Orthodox Christianity has always taught that God’s will is singular and immutable, i.e., that it neither changes nor contradicts itself. Due, however, to the fact that it was God’s eternal will to create other moral agents than Himself, i.e., other beings such as ourselves and the angels who are capable of making intelligent, responsible, decisions, different facets of the divine will can and must be distinguished. This is because such moral agents have, by definition, the capacity to resist the will of God – to disobey Him, rebel against Him, and, in short, to sin. This capacity is not absolute and rebellion can only occur within the limits of what God, in His Sovereignty, permits. Nevertheless, this requires that we distinguish between the ways in which God wishes or desires for us to act, and the ways in which He allows us to act. God has expressed the former facet of His will in His Law, including both the natural law written in our consciences at Creation, and the Moral Law revealed in His Word. His Law tells us what He wants us to do – love God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves – and what He does not want us to do – everything forbidden in the Ten Commandments, such as idolatry, murder, theft, slander, coveting and the like. To go against the revealed will of God is to commit a sin either of omission or commission. It is never God’s wish that we sin, but since it was His wish for us to be responsible, moral, agents, He, permits or allows us to do so, in the sense that He does not prevent it by force, (1) within the limits that He establishes so as to contain the evil that we do and overrule it so that ultimately good is the result.
Another vital distinction is that which must be made between God’s will as exercised absolutely or directly and God’s will as exercised intermediately. The difference between the two can be illustrated by the account of the healing of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52 on the one hand, and the account of the healing of a man born blind in John 9:1-11 on the other. In the former, Bartimaeus is begging at the side of the ride when Jesus passes by. Addressing Jesus by the Messianic title “Son of David”, Bartimaeus asks Him for mercy. Jesus summons Bartimaeus to Himself, asks him what he wants, and upon receiving the answer “Lord, that I might receive my sight”, says “Go thy way, thy faith hath made thee whole.” Upon this divine pronouncement Bartimaeus receives his sight. This is God exercising His will directly.
In the other account, Jesus and His disciples pass by a man who had been blind since birth. Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud, puts the mud on the man’s eyes, and then tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. When the man emerges from the pool he can see. This is God exercising His will intermediately – through means, or secondary causes.
Note that in the examples used to illustrate the difference, both acts of healing were miracles. C. S. Lewis defined a miracle as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power,” (2) which would certainly seem to apply to both of these events. Thus, while it is generally true that God’s will exercised absolutely is synonymous with His miraculous works, and His will exercised intermediately unfolds itself in natural processes, human history, and the like, there is a middle area in which God works the miraculous through means. In such cases, the relationship between the means or secondary cause(s) and the miraculous outcome is mysterious and inexplicable, as is the case with the mud used in the healing of the man born blind. (3)
As we have seen, created moral agents such a human beings and angels have the capacity to act against God’s will, within the limits that God has set to curb and contain evil. The rest of creation, living and non-living, does not possess this capacity and never resists God’s will. Furthermore, God’s will when exercised absolutely, cannot be resisted by any part of creation, whether it possesses moral agency or not, due to God’s Sovereign Omnipotence. It is a sign of the depraved thinking of our times that so many think that it is the other way around and that God cannot, in His Sovereign Omnipotence, work contrary to the natural laws that He Himself has put in place and which are one manifestation of His intermediate will. (4) Even theology, in modern times, has often been tainted with this blasphemous notion. (5)
It is God’s intermediate, will, therefore, that created moral agents can resist. More specifically, they can resist the revealed expressions of His intermediate will – the Law and Gospel. The Law, which consists of God’s commandments, expresses His will as to how we are to behave, and this is an intermediate expression of His will because God has made the fulfilment of this aspect of His will to be dependent upon the means of our own wills which He created with the capacity to disobey His own. The capacity to disobey is implicit within the capacity for voluntary obedience, which is essential to the moral goodness God desires and requires of His created moral agents. (6) When we exercised our wills in disobedience to His in the Fall, however, we lost the capacity for voluntary obedience and our wills became enslaved to sin.
The Gospel is God’s message of Good News about everything that He has done to rescue us from our sin. It tells how He gave us a Saviour, His Only-Begotten Son, Who came down from Heaven and became a man, Jesus Christ, Who being perfectly righteous and without sin Himself, willingly took our sins upon Himself and paid for them with His death on the cross, rising triumphant over sin, death, the grave, hell and the devil three days later. In the Gospel, God reveals His willingness to forgive our sins, accept us as perfectly righteous, adopt us as His children, and give us everlasting life in His eternal Kingdom freely, on account of our Saviour, Jesus Christ and His finished work.
The Gospel is an expression of the intermediate will of God. God’s willingness to receive us into His grace – His favour, unmerited by ourselves – is universal in extent. It is the world that was the recipient of God’s gift of a Saviour (Jn. 3:16) and it was for the sins of the whole world that the Saviour made satisfaction (1 Jn. 2:2). His grace is promised, however, only to those who believe in Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:12-13; 3:14-18, 36; 5:24; 6:35-40, 47; 11:25-27; 13:46-48; 14:6). It comes to us only through means. The atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross as proclaimed in the Gospel was the means by which our salvation was accomplished. The Gospel itself, proclaimed in Word and Sacrament, is the means by which the grace, purchased for us by Christ at Calvary, is brought to us. (7) Faith, is the means by which we receive the grace.
Since God’s grace is communicated to us through means, we are capable of resisting it. Indeed, as fallen sinners, in rebellion against God, who are inclined not to trust Him, we are capable only of resisting, not of co-operating with grace. It is a distortion of the Gospel to present it, as so many contemporary evangelicals do, as calling for a decision, an act of the will on our parts. This heresy both underestimates the extent of the corruption of man’s will by Original Sin, (8) and distorts the repeated promises of the Gospel that God’s grace is freely given to all who believe. Belief is never an act of the human will. When we say “I believe this” or “I trust that person” we use the active voice, because, of course, we do the believing, but we could also say, in the passive voice “I am convinced of this” or “I am persuaded that that person is reliable” and we would not be saying anything different. The interchangeability of these active and passive expressions demonstrates the truth that even non-spiritual beliefs about ordinary, mundane, affairs are not produced by our wills but by the persuasive power of the objects of our faith. (9) What is true of belief about ordinary things is all-the-more true about belief in the Gospel, as Jesus Himself pointed out to Nicodemus (Jn. 3:11-13) and St. Paul spent much of the first two chapters of his first epistle to the Corinthian church demonstrating.
This does not mean that Calvinism is correct. Calvinism gets it right that unregenerate man is incapable of any sort of voluntary response to the grace of God, but concludes from this that God’s grace is not universal in extent, that God determined in advance that He would not save certain people, that Jesus Christ died only for those He had elected to save, and the elect are called to faith by an act of the absolute will of God (irresistible grace). This in effect denies that God communicates His grace to men through means. In an upcoming essay, I will address the Calvinist-Zwinglian denial of the grace-conveying role of the Gospel sacraments, but my point here is that the Calvinist doctrine nullifies the Gospel, even preached in bare form in the ministry of the Word, as a means of conveying grace. Irresistible grace requires no means and so, the Gospel, in the Calvinist economy of salvation, bears no more discernible relationship to the production of faith in the believer, than the mud that Jesus made bears to the healing of the man born blind. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Gospel as Calvinists understand it – Jesus might have died for you, if you one of His elect, but if not you are out of luck – could ever produce saving faith, the confidence that one is in God’s freely given grace through the merits of Christ and His Atoning death alone.
The Gospel, free of these distortions, declares that that in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and His Atoning death and resurrection, God has freely given us full and complete salvation by His grace, which we receive simply by believing. The Holy Spirit, through the Gospel, persuades us of the truth of the Gospel, and when we are so persuaded, we believe. There is no further step that is required on our part, the Gospel by persuading us, has given us the faith by which we have received God’s grace. God does not limit the persuading ministry of the Holy Spirit to a select few that He has predetermined. That ministry accompanies the Gospel wherever it is proclaimed so that the Gospel contains itself the life-giving power to produce faith. Since, however, in the Gospel God’s gracious will is exercised intermediately rather than absolutely, we remain capable of resisting it to our own perdition. The blame for the damnation of the lost belongs to them alone, the credit for the salvation of the saved belongs to God alone.
(1) When speaking of the aspect of God’s will that “allows” or “permits” the sins of men and angels, “allow” and “permit” must be carefully defined in this way. In ordinary usage these terms suggest the idea of approval, or at least the withholding of judgement and punitive consequences, on the part of an authority. God never allows or permits sin in this sense of these words.
(2) C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, (Glasgow: William Collins & Sons, 1947, 1960) p. 9. Although in a footnote to this definition Lewis says that it is not theologically precise but “crude” and “popular” for “the common reader” it is not significantly different from the definition of a miracle as God doing things “contrary to the pattern known and expected by us in nature” offered by St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, I.105.7.
(3) St. Thomas, in the article of the Summa referred to in the previous note, limited true miracles to expressions of the absolute will of God which go against the pattern of nature. Noting the derivation of the word “miracle” from the Latin verb for “to wonder at”, he excluded events that have a secondary cause of which many people are ignorant, such as an eclipse, and acts like Creation which are outside the pattern of nature altogether. At least with regards to the second category of events excluded from the miraculous, this is much stricter than customary usage. Nevertheless, miracles-through-means don’t really contradict this because while the secondary cause of an eclipse – the moon passing between the sun and the earth – is knowable, the role the mud played in the healing of the man born blind is not.
(4) The terminology “the laws of nature” contributes to the problem. These “laws” are written in the indicative, rather than the imperative mood. They are not inviolable edicts, but descriptions of how we have observed natural processes to operate. A law of nature says that under such and such conditions, X will happen, because that is what we have observed to happen under these conditions repeatedly in the past. The predictive ability of the law will be highly accurate but it does not constitute proof that the opposite of X will not happen, much less proof that the Being Who put the natural processes in operation in the first place cannot suspend them when His purposes call for it. For an excellent treatment of this, and many more aspects of modern man’s naïve faith in science, see Gordon H. Clark, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, (Jefferson, Md.: The Trinity Foundation, 1996, a reprint of the original 1964 edition with a new foreword and short essay at the end both by John W. Robbins)
(5) This taint can be found in varying degrees. Outright liberal or modernist theology swallows the misconception that science has debunked the miraculous and either denies that the events described in Scriptural accounts of miracles happened altogether, or reinterprets them in accordance with naturalist presuppositions. Others who are more orthodox, accept God’s performance of miracles as being truly miraculous, but try to make the concept of miracles more harmonious with that of an inviolable natural order. C. S. Lewis, for example, in his otherwise excellent defense of the reality of miracles cited above, displays this tendency when he argues that the miracles God performs in the Bible, consist of His doing instantaneously things which occur in the natural order, but through long processes. The implication of the argument that miracles, viewed this way, are more realistic and rational, is that the natural order imposes limitations on God. The same sort of thinking is evident, in a more pronounced way, in the writings of Austin Farrer, although both men were too orthodox to take this line of reasoning to its ultimate conclusion. Then there are the various attempts, such as progressive creationism (Hugh Ross, et al), to harmonize creation with Darwinism. In these theories, natural processes are made to be to be the means of creation, at least for life. What all of these views have in common is that to one degree or another they elevate the natural order above the God Who created it and is Sovereign over it.
(6) For a fuller treatment of this point see my essay “The Nature and Origin of Evil.”
(7) “The power to impart God’s own forgiveness, life, and salvation Christ has placed into His Gospel: ‘The words I have spoken to you -- they are full of the Spirit and life’ (John 6:63). Through His word the disciples were made ‘clean’ (John 15:3), and by their repeating of this same word others will come to faith till the end of time (John 17:8, 20).” Kurt E. Marquart, The Saving Truth: Doctrine for Laypeople, Volume 1 of Truth, Salvatory and Churchly: Works of Kurt E. Marquart, Ken Schurb, Robert Paul, eds. (Luther Academy, 2016), p. 78. A few pages later Marquart wrote “The Gospel is an utterly unique form of communication. In Greek the words for ‘Gospel’ and for ‘promise’ are closely related. Unlike the Law, which threatens, the Gospel is pure promise. Fulfilled in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20), God’s saving promises actually carry in and with them the very things promised. The word for ‘promise’ can mean also ‘the ghint promised,’ and these two senses can run together into one (as in Gal. 3:22; Eph. 3:6, Heb. 6:12, 17). As live divine promise, the Gospel is much more than information. This ‘more’ may be compared to the difference between a letter and a check: the letter might promise a birthday gift, but the check actually conveys it.” (p. 81). Admirers of Marshall McLuhan might appreciate the inversion of his most famous words in Marquart’s next sentence “Here it is a case of the message being the medium – for imparting the very things the message names and describes.”
(8) The ancient heresy of Pelagianism denied Original Sin and taught that man retained his full capacity for voluntary obedience after the Fall. A modified version of the heresy known as Semi-Pelagianism taught that man retained his capacity for voluntary obedience but that it required the assistance of the grace of God. The synergism, decisionism, or Arminianism (the most common term, but the most inaccurate as it properly refers to a much more precise theological position) of contemporary evangelicalism is partially, although not completely, Semi-Pelagian.
(9) As John M. Drickamer aptly put it “Christian faith is not a human achievement. It is a gift of God. We cannot choose to believe the Gospel, to have faith in Christ (John 6:29, 44; 1 Corinthians 2:14, 12:3). We do not choose to believe anything. We do not choose to believe that today’s weather is bright and sunny. We believe that the day is sunny or rainy depending on what comes down from the sky and makes an impression on our eyes and skin.” John M. Drickamer, What is the Gospel? It is Finished, (1991) p. 2. (This book is a self-published collection of the author’s articles that had previously appeared in Christian News newspaper).
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