Ben Witherington and Roger Olson, “Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology – Part 12”

, posted by SEA

BEN: I was reflecting on what you say on pp. 155-56 about ‘simul justus et peccator’ and it occurred to me what a difference there is between Luther and Wesley on this matter. Luther, famously believed that the Christian continued to be in bondage to sin even after conversion, and made it part of the weakly confession. Wesley absolutely rejected this and for good reasons. His message was ‘while sin remains it no longer reigns’ in the life of the believer. The believer has been set free from the rule of sin and death in himself. So for Wesley Rom. 7.13-25 is a Christian statement about a pre-Christian condition, not to be equated with the tension between flesh and Spirit in Gal. 5. Probably the most accurate translation of ‘sarx’ when it comes to its moral sense is ‘sinful inclinations’ not ‘fallen nature’. The sinful inclinations tug the believer in one direction, the Holy Spirit in the other. A careful look at Paul’s anthropology makes clear that he sees this as an inner vs. outer tension, because the body is the one part of the Christian life that has not yet been renovated. Inwardly the believer is being renewed day by day and this includes will, emotions, thoughts etc. but outwardly he still has a fallen body that is heading for the grave. The discussion in Rom. 7.13-25 also raises another interesting point that Wesley never satisfactorily resolved. Namely, that the person in Rom. 7.13-25 doesn’t appear to have prevenient grace at work in him, at least in so far as his ability to keep God’s Word or do anything good. So…. Is he lacking prevenient grace altogether, or should we just say prevenient grace has a limited efficacy— ie. it enables the fallen person to throw himself on the mercy of God, recognizing his need for salvation. The point is that the person in Rom. 7.13-25 is still in the bondage to sin. I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on all this. In what sense does prevenient grace “free the will from bondage and allow the person to hear the Gospel” (p. 156).

ROGER: Interestingly, and this is not generally known, Arminius wrote at treatise on Romans 7 that foreshadows Wesley’s view. He, too, believed the chapter describes life before regeneration and sanctification. I understand “prevenient grace” to be that gracious act of God through the gospel that liberates the will from bondage to sin sufficiently for the sinner to respond positively to God’s offer of salvation. I don’t use “prevenient grace” for any other type of grace. I would call what you describe “sanctifying grace” where, as a result of regeneration, with human cooperation, God inwardly transforms a person’s heart and will and mind so that he or she can actually live a godly life. I agree with Luther than this is never complete before the resurrection; I do not believe in “Christian perfection,” but I disagree with Lutherans who say that there is no progress in holiness of life and that every good work is sinful. Luther was inconsistent about this. His essay “Two Kinds of Righteousness” describes an inward transformation of life as a result of justification and regeneration. Later, so it seems, strongly reacting to Catholic ideas of habitual grace, he emphasized imputed righteousness to the neglect of imparted righteousness.

BEN: On p. 159 you say that prevenient grace is a concept assumed everywhere in Scripture. If you were pressed to point to texts which mention or discuss this concept, where would you point? And since the phrase prevenient grace is not found in Scripture why not just talk about the prevenient work of the Spirit?

ROGER: That would be fine; I don’t invest any special virtue in the term itself. Call it what you will. It’s the concept and the reality to which it points that matters. In John 12 Jesus spoke of prevenient grace when he said that if he were lifted up he would draw all men to himself. But more importantly than one verse, I don’t think we can make any sense of all that Scripture says about the human condition and God’s gracious salvation and human responsibility to respond to God’s offer of such salvation without positing prevenient grace—call it whatever you like.

[Link to original post on Ben Witherington’s blog]