Cooperating with God

Many Protestant Christians, especially of a Lutheran or conservative Reformed persuasion, become deeply uncomfortable when talking about virtue—at least virtue as something that human beings foster or participate in. They don’t want to give human beings credit for doing anything that smacks of “works righteousness.” When it comes to sanctification—that spiritual transformation that takes place after we experience justification and new birth—the Holy Spirit does everything. It’s all grace.

No one, not even the most hard-line Calvinist, behaves as if they believe this: Everyone knows that we tend to become more Christlike as we spend time in prayer, worship, Bible study, etc. And when it comes to performing these spiritual disciplines, our free will certainly seems to come into play. But if it’s our free will, then how is it also God? An extreme Reformed position (I’m not talking here about mainline Presbyterians) denies free will entirely. We may think it’s our will, they say, but it’s really God causing us to do these things. We don’t really choose.

This denial of free will offends the Methodist in me. But I’m also sensitive to charges that we Methodists place too much emphasis on what we do as opposed to what God does. Lutherans and Calvinists might say that we Methodists tend toward semi-Pelagianism. [Pelagianism was a fifth-century heresy combated (not very effectively) by Augustine that emphasized human participation in the process of salvation.]

I’ve always told nervous, Reformed-minded parishioners that it’s not either/or; it’s both/and. And if we can’t make sense of how that’s possible, it’s only because we’re time-bound and limited, and God isn’t. (I read an essay by contemporary Reformed theologian Kathryn Tanner on Providence, which dealt with these issues. She makes that same point that I make. Not that I quite grasped all that she was arguing. If I did, I’m sure my head would explode!)

In N.T. Wright’s book on sanctification, After You Believe, he tackles this question head on throughout the book. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter on the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23.

Christian virtue, including the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit, is both the gift of God and the result of the person of faith making conscious decisions to cultivate this way of life and those habits of heart and mind. In technical language, these things are both “infused” and “acquired,” though the way we “acquire” them is itself, in that same language, “infused.” We are here, as so often in theology, at the borders of language, because we are trying to talk at the same time about “something God does” and “something humans do” as if God were simply another character like ourselves, as though (in other words) the interplay of God’s work and our work could be imagined on the model of two people collaborating on a project. There are mysteries here that we do not need to explore further at this point. It is sufficient to note that the varieties of spiritual fruit Paul names, like the Christian virtues, remain both the work of the Spirit and the result of conscious choice and work on the part of the person concerned.

Thank you, Tom, as always, for saying something better than I can. It’s nice to know that my struggle to explain cooperating with God is the result of standing at the “borders of language.” I like that!

N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 197.

4 thoughts on “Cooperating with God”

  1. This has been something that I have written and read about a lot lately. I guess what I keep coming up with is that salvation is a separate issue from a walk with God. We accept the gift of salvation and then God gives us opportunities to grow and develop as we pursue the way that we are called to serve Him. We have to engage in those disciplines of scripture and prayer to complete open ourselves up to surrender our own will to let His will come into us.

    I love reading your posts!

  2. Thanks, Heather! I’m willing to live comfortably within the paradox “both/and.” I’m not willing to sacrifice free will, though. I like your words about “opening ourselves up.” I think that’s right: we make the decision to open ourselves up and let God do the rest. In a sense, God is doing it, but we’re saying “yes” in order to allow God to do it (if that makes sense).

    1. I liked the analogy with your student. I think that’s right. She can choose to walk away, despite your efforts to sway her, but ultimately it’s a problem on her side, not yours. You were bending over backwards to help her.

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