God Does Everything

Pelagius and Augustine

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Pelagianism lies on one end of the salvation spectrum; Universalism lies on the other end.

Pelagians deny the effects of the fall on the nature and will of man.  All men are born as Adam was created, they say:  in innocence and with the freedom of will needed to choose a life of righteousness by keeping God’s law.  You are born sinless, and by discipline, will, and obedience you can remain sinless and grow into perfection.  No grace is needed.  No redemption is needed for those without sin.

Universalists are a more diverse lot, so it is a bit hard to generalize.  But those on their far end of the spectrum hold this belief in common:  the sacrifice of Christ was for all men, and all men are included under it — without exception, without conditions, without requirements.  In answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” the true universalists answer, “Nothing.  You are already saved by the work of Christ.  There is nothing you must do.  In fact, there is nothing you can do.  Like it or not, believe it or not, accept it or not, you are saved through the work of Christ.”

Perhaps we could summarize these two ends of the salvation spectrum like this:

For Pelagians:  it all depend on you.

For Universalists:  it all depends on God.

At each end of the spectrum lies heresy.  Pelagians and Universalists alike deny the Gospel as given in Scripture, as received by the Church, as passed down through the generations by orthodox Christians everywhere, always, and by all.

So, where should the church fall on this spectrum of salvation?  Right in the middle:  fifty percent God and fifty percent man?  More toward the Pelagians or more toward the Universalists?  There are serious theological dangers anywhere you decide to “camp out” along that spectrum.  And that suggests that the true answer isn’t on the spectrum at all.  The true answer lies above it and denies the false dichotomies imposed by the linear scale of the spectrum.

The best answer I’ve heard to this question comes from the ACNA Canon Theologian of the Diocese of the Upper Midwest, Fr. Stephen Gauthier.  Whether this formulation is original with him or whether he is quoting another, I don’t know.  But about our salvation, Fr. Stephen says this:

God does everything.  We do something.

And that takes us off the spectrum entirely.  We don’t parcel out responsibility by percentages:  this much of salvation depends on God, that much on man.  No.

God does everything.  We do something.

That may sound like a paradox, but many deep, theological truths do, don’t they?  God is one-in-three and three-in-one.  Jesus is fully God and fully man.  The Blessed Virgin Mary is the Mother of God.

God does everything.  We do something.

Of course, some paradoxes are just nonsense, not paradoxes at all but real contradictions.  What about this one?  How are we to understand it?  What — if anything — does it mean?  We turn to Paul, from our Epistle reading this morning.

Philippians 2:12–13 (ESV): Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

“Work out your own salvation,” Paul says; we must do something.

When I taught calculus, I would often present my students with a problem that seemed — and really was — absolutely unsolvable given their mathematical tools and understanding.  This — this cognitive dissonance — was the impetus to develop something new, to deepen their understanding and skill.  So, together — with me leading the way, of course — we would derive a new theorem, one that could unlock the problem.  Then, I would step back and say to the class, “You take it from here.  You work out how this theorem applies to and solves this problem.”  If I had done my job well, they were able to work it out — sometimes with fear and trembling — and they grew in the process; their knowledge deepened, their skills developed, their confidence blossomed.  So I ask, “Who solved the problem?”  In one sense, I did.  I gave them everything necessary for the solution, both the theorem and the motivation to apply it.  I did everything.  But the students had to do something.  They had to work out the application of what I had done for them, what I had given to them.  It’s a flawed analogy, as all analogies are, but you see it, right?

I did everything.  The students must do something.

Without me, the solution was not possible.  Without the students the solution was not realized.

Philippians 2:12–13 (ESV): Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

There is something much deeper here than the solution of a calculus problem.  But the same principles apply, I think.  In our salvation, God does everything.  It is impossible without him; the Pelagians were and are wrong.  The cross is the crux of everything, absolutely essential.  Without the intervention of God the Father, through Jesus Christ his only Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, we are irrevocably lost.  Grace is all.  God does everything.  And yet, we must do something; the Universalists were and are wrong.  You must “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, [and] you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).  You must work out your own salvation with fear and trembling as we pray in the General Thanksgiving:

And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,

     that with truly thankful hearts

     we may show forth your praise,

     not only with our lips, but in our lives,

     by giving up our selves to your service,

     and by walking before you 

     in holiness and righteousness all our days (BCP 25).

This is exactly what Paul is calling for.

Philippians 2:14–16 (ESV): Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 

We do not earn our salvation, but we do work it out.  We work out of our salvation.  Knowing that God does everything, we are freed and empowered by God to do something, to work out just what it means to be God’s saved people in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, just what it means to shine as lights in the world.

God does everything.  We do something.

And even the something we do is not independent of God’s agency.  Paul is clear:  “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).  God, and God alone, saves us.  And then, as a further expression of his grace — as if any more were needed! — God works in us to cause us to desire his good pleasure, to empower us to do his will, to grant us the great grace and dignity of working out our salvation with fear and trembling.  This is nowhere on the spectrum; this is the wisdom and grace of God.

So, though I think he is right, with great respect, I think I might slightly reword Fr. Stephen’s statement of all this:

God does everything.  We do something.  God does everything.  

Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN.
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