Several months ago, Danny wrote an article on the concept of free will and its role in salvation. I have also discovered, to my surprise and great delight, that it is no difficult task for me to plunge back into the friendly fray. The subject of salvation never does grow stale. So it is with eagerness and anticipation that I offer my thoughts on “Salvation and Free Will.”
Danny introduces his subject with an analogy to illustrate the role of free will in the individual’s moment of salvation. To do this, he brings back our friend, the Drowning Man, who seems far too eager to be back in the water! This time, however, he has got a box of treasures with him. Spotting his flailing arms in the distance, an Experienced Swimmer dives into the water and calls out that he must toss the chest to be rescued. The Drowning Man is free to choose: either surrender and be saved, or refuse and be lost. Salvation, Danny explains, requires a decision. God allows us to choose “to let his grace work in us, so that we might love one another, or to resist his grace and be devoured.”*
Reading through these first few paragraphs, I found myself largely agreeing with Danny (give or take some minor differences that I have observed in my footnotes). We believe that it is only through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ that one can be reunited with God; we agree that it is the “free and undeserved gift of grace which justifies and sanctifies us”; and I concede that at the level of humanity, we must choose either to accept or to refuse the gift of salvation. But Danny goes on to make another conclusion: “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” (emphasis added). He explains more explicitly later in the article, “Just as we are free to reject God in that initial offering of salvation, we remain free to reject him after.” An obvious implication of this type of thinking is that a Christian may, at any point, reject Christ and fall away from salvation. If we return briefly to Danny’s analogy, this is like the Drowning Man who, after having clung to his Rescuer, decides he loves his treasure better, dives into the ocean, and is lost to the depths.
This kind of thinking forces me to hesitate and to ask myself, “What does the gift of grace mean? What exactly does God offer us, which we can then accept or refuse?” If the gift is that, with our consent, the Rescuer will carry us to the shore, then surely we can withdraw our consent at any point and be drowned. But I do not believe this does justice to the actual gift that Christ offers to us. He offers us not merely a gift of forgiveness, or a room in heaven, or even the sudden new ability to live in obedience to Christ and do good. All these are part of the gift, of course, but not its entirety. The gift of salvation is nothing short of death—that is, death to self—and life—that is, life in Christ. Jesus called this mystery the supernatural event of being “born again” (John 3). In several of his letters, Paul describes this same unseen reality of every child of Christ. In Colossians 3:3, he writes, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Again, in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (see also Rom. 8:8-10; Eph. 2:1-10; Col. 2:13-14; Col. 3:1-17). In the Old Testament, too, we glimpse shadows of this salvation. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God proclaims the new covenant to come: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (Jer. 32:40). Finally, Ezekiel introduced the phrase “heart of flesh” (which—fun fact—has become notorious in evangelical worship music): “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 11:19).
According to this teaching, Jesus’ gift is nothing less than heart surgery, crucifixion, and resurrection. Camille Lopez has died! Her life is Christ Jesus Himself, who has given her a new heart and His very Spirit.
The implications of this theology for Christian living are astounding. United to Christ, we are righteous in God’s sight. We are irrevocably redeemed, we are without blemish, for the Father looks upon us and sees only His Son. We have become children of the Father, who raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6). Having changed hearts, we long to please Him. His law becomes lovely to us when before it was only mean and foolish, stingy and excessive. Indeed, we not only desire to obey Him—we can. We can please God because we are no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit (Rom. 8:8-10). Throughout the Old Testament (see Hebrews 11) and the New Testament, obedience is the fruit of genuine faith, not its supplement. To put it simply, we do not obey to become holy. We are holy, and therefore we obey. As Paul writes in Romans 6:1-4:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Danny has written this truth—and all Christians have experienced it—that our fallen nature “does not disappear overnight.” But friend, it is nevertheless a defeated thing, and we fight from a place of victory. Each day we are becoming who we already are in Christ, and with Paul we can declare, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24).
*I am tempted to dive into a discussion on what Calvinists call “irresistible grace.” Alas, ‘tis beyond the scope of this article, although I expect a phone call from some Morning Walk writers soon! Suffice it to say that I believe even the ability to choose Christ—to see Him as desirable, as worthy, as just a touch more wonderful than the worldly baggage in my heart—is the work of God’s grace, too. R.C. Sproul puts it this way: “If, indeed, we are dead in sins and trespasses, if, indeed, our wills are held captive by the lusts of our flesh and we need to be liberated from our flesh in order to be saved, then in the final analysis, salvation must be something that God does in us and for us, not something that we in any way do for ourselves.” In fact, Danny makes a contradictory statement when he writes, “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.” To accept salvation is to do a good thing (for I’m sure Danny agrees that it is evil to reject Christ). If we cannot do any good thing without God, then we cannot accept salvation without God, so that even this is a gift of grace. But I hear the protesting cry: “What of free will?” Better and wiser people have written about it before me, so I encourage curious readers to check out posts here on Morning Walk on the subject, as well as the rest of Sproul’s article here.
**In response to one of Danny’s footnotes: If we read Romans 3:10 in light of the preceding two chapters, I’m sure we will come to agree that Paul is addressing all of humanity, without exception. Verse 9 says, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (see also Isaiah 53:6). Hahn makes a wonderful point that the Bible “speaks of numerous figures who are deemed ‘righteous,’ who earnestly ‘seek’ the Lord, and who reverently ‘fear’ God.” This is a wonderful point because each of these characters is deemed righteous on account of his or her faith (see Hebrews 11 for one example, and the Psalms as an entire book of examples from the Lord’s beloved David). It is interesting and significant that the heroes of the Old Testament are never perfect. Theirs was a righteousness of faith, in anticipation of Jesus.
***There is a lot I can say in response to Danny’s reading of Romans 11, and to texts in the Bible which seem to suggest loss of salvation, more generally. Perhaps another article is in order. 😉 To keep it brief, I ask whether these troublesome verses in the Bible (for troublesome they are to me!) are a question of losing salvation, or of never having had it. If we believe in the coherency of the Bible, I think we must agree on the latter. Finally, I hear in Paul’s tone in Romans 11 an urgent warning that will do us all much good: refrain from arrogance, and cling to the kindness of God. Friend, this is an invitation to examine the foundations of our faith. Is our confidence in Christ’s righteousness, to save us on the day of Judgement, or in the hours spent reading and praying and serving—that is, in our own righteousness, for that must be either completely perfect, or not at all!