Knee-jerk reactions are common when the subject matter in question is either misunderstood, found offensive to the hearer, or alien to their personal view of reality. A common reaction that occurs with a discussion on the word “gift.” In biblical language, a gift of God is synonymous with grace.
“Grace” refers to the unearned, unmerited favor of the Creator bestowed upon the creature. Grace[i] is something freely given by God to mankind; an undeserved mercy that He is not required to give. While, it is true that there are differences in how this grace is distributed, the point is that it begins with God not with man. Grace is an activity (action) of the Creator with mankind as the recipient (receiver).
NO, NO, Grace Can’t Mean That!
The knee-jerk reaction is in response to what it means to “receive a gift.” The respondent who is eager to argue against the biblical position will say things like, “If I do not get to choose to receive (take) the gift, then it is not a gift. If you mean the ‘receiving of the gift’ is something that God must do for me, then it is not a gift but coercion. If I do not will to actively receive the gift, then I it is being forced upon me! Calvinism’s God forces Himself upon the unwilling, and I’ll have none of that…thank you very much!”
My understanding, sympathies and even empathy with that position aside, the fact remains that to receive something may be accomplished in either the active or passive sense. This is effectively demonstrated in the Gospel According to John as I have been arguing (here 1st , here 2nd ,here 3rd). In the same way a gift is acquired either actively or passively.
I must admit that I find it strange when someone claims that a “gift is not a gift if I did not receive (actively) it.” Like a Christmas present. Or to argue that “if I receive (passively) something from God without my permission (i.e. my active choice), it is a violation of who I am (i.e. my will).” Like the rain. In that case, it is said, it is not a gift but an act of force/coercion.
Did I choose my life? No. But was it a gift? Yes. Did it require my approval? No.
“But you couldn’t give your approval, because you were not yet born!” True, but my point is that does not remove the fact of us calling it a gift from God and our parents. I suppose you could say that it was forced upon you—since you didn’t ask—but your reasoning will not change reality. Life is a gift, it comes from God and He does not ask our permission beforehand.
Illustrations from Experience and Scripture…
Hold your knees for a moment! Before you attempt to squirm your way out of that remember all I’m attempting to establish is that there are times when a gift is a gift regardless of our choice. Take for example my little sister.
When we were young, we moved to Colorado Springs, CO. Our family took a trip to the top of Pikes Peak. My parents were preoccupied with something (could have been my other sister), but I was the only one paying attention when my little sister stepped passed a safety line. I don’t know how far of a drop it was, but even now as I think of it my fingers sweat…it was pretty steep. Immediately, I grabbed the back of her coat and yanked her back to safety. In that moment I had given a gift to my sister—life—and I didn’t ask her permission or give her a choice in the matter. I took the initiative and acted where she, as a toddler, was too stupid to do so. Does her lack of “choice” (active receiving) somehow lesson the fact that she was given a gift? No.
What about a debtor whose debt is too high to pay back? He is incapable of paying back what he owes, though he is responsible for doing so. His life is forfeit. The judgment is set. However, the one to whom the debt is owed gives mercy to the debtor forgiving the debt he was responsible for, but unable to pay. Is that a gift? Yes. Did the debtor ask for it? No, but it was granted to him nonetheless.[ii]
I suppose if you still want to argue, which is highly likely since the issue is not how we define the word (i.e. in context) but rather with what you want to believe, you may say to me: “Yes, but if your sister knew the danger she would have asked for aid. If the debtor thought the Judge would be merciful, he’d have begged to erase his debt.” The problem is that my sister was unaware of the danger and so such choosing was beyond her capacity. Likewise, the debtor was unaware that the Judge would ever be so lenient, so gracious towards him, and so he did nothing and it was credited to him instead.
A gift is defined by the giver, not the recipient. An act of merciful grace is not coercion, but doing for one what they are incapable of doing for themselves (cf. John 8.36). Still there will be some that calls such “gifting” forceful coercion.
The thoughts of the late Norman Geisler provide an excellent example of such thinking. He wrote,
- “Forced freedom, whether of good or evil, is contrary to the nature of God as love and contrary to the God-given nature of human beings as free. Forced freedom is a contradiction in terms…no matter how well the act of ‘irresistible grace’ is hidden by euphemistic language, it is still a morally repugnant concept.”[iii]
What Geisler is here arguing against is the idea that God gives fallen creatures a new heart[iv] (removing a heart of stone, giving a heart of flesh), what is often referred to as regeneration or being born-again, so that the individual in question might respond appropriately to the Lord. He finds that activity of God, if it is true, to be an extreme violation against creaturely will; comparable to dragging them kicking and screaming against their will. Later on, in his book he offers an interesting analogy to illustrate his point.
He writes of a man on his porch enjoying the mountainous scenery, but being set upon by a hornet’s nest forced to seek safety indoors. He writes, “…this…was not a truly free choice. He was coerced into doing it.”[v] I guess God graciously acting for the fallen creature is comparable to a nasty nest of hornets besetting the semi-innocent by stander? While, I don’t believe Geisler’s illustration has the force he thought it did, it does prove a position that he tenaciously denies (which we’ll work through in the near future).
You see, the person who desires to sit upon the porch to take in the visually appealing view is confronted with a choice. If he stays outside to view what he desired, his mortal life will be threatened by the angry hornets. Thus, he is then presented with two choices. One pertaining to pleasure, the other geared toward self-preservation. They are real choices driven by an internal will.
Though the hornets are a mighty force to behold, the man could stubbornly refuse to go inside. He’ll suffer greatly for it, for the wrath of angered hornets is not to be trifled with, but the choice is still before him. The other option is to protect what is truly valuable to him—his own skin. So, while the choice to go inside to safety may not be as pleasurable as enjoying the beautiful view of God’s creation, it is more pleasurable than receiving many stings from a dangerous opponent that can end your life. He still made the choice, no one forced or coerced him to do it.
Not liking the choices, is not the same as not having a choice. Just because the term “gift” is not couched in language you are comfortable with, doesn’t mean it becomes less than a gift. A kidnap victim may sympathize with their captor (Stockholm syndrome), but that does not mean a person who frees them from the situation is not acting graciously towards them. You could say the same about a person in an abusive relationship. The abused may see it as a violation to free them from the situation, but isn’t that activity of “saving” them a gift nonetheless? One would have to be pretty foolish to argue in opposition to this, but people do.
We’ll look at why the do in upcoming posts…
[i] P. E. Hughes defines grace as “…undeserved blessings freely bestowed on humans by God—a concept that is at the heart not only of Christian theology but also of all genuinely Christian experience.” Walter A. Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic , 2001), 519.
[ii] This narrative is illustrated by Jesus when speaking on the subject of forgiveness (Matt 18.22-35). The debtor owes his Master what he is incapable of paying. He cannot pay the debt, so he asks for more time. The Master grants to forget his debt. The debtor did not ask for forgiveness, but time. What the parable proves is that though the Master is gracious to forgive debts owed to Him, the man in question was really wicked at heart because he was unwilling to forgive those who owed him. Only those who call on the Lord with a humble and contrite heart will be forgiven, but only true disciples of Christ are capable of demonstrating such a spirit. The rest are left facing judgment.
[iii] Norman L. Geisler, Chose But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, , 2001), 98, 99.
If you’re interested in the counter view to this work check out: James R. White. The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free. Revised Ed. Calvary Press. 2009.
[iv] There are various other ways that Scripture identifies the fallen state of the children of Adam. Making necessary God’s action to change them so that people might respond appropriately to His Law-Word—i.e. blinded-eyes, lame, leprous, deaf, unclean lips, slave and dead. NOTE: None of these conditions can be changed physically by a movement of creaturely will, neither can they be changed spiritually by that method. Therefore, God acts (graciously) to transform them.
[v] Geisler, Chose But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election, 186.