The Blog of Jack Holloway

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Grace, Part II: Is Salvation a Human Choice?

I again use Grace Kelly to personify grace
So far, I have laid out that salvation and humanity’s coming-to-God is possible because the Spirit resides within us. However, there has still been talk of a required human response to God’s work in order for it to take effect, which still leaves the question of Philippians 2:13 open:  if “it is God who is at work in [us], enabling [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” how can we say we choose God with our own free will? How can we say it is all God’s grace when it requires our response? I will begin this discussion with 3 foundational thoughts: 

First, as we have already seen, the breath of God in Adam’s nostrils gave him more than just life—that is, more than just mere being. It also gave him more than the presence of God’s Spirit within him; it equipped him with everything he needed to be a servant and lover of God.  To re-use a quote from Origen, he equipped Adam with “all the desires and all the impulses with which [he could] work towards virtue and make progress, and also planted in [him] the power of reason with which [he could] recognize what [he] ought to do and what to avoid.”(25) Included in this equipment was free will. He endowed Adam with the ability to choose to love him or hate him, embrace him or reject him.

Secondly, God sustains all things (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:16). Paul said in Acts, “In him we live and move and have our being” (17:28). As Karl Barth notes, “It is on the free will of God that everything depends.”(26) Reality itself, then, is God’s grace. God’s breath in Adam’s nostrils reveals that the fact we breathe at all is God’s grace.

Finally, we are told that every perfect gift comes from the Father (Jas. 1:17). He is responsible for all the good, not only of that which he has directly provided, but of the good we have accomplished. Therefore, we should not boast in anything we do, for we branches do not support our root, but the root supports us (Rom. 11:18). 

The answer to our question, then, is that because of everything with which God has provided us, we cannot refer to any good that we accomplish as our own doing. He gave us the breath of life, the capacity for good, the ability to reason, the free will, the influence of his Spirit, etc. We might also add that he himself is goodness, and so nothing good can find its origin in us because all goodness is God’s self-communication.  

Consider this analogy. Let us say a man opens up a bank account for his son and places billions of dollars in it. Then he gives his son a debit card and the PIN. If the son purchases something, can it really be said that he pays for it? Can it be said that he makes himself able to use the money? No. His father gave him the money, and his father gave him the ability to use it (the debit card and PIN). That being said, the Son cannot just walk around and experience the benefits of the money he has in his account; he has to use the card his father gave him in order to experience it. But even the using of the card is attributable to his father, because he gave him the card.

Likewise, God has given us salvation and has given us everything we need in order to experience it and engage in relationship with him. We must make the decision to engage, but God is ultimately responsible for the decision because he is responsible for everything that brought us to the decision.

Heschel says that in establishing a relationship with God, the “initiative must be ours, yet the achievement depends on Him.”(28) Indeed, yet, God is even, in part, responsible for the initiative. Not that he himself made the decision for us, but he gave us the ability to make the initiative. He gave us will power. Again, he gave us every single thing we needed in order to choose him. As Origen said, “God does most of the work.”(27) But even the work we do is something for which God is responsible, even if indirectly.(28) 

“God is at work in us” does not mean that God is the one doing all the work. It means he is “enabling us to will and to work.” He is drawing us to him, luring us to him, and giving us what we need to come to him. Philippians 2:13 is referring to the supernatural existential at work, that divine immanence in us that is responsible for all the goodness we manifest, including our choice to follow God. Again, it does not do the work for us, as the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace implies, but it influences and entices us to embrace Christ. When and if we do, God is the one responsible, for he gave us reason and free will, and he gave us the Spirit to influence that reason and free will. And everything he gave us is a manifestation of his grace.(29) We play a part, and indeed a vital one, but it is most definitely nothing of which we can boast, for God is ultimately the one responsible.


This study, rather than thinking of salvation as either the work of grace or a human choice, has embraced salvation as both the work of grace and a human choice. It emphasizes both the biblical teaching of God’s grace and providence, and the biblical teaching of human choice and moral responsibility. 

We need not believe that we have no part in our salvation in order to say with confidence that grace is the all-determining factor. I have often heard from Calvinists that because they know how sinful they are, they know that they could never choose God, so he had to have chosen them. A human can do nothing for God without grace, they say, so salvation must be solely the work of God’s grace and we must not have anything to do with it. This conclusion is understandable, but, as we have seen, it demonstrates a misunderstanding of God’s grace. Our free choice to serve and love God is itself a manifestation of grace, for such a choice would not be possible without it. God’s grace is the equipment with which God empowered humanity, and it was indeed sufficient in enabling humanity to walk freely to him. Thus, we can affirm with Paul that when we work out our salvation, it is God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

(25) von Balthasar, 195.
(26) Barth, 74.
(27) Heschel, 129.
von Balthasar, 196.
(29) If this is true, one could then ask, “Doesn’t that mean God is indirectly responsible for evil?” Since this is not relevant to the topic of my paper, I will not spend too much time answering this question, but it is important to at least respond to, even if in a small way.
First, evil was not created when man sinned. Evil entered into this world through humanity’s sin, but its origin was found in Satan, before the earth was created. We do not know the nature of evil’s actual origin; all we have are the bits and pieces we find in some biblical and apocryphal books. For an overview, see Elaine Pagels, “The Social History of Satan: From the Hebrew Bible to the Gospels,” in The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1995), 35–62. The question then becomes, “Is God responsible for evil’s entrance into this world?” No. Evil is not of God, and he was not responsible for its origin. He is also not responsible for Satan’s influence on creatures. The reason why he is—at least indirectly—responsible for the human’s choosing of him is because he has not only given them the ability to choose him, but he has done everything they need in order for them to choose him. Because he has not provided evil, and he has not provided the devil’s influence, but has only given humans the ability to choose to reject him, he is not responsible in any way—even indirectly—for humanity’s sin.
(30) As Origen says, God “gives everything as grace.” See von Balthasar, 196.

1 comment:

  1. Is Salvation a transaction?

    An evangelical Christian recently said to me, "When a sinner turns from sin to the Savior...A transaction is made and a soul is saved."

    This statement is the crux of the problem with Baptist/evangelical theology: God DOES NOT conduct transactions with sinners!

    God saves sinners, and he does so WITHOUT their assistance or even their cooperation. Salvation is not a is a FREE gift. Gifts do not involve "transactions".

    It is interesting to note this point: In Baptist and evangelical theology the sinner has a free will BEFORE he is saved, but loses his free will, the ability to choose or to reject God, after the "transaction" of salvation with God has been completed.

    In Lutheran theology, the sinner lacks ANY free will in spiritual matters prior to salvation. The reason that the sinner lacks a free will to make spiritual decisions (such as "accepting Jesus into his heart") is because the sinner is spiritually dead. However, once God saves him, quickens (makes alive) his spiritually dead soul, he then has the ability to make spiritual free-will decisions: to follow Christ, or to turn back to his former life of sin and darkness.

    Which theology is most consistent with Scripture and the historic teachings of the Christian Church?