02 April 2006

of grace

In the context of some recent theological discussions among conservative Reformed believers there are three issues, I think, that are central: the absolute priority of grace, the sufficiency of faith, and the imputation of righteousness. I realize, of course, that those outside of the Reformed tradition may not be inclined to see things in the following ways, but I'm addressing a discussion internal to a tradition.

The first is the absolute priority of grace. At the end of the day, is salvation all of grace from beginning to end? That is to say, is grace truly grace, or have we somehow isolated some area of human initiative apart from grace, some remnant of autonomy? This is the issue between Augustine and Pelagius and, more recently, between Calvinists and Arminians.

The Reformed doctrine of "effectual calling," or (in terms of its more subjective side) "regeneration" is designed to protect the gratuity of grace. It does this in at least three areas:
[a] insisting upon God's sovereign and ultimately (what has been called) "monergistic" work in salvation, electing and saving whom he chooses apart from any prior work or response on their part, actual or foreseen

[b] the absolute priority of God's grace in Christ over any response on the part of the individual who is, apart from that grace, unable to respond

[c] the nature of salvation as total "gift" even in regard to the gift of faith by which salvation is received

These overlap to some degree, but identify key issues of concern in the Reformed doctrine of effectual calling.

The problem seems to be, if we don't posit some "difference" between the person who perseveres and the person who falls away - a difference in how God efficiently operates and how that is subjectively received (which are two sides of the same coin at any rate) - then it would seem that we've allowed for some kind of non-gracious initiative on the part of the creature by which the creature must "do" something that is prior to (saving) grace.

We probably can say, in an important sense, that two baptized persons who have been presented with the Gospel and have apparently embraced it by some kind of faith, may have both received "sufficient grace" for their salvation. As Dordt says, if there are those who finally do not embrace the Gospel unto salvation and fall away, this "must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called" (3rd and 4th Heads, Article 9).

Rather, as the next Article goes on to says, the differing responses to sufficient grace are not a matter of human autonomous "freedom," but a matter of God's effectively calling the elect to himself in a saving way. Thus there is an asymmetry between faith unto salvation, on one hand, and apostasy or unbelief, on the other, so that salvation can only ever be ultimately attributed to God and his grace while falling short of salvation is to be blamed upon the creature and not any deficiency on God's part. (This line of thought is partly due, no doubt, to the fact that unbelief is a privation and thus not properly some "thing" to be ascribed to God.) There is an element of mystery in all that, but Dordt refuses to resolve it.

Second, the priority of grace isn't enough. Plenty of medieval theologians were "monergists" insofar as they insisted that even cooperation with grace was itself a gift of grace. But one can say that and still make salvation a matter of being good enough to be accepted by God. The tendency then will be to rely upon one's own efforts and begin to regard those efforts as, in some way, independent of God's working in and through us by his Spirit. Even faith can be turned into a work, the mere fulfilling of a legal condition by which God's favor is obtained.

This is where the Protestant emphasis upon faith alone comes in or, better, the sole sufficiency and instrumentality of faith. Faith, insofar as it rests upon and receives Christ for salvation, is extraspective and instrumental, and thereby not a work or fulfillment of a legal condition. It may also be the case that the kind of faith that looks to Christ is also a faith that works itself out in love and is an act of evangelical obedience, but it does not rest upon and receive Christ insofar as it operates in those ways, which are logically subsequent and delcaratory in nature.

Third, the sole sufficiency of faith isn't enough. Thomas Aquinas and some other medieval theologians arguably held that faith was preeminently extraspective and self-divesting, an instrument by which Christ and his grace were received. But they lacked the Protestant understanding of imputation, so that justification was still seen mostly in terms of infused sanctifying grace that made an individual, inherently and subjectively, sufficiently righteous to be accepted by God. Justification was not so much a declaration based upon Christ's finished work, but a new work of grace transforming the individual's moral character.

Again, even with an emphasis upon faith, the tendency here can be to see salvation in terms of some transformation that is, at least in part, wrought in us through our own efforts, even if not in its initiation, in its continuance, by which our efforts maintain the grace already received. Even if this effort of maintainence is attributed ultimately to grace, it turns us again to our own working and tempts us to take that to be independent in some way from God's working in us. Thus it is important to maintain that our fundamental acceptance before God is purely one of grace, based upon what God has done for us in Christ apart from us, outside of us, imputed to us (whether that's conceived more in terms of the imputation of Christ's own moral quality or action or of Christ's own status that results from an inherent quality or action on his part).

At any rate, those are the concerns that motivate a number of people within the Reformed tradition. Anyone who wishes to be Reformed while maintaining a "high" sacramental theology or re-conceiving aspects of covenant theology will, I think, do well to take account of these concerns and show how what they believe meets these concerns, thereby fully assuring the gratuity of grace.