Here’s a question. Do we pursue God or does God pursue us? Are we the seekers while God is coy and hard to get? Or is he persistently tugging, calling, and wooing us while we stubbornly deflect his efforts to win our hearts?
The Bible emphatically supports the latter answer and dismisses the former—John 3:16-19, for instance, speaks of God’s love for the world in the face of the world’s love of darkness. Most religions, on the other hand, insist on the former and ignore the latter. And by saying most religions let me be clear: that includes most evangelical churches today when they feature human initiative as the key to faith and spiritual growth.
I was reminded of this question over the past two days as a group of Cor Deo alumni gathered in Chippenham to consider the linked topics of Sin and Grace. In the Bible portion of our study we reviewed Genesis 1-3 and Romans 4-8. In the historical portion we looked at Martin Luther’s Disputation against Scholastic Theology and his Freedom of a Christian.
In both settings we found the two answers to our beginning question to be in competition. In other words what was a problem in the Garden of Eden was also a problem in sixteenth-century Germany. And, we can be sure, it’s still a debate today in our respective nations, communities, and churches.
In Genesis 3 it’s striking that the Serpent doesn’t deny God’s place as God—let alone his existence—he simply modifies it. He tosses out God’s status as the single source of goodness. We now, with Adam, seek to come alongside God in order to share the role of determining good and evil. In place of Adam’s initial dependence on God we moved to become free moral agents alongside God.
And the Serpent also treated God’s word as unreliable. Instead we have alternative points of view so that God is obliged to listen to us when we think he’s wrong. In effect we were invited to be “like” God by stepping into semi-autonomy.
The main feature of semi-autonomy is that God turns into a resource who seems unaware of or unprepared for our new status. Yet we need him to help us succeed in our function as second-tier gods. Religion in turn becomes the science of coaxing this rather dull God to pay attention to our needs and wants.
Where Adam and Eve once walked with the God who loved them and wanted to be with them, their declaration of independence led to the challenge of being properly dressed and prepared in their negotiations with God. Yet their newfound semi-equality with God actually led to moments of shameful inadequacy whenever the true God came on the scene.
God, however, treated Adam’s initiative as nonsense. They were, instead, acting in concert with his Enemy. God’s purpose, then, was to undo what the Serpent had done. The rest of the Bible tells that story. The main principle, however, is that God will do nothing to support our semi-independence—our presumed status as free moral agents.
In Romans we found that God is fully aware of our sin in Adam. So he sent his Son to be Adam’s replacement. The Son treats his Father as the true God and offers himself as the true God and presents his Spirit as our restorative link to him as our true God. The Spirit comes to pour God’s love out in our hearts and nothing will ever separate us from that love. The key, of course, is that we quit trying to take God’s place and begin to respond to his word and his presence.
Luther got all this. In his Disputation (posted in 1517, weeks before the 95 Theses were written) he stated that “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God; instead he himself wants to be God and does not want God to be God” (thesis 17), so that each human act apart from God is actually a function of self-love.
So in his Freedom of a Christian Luther treats human “free will” as an expression of sin. In its place he portrays true freedom as the complete dependence of faith: “Here faith is truly active through love [Gal. 5:6], that is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done . . .” [Three Treatises, 302].
Here is the dividing feature between the two answers about initiative: anything done apart from our reliance on God—that is, our faith—is sin. Apart from him we can do nothing. So our efforts to seek and reach God while still holding onto our notions of semi-autonomy and free will have as much chance of working as I do of winning a singing competition: it just won’t happen!
If, on the other hand, we abandon any pretense of being “like” God—of working with him as we seek to initiate our own versions of goodness—we soon discover the warm, caring, giving God who offers us his spreading goodness. The Serpent’s premises and promises weren’t to be trusted. Instead we need to trust the triune, relational, loving God and his word. He’s been pursuing us and wooing us all along but we need to listen on his terms, not ours.