FROM ITS FIRST STIRRINGS TO ITS FINAL CONSUMMATION, SALVATION IS OF THE LORD!
Dr. N.R. Needham
Richard was a fairly recent convert to the Augustinian understanding of grace. One Sunday, he visited a church where the preacher seemed to go out of his way to show the congregation how utterly dependent on God they were for their spiritual life. There can be no self-reliance, he declared, no looking to ourselves; all goodness, all holiness flow from God to us. Why, even the very faith by which we believe and trust in God is itself His gift to sinners!
‘This is good,’ Richard thought. ‘The man has clearly grasped the sovereignty of grace in salvation. Augustine would be pleased with him.’ But alas, Richard’s verdict was premature. Suddenly the sermon went sensationally pear-shaped. After all the extolling of God as the giver of faith, the preacher suddenly added: ‘But of course, even though faith is God’s gift, we have to accept the gift by our free wills. We can refuse it if we choose. It’s up to us.’ By the time it was all over, Richard left church feeling rather deflated. ‘It’s up to us’ seemed a strange note on which to conclude a celebration of God’s grace.
Richard was right to feel deflated. If it is ultimately ‘up to us’ to make sure we accept the divine gift of faith, then manifestly God is not the giver of all our spiritual virtues [which is what the preacher in the church Richard was visiting had started out by saying]. Apparently, I have something in me, some act of my own, which reaches out and grasps God’s kind offer of faith. What is this ‘something’? It can’t be faith, because faith is what God is offering to give me. I don’t know how the preacher would have described this mysterious ‘something’. Repentance, perhaps? Can I repent by my own will, and God then crowns my cake of repentance with the icing of faith?
But where did the repentance come from? If I can repent by my own will, why can’t I believe and trust by my own will? Doesn’t the same Scripture that says faith is God’s gift [Eph.2:8, Phil.1:29] also say that repentance is His gift [Acts 5:31, 2 Tim.2:25]? Maybe the preacher would have acknowledged that repentance is God’s gift. But probably it would then have fared no better than faith. Probably the preacher would have said, ‘But of course, even though repentance is God’s gift, we have to accept the gift by our free wills. We can refuse it if we choose. It’s up to us.’
What is it in me that accepts repentance, then? A spiritually softened heart, perhaps? But if I can soften my own heart by my own will [or does that mean ‘soften my will by my own will’?], why can’t I repent by my own will, or believe by my own will? And doesn’t the same Scripture that says faith and repentance are God’s gifts also say that the heart of flesh is His gift [Deut.30:6, Ezek.36:26-27]? Maybe the preacher would have acknowledged that the heart of flesh is God’s gift too. But probably it would then have fared no better than faith and repentance. Probably the preacher would have said, ‘But of course, even though the heart of flesh is God’s gift, we have to accept the gift by our free wills. We can refuse it if we choose. It’s up to us.’
What is it in me that accepts the heart of flesh, then? Is it perhaps…. But we have been here before, and by now it is getting a touch silly. Like some bizarre spiritual board game, we are constantly going one square forwards and two squares backwards. And somehow, we always end up on a square that says, ‘It’s up to us.’
Augustine’s theology of the new life in Christ was really just a way of saying, ‘It’s not up to us.’ Our new life in Christ comes from Christ. From its first stirrings to its final consummation, it comes from Christ. Faith, repentance, the softened heart, and any other virtue that can be named they all come from Christ. Our conversion comes from Christ. Our regeneration comes from Christ. Our spiritual illumination comes from Christ. Our desire for Christ comes from Christ. Our seeking after Christ comes from Christ. As that great Italian Augustinian, Thomas Aquinas, was to teach 800 years after Augustine’s death, NOTHING COMES BEFORE GRACE!
All the things that we might think make us ready for grace are themselves the work of grace. If we insist on talking about ‘accepting grace’, even the acceptance of grace is created in us by grace.
The truth about grace, then, is both simple and radical. The first brick in the foundation of our salvation is laid in us by Christ, just as the last tile on the roof will be. He creates us afresh. He begets us again. He raises us from the dead. At no point can we take any credit to ourselves. No true Christian has the slightest wish to take any credit to himself or herself.
That is why, as I said in the Introduction, all God’s redeemed children are Augustinians when they pray. They may be Semi-Pelagians in their heads, but their twice-born hearts know better, and when they speak to their God, they give Him all the praise, gratitude and glory for saving them. Lex orandi lex credendi: the law of praying is the law of believing.
Of course, if Augustine is right in his understanding of what the Bible says about the bondage of our fallen wills, it follows that our spiritual regeneration must necessarily come only and utterly from Christ. Left to our own devices, all we ever do is sin; for we love created things, not the Creator, and our lives are built on that false love. There is no beauty in Christ that we should desire Him. We are too busy desiring other things. That is why ‘It’s up to us’ is such a tragically hopeless recipe for any kind of salvation.
Scripture describes our salvation as a new creation, a rebirth, a resurrection. Yet God did not say to a non-existent universe, ‘I’m offering to create you, but it’s up to you to accept the offer.’ Parents do not say to non-existent children, ‘We’re offering to conceive you, but it’s up to you to accept the offer.’ The Lord did not say to Lazarus, ‘I’m offering to resurrect you from the tomb, but it’s up to you to accept the offer.’ The depth and horrible complexity of our corruption make just as futile any ‘It’s up to you’ scheme of salvation. If indeed it is ‘up to us,’ whether in the Pelagian sense [obey the law and win heaven!] or the Semi-Pelagian sense [accept the offer of salvation!], then no-one will ever be saved. As Benjamin Warfield commented, a gospel of ‘Whosoever will’ is not much good in a world of universal ‘Won’t!’
Augustine knew that however daintily it is dressed, however carefully it is qualified, however tiny the amount it leaves to us to contribute to our own salvation, ‘It’s up to us’ is always a counsel of hellish despair for sinners deceived and broken and exhausted and blinded and driven mad and killed by sin. He would have none of it, either for himself, or for his flock, or for the Church Catholic. The bishop of Hippo sang loud and clear with his theological mind the song of confession and praise that every saved heart knows well:
‘It’s not up to us! We were dead in our transgressions and sins, in which we used to live when we followed the ways of the world. We were under the power of the prince of this world, the spirit who is now at work in the children of disobedience. We lived among them. We gratified the cravings of the flesh and followed its desires and thoughts. We were by nature the children of wrath, like the rest. But God, Who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in transgressions.
By grace we have been saved. By grace, through faith and this not from ourselves, it is the gift of God. No works. No-one can boast. God Who said, “Let light shine out of darkness!” caused His light to shine in our hearts, giving us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, shining in the face of Christ. We were foolish, obstinate, deluded, the slaves of various cravings and pleasures, spending our lives in malice and envy, hateful ourselves and hating one another. But the kindness and love of God our Saviour dawned upon us, and He saved us, not in consequence of righteous things we did, but because of His mercy.
Yes, HE SAVED US, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, Whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour. By grace we are justified. We are new creations in Christ. The old has passed away. The new has come. All this is from God, Who has reconciled us to Himself through Christ. Thanks be to God!’