I have been working through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. In particular, I have been working through “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology” as compiled by Igumen Chariton of Nalamo and Translated by Kadloubovsky and Palmer. I was reading through the second chapter when I was struck by the words of Theophan the Recluse on grace. Theophan writes in the section entitled “The prayer of the mind in the heart”:
“But no one is refused. Because all have grace, only one thing is necessary; to give this grace free scope to act. Grace receives free scope in so far as the ego is crushed and the passions uprooted. The more our heart is purified the more lively becomes our feeling towards God. And when the heart is fully purified, then this feeling of warmth towards God takes fire…Grace builds up everything because grace is always present in believers.”
Of course, as a good United Methodist, I was immediately drawn to these words on grace. John Wesley penned and preached a sermon entitled “Free Grace” in 1739, which was 76 years before Bishop Theophan was born. In that sermon, John Wesley wrote the following:
“The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all and free for all.
First, it is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in any wise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver, nor on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions, for all these flow from the free grace of God. They are the streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it. Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it all. Thus is his grace free in all, that is, no way depending on any power or merit in man, but to God alone, who freely gave us his own Son, and with him freely giveth us all things.”
I would like to think that Wesley’s work might have had an influence on that of Bishop Theophan, but given the time of the Bishop’s life, even as a scholar, it would be unlikely that Bishop Theophan would have been heavily influenced by a reformer like John Wesley within the Anglican church.
Regardless, clearly both Bishop Theophan and John Wesley agreed on the power of grace, the presence of grace being available for all people, and the ability for that grace to build up everything and to draw us closer to God.
All of this being said, there’s a major difference in thought here. While Bishop Theophan believed that grace was free for all, he warns the people reading his work to take care not to stifle the spirit. He writes earlier in the same paragraph quoted before:
“He who turns to God and is sanctified by the sacraments, immediately receives feeling towards God within himself, which from this moment begins to lay the foundation in his heart for the ascent on high. Provided he does not stifle it by something unworthy, this feeling will be kindled into flame, by time, perseverance, and labour. But if he stifles it by something unworthy, although the path of approach of approach and reconciliation to God is not thereby closed to him, this feeling will no longer be given at once and gratis. Before him is the sweat and work of seeking and of gaining it by prayer. But no one is refused…”
There is a difference in understanding here. Although both John Wesley and Bishop Theophan believe in the power of grace, there seems to be a disconnect on how that grace can and will be applied. For Bishop Theophan, if there is a stifling of the grace of God, at some point there is a place where labor becomes necessary to achieve a reconnection to God’s mighty acts of grace.
For Wesley, while there is a strong connection to the concept of choice, the reality is that the good which is done by humans is done through God. Although our choices may lead to blessed events like the floodgates of grace being opened, the freedom of grace beginning to work fully within us, and a reshaping of ourselves into the further image of Christ, these are but streams of God’s grace, not the fountain of the grace itself. To put it another way, we might grow branches out from the trunk of who we are in Christ, but without the roots made in, through, and by God, we will achieve nothing.
I might be making too strong a point for the differentiation here, but let’s think about the difference. What if Wesley is correct that if God, putting a stumbling block between sinners and salvation, would be acting like a crocodile shedding tears “over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction?” To complete the quote “Free Grace” by John Wesley:
“To say that [God] did not intend to save all sinners is to represent him as a gross deceiver of the people. You cannot deny that he says, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden.’ If then you say he calls those who cannot come, those whom he knows to be unable to come, those whom he can make able to come but will not, how is it possible to describe greater insincerity?’ You represent him as mocking his helpless creatures by offering what he never intends to give. You describe him as saying one thing and meaning another; as pretending the love which he had not. Him ‘in whose mouth was no guile’ you make full of deceit, void of common sincerity. Then especially, when drawing nigh the city, ‘he wept over it’, and said, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together… and ye would not…’ Now if you say, ‘They would’, but ‘he would not,’ you represent him (which who could hear’) as weeping crocodile’s tears, weeping over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction.”
These words, like many of the words of John Wesley, are very strong. To be honest though, there’s some merit to what Wesley wrote. How could God say “I desire good for all” while setting such a high standard for a future with God after a stifling of that grace? Does not grace abound when one chooses to turn from sin?
Do we choose to continue in sin knowing this to be the case? I would say that would grieve the heart of anyone who loves God and is grateful for salvation, but I cannot believe that God would put a firm barrier that some could not overcome between their desire to find salvation and the achievement of that goal. Even if that warming of the spirit is simply an assurance of salvation, I cannot believe that God would slam that door so heavily.
How could one even desire to move past a place of futility if the feeling “towards God” described by Bishop Theophan is stifled and no longer free of charge? Would you turn to God for a path towards salvation if you had not desire in your heart to draw nearer? Would not such a journey become nearly impossible given the fact that the reward itself is something that can only be seen and felt by faith and not the eyes? A person might work at a job they hate because of a paycheck that comes regularly, but would they do the same job with the assurance that they would be paid when the job was complete? Would they do so if they did not even feel an iota of love or desire to be near and with the one who would bring that good into their life?
There is much to think about with these streams of grace. What do you believe about grace? Is it free to all? Is John Wesley’s desciption a grace which is too “cheap” in the words of Bonhoeffer? Is grace something else entirely? What are your thoughts?