03 February 2006

Grace for Fallen Humans: Necessity

I was thinking through three terms this morning that have been helpful to me in understanding the historic debates within Christendom about grace and human sinfulness. The first of these nifty terms is necessity.

As far as church history is concerned, Pelagius and perhaps some modernists posited that God's grace is not necessary to divine-human relations. Human beings, without any divine assistance, are able to keep God's moral law. Therefore, while divine grace is there to help out the fallen, some people may have a righteous standing before him without his grace.
As Cairns observes, "The church has always been closer to Augustine's view than to that of Pelagius" (p. 132). At the very least, Bible-believing Christianity has always asserted the necessity of grace, which Pelagius denied. Universal depravity under Adam makes grace necessary to every divine-human relationship.

So the overwhelming majority in Church history is on the side of the necessity of grace. Does the Scripture support their claim? The answer to this is "yes" on two levels.

First, there are many texts which show the fact of universal depravity (e.g. Rom 3:10-20, 23; 1 Kings 8:46). Because everyone has sinned grace is necessary. Simple enough.

However, objectors could say to these texts, "Well this shows that no one has kept God's demands, but it does not show no one can keep God's demands." Therefore the objector could opine, God's grace might not be necessary in every relationship between God and a fallen human. This objection has an element of truth: the texts we normally use to point out universal depravity do not directly speak to human inability.

So: Second, I think there is at least one Pauline text which implies that it is impossible for fallen humans to keep the law.

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith." The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man who does these things will live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree" (Gal 3:10-13).


Human inability is a necessary assumption in this paragraph. Paul’s logic goes like this:
Stated premise: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."
[Unstated premise: No one can do everything written in the Book of the Law.] Conclusion: All (who do not rely on Christ’s redemption, but on observing the law) are under a curse.

This conclusion is unwarranted if the assumption is that no one has lived up to God’s demands because if someone could "do everything written in the Book of the Law," then not "all who rely on observing the law" would be "under a curse." The conclusion is warranted only if the assumption is that no one can keep God’s demands. So human inability is a necessary assumption in this text.

Therefore, both on the level of fact, and on the level of possibility, grace is necessary for every relationship between God and fallen humans.

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