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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

15 June 2007

Grace, Faith, and Predestination

Q: Can you explain the terms foreseen faith and prevenient grace for me? How are they used? How do they relate to the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions? To what historical period do these terms belong?

BibleA: According to the Lutheran Confessions and a Christ-centered study of the Scriptures, these terms usually are used incorrectly and are at odds with God’s Word. You’ll see how this is so as we touch on the more detailed portions of your questions.

Some people are unwilling to let God be God. They attempt to understand His thoughts and actions when He makes no effort to explain them. Their speculation centers on the question, “Why are some saved and not others?” Foreseen faith, a misunderstanding of the origin and expression of justifying faith, is a human idea of how God predestines some to salvation. Its supporters claim that God, in His omniscience, can see ahead of time who will believe and marks that person as predestined to eternal election according to his foreseen faith. A similar phrase such folks use is that God predestines “in view of faith.”

Such ideas grow from our inability to comprehend the Lord’s infinite knowledge and power. They also may stem from the thinking that man must somehow do something in order to earn, merit, or gain salvation. This misunderstands the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of God’s Word. Attempting to understand God proves impossible, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)” Attempting to please Him through our own actions is fruitless, since Jesus said, “[U]nless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)”

WaterThe concept of prevenient grace falls into this latter category. The Lutheran Church follows the Old and New Testaments and the early Church fathers in understanding grace as a divine attitude. This is the primary Scriptural use of the word. At times, the concept of being “full of grace” may be applied to a believer, sounding as if grace were like water, a substance that can be poured, counted, or measured. However, the idea seems actually to mean that the believer is filled with the same attitude toward others as God has toward him.

Those who think of grace as a measurable substance and who believe that we are saved “by grace” need to figure out a way in which God pours enough grace into someone that the unbeliever moves toward God or into a state of saving faith. The method many arrive at involves prevenient (or preceding) grace. According to this way of thinking God slips enough of this first type of grace into a person that the person becomes able to cooperate in his salvation.

While Saint Augustine may have implied, Jacob Arminius and Charles Wesley particularly emphasized prevenient grace and various Methodist churches still teach it. The 2004 United Methodist Book of Discipline calls prevenient grace “the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our ‘first slight transient conviction’ of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.”

GiftsPrevenient grace becomes a means for the Wesleyan tradition to teach both original sin and justification by grace alone. It allows fallen mankind to partner with God, to come to Him as He comes to it. Churches strongly rooted in the theology of John Calvin, such as many Presbyterian and Reformed bodies, disagree with this idea. They claim that if God gives this preliminary grace to everyone, human will and subsequent effort become the determining factors in salvation. They believe that this is counter to Ephesians 2:8-9, where Paul wrote that salvation “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works.”

However, as it struggles to give God the credit and the glory for saving sinners, Calvinism also leaves itself open to criticism, since it teaches that the God causes the damnation of all He chooses not to save. This double predestination denies universal grace, the Biblical teaching that Christ Jesus died for all people, not just for the elect; that is, those who will be saved.

Lutheran theology “solves” the Arminian and Calvinist problems involved with understanding grace, election, and predestination by not solving them. Instead, Lutherans teach that salvation is the free gift of God while damnation is entirely the fault of those who suffer it. While the paradoxes of salvation may be intellectually beyond our comprehension, we simply accept and confess the paradox that Scripture presents.

Cranach: ResurrectionIn Article XI of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Lutheran theologians noted that a “distinction between praescientia et praedestinatio, that is, between God’s foreknowledge and His eternal election, ought to be accurately observed.” It says that predestination “extends over the godly” and that upon God’s predestination “our salvation is founded so firmly that the gates of hell cannot overcome it. [John 10:28; Matt. 16:18]”

We are not to speculate. Instead, we seek and find evidence of our predestination “in the Word of God, where it is also revealed.” That’s because the Word “leads us to Christ, who is the Book of Life, in whom all are written and elected that are to be saved in eternity, as it is written. [Eph. 1:4]” Since Christ is the means of our salvation, we don’t look for added sources, such as prevenient grace. And since the Spirit uses this Word to create and sustain faith, we see that faith comes because of God’s divine intervention and does not cause or lead up to His accepting us.

Building on Romans 8:30, the Epitome says that knowing God’s predestination strengthens faith: “In [Christ] we are to seek the eternal election of the Father, who has determined in His eternal divine counsel that He would save no one except those who know His Son Christ and truly believe on Him.... Out of pure grace ... we have been elected in Christ to eternal life, and ... no one can pluck us out of His hand; as He has ... promised this gracious election ... certified it with an oath and sealed it with the holy Sacraments....”

Article XI of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord quoted from the public domain text at The Book of Concord online.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Blogger codepoke said...

Lutheran theology “solves” the Arminian and Calvinist problems involved with understanding grace, election, and predestination by not solving them.

I had begun to reach this conclusion. I have been listening to Weekend Fisher on this subject for a couple years now, and it had begun to sound like she just confidently affirms the verses used by both sides of the discussion. Rather than attempt to harmonize them, she just confidently asserts them both to mean exactly what they say, and calls the problem solved.

Thank you for the insight.

17 June, 2007 15:07  
Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

Fwiw, I've been working to explain how Paul resolves them in Christ. But since that extreme Christ-centered view of salvation (not by choice nor by predestination but by Christ) is nearly 180-degrees different from what many other theological systems teach, explaining the magnitude of the paradigm-shift is difficult, doubly so when there's the temptation to try to fit Christ crucified back into one of the other schemes.

Take care & God bless

18 June, 2007 00:23  
Blogger codepoke said...

Mr. Snyder (and Weekend Fisher,)

I locked on to one phrase in your post because it addresses for me a long standing discussion. That is maybe not fair, so let me say that I agree with large swaths of your Q & A here. Your swatting away of foreseen faith and prevenient grace are both wonderful. Your statement of Calvin's refutation of prevenient grace seems to take a couple leaps he did not himself take, but they are not inappropriate. And your statement of the problem of double predestination is accurate.

So, you are left with nowhere to place your feet. God cannot choose individuals to be saved, and man cannot choose first to be saved. That leaves no one to choose first. Both choose, but neither can go first. And you embrace that paradox. In your very next statement you confidently declare that the paradox must be accepted. Instead, Lutherans teach that salvation is the free gift of God while damnation is entirely the fault of those who suffer it. While the paradoxes of salvation may be intellectually beyond our comprehension, we simply accept and confess the paradox that Scripture presents.

This is a legitimate answer, and I can understand it.

But Weekend Fisher seems not to embrace this answer. She says that Paul resolves this paradox in Christ. In the possibly brief time I have listened to this Lutheran perspective, I have never heard this paradox resolved scripturally. Mr. Snyder says it cannot be resolved, and WF implies it can.


18 June, 2007 21:11  
Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Poke

I'll put in my two cents' worth here, but want to make sure we don't end up hijacking the good pastor's blog here. If we want to keep going back and forth at length, we might take it back over to our own blogs.

But let's at least do the first round here, I'll start where you say

<< God cannot choose individuals to be saved, and man cannot choose first to be saved. That leaves no one to choose first. Both choose, but neither can go first. >>

God absolutely goes first. I double-dog dare you to find a place in the Bible that locates the initiative for salvation with a fallen human.

... So back to the part where you're looking at paradoxes:

<< She says that Paul resolves this paradox in Christ. >>

Here are a couple of staples of Lutheran theology:

1) Never, ever tamper with Scripture. If Scripture says we're saved by grace, then we're saved by grace. If Scripture says we're predestined, then we're predestined. If Scripture says we can still be lost, then we can still be lost. If that makes peoples' heads spin, "Let God be true and every man a liar" (which is the case in theology, as often as not).

2) Paradoxes of the Bible (both real and seeming) tend to resolve around the cross. For example, Paul revels in the paradoxes "The weakness of God is stronger than man's strength" and "the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom". In both cases, he's got a conscious paradox, and in both cases he's pointing confidently to the cross to demonstrate exactly what he means. And if you look at the cross, it's true: there it is. God is being "weak" and "foolish" -- and it's the most powerful and wisest thing in the history of the planet.


So with that in place you'll probably see why I'm not too fussed about the good pastor saying it's a paradox and my saying it resolves at the cross. (Though I do roll my eyes at the part about "never seen a Scripural resolution" -- I know we've discussed Ephesians 1.) Anyway, so here we go:

On the "free will" v. "predestination" thing, Paul doesn't seem to be conscious of there being some great lurking paradox. So there are two types of paradox: things that are necessarily at odds (strength and weakness), and things that aren't necessarily at odds (God's will, man's will). With the first you've got a true paradox; with the second you've got more of a frame-of-reference kind of problem.

For all that, the question being salvation they still reconcile at the cross. Fallen man is an enemy of God. Fallen man would, if he could, take the judge's place, set himself up as judge over God, condemn him for his crimes, and kill him for having the audacity to exist. Which is more or less what happened at Calvary.

God absolutely made the first move -- in weakness. Our salvation is not done by an act of domination, but by the "weakest" act in the history of the planet. God granting his creatures dominion over him -- "Foolish"? Now you're getting it.

The Calvinist paradigm assumes God will be Powerful and Wise. That's why they don't get the cross, and have only limited room for it in their view of salvation. (Literally. The cross is filed under "L" for Limited in the TULIP; Christ appears nowhere else in the TULIP except in the Limited part.)

The Arminians, bless their hearts, at least understand that if that's really God dying there on the cross, whatever is happening necessarily affects the whole world.

But back to the "paradox". I have never understood why exactly it's even considered a "paradox" that God works salvation and (fallen) man works his own destruction. The only thing necessary to "resolve" these is the fact that God approaches us in weakness. He doesn't come as Sovereign. He doesn't come as Irresistible. He comes as one of us, and as a sacrifice. Weak, foolish -- but that's exactly how Paul says it is. And Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- they take it easy on calling it weak and foolish, but the basic facts are there that Paul calls weak and foolish -- and stronger than our strength.

30 June, 2007 15:54  
Blogger codepoke said...

Nicely written, WF.

I agree. We'll not hijack the good pastor's thread. But I will say again that we did not discuss Ephesians 1. We started a discussion of Ephesians 1, got mired in details, and never got anywhere near finishing. You made some high quality assertions, but you didn't get around to closing the loops. The conversation just ended. Hence my statement. Sorry to force the eye-roll, though.

04 July, 2007 22:29  

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