that God reaches out to everyone.

But here is an important point. To say that God reaches out to everyone does not mean that everyone has an equal exposure to God's voice. It is only to say that everyone has a chance, enough to be without excuse. Does not Paul himself imply in Romans 1:20 that God's power and glory are self-evident to all? Does not Acts 17:26-28 imply that God has set out the world in a way that can lead non-Jews to him?

At the same time, to say that everyone has a minimal chance does not suggest that evangelism, traditionally conceived, does not greatly increase the opportunity for salvation. It does not deny that prayer can create a greater likelihood that a person will finally reach out for God, although God always in every case looks for the human response. He does not force anyone to choose him.

6. We cannot presume that God will always empower our will to move toward him. If we can only come to God because his prevenient grace is drawing us to him, then we will not be able to come to him if he ever withdraws it. Wesleyans in that sense do not believe in free will in the pure sense. Since the Pelagian controversies of the 400s, Christians have not believed that we have the power in ourselves to come to God. Rather, God empowers us to move toward him.

In that sense, a person who rejects the grace of God today cannot assume that he or she will even want God's grace later on. It is his grace that draws us to repentance. In one of the scariest verses in the New Testament, Hebrews suggests that Esau knew that he needed to repent, but at that point could not find a place of repentance (Heb. 12:17).

So anyone who truly repents and seeks God will find him. But a person who says, "I will repent on my death bed," probably will not find true repentance in their heart on that day. They may know in their head that they need to repent but not find the will to repent in their heart, which is a gift of God's prevenient grace.

In all these things we must confess that we know very little of how God works behind the scenes. We know that he wants everyone to be saved, which means he must surely give everyone a chance. His grace has been reaching out for us before the world began and it continues in or births and lives, long before we realize it. It continues in our daily lives, even after we have come to faith. We cannot possibly know how often he intervenes in the events of our lives, interrupting the normal flow of cause and effect. It is a striking demonstration of his love for us.

Next Sunday: S4. God revealed himself to Israel in preparation for Christ.

[1] Theologians debate whether Jesus would have become human if Adam had not sinned. Those who believe Jesus planned to become human regardless of whether Adam sinned are called "supralapsarians." Those who think he only planned to come if humanity sinned are called 'infralapsarians." In general, Wesleyans would tend to be supralapsarians. For hyper-Calvinists, of course, there is no meaningful distinction between the two, since by their reckoning, God planned for Adam to sin.

[2] The Calvinist idea that God entirely manipulates our salvation is called "monergism." For them, a single work is in play, that of God. Wesleyan-Arminians and historic Christianity have more predominantly affirmed a "synergism" between God's action and human response. The work is vastly disproportionate, with God's work the overwhelmingly predominant element. Yet God empowers the human will to play a role as well. Otherwise, God is straightforwardly responsible for evil.

[3] E.g., Rahner, Theological Investigations IV (New York: Crossroads, 1982 [1966]), 180-187. This idea helped the Roman Catholics at Vatican 2 explain how non-Roman Catholics could be saved and yet not be part of what they believe is the true church. It helped provide a basis for non-Catholics being "separated brothers."

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