Essay / Misc.

The (trinitarian) Method of Grace

Grace is trinitarian: not only because it is the grace of God who is the Trinity, but also because it works in a correspondingly trinitarian way. God’s method of being gracious is to be toward us what he is in himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This strikes some Christians as a new idea these days. But it was once preached and taught as a matter of basic insight into the Bible. Thinkers downstream from John Calvin did an especially good job proclaiming this truth, and the Puritans probably best of all. Take for example John Flavel.

John Flavel (1627-1691) was a Puritan pastor, a nonconformist whose ministry was rendered illegal by the 1662 Act of Uniformity. His work The Method of Grace is a full treatment (my paperback copy is abridged to 500pp) of the way salvation takes hold of a human life. The Method of Grace is a sequel to Flavel’s earlier book, The Fountain of Life, which had discussed how God makes provision for salvation and accomplishes it. The first book was grace accomplished, the second book grace applied.

The “accomplished-applied” schema is handy way of considering salvation in its objective and subjective aspects, and anyone who has tried to get their mind around soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) will appreciate any helpful suggestion for subidividing the field without distortion. Again, it is Reformed thinkers who have made the most of the schema (see for instance John Murray’s little classic, Redemption Accomplished and Applied).

By itself, however, the accomplished-applied schema is merely formal. It is an outline that begs to be filled out with the actual subject matter of soteriology in a way that not only puts some content under each head, but actually explains why it is that salvation has this objective-subjective form. This is where I find Flavel especially incisive. His Fountain and Method books are Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit books, respectively. That is, the first book describes the “grace provided and accomplished by Jesus Christ,” while the second “contains the method of grace in the application of the great redemption to the souls of men” by the Holy Spirit.

Flavel sees salvation worked out in Christ, as God the Father loves the world and gives his Son (John 3); as he does not spare his Son and is therefore willing to give everything (Romans 8 ) ; as God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself (II Cor 5). Nothing needs to be added to this complete salvation provided in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But it must be applied to each person who is to receive its benefits personally. And that application must also be a divine work, a work of the risen Lord who is not dead or done away with, but is at the right hand of the Father. “From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” and in the meantime, from thence he has sent the Holy Spirit.

In one sense, God the Father applies salvation to believers in Christ himself, giving the incarnate one, in his vicarious humanity (“for us and our salvation… he came down and was made man”), salvation which is applied to “Christ as our surety” and “virtually to us in him.” This christological-substitionary application, however, is only “virtually to us” — and what good is “virtual salvation?” The further application is “the act of the Holy Spirit, personally and actually applying it to us in the work of conversion.” This is the method of grace: the Father acts toward Christ, the Spirit acts from Christ.

Flavel is insistent that the application of redemption by the Holy Spirit is not optional: without it, the work of the Father and the Son is of no avail:

The same hand that prepared it, must also apply it, or else we perish, notwithstanding all that the Father has done in contriving, and appointing, and all that the Son has done in executing, and accomplishing the design thus far. And this actual application is the work of the Spirit, by a singular appropriation.

and again:

Such is the importance and great concernment of the personal application of Christ to us by the Spirit, that whatsoever the Father has done in the contrivance, or the Son has done in the accomplishment of our redemption, is all unavailable and ineffectual to our salvation without this.

The reason God’s work waits on the fulfilment of the Spirit is that the Spirit is God. It would be insulting to say that “all that the Father has done… and all that the Son has done” is ineffectual until completed by some outside force. Flavel’s point is that the Spirit is not some outside force, but a force internal to the being of God, of the same substance as God the Father and God the Son.

Flavel pounds the point (long quote, last one I promise):

It is confessedly true, that God’s good pleasure appointing us from eternity to salvation, is, in its kind, a most full and sufficient impulsive cause of our salvation, and every way able (for so much as it is concerned) to produce its effect. And Christ’s humiliation and sufferings are a most complete and sufficient meritorious cause of our salvation, to which nothing can be addled to make it more apt, and able to procure our salvation, than it already is: yet neither the one nor the other can actually save any soul, without the Spirit’s application of Christ to it; for where there are divers social causes, or concauses, necessary to produce one effect, there the effect cannot be produced until the last cause has wrought. Thus it is here, the Father has elected, and the Son has redeemed; but until the Spirit (who is the last cause) has wrought his part also, we cannot be saved. For he comes in the Father’s and in the Son’s name and authority, to put the last hand to the work of our salvation, by bringing all the fruits of election and redemption home to our souls in this work at effectual vocation.

The trinitarian circuit is completed: The Spirit accomplishes our union with Christ, hides our life with Christ in God, and makes Christ become “unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (I Cor 1:30). This is the trinitarian method of grace, whereby God brings us to himself by being himself toward us.

(An aside, not worthy to be said at the same time as the above. I have a Baker Books paperback reprint of Method, and it has updated some of the language, excised some of Flavel’s prolixity, and done some helpful in-text outlining. But it also smooths away some important technical terms (as in the Aristotelian distinctions among causes quoted above) and, worst of all, omits entire sections on theological grounds, re-numbering paragraphs to cover its tracks. For example, a numbered section defending limited atonement is just clipped away clean, probably on the grounds that the editors didn’t want to pick a fight over the hardest of the five points, the L in TULIP. I’m no friend of limited atonement, but this is no way to treat a text. So if you go out and buy Flavel’s Method, try to get the full thing. The CCEL edition seems to be complete (though I haven’t checked it against earliest editions). Even if you tend to be anti-Calvinist (a leisure time activity I sometimes allow myself to indulge in), you’ll want to hear Flavel’s case on its own terms.

I’m a Wesleyan theologian, but please add Flavel to my long list of favorite theologians, most of whom are Reformed. As with Thomas Goodwin (another favorite), his trinitarian soteriology is so good, I can overlook volumes of Calvinism. And if you’re worried that the (somewhat monergistic, I freely admit) train of logic sketched in this trinitarian soteriology is going to force you into Calvinism, fear not. First of all, it did not so affect the Wesleys. Second, the way out is not to attempt any pre-emptive hedging of bets in the mere mechanics of grace; it is to attend to the Spirit in his distinctive work. There is only one almighty, but the Spirit is not the Son.)

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