In a recent conversation about the relationship of divine and human action in salvation, someone used the following analogy. This person was trying to demonstrate that salvation is pure gift and demands passivity from human recipients. The magnitude of the gift is so overwhelming that any human involvement in the salvation transaction diminishes God’s glory.
He said that the gift of salvation is like a very wealthy nobleman in the ancient world who purchases the freedom of a slave. There is just no way that the slave could ever repay the patron, so any effort he would undertake to do so would be an insult to the magnanimous nobleman.
In the same way, humans passively receive salvation from God as pure gift. Any action on our part is perceived as an effort to repay the gift and diminishes God’s glory as gracious gift-giver.
This analogy makes sense with how Protestant evangelicals tend to regard the salvation transaction and how they might attempt to keep it free of any human merit. But it doesn’t represent the character of salvation very well.
The relationship of God to humanity and the character of salvation isn’t simply an economic one whereby all actions are payments or fulfillments of debts. Salvation involves an introduction into a divinely-created reality and human responses can be regarded as participatory. Furthermore, there are kinds of human responses that embody reception of a gift.
For example, consider again the analogy above from the ancient world. A wealthy person purchases the freedom of a slave and sets him free. Does it not bring honor and joy to the wealthy patron for the slave to live into that freedom, to enjoy it to the full, to revel in good company, and to truly fill out all that it means to delight in a good life?
That is to say, receiving such a gift looks like certain actions and patterns of behavior.
Consider another analogy, this one from my friend David Vinson. A father of two sons builds a business and trains his boys to work in it and understand its various aspects. One day he turns it over to them, giving it to them as a gift. Doesn’t it honor him and bring him glory if they work together to share equally in the business, build its capacity, increase its productivity, and bring happiness to their families as they enjoy the profits? As they do so, they fill out and live into the training they’ve received from their father over the years. And they increase his fame and reputation as people realize how well he taught his sons.
These analogies are more faithful to the character of salvation in Christian Scripture. The life-giving and world-renewing Kingdom of God is among us by the power of the Spirit and we enter it, enact it, and receive it through redemptive actions that embody obedience to Jesus.
We confess that we are sinners, we name the good things we enjoy in this world as gifts from God in Christ, we give thanks for God’s forgiveness in Christ, we welcome others as gifts from God, we forgive others, we stop oppressing and manipulating others, we stop the crushing pursuit of social approval, we identify and lay down wearying idolatries.
These are all redemptive behaviors to which God calls all people. They embody reception of the gift of salvation. They are not the means whereby we repay God for the gift of salvation. Such actions, rather, draw upon God’s very life as the Spirit animates us and renews us.
The character of the gift-giver and the nature of the gift God calls us to enjoy determine the manner in which it is received.