Book Review – The Freedom of a Christian: Grace, Vocation, and the Meaning of our Humanity

The Freedom of a Christian: Grace, Vocation, and the Meaning of our Humanity.
Gilbert Meilaender. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006. 192 pages. Paper.

Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor in the Department of Theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana. He is on the ordained roster of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and he holds a Ph.D. from Princeton. He is the author of several books and very many journal articles. His academic interests are in the area of religious ethics, with a particular focus on bioethics.

The volume under review is a collection of eleven essays, all previously published elsewhere. Most of them date between 2000–2005, but some reach back earlier. As the subtitle indicates, the essays treat three general categories: grace, vocation, and the meaning of humanity. The collection is brought forward for notice in this edition of Issues in Christian Education because of the interaction the essays have with the topic of freedom, especially as that term has taken meaning from the Enlightenment forward.

Meilaender intentionally entitled the collection after Luther’s famous booklet of the same title, not intending to supplant Luther but to suggest the essays be read in exploration of the freedom in Christ which the Reformer brings to the fore. While “more” freedom may always seem to be preferable to “less” freedom, and while “freedom” as a feature of human existence would seem always preferable to “bondage,” Meilaender’s essays urge the reader to consider the topic thoughtfully, especially in light of the Gospel of Christ Jesus in which a person can be both free from all and subject to none while at the same time being a servant to all. This review dwells primarily on the first set of essays and more summarily on the second and third sets.

The first three essays explore the topic of grace as it intersects with notions of human agency and capacity. All three essays point out ways that the notion of grace may be viewed from such a narrow standpoint that it is subject to distortion. To present grace as an infused power that enables the Christian to attain an ever-increasing progress in holiness will inevitably overshadow grace as God’s pardon in Christ for human failing. Similarly, if grace is seen only within a dialectic opposition to the law and sin, then grace will be viewed perhaps exclusively as a new beginning for sinners; certainly “new beginning” is true, but if that is all the truth about grace one will admit, then one must edit out of consideration those biblical texts that do speak of God’s grace as moving believers forward in obedience to God’s will (language found in the Lutheran Confessions; and see Meilaender pp. 46–49).

As an example, Meilaender calls attention to Jesus’ words in John 15:5, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”  Meilaender writes, “Taken in the abstract, of course, the claim that apart from God human beings can do nothing raises far-reaching questions about the genuineness of human freedom. And, in fact, it has always been difficult for Christian thinkers to be simultaneously anti-Manichaean and anti-Pelagian” (p. 59).  While Enlightenment notions of freedom and liberty would certainly protest against any idea of Manichaean dualism (insisting that every human is responsible to determine what is the “right” and the “good”), a facile reading of Jesus’ words would make any person a mere puppet, lacking agency. The solution to misreading Jesus is not to adopt a Pelagian view of unfettered agency such that humanity is completely free to shape its own destiny. Rather, Meilaender asserts, one is to comprehend how Jesus is declaring the limits of human freedom and power in terms of its ultimate relation with the Almighty and with life itself.

Meilaender returns several times to Reinhold Neibuhr’s distinction between grace as power and grace as pardon. Both are part of the biblical presentation. To focus too much on grace as God’s power at work in Christians to do what is right, holy, and pleasing before God is to forget about human weakness in sin. To focus too much on grace as pardon can facilitate the idea that God is disinterested in his followers actually following his holy ways, which inadvertently plays into the notion of Enlightenment liberty (“do as your autonomous self determines”). Meilaender affirms the priority of grace as pardon throughout the length of a believer’s life, while also maintaining that in movement toward the eschaton, grace is a transformative power within the believer in Christ. He quotes Luther approvingly from “Against Latomus” (1521):

A righteous and faithful man doubtless has both grace and the gift [i.e., grace as “favor/pardon” and grace as “power”]. Grace makes him wholly pleasing so that his person is wholly accepted, … but the gift heals from sin and from all his corruption of body and soul….  Everything is forgiven through grace, but as yet not everything is healed through the gift. The gift has been infused, the leaven has been added to the mixture. It works so as to purge away the sin for which a person has already been forgiven….  A person neither pleases, nor has grace, except on account of the gift which labors in this way to cleanse from sin (pp. 68–9). 

The three essays on vocation point out that following a calling from God is not to be seen as an affront to liberty since agency is not removed from the person in carrying out that vocation. Nevertheless, recognizing one’s vocation as coming from God does not automatically lead to a life of unmitigated bliss. Meilaender writes:

On the one hand, we are called to the God who can put an end to our work and bring fulfillment to our loves and labors….  But on the other hand, this call will often exact a price along the way—the price of renunciation, of huge and hard labor. At times, to be sure, by God’s grace, our calling may bring considerable joy and satisfaction, but it cannot offer settled contentment. For, as Augustine says, “It is one thing to see from a mountaintop in the forests the land of peace in the distance … and it is another thing to hold to the way that leads there” (p. 115).

The remaining five essays deal with the area of bioethics, especially in light of notions of Enlightenment liberty that may suggest to humans that they are masters not only of their own destiny but also their own biology and that of their progeny. While a number of these essays were written in the early days of the genome project and genetic engineering, their applicability has not lessened in pointing out the wisdom of acknowledging the limits of humanity precisely as “creature” who is not Creator. Mutatis mutandis, the essays find application as we and our culture explore issues of identity, gender, and how free a person is against the limits of one’s embodiment.

For those whose calling is to teach others the whole counsel of God, these essays will provoke the reader toward doing that project with grace-imbued thoughtfulness, aiding those whom we teach to view themselves as free in Christ and subject to none, while at the same time dutiful servants, subject to all.


Charles W. Blanco
Associate Professor of Theology
Concordia University, Nebraska

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