What percentage of our salvation is our doing, and what percentage of it is God’s doing? This is a common way of approaching the question of salvation, and it’s a driving force for a lot of bad theology. For example, Steven J. Cole claims that Roman Catholicism “teaches that in order to gain enough merit for salvation, we must add our good works to what Christ did on the cross.” That’s a common misunderstanding: since Catholics believe human cooperation is necessary, that must mean we’re reducing God’s credit from 100% to something lower, right? And it’s ultimately for this reason that Martin Luther and later Protestants (most famously Calvinists) will argue that man’s free will in the realm of salvation is basically an illusion: we provide 0% to salvation. Why? To ensure that God gets 100%.
Although their motives are noble, they’ve committed a much worse subversion of God’s sovereignty. How? By reducing Him to the level of human actors, as if He and we operate on the same playing field. In this way, they deny the transcendence of God, even as they seek to preserve His Majesty.
A couple of simple examples will suffice. It makes sense to ask what percentage of the Sistine Chapel was painted by Michelangelo, and what percentage was painted by other painters, like Sandro Botticelli. Michelangelo and Botticelli are the same type of actors. But if you were to ask what percentage of the Sistine Chapel was painted by Michelangelo, and what percentage was painted by paintbrushes, it would become clear you were thinking of Michelangelo as a mere sort of tool.
Notice that in saying this, the brushes themselves make a difference – if there had been a horrible splotch, we might say that it was due, not to the artist, but to a defect in his brush. And a skilled artist might choose this or that brush precisely because he knows it’s the type of brush to produce a certain effect.
But we can still say, for example, that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was “100% painted by Michelangelo” and “100% painted by paintbrushes.” That might sound like fishy math, but only if you grossly misunderstood the difference in kind between Michelangelo and a paintbrush. Likewise, I can say that salvation is 100% up to God and 100% up to you, and that only sounds like fishy math if you’re implicitly reducing God to your level.
Let’s take another example, involving God, just to drive this home for certain. God made you. So did your parents. But to try to put your mom, your dad, and God on the same level of causality – as if each participated a third, or as if God provided the soul and your parents provided the body, etc. – is disastrously wrong. God was completely in control, but He worked through your parents.
That doesn’t mean that your parents weren’t free. All Christians, even Calvinists, recognize a difference between the consensual sex and rape – the reality of free will is unavoidable. So when we say your parents freely conceived you and that God was 100% responsible, there’s no contradiction there.
It turns out that God is the Author of the Universe, but that His Authorship is so majestic that it permits our free action within His Universe. And indeed, the whole of the moral life is premised upon this reality. Why do Christians (and again, even Calvinists) think that having sex out of wedlock is a sin, but that being raped isn’t? Because one involves turning the will away from God and His Will, and the other doesn’t. There can only be sin if our wills are involved, which is why it’s not sinful if you do a thing by accident, or if it’s done to you, or if you do it whilst sleeping, etc.
I sincerely applaud Calvinists and all of those who try to make salvation not at all about us in an effort to preserve God’s majesty. Their intentions are undeniably good. But God doesn’t need you to try to preserve His majesty in this way – in fact, you only end up reducing it by denying His transcendence over natural and created causes.