“Unmediated” – A Clarification (by Micah C.)
This post is in response to Dr. Leighton Flowers regarding the role of and particularly the means of God’s personal involvement in a person choosing to respond to the Gospel. My response is intended to be a defense and clarification of my view; I do not mean it to be an attack on Dr. Flower’s view, whom I hold in the highest regard. I believe our difference in this specific area can be summarized in one word: unmediated. I suspect that Dr. Flowers may find more here to agree with than disagree with, just as I find far more to agree with than to disagree with in his writings.
In this matter, I’m reminded of the dangers of quarreling over words, or of spending time on disputations (2 Tim. 2:14). I hope that my response below will demonstrate a Christian charity between fellow believers bought by the blood of Jesus. I pray that my readers will not focus on matters of doubtful disputation leading to their ruin, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ, who redeemed every person in the world (1 Tim. 4:10, John 2:2, 2 Peter 2:1, etc), who graciously offers this salvation by simple trust in Him (John 3:16, Eph. 2:8-9) which we are free(d) to do, and who promises eternal life to those who are believing in Him. In this core element, Dr. Leighton Flowers and I are in full agreement, standing together against the flood of faithless and merely moralistic teaching – and though I am not the Judge, I imagine he has done far more than I have done in this regard. I pray for the grace of God to be shed even more fully upon him, his family, and his ministry. I would sincerely ask for his prayers, as well. I need them. May God lead us into His truth.
In a previous post graciously published on another website, I presented a view of salvation as inherently relational and thus not merely the response to divine information (a resonant post at Yield to God may be found here). In his response (here), Leighton contests that Scripture is not ‘mere information’ but is ‘inspired’ (I agree), and he posits that my approach borders on irresistible regeneration. He also wondered why in the world I was quoting Irenaeus, since he felt Irenaeus was against my position.
In this response, I will cover my attachment to Irenaeus along with the validity of my quotation of him, the points of consensus between Leighton and myself, and several points of divergence, and some reasons why I feel my view is not only sustainable but preferable. Notably, I have opted to take what I feel is an entirely non-Augustinian approach to the matter.
OUTLINE / SUMMARY:
1) Irenaeus and Consensus. Irenaeus’ writings defending free will do not demand my view, neither do they demand Leighton’s view; yet I believe they are most resonant with my view.
2) Spiritual war. Our need for God’s unmediated presence in order to save us from slavery to the hostile spiritual forces.
3) The unmediated presence of God Himself. A clear difference between God’s inspired declarations and His unmediated presence, along with quotes from a variety of Christian sources.
4) Does this view make inability an empty theory? The value of recognizing “IF.”
5) The Living Word. Assessing Leighton’s use of Hebrews 4:12 and John 6:63 to claim that Scripture is living, versus my view that Jesus Christ Himself is in view.
6) Throwing myself into the “C”? The objection that my view propels a person to accept the view of irresistible regeneration.
7) Not could He, but Does He? Summarizing with an appeal to the reader to agree that whether it is needed or not by some inherent inability in man, to focus on what God does do, for God does act in an unmediated way upon the hearts of sinners to draw them to Himself.
PART ONE: IRENAEUS – AN APOLOGIST WHOSE NAME MEANS “PEACE”
Let me say as an aside that Irenaeus is one of my favorite church fathers. I have read all of his writings. On a recent trip to Europe, I discovered that his church existed in Lyon where we were passing through. I had a moment in the morning between trains to run, sprint, and catch subways to briefly visit his church in Lyon, France.
Once there, I was met by a gracious deaconess who spoke less English than I spoke French. “L’église est fermée” (“The church is closed”), she told me, to my chagrin. But nonetheless, she contacted the rector and then gave me a tour through it: The aptly serene and stained glass lit chapel was flanked by stained glass portrayals of the Apostle John, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and the 2nd century martyrs of Lyon, facing with the worshiper toward the cross and the icon of Christ-exalted, as these men and women had faced and worshiped in this place so many hundreds of years before. Below the church is the crypt of Irenaeus, with artifacts from the early Christian community. As you might imagine, that brief visit was one of the high points of my trip to Europe.
I mention this simply to say that I respect Irenaeus greatly; my views have been shaped by his writings, and so the next statement is made with that in mind: Irenaeus’ body of work can indeed resonate with both Leighton’s views and my own. Irenaeus spoke of our freedom as being possible inasmuch as our soul was a reflection and even in some strange sense a participation in the energies of God (Fragments, 5) – a view not foreign to other Eastern authors, and not incommensurate with my own views. Perhaps this shared unity can be for us a place of Irene’ – “peace.” Having said that, though, I believe my view resonates better with Irenaeus’ view and with the consensus of the historical Holy Spirit-filled church through the world. Irenaeus saw “the Light” as Christ Himself, not merely the inspired gospel message: “He is the Salvation of the lost, the Light to those dwelling in darkness, and Redemption to those who have been born; the Shepherd of the saved, and the Bridegroom of the Church; the Charioteer of the cherubim, the Leader of the angelic host; God of God; Jesus Christ our Saviour.” (Fragments, 54). We can properly urge someone to use their free will (just as Irenaeus often urged) because of the enabling, unmediated presence of God – whether one recognizes this is so or not.
On the note of the early church, I want to point out that the quote from Athanasius Dr. Flowers uses regarding the sufficiency of scripture can be read in full context at the end of this post. I think the reader will find that in context it is not particularly supportive of Dr. Flower’s position.
Dr. Flowers and I agree on a very wide and deep level on most issues of doctrine, such as a corporate view of election and a non-imputation of Adam’s guilt. In my previous article, I was not so much attacking Leighton’s view as I was presenting my own. Thus, when I drew (and am about to draw) dichotomies I am not necessarily saying that Leighton holds the view I am disagreeing with: I may have determinism, Pelagianism, or other views in mind that I am rejecting.
Let me sketch out some areas I believe Dr. Flowers and I would share full agreement on.
I believe Leighton would agree, and this will become highly relevant later on.
What I called “mere information” Leighton prefers to call “divine inspiration.” I certainly agree with him that the propositional truths of Scripture are in a different category than, say, a grocery list or even a profound poem by Milton. Scripture was “God-breathed.”
However, the inspired Bible is not God Himself; it is instead information from God. Likewise, the message of the Gospel is not God Himself; it is information from God. This is all I meant by “mere information.” It is the same kind of difference as the picture of me versus me. I might compare this to being told how to dance the Argentine tango, versus being embraced in the dance and led through experience. One is informational – no matter how gifted the teaching – the other is unmediated connection. Indeed, the Trinity is sometimes described as a perichoresis – an interpenetrating dance of eternal love. God invites us to not merely affirm a verbal invitation, but to surrender to being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). I believe Leighton would affirm this distinction.
In practical terms of response-ability, I agree that the message of the Gospel produces faith in its hearers (Rom. 10:17) and it is then the response-ability of the hearer to “mix” that faith within their heart (Heb. 3), resulting in salvation if they do. But I’ll clarify that in a moment.
There are a few directions I could take in responding to Leighton. I could make a defense of the depravity of man, or I could take a decidedly non-Augustinian approach. I’ve already made a sketch-video explanation of “Dead in sins” along with my wife (using her artistic skills) which also covers prevenient grace, and I don’t feel it is necessary to add to articles confirming mankind’s natural inability. Certainly we should agree that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Suffice to say, I believe that the unmediated presence of the Triune God is the drawing in view (John 12:32, 16:8), while Leighton would hold that the mediated means of the scriptures are in view. The unmediated presence and influence of God is going to be my focus for this article.
Let us set aside the issues of depravity and focus on what Tozer called “God’s pursuit of man.”
PART TWO: SPIRITUAL WAR
I believe that Leighton’s view downplays the cosmic spiritual war that surrounds us.
The unsaved are styled as “blinded by the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), walking “according to the prince of the power of the air,” who is “the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2). It is not merely foolishness, ignorance, and lies which we battle, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).
People are not merely uninformed (for which they would need only God’s inspired truth propositions), they are enslaved to a dark power which seeks to hinder and blind them to God’s truth. A significant aspect of Jesus’ ministry was casting out demons; “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the Devil” (1 John 3:8) We see Satan has been cast down by Jesus, and “all things have been put under His feet” in one sense, but “at present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Heb. 2:8).
In the apostolic era, some men tried to cast out a demon by invoking Jesus Christ (Acts 19:15). Their words were essentially the same words the Apostles would use, but the invocation of the name and saving power name of Jesus didn’t work, because the Spirit, in this case, was not present in power.
So also the scriptures or message of the Gospel are not sufficient of themselves to cast from us the oppressive presence of spiritual darkness inflicted on humanity by Satan and his forces of evil. We need a Power stronger they they, which will liberate us in just an unmediated way as they afflict us.
Irenaeus intimated this when he wrote,
…the Word, who existed in the beginning with God, by whom all things were made, who was also always present with mankind…it was not possible that the man who had once for all been conquered, and who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself, and obtain the prize of victory; and as it was also impossible that he could attain to salvation who had fallen under the power of sin—the Son effected both these things, being the Word of God, descending from the Father, becoming incarnate…. He bound the strong man, (Matthew 12:29) and set free the weak… (Against Heresies, III.18)
PART THREE: THE UNMEDIATED PRESENCE OF GOD HIMSELF
Leighton writes, “Is Micah arguing that the Holy Spirit inspired revelation of the gospel is “merely information?” This argument presumes that the gospel itself is not an intimately personal work of the Holy Spirit.” Of course I agree that the Holy Spirit was intimately involved in writing Scripture. But Leighton wants to emphasize the possibility of the Gospel message to “enable” fallen man to say “yes” to God, absent an unmediated spiritual presence of God.
Sadly, in much of popular Christian culture today, it makes good sense for a book on the Holy Spirit to have been called “Forgotten God.” It is His personal presence which I most strongly wish to bring to the forefront of my reader’s minds.
I agree that the Gospel message is sufficient to enable belief, but only within a paradigm of God’s unmediated activity in the hearts of unbelievers. With Leighton and all Christians, I believe that the Gospel message is a production of the Holy Spirit. However, it is not a procession of the Holy Spirit and must not be conflated with His personal activity in our souls.
Jesus is the one who “enlightens every man” (John 1:9); we are not merely made in the image of God but in some mysterious way God is in contact with each of us, for “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
The view articulated by Leighton essentially posits that since the Bible says that the hearing of the message produces faith, therefore the Holy Spirit’s unmediated presence is unneeded. This is a needless conclusion. Dr. Brian Abasciano explains,
“[In Leighton’s view, it is] as if when the Bible portrays faith as arising from hearing the gospel message, that this means nothing else is involved… that nothing else need be involved even if other things are often or even normally involved. This is a logical fallacy. Just like saying Jesus died for the Church or for Paul does not necessarily mean Jesus died only for the Church or only for Paul, so saying things like faith comes from hearing does not necessarily mean that faith can come from hearing alone.”
After speaking of God’s transcendence, Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware writes,
“…this God of mystery is at the same time uniquely close to us, filling all things, present everywhere around us and within us… in a personal way…. In the words of St. Nicholas Cabasilas, ‘…more a part of us than our own limbs, more necessary to us than our own heart.’ …Faith is not the supposition that something might be true, but the assurance that someone is there… not logical certainty but a personal relationship… God, says Oliver Clement, “is not exterior evidence, but the secret call within us.”
While the image of God is obscured and “crusted over,” fallen, Kallistos Ware goes further, saying, that as we are created in God’s image (indeed, in the image of the Trinity), in the deepest part of the human soul, “there is a point of direct meeting…with the Uncreated.”
St. Athanasius – that “Hammer of Heretics” – wrote that the Logos, even while yet incarnate, was still “present in all things by His own power…giving life to each thing and all things.”
Let me reaffirm that there is a difference between what I am calling God pressing upon the soul and God inhabiting the soul. Contra Leighton’s claim, there is no inherent danger that I might blur the distinction between God’s prevenient grace with regeneration proper.
I assert that Jesus’ words “you can do nothing without me” (John 15) are not only to the Christian but can also be applied to every act of every person, for it is in Him that “all things consist” (Col. 1:17). We can do nothing spiritual without Him, and certainly receiving Salvation in faith is a spiritual act – a Holy Spirit-ual act.
Particularly for the unbelieving and unregenerate, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8). Jesus promised to send the Spirit to directly convict the world, which is in addition to the message of the Gospel entrusted to Holy Spirit-filled Apostles. Jesus elaborated, “…of sin, because they do not believe in Me,” thus showing that the ministry of the Spirit is beyond merely the gospel message that these people are already rejecting. He elaborated, “…of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more,” thus showing that the message of who Jesus is would be insufficient without the unmediated witness of God – Jesus is physically departing from the world’s sight, but the Triune God will still be spiritually present to convict the world of what the righteousness of God looks like. Beyond the Gospel message preached by Spirit-filled believers, the Spirit is also actively “convicting” within the soul of the yet-unbelieving, while the Father and Son are personally “drawing” the world.
The Council of Orange strongly affirmed this view of God’s personal work in our hearts, preparing the will and empowering our faith:
“If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit, he resists the Holy Spirit himself who says through Solomon, “The will is prepared by the Lord” (Prov. 8:35, LXX), and the salutary word of the Apostle, “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
Further on, they write:
“If anyone affirms that we can …assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he [ignores] “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).”
Leighton believes that the mediated means of Scripture is sufficient to penetrate to the depths of the human soul. But the relational and partially unmediated nature of salvation, the cosmic spiritual war that afflicts and enslaves humans, and the self-enslavement of the sinner all point to man’s desperate need for something more than an inspired text preached by inspired people.
Leighton contrasted our positions, saying,
“Micah says, “Yet, by God’s [unmediated] contact with our souls, He may free [us] to receive the message of the Gospel.” And I would counter this saying, “By God’s personal and direct spiritual contact with our souls, by [only the] means of the Holy Spirit-inspired gospel, He enables us to freely respond.”” (brackets and emphasis mine)
I disagree with Leighton’s view that the gospel makes a direct contact with our souls in a way commensurate with the unmediated contact by God Himself. The Bible is inspired by God, but it is packaged in the form of information. This is different from, say, the reception of Communion, which is a physical act, not an informational proposition. Both intellectual and physical acts can be spiritual, but they are not inherently spiritual. Based on previous discussions, Leighton believes that the Holy Spirit’s activity could have simply been paused after the writing of Scripture and people would still be able to come to faith. He does not believe the Holy Spirit has paused His activity, but that ultimately it is unnecessary, redundant, and not needed to bring men to saving faith.
But the Bible does not contain the Spirit of God. From within my paradigm this sounds like Leighton is saying that a picture of a man is the man.
Adrian Rodgers affirms the need for an additional spiritual connection from God beyond the preaching of the Gospel:
“Spiritual blindness makes beggars of us all. … The blind need more than light in order to see. … I used to think, as a young preacher, that what you had to do to get people saved is just to tell them how to be saved. Just turn on the light. But it doesn’t matter how much light there is, if the person is blind because he cannot see it… That’s the reason I frequently say to you, I can preach truth, but only the Holy Spirit can impart truth… You must let the light shine. You must preach. But remember, there is another dimension.” (Jesus is God’s Answer to Man’s Darkness: John 20:30)
Along with the Christians quoted above, I diverge from Leighton in that I believe we need God’s Spirit pressing upon our soul, in addition to His message in Scripture. This presence is not through the means of nature, or the Bible, or through information that tells us what God is like or what He has done. While God does work through means, He also often works without means, in an unmediated way. In some cases, we even see God working entirely without means by his unmediated presence, such as in the visions reported among unsaved people in Muslim countries.
Irenaeus wrotes of this intimate activity of the Trinue God as figured in the parable of the Good Samaritan. After speaking of the Holy Spirit as dew, he stated:
…we have need of the dew of God, that we be not consumed by fire, nor be rendered unfruitful, and that where we have an accuser there we may have also an Advocate, [1 John 2:1] the Lord commending to the Holy Spirit His own man, who had fallen among thieves, [Luke 10:35] whom He Himself compassionated, and bound up his wounds, giving two royal denaria; so that we, receiving by the Spirit the image and superscription of the Father and the Son, might cause the denarium entrusted to us to be fruitful, counting out the increase [thereof] to the Lord. (Against Heresies, III.17)
God is near to us always, and His presence ameliorates the effects of what would otherwise be a total alienation from God on our part. The Eastern Orthodox have spoken of this as God being “closer to us than our own hearts,” even in an unsaved state. This is even as we are indeed “alienated from God”, “Children of darkness”, etc. The alienation is on our side, not God’s, in that even though God’s wrath is against the sinner, He has died for and pursued the world (John 3:16) so that we might all be saved (John 2:2, etc) and reconciled to Him (2 Cor. 5:19-21) if we will but yield to His pursuit and provision.