A Wesleyan’s Perspective Briefly Stated
Note: Below I describe a few select opinions of Christian understanding that differ from that of my own. These statements are brief and are not intended to sum up any one particular tradition of thought, nor are they intended to stereotype any particular person into one way of thinking. If it were my intention to discuss vast differences between my thought and the thoughts of others (although there are particular thought traditions below that I do wish to distance myself from, and these are the traditions of thought that contradict orthodox faith by either affirming works righteousness as a means of salvation or affirming universalistic claims of salvation), I would be sure to spend much time on the topic. However, it is my hope and desire to clearly express my own thoughts and maybe even demonstrate how similar they might be to those who differ in opinion, if only semantically.
In reading the Scriptural writings of Paul in his epistle to the Galatians (3:11-14-as well as many places elsewhere. I explicitly mention this epistle because it is the area of my study at this time), he makes clear the issue associated with works righteousness. Works is an attempt to perfect the will of God through an impossible task of the self trying to flawlessly obey the law. By this, the one performing the work hopes to enter into the will of God for the purpose of salvation. On the other hand, reception of faith is an act that is entirely other, if one wishes to call it an act at all.
Merely because something is an action does not constitute it as a work. Reception of faith is not an attempt by the individual to earn salvation. The one who truly receives Christ knows he or she has no means of saving the self, and it is only the grace of God that delivers us from sin. Reception is a passive act of submitting to God so that He might work in us (the term passive is not meant to remove responsibility from the individual. The term is used to denote that it is not the human action that is the active agent in salvation, even though it is a crucial aspect in the process). It is also important to note that it is not the human’s acceptance that is the initiating factor is salvation. The term “reception” needs to be understood as a response in that it is an action empowered by an already active action of God.
Many have tried to credit or discredit the action of reception by equating it to works righteousness. However, before one can categorize an action as a work, he or she must have a functioning definition of the term “works.” Merely claiming that a work is any action is to haphazardly dismiss the specifics that the scripture gives about the term. In our common everyday understanding of language, we hardly equate all actions with work. For example, we would hardly call the action of sleep an act of work. Similarly, we need to specify our theological understanding of works. To restate my definition from above: Works is an attempt to perfect the will of God through an impossible task of the self trying to flawlessly obey the law.
If we do in fact affirm along with traditional Christianity that we are totally depraved-we have no means of developing a healthy faith on our own- we must also affirm that it is only by God that we receive the gift of faith. With these affirmations, we are left with an inescapable consequence: Someone must be responsible for the detriment of those who never obtain faith.
In the opinion of some, it can be affirmed that God is ultimately responsible for the salvation and damnation of all humans. This affirmation is referred to as double predestination. Some assume that the sovereignty of God cannot be affirmed without this previous affirmation. A powerful argument used to affirm this assumption is the statement that God can do as God pleases, for He is God. There is not much that could be said to counter this argument, if it were the case that God did have such motives. However, we are given information about the resolute love of God by God Himself that seems to counter this claim.
For others, God’s sovereign choice of determining our ultimate fate does not leave man free from guilt. In this line of thought, even if God chooses to deliver some from sin, it is still the sin of the individual that made him or her guilty in the first place. Election is then a merciful act of allowing some to be pardoned for no other reason than it pleases God. Once again, if this was God’s prerogative, our protest would not mean much at all, for God is God. Yet, for many, including myself, it seems intuitive that the just God of Scripture would have the ability and desire to offer this gift to all.
Many, like me, that do hold this intuition that God wishes to offer this gift to all, unlike me, believe that no matter what one does, he or she will be saved by God’s divine election of all humanity. For the Universalist, God pardons all, no matter the condition of the heart. If this was the will of God, so be it. However, His holiness is described as such that this claim seems to contradict His very character.
There are still some that insist that works are a part of our way to salvation. While they might affirm that Christ is involved, some suggest that humans must grow into salvation, and once again, if this was God’s intention, I am sure it could be done in this manner. The problem with this thought is that it is a confusing of the Scriptural message of Christian life. Christian life is indeed to be marked by works of righteousness, but only after one is previously saved. There are no good works done by humanity unless the Spirit already dwells within, and the Spirit cannot dwell within until one has previously been justified by Christ. Never should we confuse the two crucial doctrines of justification and sanctification. Neither facet of our salvation should be ignored, but their proper order must also be understood.
Now that I have given a very brief and admittedly somewhat deficient account of what some Christians hold to be the proper means of salvation, I will leave you with my thoughts on the subject, thoughts not derived from my own imagination (not to suggest other’s thoughts are derived from their imagination), but from my humble interpretation of God’s will for us as I prayerfully understand it.
While humanity has been totally depraved of its moral image and has no means within its self in which to be saved, God’s grace is such that He might restore in each of us the ability to be called forth. If it is the case, as Scripture suggests, that God wishes for no man to perish, and if it is true that Christ’s sacrifice was intended for all, then all must have the opportunity and thus be held responsible for his or her eternal state (while there might be questions concerning those who never here the Gospel, this is not the time to discuss their possible fate. Although I will suggest that God’s grace extends to all, and He will fairly treat all He does judge). However, this responsibility is not to be accompanied with a pride of self accomplishment, for it is still by His grace that we are afforded such an opportunity. By His grace, fallen humans are given the ability to understand their hopelessness apart from Him and are given the choice to receive His will.
While works is a self righteous attempt to earn salvation, reception of faith as a gift of God is a passive action of allowing God to do for the individual what He has wanted to do for that person all along, but has waited for the person to want to rely on God so that he or she is not mandated into a relationship that is based on force, but rather based on love and dependence. True relationship must be a mutual interaction.
The submissive response of opening one’s heart to receiving faith is not an action of self-deliverance because it remains God who must perform this work. In truth, one could keep his or her heart open all he or she wished and it would amount to nothing unless God decided to act. Fortunately we are given the promise that those who are willing will receive.
However one may wish to look at the situation of faith, orthodox Christian teaching remains firm that it is not by any works that we are saved. We are saved only by the grace of God the Father through the sacrifice of His only Son, Christ, who sends us the power of the Holy Spirit to live as His people.
Now go and live in His promise as His people.