I recently found myself doing something that I almost never do, namely disagree with something written/said by NT Wright.
His book on justification is coming out (or has come, I don’t know) and Intervrsity Press has an interview with Wright transcribed and available online. Somewhere along the way he appears to wholly endorse a Reformed sentiment that I’ve yet to fully come to terms with. It’s the whole bit about faith (the saving sort) being from the Holy Spirit as opposed to something that humans bring to the God-sinner relationship. Wright says:
“Many doctrines of justification through the years have actually kept the Spirit a bit at arms length and have not factored in what for Paul is
absolutely vital, that when somebody becomes a Christian, even the faith by which they believe, Paul says, is the result of the Holy Spirit’s working through the grace-filled preaching of the gospel of Jesus. I’m thinking of 1 Thessalonians, I’m thinking of Galatians and many other passages we could call in at this point.
The result is that when somebody then lives the kind of life which in Christ is honoring to God, it isn’t that they are earning their final justification by their own efforts; it is already given; it’s a datum; it’s part of who they are in Christ from the moment they believe and are baptized. Rather it is the Spirit working in them, through them, so that they are freely choosing to do what the Spirit wants them to do.”
I’ve long had a problem with the Reformed articulation of this area of Paul’s teaching. The idea that the Holy Spirit unilaterally forces himself upon a person in order to save him/her has always felt wrong to me. After all, what kind of relationship can be established by coercion, even divine coercion? Love has to be given freely or it’s not love. And now here is a personal theological hero of mine saying something that sounds like the Reformed theology that I reject…or is he?
The difficulty here is understanding what it means for the Holy Spirit to work through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus. The Reformed position that I reject is the one which says: the Spirit first regenerates the sinner so that he is capable of (saving) faith, which is aroused by the preaching of the gospel. As I see it, this is effectively the Holy Spirit playing both sides of the gameboard. Is this really what Wright is saying? If so, then I genuinely don’t agree with him.
I tend to believe that through the preaching of the gospel (whatever form “preaching” takes) the Holy Spirit “knocks at the door” of the sinner’s mind and heart, asking to be allowed in. No matter how shabby and depraved a hovel the sinner’s life is, the doors are still his to open or shut as he desires because this is the way that the Carpenter designed and built it. Of course, one must be careful with metaphors; reading, writing and applying them.
I doubt that this point will be addressed at length in the new book and I don’t really need it to be. My disagreement won’t keep me from buying and reading it.