The main source of discomfort with talk of “morality” in protestant theological circles is the issue of faith vs. works. We are nervous that any talk of morals will lead to moralism, to a reliance on our moral behaviour as the ground of our standing before God. Of course, the doctrine of justification excludes such a conception of human ethical behaviour. Salvation is the gift of God, fully and completely, and even the faith by which we acknowledge our salvation must be said to be God’s gift, and not a human work.
So where does this leave the human agent. Is there nothing for us to do? I want to argue that the Christian life is an active life of free obedience. But the key thing to remember is that this activity on the part of the Christian is not the ground of our salvation; rather our salvation, as the gracious gift of God, is the ground for our free obedience. God’s action always precedes our action, but God’s action does not exclude our action, but rather opens up the space in which we can act as responsible agents, and directs us toward the responsible action which is proper to our existence as human creatures.
We are free to actively obey God precisely because that obedience does not merit our salvation; if it did, we would not be free to actively obey, we would be damned. I’m going to attempt to unpack that statement by way of a positive view of Salvation. Just as we cannot talk of “freedom” without speaking the goal of human life, so also we cannot talk about “salvation” without speaking of salvation’s goal. That is, salvation cannot be conceived in purely negative terms, as “salvation from” sin, death and the devil. It is true that our salvation is a salvation from, but we must also consider salvation in positive terms, as salvation for communion with God and with our fellow human creatrues.
We can be more specific than this, however, because “communion with God and with our fellow human beings” could be seen as somewhat vague. The direction of our salvation is anything but vague; it is concrete, specific, and particular; it is Jesus Christ himself. He is “our wisdom, our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” and we are being conformed into his image. Christ himself is the concrete direction toward which our salvation is oriented. God has determined that he should have a free, responsible human covenant partner, and in his humanity, Jesus Christ is that true covenant partner. It is in his free obedience that we are enabled and called to respond to God with a free and active obedience of our own.
That is why salvation and ethics are inseparable: human action is not the ground of our salvation, but it is the goal of our salvation. Salvation has a christologically determined direction; therefore it is ethical. We appropriate this free, active obedience in accordance with the mystery of salvation: it is a gift realized fully in Christ, and yet being realized in history as we are conformed to his likeness. Thus, if we can speak of “growth in grace” in the sanctification process, we can also speak of “growth in free active obedience,” as we are conformed to Christ, and the Spirit continues to lead us into an ever-greater radical responsiveness corresponding to God’s radically free grace in Christ.
Karl Barth has described God’s freedom and ours in the following terms: “God’s freedom is his very own,” and “Man’s freedom is his as the gift of God.” The human creature does not possess and inherent, directionless “freedom.” The Christian life is a life of freedom, not because we have an inherent “free will” or capacity for free moral decisions: rather, we are freed to respond freely to God’s grace because God, in his freedom, has chosen that it should be so, and acted to make it so in Jesus Christ. In our own power, we are not free; rather, we are exposed to the tyranny of our own will, with all of its disordered desires. But God has determined that he would have a free covenant partner, and has acted in electing Jesus Christ as that free human partner. Our being “in Christ,” our union with him, is the basis of our freedom, a freedom which is an echo and correspondence of his freedom. This means that we only know what human freedom is by looking to Jesus Christ, as God’s truly free covenant partner. Our understanding of freedom must be constantly measured against the the freedom of Jesus Christ as the truly free human creature.
This means that a “negative” account of freedom is obviously misguided. The negative view of freedom posits that freedom is simply freedom from all external constraints and obligations. To be free is to be an autonomous, unencumbered, self-directed agent, acting in accordance with our own desires. In this context, any kind of structured moral obligation appears as an impingement on our freedom, and a burden which needs to be thrown off. Such freedom, however, is illusory because it lacks a goal; it lacks positive content, and direction. In other words, it is not freedom at all, but a form of slavery to our own misguided desires and impulses.
But this is true not only of supposed accounts of “free will;” it must also be emphasized that the Christian freedom we are discussing here as a freedom which is an effect of God’s grace is not a directionless negative freedom. That is, human freedom in Christ is not simply a freedom from negative influences, a freeing of our will which would then lead to a kind of regenerated “free will.” Christian freedom is not a kind of “second chance” at free will, where God does his part in Christ and now leaves us to do our part with a newfound freedom.
The gift of freedom is directive: its end is conformity to Jesus Christ. It is a freedom for this goal, a freedom for true humanity, in communion with God and with his creation. We are therefore being made free human creatures as we are conformed to his image. Our freedom does not precede God’s work in us and for us in Christ; it is not the ground but the goal of our salvation.
I would argue that this is an authentically Wesleyan position, although Wesleyans are often seen as aligning themselves with accounts of “free will.” Certainly there are some Wesleyans who have argued in favour of a libertarian concept of free will, but I don’t think that is consistent with Wesley’s own views on the subject. I’ll have to post separately on this question, to do it justice, but I believe it would be better to describe Wesley’s argument in terms of the freed will of the regenerate, rather than claiming “free will” for all humanity.