Salvation and Free Will

This post is inspired by the previous post Camille wrote talking about how and why it is so important to understand that man is utterly dependent on God for his salvation. While I know we have our disagreements, I found myself nodding along to most everything throughout Camille’s post. I agree that no one can claim to lead a sinless life. No man is born good. We are all fallen creatures, destined to life separated from God on our own merits. For the purpose of focus, I will table a discussion as to whether it is possible to become a good man in this life through God. However, since the fall, our natural state is one of separation from God. Reunification is only made possible through the suffering and death of Christ. With this common ground in mind, I want to focus on the language often used to understand how Christ’s death relates to the individual’s moment of salvation, and how we are made to move from our state of sin to one of holiness with God.

So now let me propose another analogy of salvation, to be broken down after. Imagine Camille’s drowning man who fell into the water clutching onto an enormous chest, filled with items of importance to him. Maybe these items were from his long dead wife, or from his children lost at sea. Regardless, the man knew he was unable to swim and decided to amass what he could and cling to it, rather than die with nothing to his name. Then, an experienced swimmer jumps into the water in order to save the man. The swimmer shouts out to the drowning man that he must let go of his chest so that he can be saved, but the man refuses, saying he would rather die with his chest than live without it.

Christ is the swimmer, jumping into the water to save us. Christ’s death was not only for those who are saved but for all (2 Corinthians 5:13-15). Thus, Christ offers salvation to all, but some, like the man who clutches his chest and never lets go, reject the offer.

While this analogy is not perfect, I hope to emphasize an important aspect to salvation that I did not notice in your analogy. Namely, man’s free will. We are called to freedom (Galatians 5:13-15). God gives us the choice to let his grace work in us, so that we might love one another, or to resist his grace and be devoured. Our sinful state handicaps us from being able to do any good without God, and we are still given the choice to reject the salvation offered. Salvation proceeds from the decision to accept God’s grace and have it work to sanctify us.*

Once accepted, this free and undeserved gift of grace justifies and sanctifies us. Grace also allows us to continue in the work of spreading the Gospel to others in the context of a larger Church (CCC 2003; 1 Corinthians 12). This grace, as Camille points out, is undeserved. Though originally created by God to be good, the fall distorted this original creation to have us desire evil, even when we know what we should want. The grace God gives us allows us the freedom to choose to follow him in faith or reject him. God’s grace allows every man this choice, a choice we continue to make until death.

For those who choose to follow Christ there is a struggle; our fallen nature does not disappear overnight! To have faith is to recognize the essential struggle of living a life after Jesus from a state of weakness and sin. Paul gives us a great passage describing this state in Romans 7:14-20:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Ultimately, we must depend on God to shepherd and guide us through this journey; without him we would never find our way (Matthew 19:25). Now there arises a question as to whether faith, once attained, can become lifeless. Paul provides a stern warning later in Romans to “Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off” (Romans 11:22). The gift of a free choice given to us by God is a gift that persists throughout our life. Just as we are free to reject God in that initial offering of salvation, we remain free to reject him after. Paul makes clear in the next line that there is always hope that fallen away Christians “May be grafted in again,” but there is undeniably a call to be vigilant against the evils of the world around us. As Paul writes, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phillipians 2:12-13).**

Like the swimmer, because we are of the flesh; we cling to those things in our life. God gives us the grace to work with that part of us that knows he is good and wants to seek him, but always with the ability to turn him down. To truly love God we must be given the opportunity to choose into that love. And this love should be guarded vigilantly and protected against the temptations of this world. As Peter writes:

Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. (1 Peter 5:8-9)


* It should be noted here the common, yet inaccurate, reading of  Romans 3:10-18 as a verse to prove every person, without exception, is a sinner living in opposition to God (thus there is no real ability to reject him). Quoted from Scott Hahn’s Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture:

There is reason to think that Paul is bringing charges against the Jewish national collectively [in these verses], not against every Jewish man, woman, and child individually. It is true that the whole human race is implicated in the sin of Adam and forced to live with the consequences of his fall from grace. This touches every person’s life, as Paul will make clear in Rom 5. But we must be careful not to run ahead of his argument…. Statements such as There is no one just (Rom 3:10) and no one … seeks God (Rom 3:11) and There is no fear of God (Rom 3:18) serve well shocking generalizations, but they are blatantly inaccurate if treated as exceptionless statements of fact. The Bible speaks of numerous figures who are deemed “righteous,” who earnestly “seek” the Lord, and who reverently “fear” God. It hardly seems credible that Paul an avid student of the written Word, could think of no exceptions whatsoever to his far reaching verdict. Besides that, Paul could not have hoped to convince his readers – least of all Jewish ones – to accept his interpretations if they were propped up by a cavalier handling of Israel’s sacred texts” (pg 41).

In addition to the Roman’s passage, it is important when reading scripture to not read ahead of the author with our own theological presumptions. While I certainly stand guilty as charged in this aspect (even more than my fellow authors I would venture to guess), having a Church that has spent millenia wrestling and debating various verses to come up with its theological claims and not on the theology of any one man is a luxury us Apostalics can rely on.

**It is important to note that Paul gives a warning to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” because we have the ability to reject God. As the next verse goes, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” Even as saved Christians, we have the ability to lose that salvation in our vices (“grumbling and disputes”)! Enough to make Paul’s “work [be] in vain”!


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