The Free Will Fallacy

A few days ago, one of the parishioners of the church I serve, called me with an interesting question. At the time he called, I was unable to answer my phone, so he left a message on my voice mail. He said: “Hey Pastor! I was just calling you with a question: Where is it in the Bible where it talks about man having free will?” Well, as I listened to his message, I asked myself: Is there any scripture in the Bible that speaks to the issue of man having free will?

The Bible indicates that there once was a time in the beginning, when man ‘had’ limited free will! Before Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, they had the ability to freely choose to obey or disobey God. However, Adam and Eve were the only humans created with that limited free will! When Adam and Eve made the choice to disobey God, sin entered into the world and consequently, the limited free will that Adam and Eve had was lost! The Bible teaches that all who were born after sin entered into the world, were and are, born with a sinful nature and a natural propensity to sin.

Now, I don’t know where it came from, but I grew up believing we had the absolute freedom to choose good or evil. I onced believed we came into this world innocent and neutral and the ultimate decision was to choose righteousness and goodness or sin and evil before we died! But, that is not the case at all! According to the Bible, we were all; born with a sinful disposition! We were not born neutral; we were born sinners! Apparently, the ancient King David recognized this fact because he wrote in Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” There are some who are suggesting today, that their sinful disposition should be excused and affirmed because they were “born that way!” But, is the fact that all of us were born in sin a legitimate excuse to remain in sin? None of us had a choice in the matter, we were all born sinners, with a natural propensity or tendency to sin! Have you ever noticed the fact that you really don’t have to teach a child to do wrong? They are born with a natural tendency to try to lie, steal, and cheat!

And are we to blame God and say it’s all right for them to lie, steal and cheat, simply because they didn’t have a choice in the matter because they were born that way? Of course not! Our original parents were not forced to disobey God, they made a choice to disobey God and as a consequence, all of their offspring are born with a sinful disposition. Therefore, we teach, encourage, and train our children not to lie, steal, and cheat, although doing so, is in a sense, unnatural to their natural disposition! We do this because of the existence of a moral code, the ignoring or violation of which, causes society to sink into moral degradation and chaos! We teach them to do right, although it is against their nature to do right!

Now, the inability to exercise free will presents a moral dilemma! How can man be expected to do the right thing when he does not have the freedom to choose right? The Apostle Paul gives voice to this dilemma in Romans 7:15-25, he writes: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, bin my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (ESV) The Good News of the Gospel is that through acceptance of and faith in the sacrificial, atoning work of Jesus on Calvary’s cross and God subsequently raising him from the dead, we can be set free from the power of sin! Paul Achtemeier writes of those who are believers: “Because of Christ, we have, for the first time, a real choice: For the first time, we can choose not to sin! For the first time, it is possible that exhortations to good can be followed. . . The enslaving power of sin no longer rules us.”[1]

Achtemeier further asserts:

“The power of sin has been broken. The Christian is no longer enslaved to it. After dying with Christ in baptism, the Christians are free from the lordship of sin. For the first time, they can do something other than sin. . .Free to do what is good, not what sin forces them to do. They are now free to do what God wants them to do. And right there is the problem. As human creatures, Christians are free only within the framework of some lordship, either of God or of sin. There is for human being whether baptized into Christ or not, no neutral ground. Human beings are creatures, not gods. It is precisely the search for that ‘neutral ground’ that search to be gods for themselves, that got human beings into enslavement to sin in the first place. So the choice is not slavery or freedom in some absolute sense. The choice is, rather, slavery to which lord, to which ruling power?”[2]

Achtemeier’s last point brings us full circle back to our original premise; the question of free will. Absolute free will is a fallacy because we are human beings and not gods. Free will within the constraints of humanity outside of a relationship with God through Christ is a fallacy because the person who has no relationship with God through Christ is under the bondage of sin. Sinners sin because they can’t help themselves! It’s their nature! Sin is their master and they have no choice! The Christian has, to some extent, free will, because the Christian can choose not to sin and to obey God. However, even the Christian does not have absolute free will because, he is human and not a god. It is because Christian is redeemed that the Christian has the freedom to choose which master he will serve!

[1] Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans (Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching), Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1985, 105.

[2] Achtemeier, 109.

The Difference Between Peter and James

I was reading some time ago and I came across in interesting passage in Acts. In Acts 12:1-3, I read: “Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.)” As I read further on in the text, I discovered that although James was killed, Peter was delivered from prison in a miraculous way! It was at that point I started asking myself questions: Why was James killed and Peter delivered? Did Peter have more faith than James? Did the church pray for Peter’s deliverance and failed to pray for the deliverance of James? What was the difference between Peter and James? 

Now before I go on, I think it would be well to caution that it is usually bad hermeneutics to formulate any doctrine or principle based solely on the Book of Acts. The reason is because Acts is a record of the beginning of the church. There are things that happen in the “beginning” that don’t need to be and can’t be repeated! The doctor may have had to slap our butts to get us to breathe the first time, but after that, there was no need for a continuous butt-slapping! So, there were things that happened in Acts, at the inception of the church that have not been and really have no need to be repeated. For instance, there are some who teach today, based on Acts, that we should tarry or wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But the reason the disciples waited, per Jesus’ instructions, in the Book of Acts for the coming of the Holy Spirit was because, prior to that time, the Holy Spirit had not come to dwell within men. In Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit would come upon a person to empower them, but after the task was completed, the Holy Spirit would leave. In the Gospel of John, Jesus promised that after he had left, the Holy Spirit would come, not only to be with the disciples, but to be “in” them. So, the waiting on the Day of Pentecost was for the fulfilling of that promise. However, there is no need for the believer to “wait” anymore for something that has already happened! The Holy Spirit came to indwell within believers on the Day of Pentecost, but He did not leave! He’s still here! So, there is no need to wait for someone who is already here! The Holy Spirit is NOT the Second Blessing or some additional blessing from God for the believer. He is essential and fundamental to the believer’s relationship and standing with God. In fact, the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:9: “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” (KJV) Having or being indwelt by the Holy Spirit is not optional or additional; it’s basic and essential! Every believer has or is indwelt by the Holy Spirit! If the Holy Spirit is not in them; they are not a believer or they are not saved at all! But, I digress, so let me get back to my point! I just brought that out to illustrate the danger of formulating doctrines or principles solely from the Book of Acts.

Was it a matter that Peter had more faith than James? I think not! I think it was just a matter of God’s sovereign will! There are those who teach today that faith can overcome any obstacle and that faith has the power to overcome any negative situation. But, faith cannot and will not, change, circumvent, or subjugate God’s sovereign will. Now, we need to understand that when it comes to the will of God, there is God’s sovereign will and there is God’s permissive will. We could look at it this way; God’s sovereign will is God’s overall and unchanging purpose. God’s permissive will is the minor flexible details of His sovereign will. God’s permissive will is subject, to a certain extent to our faith and our actions, but God’s sovereign will is steadfast, unchangeable and uninfluenced by our faith or actions.

The killing of James and the deliverance of Peter was a matter of God’s sovereign will. And in like manner, there are things that happen in our lives that are beyond the scope of our faith and actions. They are beyond our ability to influence by our faith or actions! I know there are some who teach today that people can control what happens to them by their faith, but that’s not completely true! Often those same people will use Hebrew 11 as a “proof-text” to validate their point. They cite the first thirty-five (35) verses as proof of over-coming faith. There is a summation of “over-coming” faith in Hebrew 11:33-35a, where the author wrote: “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. . .” I stopped at 35a because that’s where most of the “faith-teachers” stop! But beginning at 35b, we have, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story! Beginning at 35b, the rest of the chapter reads: “. . . and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” (Heb. 11:35-40 KJV) Were the believers cited in the first 35 verses more faithful than the others cited in the last five verses? No! Not according to the text! All were faithful; but some were delivered and some weren’t!

The difference between Peter and James was that, through His sovereign will, in Acts 12, Peter was delivered like those in Hebrews 11:1-35a, but James was numbered among “the others” mentioned in Hebrews 11:35b-40. But in the end, the difference between Peter and James was not of any real ultimate importance, because (for the record) Peter was eventually killed also! By the way, whether or not we are presently delivered or healed from some affliction or disease is not of ultimate importance in the grand scheme of things (It is to us because, naturally, we want to be delivered and healed). In the end, we will all leave this world! Faith might heal us of a disease or illness presently, but faith cannot and will not cancel our eventual death! Because of his prayer, repentance and faith, God’s permissive will added fifteen years (15) to King Hezekiah’s life (1 Kings 20:1-6; Isaiah 38:1-5), but after that, Hezekiah died! What was the difference between Peter and James? James died then; Peter died later! What is the difference between believers who are healed and those who are not? It’s a matter above all of our pay-grade! It’s a matter of God’s sovereign will! From a purely human point of view, the only difference is; some die now and some die later, but eventually; we all will die!   

Our Good or His Glory?

GodgloryMy wife recently purchased a gospel CD to help choreograph a dance-skit one of our Dance-Ministry teams performed at this year’s Harvest-Fest Celebration. At our church, we discourage the celebration of Halloween and provide the children a Christian alternative instead, but that is beside the point of this post, so let me get to my point! The CD she purchased was by a well-known and respected Gospel artist. She played it so much during the rehearsals that I found myself humming the melody and singing the lyrics all of the time! The more I listened to the CD, the more I liked it! In fact, when she was not using it for rehearsal, it was in the CD-player in my car! Now, although most of the songs on the CD were geared toward uplifting and encouraging the listener, I found myself wondering about the biblical validity of the message the music was conveying. After taking a step back from this particular CD (I was getting addicted; couldn’t get the songs out of my head!) and listening to other artists, I noticed a common theme that is prevalent in gospel music today. Much of the music and songs are about things working out for “our good.” The artists tell the listeners things like: “This is your season for grace and favor; this is your time to be blessed!” “Everything is working out for your good!” No weapon formed against you shall prosper!” and “God favors me!”

Now, the purpose of all of these songs and sayings is to minister encouragement to people and I have no problem with that. My problem is I think that all too often, we (humanity) forget who is God! We did not create God to serve us; but rather, we were created by God to serve God! Or, as the psalmist of old put it in Psalm 100:3: “Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” Much of the music being produced today seems to imply that God exists for us and the ultimate goal is “our good!” But, the fact of the matter is this: We exist for God and the ultimate goal is “His glory!” What are we talking about when we talk about His glory? We’re talking about His fame and His reputation! We’re talking about His esteem and His honor! Everything God created (including and especially humanity) was created to bring Him glory and honor!

One of the first passages I learned as a young Christian was Romans 8:28. That verse says: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” I can’t tell you the number of times the Lord has used that verse to help me make some sense of the adverse things that happened in my life. Yes, most of us know and can quote Romans 8:28. However, Romans 8:28 was not meant to stand by itself! It can only be rightly interpreted and understood when it is combined with verse 29! Romans 8:29 describes and further amplifies the “them” in verse 28. By the way, with just 28, we must understand that all things don’t work together for everybody, only for “them that love (obey) God and are called according to his (God’s) purpose (plan and will). Romans 8:29 says: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Taken in context, “the good” referred to in verse 28 corresponds with the phrase “to be conformed to the image of His Son” in verse 29. In other words, everything that happens in the believer’s life, God works it out and uses it to shape and mold the believer into the image of Jesus! The Bible says that Jesus was the visible image of the invisible God, thus to be like Jesus is to be like God, which was the purpose of our creation in the first place! Remember, Genesis 1:26-27? “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

The Bible seems to suggest that the prime objective, without a doubt, is God’s glory! Our good is not the main objective, but rather our good contributes to the main objective, which is God’s glory! It might be that I am just splitting hairs and making much ado about nothing. But I just think we all need to be reminded that it is in Him that we move and have our being. Whatever good, whatever grace and whatever favor that is granted in our lives, is not just for our good; ultimately, it is for His glory!

Who’s “God” Anyway?

who is godWhen I contrast much of the preaching that I am hearing these days with what I read in the Bible, that is the question that pops until my mind! The King James Version of Psalms 100:3 says: “Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” Do you see that? It is he that made us, not the other way around! Now I know that there are those that advocate that the concept of God is a human construct, but that seems highly unlikely! It is obvious to me that the God of the Bible is not the invention of humanity because the God of the Bible judges the sin of humanity. It’s just basic human nature to take the path of least resistance, therefore if the God of the Bible was a human construct, that God would not judge humanity’s sin.

But it is because the God of the Bible is a holy and just God that humanity has a problem with God! Man by nature, does not aspire to live up to the standards of God, but rather man attempts to lower God to the standards of man! You can call me homophobic, archaic, or insensitive if you want to, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Bible is very clear on God’s view of homosexuality. Not only is the Bible clear that homosexuality is sin, but it is also clear that other sexual activities, such as adultery, fornication, bestiality, and pornography are also sins! There is much controversy these days about homosexuality, but the truth of the matter is that the adulterer or the fornicator who points a condemning finger at the homosexual is a case of the kettle calling the pot black! In fact, the Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. When we read that text in the Greek, we discover that the Greek word that is translated as “fallen short” is parsed as a present passive plural verb! So that text, more properly says that all have sinned and “are falling short” of the glory (God’s idea standard) of God! So the truth of the matter is none of us has the right to point a finger at anybody else with the attitude of being more right than anyone else! However, the fact we don’t have the right to condemn one another does not negate the fact that we do have the right and the responsibility to call sin, sin!

Now this post was not written to discuss the rights and wrongs of sexual life-styles. I merely introduced that topic to illustrate the point that in many cases, man wants to be his own God! He wants to set standards to appease his depraved mind! He does not want to change to please God, but rather he wants to remain as he is and change God to please himself!

But the fact remains: God is God! It is God that made us, we didn’t make God! And no matter how we twist and manipulate scripture, it will not negate that fundamental fact! We can call wrong right as long as we want to, but calling wrong right doesn’t make wrong right!

Who’s God anyway? In spite of man’s attempts to usurp the authority of God, God is still God! If you don’t believe God is still God, take that same alarm clock that you think woke you up this morning down to your local funeral home and see if it will wake up anybody there! Who is God? The God of the Bible is still God and always will be!