Saturday, June 03, 2006

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GRACE AND FAITH

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GRACE AND FAITH
ACCORDING TO JOHN WESLEY

I. INTRODUCTION

One of the defining differences among the various evangelical Wesleyan-Arminian traditions is the understanding of the relationship between grace and faith in personal conversion. As evangelical Wesleyan-Arminians, we all affirm that we are saved “by grace through faith.” However, the question arises, “Is faith primarily a gift of grace or a power that resides in us, either as a result of prevenient grace given to all or an inherent ability residing in our will?” This question may be stated in a number of different ways: Is faith that appropriates salvation primarily a human work or is it primarily a gift of divine grace? Is faith primarily what we do or is it a gift we receive? Do we have the power within ourselves “to believe” at any given moment or must God impart to us the power “to believe?” Is faith a human exercise of the will or is it a divine conviction with which we choose to cooperate or not? Is faith “something” that happens to us, “something” we do, or a combination of both? How we answer this question will not only determine our conception of salvation, but will influence the way in which we seek salvation, guide people in the way of salvation, and will impact how we understand the appropriation of entire sanctification.

II. THE CONTINUUM IN WESLEYAN-ARMINIAN EVANGELICALISM

At one end of the continuum in Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicalism are those who argue that faith is an inherent power within us, either as a result of prevenient grace given to all or the remaining vestige of the image and likeness of God in humanity after the Fall. As such, we have the ability in any given moment to exercise our will to believe the Gospel and be saved. From this perspective, we hear the Gospel, we weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the argument offered by the evangelist (the person sharing the Gospel), we decide to believe that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” we decide that we matter to God and God desires us to be reconciled to him, and we chose to follow Christ. Thus, faith and our response to the Gospel, is primarily what we do. This perspective would apply as well to the exercise of faith in the appropriation of entire sanctification.

At the other end of the continuum, are those who believe that faith is a gift of grace with which we chose to cooperate or not. Grace from this perspective is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. As the Gospel is being shared, we notice there is something at work inside of us, something that is not us, drawing us, convincing us of the truth that Christ died for us, and compelling us to give our lives to Christ. In this instance, faith is not so much our work as it is cooperating with “grace” at work within us. All we have done is cooperate with what is being wrought in us. Unless the Spirit is working, true saving faith is not possible. As such, only in moments in which the Holy Spirit is enabling saving faith in an individual can a person be converted. Likewise, this would apply to the exercise of faith in entire sanctification.

III. JOHN WESLEY’S DOCTRINE OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GRACE AND FAITH

John Wesley was in complete agreement with John Calvin and Martin Luther in his understanding of original sin. As a result of the Fall, the moral image of God (holiness, righteousness, love, and connection to God) is completely destroyed in humanity. Human beings in their natural state are spiritually dead to God, thoroughly sinful, helpless to change themselves, and incapable of even being aware of their state. If human beings are going to be saved God is the One who must take the initiative. If human beings are to have saving faith, then God must give it to them, because they have no internal resources upon which to draw to exercise saving faith.

Specifically, Wesley believes that a person cannot be saved unless the Holy Spirit in a given moment is in that moment drawing, convicting, and convincing a person of salvation in Christ and God’s desire for that individual to be saved (which is, in fact, saving “faith”). While Wesley firmly believes that God desires everyone to be saved, a person cannot be saved at any given moment, but only in those moments when God’s grace, the work of the Spirit drawing, convicting, convincing, is happening. If the Spirit is not doing this work, a person cannot come to Christ. For Wesley, there are times and places when God does this in a person’s life and unless a person takes advantage of those moments, the person may very well miss the opportunity to be saved. These moments, “windows of opportunity,” are not always happening. In other words, there is no guarantee another moment, the moment in which God is drawing, convicting and convincing, will happen.

As with saving faith, John Wesley believes sanctifying faith is a gift from God and is the only thing “immediately necessary” to appropriate entire sanctification. Specifically, he believes that God gives people grace that enables them to believe God to sanctify them from their internal state of sin. Only when grace has been made available to create sanctifying faith, grace mediated through the means of grace, can a person have sanctifying faith. They must persist in the means of grace until God works.

From this perspective Christians actively seek entire sanctification, availing themselves of the various means of grace, waiting for God's grace capable of creating faith to appropriate it. Thus, a person cannot be entirely sanctified at any given moment, but only in those times and places in which God's grace is being made available that can create such faith. For example, while Wesley describes faith that sanctifies entirely as a trust that “God hath promised it in the Holy Scripture,” that “God is able to perform” it, that “He is able and willing to do it now,” and a “that He doeth it,” he makes clear that it is a “a divine evidence and conviction,” it is a faith that God creates and enables through the means of grace.

III. JOHN WESLEY’S TEACHING EXEMPLIFIED

For example, John Wesley describes his Aldersgate experience as having his heart “strangely warmed.” As a result he testifies that while hearing Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, “I felt I did trust Christ in Christ, Christ alone for salvation…that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Wesley’s “faith” here was not so much an action he took, rather it was something happening inside of him, a divine work creating an internal conviction that Christ loved him. It is his heart being acted upon that creates personal faith in Christ, not vise versa. This understanding of Wesley’s experience is substantiated further by the fact that before Aldergate, John Wesley had already been convinced by Peter Bohler that salvation was “by grace through faith,” and he had begun to preach this message before Aldersgate. In a sense, Wesley was intellectually convinced of the truth, but he still struggled with belief until his Aldersgate experience. Don’t we often say, “I believe it in my head, but I struggle with it in my heart.” Or we say, “If I could only convince my heart of what I believe in my head.” It is grace, or the work of the Spirit, that convinces our heart. It is grace that creates faith in our hearts.

This Wesleyan perspective can be seen in a common experience with many evangelical Christians. There are times when we share our faith with an individual and we can sense God is working with the person. We can see that “something” is happening inside of the person, “something” the person is not doing, but is obviously the work of the Holy Spirit. At other times, we share the Gospel and it is like talking to a “brick wall.” We recognize fairly quickly there is little or “nothing” happening inside of the person. Similarly, we see some people come so close to surrendering their lives to Christ; we see the Spirit drawing, convicting and convincing them, but they refuse to cooperate with what is happening inside of them. Two weeks later or two years later, we see them and there is little or interest in God. God was working in the moment, but they did not take advantage of it and they missed their opportunity, at least until they may have another “divine moment.” Similar examples can be drawn from preaching. There are times when we preach, we recognize “something” is happening in our congregation, “something” that transcends the beauty and eloquence of our message. We recognize God is moving. There are other times when we preach we can tell there is “little” or “nothing” happening. From John Wesley’s perspective, there are times and places God is working to draw, convict, and convince a person or congregation of what He wants to do and times He does not. Unless, God draws, convicts and convinces, the work of salvation and entire sanctification is not going to happen.

IV. CONCLUSION

John Wesley definitely believes faith, both converting and sanctifying, are a gift of God’s grace. We are totally dependent upon God for faith. All we are able to do to contribute to our salvation is place ourselves in the means of grace and when God gives grace, choose to cooperate with this work of God.

What do you believe? Where would you fall in the continuum? Would you be closer to Wesley’s view or closer to the other side of the continuum – that faith is primarily, if not exclusively, what I do and that I can choose to believe or exercise faith any time I want?

5 Comments:

At 11:30 PM, Blogger Scott said...

I wonder, if we affirm that God must be at work in a person in order for them to have faith do we then have to affirm that there are points in time which God is not at work in a person, bringing them to faith? I believe that a person, through persistent rebellion, can ultimately shut themselves off from God's grace; however, is it too pelagian to say that God may be at all times at work in the hearts of every person; that such a presense of God's work, continually enabling a person to choose either for or against Him, is in some way inherent to the human experience?

 
At 8:17 PM, Blogger Nathan Crawford said...

Dr. Bounds,

First, I love the blog! It helps keep me in Wesley and that certain part of our tradition. Thanks!

Second, in a sort of answer to Scott, I like what Thomas Aquinas (and, in a different manner, Karl Rahner). Both see existence as participation in God as both see God as the "cause" of existence. Thus, to exist is to participate in that which causes existencie - God. Therefore, no one cannot not participate in God. One must exist (even the devil), therefore showing that in some way the person does participate in God.

I think that Aquinas would allow for a complete fall (I interpret him as doing this), similar to that of Wesley. However, the grace of God given through the giving of existence allows the person the ability to participate in God in greater and greater lengths. However, a person may also only participate in God very little. The thing is that the more one participates in God, the more one is given grace by God. Thus, there is a synergistic relationship, but only because God draws us into participationg with Himself through the giving of grace.

This is a bit much. Sorry.

 
At 6:08 AM, Blogger Chris Bounds said...

Scott,

Always good to hear from you. I enjoy reading your blog and always enjoy your thoughtful reflection.

In regard to your question, I would say that your position is not Pelagian (in the sense of the Pelagian school of thought) , but would be a soft semi-Augustinian or even a semi-Augustinian view. Wesley would say that prevenient grace is given to all and enables all the capacity to respond to further intiatives of God's grace - or to use your language - to choose either for or against him as those times, occassions, or seasons arise in human life.

 
At 6:11 AM, Blogger Chris Bounds said...

Nathan,

I have enjoyed following your progress from a distance. I have also enjoyed reading your blog.

Great response from Aquinas' perspective. From my reading of Aquinas, you have captured him well and his synergistic understanding of salvation.

 
At 9:51 AM, Blogger Mike said...

OK. I see how faith can come by hearing the word of god and how the spirit works through the word to convict and convince. What then is our part in the role of salvation. If faith is given by grace then what is the next step? What must we do? Repent and live the unrestrained life (Acts 2:37-38 ). Is not this a work of of ourselves? Does not faith obey? Isn't living in fidelity to the gospel an obedient faith. Romans 6:17> But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. .Augustine in his creed says the following excerpt concerning works: He said, Do, and bear; do the work and receive the prize; strive in the match and you shall be crowned. What is the work? Obedience. James 2:24 > You see then that by works a man is justified and not by faith only. Consider a text in John, chapter 6. The disciples inquired of the Lord: “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus responded: “This is the work of God that you believe on him who he has sent” (vv. 28-29). Observe that this “work of [from] God” required a human response—that of believing. Regarding the term “work,” as here used, J.H. Thayer commented: ”... the works required and approved by God” (The term “works” is sometimes the equivalent of “obedience.” Elsewhere Jesus promised victory to those who “keep my works,” i.e., the works (commands) prescribed by him (Rev. 2:26). If, therefore, all “works” were excluded from the plan of salvation, faith itself would be eliminated, for it is identified as a work. It must be understood that if we are unable to respond to the call of salvation as free will agents then we are left with deterministic theism. There remains then only unconditional election. Unconditonal election is not biblical. Acts 13:46-48> Here we have the Jews rejecting the eternal life and the gentiles recieving. The former not recieving that form of doctrine and the latter obeying from the heart. Lastly the verb tasso in the gentile response in verse 48 has to be seen in the middle voice seeing that the setting involves those jews who consider themselves unworthy or the good news snubbing the message of Paul. Therefore the text should be translated " those who put themselves in a postion for salvation believed." Titus 2:11 For the grace of god has appeared unto all men for salvation. If salvation was by grace only then all men would be saved.

 

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