Posts Tagged ‘Prevenient grace

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).

08
Nov
13

Theological Signs of the Times: Catholic – Evangelical Convergence?

789488I was privileged to receive my PhD this past Saturday at St Basil’s Church on the campus of St. Michael’s College here in Toronto.   After six years of hard work, and numerous hurdles to clear, it was nice to have that final piece of the puzzle and say that I am truly finished.

Honourary doctorates were given to two fine Catholic scholars, Father James K. McConica, CSB, and Father Robert M. Doran, SJ.   Doran, currently at Marquette and a former member of the faculty at Regis College, gave the address.  He focused on what he called “theological signs of the times” for Catholic theology in the 21st Century.   As he spoke I was struck at how two of the three major tasks he identified for Catholic theology could just as easily be said to be major tasks for evangelical theology at the present time.

The first point he raised was more specifically Catholic, and focused on the integration of major theological insights from the second half of the 20th century.  He focused on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Lonergan, and Gustavo Gutiérrez:

“How does our discipline integrate Balthasar’s restoration of beauty as a transcendental and as the way in which the truth and goodness of God are disclosed to us, with Lonergan’s openness to modern science, modern critical-historical scholarship, modern philosophy, and the post-modern welcome of the religious “other”? That in itself is a tall order. But then there is the further and larger task of implementing that integrated intellectual vision in the service of the Church’s preferential option for the poor.”

While “integration” is an ongoing concern in evangelical theology (integrating theology and practice), clearly the kind of integration he is talking about here is more specific to Catholics, and involves a concern to bring integrate these important insights into the magisterial teaching of the chruch.

His second point, however, is one that remains a major issue in Western theology in general: the theology of the Holy Spirit:

“The need for a developed pneumatology is present already in the insistence of Vatican II and of Pope John Paul II that the gift of the Holy Spirit is present and active beyond the explicit boundaries of Christian belief. Those affirmations of the Council and of the Pope are doctrinal statements. Theology has yet to explain how this can be and to unravel the implications of these statements for the whole of Christian comportment in the contemporary world…”

St._Basil's_Church via wikimediaEvangelicals have likewise neglected the theology of the Spirit, and yet the increasing importance of the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions in global Christianity is forcing all of us to give more attention to pneumatology.  Doran’s particular concern seems to be bringing pneumatology to bear on Catholicism’s inclusive understanding of the way in which the Spirit is at work in those who are not Christians.   As a Wesleyan, I immediately thought of the category of prevenient grace as my own tradition’s approach to this issue.  In Wesleyan thinking, God’s grace is basically understood as the loving presence of the Spirit.  Prevenient grace is our term for the grace of God which “goes before” and precedes personal faith.  Prevenient grace, we believe, is at work in all people, drawing them to Christ.  Wesleyans, therefore, certainly have a category for thinking along these lines.  However, much work remains to be done, especially in making the connections between prevenient grace and the  presence of the Holy Spirit more explicit.

Doran’s final point is one which has become almost a fixation for many evangelical theologians today:

“There is need…for our theology to become a theology of mission, and especially a theology of missio Dei, of divine mission as grounding all ecclesial mission. The mission of the Church participates in and carries forward the missions of the Holy Spirit and the Son. Every theological topic – God, Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the Incarnation, grace, revelation, creation, anthropology, original sin, personal and social sin, redemption, sacraments, church, social grace, praxis, resurrection, eternal life – has to be integrated into a theology of divine mission and of ecclesial mission as a participant in the missions of the Holy Spirit and of the Son.”

07_063161At Tyndale Seminary we have quite explicitly been attempting to do this very thing: to place the entire project of theological education in a missional framework.  We still have a long way to go – at least I know I do!  But Doran’s statement above could be taken up by our theology department with very little alteration as a statement of our current agenda.

Of course all of this needs a lot of unpacking, but I mention these broad themes because I was quite encouraged by Doran’s talk.  I strongly identified with his concerns and the challenges he believes Catholic theology is facing, and sense that many evangelicals are attempting to face the same issues, in our own way.  If these are indeed “signs of the times,” then they may be signs of what God is doing across the Evangelical-Catholic divide.

You can read Doran’s address here.

16
Feb
12

John Wesley on Predestination

All his life, John Wesley stood within the tradition of English Arminianism, but from the early days of the Methodist revival, his position on predestination became a particularly important and divisive issue.  Of course, his relationship with George Whitefield was the background of the controversy, since Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist.  While they began their conversations about predestination in private, it wasn’t long before “pamphlet warfare” flared up as each side began to publish sermons and open letters advocating for their positions.  Wesley and Whitefield were able to reconcile to a certain extent, but the passionate and fiery debates made their mark on their relationship, and the Methodist movement as a whole.

The history of the controversy, which flared up three times during Wesley’s lifetime, is interesting in and of itself, but in this post I’m not going to go into those details.  Rather, I’m going to talk about two key areas of concern that motivated Wesley in his strident defense of the Arminian position, and then offer a basic summary of Wesley’s position.

The first key concern had to do with the character of God.   It is a mistake to think that Wesley’s rejection of unconditional election was rooted in an optimistic view of human nature, as opposed to a more robust Calvinist understanding of depravity.  Wesley agreed with the historic Calvinist position on total depravity.  As Randy Maddox writes,

“the fundamental difference between Wesley and his Calvinist opponents really lies more in their respective understandings of the nature of God than in their evaluation of the human situation.” (Responsible Grace, p. 55-56).

Wesley felt that the idea of absolute unconditional predestination by divine decree was inconsistent with God’s justice, as well as his love and goodness.

This fundamental difference can also be seen in the respective ways in which the Calvinist and Wesleyan traditions have approached the question of divine sovereignty.

Generally speaking, the Calvinist tradition has seen sovereignty through the model of a ruling monarch, whereas Wesley conceived of sovereignty primarily through the model of a loving parent.

The monarch’s power over his subjects is conceived primarily as an exercise of “will,” and hence the fact that some are saved while others are not is explained by recourse to a decision of the divine will for Calvinists.  On the other hand, the parent’s power over their children is conceived primarily as an exercise of love, and from this Wesleyan perspective it is inconceivable that a loving parent would eternally decree some of his children to life and others to death.

Wesley’s second key concern related to the character of the Christian life. Wesley worried about the pastoral effect of preaching a Calvinist approach to predestination, feeling that it would lead to antinomianism.  If salvation is unconditionally established by an eternal decree, why would any of us concern ourselves with obedience and discipleship?

Wesley felt the Calvinist approach undercut the pursuit of holiness, because the connection between God’s gift and our response is marginalized.  In his 1739 sermon, “Free Grace,” which ignited the first round of public controversy with Whitefield, Wesley wrote,

“So directly does this doctrine tend to shut the very gate of holiness in general, to hinder unholy men from ever approaching thereto, or striving to enter thereat.” Sermon 110 [number 128 in the older Jackson numbering], “Free Grace,” §11.

It was on the basis of these two areas of concern that Wesley advocated for his evangelical Arminian position on predestination, which can be outlined in the following six points:

  • Total depravity is affirmed by Wesley, meaning that the fallen human being is completely helpless and in bondage to sin.  This means, contrary to popular misconception, Wesley does not believe that fallen human beings have an inherent freedom of the will.
  • The atonement is universal in scope.  Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world, not only an elect few, as proposed by five-point Calvinism.
  • Prevenient grace is universally available to all, restoring a measure of freedom so that the human being can respond to God’s grace.  This is how Wesley could affirm that all human persons were free to respond to God’s grace – but note that the freedom which humans possess is a measure of freedom (not libertarian freedom) and is by grace, not an inherent endowment that is retained in fallen humanity.
  • Grace is resistible and can be rejected, to our own destruction.  God is actively drawing all people to himself, but his grace is not coercive.
  • Predestination is therefore based on God’s foreknowledge, not his will.  That is, God corporately predestines all those who respond in faith to salvation, and by foreknowledge he knows who will respond.  His foreknowledge does not cause their response.
  • Assurance of salvation is given by the Holy Spirit, who witnesses directly to our adoption as children of God through Christ, and is also confirmed indirectly by the fruit of the Spirit.
04
Aug
11

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 2: Prevenient Grace

I began this series last week by talking about the importance of the image of God for John Wesley’s theology.    As an heir of the theological legacy of the protestant Reformation, Wesley also believed in total depravity.  This means, not that human beings are totally evil, but that sin has corrupted every aspect of the human person, such that there is no aspect of our existence which is not affected by the Fall.  Those who accuse Wesleyans of being “soft” on sin have misread Wesley’s theology at this point.

While it is true that Wesley was somewhat more “optimistic” about humanity, his optimism sprang not from a weak understanding of sin, but from a high view of grace – hence Wesleyans sometimes speak of the “optimism of grace” (more on that later).

In other words, while Wesley believed human beings to be completely depraved and helpless in and of themselves, he believed that God had not left anyone to merely fend for themselves.  God’s grace, for John Wesley, permeates all of creation, not only the Christian church.  As an unconditional benefit of the atonement, extended to all humanity, God’s Spirit is actively at work in all creation, drawing people to himself through his grace.   This is what Wesleyans call “prevenient,” “preventing,” or “preceding” grace – it is our experience of God’s grace “going before” us, enabling us to respond to God’s call on our lives.

The following quote from Wesley’s Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,”  §III.4, is illustrative of how Wesley used this concept:

… allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed preventing grace. Every man has a greater or less measure of this, which waiteth not for the call of man. Every one has, sooner or later, good desires; although the generality of men stifle them before they can strike deep root, or produce any considerable fruit. Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world. And every one, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron, feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.

Wesley used the idea of prevenient grace in “broad” sense to refer to the restraint of evil throughout the world (similar to the Calvinist idea of “common grace”), and in a more narrow sense to refer to grace drawing people to faith in Christ.

Because Wesley affirmed total depravity, he had to claim that any good action, no matter who performed it, must attributed to prevenient grace. In other words, “First. God worketh in you; therefore you can work: Otherwise it would be impossible” (Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” §III.3).

Again, we see the universal dimensions of God’s mission to the world shining through in Wesley’s thinking.  Just as all people were created in image of God and now suffer the debasement of that image by sin, so also God is actively pursuing all people by his prevenient grace.

This means that the church’s missional activity is always preceded by God’s prior gracious action.  God is already at work in the lives of every person we come into contact with.  The witness of the church remains essential, however, as God’s chosen means of spreading the message of salvation.

Prevenient grace also provides us with a way of affirming the good in people outside of the Church.   God’s grace is at work in all peoples, in all cultures.  Therefore we can affirm the good in people of other religions, without denying the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only saviour; because whatever good is there is due to the grace of the triune God, and is ultimately a benefit of the universal atonement.

Prevenient grace therefore provides an essential piece of a Wesleyan theology of the mission of  God, which extends the hope of salvation to all people, not merely an elect few.




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