Article X: Of free will
This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.
Article X: Of free will
The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will.
When I was studying at Yale Divinity School, one of the hymnals we used at daily chapel came from the Methodist Church. There was a section in the hymnal, alongside “Christmas” and “Evening” and so forth, called “Prevenient Grace”. I thought that was very cool — a fancy theological title for a section in a hymnal. I wonder how many people, idly flipping through their hymnals during sermons, look at that title and say, “Huh?”
This is one of those times when you have to get into the linguistic wayback machine to understand what’s being said in lovely Elizabethan prose. “Prevent” in this Article does not mean “keep from happening”. Instead, it means, “go before”. The Article is asserting the classic idea that our desire to turn to God is itself a gift from God. Without God, we would not seek to orient our lives toward the divine.
We have free will. Regardless of where our desire to turn to God comes from, we are responsible to do that. Theologians have plenty of reasons to be interested in sorting out the source of our desire and of God’s involvement in our will. But the rubber-meets-the-road truth is that we must turn to God. Period.
It should also be clear that we have the ability to reject God — to sin — and that the choice to turn away from God has consequences. Want to see the consequences of sin? Look around the world. God has given us the gift of freedom. We must make choices, realizing that every action will have consequences: positive, negative, or both.
If it seems easy to get through our lives, then we’re not trying hard enough. We’ve settled for easy choices. One of the best reasons to hang around in churches is to spend time with other people who are struggling to follow Jesus, to make the harder and better choices. These people will also, quite often, be filled with deep joy.
Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:
- From where does our desire to follow God come?
- Do we have totally free will? How does that affect our responsibility to live well?
- Have a look at Genesis 3-12. Do you see evidence of prevenient grace after the fall?
- We sometimes see people who do “good works” and can ascribe the choice only to God’s work in that person. Have you had this experience of God’s work in your life?
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Image from flickr user Leo Reynolds.
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I admit it. Martin Luther (not John Wesley, John Calvin, or others) probably said it best.
That is, if any of us can reduce theological truth to human words.