Monday, July 28, 2008

Economics and the Holy Spirit

I was just sitting there watching my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter veeery slowly eat dinner, regretting having given her a lollipop about half an hour before her meal, and the thought struck me how well my daughter understands the economics of incentives. Sure, it's easy enough for even the smallest child to grasp the concept of reward, and act to earn that reward. But she already earned her reward in this case, apropos of nothing. Thus, she was no longer motivated to eat a good dinner, because she had nothing to gain from it (well, except tasty chili-cheese mashed potatoes, but apparently that's not her cup o' tea). Had I only showed her the sucker and told her that it would be given to her after she ate a good dinner, she would have eaten much faster.

What does this have to do with the Holy Spirit? Well, everything. We as Christians have received a free gift of eternal life from God through Christ Jesus. It is not the result of works or deeds which we have done in righteousness; Scripture is clear on this matter. Thus, our motivation for doing good and living moral lives is gone; we have received and been guaranteed our reward simply by faith in Jesus Christ. Sure, we are told to do good works, repeatedly and at great length. But because of this guarantee, there is no explicit incentive to do good. Both the carrot and the stick are removed; we already have eternal life, and Hell no longer awaits us.

Sure, there are groups among the Body of Christ who perhaps make too much of certain passages of Scripture, but now is not the time for that particular debate. Still others assert (and this I would vehemently debate to my last breath) that indeed our good deeds, our moral lives are indeed what save us; this is a debate that has unfortunately reared its head throughout the Church's history. But let us take it for a given that Scripture does indeed teach that eternal life is a free gift, and move on.

So stripped of all incentives, Christians by and large ought to be an indolent, loutish lot, right? After all, all they have to do is hurry up and die, and eternal bliss is theirs. Well, apparently the research is in, and this is not so. Now the article linked there, and the corresponding book by Arthur Brooks, focus more on the political divide, but let us make the assumption (which the liberal and secular left do on a daily basis, so why can't we?) that "conservative and religious" correlates quite highly with "orthodox Christian". I'd have to read the book itself to really see how it breaks down along specific religious lines, but since there are only so many hours in the day, I'll just say it's a safe assumption.

Thus, normal, human, natural incentives are stripped away from the Christian, and yet he continues to do good. Therefore, there must be some inhuman force at work in the life of the Christian that compels him to do good, not for a reward, but as an end unto itself. This force, of course, is the Holy Spirit, statistically writ large across Christian culture in comparison with others.

And this brings the argument of grace-based salvation full circle: if we include works as a necessary act for salvation, we can attribute man's good works to his own interal desire for eternal life; on the other hand, if the incentive for doing those works is taken away, the motivation to do good works is based solely on the indwelling and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In the former, man is glorified along with God; in the latter, the glory belongs to God alone.

Great, now I feel all Calviny again. But I'm really more of an Arminianist, I swear!

post script: The Wee One, sure as the day is long, didn't finish her dinner. When is that age of spiritual accountability again?

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Marty said...

Without getting too deeply into Arminianism, theories of atonement, etc (I'm not anywhere near proficient on all this), I'll say that a person who believes (and thus believes he is saved) is still under some suspicion of his eventual salvation. For, doesn't Arminianism allow that some who believe they are believers can fall away, and eventually deny Christ? Of course, Christ holds out forgiveness to the end, but what if that ex-believer, in the end, does not accept this gift? So believers could do good in order to keep up what Aristotle called the habits of virtue. They act virtuous to become virtuous (or to sustain virtue). They act virtuous so as not to lose what they have. In this, of course, they are sustained by the Spirit. But they can't rest on their laurels without suspecting that they are slacking, and could thereby lose the thing that sustains their gift, namely their faith. It's like an active prayer life. Keep at it. Don't slack. The gift is yours in the fullness of time, but we do not know the end of our journey until we've run it to the end.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Well, you've immediately called out the one qualification to my otherwise fairly on-target Arminianist tendencies, which is known in Reformed circles as "Preservation of the Saints". Honestly, I'm undecided on whether or not one can lose their faith, but I lean toward the negative; this is a result largely of my Southern Baptist upbringing and scriptural investigation, which seems to my poor eyes to indicate that, even IF salvation could be lost, it could not be regained (I believe the particular chapter and verse is in Romans, but I cannot find it ATM).

My argument was not an absolute one. Pagans and atheists still "do good" without the Holy Spirit; what is important is motivations. I learned back in highschool from Brother Richard about the varying levels of moral motivation: first is fear of punishment; second is expectation of reward, and third is doing what is right for its own sake. I might be leaving something out there. Anywho, I would argue that the third and highest motivation is impossible without the Holy Spirit, and the first and second are disqualified by our unmerited salvation. These, though, are technicalities. Many Christians are not fully versed on the intricacies of soteriology, and thus act on these lesser motivations out of ignorance. It doesn't lessen the impact of their good works, of course, and Brother Richard was quick to assure us that these were indeed valid motivations, but in some sense it is much chaff to be shed by the fully-immersed believer.

The notion of "slacking" is, I think, addressed most directly in the book of James -- faith without works being dead, etc. Also, "by their fruits you will know them". The cheap cop-out is "Well, they were never saved anyhow". I don't buy that; I think it's much more complicated than that, but I don't claim to have those answers.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

That "they were never saved anyway" objection seemed like one of the easy ways out when I was writing the bit about losing faith. However, I think there obviously are many people who have lost faith, even ones who have had great faith. Whether they ultimately are preserved, or perhaps never had true faith, is unknown to them. In other words, whatever is happening to them at any time before their death is unknown to them. That is one of the motivations for perseverance, and for cultivating habits of virtue (good deeds), and for praying (after all, in the reading from Romans that I quoted in my Mazurland post, we don't even really pray ourselves...it is the Spirit who properly prays for us). We do stuff (works, prayer) in the hope that it is the Spirit doing it. And it is a hope.

8:09 PM  

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