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The Synergy Between Free Will and Grace

FOR the purpose of God whereby He made man not to perish but to live for ever, stands immovable. And when His goodness sees in us even the very smallest spark of good will shining forth, which He Himself has struck as it were out of the hard flints of our hearts, He fans and fosters it and nurses it with His breath, as He "willeth all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," (1 Ti 2:4) for as He says, "it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish," (Mt 18:14) ... For He is true, and lieth not when He lays down with an oath: "As I live, saith the Lord God, for I will not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his way and live." (Ezec 33:11a) 

    Those then who perish, perish against His will, as He testifies against each one of them day by day: "Turn from your evil ways, and why will ye die, O house of Israel?" (Ezec 33:11b) And again: "How often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not;" (Mt 23:37) and: "Wherefore is this people in Jerusalem turned away with a stubborn revolting? They have hardened their faces and refused to return." (Jer 8:5, 5:3) The grace of Christ then is at hand every day, which, while it "willeth all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," calleth all without any exception, saying: "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you." (Mt 11:28) 
    But who can easily see how it is that the completion of our salvation is assigned to our own will, of which it is said: "If ye be willing, and hearken unto Me, ye shall eat the good things of the land," (Isa 1:19) and how it is "not of him that willeth or runneth, but of God that hath mercy?" (Rom 9:16) What too is this, that God "will render to every man according to his works;" (Rom 2:6) and "it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do, of His good pleasure;" (Phil 2:13) and "this is not of yourselves but it is the gift of God: not of works, that no man may boast?" (Eph 2:8-9) 
    What is it that the Lord commands, where He says: "Wash thine heart of iniquity, O Jerusalem, that thou mayest be saved," (Jer 4:14) and what is it that the prophet asks for from the Lord, when he says "Create in me a clean heart, O God," (Ps 51:10) and again: "Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow?" (Ps 51:7) Unless in all these there is a declaration of the grace of God and the freedom of our will, because even of his own motion a man can be led to the quest of virtue, but always stands in need of the help of the Lord? ... But that it may be still clearer that through the excellence of nature which is granted by the goodness of the Creator, sometimes first beginnings of a good will arise, which however cannot attain to the complete performance of what is good unless it is guided by the Lord, the Apostle bears witness and says: "For to will is present with me, but to perform what is good I find not." (Rom 7:18)
    For Holy Scripture supports the freedom of the will where it says: "Keep thy heart with all diligence," (Prv 4:23) but the Apostle indicates its weakness by saying "The Lord keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." (Phil 4:7) David asserts the power of free will, where he says "I have inclined my heart to do Thy righteous acts," (Ps 119:112) but the same man in like manner teaches us its weakness, by praying and saying, "Incline my heart unto Thy testimonies and not to covetousness:" (Ps 119:36) The Psalmist denotes the power of our will, where he says: "Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips that they speak no guile," (Ps 34:13) our prayer testifies to its weakness, when we say: "O Lord, set a watch before my mouth, and keep the door of my lips." (Ps 141:3) The importance of our will is maintained by the Lord, when we find "Break the chains of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion:" (Isa 52:2) of its weakness the prophet sings, when he says: "The Lord looseth them that are bound:" (Ps 146:7) and "Thou hast broken my chains: To Thee will I offer the sacrifice of praise." (Ps 116:16-17) The Apostle writing to the Philippians, to show that their will is free, says "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," (Phil 2:12) but to point out its weakness, he adds: "For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure." (Phil 2:13)
    These two then; viz., the grace of God and free will seem opposed to each other, but really are in harmony, and we gather from the system of goodness that we ought to have both alike, lest if we withdraw one of them from man, we may seem to have broken the rule of the Church's faith: for when God sees us inclined to will what is good, He meets, guides, and strengthens us: for "At the voice of thy cry, as soon as He shall hear, He will answer thee;" and: "Call upon Me," He says, "in the day of tribulation and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me." (Ps 50:15) And again, if He finds that we are unwilling or have grown cold, He stirs our hearts with salutary exhortations, by which a good will is either renewed or formed in us.
    It cannot then be doubted that there are by nature some seeds of goodness in every soul implanted by the kindness of the Creator: but unless these are quickened by the assistance of God, they will not be able to attain to an increase of perfection, for, as the blessed Apostle says: "Neither is he that planteth anything nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase." (1 Cor 3:7) But that freedom of the will is to some degree in a man's own power is very clearly taught ... For the Apostle would not have commanded saying: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," had he not known that it could be advanced or neglected by us. But that men might not fancy that they had no need of Divine aid for the work of Salvation, he subjoins: "For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do, of His good pleasure." And therefore he warns Timothy and says: "Neglect not the grace of God which is in thee;" (1Tm 4:14) and again: "For which cause I exhort thee to stir up the grace of God which is in thee." (2Tm 1:6)

That the grace of God sometimes anticipates our free will and at other times our free will anticipate the grace of God:
    He calls and invites us, when He says: "All the day long I stretched forth My hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people;" (Rom 10:21) and He is invited by us when we say to Him: "All the day long I have stretched forth My hands unto Thee" (Ps 88:9) .... The Lord seeks us, when He says: "I sought and there was no man. I called, and there was none to answer;" (Isa 50:2) and He Himself is sought by the bride who mourns with tears: "I sought on my bed by night Him whom my soul loved: I sought Him and found Him not; I called Him, and He gave me no answer." (Sg 5:6)    
    And so the grace of God always co-operates with our will for its advantage, and in all things assists, protects, and defends it, in such a way as sometimes even to require and look for some efforts of good will from it that it may not appear to confer its gifts on one who is asleep or relaxed in sluggish ease, as it seeks opportunities to show that as the torpor of man's sluggishness is shaken off its bounty is not unreasonable, when it bestows it on account of some desire and efforts to gain it. And none the less does God's grace continue to be free grace while in return for some small and trivial efforts it bestows with priceless bounty such glory of immortality, and such gifts of eternal bliss. For because the faith of the thief on the cross came as the first thing, no one would say that therefore the blessed abode of Paradise was not promised to him as a free gift, nor could we hold that it was the penitence of King David's single word which he uttered: "I have sinned against the Lord," and not rather the mercy of God which removed those two grievous sins of his, so that it was vouchsafed to him to hear from the prophet Nathan: "The Lord also hath put away thine iniquity: thou shalt not die." (2 Sam 12:13) The fact then that he added murder to adultery, was certainly due to free will: but that he was reproved by the prophet, this was the grace of Divine Compassion. Again it was his own doing that he was humbled and acknowledged his guilt; but that in a very short interval of time he was granted pardon for such sins, this was the gift of the merciful Lord. 
    However much then human weakness may strive, it cannot come up to the future reward, nor by its efforts so take off from Divine grace that it should not always remain a free gift. And therefore the aforesaid teacher of the Gentiles, though he bears his witness that he had obtained the grade of the Apostolate by the grace of God, saying: "By the grace of God I am what I am," yet also declares that he himself had corresponded to Divine Grace, where he says: "And His Grace in me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: and yet not I, but the Grace of God with me." (1 Cor 15:10) For when he says: "I laboured," he shows the effort of his own will; when he says: "yet not I, but the grace of God," he points out the value of Divine protection; when he says: "with me," he affirms that it cooperates with him when he was not idle or careless, but working and making an effort.
    If a tender and anxious nurse carries an infant in her bosom for a long time in order sometime to teach it to walk, and first allows it to crawl, then supports it that by the aid of her right hand it may lean on its alternate steps, presently leaves it for a little and if she sees it tottering at all, catches hold of it, and grabs at it when falling, when down picks it up, and either shields it from a fall, or allows it to fall lightly, and sets it up again after a tumble, but when she has brought it up to boyhood or the strength of youth or early manhood, lays upon it some burdens or labours by which it may be not overwhelmed but exercised, and allows it to vie with those of its own age; how much more does the heavenly Father of all know whom to carry in the bosom of His grace, whom to train to virtue in His sight by the exercise of free will, and yet He helps him in his efforts, hears him when he calls, leaves him not when he seeks Him, and sometimes snatches him from peril even without his knowing it. 
    And by this it is clearly shown that God's "judgements are inscrutable and His ways past finding out," by which He draws mankind to salvation. And this too we can prove by the instances of calls in the gospels. For He chose Andrew and Peter and the rest of the apostles by the free compassion of His grace when they were thinking nothing of their healing and salvation. Zacchaeus, when in his faithfulness he was struggling to see the Lord, and making up for his littleness of stature by the height of the sycamore tree, He not only received, but actually honoured by the blessing of His dwelling with him. Paul even against his will and resisting He drew to Him. Another He charged to cleave to Him so closely that when he asked for the shortest possible delay in order to bury his father He did not grant it. To Cornelius when constantly attending to prayers and alms the way of salvation was shown by way of recompense, and by the visitation of an angel he was bidden to summon Peter, and learn from him the words of salvation, whereby he might be saved with all his. And so the manifold wisdom of God grants with manifold and inscrutable kindness salvation to men; and imparts to each one according to his capacity the grace of His bounty, so that He wills to grant His healing not according to the uniform power of His Majesty but according to the measure of the faith in which He finds each one, or as He Himself has imparted it to each one. 
    BY those instances then which we have brought forward from the gospel records we can very clearly perceive that God brings salvation to mankind in diverse and innumerable methods and inscrutable ways, and that He stirs up the course of some, who are already wanting it, and thirsting for it, to greater zeal, while He forces some even against their will, and resisting. And that at one time He gives his assistance for the fulfilment of those things which he sees that we desire for our good, while at another time He puts into us the very beginnings of holy desire, and grants both the commencement of a good work and perseverance in it. Hence it comes that in our prayers we proclaim God as not only our Protector and Saviour, but actually as our Helper and Sponsor. For whereas He first calls us to Him, and while we are still ignorant and unwilling, draws us towards salvation, He is our Protector and Saviour, but whereas when we are already striving, He is wont to bring us help, and to receive and defend those who fly to Him for refuge, He is termed our Sponsor and Refuge. Finally the blessed Apostle when revolving in his mind this manifold bounty of God's providence, as he sees that he has fallen into some vast and boundless ocean of God's goodness, exclaims: "O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are the judgments of God and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord?" (Rom 11:33)
    And therefore it is laid down by all the Catholic fathers who have taught perfection of heart not by empty disputes of words, but in deed and act, that the first stage in the Divine gift is for each man to be inflamed with the desire of everything that is good, but in such a way that the choice of free will is open to either side: and that the second stage in Divine grace is for the aforesaid practices of virtue to be able to be performed, but in such a way that the possibilities of the will are not destroyed: the third stage also belongs to the gifts of God, so that it may be held by the persistence of the goodness already acquired, and in such a way that the liberty may not be surrendered and experience bondage. For the God of all must be held to work in all, so as to incite, protect, and strengthen, but not to take away the freedom of the will which He Himself has once given. 

CONDENSED FROM:  THE SECOND PART OF THE CONFERENCES OF JOHN CASSIAN, THE THIRD CONFERENCE OF ABBOT CHAEREMON ON THE PROTECTION OF GOD, N/PNF Series 2, Vol XI, read online at:
Nicene/Postnicene Fathers