The Spiritual Chymist, Meditation LIII

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The previous post from this 17th century devotional may be found here

MEDITATION LIII
Upon a Counterfeit Piece of Coin

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What physicians say of some disease, they are most dangerous which imitate and come nearest unto health, may be applied fitly to adulterous and spurious coins: that the greater resemblance and likeness they have to the true and genuine, the more pernicious and destructive they are to the public, wasting though insensibly not only private estates but the common treasury and riches of a nation.

And therefore, falsifying of coin, which bears the image or arms of the prince (as the general warrant to ratify the goodness of it), has been made a crime of the same complexion with the highest attempt or act done against his person; the same capital punishment being inflicted upon him that is food guilt of the one as is upon him that is guilty of the other.

What can be one more to deter any from such practices then the loss of name, estate, life, in a ghastly and ignominious death? And yet, these severities, which should be as boundaries at the foot of the mountain to keep all from offending (Exodus 19:21-25) are insufficient to restrain the many who love gain, and the hope of secrecy do embolden to run a sad hazard that thy may enjoy the sweet.

Secrecy in sinning, though in some respect it extenuates the sin, as making it less sandals and less contagious, yet it is a powerful attractive to include to the commission of sin.

Joseph’ mistress (Genesis 39:11) was most vehement in her soliciting of him to folly when none of the men of the house were within. The Harlot of Probers mades that as her plea to the young man to harken unto her, That the good man is not at home, he is gone a long journey, he hath taken a bag of money with him, and will come at the day appointed. (Prov. 7: 19-20)

It is that which put an edge upon the covetousness of Achan, to take the goodly Babylonian garment, the two hundred shekels of silver, and the wedge of gold, that he could not do without the privity [knowledge] of any, so that none could charge him with the breach of that strict command which God had given of not taking the accursed thing least they make themselves accursed the camp of Israel accursed and trouble it. [Judges 7:10-26]

But how far more presumptuous are they who adulterate not the coins of princes but the truths of God and stamp his names on their inventions, to give a credit and value to them. Have such workers of iniquity any darkness and shallow of death where they may hide themselves? Do they think that though Kings cannot discover those oft times that violate the dignities of the crown, that they also can escape the knowledge of the Most High? Or is not he as jealous of his Word, which has magnified above all his Name as they are of every piece that carries their image and inscription upon it? Has he not declared himself to be against those that prophecy the deceits of their own heart (Jeremiah 14:14) and use their tongues and say, The Lord says.

Yea, has he not denounced the most dreadful curses against all embalmers or clips of his heavenly coin? To the one he threatens that all the plagues that are written in the Book of Truth (Rev. 22:18); and for the other, he shall take away his part in the book Book of Life, out of the Holy City, and from the things that are written in the Book of God (Rev. 22:19). Who can read such a sentence and not tremble at the thought of it?

And yet though God (as Bernard speaks) A wise exchanger will not take mont that is broken or false; though we cannot mock him, as one man mocks another, how many do take a liberty to mint doctrines and tenet that have only the semblance not the purity and substance of Divine Truth? And upon these they set the Name of God, that they may more easily deceive the incautious

As Pompey built a theater with the title of “temple”, and Apollinaris the Heretic School with the Title of Orthodox: What prevalence such arts in this kind have had, I would [give as an example] the defections of many particular persons, yea of churches [does] abundantly witness. Was not the whole church of Galatia soon removed from him that had called them into the Grace of Christ unto another Gospel (Gal. 1:6). By their false teachers blending the necessity of circumcision with the Gospel and the works of faith. And did no the Corinthians comply more readily with the false apostle than with Paul? Ye suffer [permit it] if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take you, if a man exalt himself, if a man do smite you on the face. 2 Cor. 11:20.

It is the temper and disposition of most to be far more circumspect and jealous of the concernments of their estate than of their faith; and to use both the scale and the test to find out false and light coins, when in matters of faith, the question is seldom made, “Whose image and superscription do they bear?” (Mark 12:16) It is enough if they please fancy or else have the allowance of such whom them have in admiration. Can I then do less than bemoan the slightness and indifference of Christians about the Truth which is the only deposit that God has concredited [deposited with] to the Saints? And awaken both myself and others to buy the truth at any rate, but to sell it or debase it at no rate?

Rob but God once of his truth, and what riches of glory do you leave him? Is not he the God of Truth, and are not you witnesses, chosen by himself, to give testimony unto it? And can you dishonor him more than to make him like the Father of Lies (John 8:44), while you either spread the infection of error to others, or receive it from others into your own bosom? Bethink therefore yourselves, you who deliver the oracles of God, that you be not as lying vanities of the heathen which deceived those that repaired [went] uno them. What comfort can you ever have in departing form the form of sound words (2 Tim. 1:13) and speaking in affected and swelling words which are one of Satan’s lures to seduce into errors?

Who can understand behems greeming of the inward root, or the canting of the familists, of being Godded with God or Christed with Christ? And be you wise, O Christians, in the differencing of such impure gibberish from the holy dialect of the Spirit. Let not such arts, which serve only as the light of the fowler in the night, first to amaze the birds and then to bring them into the net, ensure and captivate you. Keep untainted from errors. The doctrines of the faith that you profess, that you profess, which will be your glory; and the duties that you perform to god from hypocrisy which will be your comfort. Let not your intercourse with heaven be in such services that are only guided with words of piety, which make them specious to men, and wholly destitute of sincerity, which can alone commend you to God.

Would it not be a piece of inexcusable folly for any to heap up a mass of counterfeit coin and then to value himself worth thousands? And is it not far great for men to think that they have laid much treasure in heaven (Matt. 6:20), and rich toward God by prayers that they have made and other services they have done, which will all be found dross and not gold and will produce no return [rather than] the increase of a sore condemnation? O the thoughts are dreadful to think how many will be found poor, miserable, and naked Laodiceans, who comfortably presume that they are rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing (Rev. 3:17).

I cannot therefore but pray,
Lord help me to buy of thee the God tried in the fire
and to get such grace into my heart
that I may never be amongst the number of those who are justly hated by men for hypocrites in the world
and condemned by God for hypocrites in the other world.

 

News about brains, intelligence, talking to yourself, etc

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What this means is that there is clearly an established physiological mechanism through which colour and light can affect mood, heart rate, alertness, and impulsivity, to name but a few.

Their research was based on model that suggests intelligent people with “hyper brains” are more reactive to environmental stimulus and that “may predispose them to certain psychological disorders as well as physiological conditions involving elevated sensory and altered immune and inflammatory responses”.

Researchers have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent

The drive to be perfect in body, mind and career among today’s college students has significantly increased compared with prior generations, which may be taking a toll on young people’s mental health, according to research.

Scientists have identified a key chemical within the ‘memory’ region of the brain that allows us to suppress unwanted thoughts, helping explain why people who suffer from disorders such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and schizophrenia often experience persistent intrusive thoughts when these circuits go awry.

As far as our brain is concerned, talking to ourselves in our heads may be fundamentally the same as speaking our thoughts out loud, new research shows. The findings may have important implications for understanding why people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia hear voices.

Humans brains are interconnected through type of ‘wi-fi’ which allows us to pick up far more information about other people than we are aware of, a leading professor claims.

Richard Sibbes, The Art of Self-Humbling.3

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Sibbes then provides six directions on how one is to obtain humility. In a nutshell, humility will flow from knowing who God is and who we are. The first direction is a summary of the rest, “First, Get poor spirits.” He then defines what is meant by a “poor spirit”,

[1]to see the wants [that is, what we lack] in ourselves and in the creature;

[2]the emptiness of all earthly things without God’s favour;

[3]the insufficiency of ourselves and of the creature at the day of judgment;

for what the wise man saith of riches may be truly said of all other things under the sun: they avail not in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivereth from death, Prov. 11:4.

We need to consider what we are as a creature, we come from the dirt and we will return to the dirt and we are not able to do anything without the power of God. We need to consider how guilty we are before God, due to our sin. We need to see how liable we are to sin.

The second direction is to see ourselves before God,  “[L]et us bring ourselves into the presence of the great God: set ourselves in his presence, and consider of his attributes, his works of justice abroad in the world, and open* ourselves in particular.” Having thought of how lowly we are in ourselves, let us think of how great God is. I do not know the reference off hand, but in one place Spurgeon speaks of having a thought of God before creation — before anything when there was only God. As we try to consider the greatness of God in every way, we cannot persist in great thought of ourselves.

Third, we must be content to receive the words of others that exposure our sin. We “naturally” repel at anyone who points to our sin — Yes, but what about yours! We love flattery, but, “a true, wise man, will be content to hear of anything that may humble him before God.”

Fourth, remember you will die, you will come to dust and you will be brought to judgment, “look to the time to come, what we shall be ere long, earth and dust; and at the day of judgment we must be stripped of all. What should puff us up in this world? All our glory shall end in shame, all magnificency in confusion, all riches in poverty.” How strange that such creatures with such an end should ever be proud — yet we are idolaters, “We are both idols and idol-worshippers, when we think highly of ourselves, for we make ourselves idols. Now God hates idolatry; but pride is a sacrilege, therefore God hates pride.”

Fifth, if we would be humble, let us consider Christ:  For this he relies upon Phil. 2:

Philippians 2:5–11 (ESV)

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

No Christian can truly hold this knowledge in contemplation and not become humble. “I say, is it possible that he which considers of this, should ever be willingly or wilfully proud? Do we hope to be saved by Christ, and will we not be like him?”

Sixth, reason with yourself — let us speak to ourselves. Consider our plight: other men can bring us low. What will we do when we stand before God? What will we do when we with our sins, with our body of dust are called to judgment? We cannot even keep our breath in our bodies, how will we stand? What can we do without Christ? How can we be proud when we have nothing in ourselves?

Further, There is an order, method, and agreement in these reflected actions, when we turn the edge of our own souls upon ourselves and examine ourselves; for the way that leads to rest is by the examination of ourselves. We must examine ourselves strictly, and then bring ourselves before God, judge and condemn ourselves; for humiliation is a kind of execution. Examination leads to all the rest. So, then, this is the order of our actions; there is examination of ourselves strictly before God, then indicting ourselves, after that comes judging of ourselves.

Richard Sibbes, The Art of Self-Humbling.2

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Now to the “what” of humility.

Humility (before God) is a proper realization of our sinfulness before God. No degree of pomp, wealth or power can free us from selfishness, covetousness, anger, lust, greed. This is the cognitive realization which is the basis for our humility:

To begin with the first inward humiliation in the mind, in regard of judgment and knowledge, is, when our understandings are convinced, that we are as we are; when we are not high-minded, but when we judge meanly and basely of ourselves, both in regard of our beginning and dependency upon God, having all from him, both life, motion, and being; and also in regard of our end, what we shall be ere long. All glory shall end in the dust, all honour in the grave, and all riches in poverty. And withal, true humiliation is also in regard of spiritual respects, when we judge aright how base and vile we are in regard of our natural corruption, that we are by nature not only guilty of Adam’s sin, but that we have, besides that, wrapt ourselves in a thousand more guilts by our sinful course of life, and that we have nothing of our own, no, not power to do the least good thing.

Humility is not merely an intellectual apprehension, it also includes one affections.

Again, Inward humiliation, besides spiritual conviction, is when there are affections of humiliation. And what be those? Shame, sorrow, fear, and such like penal afflictive affections. For, upon a right conviction of the understanding, the soul comes to be stricken with shame that we are in such a case as we are; especially when we consider God’s goodness to us, and our dealing with him. This will breed shame and abasement, as it did in Daniel.

Sibbes combines these two elements in humility enlisting the fear of God:

The third penal affection is, fear and trembling before God’s judgments and his threatenings, a fear of the majesty of God, whom we have offended, which is able to send us to hell if his mercies were not beyond our deserts. But his mercy it is, that we are not consumed. A fear of this great God is a part of this inward humiliation. So we see what inward humiliation is: first, a conviction of the judgment; and then it proceeds to inward afflictive affections, as grief, shame, fear, which, when upon good ground and fit objects, they are wrought in us by the Holy Ghost, they are parts of inward humiliation.

He then notes as an aside: if we not humble ourselves, we will be humbled by another:

But as for the wicked, they drown themselves in their profaneness, because they would not be ashamed, nor fear, nor grieve for them. But this makes way for terrible shame, sorrow, and fear afterwards; for those that will not shame, grieve, and fear here, shall be ashamed before God and his angels at the day of judgment, and shall be tormented in hell for ever.

Next, Sibbes notes that such knowledge and affection will result in conduct, “It was not a dumb show, but done with his outward expression and his inward affection.” There will be some sorrow, some action or conduct consonant with the affection and knowledge which are the basis for humility.

 

Richard Sibbes, The Art of Self-Humbling.1

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Sibbes sermon, “The Art of Self-Humbling” sets forth the “what”, “how” and “why” of humility: why should we humble ourselves.  We should not that “humiliation” and humbling are not matters which are prized by our culture. In “Humiliation: Its Nature and Consequences” (Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online June 2010,  38 (2) 195-204) note that humiliation takes place when, ” an individual suffers humiliation when he makes a bid or claim to a certain social status, has this bid or claim fail publicly, and has it fail at the hands of another person or persons who have the status necessary to reject the claim. Finally, what is denied is not only the status claim itself, but also and more fundamentally the individual’s very status to have made such a claim at all.”  The results of such humiliation are substantial: “Suffering severe humiliation has been shown empirically to plunge individuals into major depressions, suicidal states, and severe anxiety states, including ones characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Yet, Sibbes in this sermon commends humbling oneself. How can such things be squared? How can humility be good and yet humiliation be troublesome? Before we get into Sibbes’ help on this issue, we should consider this point. The trouble of humiliation is that one claims to a social status which cannot be maintained: it is an attack upon one’s identity. The identity is predicated upon what other people think of you.  When you fail to maintain your anticipated status, you feel humiliation.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount repeatedly warns against being “seen” by others and establishing some status on the basis of what others think about you (or what you cause others to think about you). Matt. 6:1. When it comes to any sort of good work, giving alms, praying, fasting, he warns against doing such things so that others can see you and praise you. Jesus calls these people hypocrites.

Our identity is to be grounded in God’s judgment — not the judgment of others. Paul can so far as to say that no charge can be brought against God’s elect, “It is God who justifies”. Rom. 8:33. When it comes to what others think of him, Paul writes, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things which show my weakness.”  2 Cor. 11:30.

The humility of a Christian is our humility before God. We measure ourselves before God and care only of God’s judgment: that is the basis of our humility and our honor. If we are right before our king, then we are freed to disregard what other think of us.

The humility of a Christian frees one from the psychological “need” to be thought well of by others.  But we must humble ourselves before God — even a king who has the greatest social status of any group:

Therefore it is not unbefitting kings to humble themselves before God, seeing they have to deal with him who is a ‘consuming fire,’ Heb. 12:29, before whom the very angels cover their faces. I say it is no shame for the greatest monarch of the earth to abase himself when he hath to do with God; yea, kings, of all other persons, ought most to humble themselves, to shew their thankfulness to God, who hath raised them from their brethren to be heads of his people. And considering the endowments which kings usually have, they are bound to humble themselves, as also in regard of the authority and power which God hath put into their hands, saying, ‘By me kings reign,’ Prov. 8:15. But usually we see, from the beginning of the world, that kings forget God. Where there is not grace above nature, there kings will not stoop to Christ; but so far as it agrees with their pleasure and will, so far shall Christ be served, and no farther.

 Richard Sibbes, “The Art of Self-Humbling”, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 6 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 45.

Why sleep (it’s rather dangerous)

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sleep

No one knows:

In a way, it’s startling how universal sleep is: In the midst of the hurried scramble for survival, across eons of bloodshed and death and flight, uncountable millions of living things have laid themselves down for a nice, long bout of unconsciousness. This hardly seems conducive to living to fight another day. “It’s crazy, but there you are,” says Tarja Porkka-Heiskanen of the University of Helsinki, a leading sleep biologist. That such a risky habit is so common, and so persistent, suggests that whatever is happening is of the utmost importance. Whatever sleep gives to the sleeper is worth tempting death over and over again, for a lifetime.

Pelagius on the Human Will

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[Some more from the draft of an article on the psychological effects of the Fall and whether common grace can provide a sufficient response]

Indeed, Pelagius held that the human will is wholly within one’s own power. While the matter under consideration is particularly the question of whether one can lead pleasing to God, do not fall prey to the mistake that the ability to obey God’s law is some sort of bare behavior or “spiritual” decision which does not affect the rest of the person. True obedience to the law of God requires one’s conduct, cognition, affect and will.[1] Accordingly, the ability to obey the law entails a properly functioning psychology.[2]

In his letter to his “Letter to Demetrias”, Pelagius writes:

When I have to discuss the principles of right conduct and the leading of a holy life, I usually begin by showing the strength and characteristics of human nature. But explaining what it can accomplish, I encourage the soul of my hearer to the different virtues.[3]

He explains the strength as an absolute liberatarian freedom of will, “You should not think that humanity was not created truly good because it is capable of evil and the impetuosity of nature is not by necessity to unchangeable good…The glory of the reasonable soul is located precisely in its having to care a parting of the ways, in its freedom to follow either path.”[4]

If the power to do good lies within the human will, why then do any follow a corrupt path. It is not any inherent original sin which has perverted the human psyche: rather, it is the result of sociological and psychological patterns gained from the environment. “Doing good has become difficult for us only because of the long custom of sinning, which begins to infect us even in our childhood.”[5]

Conversely, the manner of becoming “good” is a process of cognitive-behavioral psychology; granted Pelagius was rudimentary in his development, but he was on the “right path” (some might say): “If you therefore you want your way of life to correspond to the magnificence of your resolution …. Apply yourself now so that the glowing faith of your recent conversation is always warmed by a new earnestness, so that pious practices may easily take root during your early years.” (In short be mindful of what you think and what you do, so that through repetition you may become what you resolve to be).

The transformation of the human life is contingent upon God granting a new nature; rather, transformation is a matter of the right therapeutic practice.

[1] Matt. 5:22 & 5:28, 21:28-32, 22:36-40, 23:28; John 3:16, 14:21; Acts 2:38; Rom. 10:8-17; Col. 2:8; et cetera. “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith and Harry S. Stout, Revised edition., vol. 2, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 95.

[2] Again, I am using the word “psychology” deliberately to push back against the idea that there is some “spiritual” aspect of a human being which independently of one’s psychological state. Pelagius is quite right to put the full power to obey the law of God within the human being’s psychological being, his capacity, volition and action. No honest atheist would hold that a Christian’s belief, affection, conduct and volition toward God are somehow divorced from the Christian’s psychology. The atheist may think the Christian diseased, defective, neurotic or whatnot. But only a Christian trying to preserve some sort of fictitious barrier between religious/spiritual life and psychology would attempt such a thin

[3] J Patout Burns, ed., Theological Anthropology, ed. and trans. J Patout Burns, Sources of Early Christian Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 40.

[4] J Patout Burns, ed., Theological Anthropology, ed. and trans. J Patout Burns, Sources of Early Christian Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 42.

[5] J Patout Burns, ed., Theological Anthropology, ed. and trans. J Patout Burns, Sources of Early Christian Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 50; Benjamin Warfield, “Augustine and the Pelagian Controversy,” in Studies in Tertullian and Augustine (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 295 (“It was only an ever-increasing facility in imitating vice which arose from so long a schooling in evil; and all that was needed to rescue men from it was a new explanation of what was right (in the law), or, at most, the encouragement of forgiveness for what was already done, and a holy example (in Christ) for imitation.”).

At this point it must be noted that modern psychology would often include a substantial element of physiology: disease of the central nervous system and its effects upon thought, emotion and conduct (whether there such thing as volition in such a regime of pure physiology as a cause, I will leave for others to debate). There is no dispute that the central nervous system can be diseased, and that such disease will have substantial obvious effects. The decay and death of the body are promised results of Adam’s sin. Gen. 2:17 & 3:19. No one disputes that various drugs can and will affect one’s psychology. Drawing a precise line between what is physiological and what is psychological are extremely difficult for everyone involved. There is also the question of responding to one’s physiology (unless with a materialist, there is something more than the brain at issue)

Ethics as esthetics

How ethics are easily manipulated as a matter of looking like everyone else:

Today, people act as if they have a “right” to revenge, even as they have a “right” never to be offended. Here, it would be impossible to underestimate the influence of mass media, a source of endless division, resentment, and wickedness. Mass media produces a debasement such as no one in the past ever could have imagined. It is an infinite impetus to destructive sentiments.

Read the rest: “How to overcome mass media morality”

You don’t want to look different do you?

And this seems appropriate:

14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.

16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. http://esv.to/John17.14-17

Pelagic Psychology and Integration

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In research the question of the psychological effects of the Fall (essentially, the Fall fundamentally transformed human psychology: our cognition, affections, behavior and will have all been changed as a result of the Fall; therefore, only a remedy which addresses the injury of the Fall will be sufficient to remedy the psychological damage), I came upon this discussion by Augustine of the psychology of Pelagius.  Pelagius held to the position that one’s will and conduct are independent of God’s control (God creates us as independent beings); in essence the psychological functioning of a human remains unaltered as a result of the Fall.

Any psychology which does not take Christian claims seriously will necessarily hold that human psychology operates independently of one’s relationship to God (except perhaps as the subjective concept of “God” operates upon one’s psychology; the “truth” of God would be the subjective effect of the belief, not the objective working of any “God”). This makes any Christian’s use of such psychology fundamentally problematic.  Any Christian who holds to an easy integration of such psychology with a Christian add-on is thus operating on a Pelagian understanding of human psychology.

[For those who do not know, Pelagius is an arch-heretic in the history of Christianity:

A two-pronged attack by Augustine and Jerome (a powerful combination) led to Pelagius’s condemnation by two African councils in 416, a decision upheld by Pope Innocent I, who in 417 excommunicated Pelagius and Celestius.

J.D. Douglas, “Pelagius,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 547.]

Here is the language from Augustine:

CHAPTER 4.—PELAGIUS’ SYSTEM OF FACULTIES

In his system, he posits and distinguishes three faculties, by which he says God’s commandments are fulfilled,—capacity, volition, and action:4 meaning by “capacity,” that by which a man is able to be righteous; by “volition,” that by which he wills to be righteous; by “action,” that by which he actually is righteous. The first of these, the capacity, he allows to have been bestowed on us by the Creator of our nature; it is not in our power, and we possess it even against our will. The other two, however, the volition and the action, he asserts to be our own; and he assigns them to us so strictly as to contend that they proceed simply from ourselves. In short, according to his view, God’s grace has nothing to do with assisting those two faculties which he will have to be altogether our own, the volition and the action, but that only which is not in our own power and comes to us from God, namely the capacity; as if the faculties which are our own, that is, the volition and the action, have such avail for declining evil and doing good, that they require no divine help, whereas that faculty which we have of God, that is to say, the capacity, is so weak, that it is always assisted by the aid of grace.

 

CHAPTER 5 [IV.]—PELAGIUS’ OWN ACCOUNT OF THE FACULTIES, QUOTED

Lest, however, it should chance to be said that we either do not correctly understand what he advances, or malevolently pervert to another meaning what he never meant to bear such a sense, I beg of you to consider his own actual words: “We distinguish,” says he, “three things, arranging them in a certain graduated order. We put in the first place ‘ability;’ in the second, ‘volition;’ and in the third, ‘actuality.’1 The ‘ability’ we place in our nature, the ‘volition’ in our will, and the ‘actuality’ in the effect. The first, that is, the ‘ability,’ properly belongs to God, who has bestowed it on His creature; the other two, that is, the ‘volition’ and the ‘actuality,’ must be referred to man, because they flow forth from the fountain of the will. For his willing, therefore, and doing a good work, the praise belongs to man; or rather both to man, and to God who has bestowed on him the ‘capacity’ for his will and work, and who evermore by the help of His grace assists even this capacity. That a man is able to will and effect any good work, comes from God alone. So that this one faculty can exist, even when the other two have no being; but these latter cannot exist without that former one. I am therefore free not to have either a good volition or action; but I am by no means able not to have the capacity of good. This capacity is inherent in me, whether I will or no; nor does nature at any time receive in this point freedom for itself. Now the meaning of all this will be rendered clearer by an example or two. That we are able to see with our eyes is not of us; but it is our own that we make a good or a bad use of our eyes. So again (that I may, by applying a general case in illustration, embrace all), that we are able to do, say, think, any good thing, comes from Him who has endowed us with this ‘ability,’ and who also assists this ‘ability;’ but that we really do a good thing, or speak a good word, or think a good thought, proceeds from our own selves, because we are also able to turn all these into evil. Accordingly,—and this is a point which needs frequent repetition, because of your calumniation of us,—whenever we say that a man can live without sin, we also give praise to God by our acknowledgment of the capacity which we have received from Him, who has bestowed such ‘ability’ upon us; and there is here no occasion for praising the human agent, since it is God’s matter alone that is for the moment treated of; for the question is not about ‘willing,’ or ‘effecting,’ but simply and solely about that which may possibly be.”

 

Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 218–219.

God has acted

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So what does this mean for us today? The first practical point we should note is this: when we gather as a church, a biblical understanding of God’s grace means that we are only there because God has acted. Indeed, our gathering as the church is the action of God and not of ourselves. If we can ever legitimately make ourselves the subject of a sentence containing the phrase “do church,” it is only in a very subordinate and derivative way. The church that takes God’s grace seriously believes that the church is solely God’s creature—not our response to his grace.

Carl Trueman, Grace Alone