[continuing from my previous post]
Just as God’s freedom makes our freedom possible, we must also say that God’s action makes human action possible. God’s action always precedes our action. Our action is the always a gracious response to the prior action of God. God takes the initiative, and we respond, with a genuine human response, a response which can only be given as an echo and answer to the definitive action of God in Christ. This is why it is said that God’s action and our action are not in competition with one another. It is not as if we must choose to either believe that it is God who acts or it is human beings who act in salvation. Human action is only possible because of God’s action. And human action is not able to encroach upon God’s action.
But we must go further than this. We’re not speaking here of the simple affirmation that God has created all things, therefore we would not exist and could not act if it weren’t for his creation. When we speak of God’s action we are speaking of something concrete and actual: Jesus Christ.
The action of God on our behalf is the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Jesus, in his truly human activity, is the basis for the new humanity, in which we are included and toward which we are being moved by the Spirit. Thus “human action,” as was the case with human freedom, does not refer to some neutral form of agency, or some latent potentiality which we can choose to direct toward whichever ends we choose: truly human action means a faithful response to the gracious action of God, as concretely manifested in the human life of Jesus. Truly human action is action which is conformed to the likeness of Christ.
What about the fact that human beings, including professing Christians, don’t act in conformity to Christ? Human actions which do not conform to the likeness of the new humanity in Christ are not evidence of an “agency” or a “power” that humans have over and against God. They are rather evidence of the weakness of the human response; they are deficiencies in human agency; they are a kind of inhuman aberration.
Therefore, because God has acted, we can and must act. The action of God on our behalf in Christ is ordered to our conformity to Christ and our realization of God’s intention for an active human covenant partner. God has not acted so that we will not have to act at all; he has acted in Christ so that we will act in a truly human way. Our action in conformity with Christ is not the basis for God’s justifying and sanctifying action on our behalf; rather, our action in conformity to Christ is the goal of God’s justifying and sanctifying work on our behalf.
I want to add one more layer to this description I’ve been giving of the character of the Christian life: the Christian life is a life of obedience. Here is where those who are nervous about works-righteousness get particularly nervous. How can Christian life be about obedience? Isn’t the whole point that we cannot obey, and therefore we can only throw ourselves on the mercy of God? Well, yes, if we are talking about the question of our standing before God. None of us is capable of obedience to God in our own strength. Nevertheless, if we keep the directional nature of salvation in mind, and the christological determination of salvation’s direction, we must say that the Christian life is a life of obedience. God has determined that he would have a free, active covenant partner who responds to his gracious commands in obedience. Jesus Christ is that covenant partner, and we who are “in Christ,” saved by Christ’s faithful obedience, are being conformed to his humanity and formed into obedient children.
The obedience of Christ is, I think, an undervalued theme in the New Testament. I think in our concern to affirm the divinity of Christ in the face of historical criticism we have tended to shy away from a full appreciation of Jesus’ humanity. But it is clear from the scriptural witness that Christ, in his humanity, had to go through the genuinely human struggle of obedience to God. The obedience Christ offered in his life on earth was not something which came easily to him. His obedience was not “automatic;” and he was not removed from the genuine human trial of obedience. The reference point for this discussion, of course, is the garden of Gethsemene. There was real struggle, described in Hebrews as a process of “learning obedience.” What is intended by that text, I believe, is a description of the way in which Christ had to gain first hand experience as an obedient human being, in order that he could offer a perfect sacrifice on our behalf, and also in order that he could be our perfect, sympathetic high priest: one who understands the trials and temptations of human life and yet was able to overcome. He is the “author and perfecter” of our faith – the trailblazer in a sense, who has in his humanity paved the way for us to participate fully in God’s covenant.
If Christ in his human life lived obediently, then surely our lives, as an echo and response to his, will be lives of obedience. There will be struggle. There will be real effort on our part. There will be moments of decision in which we are called by God to answer a specific demand and act in accordance with his will. But once again, none of these efforts, struggles, or decisions will be or ever can be the basis for our standing before God. Our efforts are not the presupposition for God’s grace. God’s grace, seen in the obedience of Jesus Christ, is the presupposition for our obedience. Again, our obedience is not the ground of our salvation, but it is the goal. Once again we must also say that it would not be enough to simply affirm that the obedience of Christ makes our obedience possible, as if Christ had simply restored a potential for obedience in us that we then can choose to use or not. Obedience is our direction. Obedience is our determination in Christ. Our salvation is directed to obedience as free human action.