Many Christians have trouble with the paradox in Paul whereby salvation is both a gift and involves obligations. Salvation as divine gift makes sense, but the demand for human response raises the specter of “works righteousness.”
Some solutions to this apparent contradiction diminish the human agent (“it’s not really you acting, but the Spirit”) in some way that does violence to the character of Paul’s texts. Others stress the passivity of the human agent’s reception of the gift in ways that overshadow the attendant obligations.
I suspect that this is an ongoing theological problem because of the conceptual frames in which we wrestle with the tension between divine and human action (e.g., human action must in some way marginalize divine action).
The relation of divine and human action is one of many issues riding under the surface throughout the essays in the fascinating volume Apocalyptic Paul. Reckoning with this tension (between divine and human action) within Paul’s apocalyptic frame of thought opens up fruitful avenues, and I found John Barclay’s essay illuminating in this regard.
He notes that Paul shows no reticence to speak of gospel obligations inherent in the divine gift. This is so because believers are made alive from the dead and brought into an alternative cosmic sphere of existence. Their participation in resurrection life is a participation in Christ, a field or matrix of divine power and presence that is also an enjoyment of new creation life. Paul can, therefore, speak of believers as responsible agents and of their obligation to obey without worrying that he’s lapsing into some sort of monergism or “works righteousness.”
I’ve been thinking about pursuing this further in future posts, arguing that for Paul reception of the divine gift is not merely passive. Reception of the gift is embodied through obedience to the new lordship of Christ in his reign of grace. To receive the gift is to live into the fullness of the new life granted by God in Christ. For now, however, I’ll just cite this paragraph from Barclay’s essay:
The theological logic of the Pauline imperative is to live the life that has been given. Paul is not requiring them to turn theory into practice, or possibility into reality: joined to Christ in baptism they really and actually share his risen life. Nor is he requiring them to turn an “objective” truth into a “subjective” reality since they are “alive to God” in every dimension of their subjectivity by participation in Christ. Nor is the imperative the supplement to the indicative in the sense that something incomplete has to be completed in further degrees. The theological logic of indicative and imperative is in one sense much simpler than all of these inadequate conceptualizations. They have been given a new life which can be lived only in activity and practice: this “newness of life” is essentially and not just contingently a matter of peripatein (6:4). Practice, action, and obedience are the mode of this new life. In every move they make, believers are either living this new life or living according to the flesh (8:13), the latter still possible because, for as long as they live in the realm of mortality they can fall back into the force-field of sin and death and repudiate the power that tugs them towards life. The imperative is thus to practice (and thereby demonstrate) the new life given, which cannot be said to be active within them unless it is acted out by them” (pp. 74-75, emphasis added).