Patience

A while ago my church was doing a series on the fruit of the Spirit, listed in Galatians 5:22-23. I did the sermon on patience, and below are the notes for this. The audio can be found at my church’s website. In addition to reading the list of the fruit in Galatians, we also read James 5:7-11, upon which the sermon is based. My broader approach to patience is based off Aquinas’s discussion in ST II-II Q136.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (James 5:7-11)

Introduction

One of the clearest messages in Scripture is that the people of God need to be patient. As we just saw in Galatians, Paul lists patience alongside things like love, goodness, and joy — which seem like pretty good things for Christians to have. Scripture often tells us that God’s people need to have endurance, steadfastness, or perseverance. It tells us to not dwell in anger, and it tells us to forgive one another. And a large chunk of God’s interactions with us is through him promising something and us having to wait for it.

But why should we be patient? How does patience follow from the gospel? And what is patience, actually? These are the questions we want to try and grapple with tonight.

There’s what we might call the “lazy” answer to these questions which is easy but ultimately unhelpful. It goes something like this: nice people are patient, Christians are supposed to be nice people, and so Christians are supposed to be patient. I say this is unhelpful because it tells us nearly nothing about patience, and doesn’t help us understand how patience flows from the gospel. So, let’s put that to one side and start over afresh.

Patience in general

Let’s start by trying to understand patience in general. In our passage James illustrates patience with the example of the farmer. The farmer sows the seed so that the ground will produce food. But he knows that this will not happen immediately. He knows that in order for the plant to produce this food, it needs to take in a number of rounds of rain, and this takes time. So he waits calmly without giving up. He keeps his composure. So patience is about keeping composure.

But it’s not just this, is it? We don’t call people patient when they’re calm and life is easy. James knows this, since he goes on to talk about patience in the face of suffering. And we can see this if we think through the farmer example a bit more. Let’s say he planted the seeds and then forgot about them. Then one day he’s like, “Oh! Crops!” In this case he wouldn’t be showing patience: he would just be forgetful. On the other hand let’s say he needed food and this was his only way of getting it. Or perhaps he finds it difficult to wait through both autumn and spring rains to get these crops. It’s in these cases that he would be waiting patiently. So patience involves keeping composure in the face of difficulty, whether it be suffering, or stress, or weakness, or something else.

So far so good, but we’re still missing something: when we’re patient, what motivates our patience? The farmer doesn’t wait just because he likes waiting, and we don’t endure suffering because we enjoy suffering. More generally, we aren’t patient because we like going through difficult times. The farmer has an end in mind, he has a goal: he waits patiently for the rain because this is how he gets his crops to produce food. If he gives up waiting he gives up on this food.

And this principle scales up and down: if he only waits one day, he wouldn’t get much more than what he planted. If he waits through only the autumn rains he would see the plant’s stalk and leaves — and he’d be able to eat those, which would be good to some extent. But if he waits through both autumn and spring rains, then he gets to enjoy the what James calls the “valuable crop,” which would be a great good. His waiting pays off in that it enables he to take hold of the great good.

And this is true in general when it comes to patience: we keep our composure in the face of difficulty because we look forward to a great good that we can only get if we don’t give up. This is the last aspect of patience.

Patience is keeping composure in the face of difficulty for the sake of some great good.

We can see this definition work out everywhere in life, most clearly when we’re being impatient. When you’re driving to work and you get fed up because of the traffic, you are not keeping your composure in the face of that difficulty — you’re being impatient with the other drivers. When you start ignoring someone at church because they’re irritating and you’ve given up, you are not keeping your composure in the face of that difficulty — you’re being impatient with them. When you continually struggle to overcome a particular sin but it’s difficult and so you give up on it, you are not keeping your composure in the face of that difficulty — you’re being impatient with yourself.

Christian patience: the great good and source of difficulty

To understand Christian patience, then, we need to talk about the difficulties we face as Christians and the great good that helps us get through them. To start off we need to understand two things: (1) to be with God is the greatest anyone could ever hope for, but (2) our sin prevents us from being with him. So let’s unpack each of these.

God is the greatest good

I say God is good, but on the face of it referring God “a good” — or even “a great good” — can actually be slightly misleading, because he’s not just some good thing among the other good things we are familiar in everyday life. Good ice-cream, good paintings, good dogs, and good people are each is good and desirable, but only in a limited and qualified way. God, on the other hand, is good in an unlimited way. When I’m eating a good ice-cream, part of my desire is satisfied, but some part is left unsatisfied, since an ice-cream is not a painting, or a dog, or a good time with friends, or anything else I could want. This is because the ice-cream is limited — it’s just ice-cream. It would be different, though, if I could somehow experience God, since he is unlimited. There would be no part of me left unsatisfied. CS Lewis summarized this when he said,

He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only. (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

Now, God is so good, so holy, and so beautiful that no-one can experience him all at once, at least not in this life. When we see goodness and beauty the various things throughout creation — when we see impressive animals, incredible plants, beautiful landscapes and valleys, when we amazed by the vastness of space, and when we’re occasionally pleased with ourselves — all we’re doing is looking through windows into this or that aspect of God’s infinite glory. And even then, these windows can be difficult to see through because of things like disease, and decay, and cruelty, and death. We never get to experience God’s glory all at once, but only bit-by-bit.

This idea that God’s beauty and goodness and holiness are expressed bit-by-bit throughout creation is spoken about in different ways in Scripture. So for example, David says, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1), and the angels sang to Isaiah, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Is 6:3).

Wouldn’t it be cool, though, if instead of having God’s beauty just a little bit at a time, we somehow were able to have all of it at once? It would be like all the good times in life now, minus all the bad, but scaled up infinitely. We know it would be awesome, but don’t know exactly what that would be like, since we’ve never experienced anything like it before. We don’t get it, we can’t at the moment. As finite creatures with finite experience of reality, we have no way of picturing the true awesomeness of an infinite God. And that’s actually where the problem starts.

Sin prevents us from accessing God

You see, we’re so familiar with the finite things here in our everyday life and so unfamiliar with the infiniteness of God, that we find it easy to replace the one for the other — to focus on limited goodness rather than unlimited goodness.

Sometimes you’ll hear sin being spoken about in terms of “giving into desire,” as if the one who has the strongest desire is the one most likely sin. But in some sense it’s because our desires aren’t strong enough that we give up wanting to be with God and settle the lesser things we’re familiar. Again, CS Lewis summarizes this well when he says,

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

This giving up of God for some finite good is at the heart of we call sin. And sin always spirals into more sin. The more we choose finite goods over God, the more used it we become. It becomes easier to do again next time, and harder and harder to choose God. Sins we might’ve at one point thought unimaginable now become plausible, or even desirable. And so we spiral further and further away from God, alienating ourselves from him, and cutting ourselves off from ever seeing him face-to-face. This infinite goodness that is beyond our wildest dreams is now beyond our reach.

Again, the idea that our sin prevents us from accessing God is spoken about in different ways in Scripture. With Moses, for example, God said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Ex 33:20) And as Isaiah cried out when he saw God, “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Is 6:5)

Christian patience: the gospel

It’s against this backdrop of us being cut off from infinite joy that the gospel shows us what Christian patience is all about. Because of Jesus the possibility of being with God in all his glory is once again brought within reach, so that anyone who wants it can have it. So, the greatest possible good we could hope for returns as something we can look forward to.

But we don’t get all of it right now, and this is where the difficulty comes in. When we turn to God our sin no longer alienates us from him, for sure, but we’re still people who find it easy to sin. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans,

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom 7:21-24)

As we are now, we’re caught in what we might call “the twilight of sin,” the time between when Christ first came — when he fixed our relationship with God — and when he will return again — when he will fix us and we will get to be with God. And it’s this second day — which James refers to as “the coming of the Lord” (Jas 5:7a, 8c) — that we are to look forward to.

It’s because we’re in this twilight that we need to show patience. Right now we are weak and still find it so easy to choose lesser goods over God. But, if we keep our composure, if we endure through these difficulties, then one day we will get to be with him.

Christian patience: our weakness

Now, maybe there’s a particular sin you’re struggling with at the moment, and which you keep lapsing back into. In this case, there are two ways to give up. Either (1) you’ll find a way to justify or ignore the sin, by convincing yourself it’s not really that bad or (2) you’ll distance yourself from God because you’ve failed him. In a way, these two responses are opposites of one another: the one says your failure is so big that God won’t want anything to do with you, and the other tries to underplay the failure so that it’s not really a failure in the end.

But please don’t give up! I know it’s difficult, but remember that this life and this difficulty are temporary, and that one day this burden will be lifted from you. Recognize sin as the failure it is, and remember that God’s love is big enough to overcome it! Hate your sin, and keep your eyes facing forward to the day it will be gone. As Paul reminds us, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess 5:24) So be patient with yourself.

Christian patience: their weakness

But maybe it’s not your sin that you’re struggling with. As a community of people each weakened by sin in different ways, it’s inevitable that we’re going to fail each other sometimes. And as James says, we’ll be tempted to give up on one another, to grumble against each other. Either we’ll get angry at each other, or we’ll try avoid each other, or something in between, but it always results in more disunity than when we started.

When you’re tempted to give up on a fellow brother or sister the key thing to remember is this: the day that you look forward to — when your sin is removed and you are with God — is the same day that their sin is removed and they are with God. In other words, the day we long for is the day that we are all together in perfect unity. Now, if the day I look forward more than anything else involves me being with you in perfect unity, how could I not endure your failures now, and how could I not work for unity between us? Of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t correct each other, or rebuke each another, or things like that; what it means is that when we do these things that we should do them patiently.

Christian patience: the synthesis

Ultimately, if we are able to acknowledge our own sin without giving up on ourselves and if as a community we are able to bear with one another’s sins, then we will have created an environment in which we can help each other in our weakness. In the end this is part of the reason why God let’s us face these difficulties in the first place. As James says earlier in his letter,

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (Jas 1:2-4)

Christian patience: some perspective

As I close I want to ask a more general question. So far I’ve been speaking about how the gospel relates to patience in the Christian life: patience with ourselves in our struggle against sin, and patience with our fellow Christians in their struggles against sin. I focused on the Christian life because this is what the New Testament focuses on. But what about the everyday stuff, like when I get angry in traffic on my way to work, or when I get fed up with my parents or my children?

I think the gospel has something to say about these too, but with a difference. When it comes to our struggle with sin, we should never give up, because an infinite God is always worth enduring through a finite difficulty. But in everyday life many of the goods we look forward to are finite, and so giving up can sometimes be the right thing to do. For example, if at work we come up with a plan to meet a certain goal, but halfway through we realize it’s not worth it, then the right thing to do is to give up and try something else. So, however the gospel applies in these cases, it cannot be in the same way as it applies to the struggle with sin.

So, how does is apply? The thought that I keep coming back to is this: on a normal day small things like stubbing my toe easily irritate me. But if I was fighting in a war and I stubbed my toe, I doubt it would irritate me at all!

The point is that it’s all about perspective: we’re more prone to get impatient in cases we think are more important. But when we have an eye on the bigger picture, the struggles that once seemed so big tend to fall away.

This is where the gospel comes in: it says that the everyday things we see and do are not the whole story. That behind the scenes there’s a war going, between eternal life with God and eternal death without him. And that each of us are soldiers — of a kind — in this war. As Pauls says in his letter to the Ephesians,

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Eph 6:10-13)

We would do well to remember all of this on our way to work tomorrow; when a driver in front of us forgets to indicate and we’re tempted to be impatient.

By grace through faith

Have you noticed that theological discussions about grace almost always tend to include questions about conversion? What I mean is that they often center around the process by which someone moves from hostility towards God to desiring him. In particular, the Christian understands this as coming to faith in God and his gospel.

In Protestant circles the debate about the “doctrines of grace” is about the extent and nature of man’s inability to turn to God by himself, God’s supernatural act to overcome this inability, and the relation all of this has to free will and predestination.[1] In Roman Catholic circles we see something similar, albeit with slightly different distinctions and approaches. St. Aquinas, for instance, speaks of grace as that by which God supernaturally moves man inwardly to the assent of faith.[2] Naturally, such language raises questions of man’s free will in the matter which led to much debate — most notably between the Banezians and the Molinists — and which continues to be discussed today.[3] We can take it back even further: St. Augustine also discusses grace and free will in these terms, and he was around all the way back in the 4th century.[4]

Why do I raise this? Well, because it seems to me that when St. Paul talks about grace he is rather indifferent to questions about conversion. Now technically, there’s nothing wrong with certain debates throughout the centuries using slightly different vocabulary to Paul in the first century; so long as we make the necessary distinctions it won’t get in the way of our understanding of Scripture. The problem, however, is that we don’t make these distinctions, and so it does get in the way of our understanding.

Before we proceed I should make the following disclaimer: I’m in no way discrediting the topics mentioned above as legitimate and important avenues of theological discussion. I myself have drawn much value from them. I’m just interested in the exegetical question.

Some context

It should not be forgotten that Paul was a Jew and so his theology was informed generally by Jewish thought, and particularly by the Old Testament. There is sometimes a tendency to separate New Testament from Old, but unless we have some principled reason for doing so I see no reason why we should. Jesus and the apostles did not understand Jesus’ ministry to have overthrown the old covenants, but rather as something that fulfilled them.

Now, in the Old Testament God’s sovereignty — his guidance of human actions and history — is taken for granted and considered as something obvious and foundational, without much need for exposition. God’s actions are primarily depicted in more “external” terms, such as judging Israel or the other nations, and attempting to convince Israel to return to him. Generally the Old Testament authors focus on human motivations and responsibility for their actions, and only every now and then do they add a throw-away comment about God’s sovereign activity in the background.[5] And only a handful of these could be construed as God’s sovereign role in Israel’s turning to him from their sinful rejection of him. These just aren’t considered pressing questions for these authors.

What is a pressing question — and one which comes up all the time — is whether God will accept them back if they choose to repent.[6] Whether, after rejecting him and returning, he will accept them again and forgive their earlier offense. There’s nothing saying he must forgive them, of course: just as someone who commits a crime is not absolved of it merely by choosing to act like a respectable citizen from that moment onwards, so neither is someone who turns to seek God thereby absolved of their previous sin.

With this we’ve stumbled across an important distinction, the blurring of which is at the heart of our tendency to include questions about conversion with questions about grace: on the one hand someone turns to seek God, and on the other God forgives and accepts them. It seems to me that when Paul discusses grace and related topics he follows the Old Testament in being primarily interested in the second of these issues. We, on the other hand, are often interested in the first. In this sense, then, it seems we’ve gotten things backwards.

A clarification

Before we continue, let’s try get more clear on what we’re talking about. Grace is the solution to a problem, and we’re trying to get at what the authors of Scripture thought this problem was. On the one hand there’s the problem of how someone converts, that is how they turn from rejecting God to desiring him. On the other hand there’s the problem, even once someone has turned to God, of how they become reconciled to him. Let’s call these the inability problem and the alienation problem respectively.

Now we restate everything I’ve been saying with the help of this clarification. For a long time now discussions about grace have had the problem of inability at a fairly central place, while the authors of Scripture seem to be more interested in the problem of alienation.

Romans

We can begin to see all of this from a number of interconnected perspectives. Grace is closely related to a number of important notions at the center of Christian theology, like justification and the work of the Holy Spirit, and so a complete discussion would need to include something on these other notions. Here we will confine ourselves to what Paul says more or less directly about grace, with the hopes of looking at the other notions in more depth some other time. We’ll focus our attention here closely on what Paul says in two of his letters: Romans and Ephesians.

Starting with Romans, a brief summary is in order. In the opening chapters Paul seeks to establish that everyone is under sin and thereby alienated from God. By itself this wouldn’t have been surprising to his Jewish audience, who were familiar with the notion that the nations were alienated from God. They were the exception to this, however, because they were God’s chosen people: God had made a covenant with them (the sign of which was circumcision), and given them the law by which they could know and do his will. To their surprise, though, Paul goes on to include the Jews in his indictment. It is indeed to their advantage that they had all these things (3:1ff), but the law and circumcision themselves are not sufficient. Paul here echoes the prophets (cf. Micah 3, Isaiah 58) in criticizing the tendency to presume upon these Jewish sacraments without actually following through on them in their actions.[7] The fundamental thing needed is a change of heart — returning to God — which we trust will be graciously accepted by God (cf. Deuteronomy 30, Psalm 51, Hosea 14). The law and circumcision are not unrelated to this, of course: circumcision is the sign of the covenant, and the law gives the expression and end of this changed heart. But neither of these things in themselves are the grounds for their right-standing. Indeed, of itself, the law does not solve the problem of sin but only casts it in clearer light. (3:19-20)

It’s important for Paul in these opening chapters that everyone be found in the same boat. The Christians in Rome were divided over the place of the law and circumcision in the Christian life, since up until recently these had been defining features of God’s people. Paul’s point is that they of themselves do nothing to make one part of God’s people.

This sets the stage, then, for Paul’s proposal. While the law is not the solution to universal human alienation from God through sin, it does point to the solution: the person and work of Jesus the Christ. As he goes on to say, both Jew and Gentile “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom 3:23-25)

The first thing to notice is that the grace Paul has in mind is received by faith, as opposed to being the cause of faith. Second, it would miss the overall thrust of Paul’s argument to think of this grace as that which causes some kind of desire for God. The Jew who mistakenly boasts in God on the basis of the law (2:17) desires God; his problem is his basis for boasting in God. Paul’s point is that because the law (and circumcision) does not form such a basis, it should also not be causing these divisions in the Roman church. Both Christian Jew and Gentile are right with God for the same reason: not because the Gentile has been circumcised and started following the distinctively Jewish laws (which would the just make him a Jew), but because both are justified through faith. Thus he continues, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also…” (3:28-29) To cast this in terms of conversion just misses the point. His point is that if a Gentile seeks God he needn’t become a Jew, for this would make God the God of only the Jews. By grace, God overcomes the alienation of both Jew and Gentile through faith. That the person seeks God is assumed; it’s not taken to be the result of anything (at least not here).[8]

The interpretation of these verses ripples through the remainder of the letter to the Romans. This is natural since Paul is starting in these early chapters the line of thought he will carry on through to the end. For our current purposes, perhaps one of the most interesting passages to look at in chapter 7:

Did that which is good [the law], then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (7:13-25)

There is much discussion about how best to interpret the perspective Paul is taking here. One option is that he’s talking about the Christian experience of the struggle with sin. It’s unclear, however, why sin would still produce death in a believer. Another option is that Paul is talking from the perspective of a Jew prior to the coming of Christ. It’s unclear, however, why Paul would speak in the present tense and why only now he takes this perspective (presumably he’s been speaking from the Christian perspective since at least 6:1).

I think both of these options are getting at something, but missing it slightly because each assumes the grace in question involves something like conversion. If we apply the correction we were talking about earlier, a nice third option becomes available: Paul is speaking from the perspective of the person who desires God — and who sees his law as good — but who is nonetheless alienated from God because of their sin. At this point he’s bracketing out the grace he’s mentioned before so that he can situate it as the solution he sees it as: the way a person who has turned to God but remains stained by sin, can be reconciled with God.

Put another way, we might say that Paul is considering two logically distinct stages in someone being made righteous through faith: the stage at which the person turns to God but is still under sin, and the stage at which God graciously accepts him and forgives his sin. The former stage takes up most of the space, and is summarized with the exasperated question, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The latter stage let’s loose the solution Paul has been discussing for the past few chapters whereby he is able to exclaim, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

This passage is pivotal in Paul’s argument in chapters 5-8. In it he comes to the end of a dialectic he’s been following since the beginning of chapter 5, getting ever and ever more detailed about the relationship between notions like the law, grace, sin, death, and life. In chapter 8 he’ll address all of these in reverse order, “redressing” them appropriately in his account of God’s work at the cross. Take, for example, 8:31-39. Sometimes v35 is read in terms of inability, and so taken to be talking about Christians persevering in their faith. But if we consider the surrounding context as well as the context of the quote in v36, it becomes clear that it should be read in terms of alienation. The love of Christ, here, is expressed in his interceding for us, and Paul’s point is that nothing will get in the way of his doing this. This section “redresses” 5:1-2, in which Paul explains that through Christ our faith is enough to be right with God.

One more example of Paul’s focus on alienation: most of the discussion in Romans involves correcting the error of some of the Jewish Christians who were saying that something in addition to faith was necessary to deal with the alienation from God. Paul’s point is that this grace from God directly connects faith to reconciliation with him, so that nothing additional is needed and so there is nothing aside from God’s mercy that we can point to as the means by which we dealt with it. In Chapter 11, however, Paul briefly addresses an erroneous thought that might enter the Gentile’s mind as a result of this. He says,

… do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (11:18-23)

It is because we continue to trust in his dealing with the alienation, as opposed to us having fixed it somehow, that we continue to be grafted in. Notice towards the end that the grafting occurs logically after the belief, which doesn’t make sense if the problem in view is one of inability. The power (and grace) of God in focus is his ability to graft those who believe back in, ie. address their alienation from him and his people.

Ephesians

Let’s turn now to consider Ephesians more briefly. The passage I have in mind is Ephesians 2:1-10. Here Paul tells us that previously we were “dead in our trespasses” but that “by grace through faith” God has saved us. Here it is common to see people interpret the phrase “dead in our trespasses” as meaning that we are like corpses, incapable of turning to God. That is, they interpret the phrase to be a statement of the inability problem. In this case, God’s saving us “by grace through faith” refers to him giving us faith.

It seems to me, however, that this way of reading the passage divorces it from the broader Pauline context to which it belongs. When Paul talks about death in relation to sin or grace he has in mind a judgment or consequence, not an inability.[9] Indeed, our quote from Romans 7 above is a clear example of this. To be sure, there are cases where Paul does use death to refer to inability — he speaks of Abraham as considering his body “as good as dead” in Romans 4 — but these cases are not discussing death in the context of sin or grace. Biologically speaking Paul understands that death is the greatest of all inabilities, but theologically speaking he uses it to refer to judgment or consequence, which is part of the problem of alienation.

On an alienation reading, then, when Paul says that we were “dead in our trespasses” he means something like we were “under the reign of death” or we were “on the track to death.” And, importantly, this is true even if we’ve turned back to God since the stain of sin still alienates us from God. But he graciously saved us from this through Jesus, a grace we receive through faith. Paul is not here interested in our conversion per se, but in our movement from being worthy of judgment to being reconciled with God.

Besides making more sense in the broader Pauline context, there are three other reasons to prefer this alienation reading to the inability reading. First, Paul uses the phrase “dead in our trespasses” interchangeably with the phrase “children of wrath,” and the latter clearly refers to judgment. Second, Paul contrasts us being dead with us being “seated in the heavenly places” (v6), which is what we’d expect on the alienation reading, but not on the inability reading. Third, when Paul uses the phrase elsewhere it clearly refers to the alienation reading. In Colossians Paul says,

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. (2:13-14a)

Notice how God made us alive in this passage: by forgiving our sins. It is not by supernaturally enabling us to turn to him or by infusing us with faith, but by forgiving the thing keeping us alienated from him.

Coming back to the Ephesians passage, we have one more thing to comment on. Paul says towards the end that,

… by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (2:8-9)

On the inability reading, the gift is the faith. On the preferred alienation reading, the whole process is the gift: God’s grace in Jesus is received through faith. This has the advantage of cohering well with the parallel phrase in Romans 3 we discussed earlier, as well as connecting this gift in v8 with the discussion of the preceding verses about God’s grace. Paul is explaining to these people who desire God in their faith, that God has made a way for this to be enough to overcome the alienation of their sin. Nothing they did achieved this, it is was a gift from God.

Concluding thoughts

We’ve examined two passages where Paul is talking explicitly about grace and seen that in neither case is he particularly interested in the question of conversion or the inability of us to turn to him.[10] Paul is talking to people who now desire God and, reflecting on the Old Testament reassurances, is explaining how God has overcome the stain of sin in them and thereby reconciled them to himself. Just like the criminal’s repentance does not by itself undo their crimes, so neither does the sinners repentance by itself undo their sin. This is the problem Paul sees God’s grace solving. It is only because of God’s grace shown in the cross that this barrier can be overcome, and repentant sinners can be declared sons of God.

Had God not shown this grace, people might turn to him in faith but this would be in vain since they would still stand alienated from him. Indeed, there’s nothing they could do to change this since it’s a result of past sins and no-one can change the past. God’s grace bridges this gap and undoes the alienation for those who turn to him in faith. Now he waits for us to so turn. In this way, we receive this grace in faith.

Notes

  1. Contemporary authors that jump to mind are people like Michael Horton, John Piper, Roger Olson, and Kenneth Keathley.
  2. “Therefore faith, as regards the assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God moving man inwardly by grace.” (ST II-II Q6 A1 corp.)
  3. See, for instance, Bernard Longeran’s incredible (and equally intense) book Grace and Freedom, Harm Goris’ Free Creatures of an Eternal God, and Alfred Fredosso’s God’s General Concurrence with Secondary Causes.
  4. See, for instance, his De libero arbitrio, his De natura et gratia, and his De gratia Christi et de peccato originali. See Eleonore Stump’s Augustine on Free Will for a nice contemporary discussion on all of this.
  5. See, for example, Genesis 50:20, 1 Samuel 2:25, and Isaiah 63:17.
  6. Many of us will be familiar with the promises of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy 28-29, but we forget that after all this, in chapter 30, Moses reassures the Jews that after they’ve failed God and returned to him that he will mercifully restore their fortunes: “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you… return to the Lord your God… and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you…” (30:1-3) Allusions to this promise from God appear throughout the Old Testament. See, for example, Psalm 32:1-2, 51:9, Isaiah 64:9, Ezekiel 18:21-23, and Zechariah 1:3.
  7. This the same problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. An example that jumps to mind is his criticism of the traditions of the Pharisees that were established under the pretense of serving God, but ended up merely undermining this purpose (cf. Mark 7:1-13). See also, this blog post.
  8. Perhaps people think in terms of conversion because in chapter 1 we have someone hostile to God. But this ignores chapter 2, where both Jew and Gentile seek to do Gods will.
  9. See, for example, Romans 1:32, 5:12, 6:21, 7:13-25, and Colossians 2:13-14. Note that in Ephesians 4:17-18, while he doesn’t use the word “dead,” he talks about “alienation from the life of God,” which fits well with my point here and plausibly refers back to what we was talking about here in Ephesians 2.
  10. This is not to say he is never interested in the question of conversion. It’s just not as prominent as some have come to think, and he doesn’t even use the word “grace” when discussing it. For example, in 1 Corinthians he talks about how the “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (2:14)

Death before the Fall

Depending on one’s view of Genesis, one might be committed to a position about death before the Fall. Typically, young earth creationists (YECs) hold that there was no animal death before the Fall and there was no human death either. Most old earth creationists (OECs) hold that there was animal death before the Fall. When it comes to human death before the Fall, OECs can go either way. Those OECs who think that (1) there was human death before the Fall and (2) Genesis 2-3 is best understood as historical narrative, typically understand God’s warning to Adam in Gen 2:16 to involve spiritual death as opposed to physical death[1]. I personally think this view is defensible, but I don’t plan on defending it here. Rather I want to propose a model which allows us to affirm (1) physical death as a consequence of the Fall, (2) the possibility of human death before the Fall and (3) the historicity of Gen 2-3. We’ll call it the potential death (PD) model.

On PD Adam and Eve were never any different from the rest of humanity[2]: in the absence of any overriding factors, they would die. They could die if they fell off a cliff, they could die of starvation, they could kill each other with sticks, and so on. However, in the garden of Eden, there was an overriding factor: the tree of life. So long as they had access to the tree, they could live indefinitely[3]. In other words, if they got expelled from the garden of Eden (for sinning, perhaps), then they would be cut off from the tree, and the death by mortality that was once merely a potential, would become a reality. Thus, if they were to disobey God, they would die. In this way, physical death was a real consequence of the Fall. This is different from the typical YEC understanding, however, since on PD this physical death is not a direct consequence, but a side-affect from being expelled from the garden.

You might think that this suggestion is somewhat ad hoc, but I actually thought of it because of Genesis 3:22, which says, “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.’” Funny that.

Naturally, if PD is to stand as a plausible model it must fit in with the rest of Scripture, and it doesn’t seem to be in conflict with any passages that I’m aware of. Often Rom 5:12-21 and Rom 8:18-25 are cited as evidence that humans didn’t die before the Fall. Consider Rom 5:12-21 first. In verse 12 Paul states that, “sin came through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned…” But, (1) it’s not clear that Paul is talking about physical death here. It seems possible that he’s using death to refer to condemnation (or something along those lines), given that he uses the two terms interchangeably throughout the passage and in verse 21 this “death” is contrasted with eternal life. And (2), even if Paul were talking about physical death here, there is no problem, since on PD we affirm physical death as a consequence of Adam’s sin anyway.

What about Rom 8:18-25, then? Well, this isn’t even obviously talking about death. Perhaps we might be tempted to think it does because of the mention of “decay” (NIV) in verses 20-21, which say, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” But it’s far from obvious that this must refer to death as a consequence of the Fall. It is much more natural, given the reference to pains of childbirth in verse 22, to take this as referring to the curses that were pronounced upon mankind in Gen 3. But again, even if Paul were referring to physical death, this wouldn’t be a problem for PD.

Since PD concerns itself only with human death before the Fall, I suppose those are the only two passages of particular relevance.

Notes

  1. Usually, “spiritual death” is understood to be a disruption in one’s relationship with God, and “physical death” is the usual biological death we are accustomed to experiencing.
  2. I’m talking in terms of death here. Of course there’s the difference of being sinless at at least one point in their life, which is different from us, who are born sinful.
  3. PD is not committed to any explanation of how this works. But since God could keep a person living indefinitely, there seems to be no problem with him creating a tree to do the job too.

Enabling, not burdening

When we read the Bible we can see a pattern in the way God deals with those he saves. In the Exodus, God saves the Israelites and then gives them the law, telling them how they are to act as God’s people (Ex 20ff). Similarly, when we are saved as Christians we are called to repent from our sin and turn to God (eg. Romans 6, James 2:14ff).

Now initially I can sympathize with the person who gets the impression that God is, in some sense, “trapping” his people. Like he’s imposing these rules after they get saved.

But once we think about it a bit we realize that both Jesus and the authors of the new testament are quite clear that repentance is a central aspect of being a Christian. In fact, the definition of Christian is someone who trusts in the power of the resurrection and follows Jesus as Lord according to Paul (Romans 10:9). A Christian is someone who believes and repents and follows Jesus according to Jesus himself (Mark 1:15, Mark 8:34) and if a Christian claims to have faith without deeds then whatever that faith is is dead without deeds according to James (James 2:14ff). Also, Peter (and YHWH) sees it like this: the one who calls us is holy, so be holy like him (1 Peter 1:15-16).

So far from trapping or burdening the person once they believe, repentance is part of the belief in the first place!

Recently I’ve been thinking about this and there seem to two more things we can add by way of interpreting the whole “giving the law and expecting good works” thing:

  1. Far from burdening us, God is showing us how we were designed to live in the first place. By giving us his law, he tells us exactly how we were designed to relate to him and to our neighbor. So really, God is enabling us to reach our full potential (excuse the cliché) and lifting the burden and corruption imposed by sin (this thinking fits quite well with Paul’s thinking in Romans: we are no longer slaves to sin, but are able to honour and glorify God [as we were made to]).
  2. We read many of the 10 commandments (for example) individualistically not realizing that God is enabling not only us but a whole community to follow him and his precepts. So while we might be bleak because now we shouldn’t steal, murder, etc. God has placed a punishment for anyone who does that to us too. So we should be thanking him for imposing this order on his community so that we can feel safe. Just like in Martin Luther’s prayer on the 6th commandment (“do not murder”), where he said, “I give thanks for such ineffable love, providence, and faithfulness toward me by which he has placed this mighty shield and wall to protect my physical safety. All are obliged to care for me and protect me, and I, in turn, must behave likewise toward others.”