Since the Protestant Reformation there has been an often times implicit, underlying assumption about the relationship between Divine and Human agency. That fundamentally, faith is all about God’s agency and about the abnegation of human agency. Certainly, there are synergistic variations upon this where room is made for human agency in some fashion. However, because faith is construed against the backdrop of what God does, the assumption is that faith is about God doing what we can not do.
This assumption is not entirely without a basis. Read Romans 7.14-25 and you can pretty clearly see a case where a person’s own agency is unable to fulfill the will of God so that the only solution is to give thanks to God who frees us through Jesus Christ. If a person is going to be rescued from “this body of death,” it will certainly require God saving the person. In that case, it is about God’s agency and not human agency.
However, the flow of the argument in Romans 8 challenges the idea that the experience of salvation is always about God’s agency and the abnegation of ours. What Paul describes in Romans 8.1-17 is a change of state of affairs from Romans 7.14-25. Through the Spirit of life, people can fulfill the righteousness of the Torah, because the Spirit unites and forms the believer along the pattern of Christ (8.9-11; cf. Romans 6.1-14) This however entails that people set their minds on the things of the Spirit rather than of the flesh, which will require them to put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8.13). In Romans 8, we don’t get a picture of Divine Agency over and against the inability of human agency. In fact, we get a picture of the ever possible union of God’s works through the Spirit with human faithfulness. We see the necessity of human activity in the working of God’s will in our lives back in Romans 6.19.
Of course, the union of God’s will and human action is not inevitable. One could instead follow through with the deeds of the flesh. It is certainly possible as a believer that we can set our own will against God’s purposes. In that case, we may feel like we are living more like the person in Romans 7.14-25. However, the picture that is often given of how to live faithfully to God that is portrayed along the lines of “Let go and let God,” as if living according to God’s will is all about letting go of ourselves, doesn’t accord to what we actually see in Paul and the New Testament. There is a necessary responsibility on human persons to continue Jesus’ words and listen and obey the Spirit. Our actions do make a difference for the trajectory of our life.
Where we get caught astray is that we think that what is important is that we get tempted to follow a specific code of righteousness in order to be in harmony with God’s will. However, by rejecting the Torah (and as a consequence, other codes of righteousness) as a basis for being righteous before God, Paul is not abnegating human agency in the salvation and transformation of believers. This is where Luther and the early Protestant interpretation of the law being about human agency gets it entirely astray. The law, or Torah, is about the specific pattern given in the Torah, not human agency. Instead, Paul does place the source that directs our own activity and obedience to the Spirit, as there is not law against the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5.22-23). If the Spirit has given us life, so Paul goes, then we should then be directed by the Spirit (5.25). While the Spirit giving us life is not something done by human agency, that the Spirit gives us life entails that we then put this new life into the action of obedience to the Spirit in order to sow and reap the fruit of the Spirit. Put differently by Paul, it is about faith that is putting itself into action through love (Gal. 5.6).
The model that tends to undergird the common Protestant vision of God’s agency and human agency is that of divine possession. That the Holy Spirit possesses us when we let go of ourselves and then God works through us. This is certainly a common picture of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, but this is not the primary way that the Holy Spirit is said to work in the New Testament. Rather, the Spirit convicts, brings to remembrance the words of Christ, teaches, helps people to examine/discern, along with gives life, bring forth specific desires, etc. The two principle models of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament can be understand as (1) bring about new creation that gives and reforms the direct of human life and (2) communicating with the believer through reminding, teaching, and providing insight. While the first model is about God’s agency and not our own, the reality of the first work leads to the outflow of the Spirit’s communication with the believer that when submitted to results in sanctification and transformation: the divine communication entails human agency to bring what God speaks to us to fruition.
Now, there is an important caveat to this: while our activity is involved in putting into our life what the Spirit is leading us to do, our agency does not ultimately determine what type of people we will become by submitting and obeying. God’s transformation of us in Christ brings about a type of person who bears a type of fruit that we don’t prepare for and forms ourselves into in advance. What God’s love has set out for us to become requires our obedience to Christ and the Spirit to bring to fruition, but it doesn’t require our own intentional planning to bring about what God has set out for us.
The significance of our own action and faithfulness is related to seeking for, learning from, submitting to, and obeying what God communicates to us in Christ and through the Spirit. This is not an image of divine possession, but of divine communication and teaching. This is what faith ultimately brings about: trusting what God has promised and given to us because of Christ and through the Spirit (God’s agency alone) so that we can live out from this new inner reality by our faithful learning from the Holy Spirit (God’s agency directed human agency) so that we can then be transformed into the glory of the image of Christ (God’s planning and agency determines what this looks like for each of us who are faithful).