St John Chrysostom on Grace and Free Will


St John Chrysostom on Grace and Free Will

A lecture delivered by David Bradshaw,
Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Kentucky,
at the parish of St John Chrysostom Orthodox Church,
House Springs, Missouri, September 29, 2007,
on the occasion of the 1600th Anniversary of St John’s repose.




Few questions in theology bear as directly on the lives of ordinary believers as does that of the relationship between grace and free will. As Christians, we know that we are to seek to please God and obey His commandments; yet we also believe that He helps us in such a way that to think that we have pleased Him, through our own unaided efforts, would be an act of pride. Already there is, if not outright contradiction, at least considerable tension between these two beliefs. The tension grows worse when we also take into account the conviction, firmly rooted in Scripture, that salvation is in some sense the result of divine election. Our Lord states in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, “all that the Father giveth me shall come to me” (6:37), and a few verses later, “no man can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (6:44).1 Taking these two statements together, it would seem that to be called by the Father is both a necessary and sufficient condition for coming to Christ (which here is tantamount to salvation). Yet in the same chapter Christ also exhorts his audience as if the choice were theirs. He urges them, “Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life” (6:27), and, when they ask him what they must do to work the works of God, he replies, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (6:29). Apparently, although to be chosen by God is both necessary and sufficient for salvation, that does not exclude the necessity of our own choice, and indeed of our “labouring.” This is very confusing. It seems both that the will of the Father is the sole cause of our salvation, and that we too are, in some sense, a cause.

There are here two different but related questions. First is that of how our efforts to please God can be consistent with the fact that we are totally dependent upon His aid. Second is that of how salvation can be both determined by God’s choice and dependent on our free response. As regards the second question, Scripture adds the further complication that God’s election has in some sense been fixed from all eternity. St. Paul writes in his Continue reading