Can a person choose Christ?
If so, who can do so?
First, let’s clear away from our radar screen the old canard about, “What of those who have never heard of Christ?” If they have never heard of Him, then the question of whether they can choose Him is, if not an absurdity, at least moot. It is outside the scope of what I’d like to discuss here.
Next, let’s establish what things are under consideration, about which the question of choice arises. Most of the things concerning our salvation are not included in this category; that is, they are already accomplished by God without any input from us. For example, God created you without your consent. You were born without your consent. Christ healed and restored your messed-up human nature by uniting it in one, single Person to His divine nature – without your asking for it. He taught and cured and preached without your having chosen it. He shed upon the world His forgiveness together with His blood, without consulting you. He made human nature stronger than death, by taking it through death and emerging with it triumphant on the other side, so that with Him you might do the same – without your having any say in the matter. He poured out the Holy Spirit upon the world without your asking for it, and established His Church for you, to be the focal point of His continuing presence in the world, and perhaps He has even baptized you, all without your contributing anything at all. He will separate you from your sins, by means of death, whether you want it or not, whether you consider that deliverance or deprivation. He will raise you from the grave whether you want it or not, and it is not in your own power either to rise or to return to death. He will one day enlighten you with His Truth whether you like it or not, whether you find that Truth horrifying or beautiful.
In these things, we have no choice. They are not part of our question about whether we can “choose Christ.” As St. Nicholas Cabasilas says (see fuller quote here):
God indeed wills all good things for all men and imparts to all alike of all His own gifts, both those which benefit the will and those which restore nature. On our part we all receive the gifts of God which pertain to nature even though we do not desire them, since we cannot escape them. So He does good to those who are unwilling and compels them lovingly. Whenever we wish to shake off His kindness we are unable to do so.
But such things as whether to love God, trust Christ, let our lives be directed by the Holy Spirit, and repent, these things are those around which the debate centers: can man choose these?
Before trying to answer that, let us consider what “choose” means. Are we asking whether he who hears the Gospel rightly preached has the power to desire Christ? How about the power to believe in and trust Him? How about the power actually to do something about it, like love God, repent of sins?
I think we are asking all three. In Orthodoxy, the answers, in a nutshell, are:
Every man can desire the good. (Otherwise, we have major theological problems and contradictions; see upcoming post.) A man can even desire more of the good than has fully been revealed to him, as the prophets did, who could only comparatively dimly foresee what has been fulfilled for us, and as Christians do, who for now only see some of the ultimate realities in the mirror, dimly. It’s called hope.
Every man can believe as much as has been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit.
Every man can put into practice (very imperfectly!) as much as has been revealed to him. St. Paul says the Gentiles do, who having no Law of Moses, still have God’s principles written on their hearts, viz., built in. When they do the things of God, they do it “by nature,” says St. Paul. Everybody can do this much.
St. John says (John 1:12) “...as many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.” Some people would have us believe it the other way around: “those to whom He gave the power to become the children of God, they received Him and believed in His name.” But this is backwards; this is the reverse of what St. John says.
Does that mean we can desire Christ, believe and trust Him, repent and turn to Him, on our own? I don’t even know what that question means. Was any man ever really “on his own”? Is breathing something a person can do on his own, or is it by the gift of God? Can anyone even stay alive by his own power, absent the grace of God? The point is, the grace of God is never absent! He never withdraws His Grace, who makes His sun to shine upon the just and the unjust alike, and the blessing of His rain to fall upon the evil and the good alike, who keeps us all in existence every moment. (To say God never withdraws His grace is not to say God blesses our evil plans and projects! It just means He still always offers us the real possibility of change, of newness, of repentance and forgiveness.)
Wherever and whenever Christ is revealed to anybody, it is always, by definition, the Holy Spirit revealing Him. It was specifically the Holy Spirit who revealed Christ at His baptism and at His transfiguration and at Pentecost. “…I make known to you,” says St. Paul, “that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:3) A person cannot believe what is not revealed to him, and Christ is only and always revealed by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.” (John 6:44a) He also pointed out that without Him, we can do nothing. (John 15:5)
So we say that Christ is revealed by the Holy Spirit, the Father is drawing a person toward Christ, Christ is lending His support to strengthen the person's weak and compromised will, and God has given that person the ability to say yes (or no) to the incipient faith trying to bloom in him. Just now, we need not quarrel too much over *when* God gave that gift, whether on the spot as some say or whether by having preserved the ability in man all along, as the Orthodox say; the main point is, by the time any person is confronted with the choice, he is genuinely able, by grace and never apart from it, to receive the divinely-created faith, love, and hope. God does grant him to be able to repent. There is no one, none, from whom He withholds this grace. If anyone rejects God, it is most assuredly not because God failed to enable him to repent.
Moreover, this choice is a genuine act of ours. Although God is indeed working in us to produce the “yes,” He is not making the choice for us or overriding our will. His gift is greater than that. His gift is that we are truly able to say yes, not apart from Him (for that would be a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron), but nevertheless as our own act, of our own will.
Anything less than this is not salvation! Why not? Because it would render us automatons. It would fail to conform us to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29) who does have free will. It would fail even to restore us to Adam’s pristine state.
Is a “yes” decision the cause of my salvation? Certainly not! There is no way I can cause my salvation. God saves me because He wants to, because He loves me, period. But faith, if I embrace it, is the means through which His grace can work in me. “By grace through faith are you saved, and that, not of yourselves…” (see Ephesians 2:8-10)
Bear in mind, too, that this decision does not carry with it any credit. There is no room for boasting. Salvation is not a merit system. But even if it were, well, here is an illustration I like to use. Suppose I jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. The rescue squad arrives and someone swims out to tie me to a life vest and haul me to shore. Suppose he drowns in the process, but does succeed in saving me. Is there really any fear I’ll get some smidgeon of credit for merely letting him? I’m the one who had forfeited my life and the life of my rescuer too!
No, it is not a question of my deserving anything, least of all, salvation. It is simply the case that everybody gets what he most truly, most profoundly, in his heart of hearts, wants. If what we love and want most is Christ, fine; it will work because that’s what God also wants for us. God wants to give us Christ, and with and in Him everything true, good, beautiful, joyous, real, and worthwhile. If we do not want Christ, there is no way to force us to love Him (short of making us into automatons, which would entirely defeat the purpose). And if we persist until our rejection of Christ hardens to become irreversible, we shall find ourselves forever alienated from everything true, good, beautiful., etc., in short, estranged from everything that makes being alive better than never having been born.
Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief! Kyrie, eleison!