Reforming Calvinism, pt. 21: Irresistible Grace (The Logic of Hell)

In this final post on reforming Calvinism’s doctrine of irresistible grace, I arrive at a burning question—perhaps the burning question—that constitutes for many the deal-breaker when it comes to an evangelical reworking of Reformed soteriology. With its emphasis on the “one-for-all” dynamic of Christ’s person and work (i.e. in Christ all people are represented in his election, incarnation, and atonement), it seems to imply, if not downright demand, the heresy of final universal salvation. Is this indeed the ultimate defeater of the revised form of Calvinism that I have been advocating throughout this series?

I can think of no better response to this question than the one that T.F. Torrance gives in his introduction the Reformed confessions and catechisms in The School of Faith (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996, pp.cxiii-cxvi). Torrance writes (and I quote at length):

If Christ had not come, if the Incarnation had not taken place, and things between man and God had been and are allowed to take their course as a result of man’s estrangement from God and God’s judgement upon man, man would disappear into nothing. It belongs to the nature of sin that it is alienation from God, and therefore that it is alienation from the source of all being in the Creator. There is nothing that the rebel or the sinner wants less than to be laid hold of by God in spite of his sin and be restrained from his sinful movement away from God, but that is precisely what happened in the Incarnation. The Incarnation means that God refused to hold back his love, and His loving affirmation of His creation, that He refused to let man go the way of his sin, from alienation to alienation, and so ultimately into non-being. The Incarnation means that God Himself condescended to enter into our alienated human existence, to lay hold of it, to bind it in union with Himself; and the consummation of the Incarnation in the death and resurrection means that the Son of God died for all men, and so once and for all constituted men as men upon whom God had poured out His life and love, so that men are for ever laid hold of by God and affirmed in their being as His creatures. They can no more escape from His love and sink into non-being than they can constitute themselves men for whom Christ has not died. How can God go back upon the death of His dear Son? How can God undo the Incarnation crucified5and go back upon Himself? How can God who is Love go back upon the pouring out of His love once and for all and so cease to be Himself?

That is the decisive, final thing about the whole Incarnation including the death of Christ, that it affects all men, indeed the whole of creation, for the whole of creation is now put on a new basis with God, the basis of a Love that does not withhold itself but only overflows in pure unending Love. That is why creation still continues in being, and that is why man still exists, for God has not given him up, but on the contrary poured out His love upon him unreservedly once and for ever, decidedly and finally affirming man as His child, eternally confirming the creation as His own handiwork. God does not say Yes, and No, for all that He has done is Yes and Amen in Christ. That applies to every man, whether he will or no. He owes his very being to Christ and belongs to Christ, and in that he belongs to Christ he has his being only from Him and in relation to Him.

All this is not to say that a man may not suffer damnation, for he may in spite of all reject Christ and refuse God’s grace. How that is possible, we simply cannot understand; that a sinner face to face with the infinite love of God should yet rebel against it and choose to take his own way, isolating himself from that love—that is the bottomless mystery of evil before which we can only stand aghast, the surd which we cannot rationalise, the enigma of Judas. But it happens. Just as it is by the very breath God gives us that we sin against Him, so it is by the very being that a man is given in and through Christ that he may yet turn his back upon Christ and deny Him, and so shatter himself against the love of God that will not let him go just because it does not cease to love. But this does mean that if a man irrevocably chooses the way of his sinful self-will and suffers damnation, he does not and cannot go into non-being, disappearing into annihilation, for the Incarnation and death of Christ cannot be undone. The sinner cannot undo the fact that Christ has gathered him into a relation of being with Him, and has once and for all laid hold of him in His life and death and resurrection.

This may be stated in another way. The sinner cannot isolate himself from God by escaping into an area where God’s love does not love and where he can be left to himself. Even in hell he cannot be left to himself for there he is still apprehended by the fact that God loves, that His love negates all that is not love just by being love, that His love refuses to allow the sinner to escape being loved and therefore resists the sinner’s will to isolate himself from that love. His being in hell is not the result of God’s decision to damn him, but the result of his own decision to choose himself against the love of God and therefore of the negative decision of God’s love to oppose his refusal of God’s love just by being Love. This negative decision of God’s love is the wrath of the Lamb, that is to say, the once and for all fact that Christ has died for the sins of the world, the finalising of the love in an eternally decisive deed, which just because it cannot be undone stands irresolutely opposed to all that is not love, or that resists it. Just because the love of God has once and for all drawn all men into the circle of its own loving, it has thereby rejected all that rejects God’s love. It does not reject by ceasing to love but precisely by continuing to love and therein rejecting all that rejects love. Therefore the sinner in hell cannot escape the fact that he is loved, cannot escape into being left to himself, and therefore even in choosing himself so as for ever to be himself, he cannot escape from himself as one loved, so that he is for ever imprisoned in his own refusal of being loved and indeed that is the very hell of it.

Words and thoughts fail us when we try to think like this. We can only stammer for we hardly know what we say, but must we not ask what is the relation of Christ of those who ultimately refuse Him? And since we cannot think it out to the end, if only because the end, the eschaton, is still to come, must we not yet say, that ultimate refusal of Christ cannot undo the fact that the sinner was made brother to Christ by His Incarnation, and bought with the blood of Christ, and in that He died for him and even rose again for him, must we not also say that when he stands before God at the final judgement it is what Christ has done for him that raises him to judgement? Such implications may baffle us until we clap our hands upon our mouth, but whichever way we turn we are still faced with the inescapable fact that the Incarnation and the Cross involve the being of all men, so that they have their humanity only from Him.

This is certainly a dense offering from Torrance, one that alone warrants a book-length treatment to expound all of its underpinnings, nuances, and implications. Nevertheless, I only want to add a couple of comments in conclusion. First, Torrance helps us to see that far from leading to universalism, the universal scope of the incarnation and the atonement is actually the only way to make sense of the stark reality of an eternal hell. Most other explanations either seem to make God out to be cruel and unjust, or they elevate God’s justice to the point of stripping him of his other essential perfections such as mercy, grace, compassion, and love. Torrance’s account, on the other hand, provides a compelling logic for hell’s reality and eternality. It is precisely because God has bound himself to all humanity in virtue of his loving assumption of that humanity in the incarnation of his Son that none can simply slip into non-existence (or be annihilated). The Word became flesh so that this could never happen! Therefore, God could no more permit the dissolution or effect the annihilation of anyone than he could, as Torrance says, undo the incarnation itself. What is more, the atonement that Christ carried out in his state of incarnation (thus implying its universal scope) demonstrates the infinite measure of the love of the God who pledged his very self in death for the sake of humanity. Those who reject this omnipotent love can only, as Torrance states, “shatter themselves” against the love that will not let them go. In rejecting the love of God in Christ, they find themselves on the shadow side of the cross where they are rejected by the love that opposes all that is opposed to it.

Second, Torrance dislodges the mystery of damnation from some mysterious, hidden pretemporal decree and relocates it to its proper place: in the mystery of sin. This is “the enigma of Judas”, an incomprehensible rejection of the love of God that was first displayed in the choice of Adam and Eve to rebel in Eden. There is no satisfying way to explain how or why Adam and Eve rebelled, and likewise there is no satisfying way to explain how or why anyone else would, or will forever, reject the love of God in Christ. Sin is by nature irrational, and thus it is by definition impossible to find a rationale for it. If we could rationally explain sin, then we would empty sin of the very thing that makes it what it is. We can only, as Torrance cautions, “stand aghast” and “clap our hands upon our mouth”. While this will certainly not satisfy those who press for tidy logical systems, it is the only answer that can be given when we peer into the bottomless pit of evil, of what Paul calls in 2 Thessalonians 2 the “mystery of iniquity”. What we must not do is strip the incarnation and the atonement from its full range and power in the attempt to rationalize that which is ultimately irrational.

All this to say, the question of universalism should not stand in the way of reforming Calvinism!

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Reforming Calvinism, pt. 20: Irresistible Grace (Conversion as Onto-Relationality)

In part 19 of my series on Reforming Calvinism, I argued that a better way to formulate the traditional Reformed doctrine of “irresistible grace” would be to ground it in Christ’s own vicarious reception of and victorious life in the Holy Spirit. That is to say, the grace of the Holy Spirit that brings sinners to conversion is not a quality that is granted to or infused in the human soul but the “irresistible” action of Christ himself in receiving the Spirit at his baptism, in living out a life of perfect holiness under the conditions of fallen humanity
through dependence on the Spirit, and in rising to an indestructible life by the power of the Spirit. Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARQuestions remain, of course, for while this may be set forth as the primary meaning of “irresistible grace”, it still does not explain how individuals come to partake of Christ’s Spirit-filled vicarious humanity through union with him. Asked simply: how does the conversion of sinners actually take place?

Instead of the typical Reformed answer that resorts to logico-causal, mechanistic, or quasi-sacramental frameworks (for this, see my previous posts in this series), I think that a more promising way forward is that which Torrance outlines in terms of “onto-relationality”. Onto-relationality is simply a fancy way of saying that we are who we are only in our relations with others. In other words, we do not exist as isolated individuals who can be considered apart from our personal relations with those other than ourselves; rather, our very existence as persons is dependent on the personal relations in which we are enmeshed from the very beginning. For Torrance, onto-relationality is a concept rooted ultimately in the Trinity: God the Father is not “Father” without the Son, and God the Son is not “Son” without the Father. A father is not a father who has not a son, and a son is not a son who has not a father. Inasmuch as we human beings possess personhood as image-bearers of God, we should not expect that our own existence would be any less onto-relational. This is, in fact, what we learn from the opening chapters of Genesis: God creates human beings to live in dependent communion with himself, and their attempt to forge for themselves an autonomous existence only leads to their destruction.

This concept of onto-relationality provides a fruitful way of understanding what occurs in the conversion of sinners through the work of the Holy Spirit. Gary Deddo helps us to connect the dots when he writes:

For Torrance the Holy Spirit is the ontological connection between the Father and Son in their Trinitarian life, between the Son and his human nature in the incarnation, and between us and the incarnate Son. These relations each in their proper way are all onto-relations, that is, they are all being constituting relations. Thus the atoning exchange which took place in Jesus renewed the very being of human nature. Torrance provides a profoundly ontological and so real, actual, personal, and relational grasp of the work of the Spirit. Torrance’s realistic and ontological interpretation makes intelligible the reality and actuality of our relationship to God which demands a real and actual response of praise and worship.

Through consideration of a number of ever more comprehensive themes Torrance further discovers the intensely personal nature of the relationship established with humanity in Christ. Union with Christ, understood in an onto-relation way, encapsulates his grasp of the reality of relationship. For Torrance salvation is the perfection and completion of our union and communion with the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. That union with God actualizes a reconciling exchange which affects us at the very core of our being, so that we become in relationship to God other than what we were on our own. For in that exchange we receive not some divine stuff or something external to us, but are united in person to Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit which was in Christ…

In the West, Torrance suggests, there has been a growing tendency to identify the Spirit with the human spirit and creativity. He insists that the Holy Spirit can in no way be identified with the human spirit or its experiences. The Spirit, although united to human subjectivity, can never be confused with it. The Spirit retains its sovereign lordship over and independent personhood within humanity…The Holy Spirit always belongs to God and not to us. We may be possessed by the Spirit but the Spirit is never in our possession.

It might seem that this view jeopardizes the integrity of humanity. But if humanity is constituted by its relation with its Creator and Redeemer, such that there is no such thing as human autonomy, then for Torrance such union and communion in the Holy Spirit is no threat to humanity but is its fulfillment. For the Spirit is mediated to us in and through the perfected humanity of Jesus Christ. The only thing threatened is a claim to human autonomy which leads to alienation from God and death. In the Spirit God does not overwhelm us. Rather than the loss of self the Spirit provides its completion…The Spirit perfects our humanity in our humanity on the basis of the humanity of Jesus Christ.[1]

Deddo’s elucidation of onto-relationality à la T.F. Torrance offers a way of conceiving the Spirit’s work in conversion that avoids, on the one hand, facile (and unbiblical!) recourse to some notion of libertarian free will and, on the other hand, the equally unbiblical idea of grace as a substance or quality imparted to human soul that “irresistibly” enables the decision and subsequent life of faith. In Deddo’s (and Torrance’s) estimation, no one is able to choose to believe the gospel through some innate capacity of their own, nor does the objective work of the Holy Spirit become subjectivized as the property of those who do believe. The Spirit is and ever remains, as the Nicene Creed states, “the Lord and Giver of life” who can never become the possession of those in whom he operates. Rather, it is the personal presence and action of the Spirit that, through the preaching of the gospel, mediates to us the presence and action of Christ in whom we become fully and finally personalized as human beings.

When the gospel is proclaimed to us, the Spirit brings us into a direct, personal relation with Christ himself, an act that renders us, for the first time, truly human, and that sets us free (free indeed!) to believe. This freedom, however, is not that which is usually intended by the phrase “free will”, for it is not a freedom to choose between two possible alternatives — either for or against Christ — but only a freedom to choose Christ! To be human — truly, fully, authentically, beautifully human as God originally intended when he created us in his image — does not involve the freedom to live in rebellion against him but only to live in communion with him! This is what the Spirit accomplishes through the preaching of the gospel: he establishes an onto-relation between Christ and ourselves through which the dehumanizing effects of sin are undone and the humanizing power of Christ’s vicarious humanity re-personalizes us so that we are freed to become the human beings that God created us to be in life-giving fellowship with himself.

Precisely how this occurs is a mystery, as mysterious as the Spirit’s conceiving of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary. Yet that it occurs is something that we can surely affirm, just as surely as we can (and must!) affirm that Jesus was conceived of the Spirit in Mary’s womb. Ultimately, when it comes to the Spirit’s work in the conversion of sinners, we are brought to the edge of a fathomless chasm into whose bottomless depths we can peer but cannot plumb. In the final analysis, the conversion of sinners should be a cause for wonder and adoration rather than logic and speculation. May we praise God for his indescribable gift!

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[1] Gary W. Deddo, “The Holy Spirit in T.F. Torrance’s Theology”, in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T.F. Torrance, ed. Elmer M. Colyer. (Lanham; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), pp. 93, 95.

The Impossible Possibility: Karl Barth on the Paradoxical Relation between Grace and Unbelief

In talking with someone about my recent post on why a commitment to universal atonement, at least as articulated by T.F. Torrance, does not entail a corresponding commitment to universal salvation, I was reminded of how counterintuitive this seems, especially to those coming from a background in traditional Reformed soteriology. Although not stating it in quite these terms, I explained that far from necessitating universalism, Torrance’s understanding of universal atonement actually necessitates the very opposite! To many, such as the person with whom I was conversing, this statement appears to be highly paradoxical, if not utterly incoherent. It seems that if we affirm universal atonement, then we are either forced to affirm universalism or fall back into a libertarian notion of free will. If we reject both of these options, then, so the reasoning goes, we are left only with the possibility of affirming limited atonement and its corresponding view of limited predestination.

While this post may not clear up all of the confusion, I would like to offer what I hope will be a further clarification of this issue. This time, my point of reference will be Karl Barth who, in the first half volume of his Church Dogmatics writes:

[It is not] faith that puts in effect all that the Word of God tells us. Faith too, and faith especially, is faith in Jesus Christ. It is thus the recognition and confirmation that God’s Word was already in effect even before we believed and quite apart from our believing. Faith particularly—and this is the element of truth in the older Lutheran 6a00d83451cfe769e201310fb8506c970cdoctrine of the [efficacy of the Word apart from its appropriation]—lives by the power which is power before faith and without faith. It lives by the power which gives faith itself its object, and in virtue of this object its very existence.

Baptism was instituted for this reason, as a sign of this true and supreme power of God’s Word. As a real act on man, as an act of sovereign disposition, it proclaims for its part that man belongs to the sphere of Christ’s lordship prior to all his experiences and decisions. Even before he can take up an attitude to God, God has taken up an attitude to him. Whatever attitude he may adopt, it will be done within and on the ground of the attitude that God has adopted to him. If he believes, this will be just a confirmation of the fact that he has God’s promise and is claimed, judged and blessed by God. If he does not believe, this again will not be a possibility he can freely choose. He will sin against God’s Word. He will not show himself to be free, but unfree. He will not choose, but will be rejected. He will grasp, not a possibility, but an impossibility. In a Word, in his very unbelief he will be measured by the Word of God and smitten by its power. The preceding attitude of God to him will make his unbelief unbelief, his sin sin. Only in the sphere of grace is there faith and unbelief, righteousness and sin. Only through the power of God’s Word are there the two categories, those who are saved and those who are lost.[1]

Let me try and unpack Barth’s reasoning. First, Barth asserts that when the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, comes to us whether in written or spoken form, it is not our act of faith that “activates” its power so as to make it true. What the gospel proclaims is true, apart from and prior to our act of faith. As Paul argued in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, the fact that many people are blind to the light shining in the face of Christ does nothing to detract from that light’s brilliance. Just like the sun, the light of Christ revealed in the gospel shines on us, whether we are able to see it or not. Another way of saying this is that Jesus is, as Peter told Cornelius in Acts 10:36, the Lord of all, whether or not they acknowledge him as such. The fact that not every knee bows and not every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord in the present does not mean that Jesus is not actually the Lord, even their Lord, the one to whom has been given all power in heaven and on earth.

Now, Barth continues, if the gospel proclaims that Jesus is Lord of all people independent of their awareness or submission to him, then this means that they are implicated in the sovereign decision that God has made concerning the final destination toward which all of human history is directed. That is to say, the decisive event that took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is determinative for all human beings. As Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

The gospel is God’s command that “all people everywhere repent”, a command that, in contrast with the “times of ignorance” characterizing history prior to the coming of Christ, now confronts every human being precisely on account of the death and resurrection of Christ. Leading up to the final judgment, this gospel is a “fragrance from life to life” for those who are saved is the same gospel that is also “a fragrance from death to death” for those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15-16). Note well: the destiny of the latter is not determined by a power different from the one that determines the destiny of the former; both result from an encounter with the objective reality of the lordship of Christ which the gospel proclaims to all. Jesus is Lord of all people, and thus the destiny of all people is inextricably bound up with him, whether they acknowledge it or not.

With this understanding in place, Barth moves on to describe the actual moment of decision: what then accounts for the division between those who are saved and those who are perishing? It is not that God has decided positively for some and negatively for the rest, for the gospel’s proclamation of the universal lordship of Christ means that the same decision has been rendered for all: every knee will bow and every tongue will confess in one way or another. Rather, Barth offers an asymmetric account of the point of division between the two groups: those who hear the gospel and believe simply confirm the reality of the decision that God has made concerning them. This is not a “free” choice in the sense that it can ultimately be traced to an autonomous decision on the human side; it is simply what we would normally expect when those who are under God’s decision in Christ are confronted with this fact through the preaching of the gospel.

On the other hand, there is no corresponding explanation for why the rest refuse to acknowledge Christ’s lordship over them. It is a mystery because in Christ God has negated sin, condemning it in the flesh of the one who was made in likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). There is no rational, logical explanation for why Christ’s subjects do not subject themselves to him but rather resist and rebel. When this occurs, therefore, their refusal to repent cannot be described as a “free” choice either, in the sense that they have simply chosen between two equal possibilities. Because the gospel comes as a command with the infinite weight of the authority of God, there is only one conceivable option when it confronts us: repent and believe as God has commanded. The “choice” to do the opposite is not truly a possibility that exists on the same level; hence it is asymmetric. Thus when people make this incomprehensible choice, they do not show that they are free but only unfree, enslaved to the sin that has been negated at the cross, having their minds blinded by the god of this world to keep them from seeing the glory of Christ in the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3).

Thus, whether we consider those who are saved or those who are perishing, in neither case do we have a situation in which the determinative factor is either that 1) God has positively decided for the salvation of one group while deciding for the damnation (or at least passing over) the rest, or that 2) the people confronted by the gospel have simply exercised their free will. Rather, both those who are saved and those who are perishing respond, for reasons that cannot be correlated, on the basis of the prior decision of God in Christ. Those who respond in faith have merely done that which corresponds to God’s prior decision for them, whereas those who respond in rebellion have merely done that which a mind blinded and enslaved by the god of this world are capable of doing. Undergirding all of this is the gospel’s proclamation that the destiny of every single human being has been decisively determined in the death and resurrection of Christ, an objective fact that lays upon every human being the necessity to repent and believe. Thus, however paradoxical it may seem, it is the universal scope of that which the gospel proclaims that creates the crisis of decision to which all people are called, giving rise to the “impossible possibility” that many will refuse and thus consign themselves to eternal damnation.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1. (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), p.154.

Reforming Calvinism: Why Universal Atonement Does Not Entail Universal Salvation

In a post in which I explained T.F. Torrance’s contention that the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement implies a heretical Christology, specifically that of Nestorianism. Following Torrance, I argued that a fully orthodox Christology, resting on the twofold concept of anhypostasia (the Word assumed the flesh and nature common to all humanity) and enhypostasia (the Word become a particular human, Jesus of Nazareth), requires us to affirm that what Christ did on the cross he did for everyone who shares the humanity that he assumed in the incarnation, meaning that he made atonement for all people.

Usually one of the first questions (and objections!) that arises in response is this: will then all people be saved and, if not, why? I have heard this rejoinder countless times, and it was once again expressed in a comment on the aforementioned post. From the perspective of a traditional Reformed soteriology, it seems illogical, unless one falls back on the notion of libertarian free will, to affirm universal atonement but deny, as Torrance adamantly does, final universal salvation. If Christ died efficaciously for all, then why are not all saved? I am sympathetic to those who respond this way because it is precisely how I would have reacted myself a few years ago! So I think it would be beneficial to sketch out an answer to this question (which is the purpose of this post), but with the caveat that I can only torrance_2-1address, given the constraints of a blog post, one particular part of what could (and perhaps should) be a much longer answer.

I would like to quote a section from the introduction to Torrance’s book Atonement written by his nephew Robert Walker. Walker, who edited the lectures that comprise the book, helpfully summarizes Torrance’s resolution to this seeming conundrum:

The fact that God has become man and that the whole life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a real act of man, means that God has not come half way to humanity as it were, leaving humanity to go the other half, but that he has so come to humanity that in time and in human flesh he has actually completed for humanity their whole salvation. In the humanity of Jesus, the word of God has become truth in the heart of man, the covenant has been fulfilled from the side of God and from the side of man, and the kingdom of God has begun on earth…

It is the radically substitutionary nature of salvation in Christ which makes his entry into times even more decisive and eschatological. If Jesus has acted on behalf of all humanity and completed the salvation of all inside his person, then whether they will or not he has made it a fait accompli and something they are confronted with in his person. If by contrast salvation is simply on offer in his person, then there is a sense in which people can take it or leave it and pass by on the other side. But if Jesus has actually taken the place of each and every single human being before God, and in their place and on their behalf has achieved salvation for them, then they are inescapably involved. The radically substitutionary and representative nature of Jesus’ action for each and every person means that they have been set aside and something has been done in their name. They have been signed up for salvation by the action of God and of man in Christ while they were still enemies. The ground has been taken from under their feet and in the person of Christ they are confronted with their own salvation, inescapably involving them in decision.

If is the fact Jesus is not only God but God acting as man for humanity, and not only as man but as individual man, achieving salvation for us in the reality and individuality of his person and meeting us individually in personal encounter, that involves us in existential decision and in eschatological tension between reality of what-and-who he is for us and what we still are in ourselves. It is the fact that Jesus has done something in our name and in our place for each person individually that means we are inescapably involved in decision as he meets each person individually in personal encounter, in the reality of what he is for us in his love and grace and in his calling us to follow him in faith.[1]

If we pay close attention to what Walker says, we can begin to see why Torrance’s understanding of the atonement, far from logically terminating in universalism, actually grounds the stark reality of eternal damnation and intensifies the evangelistic call to faith and repentance. While this may seem like a paradoxical statement, Walker shows us why it is the necessary correlate to “the radically substitutionary nature of salvation in Christ”. It is only because in Christ a divine decision has been irrevocably made regarding every single human being – a decision not ultimately for damnation but salvation – that every single human being is called to make a decision for Christ. Had Christ not vicariously substituted himself in the place of all humanity, then it would not be true that all humanity bears the responsibility of repenting of sin and trusting in Christ.

Why is this? Because, as Torrance himself reminds us numerous times in his works, the cross was just as much judgment on sin as it was salvation from sin. As Paul affirms in Romans 8:3, God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” and thereby “condemned sin in the flesh”. In Christ, God has passed his divine sentence once for all on human sin, pouring out upon it the full measure of his judgment and wrath. It is precisely for this reason, and only for this reason, that Paul, two verses prior (Rom. 8:1), can exclaim that in Christ condemnation for sin now no longer exists. That is to say, the atonement must first pass judgment on sin before it can save from sin. Better still, the atonement must pass judgment on sin in order that it might save from sin.

This, in turn, has significant ramifications for how we construe the relation of the atonement to the final destiny of humanity. If atonement is inextricably bound up with judgment, then, in order to affirm the universality of judgment, we must also affirm the universality of the atonement. If Christ died efficaciously for only a limited number of human beings, then judgment has likewise only been passed on a limited number of human beings. But this would contradict, among other biblical passages, Paul’s exhortation to the Athenians in Acts 17:3o-31:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

Notice the logic of Paul’s discourse. Prior to the coming of Christ – “the times of ignorance” – there was a sense in which God “overlooked” the sin of the nations of the world. The coming of Christ, however, changed all that. The coming of Christ means that now God is commanding “all people everywhere to repent” through the preaching of the gospel. What accounts for this change? It is because, as Paul makes clear, God will “judge the world in righteousness” in Jesus Christ, a reality attested publicly by his resurrection from the dead after his shameful execution at the hands of the Romans. In other words, Paul draws a direct correlation between the person and work of Christ, the final judgment, and the necessity laid upon every single human being to repent. Yet this correlation would atonement-torrancemake little sense if that which Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection had been intended to have ultimate validity only for a select number of humanity. It is only because Christ represented and substituted himself for “all people everywhere” that all now stand under the divine judgment manifested in the cross and thus bear the responsibility to obey God’s command to repent and believe. As illustrated by the Athenians’ reaction to Paul’s sermon, not everyone will, however, repent and believe, and for such people there remains nothing but the consummation of that very judgment at the end of the age.

Again, as indicated by Walker’s introduction, this is only one piece of a much longer and more nuanced answer that the question to which it responds requires (involving, among other things, the positive role of the salvation Christ achieved in himself and the implications of his vicarious humanity), but hopefully this much allows to see better why Torrance’s view of universal atonement does not lead to universal salvation. Before it ever means salvation, atonement means judgment. Hence, only universal atonement means universal judgment. Because in Christ all are judged, all are commanded to repent and believe the gospel. Tragically, not all will repent and believe, and thus not all will be saved.

One final point: If we press Torrance as to why not all will repent and believe, he will not respond with the typical answer given by those who hold to an Arminian soteriology (which is one reason why we cannot accuse him of Arminianism!), namely, that such is the result of libertarian free will. Torrance will have nothing of that, precisely because he knows that the will that we suppose is free is merely self-will, a will curved in on itself intent on sinfully usurping the place of God. Free will is a mirage that upon close inspection dissolves into a rebellious will hell-bent on its own destruction. Rather, the refusal to repent and believe can only be attributed to the irrational and absurd nature of sin before which, Torrance says, we can only stand aghast and tremble. Were we able to explain the sin that lies at the root of humanity’s rejection of the gospel, then sin would no longer be sin, for sin is by nature inexplicable. However unsatisfying an answer this may be, it is the only one that can be given in the face of the “mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:7).

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[1] Robert T. Walker, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ in T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), pp. lxvi-lxvii. Emphasis mine.

Reforming Calvinism: Why the Doctrine of Limited Atonement Implies a Heretical Christology

T.F. Torrance is known to have criticized the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement (i.e. that Christ died in an efficacious way only for the elect) on the basis of its implicit Nestorianism, the early Christological heresy, condemned by the council of Ephesus in 431, that separated Christ’s divine nature from his human nature in such a way that he essentially came to be thought of as two distinct persons held together (in a single body, as it were) by a union of will. Now, at first blush, it may not be immediately apparent to the casual reader why Torrance would make this claim. What has Nestorianism (which atonement-torrancerelates to Christology) to do with limited atonement (which relates to soteriology)? A critic (though not an unappreciative one) of Torrance, Kevin Chiarot, argues that Torrance’s “continual application of Nestorianism to limited atonement seems overdone. The view is traditionally held by people who repudiate Nestorianism…[T]o accuse them of splitting incarnation and atonement, or the divine and human natures of Christ, is an exercise in question begging.”[1] In response to critics like Chiarot, is anything to be said in Torrance’s defense?

Although I am sympathetic with those who struggle to see the connection that Torrance makes here (because it was not readily obvious to me at first), I am persuaded that he is fundamentally correct, and it is partly for this reason that I have personally advocated on this blog the need for traditional Calvinism to be reformed. To help explain why this is so, I would like to quote a section from Adam Neder’s excellent essay on Karl Barth’s view of the hypostatic union (i.e. the orthodox way of understanding Christ as having two natures united in one person). Neder writes:

When the Word became flesh, he did not cease to be God, but as the unfolding of election, and in accordance with the will of the Father, he became also a man. In an act of pure mercy and grace, God in his mode of being as the Son became flesh. But what, Barth asks, does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? It certainly cannot mean that he adopted into unity with himself one man among other human beings, nor can can it mean that he exists “in a duality” along side an individual man. For were that the case, the Son would not really have become flesh at all, and atonement would have been impossible, since that which occurs in the humanity of Jesus Christ is relevant for the rest of humanity only because Jesus Christ’s humanity is the humanity of God. Thus, Barth rejects adoptionism and Nestorianism because neither can support Jesus Christ’s work of reconciliation. In Barth’s parlance, the Nestorian Christ would simply be man, not the man.

To underscore this point, he affirms the anhypostasis or impersonalitas of the human nature Christ. Jesus Christ exists as a man only as and because the Son of God exists as a man. The man Jesus “exists directly in and with the one God in the mode of existence of His eternal Son and Logos – not otherwise or apart from this mode.” Rather than uniting himself with a homo – an autonomously existing human being – “What God the Son assumed into unity with Himself and His divine being was and is – in a specific individual form elected and prepared for this purpose – not merely ‘a man’ but the humanum, the being and essence, the nature and kind, which is that of all men, which characterizes them as men, and distinguishes them from other creatures.” Barth defines this humanum (elsewhere he refers to it as humanitas) as the “concrete possibility of the existence of one man in a specific form.” Thus Jesus Christ is “a man” – a truly human being – who does not exist independently (anhypostasis), but exists only in the Word (enhypostasis).[2]

Neder here employs some technical terms utilized by both Barth and Torrance to explicate the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures. Basically, “enhypostasis” refers to the fact that when the Word became flesh, he did so by becoming a specific individual in a particular time and place: Jesus of Nazareth born of the virgin Mary. So far so good. But what Neder highlights is that an orthodox doctrine of the incarnation must go beyond a mere affirmation of enhypostasis. Why? It is because there is a serious error lurking in the background. On the basis of enhypostasis alone, would it not be conceivable that when Scripture affirms that the Word became flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, it simply means that the Word chose a man named Jesus of Nazareth who was already alive and then came to dwell in him? Indeed, the doctrine of enhypostasis alone does not guard against this possibility, which is nothing other than another heresy condemned by the early church as “adoptionism”. Even though Nestorianism was a bit more conservative in its approach (because it didn’t consider Jesus karl_barth_profileto have lived for some time prior to the Word coming to dwell in him), it essentially boiled down to the same error: it made it possible to think of Jesus of Nazareth in some measure as a distinct person with a theoretically independent existence apart from the divine Word. This is what Neder means when he says that, according to adoptionism and Nestorianism, Christ “exists ‘in a duality’ along side an individual man”.

Why is this so problematic? It is because, as Neder points out, it would mean that the Word did not actually himself become flesh. That is, the Word, the Son of God, would not have been himself the sole Subject of the incarnation, but would have shared that role with the man Jesus. In this view, the flesh that the Word assumed would not have become the flesh in which God was acting as the operative agent. But this would mean, then, that Paul was wrong in claiming that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, emphasis mine). And if Paul was wrong, and it was not God himself who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, then there would be no hope for salvation, because it is only God who can save!

For this reason, Barth (and Torrance, following the historic line of orthodox Christology) laid great emphasis on the fact that the man Jesus had no independent existence prior to or apart from the Word assuming flesh. This is the meaning of the word “anhypostasis”. Simply stated, anhypostasis means that there would have been no Jesus of Nazareth except that the Word had become flesh. It was the Word, and the Word alone, who was the Subject of the incarnation. This is, of course, not to take away anything from the full humanity of Jesus, which is what the concept of enhypostasis protects. Yet, without the Word’s assumption of human nature, there would have been no Jesus of Nazareth.

The upshot of affirming anhypostasis along with enhypostasis is that it means that Christ was not, as Neder explains, simply man but also the man. In other words, since the Word did not, in the incarnation, assume an independent human person into union with himself, he must have assumed what Barth calls “humanum“, the “being and essence, the nature and kind, which is that of all men, which characterizes them as men, and distinguishes them from other creatures”. By assuming the nature that is common to and shared by all humanity, the Word entered into solidarity and union with all humanity. Yes, the Word became a man – Jesus of Nazareth (enhypostasis). But orthodox Christology demands that we also hold that the Word became the man, the new Adam, the one in whose humanity all people, without exception, are represented.

With these important concepts in place, we are in a position to see why Torrance can legitimately claim that limited atonement implies a Nestorian Christology. First he describes the fundamental problem with Nestorianism in the following way:

If Christ acted only in his human nature on the cross and God remained utterly apart and utterly transcendent, except that he agreed in will with Christ whom he sent to die, then all that Christ does is not necessarily what God does or accepts.[3]

This is, in fact, the view of the atonement that logically follows from a Christ whose human flesh is not of God himself but of an independent human person, for if this is true, then we cannot affirm that it was God in Christ reconciling the world to himself on the cross Thomas_F._Torrancebecause of the split between the divine and human natures of Christ. It is on this basis, and only on this basis, that we could then say that…

…the sacrifice of Christ may be accepted as satisfaction only for the number of the elect that God has previously chosen or determined. [For] if God himself came among us in Christ his beloved Son, and assumed upon himself our whole burden of guilt and judgment, then such an arbitrary view would be impossible. And we must hold the view that it is indeed God himself who bears our sins, God become man and taking man’s place, standing with humanity under the divine judgment, God the judge becoming himself the man judged and bearing his own judgment upon the sin of humanity, so that we cannot divorce the action of Christ from the action of God. The concept of a limited atonement thus rests upon a basic Nestorian heresy.[4]

I hope the connection between limited atonement and Nestorianism is now more clear. Basically, if Christ died effectually only for a limited number of persons chosen from among all humanity in general, then the atonement must be understood only in terms of enhypostasis, that is, as the death of a Christ who was simply man in union with the Son of God. If, on the other hand, we hold enhypostasis firmly together with anhypostasis (and we must do so in order to avoid the specter of Nestorianism), then we cannot say that Christ was simply man but also man – the new Adam, the representative of all humanity – because only in this way can we maintain that Christ was truly the Word become flesh such that in Christ it was God reconciling the world to himself. But if this is true, and if the flesh that the Word assumed was not that of another distinct, independent person but that which came into being only in virtue of the incarnation, then his flesh was the humanum that is common to all humanity, and thus the reconciliation that he accomplished “in his body of flesh by his death” (Col. 1:22) must be said to avail for all. To say otherwise would be to drive a wedge between Christ’s divinity and humanity, and that, quite simply, is Nestorianism.

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[1] Kevin Chiarot, The Unassumed is the Unhealed: The Humanity of Christ in the Christology of T.F. Torrance. (Eugene: Pickwick, 2013), p.221.

[2] Adam Neder, ‘History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), pp.157-158. Quotations from Barth taken from Church Dogmatics IV/2.

[3] T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), pp. 184-185.

[4] Ibid.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 19: Irresistible Grace (The Lord and Giver of Life)

In the previous entry in my series Reforming Calvinism, I answered a question frequently raised regarding the vicarious humanity of Christ, namely, does Christ’s Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARbelieving in our flesh and on our behalf lessen or eliminate the necessity and importance of our own faith? The answer, we discovered, was: No! On the contrary, it is precisely Christ who grounds, creates, sustains, and brings to completion our own faith as we come to share in his faith through union with him. The question with which I left off in that post was this: if this is true, then how is it that such union with Christ occurs whereby we come to share in his faith?

The answer to this, simply stated, is that our union with Christ takes place by the Holy Spirit. Karl Barth makes this point abundantly clear when he writes:

The Holy Spirit is God Himself in His freedom exercised in revelation to be present to His creature, even to dwell in him personally, and thereby to achieve his meeting with Himself in His Word and by this achievement to make it possible. Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit can man be there for God, be free for God’s work on him, believe, be a recipient of His revelation, the object of the divine reconciliation. In the Holy Spirit and only in the Holy Spirit has man the evidence and guarantee that he really participates in God’s revealing and reconciling action. Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit does God make His claim on us effective, to be our one Lord, our one Teacher, our one Leader. In virtue of the Holy Spirit and only in virtue of the Holy Spirit is there a Church in which God’s Word can be ministered, because it has the language for it, because what it says of revelation is testimony to it and to that extent the renewal of revelation. The freedom which the Holy Spirit gives us in this understanding and in this sphere—gives, so far as it is His own freedom and so far as He gives us nothing else and no less than Himself—is the freedom of the Church, of the children of God.

It is this freedom of the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Spirit that is already involved in the incarnation of the Word of God, in the assumption of human nature by the Son of God, in which we have to recognise the real ground of the freedom of the children of God, the real ground of all conception of revelation, all lordship of grace over man, the real ground of the Church. The very possibility of human nature’s being adopted into unity with the Son of God is the Holy Ghost. Here, then, at this fontal point in revelation, the Word of God is not without the Spirit of God. And here already there is the togetherness of Spirit and Word. Through the Spirit it becomes really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God. Through the Spirit flesh, human nature, is assumed into unity with the Son of God. Through the Spirit this Man can be God’s Son and at the same time the Second Adam and as such “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29), the prototype of all who are set free for His sake and through faith in Him. As in Him human nature is made the bearer of revelation, so in us it is made the recipient of it, not by its own power, but by the power conferred on it by the Spirit, who according to 2 Cor. 3:17 is Himself the Lord.[1]

In Reformed theology, it is not uncommon to speak of our conversion taking place through the Spirit’s work of uniting us to Christ. Indeed, this was a central theme in John Calvin’s theology. However, as I pointed out in my critique of the traditional understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ (here and here), the work of the Holy Spirit is frequently transmuted into sacramental notions of ‘created grace’ and ‘infused dispositions’ in which the Spirit’s presence and activity are conceived as qualities or properties of the regenerate individual. As T.F. Torrance contends:

At the back of all this there lies deep down a confusion between the Creator Spirit of Holy God and the creative spirituality of Christian man, and therefore we think we can develop out of ourselves ways and means of translating the new coming of the Spirit and the new creation he brings into the forms of our own natural vitality. The terminology of [Roman Catholics] and Protestants may differ: what Romans call ‘created grace’ Protestants call ‘the Christian spirit’, but in both the supernatural energy and life of the Creator Spirit falls under the disposal of man. In Romanism and Protestantism alike the Church has domesticated the grace and Spirit of God in its own spiritual subjectivity instead of being the sphere of the divine freedom where the Lord the Giver of Life is at work as Creator Spirit.[2]

Given this tendency, it is critical to emphasize two fundamental points in order to free Reformed theology from this error: 1) the Spirit is and always remains, as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed affirms, “the Lord and Giver of life”, and 2) the gift of the Spirit is grounded in and mediated to us by Christ. I will take each of these two points in turn.

First, the Spirit always remains the Lord and the Giver of life wherever he is present and active and can thus never become confused with any quality or property, whether natural or infused, in the regenerate individual. Recalling the important axiom that ‘grace is identical to the Giver’, we cannot make grace a possession of our own without detaching it from the person of the Holy Spirit or elevating ourselves to the level of God. As Barth argues:

But this also means that the creature to whom the Holy Spirit is imparted in revelation by no means loses its nature and kind as a creature so as to become itself, as it were, the Holy Spirit. Even in receiving the Holy Ghost man remains man, the sinner sinner. Similarly in the outpouring of the Holy Ghost God remains God. The statements about the operations of the Holy Spirit are statements whose subject is God and not man, and in no circumstances can they be transformed into statements about man. They tell us about the relation of God to man, to his knowledge, will and emotion, to his experience active and passive, to his heart and conscience, to the whole of his psycho-physical existence, but they cannot be reversed and understood as statements about the existence of man. That God the Holy Spirit is the Redeemer who sets us free is a statement of the knowledge and praise of God. In virtue of this statement we ourselves are the redeemed, the liberated, the children of God in faith, in the faith we confess with this statement, i.e., in the act of God of which this statement speaks. This being of ours is thus enclosed in the act of God. Confessing this faith in the Holy Ghost, we cannot as it were look back and try to contemplate and establish abstractly this being of ours as God’s redeemed and liberated children as it is enclosed in the act of God. We may, of course, be strong and sure in faith—that we are so is the act of God we are confessing, the work of the Holy Spirit—but we cannot try specifically to make ourselves strong and sure again by contemplating ourselves as the strong and the sure. To have the Holy Spirit is to let God rather than our having God be our confidence.

Second, while it is true that we partake of all the benefits of salvation when we are united to Christ by the Spirit, it is also true that the Spirit’s presence and activity in us is itself predicated upon the mediation of Christ. Torrance explains:

The Holy Spirit in his new coming is mediated to us through Christ in his divine and human natures. It behoved Christ to be God that he might give his Spirit to men, for only God can give God. It behoved Christ also to be Man that he might receive the Spirit of God in our human nature and mediate it to his brethren through himself. We are concerned here not primarily with the continuing presence and operation of the Spirit in the world which have been since the beginning of creation, but with the new coming of the Spirit in the profounder and more intimate mode of presence made possible by the Incarnation, and which the world cannot know or receive apart from Jesus Christ and what happened to our human nature in him.

Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary into our human nature through the power of the Spirit; at his Baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon him and anointed him as the Christ. He was never without the Spirit for as the eternal Son he ever remained in the unity of the Spirit and of the Father, but as the Incarnate Son on earth he was given the Spirit without measure and consecrated in his human nature for his mission as the vicarious Servant. He came through the temptations in the wilderness clothed with the power of the Spirit and went forth to bring in the Kingdom of God by meeting and defeating the powers of darkness entrenched in human flesh. He struggled and prayed in the Spirit with unspeakable cries of agony, and bore in his Spirit the full burden of human evil and woe. Through the eternal Spirit he offered himself without spot to the Father in sacrifice for sin; according to the Spirit of Holiness he was raised from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the Father to receive all power in heaven and earth. There he attained the ground from which he could pour out the Spirit of God upon all flesh. As Lamb of God and Priest of our human nature he sent down from the throne of the Most High the gift of the Holy Spirit upon his Church that through the same Spirit the Father and the Son might dwell with men.

Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is thus the Mediator of the Holy Spirit. Since he is himself both the God who gives and the Man who receives in one Person he is in a position to transfer in a profound and intimate way what belongs to us in our human nature to himself and to transfer what is his to our human nature in him. That applies above all to the gift of the Holy Spirit whom he received fully and completely in his human nature for us. Hence in the union of divine and human natures in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit. In his new coming, therefore, the Spirit came not simply as the one Spirit who proceeds eternally from the Father but as the Spirit mediated through the human nature and experience of the Incarnate Son. He came as the Spirit of Jesus, in whom the Son sent by the Father lived out his divine life in a human form, in whom the Son of Man lived out his human life on earth in perfect union with the Father above. He came as the Spirit who in Jesus has penetrated into a new intimacy with our human nature, for he came as the Spirit in whom Jesus lived through our human life from end to end, from birth to death, and beyond into the resurrection. And therefore he came not as isolated and naked Spirit, but as Spirit charged with all the experience of Jesus as he shared to the full our mortal nature and weakness, and endured its temptation and grief and suffering and death, and with the experience of Jesus as he struggled and prayed, and worshipped and obeyed, and poured out his life in compassion for mankind. It is still in the Name of Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit comes to us, and in no other name.[4]

This is important, for it helps us to understand how ‘irresistible grace’ can be both wrong and right. It is wrong when, as noted above, it confuses the Spirit’s person and work with the qualities and operations of regenerate human beings (i.e. an infused disposition that responds irresistibly to the call of the gospel). It is also wrong when it it locates the ‘irresistibility’ of grace primarily in the relationship between the Spirit and human beings, because doing so completely bypasses the mediation of the Spirit from the Father that Christ effects in his own vicarious humanity. In other words, the traditional view of ‘irresistible grace’ transgresses the fundamental axiom of Christian orthodoxy that ‘the works of the three Persons of the Trinity are indivisible’, because it separates the prophetic work of Christ in the preaching of the gospel from the Spirit’s effectual work in those who hear (i.e. the Spirit does not effectually call in a ‘secret’ or ‘inner’ way all those who hear the gospel but only the elect), and it also fails to account for the necessary place of Christ’s vicarious reception of and living in the Spirit on behalf of all whom he represents in his incarnation (i.e. all humanity).

On the other hand, ‘irresistible grace’ can be rightly understood when the Spirit remains the Lord and Giver of life and when the ‘irresistibility’ of grace is located primarily in Christ’s own reception of and living in the Spirit whom he now mediates in his ascended and glorified state every time he exercises his prophetic office in the preaching of the gospel. Grace is thus truly irresistible, not because it infuses grace into our souls, but because it is an accomplished event (and thus irresistible!) in the life of Jesus Christ in which we come to participate through, as Paul says in Galatians 3:2-5, the “hearing” of the gospel. We can be assured, therefore, that when we share the gospel, we don’t have to wonder whether or not the Spirit will effect his ‘secret’ or ‘inner’ work of effectual calling; rather, we can be confident that through us Christ is exercising his prophetic role and the Spirit is at work to unite our hearers with him, and through him to the Father.

As usual, this no doubt leaves a lingering question. If all this is so, then why do many people not respond in faith when they hear the gospel? Moreover, doesn’t this whole reworking of ‘irresistible grace’ logically entail universal salvation? These are important questions that I will address in my next post in this series. Stay tuned!

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.198-199.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.244-245.

[3] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.462.

[4] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.245-247.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 18: Irresistible Grace (All of Christ, All of Us)

In the last entry in my series Reforming Calvinism, I applied the theological axiom “the gift of grace is identical with the divine Giver” to the Christological side of an Evangelical Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARCalvinist revision of the fourth point of TULIP: ‘irresistible grace’. I argued that grace can be truly irresistible only when it is located, first and foremost, in the humanity that Christ assumed in order to fulfill in himself the sum total of our salvation not only objectively on the side of God but also subjectively on the side of humanity. Grace is irresistible in the sense that the election of Jesus Christ for this purpose occurred apart from and prior to any human decision, and thus the existence of every human being – as represented by Christ – is ‘irresistibly’ grounded in and determined by this gracious act. The result, as T.F. Torrance beautifully states, is that:

Jesus Christ was not only the fulfilment and embodiment of God’s righteous and holy Act…but also the embodiment of our act of faith and trust and obedience toward God. He stood in our place, taking our cause upon him, also as Believer, as the Obedient One who was himself justified before God as his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased. He offered to God a perfect confidence and trust, a perfect faith and response which we are unable to offer, and he appropriated all God’s blessings which we are unable to appropriate…Therefore when we are justified by faith, this does not mean that it is our faith that justifies us, far from it – it is the faith of Christ alone that justifies us, but we in faith flee from our own acts even of repentance, confession, trust and response, and take refuge in the obedience and faithfulness of Christ.[1]

Thus, grace is also irresistible in the sense that Christ himself did not resist the will of his Father but offered to him a perfect life of faith, worship, and obedience in our flesh and on our behalf. At this point, a question most certainly arises: if it is Christ who fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith on our behalf to secure not just the accomplishment but also the ‘application’ of our salvation, then what need is there for us to believe ourselves? Doesn’t this idea downplay or eliminate the importance of our own faith?

The short answer to this question is no. However, since this may seem a bit counterintuitive, a bit of explanation is necessary. Let’s listen again to Torrance as he begins to help us sort this out, specifically in relation to justification:

Justification has been fulfilled subjectively as well as objectively in Jesus Christ, but that objective and subjective justification is objective to us. It is freely imputed to us by grace objectively and we through the Spirit share in it subjectively as we are united to Christ. His subjective justification becomes ours, and it is subjective in us as well as in him, but only subjective in us because it has been made subjectively real in our own human nature, in our own human flesh in Jesus, our Brother, and our Mediator.[2]

Though perhaps a bit confusing at first glance, Torrance clearly delineates the various senses in which salvation (or in this case justification) is objectively accomplished and subjectively appropriated. Primarily, the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ means that not only the objective accomplishment of our salvation is found in Christ but also its subjective reception inasmuch as Christ himself, by substituting himself in our flesh and in our place, offered to the Father the perfect human response of faith and trust on our behalf. Therefore, our subjective reception of salvation is actually objective in relation to us, that is, it has occurred outside of us in Christ prior to and apart from any subjective decision or act of faith of our own. Far from minimizing the importance of our own faith, however, it is precisely the objectivity of Christ’s subjective work that, through the Spirit who unites us to Christ, actually makes our own subjective response of faith possible.

The reason for this, as Torrance explains, is that:

Because grace is Christ giving and communicating himself to us unconditionally in his own sovereign love and freedom, its mode of activity can be thought of only as intensely and supremely person. It is grounded in the living relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and its operation is never one that breaks connection with that ground…In other words, grace has its own sui generis mode of operation, akin to the creative activity of God which likewise cannot be described in terms other than itself…

It is perhaps above all in the very nature of theology itself that it is most important to be faithful to the nature of grace and to respect its own mode of activity. Where grace is related to being and causality then the whole redemptive and creative activity of God can be construed only in the concatenation of logico-causal connection. But where theology is faithful to the nature of grace it is concerned to explicate and articulate its understanding of the redemptive and creative activity of God according to the logic of grace, i.e. in accordance with the actual way which the grace of God has taken in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in accordance with the sovereignly free and yet divinely compulsive movement of the life of the Incarnate Son on earth.[3]

What Torrance articulates here is of vital importance, because he helps us to understand why the objection that the vicarious faith of Christ eliminates the need for our own faith is based on a faulty kind of logical thinking. This is not to say that Torrance dispenses with logic altogether. It would be more accurate to say that he presses us to adopt the kind of logic that is appropriate to the subject matter in question. If, as we have already seen, grace is identical with God himself in his own self-giving, then we cannot try to understand the way in which God graciously acts on us in terms of simple cause-and-effect. To apply this kind of logic would be to reduce grace to an impersonal or mechanical force. This, in my view, is why debates concerning divine sovereignty versus human responsibility are often doomed from the outset, because they frequently presuppose a mathematical or zero-sum logic according to which ‘all of God’ is taken to mean ‘none of us’, or, contrarily, that ‘some of us’ leaves room only for ‘some of God’. Therefore, another kind of logic is needed – what Torrance calls ‘the logic of grace’ – that derives from the “actual way which the grace of God has taken in…Jesus Christ”.

What exactly is this ‘logic of grace’ in Christ to which Torrance refers? In an essay entitled ‘Predestination in Christ’, Torrance explains it this way:

If Grace means the personal presence of God to men, then that means concretely, Jesus Christ. Therefore it is in the relation of the deity to the humanity in Jesus Christ that we our to look for our final answer to this question…Here we have very God and very Man, deity unimpaired by the presence of humanity, and humanity unimpaired by the presence of deity…The Incarnation does not mean some kind of metaphysical union between divinity and humanity in general; it was personal (hypostatic); it was the union between the Word and a particular individual, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary. But that does not mean that Jesus as Man had any independent existence from the Word; He has no existence apart from the Incarnation. His existence was grounded solely in the act of God, Who at that one point and at no other, has so come among men.

We must now proceed to draw the analogy. We can say that just as Jesus Christ was vere homo et vere Deus, so in the divine encounter we have a really human decision and a really divine one. The human decision has no independent existence apart from the divine, but nevertheless it is a particular and concrete decision; it is personal…In the experience of faith the man who has been chosen by God cannot say that he has chosen God, and yet the act of Grace means that for the first time man has been set free from the bondage of sin, and placed under God’s claim for obedience…We must say then that there is a kind of hypostatic union between Grace and faith, through the Holy Spirit…Faith has no independent existence apart from the initiative of Grace, nor is it in any sense the produce of human activity working independently of the Word. It is WE who believe, and we come to believe in a personal encounter with the living Word. Faith entails a genuine human decision, but at its heart there is a divine decision, which, as it were, catches up and makes it what it is, begotten of the Holy Ghost.[4]

As Myk Habets notes, Torrance appeals to the ‘logic’ of the incarnation because it is in the hypostatic union of Christ that we see the perfect conjunction of divine and human decision and action and thus the archetype of the way that God’s grace takes in relation to all other human beings.[5] This logic is well expressed in the anhypostasis/enhypostasis couplet which, simply stated, means that human nature of Christ had no independent existence apart from the Word assuming it (anhypostasis) and yet, once assumed, became a concrete and fully realized human being (enhypostasis). The significance of this is that while Christ’s human nature – and thus his human will – existed and operated solely on the basis of the will and action of the Word, this did not mean that it existed and operated as an automaton, merely giving the illusion of meaningful and free human activity. Rather than placing the human will of Christ in slavish subservience to or competition with the divine will, the Word’s action in the hypostatic union, however mysterious or incomprehensible, fully personalized the human will of Christ and thus made it fully free. Since the union of God and humanity in the person of Christ discloses the actual way that grace takes in relation to all other human beings in salvation, it would be a mistake to conclude that Christ’s vicarious humanity – including his faith in our place – would diminish the importance of our faith. Habets comments: “The human decision, like Christ’s humanity, is anhypostatic, it has no independent existence apart from the divine, but it is concrete and personal, and so enhypostatic”.[6] That is to say, had Christ not believed for us, our faith would be non-existent; yet because he believed for us, his faith “authors and perfects” (Heb. 12:2) our own when we are brought into union with him by the Spirit. Thus, as Torrance was fond of saying, all of Christ means all of us.

At this point, questions still remain. Granted that Christ’s faith does not negate but grounds and establishes our own faith as we are united to him, how is it that this union actually takes place? This will be the subject of my next post.

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.159-160.

[2] Ibid., p.160.

[3] Ibid., pp.186-187.

[4] Torrance, T.F., 1941. ‘Predestination in Christ’ in Evangelical Quarterly 13, pp.127-130.

[5] Habets, M., 2008. ‘The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study’ in Irish Theological Quarterly 73, p.342.

[6] Ibid.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 17: Irresistible Grace (The Vicarious Humanity of Christ)

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I. But Christ lives in me, and the life which I now life in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

I begin this entry in my series Reforming Calvinism with Galatians 2:20 because it succinctly states everything that I hope to say in this post regarding an Evangelical Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARCalvinist revision of the fourth point of TULIP: ‘irresistible grace’. In my previous post, I stressed the vital importance of the axiom ‘the gift of grace is identical with the divine Giver’. As I said there, this is the key insight upon which a reformed version of ‘irresistible grace’ must be constructed. What I want to do in this entry is flesh this axiom out specifically in relation to Christ before moving on to the Spirit.

To begin, I would like to quote T.F. Torrance for whom the doctrine so critical to correctly reframing ‘irresistible grace’ was especially precious. The doctrine of which I speak is the ‘vicarious humanity of Christ’, and nothing that I could say would improve upon how Torrance explains it here:

I believe that it is concentration upon the vicarious humanity of Christ in the incarnation and atonement, in death and resurrection, that is particularly important for us today. It is curious that evangelicals often link the substitutionary act of Christ only with his death, and not with his incarnate person and life – that is dynamite for them! They thereby undermine the radical nature of substitution, what the New Testament calls katallage, Christ in our place and Christ for us in every respect. Substitution understood in this radical way means that Christ takes our place in all our human life and activity before God, even in our believing, praying, and worshipping of God, for he has yoked himself to us in such a profound way that he stands in for us and upholds us at every point in our human relations before God.

Galatians 2:20 has long been for me a passage of primary importance…”The faith of the Son of God” is to be understood here not just as my faith in him, but as the faith of Christ himself, for it refers primarily to Christ’s unswerving faithfulness, his vicarious and substitutionary faith which embraces and undergirds us, such that when we believe we must say with St. Paul “not I but Christ,” even in our act of faith. This is not in any way to denigrate the human act of faith on our part, for it is only in and through the vicarious faith of Christ that we can truly and properly believe. Faith in Christ involves a polar relation between the faith of Christ and our faith, in which our faith is laid hold of, enveloped, and upheld by his unswerving faithfulness. No human being can do that for another, far less give himself as a ransom from sin, but this is precisely what the Lord Jesus does when in giving himself for us he completely takes our place, makes our cause his very own in every respect, and yields to the heavenly Father the response of faith and love which we are altogether incapable of yielding.[1]

Lest we think that Torrance exaggerates the claim that evangelicals have neglected the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, we need only consider the reaction that many might have to that which he says regarding not only Christ’s death for us, but also his believing for us. From my perspective, Torrance is dead on in his observation that evangelicals have a well-developed understanding of the vicarious nature of Christ’s death but not of his life. Although some might demur, protesting that Torrance’s critique is misplaced given that many evangelicals affirm the doctrine of imputed righteousness (which obviously necessitates some sense of the vicarious nature of Christ’s life), I think it can be safely affirmed that very few have a firm grasp on the totality of what this means. How so? While many are quick to agree that Christ obeyed for us, they will say that his obedience does not avail for our salvation unless we fulfill the condition of faith. In other words, they do not go so far as to affirm that not only did Christ offer perfect obedience to the Father on our behalf, but that he also perfectly fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith for us as well. In other words, Jesus did not only accomplish the objective side of our salvation as the Son of God, he also accomplished the subjective side of our salvation as the Son of Man. That is to say, he not only offers us, as God, the gift of salvation, but he also vicariously lays hold of that gift in our flesh and on our behalf through his own perfect faith and faithfulness. This, as Torrance notes, is truly radical. It is also, I believe, truly biblical.

First, it is, in my view, the clear teaching not only of Galatians 2:20 but also of other passages, such as Romans 3:22 and Philippians 3:9, where Paul explicitly identifies as justification as occurring on account of the “faith/faithfulness of Christ”. Although this is not the place to delve into the exegetical arguments, I do believe that the Greek of these texts is best translated in this way. Moreover, it is the vicarious nature of Christ’s entire life of obedience and faith that the author of Hebrews has in view when he writes in 2:10-18 and 5:7-9:

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted…

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.

As these passages clearly indicate, the Son of God in his incarnation became like us in every respect, assuming into union with himself our very flesh and blood, that he might save us to the uttermost, including presenting himself before the Father as our great high priest who sings God’s praise and puts his trust in God for us and on our behalf! In his sufferings, tears, obedience, and prayers, he became the source of our eternal salvation. This means that we are thus not saved because we have properly appropriated Christ’s objective work, we are saved inasmuch as Christ also subjectively prayed, believed, and obeyed perfectly for us and thereby offered the perfect response to God in our place. As fallen human beings, we are incapable in and of ourselves of rightly appropriating divine gifts, and thus Christ not only brought salvation within our reach but also vicariously laid hold of it in our flesh and on our behalf. As Khaled Anatolios states, “the unsurpassable gift of the Incarnation is that we were given the very reception of the gift”.[2]

Although the strangeness of this idea may make it seem unorthodox to some, it actually boasts a long and distinguished pedigree, going back to orthodox church fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is arguably what lies behind Irenaeus’ concept of recapitulation according to which “Christ ‘recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind’, and passed through all the stages of human life, sanctifying each in turn”.[3] Moreover, it played an indispensable role in Athanasius’ argument against the Arian heresy inasmuch as the Arians adduced Christ’s human state as evidence of his creaturely nature. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is that which enabled Athanasius to counter the Arian claim by saying, for example, that when Christ received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, it was not primarily for his sake that he did so; rather he received the Holy Spirit vicariously for us knowing that we were unable to do so:

And if, as the Lord Himself has said, the Spirit is His, and takes of His, and He sends It, it is not the Word, considered as the Word and Wisdom, who is anointed with the Spirit which He Himself gives, but the flesh assumed by Him which is anointed in Him and by Him; that the sanctification coming to the Lord as man, may come to all men from Him…Therefore ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever,’ remaining unalterable, and at once gives and receives, giving as God’s Word, receiving as man. It is not the Word then, viewed as the Word, that is promoted; for He had all things and has them always; but men, who have in Him and through Him their origin of receiving them. For, when He is now said to be anointed in a human respect, we it is who in Him are anointed; since also when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized. [4]

The practical importance of this doctrine is further emphasized by Torrance who writes:

There is a kind of subtle Pelagianism in preaching and teaching which has the effect of throwing people back in the last resort on their own act of faith, so that in the last analysis responsibility for their salvation rests upon themselves, rather than on Christ. In far too much preaching of Christ the ultimate responsibility is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and put on the shoulders of the poor sinner, and he knows well in his heart that he cannot cope with it…

Hidden deep down beneath all that there is a failure to take the New Testament teaching about the power of the cross of Christ and his substitutionary role seriously, a reluctance to allow it to apply to the whole of their being and to all their human activity before God, even to their believing and praying and worshipping. We need to learn and learn again and again that salvation by grace alone is so radical that we have to rely upon Christ Jesus entirely in everything, and that it is only when we rely on him alone that we are really free to believe: “Not I but Christ” yet “Christ in me.” Because he came as man to take our place, in and through his humanity is radically transformed, and we become truly human and really free to believe, love, and serve him That is the wonderful message of the cross and resurrection. [5]

The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is thus not only true but indescribably precious. It assures that our salvation is not in the end dependent upon us – neither upon our righteousness and good works nor even upon the quality of our faith and repentance – but totally, completely, and eternally dependent on Christ alone – solus Christus.

This, then, is the Christological aspect of our fundamental axiom ‘saving grace is identical with the divine Giver’. Rather than understanding faith as a quality or action of our regenerate will that is given to us by but ultimately distinct from God (for it is our faith), the faith by which we are saved is, in the final analysis, that of Christ. This is the meaning of Galatians 2:20: when I believe unto salvation, it is not I but Christ who lives in me. It is Christ who believed for me and in my place, and it by his faith – the faith of Jesus Christ – by which I am reconciled and redeemed. This is why the New Testament writers emphasize the completeness of our salvation. Not only has God’s objective work been accomplished, but so has our subjective reception of that work by Christ!

This is also why we can say, in a revised Evangelical Calvinist way, that grace is irresistible. It is not irresistible in the classic sense, namely, that it infuses in us a new disposition by which we cannot do other than believe. Rather, it is irresistible in the sense that it is grounded and actualized in the person of Christ. In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God united himself once and for all with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ (the hypostatic union), and this incarnational union occurred wholly prior to and independent of our response. Inasmuch as Christ represents all humanity in his incarnation, the existence of every human being is thus irrevocably grounded in and determined by him. As such, grace is wholly irresistible.[6] Grace is also irresistible in the sense that Christ never once resisted the will of the Father but always lived in perfect faith and obedience. Grace cannot be resisted anymore than Christ could have resisted his Father. It is therefore his ‘irresistible’ union with humanity in the incarnation (God’s downward movement to us) and his ‘irresistible’ obedience to and trust in the Father in our flesh and on our behalf (our upward movement to God) that fully achieves our salvation, both objectively and subjectively. Calvin thus spoke truly when he said that “Christ left nothing unfinished of the sum total of our salvation”.[7]

At this point, a question most certainly arises: if it is Christ who fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith on our behalf to secure not just the accomplishment but also the ‘application’ of our salvation, then what need is there for us to believe ourselves? Doesn’t this idea downplay or eliminate the importance of our own faith? Wouldn’t this ultimately lead to universalism? These are all important questions, and I will tackle them in subsequent posts.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.30-31.

[2] Anatolios, K., 1996. ‘The Soteriological Significance of Christ’s Humanity in St. Athanasius’ in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 40(4), p.286.

[3] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. p.173.

[4] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Four Discourses against the Arians. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 334–335.

[5] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.35, 37.

[6] I am grateful to Bobby Grow for stimulating my thinking on this point.

[7] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.ix.3.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 16: Irresistible Grace (The Gift and the Giver)

In this entry in my series Reforming Calvinism, I move from my critique of the traditional Calvinist understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ to an Evangelical Calvinist revision. In doing so, my desire continues to be, as it has been all along, not to jettison the traditional five Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARpoints of TULIP but rather to build on the key insights that they contain and reform them into greater conformity to God’s self-revelation in Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. As we have seen in part 15 of this series (here and here), the traditional definition of ‘irresistible grace’ attempts to account for the way in which God sovereignly accomplishes his salvific will in relation to individual human beings so as to preserve the primacy and graciousness of grace. However, by lapsing back into the medieval notions of created grace that funded the Catholic theology so ardently opposed by the Reformers, the classic Calvinist view ultimately undermines the very thing that it hopes to protect. By driving a wedge between the gracious gift and the divine Giver, classic Calvinism turns salvific grace into a ‘thing’ that becomes a quality or possession of the regenerate individual and consequently, it reintroduces the synergistic and sacramental soteriological framework that it superficially eschews.

So how can we begin to reform this doctrine so as to maintain its key insight regarding the primacy and sovereignty of grace? The first step, as hinted above, is to refuse to separate the gift of grace from its divine Giver. With reference to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, Karl Barth warns us that:

Nowhere is there more obvious danger of confusing the subject and object of faith or love than in relation to this third mode of God’s being in revelation [i.e. the Holy Spirit]. But all such confusion is ruled out by the clause: “Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.” This gift, the donum Spiritus sancti, refuses to be abstracted from its Giver. But the Giver is God. We can have the gift only when and as we have God.[1]

Likewise commenting on the Creed, T.F. Torrance stresses:

In the third article of the Creed belief is confessed in the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of life who proceeds from the Father and who with the Father and the Son together is glorified and worshipped.” In line with what is said there about Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God, the Holy Spirit is said to be the Lord and the Giver of Life. In both cases the divine Giver and the divine Gift are one and the same. At the Reformation that Nicene principle was applied not only to the Word of God and to the Spirit of God but also to the grace of God. The grace of God given to us in Christ is not some kind of gift that can be detached from Christ, for in his grace it is Christ himself who is given to us. Properly understood grace is Christ, so that to be saved by grace alone is to be saved by Christ alone. It was in a cognate way that the Reformation (I think here especially of John Calvin) regarded the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is not some gift that can be detached from God and dispensed to us by the church, for the Holy Spirit himself is the Lord and Giver of life. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that the gift of God in Jesus Christ is mediated to us and we are savingly united to Christ.[2]

What Barth and Torrance articulate here in conformity to the theology embedded in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is of utmost importance. However we understand the event of conversion, we cannot divide the grace that effects it from the Giver who gives it by defining grace as something that becomes the possession of the regenerate will in distinction with the being and act of God himself. As Barth succinctly states: “Grace is the Holy Spirit received, but we ourselves are sinners.”[3] To be drawn by grace means to be drawn by God. To be given grace means to be given God. To be saved by grace means to be saved by God. At no point in the ordo salutis does grace become the predicate and humanity the subject. The gift is the Giver, and the Giver is the Lord. As I continue to offer an Evangelical Calvinist revision of ‘irresistible grace’, this will be the fundamental insight upon which everything else will be based.

What then do we make of the statements in Scripture, such as Romans 8:1-11 and Galatians 5:16-26, that seem to speak of a regenerate will and nature being the possession of believers? In response, I would like to briefly make two points. First, a careful reader of these texts will observe that the contrast Paul develops is not between those who are fleshly and those who regenerate but between those who are fleshly and those who are of the Spirit. The difference between these two statements is enormous. The first – that which Paul does not say – distinguishes between two types of humanity simpliciter: the unregenerate and the regenerate. The second – that which Paul does say – does not so much distinguish between two types of humanity as though one possessed an inherent quality that the other does not. The difference, rather, is the presence and action of the Holy Spirit as given by and uniting us with the risen and ascended Christ.

Second, we must remember that the New Testament is decidedly eschatological in orientation. That is, it universally presupposes that the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes has been inaugurated in Christ and by the Spirit but yet awaits consummation in the future. Thus, we cling to the assurance of our redemption not because of what we can see in ourselves but because of what we see in Christ as the one into whose image we will one day be perfectly transformed. As Paul states in Colossians 3:3-4: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” In other words, we believe that in Christ we have died to our sins and have been raised to newness of life. But that fact is that we believe this; we do not see it yet in ourselves. The real ‘us’ is “hidden with Christ in God” and will not be fully revealed until Christ who is our life appears at the end of the age. To profess our salvation, then, is not to attribute to ourselves a new, intrinsic quality; it is rather to fix our eyes firmly on Christ in whom our fully redeemed and glorified selves our hidden. 

I would like to conclude this post with another quotation from Barth who drives these points home with particular force:

That God the Holy Spirit is the Redeemer who sets us free is a statement of the knowledge and praise of God. In virtue of this statement we ourselves are the redeemed, the liberated, the children of God in faith, in the faith we confess with this statement, i.e., in the act of God of which this statement speaks. This being of ours is thus enclosed in the act of God. Confessing this faith in the Holy Ghost, we cannot as it were look back and try to contemplate and establish abstractly this being of ours as God’s redeemed and liberated children as it is enclosed in the act of God.

We may, of course, be strong and sure in faith—that we are so is the act of God we are confessing, the work of the Holy Spirit—but we cannot try specifically to make ourselves strong and sure again by contemplating ourselves as the strong and the sure. To have the Holy Spirit is to let God rather than our having God be our confidence…

But to have it in faith means that we have it in promise. We believe that we are redeemed, set free, children of God, i.e., we accept as such the promise given us in the Word of God in Jesus Christ even as and although we do not understand it in the very least, or see it fulfilled and consummated in the very least, in relation to our present. We accept it because it speaks to us of an act of God on us even as and although we see only our own empty hands which we stretch out to God in the process. We believe our future being. We believe in an eternal life even in the midst of the valley of death. In this way, in this futurity, we have it.[4]

Continuing with the next entry in this series, I will further unpack these crucial insights.

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for help with the opening critique.

[1] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.488-489.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.20

[3] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.466.

[4] Ibid. p.462-463.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 15.2: Irresistible Grace (Critique)

In this second half of the fifteenth entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I continue my critique* of the traditional Calvinist doctrine of ‘irresistible grace’ as articulated by R.C. Sproul on the Ligonier blog (the entirety of which can be accessed here). In the first half of Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARthis post, I considered a bit of the intellectual history underlying this view and suggested that it reintroduces into the Reformed ordo salutis the very element of synergism that it claims to reject. This is due to the fact that it presupposes a sacramental structure of redemption in which the achievement of Christ remains contingent upon a later act of human appropriation (whether participation in the sacraments or a personal decision to believe). This way of separating what Christ accomplished in the past from how his accomplishment is applied in the present results in an economy of salvation in which it is the grace-enabled human action that completes or actualizes Christ’s work in the life of the individual. In this sense, the classic Calvinist view of salvation, even when it claims to hold to ‘grace alone’ and ‘faith alone’, actually comes very close to the Roman Catholic view that it intends to avoid.

In order to defend and explain this a bit more in detail, I would like to begin by referring back to R.C. Sproul’s explanation of ‘irresistible grace’. Sproul states:

He [God], and He alone, has the power to change the disposition of the soul and the human heart to bring us to faith. In addition, when He exercises this grace in the soul, He brings about the effect that He intends to bring about…Hence, we call this irresistible grace…The Holy Spirit changes the inclination and disposition of our wills, so that whereas we were previously unwilling to embrace Christ, now we are willing, and more than willing.

To understand the problems inhering in this, it is necessary to unpack what Sproul says about the grace that God “exercises…in the soul” in order to change its “disposition” and thereby make it receptive to Christ. Reformed historian extraordinaire Richard Muller provides a more technical explanation of what this entails against the background of Reformed orthodoxy:

[A] saving knowledge of God is supernatural not only in its object and ultimate source but also in its instrumentality and its acquisition by the mind. Supernatural theology is mediated by the revealing activity of the logos prophorikos and the Spirit, and it is received by a supernaturally given disposition of knowing (habitus sciendi) or, more precisely, disposition of believing (habitus credendi) distinct from the disposition that receives the natural knowledge of God through perception of the creation. Although the term was not favored by the orthodox because of its medieval usage in the doctrines of grace and justification, theological knowledge is clearly an “infused” knowledge (cognitio infusa) resting, in the receiving mind, on an infused disposition (habitus infusa).[1]

Germane to my critique is what Muller refers to here as the “infused disposition (habitus infusa)” that is created by the Spirit in regeneration and that enables an individual to obtain a saving knowledge of God and put faith in Christ. While Muller notes the reticence with which the Reformed orthodox used this particular phrase given “its medieval usage”, he nevertheless acknowledges that the concept of “infused disposition” was certainly operative in the their understanding of conversion. Elsewhere Muller offers a more detailed explication of this when he writes:

The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel…(3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…(4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith.[2]

In summarizing the various definitions and distinctions of grace in Protestant scholasticism, Muller helpfully orders them according to the typical ordo salutis of scholastic Reformed theology. This helps us to see how Protestant scholastics usually understood the inner mechanisms, as it were, of regeneration and conversion. In reading Muller’s summary, it should become clear that, especially with regard to definitions three to five, the scholastics conceived grace as something infused by the Holy Spirit that enables a person to cooperate in the process of salvation. What is both surprising and disconcerting about this is that this delineation of the various actualizations of grace (due no doubt in part to the scholastic methodology that drew distinctions in the quest for ever-greater logical precision) is very similar to the conceptions of created grace that undergirded the Roman Catholic position on salvation, codified at the Council of Trent, that the Protestant scholastics purportedly opposed. Here is Ron Frost’s historical summary of the development of this conception of grace in the thought of Thomas Aquinas via his appropriation of Aristotle:

In the Summa Theologiae, addressing the new law (lex nova), Aquinas portrayed faith working through love (fide per dilectionem operante), as a property of grace. The grace is delivered through the efficacy of the sacraments and by an instinct of inward grace (anteriorem gratiam). The benefit of the new law, as against the old, is its relative freedom (lex libertatis) from specific directives. This is viewed within the Aristotelian framework: freedom provides opportunity for meritorious choice, either to do well or badly. Aquinas anchored his own cause by citing Aristotle directly: “The free man is one who is his own cause.” Thus Aquinas’s system looked for room—a region of limited autonomy within God’s larger will—in which free choices, enabled by grace, display a person’s ability to “act rightly.” The necessary grace is infused by the Spirit: “Since therefore the grace of the Holy Spirit is a kind of interior disposition infused into us which inclines us to act rightly, it makes us do freely whatever is in accordance with grace, and avoid whatever is contrary to it.”

The notion of habitus, as drawn from Aristotle’s anthropology, was crucial to Aquinas and, though widely noticed in scholarly literature, should be reviewed in passing. Habitus is the principal nexus of nature and grace in Aquinas’s spirituality, the gift of grace which supernaturally enhances nature to be able to bear the responsibilities of faith…Thus Aquinas’s view of grace combined human responsibility with divine enablement—the cooperative model of faith. Love, in this arrangement, is seen to be part of the will in order to be crowned with merit, rather than an affection which, as a response, is non-meritorious. It is this conception of love as part of the enabled will, that supported with Pelagius, that human culpability requires that moral decisions be made freely. But, like Augustine, and against Pelagius, he held that original sin destroys any human ability to choose well. Restoration comes only by God’s grace. This led to the conundrum that morality requires free will, but original sin precludes it. In Aquinas’s solution God provides an assisting grace that enables, but does not compel, the will to choose the good. Culpability is then based on the failure to apply God’s gracious enablement.[3]

The similarities between Thomas’ Aristotelian-influenced understanding of grace and that of the Protestant scholastics according to Muller should not be difficult to discern. Both view grace as that which enables, through regeneration and ‘infusion’ in the individual, the capacity to freely believe. Both consequently regard grace as something which is possessed by regenerated individuals. Both see the necessity of the individual’s cooperation with grace for the attainment of eternal life. And as remembered from the first half of this post, both believe that this operation of grace is ‘infallible’ or ‘irresistible’ in its effect and yet not coercive, for by changing the sinful disposition through regeneration and granting grace as a quality or possession of the regenerated disposition, an individual is enabled to freely believe and persevere in faith unto final salvation.

One of the major problems with this understanding of grace is that it functionally becomes a predicate of the regenerate individual. That is to say, while theoretically dependent on the Holy Spirit, the grace of regeneration is functionally distinct from the Holy Spirit inasmuch as it becomes a property of the regenerate individual. Grace is not so much the presence and action of the Holy Spirit himself as it is a ‘substance’ that can be imparted to an individual resulting in a transformed disposition and intellect by which the individual can freely cooperate in salvation, whether through good works or faith alone.  Frost explains this problem further when he writes:

The bifurcation of grace by Aquinas into created and uncreated aspects…was of profound consequence to subsequent theology. Created grace offers its recipients a new capacity within their own nature to recogize and choose the Spirit’s values, yet this grace is separate from any immediate activity by the Spirit…This synthesis, along with the identification of grace with the eucharistic elements, had very practical consequences it led to an increasingly hypostasized view of grace among the laity. It also tended to shift the focus of theology from God as the source of all grace–a relational emphasis–to grace being pursued for its benefits–a pragmatic and anthropocentric emphasis. Grace, then, as presented in hypostatic terms, engendered the sacramentalism and sacerdotalism which were seen by reformers to have flourished to excess in the medieval period.[4]

Notice the technical yet important language here. The Thomistic conception of grace later appropriated by the Protestant scholastics became effectively “hypostasized” when viewed in terms of an infused possession of regenerate individuals. This means that as grace was ‘personalized’ as an inherent property of the regenerate individual, it was ultimately ‘depersonalized’ in that it became a ‘something’ other than the presence and activity of God himself in Christ and by the Spirit. Although intended to preserve the primacy of grace, this had the ironic and tragic effect of actually diminishing the absolute sovereignty of God’s gracious action and increasing the focus on the responsibility of the regenerate to cooperate with grace. Taken to its logical end, the ‘hypostatization’ of grace within regenerate individuals (i.e. the transformed disposition and intellect) ultimately elevates the regenerate to the place of God insofar as it attributes to human beings the grace and power that can properly be attributed to the presence and action of God alone. As Karl Barth explains:

[T]he creature to whom the Holy Spirit is imparted in revelation by no means loses its nature and kind as a creature so as to become itself, as it were, the Holy Spirit. Even in receiving the Holy Ghost man remains man, the sinner sinner. Similarly in the outpouring of the Holy Ghost God remains God. The statements about the operations of the Holy Spirit are statements whose subject is God and not man, and in no circumstances can they be transformed into statements about man.[5]

The consequences of defining the work of the Holy Spirit in the way against which Barth warns – by transforming statements about grace and the Spirit into statements about the attributes and power of the regenerate will – are serious. It effectively reintroduces synergism into the ordo salutis by placing the burden on regenerate individuals to properly cooperate with the grace they have been given. In so doing, however, such grace cannot truly be said to be irresistible in that it is detached from the Triune God who, as the only fountain of all true ove, joy, beauty, and goodness, is the only truly irresistible One.

This, then, is the theology/philosophy that underlies Sproul’s definition of ‘irresistible grace’ as God’s work in the soul to change its dispositionThe language of Sproul, Muller, and Thomas is, for all intents and purposes, identical, and the evident connection between them substantiates my claim that the soteriology of Reformed scholastic orthodoxy manifests many elements of continuity with the sacramental and synergistic outlook of medieval Catholicism. Although there are of course differences between the two, these differences seem to pale in comparison with the overarching and undergirding framework that funds both of them. It is my conviction, therefore, that the traditional Calvinist understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ is fundamentally flawed, both because it undermines the graciousness of grace and because it is not truly ‘irresistible’. It is for this reason that ‘irresistible grace’ needs to be reformed.

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*Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to sources and providing many of the key insights used in this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.286-287.

[2] Muller, R.A., 1985. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, pp.129-30. (cited at https://growrag.wordpress.com/2016/06/06/grace-compared-and-correlated-post-reformed-orthodoxcontemporary-evangelical-salvation-v-evangelical-calvinism/)

[3] Frost, R.N., 1997. ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’. Trinity Journal 18NS, pp.227-228.

[4] Frost, R.N., 1996. Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology. Unpublished PhD dissertation, p.101.

[5] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.462.