It sometimes helps me to sketch out ideas as I think through them. I recently posted excerpts from John Wesley’s writings on prevenient grace – God’s work to free people from their bondage to sin and make it possible for them to respond to the gospel with repentance and faith. This post briefly sketches three different ways of looking at how God’s gracious power leads people from spiritual bondage to salvation through a living faith in Jesus Christ.
First, one might think of God giving people the power to act and decide for themselves. God brings them to the point at which they can see their own sinful condition and the possibility of faith. It is up the individual to jump across the gap between belief and unbelief on their own. I remember frequently using the term “leap of faith” when I was a very young Christian, and that term captures the essence of what I am describing. At any point in my lostness and bondage to sin, however, am I capable of simply deciding to believe? At least parts of the New Testament – and the witness of the Protestant Reformation – suggest that I am not.
Second, then, one might think of of God as doing all the work. The sovereign God simply pushes me through the wall of between unbelief and belief. In my previous state, it was impossible for me to believe. In my current state, it is impossible for me not to believe. God’s will is irresistible. But does this view adequately describe the New Testament’s comprehensive understanding of salvation?
So, having set up two bogeymen, let me offer a third possibility.
God’s power brings me tangentially to the very point of faith, so that there is no distance between between belief and unbelief. It is at this point that true freedom is possible. There is no gap to be jumped in my own power. And if I cross into the domain of life and faith, it is because God is graciously empowering me at every point. Where scheme one envisions the sequential actions of God and humans, scheme three envisions simultaneous action. There is no visible distinction between God’s actions and my own action. Salvation is both fully divine and fully human – God’s initiative and human response – grace acting through faith. And wherever I find myself in the journey from repentance to justification to sanctification and glorification, it is God in his grace empowering me to believe and act.
And while I find the third scheme most intellectually satisfying, consistent with my own experience and compatible with whole witness of scripture, I know people whose experience was more like scheme one or scheme two. For some, coming to faith feels like a great leap in the dark. For others, it feels as if God has thrown them kicking and screaming into a faith that they were resisting with all their might. And this observation will lead me to my next reflection on the uneasy doctrine of God’s unfathomable and mysterious grace.