Human Agency in Salvation


This is not the post I was going to post, which I noted in my last post, because this is a post I wrote years ago; I was going to post a fresh post on this subject, and I still will. In lieu of that at the moment this will have to suffice; I think it suffices quite well, to be honest. I find it interesting that Calvinists are never satisfied with responses like this; I suppose that makes sense, since they are slavishly committed to a certain metaphysics and theory of causation. But please dear Calvinist, don’t assert that this somehow just sounds like Arminianism; that’s about as honest as me asserting that you aren’t committed to Aristotelian Christianity, when we know you are.

Something that continues to shape theological constructs in Christian theology is the nexus that is present between God’s Sovereignty and Human autonomy/responsibility/freedom. Depending on which side the theological system leans toward will help to determine where that system will find its moorings within the history of ideas and interpretation. Obviously this nexus, as I just cryptically described it finds its most blatant expressions in either Calvinism or Arminianism (and/or nowadays Open Theism). In general (and in oversimplification), the classical Calvinists are afraid if God’s sovereignty is not absolutely emphasized that our theology will end up in heresy, in Pelagianism; and God will become held captive by His own creation. On the other hand (and in oversimplification), the classical Arminian or Open Theist fears that if human freedom (sometimes=’free-will’) or responsibility is over-determined and objectified by God’s sovereignty that it no longer truly can remain HUMAN freedom, and now God has become the author of everything that happens (meticulously so), even sin.

Thankfully the quagmire noted above, while dealing with real and material concerns, is not where we have to preside; in fact we ought not to dwell there too long. The above (as I oversimply described it), is a result of engaging in negative theology; it is thinking philosophically about God and humanity, and it is not (by way of method) thinking from the center of God’s life, Jesus Christ. If we think from God’s Self-revelation, and allow that to interpret how we think about the ‘union’ between God’s sovereignty and Human Freedom, we will think directly and methodologically from the Hypostatic Union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. This is exactly how, of course, Karl Barth maneuvers through this. He gives objective primacy to Jesus Christ, and allows Him to determine the categories through which we should think about God’s sovereignty and Human freedom. Of course, then, as a consequent, what it means to be truly human will be given its understanding from what it means to be human for Christ. Christ’s humanity, by nature, is given shape and reality by its determinate reality as the second person of the Trinity, as the Son. We, by participation in His humanity by the Holy Spirit, and not by nature but grace and adoption, have a Divinely shaped humanity that like Christ’s can only truly be for God (which is the terminus or end/purpose of what it means to be human and free). Prior to hearing from R. Michael Allen’s commentary on Barth in this regard, and prior to hearing from Karl Barth himself; let’s first hear from the Apostle Paul:

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! 16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. ~Romans 6:15-18

If Jesus’ humanity for us (in his active obedience—the Reformed concept) is what it means to be objectively human, if he obeyed for us; then we have been set free and opened up for what it means to be truly human. In other words, there is no other way to be truly human except for the way that that is given ultimate shape in and through Christ’s vicarious humanity for all.

Michael Allen will open Barth up further for us, and then I will close with a couple of Karl Barth quotes. Interestingly, Allen places his discussion on this in his category of Providence, in his Karl Barth Reader that I take his thinking from. Allen writes of Barth:

[B]arth’s attention to providence is attuned to ethical concerns, namely, to sketching out the shape of human agency. While he is criticized by many as christomonist – as giving insufficient space to creaturely agency – his dogmatic approach is not meant to supplant, but to situate human agency. In his ethical reflections, he will address the crucial concept of freedom, following the early Reformed tradition in affirming real human freedom while defining it as freedom ‘within the limits which correspond to its creaturely existence (III/3.61). Barth affirms what seems contradictory to those who believe human and divine agency exist in a competitive fashion: ‘That the creature may continue to be by virtue of the divine preserving means that it may itself be actual within its limits: actual, and therefore not a mere appearance engendered by some heavenly or hellish power; itself actual, and therefore not an emanation from the being of God … God preserves the creatures in the reality which is distinct from His own. It is relative to and dependent upon His reality, but in its relativity and dependence autonmous towards it, existing because it owes its existence to Him, as subject with which He can have dealings and which have dealings with Him’ (III/3.86). Barth argues that divine providence in no way rules out creaturely agency, though it does locate such human freedom within the economy of grace. Barth will even speak of human autonomy, though he will always maintain that it is an autonomy given by God – a counter-intuitive sort of autonomy if ever there were one. [emboldening mine, that is Barth being quoted by Allen] [R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: And Introduction and Reader, 134 Nook version.]

And here are a few more quotes from Barth to help illustrate what Allen just sketched:

[…] the perfection of God’s giving of himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ consists in the fact that far from merely playing with man, far from merely moving or using him, far from dealing with him as an object, this self giving sets man up as a subject, awakens him to genuine individuality and autonomy, frees him, makes him a king, so that in his rule the kingly rule of God himself attains form and revelation. How can there be any possible rivalry here, let alone usurpation? How can there be any conflict between theonomy and autonomy? How can God be jealous or man self assertive? [CD I I/2, p. 179]

Genuine freedom as it is realized in Jesus is not a freedom from God but a freedom for God (and, with that, a freedom for other human beings). ‘ To the creature God determined, therefore, to give an individuality an autonomy, not that these gifts should be possessed outside Him, let alone against Him, but for him and within his kingdom; not in rivalry with his sovereignty but for its confirming and glorifying’ [CD I I/2, p. 178].

Ultimately, what is being argued is that there is no other ontological category known as ‘freedom’ by which humanity can operate. Even if human freedom, and I believe it is (in honoring the Creator/creature distinction), is independently contingent, it is still contingent and derived from God’s independent non-contingent freedom which is derived from nowhere but from His own Self determined, Free, and Triune life. If creation is the external reality of the Covenant of which God’s life is its inner ground – and I believe it is! – then creaturely freedom can only be understood from this position, from the purpose that is ec-statically given to it by Christ Himself; who according to Col. 1.15-20 is the point and purpose and ground of all of creation’s reality. Note:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Jesus has realized, for us, in His resurrection and ascension what it truly means to be human. To be genuinely and humanly free, means to be free for God. The rest of creation recognizes this (on this earth day, ironically), us humans ought to repent and recognize this too!

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that  the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. ~Romans 8.18-25 


5 thoughts on “Human Agency in Salvation

  1. If freedom is “free from X,” what are you asserting God is “free from” when you call him “Free”? “Freedom” really shouldn’t be used without explicit referents (it’s very easily used without explicit referents, thus the danger in the term). I THINK you’re saying “free from sin” based on the cited passages? Not sure.

    Watch out also for modal scope issues. “Contingent” is only meaningful when defined within the cloister of a modal scope. What is contingent in scope H may be necessary in scope G. An irritating fact not to be ignored.


  2. That’s not what was said in the post, Stan. Freedom for himself, freedom to be who He has chosen to be for Himself for us in Christ. There’s no confusion in the post. It wasn’t ignored, and we actually don’t need analytical theology on my blog, thanks. There was nothing modoally violated at all, even so.


  3. Pingback: Human Agency in Salvation — The Evangelical Calvinist | Calvinism The Reformed Faith

  4. In good faith I am trying hard to get the points you’re trying to make, but I appreciate the reply and I’ll make another go at it. Either way I’ll keep further comments to myself.


  5. Stan, sorry, when I responded I wasn’t in a good mood; I should’ve refrained. Keep commenting if you want. But I really don’t think what was said in the post contradicts anything (internal to its own “logic”).


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