Do we really like the gospel of free grace?

July 30, 2012

Leave it to a Baptist to teach us what it means to be Wesleyan. Roger Olson, a theology professor at Baylor and a favorite blogger of mine, is—as we Methodists are supposed to be—Arminian. This means, among other things, that he rejects the Calvinist ideas that God predestines everyone to either salvation or damnation, that Christ died only for the elect, and that grace is irresistible (for those lucky enough to be elected). Arminianism emphasizes human responsibility—that human beings are able, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to respond to God’s grace.

Unfortunately, our Wesleyan-Arminian emphasis on human responsiveness to God’s grace gets easily distorted by critics. Are we saying that we have to do something to earn our salvation? Are we, like the worst of medieval Christianity, falling victim to works righteousness? The answer is no, as I discussed a couple of weeks ago, in this blog post.

As if to put an exclamation point on what I wrote there, Olson offers this sermon illustration and asks his readers whether or not it’s sufficiently Arminian:

In 1689 the city of Windsor, England was in an uproar. The city fathers had commissioned famed architect Sir Christopher Wren, designer of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, to design a new town hall. The building was complete as desired with one exception.

The city fathers wanted their meeting rooms above a “corn market”—an open space for farmers and others to display and sell their products. But when they inspected the new building they were dismayed. Wren had used a new technique for supporting the floor/ceiling below the meeting space and above the corn market that required no pillars (except, of course, at the edges). To the city fathers and others, it seemed obvious that the ceiling of the corn market would soon fall under their weight as they met above it.

The city fathers insisted that Wren add four pillars in the middle of the corn market to support the floor of their meeting room above.

Olson explains that Wren adamantly refused, insisting that his design was safe and that the pillars would detract from the beauty of the open space. Finally, to appease the city fathers, Wren reluctantly added the pillars. Except…

Some years after the building’s celebrated dedication the corn market ceiling needed re-painting. As workmen built their scaffolds they noticed something strange. Wren’s pillars did not touch the ceiling. The space between their tops and the ceiling was so small as not to be noticeable without close inspection. The ceiling had long stood without support except in the city fathers’ imaginations. Wren was dead by the time this was discovered. The city fathers then added material to fill in the gaps “just in case.”

Here’s the punchline:

Like Wren’s deceptive pillars, our good works, intended to shore up our salvation (justification) and/or our favor with God in Christian living (sanctification) are at best psychological spiritual crutches. We are often so uncomfortable with the gospel of free grace that we demand our spiritual leaders give us something to add to God’s grace to support our sense of worth in God’s sight. Or our spiritual leaders are so uncomfortable promoting the gospel of free grace they add “grace boosters” we must perform to win and keep God’s favor. But, in fact, as beautiful as they may be, all such good works fall short and, in fact, detract from the beauty of the unsupported grace, the free gift of God’s favor in the cross of Jesus Christ. “For by grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves….”

So, is this illustration Arminian or not? After receiving comments on the question for a couple of days—the consensus of which seemed to be mostly negative—Olson answered his own question. The answer—surprise, surprise—was an emphatic yes. An Arminian ought to say that this illustration accurately describes the relationship of grace and works.

Since I never got around to commenting myself, it’s easy for me to say in retrospect that of course it reflects Arminian theology. But go back and read “God’s Grace from Beginning to End”and tell me how I could come to any other conclusion? Our salvation is built solely on the atoning work of God in Christ. As the hymn says,

Nothing can for sin atone,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
Naught of good that I have done,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Having said all that, let me add my own, small qualification to the illustration. While good works don’t contribute a thing to our salvation, they will necessarily flow—enabled, of course, by the power of the Spirit—from a life that has been justified. They will do so because God doesn’t want us merely to be saved from the consequences of sin on the other side of judgment (which this illustration emphasizes), God wants us to be saved from sin in the here and now. Sin is that which keeps us from being what God created us to be: creatures capable of perfect love, both of God and his Creation.

Salvation isn’t an event. It’s a process by which the Holy Spirit continues to transform us until we arrive safely in God’s kingdom on the other side of resurrection. As the Spirit transforms us, good works will follow: because doing good is part of what it means to love. We will be saved in the future as we continue to trust in the Lord; we are being saved now in order to love.

4 Responses to “Do we really like the gospel of free grace?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I don’t see how Arminianism is really different from predestination ultimately if it means salvation is entirely God’s work “from beginning to end.” If I do absolutely nothing to be “involved” in bringing about salvation, I don’t see how that is anything other than God just “electing” whom will be saved. I’m no scholar, but I thought Arminianism meant there was some “support added,” which is our part in responding to God’s grace through faith and repentance.

    • brentwhite Says:

      No, Tom. We must choose to respond to the grace that’s been given us. A choice. That’s all. And we continue to respond. It’s not just a one-time thing.

      We’re responsible for the choice. Go and read Olson’s blog. BTW, he posted a sermon using that illustration just today.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Okay, but what is involved in the “response” and who is “making” it? Is it faith and repentance which is the “response”? (I doubt it is a mere “recitation” of the words of a “sinner’s prayer.”) And, if it is faith and repentance, is God more or less “porting” those into me? Or, is it, instead, consistently with what Jesus said: “Your faith has saved you”? If it is not faith and repentance, or if it is, but neither of those comes from me instead of “imported” by God into me, I still don’t see the difference from predestination, whereby salvation is entirely the choice of God, and not of me.

  2. brentwhite Says:

    The response is our agreement to accept the grace that’s being offered. We are definitely the ones making the choice. God isn’t working against our will.

    God gives us all the grace necessary to make a decision to follow Jesus. Apart from this prior grace, we would be a lost cause. (Fortunately, God is very liberal in giving human beings grace. He showers it on everyone.) Upon receiving a sufficient amount of grace to make a decision, God asks, “Do you want to repent of your sins?” We say, “Yes.” “O.K., now let me give you the grace to repent.” “Do you want to be justified?” “Yes.” “O.K., now let me give you the grace to be justified.” It seems kind of crude and mechanical to put it in these terms, but I hope you get my point. We continually give our consent to empower the Holy Spirit to do his work within us. This continual consent (or trust) is consistent with Jesus’ words, “Your faith has saved you.”

    I haven’t yet read the Roger Olson sermon I refer to above, but I’m sure it’s good. I’ll read it soon. (I’m on vacation, after all!) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/07/a-sermon-grace-works-philippians-212-13/


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