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Editorial: Free Will – Confusing the Simple

The concept is so simple… man is a free moral agent.  He can and does make choices, every day of his life.  Some men choose to do good.  They support their families, pay their taxes and are productive citizens.  Others choose to do evil.  They are unfaithful to their spouse, they cheat their neighbor, they commit crimes.  Those who choose to do good could choose to do otherwise.  Conversely, the evildoer is one by choice as well.  They are responsible for the evil they do.

This can be demonstrated anecdotally.  We see it every day, even recognize it in our own lives.  If our consciences are tender, we strive always to do good.  However, from time to time we choose wrongly, and our conscience is pierced with guilt.  Those who choose to do evil again and again have their consciences hardened (seared), and feel guilt no longer.  Regardless, we always maintain the ability to choose.

Our judicial system is based upon this ability to choose.  If a man takes the life of another, the law of the land recognizes it as a choice made, and punishes him accordingly.  He knew what he was doing.  He could have chosen not to commit the crime.  He chose to do it, and must endure the consequence of his decision.  If on some rare occasion the man is determined by authorities to be insane or mentally incompetent, exceptions may be made; but these occasions are rare rather than the rule.

The Bible explicitly and implicitly reveals both the ability of man to exercise free will, and that God holds him accountable for his choices.  In fact, every time obedience is demanded in scripture (and the Bible is replete with such demands), there is the implicit assertion that men have the freedom to choose whether they will or will not obey God.

Consider how ridiculous the following passage from Ezekiel 18:4-9 would be if man was not a free moral agent:

“Behold, all souls are Mine; The soul of the father As well as the soul of the son is Mine; The soul who sins shall die.  But if a man is just And does what is lawful and right;  If he has not eaten on the mountains, Nor lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, Nor defiled his neighbor’s wife, Nor approached a woman during her impurity; If he has not oppressed anyone, But has restored to the debtor his pledge; Has robbed no one by violence, But has given his bread to the hungry And covered the naked with clothing; If he has not exacted usury Nor taken any increase, But has withdrawn his hand from iniquity And executed true judgment between man and man; If he has walked in My statutes And kept My judgments faithfully-He is just; He shall surely live!” Says the Lord GOD.

If a man’s actions are predetermined, it would be unfair of God to condemn the sinner and bless the just.  After all, the man who sins is doing only what he is compelled to do, he has no choice.  In fact, this is the exact issue that God addressed in Ezekiel 18.  The Israelites had adopted a proverb to explain away their responsibility for their own sin.  The proverb (vs. 2) states, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  We hear similar sentiments expressed in our time.  A man can’t be held responsible for his bad choices because of the way he was raised; i.e., the sins of his father.

While it can be said that some have an advantage in the way they are raised, we are all capable of overcoming evil influences to serve God acceptably.  And God expects exactly that.  Consider young king Josiah, son of the evil Amon, and grandson of the despicable Manasseh of whom it was written, “he has acted more wickedly than all the Amorites who were before him, and has also made Judah sin with his idols” (2 Kings 21:11).  Despite the abominations committed by both his father and grandfather, Josiah ruled righteously in Judah.  “And he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2).

The Jews of Ezekiel’s day did not appreciate the Lord’s admonition, and cried out, Not Fair!  Their view was that they were not responsible for their sin, their fathers were the culprits.  Therefore, it was unfair of God to condemn them for their actions when they had no personal responsibility.  God’s answer:

“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair? When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies.  Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive.  Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.  Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ O house of Israel, is it not My ways which are fair, and your ways which are not fair?”

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways,” says the Lord GOD. “Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin.  Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord GOD. “Therefore turn and live!” (18:25-32).

Put simply, the fault was their own, not their father’s.  It is fair to hold a man responsible for his actions.  If a man chooses to sin, he will be condemned.  This is fair.  If a man repents of that sin, he will be forgiven.  This is fair.  God does not deal capriciously with men.  He does not condemn them for choices for which they are not responsible.  He does not arbitrarily condemn some and save others.  He deals with men fairly.  “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord God.”

Calvin’s Fallacy

This simple and plain understanding of free will is contradicted by the predominant theology of John Calvin.  Most prominent denominations have been influenced by his teaching, and his misconception of God’s sovereignty.

Calvin’s theology issues from his view of God’s sovereignty.  Notice a quote from his pen, taken from his tract, The Eternal Predestination of God, dedicated on January 1, 1552:

…the hand of God no less rules the internal affections than it precedes the external acts, and that God does not perform by the hand of men those things which he has decreed without first working in their hearts the very will which precedes their acts.”

Calvin’s view is that if God is sovereign then everything that happens on earth must be His will.  Nothing is the result of choice, even our own wills are molded by Him.  In effect, we are but puppets to the Divine.  Notice the following from his seminal work, The Institutes of Christian Religion.

“God’s eternal decree, by which He compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man” (Inst., Book III, Chapter 21, Section 5).

Again, put simply, if you act in a righteous way it is because God has made an agreement with Himself that you would act righteously, and therefore would gain Heaven.  Conversely, if you act in an evil way, it is because God has agreed with Himself to condemn you for eternity.

This theology does violence to the entire context of Ezekiel 18, where God clearly states that His condemnation or acceptance is not based upon His agreement with Himself, but upon the choices made by man.  That is the very reason why God is fair!

But what is Calvin’s answer to the claims that his theology makes God capricious and arbitrary in his dealing with man?  Note the following quote:

“Therefore, when it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, Because he pleased. But if you proceed farther to ask why he pleased, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, and nothing such can be found. Let human temerity then be quiet, and cease to inquire after what exists not, lest perhaps it fails to find what does exist.”(Inst. III, 23, 2).

In effect, Calvin has no answer.  Rather than answer the question, he squelches it.   He says, “I don’t know, and you should not ask!”

While we agree on the importance of limiting temerity when it comes to questioning God, we are more bold to question the bankrupt and destructive doctrine of Calvin.

Sovereignty and Free Will

First, it is important to define the term sovereign as it relates to God.  The word is not found in the King James translation of the Bible, though the word “sovereignty” is found a single time in the New King James version.  It is taken from the Hebrew word lakad and is found in 1 Samuel 14:47.  It relates to King Saul’s consolidation of his rule over all Israel.  “So Saul established his sovereignty over Israel.”  The word is defined by Strong’s:  “to capture or occupy; to take” and is most often translated “took” in the Old Testament.  In fact, the KJV reads as follows in 1 Samuel 14:17, “So Saul took the kingdom over Israel.”

Though the word sovereign is not used in the Bible with respect to God, the concept of sovereignty is certainly present.  Webster defines sovereign:

1a: Possessed of supreme power <~ruler>  b: unlimited in extent : ABSOLUTE  c: enjoying autonomy : INDEPENDENT.  (New Collegiate Dictionary)

From this definition we find that sovereignty relates to power and position.  God is sovereign because He is powerful.  Because His power is supreme (greater than the power of any other), no one can challenge His standing and will.  Therefore, whatever God wants, He gets.  This, in essence, is what it means to be sovereign.

In fact, God’s power is not only without equal, it is without limit.  He is omnipotent (all powerful).  This truth is demonstrated in His creative work, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).  It is also directly declared, “And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns!’” (Revelation 19:6).  The consequence of God’s omnipotence is simple, no one can override His will.  He is sovereign!  This is why it is such a blessing that our God is benevolent and full of grace.

There are many examples in scripture where men (and nations) have this lesson demonstrated to them.  Remember the words of Pharaoh? “And Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go’” (Exodus 5:2).  For his impudence he saw his land plagued, his firstborn die, and his army drowned in the waters of the Red Sea.

The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar learned the lesson as well.  He had exalted himself, and proudly proclaimed, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30).  Because he did not acknowledge that he had been blessed by God, he had his kingdom taken from him, and was “driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws” (vs. 33).  Nebuchadnezzar learned the lesson well, and when God granted him his senses once again, he proclaimed, “All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.  No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (vs. 35).

The Difference Between the Possession of Power, and the Exercise of that Power

While it can rightly be said that God’s sovereignty assures that He can control every aspect of man’s existence, it is going too far to say that His sovereignty demands that control.  Man has free will precisely because the sovereign God of heaven granted it.

This can be illustrated simply.  As parents, though we are not omnipotent, it can be said that we have control of our children.  We make decisions for them, forbid certain behaviors, determine where they will live, and generally regulate their lives.  We also often allow our children to make choices for themselves.  In fact, we recognize it to be beneficial to the maturation process, and get great satisfaction when our child, when given the ability to choose, makes a proper choice.  We set guidelines, give our children liberty, and if those guidelines are ignored, we mete out appropriate punishment.  This is good parenting.  And yet, we deny God the same privilege.

Consider the events in the Garden of Eden.  God created Adam and Eve, imbuing them with a privilege unique in creation; the right to choose.  Man is different.  “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).  God set the guidelines (what He required) when he told Adam, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16b-17).  Man chose to ignore God’s instructions, and suffered the consequence.  “So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24).

Calvin’s fallacy is found in his failure to understand that sovereignty does not require the exercise of omnipotence, only the possession of the same.  He is not the only one who makes that mistake.

The Atheist’s Folly

A favorite argument of the atheist is centered in what he considers to be an unexplainable paradox.

The Christian asserts that God is both wholly good and omnipotent.  However, evil exists in the world.  Therefore, one of three possibilities exists.  1) God is not omnipotent; 2) God is not wholly good; or 3) God does not exist.  Otherwise, evil would not exist.

Consider the following quote attributed to philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins,

If it is heresy to deny God’s omnipotence and omniscience, then nothing remains outside the all-encompassing scope of divine providence, nothing happens contrary to the divine will, no future contingency is or can be unforeseen by God.  If, on the other hand, to deny that man sins freely means that God must be responsible for the evil that man does, then it is a heresy to deny free will, for that imputes evil to God.

Many philosophers thus contend that God’s sovereignty and evil can not co-exist.  The fact that evil demonstrably exists proves that an omniscient righteous God does not.

Again, however, these secularists do not give sufficient weight to the concept of free will.  When God granted man free will, He gave him a wonderful gift.  What parent does not thrill to hear a child refuse a sinful choice – not by saying, “My parents won’t let me” – but rather, “I choose not to because it is wrong.”  God created man to be worshipful and obedient.  These things would be meaningless – both to God and man – if God had not granted man the freedom to choose.  This is most certainly a part of God’s creating man “in His own image”, and separates man from the rest of God’s created universe.

However, there is a logical and necessary consequence to free will.  It is the ability (and inevitability) to choose wrong over right.  Sin and evil are not in the world because of something lacking in God.  Sin and evil exist because man chose not to obey Him.  “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

Truly we must, “Beware lest anyone cheat [us] through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

Conclusion

The theories and philosophies of men have conspired to make the simple, difficult; to make the plain, obscure.  Both Bible and logic present the same truths concerning God and man:

  1. God is sovereign.
  2. God is good.
  3. God gave man free will.
  4. Man sometimes chooses to do evil rather than good.
  5. Evil is the result of man’s disobedience, not a failing or limitation of God.

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.  Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death (James 1:13-15).

Two observations suffice as we seek to apply these truths.  First, God will hold you accountable if you live your life as an evildoer.  Second, God will reward you if you choose to follow His will.  The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, seeking to comfort the disciples during a time of persecution.  He noted that they would be protected by God, and those who persecuted them would be judged.  Consider his words, “It is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).  The choice is ours:  To obey, or not to obey.  God be praised that He has given us such a wonderful blessing.