I Believe in Freedom

Some—maybe most—of the dear people in a class at church today were startled when I said, “I don’t believe in a free will.”  Yet many readers, especially former students, may smile or yawn: “Not again!” 

Why?  Because each year in Patristic Theology I would explain Augustine’s view of the will in his debate with Pelagius.  Then in my Reformation course we reviewed the claims in Luther’s Bondage of the Will—where he drew on Augustine’s claims—over against Erasmus who promoted the primacy of the will.  In teaching Ethics my denial of a free will set up “faith ethics”—the approach to the spiritual life and morality I see offered in the Bible.  It was a common theme for me then and it remains a drumbeat now.

That’s not to say I ever expect that making the case will be easy or the claim quickly received by first time listeners.  It always calls for long discussions while they read and reread the Bible, along with some doses of church history; and even then many are still unpersuaded.

Resistance is natural, after all, when free will seems obvious in our daily experience: on any given day we make decisions about what to eat, who to meet, when to travel, and what to say.  Each of these activities is perceived to be a spontaneous and perfectly free—non-coerced—decision.  This experience makes the reality of a free will so obvious that any counterclaims seem bizarre.  And what’s more, the will of God is often cited in the Bible, so our own will is the proper yet human counterpart to God’s will.

And today the autonomous free will is treated as a bedrock reality wherever we turn: I think of the court judgments in favor of the “freedom to choose” in cases of abortion, gay marriage, and more.  It was embedded in the United States by Deist forefathers such as Thomas Jefferson who set out the aspirations of personal autonomy (another label for free will) by affirming life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as our greatest and most noble aspirations.  Free will, it seems, is seen today to be the lynchpin of human identity.  God forbid that anyone should deny it!

Yet God himself denies it.  Again and again the Bible makes it clear that we’re shaped by sin as it rules our hearts—a vulnerability rooted in our actual identity as those made to love God but who have loved our world and ourselves instead.  Our heart—the affective and response-based center of the soul—always directs us.  Thus Proverbs 4:23, “Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life”; Mark 7:21, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts . . .”; Ephesians 4:18, “They are darkened  in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

God made us to be heart-based responders because God’s own Triune eternal union and communion exists in mutual initiative and delight.  Turning away from our proper love—as rooted in the relational image of God—makes us vulnerable to other loves.  And even in repentance our release from slavery to sin only comes about by our becoming slaves to righteousness in Christ (see Romans 6 on this). 

Paul couldn’t have stated our enslavement to death and sin more sharply than in texts like Romans 3:9-18 and Ephesians 2:1-3.  And even Satan, in tempting Jesus, gloated about his control over all the nations—a claim Jesus didn’t deny.  So, in sum, the Bible treats us not as people who have free wills, but as slaves to sin.  Only salvation changes this.  And even after salvation we still struggle until the day we get to be at home at last (see Romans 5-8).

Maybe we should take this up in more positive terms.  I’ll be brief and invite readers to bring their own reflections to the conversation.

I believe in real freedom.  That is, in a heart-based freedom to either respond to God’s love or to resist it.  This is apparent throughout the Bible.  God so loved the world that he gave his beloved Son to save as many as would respond to him in trusting faith; but most people have ignored that offer because they love darkness rather than light because their choices are evil.  The battle is always one of affection versus affection—of an inward sampling of what we “want” the most.

When we turn to Christ we love him because he first loved us and drew us to himself—so it was not by the will of the flesh nor by the will of man, but by God that we gain an affection for him that breaks the power of old affections.  So only God can overcome our self-love, and that only in some: it isn’t guaranteed to all.  How, then, is the selection made.  It seems that most often he woos the poor, the weak, the despised, and other sorts of social nonentities who find his love attractive.  The proud, the strong-willed, and the mighty, on the other hand, are given over to what they love the most: their freedom to ignore God.

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10 Comments

  1. Alan Hlavka

    Thanks so much Ron for this great meal for the soul. These truths enliven my heart every time. I look forward to listening your class from Sunday morning as well. Thanks for your ministry among us and on this blog. — Alan

  2. Alex Simon

    I have to agree that we are under the power of sin and death. Satan is working to drag souls down with him to sheol! We pray that the Lord will call more and more and the Holy Spirit will work as the eye salve to open people’s eyes to see the slavery.
    I hadn’t considered deeply about this subject and thanks brother Frost for this.
    Until someone has completely given themselves up to righteousness they will struggle between sin and holiness (so called free will), like myself contantly dragged into things that lead to sin and we justify certain things in our hearts don’t we? Even Abraham asked silly questions like “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me…?” Not forgetting the many sins of unbelief before finally showing the ultimate trust and faith by nearly slaughtering his beloved son Isaac. So, I agree that we are either under sin or righteousness or sometimes inbetween!!!

  3. Rick

    Thanks again for a wonderful post. I will have to ‘chew’ on the last couple of sentences – as to how the selection is made? Not sure that I see this supported scripturally. It does seem like God does make us aware of our sinful condition (whether we are poor or rich – weak or strong etc. – can think of examples of each category throughout scripture)and in His divine wisdom He may use the emptiness of riches or the false assurance of pride to reveal to us our sinfulness and need for the Savior – or to open our eyes to the Glories of the Gospel and grant us the gifts of faith and repentance and a regenerated heart. Even being poor, weak and despised can become something to boast in -other than Christ alone. Still giving it some thought though. Thanks again.

  4. R N Frost

    It’s a good question to chew on, Rick. It certainly doesn’t fit some of our standard election/selection categories but it’s something I found in my Bible reading.

    Take a look, for instance, at the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22) where Jesus discriminated between the people of standing who should have been responsive to the ruler [but who reject the invitation] and the unlikely [“those on the main roads” and “both good and bad”]. Jesus then sums up the parable in predestinarian language: “Many are called, few are chosen.”

    So, too, the responsiveness of the sinful woman weeping at Jesus’ feet in Simon’s house: Simon is unresponsive (one who loves little) while the forgiven woman is intensely devoted (one who loves much). Being crushed by sin, even one’s own sin, paved the way to life.

    The juxtaposition of Nicodemus (who responds but only slowly and eventually) and the Samaritan woman (who believes in dramatic terms after a brief conversation) is another example of this social/moral contexts of election. I.e. note that Jesus approached the Samaritan woman to offer her life, not the other way round.

    Paul, I’m sure, had these events in mind when he summarized the distinctions in God’s calling in 1 Cor 1-2, contrasting the calling of the weak and the foolish (needy sorts) versus the wise and the mighty (very self-sufficient types).

    I think, too, of Paul’s comments in Acts 13 to the unresponsive Jewish synagogue leaders: “Since you thrust [the word of God] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.”

    Here’s a key difference in an affective/heart based understanding of calling. God never forces us to love him. But, because we’re responders, he knows that the poor, the weak, the sinners, are those who will more readily be ready to repent of life under Sin: for them it stinks! Jesus captured this when he said, I came to save sinners, not the “righteous”.

    If, on the other hand, we continue to embrace the Stoic notion that the mind and will have primacy in our souls as ‘self-moved’ faculties; and that God’s will must somehow overcome the human will among those who are elect while still claiming that we have a ‘free will’ . . . well, now we have a conflict. I.e. one free will must then violate another free will!

  5. Rick

    Ron, Yes I see and agree with all of the examples from scripture that you mention above. But I also see on the other end of the spectrum of the ‘social/moral context’ for example: Abraham (a very rich man); Moses (a strong and stubborn man); Peter (a strong, proud, seemingly self-sufficient man); Mathew and Zacchaeus (rich, though despised – kind of in both categories); Lydia (seemingly rich) and Paul himself (seemingly proud, stubborn, self-willed etc.). So I see both sides of the ‘social/moral context’ being recipients of God’s saving grace.
    And (in sincerity)for my own understanding, when you say ‘God doesn’t force us to love Him’ – do you see salvation as God taking the initiative and regenerating our hearts (giving us a new nature that is in union with Christ) – thus enabling us to respond to His love for us in Christ? Or do you see it differently?

  6. R N Frost

    You’re touching an important distinction, Rick.

    Let me respond with another question: Is grace a “something” that enables us to believe–for which we are then rewarded with salvation? Or is grace the very presence of God whose presence by the Spirit (who reveals the love of Son and the Father) speaks these words to our hearts: “I love you.”

    This was the dividing question of the early Reformation, and even a point of division among the Puritans a century or more later (my dissertation traced the division among Puritans over the definitions of grace being used).

    So, to answer, the Spirit speaks his love to our hearts. He persists with some (as in the case of Paul who was at first resistant, kicking back against Christ’s goading, but finally repenting by seeing himself as the “worst of sinners”); but God finally gives others over to what they love (autonomy).

    Are we able to guess who will be pursued as robustly as Christ pursued Saul/Paul? No. Is there a certain set of social or economic features that we can assess as worthy of being called? No. But we do find that Jesus and Paul give us cues that it’s on that basis–our awareness of our sin–that sets up our hearts to respond.

    An intriguing example of these very points is the case of the wealthy ruler asking Jesus about heaven in light of his good works. Jesus, the text tells us, loved him. But the man walked away, righteous in his law-keeping but indifferent to Christ and captured by his wealth. It’s in that context that Jesus talks about how hard it is for rich people to get into heaven . . . but (after his disciples reacted) Jesus makes it clear that it’s not impossible.

    Here’s the drift: the Bible is active in addressing the very questions we’re exploring here. That’s why I keep reading.

  7. Rick

    Ron, When grace “as the very presence of God whose presence by the Spirit (who reveals the Love of Son and Father) speaks these words to our hearts: ‘I love you'” – do these words create a regenerated heart in the recipient enabling the recipient to respond? Do the words (the Word) create life when they are spoken? If so, then yes that is how I (at this time) would understanding saving grace. Which I think is referenced here: 2 Cor. 4:3-6 (ESV) And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. [4] In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. [5] For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. [6] For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

    Or is there a different understanding that I may be missing?

  8. R N Frost

    Yes, indeed, Rick, we’re on the same page here. This passage is wonderful in summarizing how the regenerating presence of Christ, by his Spirit, transforms from the inside-out. In sum, this is God’s grace: that his love comes, despite our Sin, disclosing the glory of Christ, thus capturing our hearts.

    Thanks for the helpful engagement here! I went back to the original post and amended the ending just a bit to be more nuanced in light of your questions.

  9. Sharon

    Just a thought, Could Matthew 22 be speaking of God’s supreme free will and not in any way referring to our own, not that we don’t have it, just that in the end, it is sill Jesus who determines who may enter the gates of heaven or is it our hearts alone that decide whether we are saved? Is my salvation based on my love of Christ or Christ’s love for me? Why would God love some more than others? Why would God chose only the elect to save? I would hate to have depend on myself or any pastor to reach all the hearts of the people in the world, knowing then that God can save whomever He chooses, why would God not choose to save all? It is in His power to do so.

  10. Sharon

    And if the chosen are based on those who respond, yet the god of this world blinds the eyes of the unbeliever, then God must first remove the veil so that the unbeliever can respond. Does that therefore precipitate that once the veil is removed that the unbeliever will respond in faith? Referring to 2 Cor. 4:3,4. Is it possible to respond in kind without first knowing who it is that the invite is from? God alone knows who will respond in time. Peter used the same form of the word “chosen” when speaking of the foreknowledge of God 1 Peter 1:1,2. This does not indicate any lack of ability to choose, only God’s foreknowledge of who will choose to respond. God’s response to our acceptance in faith of His invitation is that we become His chosen.

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