Monday, January 3, 2011

One-point Calvinism. Grace!

A major aim of Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition by James K.A. Smith is to make the case that Calvinism is more than soteriology. The subtitle is key -- this book is an invitation to a tradition that's not reducible to five points, or an acronym. More on that later. That being said, I really like the elegant and concise way Smith explains the Reformed (and I believe biblical) doctrine of salvation.

God's revelation in the Scriptures indicates the radical inability of the sinner to "choose the Good" (as philosophers put it). In fact, the Scriptures describe the sinful human being as "dead" (Eph. 2:1), and, as you know, corpses have no abilities. In other words, the effect of sin is such that, while human creatures remain structured in such a way that they still desire God, that structure is perverted and misdirected toward aspects of the creation rather than toward the Creator (see Rom. 1:21-32). This creational structure—this desire for God—can only be properly re-directed by God himself. What this requires, then, is for God to restore and renew and, in a sense, re-create (2 Cor. 5:17). So when Paul continues in Ephesians 2, he chooses his words very carefully: because we were dead, and lacked the ability to choose God as our proper end, God "made us alive" (Eph. 2:4-6). Note that God is the actor in this sentence, not us. Because we were dead, it could only be "by grace" that we have been saved through faith, and that, we are told, is not of ourselves (Eph. 2:8). What does that mean? Very simply, salvation is a gift—and not just the "objective" work of Christ on the cross, but also the "subjective" appropriation of that work by faith: salvation in its totality. This has to be the case because, for a "dead" sinner, such faith is impossible.

All of this is a testimony to God's grace, not only because it is a gift, but also because God didn't have to do it. As a Pascalian dictum so aptly puts it, "God owes us nothing." That's pretty close to a motto of Calvinism, to which I might add the correlative line: "Everything is a gift." (pp. 16-7)

Often people get stuck on difficult concepts like "predestination" and "election" and "reprobation" (and Smith goes on to discuss those briefly), but what it all boils down to is grace, radical grace, from first to last.

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