Do You Really Want to Be Saved Sola Gratia?

John L. Thompson
Friday, June 29th 2007
Jul/Aug 2007

It's hard to imagine anyone complaining about grace. We like grace: it's a wonderful thing to be saved by grace, and we can't get enough of it-at least in our songs. I wonder, however, just how many of our parishioners appreciate the language of John Newton's hymn, "Amazing Grace." Do we really have pews full of self-proclaimed wretches, or do people look on this language as just one more quaint expression, like the ebenezer that we used to raise when we sang "Come Thou Fount"? I can't look inside people's heads, but my suspicion is that not many Christians really think of themselves as wretches. Grace is great, grace is wonderful-but you know, we're all not so bad ourselves!

Don't get me wrong-I don't think the way to cultivate an appreciation for the sola gratia by which we are saved is to try to persuade people that they really are wretches. We may have to let that particular word go! But I do think we need to be concerned for the dilution of the doctrine of grace-the tendency to extol God's grace and sovereignty and mercy, only to turn around and act as if the Christian life were really a matter of what we do, not what God does.

This tendency can be characterized as the problem of semi-Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism is a position first associated with John Cassian, who popularized a doctrine of grace along the lines of Augustine-but with one crucial addendum. It is true that we cannot be saved except by the grace of God, but Cassian sometimes added that we must make the first step towards God. Actually, Cassian's teachings on free will and grace are more subtle than sometimes credited, but there were later writers-especially on the eve of the Reformation-who were not so subtle. One of these was Gabriel Biel, against whom Martin Luther would react strongly. Biel taught that the one true thing you could know about God is that God will surely give grace to those who do their very best. Biel's line of thinking here is exactly along the lines of Benjamin Franklin: "God helps those who help themselves."

In response to Cassian, Biel, and Franklin, I would assert that this is not the gospel-at least not the gospel as understood by Lutheran or Reformed theology. I'd also venture that semi-Pelagianism is alive and well in Christian churches today, and it manifests itself in the way we have shifted the accent away from what God has done for us, to what we must do-for God or for ourselves.

I hope to persuade you otherwise, by making a case that grace is a force in God's universe that is stronger than the human will and should be celebrated in our practice and preaching more than the efficacy of the human will. And I want to do this by arguing that there is an unbreakable connection between the Reformation doctrine of "grace alone" and the doctrine of predestination.

Predestination could be called Presbyterianism's best-kept secret. I know why. The answer is the same as what Luther would have said. You see, Luther and Calvin are actually very close in their understanding of the bondage of the will and their doctrine of election. But only Calvin acquired a reputation for teaching about this doctrine. Why? Because although Luther believed in the doctrine, he did not teach about it. And why? Because every time you mention predestination, every Christian who is the least bit anxious comes out of the woodwork to worry that even though they thought God loved them, maybe they aren't predestined after all, and how can they know? Luther preferred to let sleeping dogs lie.

Not so Calvin! And, traditionally, not so Presbyterians. I have come to agree with Calvin, that there are benefits to knowing about election, and that such knowledge can have a beneficial effect on the preaching and hearing of the gospel.

Let's start with an overview of the doctrine, particularly where we got it and why Calvin thought it was important. After that, I want to share some thoughts on why this doctrine is important for the integrity of the gospel.

We don't have space to rehearse all the biblical evidence for or against a doctrine of election. I simply want to remind you that important precedents for the doctrine are found throughout the Bible. Many of these are Old Testament texts, such as the election of Jacob over Esau and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. These texts are especially important to St. Paul, who also draws from the prophets. His use of the potter-and-clay image from Jeremiah is well known. Indeed, there is probably no passage better known than Romans 8 to 11, in which Paul struggles to explain how so many of his fellow Jews could reject their Messiah, and he lays the problem squarely in the lap of God. But you also find language of God's electing, choosing, foreknowing, and so forth in Acts, Ephesians, 1 Thessalonians, and 1 Peter-even as Mark reports Jesus as speaking of the "elect" in the so-called "little apocalypse" of chapter 13.

Naturally, you'd want to do some word studies on all these passages, as well as some reflection on what the larger arguments are. My point, however, is that the bulk of Calvin's doctrine cannot be claimed as speculation on his part. He wants to be a biblical theologian, not a philosopher! At the same time, Calvin also benefited from having read earlier writers, including Augustine and Luther.

Calvin was deeply indebted to the theology of Augustine. Indeed, the Reformation could be characterized as an Augustinian revival. Augustine wrote at length on predestination and free will, mostly in his controversies with Pelagius and his followers. For Pelagius, you may recall, there is no such thing as a "state" of sin. True, there is the power of habit to contend with, and there are bad examples that surround us, but at every moment the will is still free enough to resist sin.

For Augustine, the question of free will is more complicated. Augustine was quite willing to say that our wills are free. That is to say, we all constantly have the experience of making choices that seem unforced, free, even spontaneous. We can make all kinds of choices, and we are free to please ourselves any way we want. But from a theological standpoint, there's a problem: we can choose anything we want. But we only want to sin!

Augustine has a sophisticated understanding of the way the will works. The will is influenced by the heart's desire. You can choose anything you desire. Indeed, you really can't choose anything you do not desire! The problem, for Augustine, is that human desires are all messed up. If we truly knew what we were made for, we'd desire God above all else. "The heart is restless until we find our rest in thee," Augustine prayed in his famous Confessions. But no sinner actually does desire God, apart from grace. Instead, we try to satisfy our restlessness by loving lesser things: we love things, we love pleasure, we use others to make ourselves feel good. We are addicted to self-love, Augustine would say, yet no matter how much we love ourselves or the world of things, we remain unsatisfied. Our wills have a kind of freedom, but it's the freedom of an addict: an illusion that we cling to. Who can do this repair work? Who can free us from our consuming self-absorption? For Augustine, sola gratia: only God. And Calvin stands in this tradition.

Calvin also owed a great deal to Martin Luther. I've already said that Luther holds a high doctrine of predestination, but another important ingredient that Calvin may have gleaned from the writings of Luther pertains to the nature of faith. When my students read Luther, sometimes they wonder if he doesn't end up making faith itself into a work. In fact, he doesn't. Luther repudiates the notion that faith is an idea we conjure up and then force ourselves to believe it. No. Faith has much more in common with confessing what we cannot do, and even what we cannot believe on our own, than with pretending we believe something that exists only as an idea for us. For Luther, faith is a gift, not a work: it comes as God's gift to us, it unites us with Christ, and it brings to us the Holy Spirit.

All of these themes recur in Calvin. What needs to be noted, however, is just why Calvin feels constrained to make predestination part of his preaching and teaching. Sometimes Calvin is accused of being obsessed with this doctrine, but he never set out to be so regarded. What happened was that he included a section on predestination in his 1539 Institutes, and thereafter was repeatedly attacked for his supposed "heresy"-even though his was mostly the traditional Augustinian view that had been restated by many medieval theologians.

Moreover, there's nothing controversial about why Calvin wanted to discuss the doctrine. It comes down to his doctrine of Scripture and revelation. In a word, if something is revealed to us in Holy Scripture, it's there because God wanted it known. In other words, if the Bible reveals a doctrine, there must be some benefit in it for us. Calvin takes this approach to the entirety of the Bible and the whole sweep of Christian doctrine. Doctrine is useful! God works through the Bible to change us and restore us into his people. What benefit could be greater than that?

Consequently, in the opening section of Calvin's long treatment of predestination in the Institutes, he tells us that this doctrine carries three benefits for us.

First, for me to know that my salvation derives not from my loveliness, or my merit, or even from my own great faith teaches me to be humble: I am not the author of my salvation. There is nothing about me that I can presume to have endeared me to God – again, not only not my own faith, but also not even my once-upon-a-time decision for Christ.

Second, in light of the fact that we have been saved only by God's free mercy, we also ought to learn gratitude to God for God's generosity.

Third, and perhaps best of all, to know that our salvation ultimately rests in God and not in our own powers or resolve – to know that is to be freed from fear in the midst of many dangers, toils, and snares. Here, Calvin quotes John 10: "My sheep … shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand."

These benefits constitute the whole purpose of knowing about predestination. This is what the doctrine is good for: to keep Christians humble and make them thankful, and to comfort them, especially in times of trial and persecution.

Read Calvin with care: he does not suggest anything else you can do with this doctrine! Predestination does not invite us to fatalism or determinism; it does not tell us we can just stay in bed until the Holy Spirit drags us to the breakfast table; it does not imply that we can quit preaching or praying.

Of course, as the bulk of Calvin's discussion also makes clear, it's inevitable that the doctrine of predestination will raise many thorny questions. Let me follow Calvin here by suggesting that while there are some things we can know, because Scripture has revealed them to us, there are other things we cannot know. That means that there will often be times when people throw objections to predestination in our face, and our best answer will have to be, "I don't know." I think that's a good response: it's biblical, and especially appropriate for mortals.

One of the things we cannot pretend to know is everything about the mystery of God-God's mysterious will, mysterious plan, mysterious workings. This is actually a principle dear to classical Reformed theology, that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. In other words, God is the measure of human beings and not vice versa. There is much that we learn about God in the Bible, but we don't learn everything! One thing we learn from the Bible is that God is the Judge of the universe, and as such, God is just. "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25). The answer is yes-but we often do not see the details worked out.

If you read Calvin's four long chapters on predestination in the Institutes, you will find that one of his most frequent assertions is that God is just. But if you watch closely, you'll also discover that the modifier that often stands in front of justice is "inscrutable": Calvin believes God is just, because God says God is just. But Calvin doesn't presume to measure God's justice by a visible or human standard.

We'd do well to ponder our doctrine of revelation at this point. Is the point of the Bible to tell us what we already know, as some Enlightenment figures asserted, or to tell us things we don't know? Ask yourself: Can the Bible tell you anything that isn't immediately apparent to you? Can the Bible tell you anything you don't want to know?

Why did God elect only some? To this imponderable question, Calvin does a good job of piecing an answer together from Scripture-an answer that's basically an extrapolation from what he knows of human sin, divine justice, and sola gratia-but I think he's surer of his answer to another, smaller question: Why did God reveal election at all?

Calvin thinks he speaks for God when he argues we are better off knowing of God's sovereignty than not knowing of it. But that doesn't mean we can fully comprehend or understand God's sovereignty-or God's justice. And it doesn't mean we are invited to sit in judgment on whether this was a good idea on God's part! The doctrine, Calvin thinks, was revealed to bless us-to offer the benefits we've spoken of-but not to tickle our ears!

Let me move on to something else we cannot fully understand, but which we often think we know everything about: our will. When I teach Calvin's doctrine to seminary students, I don't just teach Presbyterians. I also teach Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites, charismatics and Pentecostals, Episcopalians, the occasional Roman Catholic, and often a Lutheran or two.

Here's what I tell them all. On the one hand, I don't care if you're not converted to believe in the doctrine of predestination. The doctrine of election does not stand or fall by whether we believe it: if it's true, it's true whether we know it or not, or believe it or not. On the other hand, I'll be very disappointed if you hang on to an understanding of the human will that is inflated and idolatrous.

The Second Helvetic Confession is quite helpful on this point, especially chapter 9, which states concisely that although we were created with free will, our wills were damaged at the fall and are consequently enslaved by sin. They remain enslaved until grace intervenes. Our new life in Christ begins to restore our wills, but in this life our wills remain weak. All along, we really do have a will, but we shouldn't exaggerate what it can do!

This strikes me as immensely realistic, and immensely encouraging. It explains a lot of the struggle in my own life-why bad habits are so hard to break; why good habits are so hard to make; why I retrace my character flaws over and over again. But the Second Helvetic Confession is also encouraging. We may still sin, but we are also in recovery!

Reformed and Augustinian theology ought to be credited above all for having a sober view of the self-in many ways, a truly modern or contemporary understanding of the complex self. We can use insights from our Reformed heritage to make a case in our preaching that sola gratia is not just some sentimental thought, but a doctrine that truly confronts the modern and postmodern self in all its brokenness. Consider these insights: First, Augustine is correct about the complexity of the will. It's almost as if he'd read the Bible, like where Jeremiah says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (17:9). This lesson ought to be no surprise, since psychologists and psychiatrists have been telling us of the role of our subconsciousness for over a century now!

Do you know yourself? Do you really understand what you do and why you do it? Most of the time, I don't! Perhaps you never sin or act in selfish ways, but probably you do: so why do we do what we know is wrong-whether it involves self-indulgence, anger, deceit, or selfishness? Why are our wills so unstable? Lots of people will claim that they have free will, but wouldn't we also want to notice the ways their "free" choices are affected by nature and nurture, by environment, circumstances, personality and mood swings?

If we're going to talk at all about "free will," we ought to do so with sophistication. So you might ask yourself whether you've even used your free will today! What would that look like? When the alarm goes off, do you deliberate afresh whether to get up? Do you analyze which shirt to wear, or do you grab whatever's close to hand? How many of your "decisions" are not decisions at all, but habits? And what has formed your habits?

Indeed, what has shaped your taste buds? When you go to one of those restaurants with a hundred entrees, do you really make a rational choice about what to order, or do you flip back and forth between the two entrees that "you just can't resist"? It's lovely to find a menu that has so much power over us: ah, Death by Chocolate! But at what level are you really using your will? Maybe you're on a diet, and you may think your will is resisting temptation. But why not use your will once and for all to just decide that you won't find this or that thing tempting anymore? Why do our wills so often unmake their own decisions and commitments?

Augustine reminds us that our wills may be free to make choices, but they remain enslaved. The Second Helvetic Confession reminds us that our wills are weak but recovering. Modern psychology reminds us that our wills are affected by an ocean of unseen factors. In all of this, we can see that our wills need the grace of God.

There's a second point from Augustine worth amplifying. Nothing is more American than doggedly asserting the right to choose-candidates, brand preferences, cars, homes, spouses. It was a cornerstone of Pelagius' theology that without freedom and free choice, there is no humanity left in us. I'm sure you can hear similar views expressed in any congregation.

Does choice make us human? Augustine didn't think so. Is God free? Absolutely! But does God choose, does God deliberate? No: God's wisdom and power enable God always to know and do what is the highest good. So, do you want to have free choice, or do you want to be like God? Augustine wanted to be like God: not to have to sort out good choices from powerful temptations, not to have to deliberate, but to have one's character confirmed and stabilized for all eternity in the unchanging goodness that is God. What do you hope for in heaven? A menu with infinite choices? Or the constancy of the vision of God?

Let's try a thought experiment. Is love free? Probably you'd say it is, maybe even that it's the pinnacle of human freedom. Well, I want you to think of someone you love very much. Close your eyes. For the next five seconds, use your free will and stop loving that person. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Okay, how'd you do? Did you stop? Why not? Isn't love free? Let's go deeper: How did you come to fall in love with this person? Do you know? Were you in control? In the same way, isn't the problem of divine election really the problem of how people fall in love with God? Can you make someone fall in love with you? With God? How does it happen? Is it a free act? Or is that really not the question?

(By the way, if free choice makes us human, what happens to those who lose this faculty, or who never had it? If your humanity depends on your ability to exercise free will, what shall we say when Alzheimer's takes over? If we belong to God in life and death, surely we belong to God also in our competence and our incompetence. Here, too, the grace of God trumps our volition.)

Although defenders of free will have sometimes suggested that it is a violation of our freedom or autonomy if God works within us to influence our will, the Reformed tradition holds otherwise. Think about your own experience with God. Think of a time when you felt led by the Holy Spirit, a time when God's guiding presence was so close, and you found yourself in unlikely circumstances doing unlikely things. Was that a violation of your personhood? Or was it rather the height of freedom, to live within God's will without distraction? I'd vote for the latter, and it strikes me that this is a vision that needs to be communicated to Christians today: our highest freedom is not in autonomy, but in belonging to God-indeed, in being God's obedient creature.

Note, too, that neither side is somehow in a better position with respect to the commands of Scripture. I'm thinking in particular of the claim that predestination makes prayer superfluous. If a person is predestined, they say, that person will be saved with or without my prayers. Only if there really is such a thing as free choice does it make sense to pray for someone.

That's an inadequate analysis. If my salvation depends on my own free choice, doesn't it compromise my freedom if you were to pray for me? What could you pray for? You certainly couldn't pray that God would manipulate my free choosing or willing, could you? So if the free will is impervious to external influences, as Pelagius asserted, how do we come to faith?

I don't think we are invited to take either extreme. The God who is sovereign over all life has commanded us to pray for others. However God works in the lives of men and women, God will act in a way that establishes and deepens the integrity of their personhood rather than negating or destroying it.

To conclude: I have been trying to argue not only that the doctrine of salvation by grace alone is a wonderful doctrine, but also that faithful adherence to this Reformation insight ought to recognize the continuity between sola gratia and the doctrine of election.

To that end, I have suggested that predestination is indeed a biblical doctrine as well as a respected (if often misunderstood) teaching within Christian tradition. In my opinion, the most common objection to the doctrine is that free will and human responsibility are thereby destroyed. Hence, I've tried to argue not that we don't really have free will, but that our wills and persons are more complex than often granted, and that the objection that freedom is destroyed if God is sovereign over our wills is not really true to Christian experience.

Let me leave you with a thought that you can find expressed both by Calvin and by the Second Helvetic Confession (Institutes 3.24.5, SHC 10)-a word of advice that I pass on to you and that I'd have you pass on to every Christian: Let Christ be the mirror of your election.

What does that mean? Among other things, it means that we are not saved because we believe in a doctrine of election. Rather, we are saved by Christ! As I said earlier, you don't need to believe in election to be elect! In this passage, Calvin urges his hearers to draw near to Jesus Christ above all. You should not go to the mirror and stare at your own image, as if you could somehow discern in yourself some sign of election.

If you want to know if you are elect, there's only one sort of question needed, and one focus for our proclamation: Do you believe in Christ? Do you know the fellowship of Jesus Christ? Do you know the love of God that has been poured out through the Holy Spirit? Does the Spirit within your heart cry out "Abba, Father"? If so, then you know the grace of God, to which alone you may credit your salvation and redemption. And, if so, it might interest you to know that none of this surprised God, and, as it happens, you are also among the elect.

Thanks be to God: may this knowledge keep you humble, and truly free you from fear.

Friday, June 29th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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