February 28, 2012

Grace is not a substance

New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg recently wrote on the different understandings of grace as irresistible as opposed to prevenient. After describing the difficulty that many have with "limited atonement," namely that it means "Christ’s death went for naught for those who do not repent," he goes on to suggest that prevenient grace may have a similar problem:
"What if the problem with prevenient grace is parallel? Would God extend sufficient (but resistible) grace to those he knew would forever resist and reject it? Wouldn’t that just be a waste?"
Blomberg is a fine scholar and has contributed in a variety of ways to sound biblical scholarship. Here I would raise a question, though. He seems to be speaking of grace as if it were a substance. It is something that God "extends", something that can be wasted. Many of us often speak in such ways, and I would like to hear Blomberg discuss this more thoroughly. Grace is not a substance; grace is a person. There is no grace other than the person of Jesus Christ himself. Salvation by grace means being joined in a relationship of union with Jesus such that all that is his is shared with those who are joined to him. When we think of grace as a person rather than as some other sort of thing, it is difficult to make sense of terms like "waste". Can a person be wasted?

When we begin to conceive of grace like this, we can begin to see the value of the concept of prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is about the activity of God through his Spirit to draw people into a new relationship with the Father through the Son before that relationship is actually established. Wesleyans (and Arminians) tend to think of salvation in terms of a new relationship with God. This is one reason we are concerned by the idea of irresistible grace. It is difficult to conceive how an irresistible relationship, one that must be had against the will of one party, can be a relationship of mutual self-giving love. A relationship of love is one in which both parties freely desire to engage. And relationships of reconciliation are pursued before they are firmly established. Such relationships, it would seem, can be resisted.

So, prevenient grace is not about God offering a thing (or substance) to those who he knows will reject it. Prevenient grace is about the triune God offering himself and wooing his beloved into a relationship of boundless other-oriented love. Prevenient grace is not about receiving a thing; it's about receiving a person. In this light we can recast the question: would God offer himself in relationship to those who he knew would forever resist and reject that relationship? The resounding answer seems to me to be yes. Isn't that who he is? Does he not present himself to those who are at enmity with him? Does he not call out to the banquet those who refuse to come? Does he not long to gather his people as a hen gathers her chicks despite their resistance? Grace is not a substance. Grace is Jesus. And Jesus offers himself, not for us only but also for the whole world.


Craig L. Adams said...

Excellent response, Matt. Thanks.

ἐκκλησία said...

Good thought, that "Grace is a person".

It begs the question, "If Grace is a person, why wouldn't God ensure that person is accessible to everyone, including those God knows will forever resist?"

Didn't 'that person' die for His enemies 'yet while they were still His enemies'?

ἐκκλησία said...

Silly me. I see you concluded with exactly that same thought ...

. o O (Fools seldom differ ...)

Matt O'Reilly said...

No problem. As I was reading your first comment, I thought to myself, "that's basically what I was trying to say." Then I saw your second comment.

As always, thanks for reading.

Glen said...

Grace is a person - Amen. Your post reminds me of Matt Jenson's brilliant, "faith is nothing" http://www.scriptoriumdaily.com/2007/10/18/faith-is-nothing/

You say: "Prevenient grace is about the triune God offering himself and wooing his beloved into a relationship of boundless other-oriented love." I'd say exactly the same thing but without "prevenient" as the qualifier. Does your (absolutely right and proper) personalization of grace do away with the need for talk of "prevenient"?

PS - this is my 7th attempt at deciphering the recaptcha words. I must be a spambot without realising it!

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Glen, thanks for reading and commenting. I think the language of prevenient grace is still helpful for couple of reasons.

1. The term "prevenient grace" points to the activity of God before conversion. Thus, it has temporal connotations. So, even if we are speaking of grace in terms of the person of Jesus and salvation in terms of a relationship, it continues to be helpful to point to the activity of God to draw a person into reconciled relationship prior to the actual moment of reconciliation, which brings me to my second point.

2. The temporal aspect is important because it puts the emphasis on God's initiative in salvation, which is necessary to avoid the problems of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.

Thanks again for interacting with my post. Sorry you had a hard time with the recaptcha. I have a hard time discerning those words/letters sometimes also.

Richard Dempsey said...

Hi Matt,
I enjoyed the article very much.
However, one definition of 'substance' is 'essential nature' or 'essence' so that we could actually truthfully call grace substantial in that it is the very essence of the Godhead (i.e. God himself) that is offered to man in the person of the Son.