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It Isn’t About Knowledge

Dr. James Emery White
Dr. James Emery White
2022 21 Jul

When we exclaim, “If only I knew what God wanted me to do, I would do it!” we are not often serious. Books on finding the will of God are legion. But this isn’t about knowledge—the real struggle is following God’s will.

We already know far more of what is required of us than we could ever begin to act upon. As we learned in the last blog, God is more eager to reveal His will to us than we are to receive it. And God’s will for your life is mostly moral.

Perhaps the problem is that we do not wish to be moral. Or are we just not able to be moral?

Our moral lives would be much easier if we could say with theological conviction, “I just couldn’t help myself.”

There is a thin line between the inevitability of sin in our lives (which we can say with conviction), and a fatalism that dismisses failure with a wink of the eye. 

One of the greatest theological debates in the history of Christendom involved this distinction. It was between a British monk teaching in Rome by the name of Pelagius and the church father Augustine.

Pelagius was a moralist living in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. He was deeply concerned that people live good and moral lives. He saw the concepts of total depravity (the inherent corruption of fallen humanity) and the inevitability of sin as counterproductive. If people are told that they cannot help but sin, how then can that encourage a moral life?

So Pelagius emphasized that we do not enter the world biased toward evil and that through human freedom, we have the ability to choose the good and moral life. Following his thought to its logical end, Pelagius taught that humans could merit salvation on their own by perfectly fulfilling God’s commands without sinning.

While agreeing with Pelagius that the image of God in human beings was not entirely lost in the Fall of Adam and Eve, Augustine, a bishop in the Church and contemporary of Pelagius, maintained that we had lost the ability not to sin. Augustine saw the history of the human will in three stages to which he gave succinct Latin titles: 

  1. Before the Fall we were posse non peccari et mori (able not to sin and die). This was the age of innocence.
  2. After the Fall we became non posse non peccari et mori (not able not to sin and die). This is the age of responsibility.
  3. In Heaven we will be non posse peccari et mori (not able to sin and die). This will be the age of fulfillment.

One of Augustine’s famous analogies was that of a set of balances, or scales, representing good and evil. When properly balanced, someone could weigh the merits in doing good against doing evil and make a choice. However, as a result of the Fall of humanity, though the scales work they are seriously out of balance. They are tipped decisively toward evil and human beings are prone to wrongdoing.

The teachings of Pelagius were condemned as heretical by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Though he was discounted, Pelagius did force thinkers such as Augustine (and through them, the Church) to sharpen their understanding of the tension between our orientation toward sin and our call to obey the will of God. 

Augustine sympathized with Pelaguis’ concern for the struggle to obey the will of God, but he had long seen grace as the liberating force that would set the human will free from its bondage to sin. Grace tips the scales back and allows a person to choose that which is moral and good. 

Augustine thus maintained that this grace is prevenient, meaning it “goes ahead of” or is prior to our conversion and sanctification, preparing in us a will to choose good. Grace is also operative, meaning that it “operates” on us for the purpose of salvation, independent of anything we do. Finally, it is cooperative, meaning that once we become a Christian, we are able to cooperate with grace to grow in holiness.

That is, if we want to cooperate.

The reality of life as a Christ follower is that we are pulled between our inherently sinful nature and our capacity to pursue the will of God through cooperative grace.

Author Brennan Manning summed it up well:

“When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”

And so are we all. 

James Emery White

Sources

Adapted from the author’s Wrestling with God. Get the e-book HERE at Church & Culture.

For a helpful introduction to the theology of Augustine, see the two Library of Christian Classic editions of his works, Augustine: Earlier Writings and Augustine: Later Works.

On the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition.

Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.