Let us again examine the issue of the will of the unredeemed person as regards doing good actions. This of course, typically involves a discussion of the concept of “prevenient grace”.
Some time ago, Pastor Matt Richards had an excellent article on this topic at the confessional Lutheran blog, the Brothers of John the Steadfast. According to him, prevenient grace “teaches that an unconverted person is incapable of choosing salvation due to being dead in sins, which is until the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel comes to awaken them and enable them to make a choice to accept or reject salvation.” The key element here is that the will is put into a position where it, regarding a person’s initial conversion to Christ, is able to vote “yes” or “no”. In other words, man’s natural will is empowered, and having been elevated to a somewhat “neutral” state, is able to embrace Christ in faith. As he says, this teaching has a wide range of appeal which makes it “dominate conversion theology in North American Evangelicalism”. He notes its presence in Methodism, Pietism, Puritanism, Arminianism and Roman Catholicism.
Pastor Richards discusses how prevenient grace “tries to protect the doctrine of free will and yet not deny the doctrine of original sin.” Not only this, but “it avoids the pitfalls and heresy of Pelagianism while also avoiding Calvinism’s doctrine of double predestination.”* In his article, he briefly describes four problems with prevenient grace and concludes as follows:
“In conclusion, the theology of prevenient grace seems to be very convenient in that it avoids Pelagianism and Double Predestination. However, its pitfalls of infused righteousness, the location of salvation, how one understands repentance & faith, and the difference between informative words & performative words are certainly worth noting.”
For more detail on these rather technical-sounding definitions, I recommend reading the entire short article, as Pastor Richards does an excellent job unpacking these concepts in a very helpful and simple way.
Now, all of this said, I note that it is perhaps too easy for Lutherans in particular to dismiss this issue altogether. What about the unbeliever not choosing his own salvation, but simply choosing good actions. Everyone knows, for example, that when disasters strike it is not only Christians who find themselves feeling compassion, and led to lend a hand. Can more be said here?
In his fight vs. Pelagius, we see in Augustine discussion of what philosophers call “first and second order desires”. First order desires are things that we desire. Second order desires are desires about other desires: this often means desires deployed to counter other desires (as there is a conflict here – perhaps we recognize that our first order desires are wrong or harmful). Augustine said that second order desires (like the desire to stop smoking ; or the desire to be chaste [..but not yet!]) could not be attributed to our free will, but to God (evidently, there is some question of whether or not he meant some or all second order desires). It seems to me that if we decide to actively fight against any wrong desire or do anything good in life – or simply want to do these things – these desires are from God. And of course, we always keep in mind that when it comes to being made right with God we cannot even desire to want God’s salvation apart from Him.
This would be God actively working in His creation. Now, sometimes, theologians have talked here about what man might do by nature alone or what man might do by grace, when it is provided for him. And yet, the idea of “nature” would not necessarily be synonymous with creation here for the reason that talking about things according to “nature”, as above, can imply an autonomy of the particulars in the cosmos that is not implied with the word “creation” (which at a bare minimum always implies the notion of a Creator – and for a Christian a perpetually active Creator – who is a personal being). It is possible, therefore, to see “Nature” as the creation that fallen man interprets and makes for himself apart from fear, love and trust in the Creator. (see this series on anthropology for more) Again, when we say that fallen man thinks about nature this way, we are not saying that he is not free to do what he wants. Rather we are saying that thinking in this fashion – along with all the other wrong things he does – is precisely what he wants to do! In other words, to will things in the opposite direction of what God wills – both at the unconscious and conscious level – both as regards his actions and his beliefs. So if we have impulses, desires, and the motive to will vs these things – that is from God and not from us. It is evidence that He has overcome at least some resistance in us.
But does this mean that we should talk about this kind of action on God’s part as being a kind of “preparatory grace” en route to salvation? That will be the topic of the next post in this series.
*It seems to me that the concept of prevenient grace might also be applied to forms of semi-Pelagianism, which is where fallen man wants to choose God and salvation but is not able to do so unless helped by Him.