September 24, 2013

Free Will: Our ticket to Hell

The Goal

The argument that God's sovereignty and man's culpability for sin are two ideas which simply do not mesh is nearly as old as Christianity. You see this in the writing of Pelagius and Augustine. Erasmus and Luther. Calvin and Arminius. What I want to accomplish here is a very quick summary of what the Bible says about the "how" of people coming to belief in Christ.

Man's Nature

We are told, from the very beginning of the Bible, that man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28). Scholars differ on the precise implication of the word "image", but it is very clear throughout the Bible that God designed us to reflect a number of His attributes. Among these, very basic to our function as humans, is the ability to choose. We make small choices everyday, what color tie to wear, whether to drink Coke or Pepsi, or whether to start our day with granola or fruit loops. We also make big decisions on things such as college, marriage, children, work, and worship. In light of this very obvious reality, it seems almost silly when some people propose that people cannot, of their own free will, choose to follow Jesus. 

But the book of Genesis gives more in it's description of man than simply tell us that we are image-bearers of the Almighty God. Genesis chapter three tells us that man exercises his will to disobey God. When Adam and Eve take of the fruit, they reject God, they place their trust in themselves, and they bring God's curse of death down upon themselves.

Man was given at creation the natural ability to choose to worship God or worship himself. At this time man was perfect and sinless, and as such also had the moral ability to choose to worship and follow God rather than himself. But sin changes that. Man is no longer basically good. The free will that we are created with has become what Martin Luther referred to as "The Bondage of the Will." Because our will is always going to choose what it most desires, and our sinful hearts are always inclined to sin, we will not choose God. Quoting from the Psalms, Paul puts it this way:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 

Romans 3:9-18

What of responsibility? 

What, then, are we to make of responsibility? I am responsible to pay my creator God for the sins I have committed against Him (Colossians 2:14). He owes me no mercy. I have, both by nature and choice (Romans 5) made myself God's enemy. 
However, we know that because of the "great love with which He loved us", Christ came and bore in His body the weight of our iniquities (1 Peter 2:24). Are we not accountable to God to respond to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins? Jesus says to "repent" and turn to Him. If he said this knowing full well that I will not, isn't this a cruel contradiction, holding out a false hope? We all know John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Whoever believes. This means that it is not an inclusive statement. Only those who believe receive eternal life, which means we really need to believe. But we won't. No one understands. No one seeks God. There is no fear of God before our eyes. Our free will loves our sin more than it loves the Savior, and we thus damn ourselves. 

Regeneration: the forgotten, essential, miracle.

So we must believe, but we won't. What then is the only hope? Regeneration. That is a fancy theological word that means that God the Holy Spirit awakens you to the reality of your need, and both the beauty and sufficiency of Christ's provision. It precedes our act of trusting faith in Christ, indeed it is what makes such faith possible. 

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him,“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” 
John 3:1-21

Note that verse three comes before verse sixteen. It is this blowing of the Spirit where the Spirit wills that makes sinners born again, and allows them to believe. We see this also in the book of Ephesians. 

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 
Ephesians 2:4-9

God makes us alive. We were dead, he breathed life into us. This enables us to exercise faith, which is in itself a good gift from God (see above Ephesians passage).

In all of our pushing to get people to "make a decision" for Christ, we often overlook the truth that only God can make the dead sinner alive. We can't do that for them, and they can't do that for themselves. The whole process is wholly dependent upon God. To quote John Newton, "The love I bear him is but a faint and feeble spark, but it is an emanation from himself; he kindled it, and he keeps it alive." If I, you, or anyone else is to love God, God must create that love.

The hope this brings

Why is this good news? God's sovereignty in salvation is good news for one simple reason: I am a sinner. I am not willing or able to come up with a love for God within myself. So if it is God who does that, and I feel any affection toward Him, I know that he is at work in my life. Furthermore, if I can't feel that, I can do as the Psalmist does in Psalm 42 and look at the past and see what God has done, and trust that He will continue His good work in me into the future.  This is what Paul tells us he is confident in in Philippians 1:6, "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
Our salvation was planned, predestined, and foreordained by God the Father (Romans 8, Romans 9, Ephesians 1), it was accomplished perfectly by Christ (1 Peter 2, Colossians 2, 2 Corinthians 5), and it happens in us practically and will be completed by the work of the Holy Spirit in us (Philippians 1, Jude). This is our hope. 

A few more resources

Because there are folks more eloquent than me:

About Me

Follower of Jesus. Husband of one. Father of four. Pastor at Remsen Bible Fellowship (