Resisting Grace

Jesus wept over Jerusalem—“because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

So, given the Son’s presumed power to grant salvation to the elect why was he weeping? Let me poke this question with a pair of affective insights—insights that recognize the heart as the defining motive center of both God and humans.

Earlier in Luke the author confronted the social and spiritual leaders who dismissed Jesus. These, in contrast to tax collectors who responded to Jesus, were said to have “rejected the purpose of God for themselves.”

In Acts 2 we also read of God’s ultimate control of the rejection of the gospel by Israel’s leaders: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Here we see just a small part of how the combined Luke-Acts—taken as a single original composition—offers a glimpse into the interplay of human and divine initiatives. Luke, as we just read, can be as strong as any other Bible author in asserting complete divine rule over creation—including God’s selection of some humans, but not all, for salvation.

Yet he also affirms human culpability for rejecting God’s grace on a number of occasions—as if human initiative is the key feature in what takes place.

So in the perpetual debates over the basis for salvation—pitting God’s will against the priority of human free will—is Luke clueless?

We have some evidence to chase. The intersection of human sin and divine redemption is called repentance—something required if humans are to be saved from Adam’s fall. John the Baptist, for a starter, came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Jesus also featured this theme: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). And in Peter’s Pentecost sermon of Acts 2 he replied to the convicted listeners’ question of “what shall we do?” with a call to “repent.”

This call-and-response seems to elevate the human will in achieving salvation: the reader is called to act. Yet there’s a caveat. Bible scholar Leon Morris noticed that Luke always treats repentance as a gift of God. As in the case of Peter’s visit to Caesarea and the conversion of Cornelius and other non-Jews. This convinced the Jewish Christian leaders that “to the Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

On the other hand it’s also clear that Luke regularly portrays grace as something humans can resist—as we noticed already. In Asia Minor Barnabas and Paul shifted their ministry focus from the Jews to the Gentiles because of this: “Since you thrust it [the gospel] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).

Now let’s add another feature. How do we define grace?

In my book, Richard Sibbes: A Spreading Goodness, I trace a division among 16th century Puritans. Many Puritans unwittingly followed the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas who defined grace as a supernaturally-supplied human capacity: God gives this grace to empower the fallen human will. But it’s a gift God only gives to the elect. And, according to these Puritans, only the elect—those who have a grace-enhanced will—can effectively choose to repent.

In this arrangement Aquinas rejected Peter Lombard’s earlier portrayal of grace as God’s personal presence in the soul: the gift of the indwelling Spirit. So the Puritans who followed Aquinas battled the Puritans who agreed with Lombard by way of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Both men dismissed Aquinas, as did Sibbes a century later. They all held the Spirit to be the presence of God’s grace in the soul.

If we track this debate over time the divide has only hardened. One way to see this today is to ask whether grace is portrayed by a teacher as a “what”—something humans have and use—or a “who”—the Spirit who comes and captures souls by revealing Christ’s love.

And that difference sets out two competing versions of salvation.

If, for instance, we follow the Thomistic view—that in order to repent a person needs a grace-empowered-will, the focus is on human responsibility. Yet with that comes an odd corollary that grace is “irresistible” because it represents a divine power that never fails. God’s will, in effect, overrides the weaker human will in the elect in a way that is always “efficient.” In effect it treats humans as divinely manipulated objects.

And with this arrangement we can conceive of “non-elect” people as those who may long to be saved but who are unable to achieve the faith needed to be saved. Let’s call it the crippling consequence of being human—born in sin as Adam’s fallen children.

But if we follow Augustine-Lombard-Luther-Calvin-and-Sibbes—among many others—and read the Bible as portraying the Spirit as God’s grace—as his gracious life-giving presence—we have a different scenario. We are still Adam’s fallen children but the problem reveals the same ambition Adam unleashed: we want to explore the “freedom” to be “like God.” So the problem of sin isn’t a crippled will but a robust will that doesn’t want God to be God! It’s a robust self-love.

This points to a second feature of the Puritan divide. In the Augustine/Lombardian view the human mind and will are instruments of the heart. We always do what we love to do; and our minds then rationalize our love and guide our choices. So the problem of sin is that we love to sin. And Satan knows how to manipulate our love—Paul’s point in Ephesians 2:1-3.

A proper gospel, then, dismisses the Thomistic portrayal of a disabled human will as the problem. The real issue is that we are forever resisting God’s grace as offered by his Spirit. We, like Adam, still manage to grieve, quench, and blaspheme the Spirit who is forever witnessing to the beauty and love of God as revealed in Christ.

The good news is that some—usually the poor, the lame, the weak, and the social outcasts who are “sinners” or “blind”—are drawn to God’s love. His winsome wooing overcomes self-love, especially in those who fall short of being “like God.” The woman at the well, Zachaeus the tax collector, and the man born blind offer examples of this. God, in fact, allows weaknesses in a fallen world—as in the man born blind—as unique pathways for grace. And the parable of the wedding feast says as much: “many are called but few are chosen.”

So is Jesus still weeping over Jerusalem? Over those who despise him and resist his grace? Yes. But he also knows that some—his “sheep”—will recognize his voice and respond. And “sinners” hear his voice better than those who are already “righteous.”


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