Posts Tagged ‘human freedom

06
Nov
15

Why Wesleyans shouldn’t frame salvation as a “choice”

From The Works of John Fletcher, vol II. 2nd American Edition. New York: John Wilson and Daniel Witt, 1809

In the endless discussions and debates between Calvinism and Wesleyanism, it is quite common for people on both sides to frame the Wesleyan position in terms of human choice. That is, people often say that Calvinists believe God determines who is saved, whereas Wesleyans believe God allows us to “choose” our salvation.  However, I don’t think this is a good way of stating the Wesleyan-Arminian position.

When we frame salvation as a “choice” we are leaving too much up to the human person; it is an anthropocentric way of discussing salvation. And it is not the way that Wesleyan theologians primarily frame the issue. You will not find John Wesley, for example, talking about salvation in terms of a human choice. What you will find is John Wesley talking about salvation being granted to all who repent and have faith in Christ; but repentance and faith are always framed as a response to God’s gracious calling and drawing of the sinner to himself. It is not that there is no choice involved at all, but that the word “choice” doesn’t begin to do justice to what takes place in new birth and justification.  Faith is primarily a response to God’s prior, gracious action, and the response is to submit and surrender to the Lordship of Christ, which is to confess our own utter sinfulness and helplessness, and accept that our salvation is found in Christ alone. It’s not that we have the power in and of ourselves to “choose God.” Rather, since Wesleyans believe grace is resistible, we have a “negative” power to resist God’s work in our lives, but a positive response is better discussed as a “yielding” to grace, rather than a “choice” of faith.

In that case, there is more common ground between Calvinists and Wesleyans here than is often presupposed. Both sides teach that people come to faith by God’s gracious work; Calvinists teach that it is God’s grace that brings us to faith and that it always does so effectively for those whom God has chosen; Wesleyans say God’s grace brings us to faith, only that such grace is actively working in all, and that it is resistible. As Wesley states it in his sermon “Salvation by Faith,” §III.3, “That ye believe, is one instance of his grace; that, believing, ye are saved, another.”  Again, I don’t think the language of “choice” does justice to this view of salvation.

Wesley's Notes on Romans 8:29

The same could be said of framing the Wesleyan position around “free will.” When we say “free will” most people assume we are talking about an innate, “natural” human freedom to “choose salvation.” Wesley did not believe that fallen humans were free to respond to God in faith without the working of divine grace. The reason to point this out is because it is a point on which Wesleyans and Calvinists agree. The difference, again, is that Calvinists believe salvation by grace is only available to the elect, who are irresistibly drawn to faith, whereas Wesleyans believe prevenient grace is working in all to draw them to Christ, providing a measure of freedom (not total freedom of the will) sufficient to enable a response to God’s offer of salvation. Grace is “free in all” and “free for all” from a Wesleyan viewpoint, but it is always resistible. So, if Wesleyans want to talk about human freedom, I think it’s best to emphasize that we are “freed by grace” to respond, rather than to assert that we have free will.

It may seem like I’m splitting hairs there, but these distinctions are important, because the way the debate is often framed on the popular level exaggerates the differences and obscures the common ground.  I should also note that my own perspective is one that has been deeply shaped by engagement with other Christian traditions; so even though I am a Wesleyan, I am trying to state the Wesleyan position in a way which is responsive to the critiques of Reformed theologians (even though I also happen to believe what I am saying accords very well with what John Wesley himself taught).

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03
Sep
10

Salvation and Active Obedience

[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.

28
Aug
10

Salvation, Ethics, and Human Freedom

The main source of discomfort with talk of “morality” in protestant theological circles is the issue of faith vs. works.  We are nervous that any talk of morals will lead to moralism, to a reliance on our moral behaviour as the ground of our standing before God.  Of course, the doctrine of justification excludes such a conception of human ethical behaviour.  Salvation is the gift of God, fully and completely, and even the faith by which we acknowledge our salvation must be said to be God’s gift, and not a human work.

So where does this leave the human agent.  Is there nothing for us to do?   I want to argue that the Christian life is an active life of free obedience.  But the key thing to remember is that this activity on the part of the Christian is not the ground of our salvation; rather our salvation, as the gracious gift of God, is the ground for our free obedience.  God’s action always precedes our action, but God’s action does not exclude our action, but rather opens up the space in which we can act as responsible agents, and directs us toward the responsible action which is proper to our existence as human creatures.

We are free to actively obey God precisely because that obedience does not merit our salvation; if it did, we would not be free to actively obey, we would be damned. I’m going to attempt to unpack that statement by way of a positive view of Salvation.  Just as we cannot talk of “freedom” without speaking the goal of human life, so also we cannot talk about “salvation” without speaking of salvation’s goal.  That is, salvation cannot be conceived in purely negative terms, as “salvation from” sin, death and the devil.  It is true that our salvation is a salvation from, but we must also consider salvation in positive terms, as salvation for communion with God and with our fellow human creatrues.

We can be more specific than this, however, because “communion with God and with our fellow human beings” could be seen as somewhat vague.  The direction of our salvation is anything but vague; it is concrete, specific, and particular; it is Jesus Christ himself.   He is “our wisdom, our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” and we are being conformed into his image.  Christ himself is the concrete direction toward which our salvation is oriented.  God has determined that he should have a free, responsible human covenant partner, and in his humanity, Jesus Christ is that true covenant partner. It is in his free obedience that we are enabled and called to respond to God with a free and active obedience of our own.

That is why salvation and ethics are inseparable: human action is not the ground of our salvation, but it is the goal of our salvation.  Salvation has a christologically determined direction; therefore it is ethical. We appropriate this free, active obedience in accordance with the mystery of salvation: it is a gift realized fully in Christ, and yet being realized in history as we are conformed to his likeness.   Thus, if we can speak of “growth in grace” in the sanctification process, we can also speak of “growth in free active obedience,” as we are conformed to Christ, and the Spirit continues to lead us into an ever-greater radical responsiveness corresponding to God’s radically free grace in Christ.

Karl Barth has described God’s freedom and ours in the following terms: “God’s freedom is his very own,” and “Man’s freedom is his as the gift of God.”  The human creature does not possess and inherent, directionless “freedom.” The Christian life is a life of freedom, not because we have an inherent “free will” or capacity for free moral decisions: rather, we are freed to respond freely to God’s grace because God, in his freedom, has chosen that it should be so, and acted to make it so in Jesus Christ. In our own power, we are not free; rather, we are exposed to the tyranny of our own will, with all of its disordered desires.  But God has determined that he would have a free covenant partner, and has acted in electing Jesus Christ as that free human partner.  Our being “in Christ,” our union with him, is the basis of our freedom, a freedom which is an echo and correspondence of his freedom.  This means that we only know what human freedom is by looking to Jesus Christ, as God’s truly free covenant partner.  Our understanding of freedom must be constantly measured against the the freedom of Jesus Christ as the truly free human creature.

This means that a “negative” account of freedom is obviously misguided.  The negative view of freedom posits that freedom is simply freedom from all external constraints and obligations.  To be free is to be an autonomous, unencumbered, self-directed agent, acting in accordance with our own desires.  In this context, any kind of structured moral obligation appears as an impingement on our freedom, and a burden which needs to be thrown off.  Such freedom, however, is illusory because it lacks a goal; it lacks positive content, and direction.  In other words, it is not freedom at all, but a form of slavery to our own misguided desires and impulses.

But this is true not only of supposed accounts of “free will;” it must also be emphasized that the Christian freedom we are discussing here as a freedom which is an effect of God’s grace is not a directionless negative freedom.  That is, human freedom in Christ is not simply a  freedom from negative influences, a freeing of our will which would then lead to a kind of regenerated “free will.”  Christian freedom is not a kind of “second chance” at free will, where God does his part in Christ and now leaves us to do our part with a newfound freedom.

The gift of freedom is directive: its end is conformity to Jesus Christ.  It is a freedom for this goal, a freedom for true humanity, in communion with God and with his creation.  We are therefore being made free human creatures as we are conformed to his image.  Our freedom does not precede God’s work in us and for us in Christ; it is not the ground but the goal of our salvation.

I would argue that this is an authentically Wesleyan position, although Wesleyans are often seen as aligning themselves with accounts of “free will.”   Certainly there are some Wesleyans who have argued in favour of a libertarian concept of free will, but I don’t think that is consistent with Wesley’s own views on the subject.   I’ll have to post separately on this question, to do it justice, but I believe it would be better to describe Wesley’s argument in terms of the freed will of the regenerate, rather than claiming “free will” for all humanity.




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