09 Oct

Exploring the Concept of Free Will by Sam Hight

We live right on top of a railway line. Trains rumble by at all hours of the day. You don’t hear them pass so much as you feel the ground shake and shudder. Trains are massive monsters of metal, marvels of engineering, unstoppable in their mission along the tracks.

Imagine walking on to the track and trying to derail the train by the strength of your body alone. Even charging into it with all your might you will not succeed!

The train’s path is God’s free will to follow the direction he chooses. Your life is lived on the tracks. Your will can’t hope to change the path of the train, but you can choose to throw yourself against the train, even if it is futile and foolish to do so. The only wise approach is to get on the train and go in the same direction as God.

People have serious problems accepting their lack of ability to govern their own life and eternity. The ultimate lack of our free will is in the fact that, if we don’t do what God commands in this life, he will punish us forever in hell. There is no freedom to opt in or out of this plan of action.

Doesn’t that make the question of our freedom to choose salvation a bit pointless? We should be throwing ourselves at the feet of God, clinging to Christ as our only hope in life and death, not debating whether our choice is genuinely free or not! Why would anyone want the freedom to choose anything less than salvation anyway? Why would anyone feel less than complete love and gratitude toward the One who says he will not reject anyone who comes to him (John 6:37)?

Only the person who doesn’t really believe in God, or want to believe in God, will find serious enough issue to make it a deal breaker.

There is an incredible amount of ongoing controversy within Christian circles about ‘free will’. This is also true, but perhaps to a lesser extent within secular circles. Nothing seems to prompt more arguments and misunderstandings, and even divisions, within the church.

The discussion and debate is often centered around whether we have free will to choose God or not. In teaching about this and in discussion with random people on the street, there is an assumed notion that we all have free will. That God has given us this wonderful gift.

I want to submit the controversial ideas that

  1. free will is not taught in scripture (though we are commanded to make choices for which we are still responsible for the consequences)
  2. free will is a foolish idea at best and an idol at worst, and
  3. free will is never actually possible for us anyway!

We shouldn’t confuse religious freedoms with freedom of will in Christian salvation. One is granted by government or constitution to worship whatever god or non-god we choose, the other is a decision that is made for us when God causes us to be born again (or leaves us to perish in our sinfulness). There is no coercion with God, he just makes you see that there is no other way!

No matter who you are, your choices are subject to your preferences, passions, and constitution. Whether by nature or nurture, you can’t make a decision without it coming from some prior cause that has made you want to choose that way. God is not bound by a prior cause to choose one way or the other. This is what makes him who he is. This is amazing. God is extraordinary! Just as God has existence that does not depend on anything external, his choices do not depend on anything external. Our decisions do, and scripture is clear that nobody has the ability to see the truth of salvation unless God gives them his Spirit (1 Cor 2:10-14).

Some questions for both sides of the debate to consider:

If you believe that we have free will, particularly in salvation, does that leave us room to boast that we are smarter or wiser than the person who doesn’t choose salvation? Does that then contradict Ephesians 2:8-9?

If you believe that we don’t have free will in salvation, does that make us robots who are unable to love God truly? Love must be freely given, says the assumption, or it’s not truly love – is this correct? I don’t think so, but that’s a discussion for another time.

We have to be careful not to put human philosophies into the mix. We have to be careful to hold as true all of the truth that the Bible declares. If these truths seem to conflict, then we must admit our inability to see things as God sees things, we must trust the amazing parts that we can understand and transfer this same trust to the parts that don’t work in our tiny brains.

The Bible says that we must make decisions and that we are responsible for those decisions (Deuteronomy 30:19). The Bible also says that we are subject to the will of our maker, that we have lots of plans that won’t come to pass because God has his own plans for us (Proverbs 19:21).

Some might say that using mystery is a cop-out, that if we can’t make sense of it then it is nonsense. I believe that the parts we can understand earns more than enough trust for the difficult parts. I believe it is foolish to think that we can understand God completely, because then we would be God. God is a mystery in his fullness. We can only understand parts and aspects of him as he has revealed himself to us.

Consider the Trinity: Can you split infinity into two or three and have less than infinity for each of the three? No. In the same way, God is triune, three persons, but one being. God is not split in such a way to be separate from the other persons though. This is a mystery and we are rising above ourselves to claim to form an understandable version of God. This is where Unitarians on one end and Mormons on the other go wrong – they are trying to form an understandable version of God that fits into human categories. God is both three and one, not just one or just three.

The idol of free will is that we think we can understand God in a way that he hasn’t revealed himself to us. We think that we have more power than we do, to choose, and God has less power than he does. It is also that we want to rebel and have freedom of choice which is something only reserved for God. We do not want to acknowledge that we are merely vessels, made by God for a purpose, and subject to his decision about whether we will be used for honourable or for dishonourable use (Rom 9:21-23).

Here is a final perspective. God has made all people to glorify him. Some will glorify his mercy and grace through forgiveness of sin in Christ and the resulting eternal life. The rest will glorify him through the justice seen in eternal punishment. It was God’s will to make it this way. Whatever your feelings on the matter, it is best to cling to Christ, as the only hope and saviour, for eternal life. Choose life today!

There are many unasked questions on this topic. Feel free to ask the in the comments or on Facebook, I’d love to dialogue further!


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