Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

When we’re initially saved, who makes it happen? If you’re not familiar with many aspects of the traditional Calvinist/Arminian debate, you may be wondering what quite this question is getting at. If you are, you may recognize the doctrinal point involved. The question at hand is the debate of monergism vs. synergism. If you don’t know what those mean, they are actually fairly simple to understand.

When we are first saved, how does it happen? Who does what? Obviously there are at minimum two persons in involved: God and you. But how do your roles relate? In the traditional forms of Calvinism and Arminianism, the answers are like this:

Calvinism affirms monergism, which means “one working.” In Calvinism, the only person who actually acts in bringing about your salvation (usually specified as regeneration) is God Himself. Your repentance and faith are altogether secondary and only happen because God first gives you a new birth which enables (and guarantees) your response to Him. God alone acts by the Holy Spirit to save you, and from this saved ground you can repent and believe in the Gospel. R. C. Sproul put it this way:

We also believe that regeneration is monergistic. Now that’s a three-dollar word. It means essentially that the divine operation called rebirth or regeneration is the work of God alone. An erg is a unit of labor, a unit of work. The word energy comes from that idea. The prefix mono– means “one.” So monergism means “one working.” It means that the work of regeneration in the human heart is something that God does by His power alone—not by 50 percent His power and 50 percent man’s power, or even 99 percent His power and 1 percent man’s power. It is 100 percent the work of God.

Arminianism, along with many Catholic view and Eastern Orthodoxy, counter with synergism, which essentially means “working together.” In synergism, God initiates and offers grace, and man must cooperate with his free will. Salvation essentiallly occurs by the acts of both parties, God in giving and man in receiving, with the idea of man’s reception being conceived of as an act of a human free will. In this view, repentance and faith are integral to the beginning of salvation, rather than a result of a beginning accomplished simpy by God alone. Some would characterize synergism as being a 50-50 view, although most synergists would disagree. In any case, synergism relies on man cooperating with God’s grace, so that God does part (certainly the superior part) and man does part (an inferior, receptive part). Eric Landstrom of the Society of Evangelical Arminians gives this explanation:

So important is it that God monergistically works that Calvinists have effectively written out and forgotten that all relationships are in point of fact synergistic. If any “relationship” isn’t synergistic, then it is said to be one-sided, and one-sided relationships are both sad and unhealthy.

But God is personable and so too are we also personable. As such, we should expect that, as a person, God interacts with us on a personal level and in a personal way…[W]hen God reaches out to us, we can respond—but just like any healthy relationship, we needn’t respond to God by necessity. But if we respond to God’s reconciling ministry of grace, and our response is theocentric and sustained by continuously drawing upon the strength of grace received by God, then God continues to augment the process with more grace; and by augmenting the process the relationship between the creature and God grows.

Now, if you don’t already have a settled opinion on this matter, which view will ring true to you probably largely depends on the preaching you’ve heard and the reading you’ve done. But before you consider making any conclusions, I would like to present an alternative.

See, my problems with both monergism and syngerism in their traditional forms are two: (1) they assume a competitive relationship between divine and human agency, and (2) they don’t take Jesus into account.

What do I mean by these? For (1), the problem is that Scripture does not assume any view of the relationship between God’s will and man’s will which must simply add up to 100%. Traditional monergism and synergism do. For monergism, the 100% of action must belong entirely to God, leaving man with 0%. In synergism, the numbers must be divided up some way, perhaps 50-50 or 90-10, or even 99-1. But there is no Biblical evidence for this kind of zero-sum game. All of God does not mean none of man, and neither does God and man mean only some of each.

But to make my (1) make sense, I have to explain (2). Neither traditional monergism nor traditional synergism make any explicit use of Christology, the doctrine of Jesus, instead either talking of God generally or specifiying the Father or the Holy Spirit. And yet, if we are trying to understand the relationship between God and man, we can’t bypass the one place in all reality where God and man are truly and fully one, hypostatically united as a single person named Jesus.

I follow, then, the Evangelical Calvinist tradition in focusing on what is called the vicarious humanity of Christ (posts related to this can be found here, and Martin M. Davis has a good series on it beginning here). Jesus did not simply die in our place; He was and is human in our place. Our true humanity is based in Him. Everything that needed to be done for our salvation, both on God’s part and on man’s part, has already been done in His own Person and work.

So how does this affect monergism and synergism? I look at it through Christ. Contrary to synergism, the only true cooperation between free human will and divine grace is found in Jesus, where He lived a whole human life in obedience to the Father, even unto death. If we are to respond to God at all, our reponse will have to begin with the human response of Jesus to His Father, not with our free will. Contrary to monergism, though, this does not somehow remove our response from the equation. On the contrary, our response plays a decisive role in our receiving salvation precisely because it is not our own response but rather the response of Jesus in which we participate by the Holy Spirit.

If you’re lost a bit, I’ll step back. For humanity to have a saving relationship to God, we need faithfulness and holiness. For sinful humanity to return to God, we need faith and repentance. We fallen men, however, could never offer God any of this. So Jesus offered it in our place. He gave God on our behalf perfect faithfulness, perfect holiness, perfect faith, and even perfect repentance.1 This perfect human response to God could only be given by Jesus who was Himself God. Jesus is both the Word of God who calls for repentance and faith as well as the true Human who responds to God’s word in repentance and faith.

With this in mind, perhaps I could call my view Christological monergism. In one sense, it is God alone who acts to bring us to salvation. The Father sent the Son, the Son gave the Father the necessary human response for salvaiton, and by the Holy Spirit we are brought into saving union with Jesus. The true actor in our salvation is Jesus for us, and He is God. But on the other hand, we are also involved. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we do truly and really repent and believe to be saved. I respond to God, yet it is not I but Christ in me, and the response I offer to the Father, I offer by the response of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.2 And God accepts this response, and me, because what He is really accepting in Jesus, who is in me, and I in Him, and His response.

So it is not simply 100% God and 0% man, nor is it part God and part man. In Jesus salvation comes as 100% God and, albeit in a secondary sense, 100% man. Yet even man’s part is not just man in and of himself, not any natural human free will, but the part of Jesus as a man for us. It is only through, in, and by Him—us united to Him by the Holy Spirit—that we can be free for God, and in this freedom choose life by choosing what Jesus has already chosen for us and in our place.

I’ll conclude, then, with an editor’s summary of T. F. Torrance’s view in his book Incarnation:

[F]or Torrance, the Christian life is one of union with Christ in which in faith we live out of his faith and his righteousness. Having no righteousness in ourselves, we arc united to him so that we may live out of his. Our faith is the knowledge, given to us in the Spirit, that he has accomplished our salvation in his person and work and that we are saved purely by his unconditional grace.

This does not mean that we do nothing although it does mean that we do nothing for our salvation. For Torrance, there is an analogy here with the person of Christ. The fart that the humanity of Christ owes its being entirely to the action of God in the incarnation, does not mean It is not real. The fact that Christ is all of God, or that all of God is in Christ, does not mean that there is nothing of man in him, but the opposite, that all of man is in him. Torrance used to explain that in the logic of grace, ‘All of grace does not mean nothing of man. All of grace means all of man.’ The knowledge that forgiveness and salvation is all of grace liberates us out of ourselves into union with Christ, freeing on to live fully and freely out of him. All of grace means all of man, just as the action of God in Christ means all of man in Christ.

Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

Arms Open, Altars Closed: Thoughts on Conversion

[This is a post I wrote quite some time ago but which has not been published here.]

I just finished reading the behemoth that is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell. The book is quite interesting, even if some of its major ideas are rather unconvincing in the final analysis. In this case, it seems to me that the redemption is in the details, while the devil is in the big picture.

All of that is rather tangential to the point of this post, though. I mainly want to address something that came to mind for me while reading a section in TDOG about conversion. Campbell was pointing out the characteristics of conversion experiences as studied by sociologists. He explained that, contrary to ideal evangelical imagination, but rather like the actual experiences of evangelicals if we thought about it, conversions usually take place as the result of gradual shift from one community to another. The basic progression, according to research on people who convert between religions, seems to be something like this:

  1. Person introduced to (or has attention brought to) new religion by friends, family, or other persistent relationships.
  2. Person interacts more and more with new group, developing new relationships and connections.
  3. Gradually, the connections to this new group begin to outweigh connections to the old, and loyalties begin to shift.
  4. Person, according to the manner learned from the new group, makes a decisive change of association and identifies with the new group. Conversion is complete.

As far as I can tell, this appears to be about right. Certainly, I’ve watched it happen myself within Christianity, with denominations and individual churches. While of course there are exceptions, these do not seem to be particularly normative, and many (though by no means all!) of the people who make less progressive and more instantaneous “conversions” tend to be like the rocky soil, and they wither in no time. If we only count conversions that “stick,” this would seem to be an even more accurate account.

So reading this about conversion got me to thinking just how useful it really can be to invite people into our churches and welcome them with love and kindness. If someone is brought into a community of people worshipping Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love, and those people actually do treat them in a radically gracious and genuinely invested way, this display of the Spirit through love really can do wonders, and can fill people’s natural social interactions with God’s power unto salvation. Nothing can make people want to follow Christ more than to see Christ’s life being truly embodied before their eyes by a community of His people proclaiming His Word.

Yet there is, it seems to me, a danger latent in this strategy. Welcoming the unbeliever into our association and love is certainly good, but appears to carry with it the danger of mere assimilation instead of conversion on its own. When we simply fellowship with and love and befriend the visiting unbeliever, we might run the risk of them eventually just thinking as though they are one of us, a true Christian and member of the Body, despite having never repented of their sins, responded to Christ in faith, or submitted to accountability within the Church as legitimate member. We might lose them one day to realize that we have lost a friend, but that this friend fell through the cracks of our love and acceptance without ever joining in the new and eternal life found in Christ.

So what can we do about this? How do we leverage the power of Spirit-filled community to draw people to Christ while simultaneously ensuring that people aren’t just silently absorbed without any defining encounter with Christ resulting in a conversion to faith and repentance? I think the proper answer to this potential difficulty lies in the proper use of the sacraments. I am a firm believer in weekly Communion, despite being immersed in a Baptist world where such practice is rare. One day I hope to remedy that. But that is rather beside the point.

Setting up baptism and Communion as strict distinguishing marks, I believe, provides the necessary protection against mere assimilation. Weekly Communion where only those who have been baptized may participate provides a constant and, depending on how Communion is performed, potentially quite conspicuous reminder of the difference between being in Christ, part of His Body, and outside Christ, still part of the world. Even when the unbeliever is loved and welcomed and finds himself deeply wanting to be one of these people and share in their (Spirit-filled) life, the dividing line of Eucharistic separation is bound to create a tension which will have to be resolved at some point, either by abandoning the community he has grown attached to or by converting and joining that community. Arms wide open and altars narrowly restricted, a powerful love and a burning awareness of distinction, should act as the opposite pressures driving the potential convert in one of two directions: join the Body and its Christ or flee from both.

As another thought, I suspect the impact of this could be further enhanced by weekly fellowship meals, with Communion taking place immediately prior to the general eating. If you want to stay and eat with all of the people you are growing to love but must first watch only those committed to union with one Christ participate in a celebration of Him, I expect the decision-driving tension would only grow more powerful. In the end, the idea is to create a fellowship so attractive, virtuous, welcoming, and gracious that all want to become a part, but to make a public commitment to Christ in baptism the only path to truly do so. I suspect this will weed out many who are not truly concerned, but will provide opportunity for strengthening for those who might find themselves being drawn. May this be what happens, no matter what we actually do.

Arms Open, Altars Closed: Thoughts on Conversion