The dichotomy between nature and grace is an interesting one. As I understand it, it’s Augustinian in origin – grace held up, or supported nature before the fall, and with the fall, grace was taken away, leaving only nature. Through grace nature is restored. Aquinas developed this in much greater detail.
The Orthodox reject this outright- for the Orthodox the distinction isn’t between nature and grace but between created and uncreated. Grace is an uncreated energy of God that is at work in every part of creation. Where there is creation there is grace.
Thinking on predestination inevitably leads to thinking about the atonement: what was it, who was it for, who is it effective for, etc, etc. It should come as no surprise that I affirm to a universal atonement in the style of Torrance and Barth, who in turn were in line with a fair amount of patristic thought in their thinking.
The basic idea is this: Jesus died for everyone. Pretty simple. Everyone can be saved, though as the Scriptures make clear not everyone will be. This is one of the bigger questions in the world of theology, and there’s no shortage of answers and speculation. Biblically, we are left with a bit of a paradox – we aren’t given a very clear schema of the mechanics of the atonement. Why are some people not saved, if Jesus died for everyone? I tend to take this line: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the opening bell of new creation (N.T. Wright). The new reality is ushered in. God’s universal love and grace is working through the Holy Spirit in everyone to draw them to Him – but those who resist are damned not by God but by themselves. The atonement, however, isn’t limited to only the salvation of people, but it’s an objective act that involves all of creation, from the depths of man to the farthest corner of the cosmos. This outpouring of love and grace for all is an objective fact accomplished in Christ – whether or not one chooses to resist the grace of God has nothing to do with the fact that Jesus died for them in an objective way. It is finished.
So do people simply ‘free-will’ their way into hell? Well, yes and no – there’s a lot more to free will than simple volition. The Holy Spirit is constantly working to draw all men to God – we can resist or cooperate with the Spirit. So, with an asterisk or two, I am a synergist. The asterisk is this: it is only through grace worked through the Holy Spirit that we can choose to cooperate. Any ‘choice’ on our part towards God is ultimately wrought in God – here Wesley’s prevenient grace comes to mind. The more we cooperate with the Holy Spirit the more grace we are given – and then again and again as we continue to work with the Spirit. This is, obviously, not Pelgianism – without the workings of the Spirit there is no choice at all on our part towards God.
‘Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.’ (Paul Tillich)