Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Meaning of Synergism and the Glory of God

The following is an abridged version of a response I made to a Redditor who accused my semi-Arminian theology of being semi-Pelagian, and asked whether the lessons I'd drawn from my struggle with doubt are really focused on the glory of God:

There is no tension but unity between God's grace and our "willful cooperation" in our salvation. The Bible indeed affirms that faith is a gift from God (Romans 12:3, Hebrews 12:2), as is repentance (Acts 5:31, 11:18, 2 Timothy 2:25), but referring to them in this way is only a piece of the picture it paints. Much more often faith (Matthew 8:10, Mark 4:40, Romans 9:30-32, 1 Corinthians 16:13, 2 Timothy 2:22) and repentance (Matthew 3:2, Matthew 21:32, Acts 2:38, Acts 8:22, Revelation 2:5) are presented as things are are responsible for, in such a way that it is very difficult to read them as having nothing to do with our own agency without seriously twisting the words of the passage. An especially strong example is Luke 7:50, where Jesus says to a prostitute, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." No mention of God giving her this faith or even granting salvation because of the condition of faith, but "your faith has saved you." Was Jesus speaking to her in Romans-code, or did He literally mean what He said?

How can this be? How does God actively involving us in our having faith not amount to salvation by works? Because synergism does not mean God doing some of the work and leaving the rest to us, His junior partners-in-salvation. It means God working in us, through our will, our decisions, and our actions to accomplish His purposes. (Philippians 2:12-13) God's actions in us need not be discrete from our own; our believing His promises in faith is how He grants us faith and brings us to life. To assume otherwise is to incorporate the dualistic notion that God's spiritual work in us is wholly incompatible with our mundane thoughts and actions. Who is Christ if not a total union of the heavenly and the mundane?

The Greek word for "perfect", teleios, is based on the root telos, meaning end, goal, purpose, or plan, and is contrasted not with impurity or stain but with the state of being a part (1 Corinthians 13:10) or lacking something (James 1:4). It is essentially synonymous with "complete". The perfection for which we are saved and for which we strive is not a total cleansing from toxic works that taint and destroy the grace of God in us, but a completion of both our faith and the works that spring from it (James 2:22)--the image of God being completely and fully manifested in our flesh, in a reflection of Christ.

Neither is there any tension between God's ultimate goal/telos (His glory, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 2 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:11, Revelation 21:23) and more immediate things that serve this end. How can salvation be about God glorifying Himself and not be about His loving me and me loving others likewise, when love is God's very essence (1 John 4:16) and we bear His image as we are completed in love?

You say, "But those are merely means to the end, not the end itself," which is compatible with this, and yet you call me out for appealing to 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 rather than directly to the glory of God. Do you mean that because God's glory is our ultimate end, we must then hold it consciously in mind as our motivation at all times? I disagree. It is entirely possible to glorify God without consciously thinking, "Here is how I am going to bring glory to God in this situation?" When I study God's word, or encourage a brother or sister, or play with my kids in Sunday School, I am not worried about whether I am glorifying God in this moment; my focus is in the moment, and like a child I trust my heavenly Father to work His goals as only He knows how to do through my simple expressions of faith. God's desire for us is for us to glorify Him not through our conscious pursuit of an abstract spiritual goal but in our very natures, by being the kind of "little Christs" He has made us to be.

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