It’s going to take a while. But it’ll be great fun. And you’ll have a deeper understanding of the mystery of God, even if you disagree with me. Which you probably will.
Time, baptism, the Spirit, and prevenient grace — the problem defined
I’m wrestling with two questions. The first is how baptism can be the time when we receive the Spirit, which is essential to salvation, when so many verses say we are saved at the moment of faith. Acts 2:38 seems plain enough, but there are also –
(1 Cor 12:13) For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
(Titus 3:4-7) But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
And there’s the fact that Jesus’ baptism, which prefigures ours, shows the Spirit coming on him upon his immersion.
The second is a question less familiar to us in the Churches of Christ. It’s whether there’s such a thing as prevenient grace — God’s acting on the unsaved, through the Spirit, to open their hearts to faith. Although the Churches of Christ have long denied this, thinking it Calvinist, I’ve recently learned that the original Arminian view was to accept prevenient grace.
Jacob Arminius taught that humans cannot come to faith unless enabled to do so by God. God does this through the work of the Spirit — in conjunction with the presentation of the word. The human, whose heart is always opened, may reject or accept the gospel in faith and be saved.
The “proof texts,” which we’ll get to, don’t seem to fit our view that the Spirit’s work begins only after salvation, the Calvinist view, or the Arminian view. I’m looking for a fourth way.
We’ll consider the verses more later, but consider this passage –
(Rom. 8:5-9 Net.Bible) For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. 6 For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to him.
The passages says that either the Spirit lives in us or else we don’t belong to Jesus (v. 9). Those who don’t belong to Jesus (don’t have the Spirit) are “in the flesh” and “cannot please God.” How then, does a lost person gain faith and so please God, without first (or concurrently) receiving the Spirit?
Or consider –
A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman listened to us. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying.
The Church of Christ interpretation would be that she responded of her own free will to the word preached by Paul. But the text plainly treats God’s opening of her heart as somehow in addition to the preaching.
The Calvinistic interpretation is that God not only opened her heart but irresistibly gave her faith — but the text doesn’t say that either.
The Arminian interpretation is that God opened her heart and she then chose, of her own free will (empowered by God to overcome her fallen state) to have faith. Which is consistent with the text.
But if prevenient grace is true, then the Spirit comes just before or concurrently with faith. And yet lots of verses teach the Spirit comes at baptism. Hmm …
Brilliant theologians have debated this stuff for centuries. Is there a Fourth Way?
This is all about time, you know. When does the Spirit first change the human heart? When are we saved? We’ve talked about time before and how is resolves these old Calvinist conundrums. Might it work here? Maybe we need to study some more physics?
First theological point: The universe declares the glory of God
(Psa 75:3) When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm. Selah
(Col 1:17) He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
(Heb 1:3a) The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
(Rev 4:11) “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
Moreover, the laws of nature work because Jesus wills it. Therefore, the laws of nature reveal the nature of God and Jesus –
(Psa 19:1-3) The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. 3 There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.
(Rom 1:20) For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
(Acts 17:24-27) “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. … 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
God’s nature and character can be seen in what he made. Therefore, science is a subset of theology — it’s one of several ways in which God reveals himself.
Therefore, all efforts to set God and science in opposition are profoundly bad theology. And ignorance of science is ignorance of God.
Indeed, the laws of nature themselves, having been written and enforced by God — sustained by Jesus — tell us about God. It is, after all, God who puts the fire in the equations (paraphrasing Steven Hawking).