Saturday, January 20, 2007

Free Will

Last Sunday’s Sunday School lesson covered the topic of free will. A rather heavy topic for an hour’s class. I was hoping that after a few days, I would be able to find a more fluid way of presenting the information presented in the class. It is now the eve of the next class, so I suppose that this will have to do. I hope that my presentation of it will be more thought-provoking than confusing.

Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.

- St. Augustine, Confessions 10, 29

With this seemingly simple prayer, the infamous debate between Augustine and Pelagius over the concept of free will began. But why? What does this prayer of Augustine’s really express? Pelagius had no problem with the second half of Augustine’s prayer “command what Thou dost desire.” Here, Augustine is acknowledging God’s omnipotence (all-powerfulness) and submitting to it. It is the first part of the prayer, “grant what Thou commandest”, that Pelagius took issue with. In this simple phrase, Augustine is acknowledging that man cannot choose what God does not allow him to choose. In other words, free will has boundaries, and these boundaries are set by God and not by the desires or abilities of Man. Pelagius’ interpretation was that if God is just, God would never ask us to do what we are incapable of. In other words, God would never demand obedience from a people He knew where incapable of obeying; thus, we must be able to choose to obey.

Let’s look at Scripture and see if we can make some sense of this issue by asking a few questions:

  1. Was Adam able to sin in the Garden of Eden? Obviously, yes. (Genesis 3)
  2. Could Adam do what God required? Yes because until he disobeyed God, he remained in fellowship with Him
  3. Why would Adam and Eve, in perfection, want to disobey God? We have no idea. There are some questions that aren’t answered. We know that Satan was present in the Garden in the form of a serpent. We do not know what caused his fall and his pride.

I’m going to leave you hanging for a second while we delve into a question that comes up when discussing The Fall. What did God mean in His admonition to Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:17, “…from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”? Specifically, what does God mean by “surely die”? Did God mean a physical death? He could have, but we know by reading Genesis 3 that God did not slay Adam and Eve upon their confession of disobedience. So physical death must not have been the only type of death to which God was referring. Knowing that man is spiritual being in addition to being a physical being, maybe God was referring to a spiritual death. But what would a spiritual death look like? Following the golden rule of interpretation, that we try to understand the unknown by first looking at the known, let’s look at the characteristics of physical death to try to determine the characteristics of spiritual death.

Physical death is the in ability to respond to physical stimuli. Therefore, spiritual death must be an inability to respond to spiritual stimuli, i.e. God. This definition can be supported by the text of Genesis 3 where we see Adam and Eve hiding from God in shame, and God making their break in fellowship obvious by banning Adam and Eve from the Garden. Spiritual death differs from physical death in one significant way, however. It is a condition which exists from generation to generation. Let’s ask some questions about Cain and Abel to clarify this point (ref. Genesis 4):

1. Could Cain sin? Yes.

2. Could Cain not sin? No. In Genesis 4:6-7, Cain cannot respond to God by doing what is pleasing to Him

3. If men cannot do what is pleasing to God, then why did God accept Abel’s sacrifice? In Genesis 4:4, we are told “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering”. God’s regard for Abel came before His regard for Abel’s offering. It was God’s regard for Abel that made Abel’s sacrifice acceptable. Abel simply gave in faith.

Let’s leap forward in to this generation.

1. Can we sin? Yes.

2. Can we not sin? Yes.

This answer caused a bit of hoopla and requires some elaboration. First of all, most Christians would agree that we are able to not sin in Glory, in Eternity. The question is, when does that Eternity begin? To steal and completely twist a quote from When Harry Met Sally, “… when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” If we are able to not sin in Eternity and Eternity begins at conversion, then we are able to not sin now (assuming we are converted). Does this mean we are sinless? No. We still have free will. We are still free to choose sin. And sin is what it is in our nature to choose.

1. How can we choose Christ if we can choose sin only? Something must come from without if it cannot come from within.

2. Why me? Why was I able to choose Christ? Does Christ’s death bring us back to a place of neutrality? A place like Eden where we can choose or not choose God? We choose God because He chose us.

We have all heard this answer before, but it still doesn’t answer why. Why choose me? What did I do? Nothing. God does not choose based on what we do. The choice is one of grace through the sacrifice of Christ. We live what we are not and work for what we want to become because of this grace. This spurs more questions:

  1. Are we accountable for our lives? Yes.
  2. How can this be if God predestines/ chooses what we will become? Paul asked this very same question, and his conclusion was “Who are you to question God?” See Romans 9:19-21.
  3. If we can only choose what we desire and all we desire is sinful, how can we choose not to sin? We cannot choose not to sin; God chooses us.

“But that’s not fair!” we protest. Grace isn’t fair; it’s offensive. Just ask the workers in the vineyard.

I will leave you with this essay by John Piper to ponder until my post on tomorrow’s class which will cover the role of women in the church.

1 comment:

Heather_in_WI said...

Oh.. oh... what a great post. I think I'm commenting on all of your entries today!

I was raised in a Southern Baptist church that was more free will. I can't even tell you how many times I've walked an aisle in my life!

When I first realized the truth of predestination, it was such an awe-inspiring sense of gratitude for God's grace. I realized that before then, I thought grace depended on *me* deciding/accepting Jesus. But how is it grace then? There is really a whole man-centered viewpoint in free will, that I hadn't realized before that point.