Grace and Cooperative Salvation

Since at least the time of Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius, western Christianity has been embroiled in a debate about salvation and grace. The two extremes have been represented as salvation by grace alone and earning salvation by our own works. Theologians and Church leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have generally followed a middle way. On the one hand, we believe in the free will of humans and that actions like baptism, temple ordinances, good works, etc. are necessary for salvation. On the other hand, however, we read in the Book of Mormon that we must “remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved” (2 Nephi 10:24). Thus, it seems that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we hold both extremes in tension but try to find a way of balancing the two extremes.

Recently, I was reading a book by the Eastern Orthodox bishop and theologian Kallistos (Thomas) Ware where he described an Orthodox approach to the subject that I felt resonates well with Latter-day Saint theology. Ware wrote that human beings “possess free will,” since “God wanted sons and daughters, not slaves.” As such, “the Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of grace which might seem to infringe upon human freedom.” He goes on to explain how this is balanced with grace in their beliefs:

To describe the relation between the grace of God and human freedom, Orthodoxy uses the term cooperation or synergy (synergeia); in Paul’s words: ‘We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God’ (1 Corinthians 3:9). If we are to achieve full fellowship with God, we cannot do so without God’s help, yet we must also play our own part: we humans as well as God must make our contribution to the common work, although what God does is of immeasurably greater importance than what we do.[1]

This concept of synergy or cooperation between humans and God seems to be a good way to frame the discussion. We are working together for salvation.

The first part that I felt went well with our theology is how Ware frames this approach as a way of preserving human will. He wrote: “‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in’ (Revelation 3:20). God knocks, but waits for us to open the door – He does not break it down. The grace of God invites all but compels none.”[2] His statement, cited above, that “God wanted sons and daughters, not slaves” reminded me very much of something President David O. McKay taught: “Free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress. It is the purpose of the Lord that man become like him. In order for man to achieve this it was necessary for the Creator first to make him free.”[3] Otherwise, we would be “mere puppets in the hands of a dictator, and the purpose of man’s coming to earth would have been frustrated.”[4] The Latter-day Saint emphasis on moral agency goes well with Ware’s discussion of preserving human will through synergistic salvation.

The second part that I felt went well with our theology was Ware’s discussion of how we have a role to play in our salvation, even though it’s small compared to God’s role in our salvation. When Elder Dale G. Renlund’s spoke in the most recent general conference, he discussed blessings in similar ways. Elder Renlund’s perspective is that “blessings are never earned, but faith-inspired actions on our part, both initial and ongoing, are essential.”[5] He compared God’s grace to a pile of wood set up to light as a campfire—full of potential energy but needing the small action of striking a match to start the combustion reaction. “In a similar way, most blessings that God desires to give us require action on our part—action based on our faith in Jesus Christ. … The required action, though, is always tiny when compared to the blessings we ultimately receive.”[6] This feels very similar to Kallistos Ware’s statement that: “We humans as well as God must make our contribution to the common work, although what God does is of immeasurably greater importance than what we do.”[7]

Ware also addresses an interesting paradox that came up in Elder Renlund’s talk. Brother Renlund stated that: “You don’t earn a blessing—that notion is false—but you do have to qualify for it.”[8] I felt that this was a bit of a difficult statement to unpack. My initial feeling was that he had effectively shifted the discussion from directly earning blessings to earning worthiness and then God would give us those same blessings. Elder Renlund went on to explain that “our salvation comes only through the merits and grace of Jesus Christ,” but the works are the “activation energy” needed to receive blessings.[9] Kallistos Ware addresses the same basic of issue of reconciling salvation through grace with the necessity of certain actions from an Orthodox perspective when he wrote:

‘It is for God to grant His grace,’ said St Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386); ‘your task is to accept that grace and to guard it.’ But it must not be imagined that because a person accepts and guards God’s grace, he thereby earns ‘merit’. God’s gifts are always free gifts, and we humans can never have any claims upon our Maker. But while we cannot ‘merit’ salvation, we must certainly work for it, since ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17).[10]

Thus, the Orthodox perspective seems to be that grace is a gift from God and salvation is not earned, it is given. Yet, just actions are the activation energy needed to receive blessings, we need to work for our salvation all the same, guarding the grace that God has given us.

My point in sharing this is that the Eastern Orthodox idea of synergeia might be an interesting idea to explore in greater depth from the perspective of Latter-day Saint theology. I feel like we generally approach salvation and grace from the perspective of the works vs grace debate that has been the usual framework for the discussion in western Christianity since the time of the Protestant Reformation. This approach from eastern Christianity gives us another framework with which to approach the subject.

 

[1] Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church (pp. 215-216). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 216.

[3] David O. McKay, in Conference Report, April 1950, 32.

[4] David O. McKay, in Conference Report, April 1950, 34-35. Compare also Lehi’s words in 2 Nephi 2:26-27

[5] Dale G. Renlund, “Abound with Blessings”, CR April 2019, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2019/04/41renlund?lang=eng

[6] Renlund, “Abound with Blessings.”

[7] Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church (pp. 215-216). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[8] Renlund, “Abound with Blessings.”

[9] Renlund, “Abound with Blessings.”

[10] Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church (pp. 216). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. I also see echoes of King Benjamin’s speech here (see Mosiah 2:20-25).

 

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