Is God’s Grace Arbitrary?

Is God’s Grace Arbitrary? image

 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves (Ephesians 1:4-6).

God gives his grace to those who do not deserve it. That’s what makes it what it is – grace. It removes human pride, because there’s nothing in it that we can call our own except that which has been given to us. Even the decision for our salvation rests not with us, but with God.

This sounds like good news, and so it is. But is there a dark side to grace? Is God’s decision to bestow his favour on some undeserving sinners and not on others simply evidence that he acts on a whim? Does he simply decide on the basis of some random principle - a divine throw of the dice perhaps? Is ‘grace’ simply ‘luck’ masquerading under another name? In which case: is God less a kind Father and more of tyrant? Why, if he can give his grace to some, does he not give his grace to all? We shouldn’t fail to recognize that it is a question with a personal dimension, too. Some people – people we love – don’t respond to the gospel. Some did once, but sadly no longer do. What of them?

This is one of the most knotty problems in Christian theology, and it has led plenty of Christian theologians to propose a compromise on grace itself. The Bible clearly teaches that God chooses us ‘before the creation of the world’. How does he do that? If grace is not to seem arbitrary and unjust, then there must be some condition from the human side which triggers it. Perhaps there is something in us, be it ever so small, that God recognizes as worthy of grace. Or perhaps he can see that we are trying as hard as we can. Or perhaps it is our membership of the institutional church that marks us out. Or perhaps (and this is quite an ingenious way of thinking about it) God looks down the length of human history and sees ahead of time who will respond to him, and so chooses those. The problem with all of these answers is that they make grace something other than what it is: the free gift of God. It becomes reliant on something that we offer him, however small.

We are not the first to think about this. In fact - and I find this reassuring – the authors of the Bible wrestled with the very dilemma we are talking about, without giving us a cheap answer. In Romans 9 – 11, Paul asks with some agony ‘why haven’t many Israelite people responded to the gospel?’ In response, we can summarize the Bible’s teaching in this way:

1) God’s offer of salvation is made to all people. His love is for the world (John 3:16), and he does not want anyone to die in their sins.

2) Nonetheless, not all people are to be saved. There are those who stubbornly and tragically reject God’s declaration of amnesty, and remain at war with him.

3) It is God who chooses, or elects those who belong to him. As Jesus said: ‘All that the Father give me will come to me; and him who comes to me, I will not cast out’ (John 6:37).

4) That means inevitably that God does not choose others. Why? Paul’s response to this question is to say, well, actually God has the absolute right as the creator of all things to do what he wishes with what he has made (Romans 9:14-26). We have no appeal to a higher court; God the creator is not to be condemned from the human side simply because we do not understand his mind.

This sounds like an acrid-tasting morsel to chew on. But we need to pause and hear what Paul is saying. He isn’t saying ‘God creates some people merely so he can enjoy condemning them’. He is saying rather: ‘if God did act in this way, we’d have no cause for complaint against him.’ The ‘if’ is a crucial ‘if’; and it shows us what Paul is trying to do here. He is trying to draw our attention away from the question, because implicit in the question is the attempt to pass judgment on God. We do not know the mind of God on this matter, and it does us no good to second guess him. The more we try to second guess God in the particulars of life, the more we get it wrong.

This is crucial for us to see, because the point of the doctrine of grace is to remind us that those who have faith do so because of the work of God in them, pure and simple. It does not reveal to us who these people are in the final analysis. We cannot peer into the hearts of men and women and know what is really there. That will no doubt surprise us! The point of the New Testament teaching about grace is not to make us anxious but precisely the opposite – which means that if it is causing concern, we’ve probably misunderstood it. We are meant to be reassured.

That’s the point of the great first chapter of Ephesians, with its long unfolding sentence: don’t worry if your faith seems weak and uncertain, and if you are being persecuted. You were chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world, and secure in him you stand. Your salvation does not rely on your uncertain moods, or on your confidence, or on your progress. It is built on an entirely sold foundation – on Jesus Christ. And that in itself tells us where our gaze should be.

I do not know why or on what basis God choses some and not others. Well, I can tell that he chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong, as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians. But aside from that one strange condition – I have no idea. Does that make God unjust? No. Not only does that accusation fail simply because God has the right to act as he sees fit, it also neglects the more important fact on the table: that this is the God of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for sin. The extraordinary love of God poured out to us in the costly suffering of Jesus gives us every confidence that the God who we are dealing is not moody, arbitrary and capricious. He is the sovereign Lord of all, and is shaping history to his purposes, so that he might accomplish all things for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).

Is this answer simply a dodge, or a cop-out? Would it be better to have one of the compromise answers that I presented earlier? I think the answer is a definite ‘no’ to both questions. We should assume that since we are fallen and finite beings, full understanding of the ways of God will be beyond us. That doesn’t mean we should stop seeking to understand God and what he does – not at all. But it does mean that when we find a problem that we can’t resolve simply, we shouldn’t despair.




Feature photo: Steve Johnson

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (1)

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  • Hamish Blair
    October 11, 13 - 5:52pm
    If mercy was deserved, well then, it wouldn't be mercy!

    An interesting article over at TGC on the Loving Intolerance of God, which deals with a similar issue.