This past sermon I had mentioned a rather befuddling statistic: the Barna Group reported that 83% of those who self-report as evangelicals say that people seek God first, then God responds with grace. Given how misunderstood this point is, I figured I ought to explain it!
Here’s the issue at hand: the idea that someone has to make a move first toward God, and then he grants us mercy (I think a misunderstanding of James 4:8). And what a most natural thought! Most people wait for a perpetrator to come to them before they grant forgiveness; so God must be just like that, waiting for us to seek Him. It also can fit a certain type of experience: we hear stories or maybe your story involved a searching to understand who Jesus was, and then one day you ‘got it’.
This same issue was a huge controversy in the late 300’s AD. A bishop named Pelagius from Britain had heard the famous preacher Augustine say that salvation was by grace alone. He wouldn’t have it! To Pelagius, God would never command anything man was unable to accomplish, so when God gives His law, you are to follow your inner Nike slogan and ‘just do it’. Jesus, according to Pelagius, was a good moral teacher and an example for us to follow as we work on being perfect. Augustine, on the other hand, said that this view doesn’t take sin seriously enough. In the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:15-16), it was certainly true that human beings could obey on their own effort, but after the Fall, sin pollutes our wills (Rom 3:10-12). We are dead spiritually (Eph 2:5). Even if we are given the opportunity to obey, our sinful nature will always choose its own way. Even our best works (by own own efforts) are tainted by sin. (Isa 64:6) God has to break open our will by His grace alone before we can respond with faith. If this is not true, then salvation is our work, not God’s.** Just like blind man who cannot see, the eyes of my heart need to be opened by the hands of Christ before I can peer into the face of Jesus. (John 9:8-14)
I know in my own life, I was very thoroughly running away from God when he rescued me. I was not an honest seeker trying to get at the truth. And that, to me, is one of the most incredible truths of the Gospel: that Jesus seeks the lost, especially the lost that aren’t seeking, that they may be found. If you went through a process of ‘searching’, this is evidence the Lord was drawing you to Himself all along and preparing you to receive the Gospel, not you going at it alone. And when we realize this, it humbles us, gives God the glory, and empowers the spread of the Gospel. I am not the product of my own ingenuity, but a blind man whose eyes have been opened to gaze on the beauty of Christ.
John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”
**Interestingly enough this is not just a Calvinism / Arminianism distinction. Even the Arminian John Wesley believed in God’s movement first (called prevenient grace). While I disagree with the doctrine of prevenient grace, it still proves the point that a Biblical view, in line with the Gospel, is that God comes to us first in order for us to be saved.