Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Election in 1 Thessalonians

In the opening verses of 1 Thessalonians, Paul declares his knowledge of God's divine choosing of the Christians in Thessalonica, "For we know, brothers and sisters beloved of God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (4-5). Paul's statement of God's election of the Thessalonian Christians is clear. He does not say that he merely thinks or suspects that God has chosen the Thessalonians. No, Paul and co-authors declare their knowledge of God's choosing of the Thessalonians. They point to the power of God displayed in the preaching of the gospel which resulted in conviction of sin.

This bold statement of God's electing purposes is particularly interesting in light of what Paul says in chapter 3. Having heard that his Thessalonian converts were experiencing some sort of tribulation or persecution, Paul says that, "For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain" (5). Paul here expresses his fear that the Thessalonians had succumbed to temptation and forsaken the faith which would have made his evangelistic work among them empty. If they did not stay the course, his would would have been in vain. Paul conveys a deep sense of worry and concern over the state of Thessalonians' faith.

This is so striking because it doesn't seem to fit with what Paul says about the Thessalonians in 1:5. If Paul is so confident that God has chosen the Thessalonians, why is he so fearful that they may forsake the faith? These texts demonstrate that we cannot simply conclude that God's electing of the Thessalonians ensures their final perseverance. Whatever Paul means when he speaks of God's choosing (ekloge), he cannot possibly think of it as unconditional. If Paul really thought that the Thessalonians had been chosen unconditionally, then he would have no reason to be concerned about their faithlessness. Rather, we must conclude that Paul understood God's choosing of the Thessalonians to be conditional upon their continued perseverance in faith. In Paul's mind, one can be chosen by God and still potentially fall away.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Prevenient Grace in the Early Church?

Prevenient grace is that grace which God gives a person prior to their conversion. Prevenient simply means "preceding." Prevenient grace is a key distinctive of classical Wesleyan-Arminian theology. Opponents of this doctrine charge that it is unbiblical because the term or idea of prevenient grace does not appear in scripture. I grant that the term does not appear in scripture, but this doesn't mean that it is unbiblical. "Trinity" doesn't appear in scripture either, but it is a distinct and unique test of historic Christian orthodoxy. I do not grant that the concept or idea of prevenient grace is absent from scripture. It appears in John 6:44 where Jesus says, "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me." The concept of preceding grace appears also in Acts 2. Peter had just preached his Pentecost sermon when Luke tells us that, "when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what should we do?'" (37). To say that they "were cut to the heart" is to say they came under divine conviction for their sins against Jesus in handing him over to the Romans. This is clearly prior to their conversion because Peter answers their question saying, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit" (2:38). They had not yet received the Holy Spirit so they had not yet been born again, but they had come under conviction and were being drawn to seek reconciliation with God. This is clearly grace which precedes conversion. Thus, Roger Olson can say that prevenient grace, "is the powerful but resistible drawing of God," which may not be a biblical term, "but it is a biblical concept assumed everywhere in scripture" (Arminian Theology, IVP, 2006, p. 159).

The concept of prevenient or preceding grace may also appear in some early non-canonical Christian literature. The Didache (or "Teaching") is a document from the first or second century which provides insight into a variety of early Christian ideas and practices. It isn't scripture, of course; however, it is quite telling as to the belief and praxis of the early church. In giving instruction regarding fairness towards household slaves, the author says, "for he comes not to call men with respect of persons, but those whom the Spirit has prepared" (5:10). We must be careful not to read too much into this brief statement. But it does seem to affirm a belief that God's Spirit goes to work to prepare people for conversion prior to their hearing the call of God. The objection might be raised that this "call" is something subsequent to conversion because the slaves are said to, "hope in the same God" (5:10). This objection is not necessarily the proper reading though. The statement regarding God's call is substantiating the earlier statement that God is over both master and slave (5:10). Thus, the exhortation to fairness may be grounded in the principle that God calls and saves both free and slave with no thought of their social status. If so, then the calling is subsequent to the preparing work of the Spirit. We may have here an early non-canonical witness to the concept of prevenient or preceding grace.