Grace: The Analogy of Sanctification

, posted by Vincentian

We bless thee, O God most high and Lord of mercies,
who ever workest great and mysterious deeds for us, glorious, wonderful, and numberless;
who providest us with sleep as a rest from our infirmities
and as a repose for our bodies tired by labor.
We thank thee that thou hast not destroyed us in our transgressions,
but in thy love toward mankind thou hast raised us up, as we lay in despair, 
that we may glorify thy Majesty.
We entreat thine infinite goodness, enlighten the eyes of our understanding
and raise up our minds from the heavy sleep of indolence;
open our mouths and fill them with thy praise,
 that we may unceasingly sing and confess thee,
who art God glorified in all and by all,
 the eternal Father, the Only-Begotten Son,
 and the all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit:
 now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
 
– Prayer of Basil the Great (b. 330AD – d. 379AD)

 

Perhaps the best parallel of prevenient grace in our own lives is the daily grace of sanctification which Christians experience. Most Christians would confess that they know they are capable of resisting or yielding to God’s sanctifying influence in their daily lives. They are born again, and they are free from slavery to sin (in their core identity – Romans 6:14, 18, 22, 8:2, John 8:36), but they can choose to sin and do choose to sin at times.  And Christians are free to either cooperate with God’s sanctifying influence in this life or to resist it, perhaps even resisting to the point of being called home by God as part of chastening (1 Corinthians 11:30).  But it is not our cooperation or yieldedness that calls down God’s grace.  We beseech Him for it, but we can only request what He Himself has already laid up for us and promised would be ours if we asked.

Since we can cooperate with sanctifying grace, and must cooperate with it – that is, yield to it – in order to appropriate it into the experience of our lives, is our sanctification therefore a meritorious work whereby we can claim to God that we have done good on our own and He owes us a reward?  Can we boast about the level that we have sanctified ourselves “in our own power” or “by ourselves”?

Of course not.

Sanctification is a work of God – “it is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”  In Colossians 2:6, Paul urges the Colossians to live their lives in the same manner that they were saved – through faith and dependence upon Jesus:  “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him,  rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught.”   Just as we depended on God to save us, so also we depend on God and yield to his working of sanctification.

Nevertheless, if one Christian commits a sin, and another Christian in a similar situation does not, we can affirm that one Christian yielded and cooperated with God’s grace (well done) and one did not (and thus they need to repent).  Wherein lies the difference?  Did God fail to give the sinning Christian “all things needed for life and godliness”?  Certainly not, for that would make God a liar! Why, then, is there a difference? Simply this:  One Christian chose to sin (in opposition to his new nature), and the other chose to depend on God. God did not make one of them sin or withhold the grace needed to resist or flee from temptation. Each Christian had a contingent choice.  One chose to yield to the Spirit’s work at that moment in time., and the other chose to rely upon himself.

So on the one hand, we can say that God is the one who makes the difference between being enslaved to sin or empowered for righteousness, but on the other hand we can say that it is our choice to depend or not depend on God who makes the difference (God is not secretly orchestrating  the ‘rebellion’ of Christians against His revealed will).  These explanations are God-centered, and they are true.[1]

Consider 1 Cor. 10:13:

 “No temptation has overtaken you but such as common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.”

Likewise, 2 Peter 1:3:

 “His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. “

It is clear that God graciously supplies all the strength and resources we need to endure or escape from temptation and to live godly lives at every moment – but since we do sin sometimes, it is clear we can choose to not allow this grace to pervade every aspect of our will.

In a similar way to the way we experience the sanctifying grace of God, Arminians hold that God extends all the grace needed to be saved – superabundant grace, in fact!  Faith is not a meritorious act on our part.  It is simply yielding to what He has done; throwing ourselves upon His mercy.  While this yielding is not a work, it is nevertheless a choice that we are urged to contingently make when the Holy Spirit works on our hearts.

It might be asked at this point if we can then lose the salvation that we contingently yielded to.  The answer for many Arminians is No.   Just as we might consent to have a heart transplant, but would be unable to perform the surgery or undo it, so also our consenting to have God apply Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf is something that we may consent to, but cannot do or undo.  The salvation God accomplishes in us is secure.[2]

Arminians affirm that man is fallen and incapable of reaching out to God  Fallen man can hear God, because the Holy Spirit “convicts the world of sin, and righteousness, and judgement”, and this is an internal ‘voice’, as it were.   But fallen man is hostile to God and does not understand God – the things of God are foolishness to him.  He cannot receive the things of God.  However, note that we cannot take that too far!  If it is truly impossible in any way for a spiritually dead person to receive the things of God, then God would be precluded from even regenerating them in an irresistible sense!  So we see that in some way, a fallen man can receive the things of God – at the time and way that God wishes to reveal and impart them to him.  Just as the prodigal son “who was dead”, “came to his senses,” and then decided to return to his father, so also can a man be convicted by the Spirit of God, be “granted repentance,” and “come to [his] senses so as to escape from the snare of the devil.”  An unregenerate man can be afflicted with guilt for years before yielding to God.  But it is also true that many who hear the internal call and whose hearts are given the ability to repent by the internal working of the Spirit resist it – even to their damnation!  “Today, if you hear His voice…”  that is, the Spirit’s voice, “harden not your heart.” 

Adam Clarke (an Arminian) writes:

 “Is not faith the gift of God? Yes, as to the grace by which it is produced; but the grace or power to believe, and the act of believing, are two different things. Without the grace or power to believe no man ever did or can believe; but with that power the act of faith is a man’s own. God never believes for any man, no more than he repents for him; the penitent, through this grace enabling him, believes for himself: nor does he believe necessarily or impulsively when he has that power.”[3]

 

 IS GOD CAPABLE OF PROVIDING RESISTABLE GRACE?

IS IT A PARADOX, CONTRADICTION, OR OBVIOUS TRUTH?

 

The reasonable question often asked is, “Is God powerful enough, skillful enough, gentle enough, to work in a person’s heart so as to bring them to a place where they are drawn to Him, capable of believing on Him, and yet still capable of resisting God to their damnation?”

Shockingly, many Calvinists deny that this is possible for God to do! They use strictly logical arguments against it, as though it were requiring God to make a square with three sides.  Now, it is one thing to claim that Scripture teaches irresistible grace and unconditional election – it is quite another to say that it would be impossible for God to work by prevenient grace and contingent choice!  But if God does work in this way for sanctification in people – and He does – then it is surely possible for Him to work in this way for granting the initial ability for faith, as well.  The question must rest on what Scripture says, not on the logical assumptions we bring to Scripture.

Sanctification by yielding to God’s work in us is no more a “work of man” than the initial salvation through yielding to God’s work and grace in us.  The sinner who yields to God’s relational drawing, convicting, and enabling grace, cannot claim to have saved himself any more than a believer who submits to God’s sanctifying influence can boast, “I sanctified myself.”  However, it is clear that saying “I did nothing” would not quite be correct, either.  We yield; we trust; we surrender.

God provides the ability for repentance through the internal conviction of the Holy Spirit so that we know it is sin to not believe and that judgement is coming (John 16:9-11).  He provides the seed of faith by the message of the Gospel: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (John 10:17).  This is not merely a bare outward call, but the outward call provides and reflects and informs the inward call:

“Have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”  But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,“I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,  “I have been found by those who did not seek me;  I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”  But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:18-21)

Paul clearly writes that these unregenerate people did hear. Further, those who heard did understand, and had the ability to believe for God seeks to make them jealous and provoke them unto belief (compare Romans 11:11,14).  God genuinely held out His hands to these people (and not merely as part of His declared will while His secret and superior will was to never save them, as some would assert). His heart was to save them.  Some believed, some were disobedient and contrary.[4]  John echoes this thought when he writes that in Jesus “was life, and that life was the light of all mankind… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” (John 1:4,9).

In the third century, Lactantius commented:

Give me a man who is passionate, scurrilous, and unrestrained; with a very few words of God, “I will render him gentle as a sheep”…. The fountain of God, most abundant and most full, is open to all; and this heavenly light rises for all, as many as have eyes.” 

Jesus could pull out a child at random from a crowd and proclaim that God was not willing that even one such little one might perish (Matthew 18).  Arminians can heartily do the same.

More forcefully, Irenaeus (175AD) asserted:

“If, however, you will not believe in Him, and will flee from His hands, the cause of imperfection shall be in you who did not obey, but not in Him who called you. For He commissioned messengers] to call people to the marriage, but they who did not obey Him deprived themselves of the royal supper. The skill of God, therefore, is not defective, for He has power of the stones to raise up children to Abraham; but the man who does not obtain it is the cause to himself of his own imperfection. Nor, in like manner, does the light fail because of those who have blinded themselves; but while it remains the same as ever, those who are thus blinded are involved in darkness through their own fault. The light does never enslave any one by necessity; nor, again, does God exercise compulsion upon any one unwilling to accept the exercise of His skill. Those persons, therefore, who have apostatized from the light given by the Father, and transgressed the law of liberty, have done so through their own fault, since they have been created free agents, and possessed of power over themselves.”

So God provides both the conviction of sin (the ability for repentance) and the call of the Gospel with the witness and enlightening of the Holy Spirit (the ability for faith), and this not merely to a few unconditionally chosen people.  Yet, while God makes this provision, He also gave the provision of freedom and personhood:  if we do not mix the faith with the conviction and yield to its natural result, we will abort regeneration before it even begins.  Scripture says this rather clearly in Hebrews:

For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.” – Hebrews 4:2

Since we are speaking of a new birth, perhaps we could use a poor analogy:  let us say that the conviction of the Holy Spirit is like an ovum implanted miraculously within our hearts, while the preaching of the Gospel – that of demanding dependence on what Christ has done – is the seed that can spark conception (new life). Neither of these are from us (the Holy Spirit and the Gospel are from God) and the work of the new birth / new conception cannot be accomplished by us.  However, it is our response-ability and contingency to allow the two to mix together.  When we do, God’s work continues – we do not create the increase, and we do not provide the basic materials.  But we are invested with a choice – a contingent choice.

Paul wrote “though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”  Faith is a gift of God, but it is not saving until it is directed to its proper end:  trusting God for salvation and yielding to His love.  There are many who refuse to make this choice which they are empowered to make.

Paul reasoned with the men on Mars Hill:

 “ [God] himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.  From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” – Acts 17:25-28

God has spread out men across the earth and planned this from the beginning of time for the purpose that they should ‘seek Him’ and ‘perhaps find Him’.  Men do not seek God on their own – their seeking is a result of the grace of God.  Arminians affirm with Paul that all men, although only through God’s supernatural grace, can “perhaps reach out for Him and find Him”.   The verb “perhaps reach” in Greek is an optative verb. I am told that this implies the idea of possibility (or contingency) – hence the translation of “perhaps.” The clear meaning of the verse above seems to be this:  Through God’s common or prevenient grace, God’s eternal plan was to give men all over the world the contingent ability to reach out for Him and find Him, because He would be working in their hearts.  God did not make the world with the intention of having any people shut out from being able to yield (but not compelled to yield) to His saving grace.

Once we affirm that God can work in the sinner’s heart even when they are unregenerate, yet without compelling them to believe, then the Scripture’s clear language gives us every reason to affirm the historic (and Arminian) doctrine of prevenient grace.
END NOTES

[1] (Some so-called “hyper-Calvinists” believe that our sanctification is completely God’s work, since God has scripted everything, anyway.  Therefore, while we are commanded to try to not sin, and it is our ‘responsibility” to try hard to not sin, ultimately we must simply wait for His timing to make our lives more in line with His revealed moral will.  If we sin, that was simply part of His good and eternal will for us that He scripted for us. Some carry this so far that they say that when Christians break God’s moral law it is as though God simply superseded His revealed law, but it isn’t actually sin at all – not for God (who ultimately desired for it to happen and so scripted it), and not for the Christian (who was, after all, merely conforming to the secret will of God).

[2] Many Arminians teach that a person may make a shipwreck of their faith.  They would generally not use the term “lose salvation.”  This kind of rebellion and perpetual backsliding, “doing despite to the Spirit of grace,” would be intentional, persistent, unrepentant, uncaring.   It is not merely sinning, or sinning and repenting often.  However, many Arminians hold the view described in the text above: a person is secure in Christ and if they sin intentionally they may be disciplined unto death, “yet he himself will be saved, yet so as by fire.”  (1 Corinthians 4). Historic Christianity has no room for the view that people may say a ‘salvation prayer’ and then live like the Devil and still be saved – different views suppose that such a person either never was saved, or they lost their salvation, or God disciplined them unto death.

[3] It should be noted that few Calvinists believe that God drags a person “kicking and screaming” as some people disingenuously assert.  Calvinists believe that God works in a person’s heart to lead them to “willingly” turn to God in faith, meaning that God scripted their internal desires and will to make the “choice” to trust in God.  However, sometimes they do refer to this as “forcing” someone’s will and emphasis that God must “drag” us to Him. Calvinists who make this rhetorical bait-and-switch falls into the category of wanting to forcefully declare something but then disavow it when they need to defend it.  I do not think these views are necessarily more glorious to God nor do they  explain how God is not willing that any should perish but does not grant this repentance and faith to others.

[4] In the classical Arminian view, God does foreknow – in the foreknowledge of His complex relational interaction, dynamic action, and gracious influence of His Spirit – who would ultimately resist and who would yield. God continues to reveal in time what He has foreknown and chosen His actions and interactions to be. Like our memories of past events in relationships, we can recall how we acted and how others responded, etc.  Perhaps God’s foreknowledge works like memory in reverse – there is full interaction and freedom, yet He knows with certainty what the future will hold (not just what the past has held). Unlike unilateral ‘micro-scripting,’ however, this means we genuinely do influence God emotionally and in relational ways, and we have contingent choice, and God genuinely (even in His eternal decrees) desired for these people to be saved.  Rather than merely acting out a script in which all the parts are written by God, God lets us play our part as we interact with Him and He with us.  In the end, knowing God’s perspective more fully, we will see this not as merely an impressive script but as genuinely contingent interactions of us with God, and He with us.