Compatibilism: A More Immanent Grace

by Ken Hamrick

Immanence is mostly forgotten as an attribute of God and a method by which He works in the world. Calvinists and Traditionalists argue over the limits of God’s transcendent acts of grace and the limits of men without such transcendent grace. Both sides, it seems, have a presupposed agreement to frame the debate around a transcendent grace, while the solution sits dust-covered in the theological closet. That solution is found in God’s immanence.

God is said to act transcendently when He works in ways that are above natural law and the created order; but He is said to act immanently when He works within and through natural law and the created order. Transcendent acts cannot be accurately explained as other than the supernatural intervention of God; but God’s immanent working always has a natural cause. The virgin conception of Jesus was caused only by God’s transcendent act; but the cause of every other conception is both the natural reproductive process and God’s immanent working.

If we dust off this concept of immanence and apply it to God’s grace and the will of men, the idea of compatibilism is illuminated. Setting God’s will over and against the will of men, as if God must thwart the will of men in order to accomplish His plan, limits God to acting transcendently in relation to the will of men. However, God is not limited to acting transcendently—and this bias toward transcendence is borne of our human limitations. None of us can accomplish our own will for another individual by immanently acting through them, so we fail to even consider that avenue when it comes to God accomplishing His will. We tend to assume that the only alternatives are for God to either force His will on us or “step back” and let us decide. But God can indeed accomplish His will by acting immanently within and through the freely-made decisions of men. The truth of God’s immanent working does not require us to be able to comprehend exactly how He does this.

What does a doctrine of salvation look like when giving prominence to such an immanent grace? Quite simply, it rejects the dichotomy of disabled/enabled, which is assumed by both ends of the spectrum; and instead, it finds men as sinners who are averse toward the God who uses persuasion to bring men to Himself through Christ. This dynamic of aversion/persuasion sees salvation as contingent upon the sinner’s decision, and sees unwillingness rather than inability as the impediment to be overcome by God’s grace. No man can come to Christ only because none can come unless they are willing; and none are willing unless they are drawn by God’s gracious persuasions. Sinners are unable to come to Christ only because of their unwillingness and aversion toward God; and it is through the preaching of men and the convictions of the Holy Spirit—in conjunction with the orchestration of life events and circumstances—that sinners are drawn to Christ and persuaded to embrace Him in the full surrender of genuine, repentant faith. This is not a strictly immanent grace, but a grace that is more immanent than is commonly recognized. The Holy Spirit does play a part in drawing, convicting and persuading men; but ultimately, it remains a persuading and not coercing, so the decision is still freely made, and God still accomplishes His will through—and not in spite of—the will of men. Although God saves through such persuasion, the final outcome as to which persons will be saved is nonetheless certain from eternity past.

If God’s grace had been strictly transcendent, then not even the preaching of the gospel would have been used. God is able to reveal His inerrant word to every man just the same way as He revealed it to the prophets and apostles who wrote it according to God’s verbal inspiration. A transcendent grace needs no help from humans. God could reveal His word to men across the globe, and He could savingly regenerate whomever He chooses. But quite to the contrary, we find in Scripture that God uses “the foolishness of preaching.” Such preaching is not to be merely the informing of sinners that “God is going to save some of you,” but rather, it is to be the imploring of sinners to “Be reconciled to God.” Biblically, unbelief is not mere ignorance of the facts, but rather, it is the ultimate expression of rebellion toward God. Conversely, saving faith is never mere mental assent to the facts, but is the ultimate surrender of one’s self to God and His truth. Faith must be more than informational—it must be submissional. And the preaching of the gospel is more than informative—it is implorative, imploring men to embrace God in submissional faith.

Men cannot escape the ramifications of what might have been if they had acted differently. In other words, the trajectory of events, actions and results would have been different had the sinner not sinned in any particular instance; and that better path that was not taken hangs over the sinner as a judgment. To those who chose a wrong path, it was not God who denied them access to the right path but their own sinfulness that is responsible. Even nonelect sinners would have been gloriously saved by the cross of Christ if they had but been willing to lay down their rebellious unbelief and embrace Him. Since every man has been graciously given at least a minimum of revelation of the truth of God’s existence (Rom. 1:18-23;—and many have been given much more), then any nonelect man who might choose to believe would have only God’s grace to credit for his conversion (and if he believed, but did not yet have the gospel, then God would send a missionary to him as He did for Cornelius in Acts 10). And further, since it is impossible to get behind, beneath, or prior to God’s foreknowledge and plan, then any nonelect sinner who might choose to believe would be included in God’s plan as one of His elect from eternity past.

Just as the sinner can find no defense in the fact that God is ultimately in control, and the unbeliever can find no excuse in the fact that God is ultimately in control, believers can take no ease in the fact that God will only save those whom He has already elected. The Church cannot escape the fact that there are many who perish for lack of a little more influence—such as one more witness or one presentation of the gospel that would have been enough to bring them to their knees in repentant faith. There will be many who could have been reached and might have been converted but were not, because the laborers were few. An important component of the urgency of the gospel is the implication that God’s unconditional election in eternity past is not a limitation on whom may be saved as a result of our efforts, but a mysterious correlation to how much labor is applied to the fields that are “white with harvest.”

Ken Hamrick, 2013

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