Reformation 2 Grace and Free Will Jer 17:1-13; Ps 51; Rom 8:1-11; John 6:35-44 St Mark’s 24.9.17
Salvation by grace alone (sola gratia) or grace plus free will; this was one of the sharpest controversies of the Reformation. But before delving into this subject let me share a personal story that is very foundational to my convictions in this debate.
As a brand new Christian I joined a university Bible study led by a very Reformed pastor expounding John 17. When he came to Jesus’ words ““I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me”” (v.9) he began to teach God chooses us before we choose him (cf. John 15:16). A few of us were so worked up about this teaching that we resolved to go to our Bibles come back and publicly prove this fellow wrong. However every time I went to the Bible over the next week it seemed to be saying we are saved solely by God’s sovereign grace and I came under a huge inner conviction that I had been wrong.
One of the most famous debates of the Reformation broke out in the 1520’s between the Dutch Catholic scholar Erasmus and the Protestant pioneer Martin Luther. Disturbed by Luther’s teaching on the comprehensive role of God’s grace in salvation Erasmus wrote the Freedom of the Willcontending that grace merely helped people to know Christ and supported them as they used their free will to choose between good and evil. God graciously throws you a rope to save you from drowning in sin but you have to cooperate by grasping it and keep holding on if you are to be saved. Luther forcefully insisted it is only by God’s grace we have the will and power to grasp the gospel.
In writing On the Bondage of the Will he took a consistent Christ centred approach to this subject; “since Christ is said to be “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) …outside of Christ there is nothing but Satan, outside of grace nothing but wrath, apart from light only darkness…”. He contended that the human will is like a beast of burden, “If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills… If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders…but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it”. Ego-crushing as this idea sounds the Bible plainly teaches that apart from God’s saving grace we are under the control of evil powers. In John 8:44 Jesus said to his opponents, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44), Paul spoke of those who needed to “escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Tim 2:26) and John commented that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19). But God never intended for humanity to be in this terrible situation.
To Sin or not to Sin, that was the Question
We all know how in the temptation story in Eden God warned Adam, ““of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”” (Gen 2:16-17). When Adam and Eve sinned they didn’t instantly die physically but they immediately lost the glory of God and died relationally/spiritually (Rom 3:23; 6:23). Intoxicated by Satan’s promise of immortality, or in language I will explain later, “rapt by Satan”, they lost their God-given freedom to obey the Lord (Gen 3:1ff; Luke 3:38). Paul speaks bluntly to Ephesians of their state before coming to Christ, “Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. 2 You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world” (Eph 2:1-2). Jesus made it clear that sin is never an act of freedom but of spiritual slavery, “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34 cf. Rom 6:16-17). God speaks about the condition of dreadful people of fallen human nature; ““The heart (in the Bible, the place where thoughts and intentions are formed) is deceitful above all things, and incurable; who can understand it?”” (Jer 17:9 cf. Prov 4:23; Heb 4:12). A fallen heart leaves sinful people totally unwilling and unable to please God.
An Impotent Will
Jesus described the utter spiritual inability of the fallen human condition; ““unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:5-6). Without the help of the Holy Spirit the things of God are incomprehensible, in Paul’s words, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor 2:14)….“For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will…those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.” (Rom 8:7-8). In Romans 7 Paul makes this personal. Crushed under the power of his depraved spiritual condition he confesses, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out…” (Rom 7:18), then he cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” then enraptured by the Spirit of God [which he will expound in ch.8] he cries out, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25). Grace saves us and grace is all about Jesus Christ.
Saviour of the Will
The grace of God appeared (Tit 2:11, 3:5) in its final and full form in the coming of Jesus; “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:16). In his life death and resurrection the grace of Christ (2 Cor 8:9) has taken away the power of sin, Satan and death to rule over us. The scriptures proclaim, “by sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin God condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3); “through death he/Jesus might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” (Heb 2:14 cf. 1 Cor 15:54-56). Christ has broken the power of evil to ensnare our wills, not by being more powerful than they are in an energetic sense, but by choosing to go in the exact opposite direction that we have?
Adam and Eve lost the power to obey God by believing in Satan’s promise that they could become immortal without God (Gen 3:4-5). In reversing this evil disposition Jesus chose to leave behind the power and glory of immortality in heaven to take on mortal flesh and die powerless in our place on the cross (Phil 2:6-9). Fallen human beings refuse to trust God without evidence, but Jesus never stopped trusting his Father even when there was no evidence in his sufferings that God loved him (Mark 15:34). ““come down from the cross!”” his opponents taunted and tempted, but if he had chosen to save himself we could never be saved (Mark 15:30). The sacrifice of Christ is the full and final revelation that freedom is not an ability to make any choice we desire but the strength of love to obey God whatever the cost (Heb 2:11; 10:7). The faithfulness of Jesus is answered by the faithfulness of the Father in raising him from the dead. God’s grace now saves us “through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:9-10).
Liberation of the Will
Our wills are liberated from slavery to sin and empowered to obey God only as we confess our powerlessness to be saved. After spelling out the humiliation of Christ in crucifixion and his exaltation to God’s glory through resurrection (Philippians 2:6-11) Paul exhorts his hearers, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you,giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (Phil 2: 12-13 [this is the opposite to Rom 8:8]). As God works in our wills as he worked in the will of Jesus our wills are freed to follow him. This happens through the revelation of Christ in the gospel.
The gospel is an invitation to depend on the Spirit to allow our rebellious wills to be put to death through the cross and raised by resurrection power to obey Christ; “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom 8:13). God works a change in our wills not by coercion or cooperation but by revelation. When the Spirit reveals God’s unconditional love for us in the death and resurrection of Christ our hearts are moved to freely obey him. As Paul says, “For Christ’s love leaves us no choice, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Cor 5:14-15).
Some modern interpreters of Luther have put this notion of being moved by love in a particularly attractive form. Anyone who has a revelation of who Jesus is and what he has done for us is rapt into freedom by the “Spirit of grace” (Gal 1:15-16; Heb 10:29); won over by the love of God we freely want to love and serve him, whatever it might cost.
It’s a bit like a story told by an old mentor. He was in America and had been away from his wife for an extended period. After he preached somewhere a lady approached him with a very serious look on her face, “Mr Bingham she said, I believe you are in moral danger.” (She believed he lacked the will to resist sexual temptation.) Telling this story Geoff Bingham said he quietly laughed in himself because he knew how much he was loved by his wife; not how much he loved his wife, but how much she loved him! His heart had been captured/rapt into a state of true freedom. The more God rapts us through revealing Christ to us the more freedom we enjoy i.e. the more willing is our will to do what God wills and what God wills is that we love and follow Jesus (John 6:29).
As a young Christian listening to “faith” preachers I kept thinking, “But how do I get faith?” There is nothing crueller than a teaching that throws human beings back on relying on themselves for faith. Never turn in on yourself to see how much faith you have. [incurvitas in se Augustine; Luther]. Freedom is experiencing the Spirit turning us away from ourselves to Christ in order to serve God and others in loving service (Acts 20:22). It is humbling to depend on the grace of God alone but in practice it is wonderfully liberating. When we accept Paul’s words in Romans, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Rom 9:16), a great burden lifts off us. It doesn’t depend on us at all; it depends totally on the grace of God in Christ. Christian freedom, true freedom (John 8:36), is a Spirit imparted share in the death and resurrection of Christ (2 Cor 3:17; Phil 3:7-10), it is a paradoxical mix of rapture and suffering.
If God has spoken to you today you will want to grow in the freedom of Christ, so together we can make this benediction from the end of Hebrews our prayer; “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip us with everything good that we may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Heb 13:20-21).
Anglican Article X. Of Free-Will.
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing (to act ahead of) us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.
The States of the Human Will
|Pre-Fall Man||Post-Fall Man||Reborn Man||Glorified Man|
|able to sin||able to sin||able to sin||able to not sin|
|able to not sin||unable to not sin||able to not sin||unable to sin|