Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Archive for the tag “Salvation”

What Part of “Free Will” is Free?

The contemporary concept of freedom pertains to the capacity to objectively decide on a single, particular course of action, out of a numerous array of possible actions. Freedom is the ability to do whatever one pleases without limitation, having recognized and understood all possible actions and inevitable consequences. To an extent, however, this freedom does not exist. All human action is influenced by feeling and emotion, subjective experience and influence, particular worldviews and value systems, and all human action is held in tension with laws, societal customs and norms, common etiquette, etc. We cannot simply do whatever we please if it is forbidden by law, or previous experience tells us it results in negative consequences. Of course, we can do this, but reason compels us to do otherwise.

But if feelings and experience influence our reasoning capacity – a wholistic view of the human, as opposed to Hellenistic division between psyche and soma – doctrines of sin and anthropology, and inevitably soteriology, are affected. It’s clearly biblical that at our core, humans are sinful and in fact hostile toward God (Rom. 5; Eph. 2). James tells us that what is at our core will come out in our actions and speech (James 2). In other words, our innermost emotions influence our cognitive processes. What we think to be reasonable is determined by what we have learned. What we think is reasonable, therefore, is determined by sin; we are all slaves to sin (Rom. 6; John 8). Hence, humanity cannot be anything other than hostile toward God, thus we do not – we cannot – have the freedom of will to turn toward God.[1]

The debate between Erasmus and Luther reflect similar perspectives, but I have difficulty with both. Luther’s perspective leads inexorably, despite Forde’s objections otherwise, to a deterministic perspective of God’s divine will.[2] Luther makes a distinction between the will over those things that are below us, such as time and money, etc. and that which is above us, such as God and the life he offers. The former is under our free control, the latter is not. For Luther, we, as humans, literally do not have the strength to break our bondage, for we are prisoners of sin and of Satan. We are justified, not by our own merit, for we have none, but through God’s gift of righteousness. Furthermore, we are justified, not on our ability to trust God, for we cannot, but on God’s calling and creating within us the capacity to respond.[3]

It is that last little part of Luther’s argument that bothers me tremendously. He argues that we are slaves either to Satan or to God, and it is entirely up to God to decide which, for even Satan is under God’s control. You cannot deny it: Luther’s God elects some for salvation, and elects others for damnation. This I believe is a serious problem. John 3.16 says God loves the world and 1 John 2.2 says Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Luther’s absolute rejection of free will leads him to an abhorrent God. And he defends this position as an attribute of God’s love by essentially arguing we should ignorantly put our heads in the sand; God’s hidden purposes are not to be questioned, and we cannot know these purposes until the end of time. This to me seems to be a copout.[4] Barth argued vehemently against this dualistic nature of God; there is no hidden purpose to God, for God is revealed fully in Christ. The picture we have of Christ is one of love, whose teachings underscore the universal scope of his activity (not a limited atonement theory).

Either none of us are elect, or all of us are elect. Either we are all permanently bound to reject God, or we all have an opportunity to respond to God’s gift of righteousness. Our will, clouded by darkness, will always shrink away from the light. Like gazing into the sun, our eyes adjusting to the brightness, we can uncomfortably allow the light of the Son to overcome us until it is no longer uncomfortable, or we can turn away, retreating back into the darkness that we for so long have found so comfortable.

 

References

Forde, G. O., The Capitvation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 47-59.

Packer, James I., “Luther Against Erasmus” Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. 37 no. 4 (1966), 207-221.

Rupp, E. G., “The Erasmian Enigma” in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation (Library of Christian Classics Vol. XVII; London: SCM, 1969), 1-28.


[1] Forde recounts part of Luther’s argument, arguing that we cannot accept God’s predestination and election, for as humans our inability prevents us – we are bound to say no to God, (Gerhard O. Forde, The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005). 50).

[2] Forde, The Captivation of the Will. 47-59.

[3] James I. Packer, “Luther Against Erasmus” Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. 37 no. 4 (1966), 207-221.

[4] NB: I use that term cautiously, for Luther was an incredible man and an excellent theologian.

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King Jesus

Reading McKnight[1] I found myself happy that questions I have had for some time are being answered – or at least being discussed in some way. Evangelicalism has for a long time, in my opinion, squashed the Gospel (and, indeed, much of theology and Scripture) into a nice, neat package, easy to unwrap and admire from all angles in one’s own palm. To be sure, I have much to be indebted to Evangelicalism for, and there is much to be admired, but a heavy emphasis on a personal salvation, as present in much Evangelical theology, results in a distortion. I would certainly not remove the need for a personal response to God’s grace, as well as the need for personal repentance, but building one’s understanding of the Gospel on the foundation of an individualistic, personal salvation has a high probability of leading to what I think is a major weakness in many Gospel presentations, certainly not limited to Evangelicalism: the Gospel is simply about getting as many people as possible through the Pearly Gates.

This portrayal of the Gospel – as seen, for example, in Packer and Oden’s portrayal[2] – becomes strictly about justification,[3] with little space for sanctification and discipleship. McKnight’s incorporation of the history of Israel, ongoing obedience, and greater focus on the resurrection results in a more comprehensive account of the Gospel. He argues, “The word gospel…belongs to the story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s story,” and is thus “a story about Jesus as Messiah.”[4] Perhaps the only problem I have with McKnight’s portrayal is its tendency to lean solely toward a propitiatory atonement, with indeed very little reference to individual sin and repentance. There is definite need for greater discussion on personal justification without severing it from sanctification, etc. as many Evangelical presentations have done.


[1] Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011).

[2] Thomas C. Oden J. I. Packer, One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004). 35-36.

[3] Seen especially in their statement: “The heart of the Gospel is that our holy, loving Creator, confronted with human hostility and rebellion, has chosen in his own freedom and faithfulness to become our holy, loving Redeemer and Restorer,” (p. 187). The very heart of the Gospel, they say, is a reaction to the problem of sin, rather than Jesus being Israel’s messiah, as McKnight argues.

[4] McKnight. 44, 55. Cf. p. 51 – “Salvation – the robust salvation of God – is the intended result of the gospel about Jesus Christ that completes the Story of Israel in the Old Testament.”

Once Saved, Always Saved?

I preached a sermon recently where the bible passage seemed to imply that someone could lose their salvation. It made me think.

The passage was Colossians 1:21-23:

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before – provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.

Some translations use the word “if” instead of “provided that” but either way the implication is that a person is saved only so long as they remain established in the faith. The text looks to be very clear on the fact that the human will must always, continuously, be involved.

When someone hands you a gift you have to reach out and take it, and then you must hold onto it. If you don’t stretch out and take it, do you truly receive the gift? Of course not. And if you decide to drop the gift and break it, give it back, forget about it, neglect it, allow it grow old and dusty sitting on a bookcase in your office, do you really appreciate the gift? Certainly doesn’t seem like it.

So it is with salvation; the human will must respond in faith and acceptance.

I have heard the argument, “Well the people who allow the gift of salvation to grow old, to grow weary, to not remain steadfast in the faith, never truly received the gift of salvation in the first place.” I think this argument is somewhat naive. There are far too many warnings in the bible against becoming complacent, giving up on the faith, etc.

I have also heard the argument that eternal life means it’s eternal, therefore if we have eternal life it’ll last forever and thus cannot be partial. But this begs the question: what is eternal life? Jesus tells us what eternal life is in John 17:3 and there is no mention of time at all. Rather he says that eternal life is to know God. In other words eternal life is about having an intimate relationship with God the Father.

Is the word ‘eternal’ even a good translation? Probably not. The word aionios means pertaining to an age, aion meaning age. Aionios does not, therefore, mean immortality, or forever, or eternal. This is also why I do not believe hell is a permanent place of torture and punishment.

Hence, eternal life has nothing to do with living forever, but everything to do with an intimate relationship with God that we can experience right here, right now. Therefore, the argument that the eternal life Jesus gives lasts forever and thus cannot end, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny for it is an incorrect understanding of the relationship God offers.

Now let’s consider these two passages out of Hebrews:

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt. (6:4-6)

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three testimonies.” How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? (10:26-29)

These passages make it pretty clear to me. “Those who have once been enlightened…tasted the heavenly gift…shared in the Holy Spirit,” etc. and have been sanctified,  can fall away and can profane “the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified.” You can experience the Holy Spirit, you can be sanctified, you can be given a new life and can still fall away.

Those who were once hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, are now reconciled by the blood of Christ – IF they continue steadfast in the faith. This passage certainly is Paul warning the Colossians not to become like those mentioned in the above two Hebrew passages. Paul is warning us not to become complacent so that we don’t slip away from the salvation given us.

The ideas of Perseverance of the Saints, and Once Saved, Always Saved, which aren’t technically the same thing, are both wrong. The myth that you cannot lose salvation has led to so many churches and so many Christians becoming bland, Spirit-less and devoid. We must – like Paul and the author of Hebrews…and Jesus himself (cf. Matt. 7.13-23) – warn our people, our churches, not to slip into complacency because the consequences are absolutely terrible.

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