Monday, September 26, 2011

Prerequisites to Understanding Grace (Part 1)

In three posts, I will point out three crucial concepts that are prerequisite to understanding God's grace. There are many others, but these three are most relevant in the conflict between Reformed theology and free-will theology within the Appalachian territories.  They are in my experience the most frequent sources of error in the prevalence of free will theology in West Virginia.

·        Human depravity--Those who do not understand that human beings are dead in their trespasses and sins, utterly incapable of responding to the Gospel call apart from God's gracious initiative, will not be able to understand grace as God intends it to be understood.  
o   Ephesians 2 makes clear that we were dead in sin, and then gives a powerful description of exactly what that means:  Follower of the ways of the world and Satan who works within the disobedient. Gratifier and follower of fleshly cravings, desires, and thoughts. Deserving of wrath in the very nature of the human being.
o   Romans 3 also gives an unmistakable description:
§  Under the power of sin
§  None righteous, no not one
§  No God-seekers
§  All have turned away and become worthless
§  No one does good, not even one
§  Throats that are open graves
§  Deceitful tongues
§  Poisonous lips
§  Mouths full of cursing and bitterness
§  Eager to murder
§  Ways marked by ruin and misery
§  No knowledge of the Way of Peace
§  No fear of God.
o   The indictment is profound and severe.  These descriptions give an explanation for why Jesus says in John 6:44 that “no one can come to me unless the father who sent me draws them.”
o   After describing the dead state of human beings in Ephesians 2, Paul goes on to say that God has resurrected those to whom he is writing.  Because of the severe condition of human sinfulness, no one possesses the ability to call upon the name of the Lord unless God through the Holy Spirit resurrects them from their dead state.  Another way to say this is that they must be born again, regenerated, or made new.  Paul then draws an unmistakable conclusion from this act of resurrection—“it is by grace you have been saved (v. 5).”   This comment is meant to underline for the reader that in order to understand grace, one must first understand the deadness of the sinful human being.   The meaning of grace is made clear in the contrast between the once dead state and the now resurrected state of the human soul.     
o   Proponents of free-will theology insist that God’s offer of salvation is not really a gift of grace until the sinner reaches out to take the gift.  In other words, they believe that sinners must have some ability to participate in the salvation process, at the very least, by reaching out and taking advantage of the free offer of salvation. 
o   A common illustration is this:  Proponents of free will theology believe that we are drowning in the deep end of a pool of sinfulness and death.  God throws a life preserver out (salvation through Jesus Christ).  All that the drowning person must do is grab hold of the life-preserver to be saved.  Paul gives us a very different picture, however.  He says that we were drowned and dead, laying like rotting corpses upon the bottom of the pool.  We possessed no life or ability to participate in salvation by grabbing a life preserver.  There was no hope until God, figuratively speaking, dove into the pool, pulled the corpse to the surface, and the resurrected the corpse.  The first gasp of life that corpse takes is the breath of faith in Christ.  In this picture, there is no role for the dead corpse to play in the salvation of his soul.  God does all the work from start to finish.  This is why, in Ephesians 2, Paul says talks about the grace of resurrection once again: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
o   Unless believers understand that we are dead and unable to participate in salvation apart from the grace of God in our resurrection and regeneration, then we will not properly understand grace.  We will, in spite of all claims to the contrary, claim some role for ourselves, and therefore lay for ourselves a foundation for boasting.  “I am different from you because I reached out for the life preserver.  Did you?”  This subtle difference makes a significant impact as we build our theology upon it.  It keeps our knees from being bent as low as they should be in worshipful gratitude.  It puts an air of arrogance into the way that we relate to unbelievers, an arrogance that is commonly accepted and even integrated into our Christianity.  It moves us to misunderstand sanctification, increasing the likelihood of godless legalism and judgmentalism.   
o   In order to understand grace, we must understand that we are totally depraved, dead in our trespasses and sins, without hope in God, apart from his resurrecting mercy. 

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