Friday, February 22, 2008

Grace & Inability

Ephesians 2:1-10 opens up to us a deeper understanding of grace than the common definition "unmerited favor". The passage unveils a transforming grace. Unbelievers are portrayed as "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1). Hope for transformation hardly lies in the human will since people take pleasure in doing what the flesh desires. Thus, they are by nature under the sentence of God's wrath. Yet, God, because of his indescribable mercy and deep love, has not left all human beings in this state. Those who were dead in trespasses and sins, those who had no inclination whatsoever to turn to God, "He made alive together with Christ" (Eph. 2:5). Significantly, Paul immediately comments, "by grace you have been saved." This explanation is imperative for defining grace in Paul's writings. Grace is certainly unmerited favor--though it is not merely unmerited favor in the sense that one may choose to receive or reject a gift. Grace is also a power that raises someone from the dead, that lifts those in the grave into new life. Grace is both an undeserved gift and a transforming power.
Once we grasp this notion of grace, it is clear what Paul means when he says 'by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). The power of God saved us by raising us from death when we were utterly unresponsive to God. This raises the question is faith included in God's gift, or is faith our contribution to God's saving work? The demonstrative pronoun this (touto) is neuter, and thus it cannot be the specific antecedent to grace or faith since the words grace (chariti) and faith (pisteos) are both feminine. Nor can it refer specifically back to saved, for the participle saved (sesomenoi) is masculine. Indeed, no word in the preceding context is neuter. What, then, is the significance of the neuter? Paul wanted to communicate that everything said in Ephesians 2:8 is God's gift. If he had used the masculine or feminine form of the pronoun, some might have concluded that some of the elements contained in this verse were not part of God's gift. By using the neuter he emphasizes that the whole is God's gift. Thus faith too is the gift of God.
Such an understanding of faith is also contextually persuasive because Paul describes God's work as raising the dead to life. Human beings who are enslaved to the flesh have no desire or ability to exercise faith.
This understanding of the neuter is confirmed by Philippians 1:28. Paul exhorts the Philippians not to be intimidated by their opponents, and he says that their opposition is "a proof of their destruction, and of your salvation, and this from God." Once again, the word this (touto) is neuter. As in the Ephesians text, no neuter word in the context serves as the antecedent. The antecedent is the whole event--the opposition and destruction of the opponents as well as the salvation of the Philippians. The neuter pronoun works precisely as it does in Ephesians. And that faith is a gift is also communicated by the very next verse in Philippians. God has granted believers the gift of both believing on and suffering for Christ (Phil. 1:29). The verb granted is echarishe, from which we derive our word grace. Our belief in Christ is a gift, granted to us by God's grace.
That faith is a gift is confirmed again by 2 Timothy 2:24-26, where repentance is ascribed to God's activity. Faith and repentance are ultimately inseparable, and they are constituent parts of the saving process. In the context Paul hopes that God might "grant repentance" to those who oppose them. Such repentance can only come from God.

-As a side note of interest: In Romans 11:6 (the text where we get our definition of grace as being unmerited favor), the very words preceding the text (v. 5) speak to God's election, that it too is entirely of grace.
Rom. 11:5b, 6: "...election by grace. And if (election is) by grace it (election) is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace."

This passage seems to fly in the face of any notion that something we did (such as believe) may have provoked God's election of His people. On the contrary, Election, Repentance and Faith are all gifts from God to us who are in Christ, freely given by His inestimable grace.

The natural flow of Ephesians 2 is that we were dead in sin; God made us alive; therefore we are saved only by grace. In the context of Ephesians 2, Paul says nothing about the natural man other than that they are dead in sin. Contextually that is what you have to work with. In the context, it makes sense that dead men can't believe without a work of grace bringing them to life first. To say otherwise would seem to go against Paul's argument.

The ultimate question is "Can the unsaved, natural man of his own volition believe?" I'm convinced Ephesians chapter 2 contextually and grammatically answers that question "No." Moreover, what does the rest of Scripture say?

Romans 8:7, 8: "The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God."
We have already established from Ephesians 2 that the unsaved man is enslaved to the extent of death in sin. And now we have a better picture of the depth of that slavery. The unsaved man does not have even the power in and of himself to please God. Paul does not merely say that those in the flesh refuse to keep God's law; he also teaches they cannot submit to it. They are incapable of pleasing God. What was that??? The natural man cannot please God?? How do we please God then? Through faith (Hebrews 11:6). But they are unable to please Him. This text leaves little room for the unregenerate to be capable of believing.

1 Corinthians 2:14: "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."
Dave, what is more "spiritual" than the Gospel of Jesus Christ? "Nothing!" I'm sure you would agree with me. Well then, this passage says the unsaved man CANNOT ACCEPT THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST. You spoke in your response that the unsaved man is capable of receiving the gift of his own volition. But this passage contradicts you. The Gospel is foolishness to the natural man and he cannot accept it. According to this passage the unsaved man is incapable of embracing the Gospel.

If you want to speak about metaphors regarding the lost, other than them being dead in sin then let's do that (although I don't think it is a metaphor that Paul referred to but the actual state of the unsaved--they are spiritually utterly dead in sin. They are entirely enslaved to it; they cannot escape from it without God resurrecting them. That is what Paul is saying in Ephesians 2).
The scripture says unbelievers are also blind to the things of God as well:
2 Corinthians 4:4 "The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." This passage goes on to say that "[God] made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." (v. 6)
So what do we have here? Again we have the scripture telling us that the unbeliever CANNOT accept the Gospel of Christ. He cannot even see it let alone embrace it! And once again, like in Ephesians 2, it leaves no doubt as to how we believers came to faith in Christ -- God made it happen.

What about the passage I had mentioned previously, that God grants repentance (2 Tim. 2:25). Why is it necessary for God to "grant" them repentance? Because just like in Eph. 2, , the very next verse (v. 26) says that unbelievers are enslaved -- captive to do Satan's will. People who are "enslaved to Satan's will" are not "free to call Godward". They have to be freed by God first!

The theme in Ephesians 2 is repeated again in Colossians. Paul does not want the church to forget that the reason they put their trust in Christ is that God made it happen: Col. 2:13 "When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive."
I'm trying to imagine how Paul would respond to your argument. Perhaps you would say to him, "But Paul, I believed in Christ." And Paul would respond. "Were you not listening to me? I said, God made you alive!" Or maybe Paul would quote his first letter to the Corinthians: 1 Cor. 1:30, 31 "It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God -- that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: 'Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.' "

And let us not forget Romans 3:10-12 "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one."
Dave, are you going to tell me that you agree with the first part of this text that there is no one righteous except Jesus Christ, and you agree with the last section of the text that no one is good accept for God, but are you then going to tell me you disagree with the center of the text that no one seeks God?? Just like in all humanity there is not a single soul (except Christ) who is righteous; equally true is the fact that there is not a single human being who seeks after God. Period. If the dead, blind, natural man could put faith in God, they would be seeking Him, and they would also have reason to boast.

In conclusion, Paul portrays unbelievers as disobedient to the law, incapable of receiving the things of God, blind, deaf, dead, proud, enslaved to sin and refusing to honor God. Unbelievers are in darkness (Eph. 5:8; 1 Thes 5:4, 5) destined for wrath (1 Thes 1:10; 5:9) and under the dominion of idols (1 Thes 1:9).

The rosy picture some draw of what the unsaved man can do, though perhaps attractive, is not the conclusion the Scripture leads us to. The unsaved man is quite incapable of coming to God of his own will. To sin, and sin willfully, is the only thing he will do of his own volition without the intervening, eye opening, dead raising, captive releasing, regenerating Spirit of God and by God's grace.

To Christ alone be all the glory of our salvation,


Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

have lost the comment I put in - but I think I asked how you reconcile God's total work in salvation with the fact that He says that He desires that none should perish and free will - such as Adam and Eve had pre-sin

I do love a good Greek lesson!

Litl-Luther said...

Susan, more than any other book besides the Bible, Martin Luther's book "Bondage of the Will" had the most impact on my theology. If anyone made me Reformed or a ‘Calvinist’, it certainly wasn’t Calvin. It was Paul in Romans chapter nine AND Luther’s book. Luther laid out every argument that could possibly be made in support of freewill, and then crushed them all. Freewill does not exist since the Fall for the unregenerate. Sure, people make decisions all the time, but they can only make decisions that accord with their nature. That’s why people will not accept Christ unless God regenerates them first (i.e. makes them alive (Eph 2:1), born again). Regeneration comes before faith. Perhaps freewill, like in Adam, is restored to the believer. But the unbeliever has an enslaved will. It is not free in the sense that it can move God-ward without a first work of God in that person’s life.

I know there are tough texts to deal with, though many are not so tough. For example, everyone quotes 2 Peter 3:9 as a proof text: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” But it is honestly absurd to think that text is talking about anyone other than Christians. The context is that Peter is writing to the church and he says to God’s people that God is longsuffering toward “us”. He is not willing that any Christian should perish. It is a text to give assurance to the believer. It says nothing of the unbeliever. Nevertheless, there are some other difficult texts to deal with. I suppose there will always be some tension, like so many other topics of Scripture, but that does not discount the fact that the clear teaching of Scripture is that our salvation is completely by God alone from beginning to end. Yes. This truth raises some difficult questions regarding those who never come to faith, but that gives us no right to take away some of the credit of our salvation which God alone deserves. And that is all that the freewill arguments to is take a little credit away from God and give it to us. However, the reality is man contributes nothing to his salvation—not his faith, nor his works but only his sin.

Bogi said...

Wow! This is great.

I love how you pull Paul's use of the concept of being dead into the picture of salvation. Dead guys aren't really trying to do much of anything, and certainly can't take credit for their re-birth when it happens.

I've often struggled with this verse in terms of what is God doing? Is it by grace or faith, your drawing out the Greek and then interpreting it's function is brilliant. Thank you. The issue is settled for me.

And, perhaps most important of all, I am now more motivated than before to actively draw people to Christ, knowing that they are incapable of such a thing on their own. I can see how God purposes to use us to do what they cannot do for themselves. Again, my thanks.

I found your work here thoroughly inspirational.

Litl-Luther said...

Wow Bogi! Thank you so much. I'm humbled. You are too thoughtful.

I really want to go on a crusade in the Church to get our understanding of grace to be broadened beyond just “unmerited favor” (which of course I love) but that grace would also be defined as a transforming work of God that raises us from the dead (Eph 2:5).