Tuesday, January 27, 2009

“…I Cannot, of My Own Strength…"

Many denominations are very emphatic in telling us all the things that are necessary yet impossible for us “on our own” or “apart from God”, such as believing or repenting or doing anything truly good. All these things, they stress, are possible only by the grace of God.

To which I usually reply that we cannot even so much as breathe or digest our food apart from the grace of God. That is, these people are not wrong about this, they’re just attacking a straw man. Why is it a straw man? Because there simply is no such thing as “on our own” or “apart from God” or “by my own strength”.

God does not, ever, literally desert anyone. Anyone. He pursues us wherever we go, even to the depths of hell.

Whither shall I go from Your spirit?
Or whether shall I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, You are there:
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You.
If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall Your hand lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,”
Even the night shall be light about me.
(Psalm 139:7-11)

Some people still think God abandons people, and for evidence, they quote verses such as Romans 1:24-26, which twice says, “God gave them up…” But this doesn’t mean He turns against anyone; it means He let them have their own way when they insisted; He did not force Himself upon people, precisely because He is unfailingly good to one and all.

God is not the Celestial Prig Who cannot tolerate proximity to sinners. That is why Jesus did not scorn the company of sinners, but actively sought out the demon-possessed, the traitors, the prostitutes, the cheats. God is not tainted by the presence of sinners; instead, the reverse: sinners are sanctified in His Presence.

God is often alleged to have abandoned Christ as He hung on the Cross – just at the climax of His faith, obedience, and love! – and Psalm 22:1 is cited in support of this idea. Read further if you believe it. Check out verse 24 of that same Psalm. It didn’t happen.

If you are searching for a gracious God, know that God is always gracious, and to everybody. The Lord taught us, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and you shall be the children of the Highest: for He is kind to the unthankful and [to] the evil.” He is kind, unfailingly kind. He does not hope for any return, for Himself, upon His kindness.

He never leaves us to our own strength, never leaves us entirely on our own, although He does allow us, so to speak, a very long leash. And that’s why everyone can breathe, everyone can digest his food, and everyone can believe in Him when given a genuine opportunity.

Certain things, however, do remain which we cannot do apart from Christian faith.
Like love our enemies
or know ourselves as we really are
or have hope that does not end in the grave
or become deified
or, well, any of the things that matter to us most.


William Weedon said...

Dead men have no capacity to see, to reason, to understand, and above all to trust. They're, well, dead.

"And you who once were dead in your trespasses and sins..."

Granted we had life - a biological life which God in gracious mercy preserved for us, but spiritually we were dead. "The day you eat it, you shall die." And die we did. That day. The physical death is but the final disclosure of the spiritual reality. But it is to dead men, that God's mercy comes and makes them live again - and so "I believe that I cannot by own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith, even as He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith." That's why we confess: "The Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life!"

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Even the dead hear the voice of the Lord. Lazarus did. The bones did, to which Ezekiel prophesied (Ezekiel 27).

Did any of them rise by his own reason or strength? Of course not. But they heard, not apart from the Grace of God; they understood, again by God's Grace; and they obeyed, still not without Grace (but evidently with trust).

Even the dead are not separated from God's Grace. They may be alienated from it, but it, or He, rather, is still there for them.

Nobody can do anything apart from God's Grace; upon that we are agreed. The problem comes in if we assume God deprives anyone of His Grace, even those who trash it, ignore it, blind themselves to it.

William Weedon said...

Lutherans, at least, are not guilty of that, for we believe that God's grace reaches out to all and yearns for all. We do not believe, however, that His grace (in the sense of the gift of the new life in Christ) is irresistible and therefore, sadly, a man can spurn this gift of life. It is quite like unto the situation with biological life; a man can't decide and choose to be born. Life comes as gift. But a man can certainly decide to reject the gift given and throw his life away.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...


Life is indeed a gift, and one given, by Christ's resurrection, to all mankind. Not one of us is going to be annihilated, but we shall all rise, either to glory or to misery.

Now if you do not decide to reject the gift of life, then you have decided to accept it, right? So either way, you really re deciding about the gift.

William Weedon said...

The way that our theologian Jacobs put it is:

Grace has to do with persons, and their very personality implies, along with self-consciousness, self-determination. While man is helpless to deliver himself, or to prepare himself for divine grace, or even to respond to this grace as it approaches him, and thus his acceptance of God's grace comes from new powers which grace has brought, nevertheless, the freedom of the will is preserved in man's ability to resist God's grace. All man's help must thus come from God; all his ruin comes from himself.

William Weedon said...

I should have quoted from before as well the beginning of the paragraph just cited:

Redemption on the one hand, is as comprehensive as the ruin wrought in human nature by sin; on the other, it is limited to only a portion of the human race. It is as comprehensive in its provisions as it is limited in its realization. As it was God's will that humanity should persevere in its concreated holiness only so far as man's exercise of free will toward the offered good and evil would not be interfered with, so it was God's purpose that all should enjoy redemption, provided the power of the decision of man's free will against the offered good be not destroyed. Grace has to do with persons...

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I do realize the assertion that man can choose only evil is meant to safeguard God's glory and give none of it to us. But for the Orthodox, first of all there is no glory, no merit, in choosing God. (And if there were, it wouldn't have any application, since salvation is a gift, hence requires no merit.) And secondly, the ploy just doesn't work. That's because if we do not choose to reject God, then we are choosing to accept Him. And that choice turns out to entail a great deal of effort, too. It's an active choice. That's how it ends up if we strip away any word games.

Thirdly, if Grace accompanies each of us from conception to grave and beyond, then it seems strange to speak of grace "as it approaches", and somewhat arbitrary to say we cannot exert the powers that come with it, beginning with responding to it with repentance. (But I noted in this post that some things can only be done by faith.)

Also, an Orthodox theologian would need to amend Jacobs' statement more or less as follows: "As it was God's will that humanity should persevere in its concreated holiness only so far as man's exercise of free will toward the offered good and evil would not be interfered with, so it was God's purpose that all should enjoy redemption, provided the power of the decision of man's free will for or against the offered good be not destroyed.

In Orthodox understanding, God's Grace and man's free will (to choose good or evil) are not only NOT mutually exclusive or opposites; there is no either/or between them; they are two sides of the same coin, actually incomprehensible apart from each other. It is grace that enables our will to be free, and our free will which accepts Grace. I'll post more on that very shortly, simply quoting a page from Lossky on the subject.

William Weedon said...

I think if you read the statements of Jacobs a little more carefully, you might realize that he's finally saying the same thing as you. The idea that man has no choice is not what we say; we say that the choice to embrace grace is itself a gift of grace. That the choice embraces work and hard work is absolutely right. I thought of this the other day when reading how Luther in the Larger Catechism speaks about confession:

"Then he may ever be found in the faith and its fruit, so that he may suppress the old man and grow up into the new. *For if we would be Christians, we must do the work by which we are Christians.*"


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

No, not the same thing. I'm saying, with the Orthodox, that because grace is always with us, with every last one of us, the question of it "approaching" is moot, and so is the idea of "preparing ourselves" for it. I'm saying we can respond to it as we become aware of it, and yes, there are things we can do along the way to help ourselves - never apart from grace. We can, for example, seek Him. "Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you."

And I'm saying we are able to do more than simply reject Grace. Grace itself, the kind of grace that accompanies everyone, gives us freedom such that we can also choose to accept it.

What we can choose to reject, we can by that very fact also accept (choose not to reject). All of us. Nobody is ever in some "pre-grace" condition such that he cannot. If a person chooses evil, his guilt is all the worse because he could have chosen the good. On the other hand, if he chooses evil without ever having been capable of doing otherwise, it would be a strange and "justice" that would hold that person accountable for it.

That's different from what Jacobs (or Luthernas in general) would say, is it not?

William Weedon said...

I'm beginning to think I need to inflict the whole chapter on you! ;) The approach of grace is UNIVERSAL:

"The provisions of Redemption, therefore, are ample for all. Not only do the Holy Scriptures declare that they are sufficient for all, but directly and explicitly that they have been made and are intended for all. Every human life enters that enters this world is that of a redeemed child of God. Every child is born both a child of wrath and a child of grace. It is a child of wrath, since by inheritance its state is that of spiritual death. It is a child of grace, in so far as it has been comprised in the Scheme of Redemption and the love and mercy of God that devised that scheme go forth in efforts for the application to it of this Redemption."

But as for "seeking" - this seeking is itself an act of grace. For natural man does not seek God, as you confess each time you pray Psalm 53.

William Weedon said...

One more, but from my beloved Krauth:

"God's work in grace in the one case, if unarrested, is ample for the salvation of every human creature, as sin's work, in the other case, if unarrested, is ample for the loss of every human creature. Thus, the all-embracing work of love on the one hand, freely giving life, and the all-pervading power of sin on the other, meriting death, rest in the same generic mode of divine dealing. Take away Christ, and every human being dies in Adam; take away Adam, and every human creature lives in Christ. But though the range of Adam's work and of Christ's work be the same, the power of Christ's work transcends that of Adam's. God's love in Christ outweighs all."

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Okay, grace is universal. I get that. But where grace is, there is freedom, just as, where freedom is, there is grace.

So if grace is universal, why is freedom of will not, at least not truly, not in the sense of being able to choose anything but evil?

I don't interpret Psalm 53 the way you seem to.

William Weedon said...

God's grace (universal) is what enables man TO freely choose. That's why we say that the baptized have freedom of the will.