Saturday, July 19, 2014

From wrath to grace

There's been a public dustup between Scott Oliphint and Paul Helm on classical theism. As a rule, I prefer Helm's understanding of God's relation to time and space. But I think both men are making some mistakes in this particular dispute:

So the truth about atonement, about reconciliation to God, has to be represented to us as if it implied a change in God, and so an inconsistency, an apparent contradiction, in his actions towards us. But in fact there is no change in God; he loves us from eternity. There is however, a change in us, a change that occurs as by faith Christ's work is appropriated. The change is not from wrath to grace, but from our belief that we are under wrath to our belief that we are under grace (Paul Helm, John Calvin's Ideas, 395).
Does Helm mean to say (or does he argue that Calvin says) that when Scripture says that God's people were under wrath prior to their conversion (e.g., Eph. 2:3), that what we're meant to think is only that we believed we were under wrath? And are we then meant to read Scripture so that, at conversion, our belief changed to thinking we are under grace? We are surely not to think, says Helm, that God's disposition toward us has changed from wrath to grace.

i) One source of confusion is equivocation over the nature of God's "wrath." Do we understand God's "wrath" as a particular kind of divine emotion (or attitude)? If so, does God become angry, then cease to be angry?

Speaking for myself, I think Scripture uses divine wrath as a colorful synonym for divine judgment. Take this example:

Behold, the name of the Lord comes from afar, burning with his anger, and in thick rising smoke; his lips are full of fury, and his tongue is like a devouring fire (Isa 30:27).

Here the "wrath" of God represents God visiting judgment on sinners. Divine "wrath" is manifestation of divine judgment. God's impending wrath is equivalent to his impending judgment. It's not that he has an emotional state which comes and goes, within himself; rather, judgment comes and goes, outside himself. Judgment coming or falling upon sinners.

ii) This brings us to the next point. We need to distinguish between "God's disposition toward us" and the objective expression of his disposition. The expression of his disposition can change without a corresponding change in God himself. Judgment takes place in time, in history. 

What does it mean to be "under God's wrath"? What does it mean to be "under God's grace"? 

The "transition from wrath to grace" paraphrases a passage from Ephesians. Paul is writing to converts from raw paganism. And in chaps. 2 & 4, he vividly describes the before and after. Their mindset and lifestyle before God saved them. In that sense, they were living under God's wrath before he saved them. That was an objective experience. And that stands in contrast to their experience of spiritual renewal. Living under God's grace. For instance: 

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:1-6). 
17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity (Eph 4:17-19). 
3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Tit 3:3-5).
This is perfectly consistent with predestination. A predestined change from unregenerate and vile to regenerate and sanctified. It's not a change to the decree, but a change within the decree. God intended all along to save these heathen Gentiles. But he didn't regenerate or sanctify them from the moment of conception. He didn't raise them in the church. Until adulthood, he left them in a state of internal and external depravity. 

God didn't change his mind or disposition. He had this in mind from all eternity. Rather, God willed a change in their condition. 

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