I believe that a proper understanding of relationship within salvation will clarify some points of disagreement regarding the nature of prevenient grace. Following a protracted discussion on the nature of what God must supply (if anything) to enable belief in the gospel message, a friendly ally against Calvinism and a not-quite-Arminian Baptist “Traditionalist” authored an analogy of the Arminian view of prevenient grace in contrast to his own views (see here).
He proposes the analogy of a carpenter driving a nail. The nail driven represents the ability to believe. The hammer is the gospel. He posits that Arminians believe a special oil must be applied to the nail before people are capable of having the nail driven by the Gospel; whereas he believes that the hammer wielded alone is sufficient to drive the nail. I believe he would say that God’s creation of free will plus God giving the information of the Gospel is sufficient for a person to believe in the gospel and then Jesus “steps in” to apply His work of salvation. This is not the Arminian view, for it misses the personal, relational aspect of God directly working within our hearts prior to our acceptance of the gospel.
His nail analogy totally misses the –- ahem — “point” of Arminian prevenient grace, and likewise ignores how nails are driven. The alleged necessity of application of special oil (which then enables the nails to stand upright on their own?) is simply another impersonal act. This just creates two distinct non-personal acts: application of oil and application of the hammer. This is completely at odds with my own understanding of how intimately and personally the Holy Spirit is involved in the process of drawing people to salvation.
Rather than “special oil” applied to the nail, I suggest the Arminian view would say the Holy Spirit as the carpenter must hold the nail upright with one hand while wielding the Gospel hammer with the other. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit not only externally (striking the nail with an instrument) but also intimately present (holding the nail steady) that makes this process of driving the nail possible. It is not that we necessarily believe that the nail is broken and must be repaired, but merely that God — always ready to drive the nail — is holding these nails upright. Nails (our inherent freedom) that have been removed from the board are insufficient to hold themselves upright, because they are, well, “fallen.” Yet by God’s personal and direct spiritual contact with our souls, He may free our will again, to be able to receive the message of the Gospel.
Dr. Brian Abasciano proposed a better analogy: “It is like the difference between me giving someone a message to pass on to you and me coming to your house and sitting down with you and discussing my message with you. In one instance, I am not actively and personally conversing with you, and in the other I am.” The Arminian position is that God is personally involved in every step of salvation. As John Wesley put it,
Thou didst thy fallen creature see
Fallen from happiness and thee,
And swiftly to our rescue come…
Thou dost the first good thought inspire,
The first faint spark of pure desire
Is kindled by Thy gracious breath…
I suspect an over-emphasis on salvation as contractual rather than relational (viz, deciding to embrace the facts of the gospel and ask God to apply them to oneself personally vs. intimately participating in the personal life of the Triune God) may be behind the insistence that the Gospel information alone is sufficient for our innate state to embrace. In my mind even the thought experiment of whether the gospel is sufficient without the personal work of the Holy Spirit makes no sense — it is like conducting a thought experiment asking whether a person may freely choose to yield to the embrace of a person who is not embracing them.
GOD: INTRINSIC TRINITARIAN RELATIONSHIP WITHIN HIMSELF
We are made in the image of God, and our salvation is relational-union with God, so that the Trinity is relational. Each member of the Trinity is fully deity; and while the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct from the other (the Son is not the Father), they are not separate, or divided from the other. One early Christian poem expressed this truth as comparing God to a fire, possessing the flame proper, the light cast, and the heat proceeding from it. Each is distinct, yet not “separate.” Some early Christians compared the Father to an eternal spring, while the Son was the eternal river that flowed from him — both of the same “essence,” one “begotten” from the other, both eternally and necessarily joined relationally, one to another, yet distinct. (I believe that one aspect of being made “in the image of God” is this capability of being able to be interpenetrated by God’s presence without being subsumed by Him — we can be “partakers of the divine nature” without having our distinct personhood annihilated in the process.)
JESUS: INTRINSIC RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GOD AND MAN
In an act that Jewish and Greek philosophers would only scoff at, or be offended by, God became man. In so doing, the Son of God did not cast off his deity or portions of his deity. He remained fully God in the same way He has always been, but He humbled himself to the form of a servant. Jesus did not merely “come down” to humanity, but conquered death from the inside of the human experience, and raised humanity into Himself and ultimately now sits as glorified Man. As fully human, Jesus is — in Himself — the inescapable link between the Trinue God and humanity.
Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is “the second Adam” who overturns the damage of the first Adam on a cosmic scale (Romans 5; Colossians 2:15). It is within the very incarnation that God connects Himself to humankind in an ontological way. The triune God has reconciled us to himself in the person of the God-Man, and as we participate in Jesus’ life (Romans 6:4; Ephesians 1:4; John 14), we experience eternal life and salvation in Him. In one place, Paul puts it this way: “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight” (Colossians 1:21-22). One of the implications of the incarnation is that, “now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The motivation for this ontological unity and pursuit by God of us is God’s love for us (John 3:16) — not just a few, but all of humanity (1 Timothy 4:10, 1 John 2:2). God has become a man so that we could be united with Him spiritually (John 16:7).
SALVATION: INTRINSIC RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MAN AND THE TRINITY
In scripture, salvation is not primarily pictured as a contractual event but as an intimate covenantal event. Exercising faith in God is not about merely affirming the historicity of the Gospel message, but about “keeping faith” with God Himself. In his High Priestly prayer, Jesus said to the Father, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). As believers we are not merely pardoned but are made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). Paul compares salvation to a marriage between Christ and the church. Jesus told His disciples that they must abide in Him in the way a branch abides in the vine — a living, intimate, nourishing, personal, and empowering connection. This is inescapable because, as Jesus put it, salvation is “I in them and you in me” (John 17:23).
C.S. Lewis described this process of partaking of the divine nature through grace and connection with God in Mere Christianity: “If we let Him — for we can prevent Him, if we choose — He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creatures, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to Him perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness.” (This is highly distinct from the heretical Mormon concept of becoming your own God. In the Christian view, we are partakers of the Holy Spirit through gracious connection with God, not made our own independent, powerful, perfect beings.)
All the problems of unsaved humanity — mortality, the fear of death and slavery to sin that it produces (Heb 2:15), our hostility to God (Col 1:21; Rom 8:7), are at root driven by our alienation from God and at root solved by connection with God. Non-believers do not have God living and abiding in them. This is not so much a problem actively present in a non-believer, as it is an emptiness for which the solution is a Person. But of course this emptiness is a deep problem, a serious deficiency, a corruption of our purpose as human beings. It is common sense that we cannot open the door to God unless He knocks on the door of our heart (Rev.3:20). Salvation — that is, participation in the Life of God — is directly mediated to us as the Holy Spirit shines the light of Jesus Christ into our souls. “God alone is immortal,” and for us to receive immortal and eternal life, we must participate in the eternal life of God Himself. Salvation is not best described as something God does after someone exercises faith and “then Jesus steps in.”
The respected early Christian writer Irenaeus (170 AD) wrote: “The light does not fail because of those who have blinded themselves; rather, while it remains the same as ever, those who are blind themselves 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.” It is true we have freedom, yet, this freedom is not independent from the light of God shining forth. This light is not merely information, but the very personal acts of the Holy Spirit, who “opened the heart of Lydia” (Acts 16) and who “convict[s] the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgement” (John 16) in a personal way.
The Holy Spirit continues to manifest the nourishing “vine life” of Jesus Christ to those who yield to the light, for “it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” and “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor 4:6, 3:18).
The Christian life is described as walking “in the Way,” and the Way ultimately is Jesus Christ Himself (John 14:6). The continuation and the commencement of this life is personal connection with God, which He initiates — not merely through a message but through His own Person: knocking, shining, opening, and convicting actions in the souls of people everywhere.
Indeed, I would alter the “nail” analogy further, for it seems clumsy and depersonalized. We are not blocks of wood being stuck. It is as though the Holy Spirit must wield His sword (“the message of God,” Ephesians 6:17) and drive it deeply into our heart, piercing even to the joints and marrow. This Word is not merely information but “is living and powerful … and there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb 4:12,13, referring to Jesus Christ). As I have written, the Holy Spirit presents Jesus Christ Himself to the door of our heart, shining His light in His personal presence. It is only when we are confronted personally by God Himself that we may choose to welcome Him or resist Him.
May we all yield ever more fully to His work in our hearts.