God’s Initiative and Man’s Response

GUEST ARTICLE

God’s Initiative

and Man’s Response

By W. T. Purkiser, Richard S. Taylor, Willard H. Taylor

Introduction

The biblical theologian does not need to prove that there are radical dislocations among men. The Bible’s unique and indispensable contribution is not in disclosing that something is wrong, but in its diagnosis and solution. Bearing real guilt, man is alienated from God and derelict from the kingdom of God . He needs to be saved. This need is admirably stated by Frank Stagg:

“Salvation in its nature must answer to the plight of man as it actually is. Man’s plight as sinner is the result of a fatal choice involving the whole man in bondage, guilt, estrangement, and death; salvation thus must be concerned with the total man. It must offer redemption from bondage, forgiveness for guilt, reconciliation for estrangement, renewal for the marred image of God.”

 I. GOD’S INITIATIVE AND MAN’S RESPONSE

 A. Grace’s Initiating and Enabling

The consistent witness of the New Testament is that salvation proceeds from God’s grace. “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men” (Titus 2:11). At once we are confronted not only with a key word but a root theological idea. Paul’s thought is dominated by the grace concept. The word “grace” (charis) is not found in Matthew or Mark. It appears only 7 times in the Johannine writings, 8 times in Hebrews, and twice in James, but in the Pauline literature it occurs 100 times. The fact that Luke uses the word 24 times in Luke and Acts may reflect the influence of Paul. Only in Peter’s Epistles do we find the word with greater frequency per chapter (11 times). But while Peter speaks of grace with full understanding of its centrality, Paul more systematically expounds the doctrine.*

 [*While the word is normally translated “grace.” there are other words used in the KJV, such as “gracious,” “favour,” “pleasure,” liberality,” “gift” and several instances of “thanks.” “Returning thanks” and “saying grace” are linguistically akin.]

The basic meaning of charis as used in the New Testament is twofold. First, it is God’s love in action in Christ; and second, God’s power in action in the believer. The first is generally expressed by the idea of favor (Luke 1:30), a favor completely unmerited, without legal claim. Grace is God’s compassion as He expresses that compassion through His redemptive provision in Christ.*

 [*A helpful survey of the New Testament use of charis in comparison to the Old Testament is given by Richardson, Theology of the NT, pp.281 ff.]

B. The Enabling Grace

The second meaning of grace is just as basic, though frequently ignored. God looks with favor on us in order that He may infuse us with His own moral energy. There is therefore a grace toward us and a grace within us. Grace is intended to change us; it does not leave us where we are. It is God’s remedy for man’s moral impotence. Grace operates through awakening, repentance, regeneration, sanctification, illumination, discipline, and ultimately glorification.

In Romans 5:20-21, Paul vigorously contends that grace is an imparted power to overcome sin. He develops this theme in the following chapter. Grace, he says, abounds much more than sin; not just with a commensurate balance of the guilt, but in an intensive changing power, that “grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This assertion is followed at once by a vigorous denunciation of two possible misunderstandings of his meaning. One is the notion that in order to exhibit the munificence of grace, it is legitimate to continue in sin (6:1); the other is that since we are not under law but under grace, we can therefore revert to sinning with impunity (v.15 ). Paul indignantly repudiates both distortions. Grace is not in any sense a license to sin. It cannot be construed as a divine indulgence. The precise opposite is the case: It is a divine energizing through the Spirit whereby sin may be overcome. The idea is fundamental in both Pauline and non-Pauline writings (John 1:17; Acts 20:32; Rom. 5:2, 20-21; 6:14-15; 1 Cor. 15:10; 2 Cor. 1:12; 9:14; 12:9; Heb. 4:16; Jas. 4:6; 2 Pet. 3:18).

C. The Response of Faith

It is just as clear that the changing power of grace is conditional. Paul expresses his conviction that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live'” (Rom. 1:16-17). Paul never permits his readers to forget that faith is the essential God-ordained catalyst which releases the power of God’s grace in the soul (Rom. 3:22,25-26,28; 5:1; cf. the similar teaching in Hebrews and the letters of Peter).

Grace therefore is not an irresistible and magical infusion but a divine activity that can be rejected by unbelief. Therefore while salvation depends entirely upon God’s initiative, it is not imposed. Man must open the door of his heart (Rev. 3:20). According to John, the fundamental purpose in recording the Gospel was to inspire faith: “These are written that you may believe” (John 20:31; cf. 19:35)

However, saving faith in the New Testament is more than believing God in principle, though this is where it must begin (Heb. 11:6). It is believing specifically what God has done in Christ for me a sinner. Moreover, though believing in God is certainly a righteous act, just as disbelieving in God is a sinful act, we are not to infer that we are saved by this righteous act on the basis of its own merit. The matter is concisely stated by Joachim Jeremias:

“Thus faith replaces works. But then the question arises: Are we again confronted with some achievement on the strength of which God is gracious, if the justification follows because of faith?

“The answer here is: Yes! We are, in fact, confronted with an achievement. God does in fact grant His grace on the basis of an achievement. But now it is not my achievement, but the achievement of Christ on the cross. Faith is not an achievement in itself, rather it is the hand which grasps the work of Christ and holds it out to God.”

In the Pauline corpus the “faith way” is always the antithesis of the “works way.” The corresponding contrast is between faith and law. When Paul places law over against faith, he is not referring to the obligation to do right or to what he calls being under law to Christ (I Cor. 9:21); he refers to the Mosaic law system as the supposed means of becoming justified before God. Paul refuses to accept any compromise that would in effect blend law (which in this sense is virtually synonymous with works) with faith.

This is naturally a blow not only to the cultic mentality of Judaism but to the pride of the moralist. It is hard for man to accept the fact that he cannot make himself fit for God’s society. This is an affront to his ego, hence he tends subconsciously to resist to the last ditch. Tenaciously he clings to the delusion that there is something he can do to merit the favor of God. He wants to be self-made, because only in this way can he redeem his self-esteem on his own terms. But in the New Testament view of things, faith is a complete and final turning away from all self-righteousness and self-salvation. It is the abandonment of oneself to God’s merciful provision in Christ as the sole and adequate ground of hope.

On the divine side, therefore, God’s merciful initiative is called grace. But it is also from the divine side that the response of faith is required as a condition for the saving operation of grace. These two concepts are found side by side in the teaching of the New Testament. They are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. On the contrary Paul explains that salvation “depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace” (Rom. 4:16).

 _______________________

 From the book, God, Man, and Salvation, By W. T. Purkiser, Richard S. Taylor, Willard H. Taylor, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri, copyright 1977. 

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