Freedom in America.
Freedom was bought at a high price for the United States of America. Many risked and some even lost their lives in the Revolutionary War to earn the freedoms most of us take for granted today. And freedom is preserved for us today in the United States at a high price. Almost everyone has friends and/or family members who risk their lives to protect our freedoms today. Many of us even know people who have lost their lives serving our country.
Perhaps the understatement of American history is this: we believe freedom is a big deal. And rightly so.
In fact, freedom is arguably the deal in the United States. Our Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (italics mine).
Libertarian Free Will.
Whereas this Declaration speaks to the experience of human freedom (i.e., the freedom to use our own rational faculties to make conscious decisions), libertarian free will speaks to the ultimate reality of human freedom (i.e., whether God ultimately determines what happens or whether people ultimately determine what happens).
Many argue, “God doesn’t elect people for salvation because doing so would violate [libertarian] free will.” This is the most common objection I receive from those who believe salvation is not ultimately the free choice of God, but the free choice of man. The question, of course, is, “Is the objection a good one?”
To make the call, we need to first understand what people mean by “free will” or “libertarian free will.” This task is simple enough, since both its meaning and its implications have only been debated by philosophers and theologians for more than 2,000 years. ;) For the sake of this post, I will adopt the definition given by John Piper in his helpful little book, Does God Desire All to Be Saved?:
“ultimate (or decisive) human self-determination.”
Freedom in the Bible.
I’ve linked for you to the BibleGateway.com search results for the words “free will” in the English Standard Version, New International Version, New American Standard Bible, and King James Version. The search yielded two uses of “free will,” and I was surprised to find that neither of them hint to the understanding of libertarian free will mentioned in the previous section:
1) The “Freewill Offering.” The freewill offering was an offering that God did not require people to give. The name of the offering, then, was not intended to communicate that people have ultimate self-determination, but simply that God did not require the offering.
2) The Freedom of Christians to Honor Jesus in Their Decision-Making. In the NASB, Paul’s words to Philemon are rendered:
“I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness wouldÂ not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Phil. 10-16, italics mine).
The sense of the passage is that Paul didn’t want to essentially force Philemon to obey God; instead, he wanted to give Philemon the opportunity to willingly obey God.
So, what does this mean?
The Libertarian Free Will Objection Is Philosophical, But It Is Not Biblical.
The absence of the words “libertarian free will” in the Bible do not, of course, mean that the concept is not biblical. The word “Trinity,” for example, is not found in Scripture, but the Bible certainly speaks of God as a triunity. Nonetheless, I cannot find the concept of libertarian free will in the Bible. Often when I make this point, people respond by pointing to passages that speak to the responsibility every person has to submit to God. There is in the mind of the objector an underlying premise that is not expressed in Scripture, but has been expressed in philosophy for millennia. And it’s built upon a logical progression that the two authors of Why I Am Not A Calvinist (yes, oddly enough, there are two authors to a book with “I” in the title) present well:
Premise: If we are morally responsible for our actions, we must be free.
Premise: We are morally responsible for our actions.
Conclusion: Therefore, we must be free.
The libertarian free will argument, then, is grounded in the philosophical assumption that moral responsibility requires the absolute freedom to obey. The logic follows that a person cannot be held accountable for what he is unable to do. Now, the philosophical nature of this argument does not make the argument inherently wrong.
Responsibility Does Not Imply Ability.
So, let’s ask, “Does responsibility imply ability?” Does God only hold people responsible for what they are able to do? I want to answer the question in part with a metaphor I received from my pastor, Phillip Dancy, who received it from a seminary professor of his.
Imagine with me that God’s command to Adam and Eve in the garden had nothing to do with eating fruit. Instead, God required them to deliver a package to a far away city. And God only issued one forbiddance: they were not permitted to walk on the right side of the road. God explained to Adam that there was a hole on the right side of the road into which he would certainly fall, making it impossible for him to deliver the package. As Adam set out on his journey, though, he thought to himself, “Look, I know cars won’t be invented for a while, but I just feel like the Brits are going to get it wrong. Cars should not drive on the left side of the road. Cars should drive on the right. So, Eve and I are going to walk on the right side of the road. Plus, I don’t even see a hole” Just as they were crossing over, though, they fell through what looked like a small pile of leaves into the 30 ft. deep hole below. As they dusted themselves off, they realized that there was simply no way out of the pit, making it impossible to deliver the package. Despite his inability to deliver the package, he was, nonetheless, still responsible to do so.
Of course, the result of Adam’s Fall into the “pit” didn’t only affect Adam. It affected all of mankind. Paul taught the church at Rome that, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Sin and death spread to all men when Adam sinned because, in some mysterious, yet real way, we all participated in Adam’s sin. Because of our participation in Adam’s sin, we are all guilty of sin from birth, unable to “be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Though we are from birth unable to obey this command, we are, nonetheless, responsible to obey this command. So, the responsibility to obey does not necessarily imply the ability to obey. In fact, it is precisely because we are simultaneously responsible and, because of the Fall, unable to obey God that Jesus came into the world!
God Is Sovereign…
There are few professing Christians who openly deny the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God is frequently affirmed during times of suffering. “God is control,” someone may say. The sovereignty of God is also present in the prayer lives of virtually every believer. Most professing Christians ask God to save unbelieving friends and family members. They also thank Him when He does. And they thank God for the salvation of their own souls, acknowledging that salvation is, in fact, a work of His. The Scriptures, of course, form the basis for all of these scenarios.
In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps (Proverbs 16:9, italics mine).
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please (Isaiah 46:9-10, italics mine).
… Except Over Election?
The passages that affirm God’s sovereignty scarcely find disagreement among Christians. The next passage, though, despite its affirmation of the same sovereignty we acknowledge in various aspects of our lives and see in passages like the ones mentioned above, may be the hottest of all buttons in American Christianity:
when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls 12 she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger. 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”‘
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9:10-23).
Perhaps more so than any other, these verses affirm the sovereignty of God in salvation, particularly election. So, why all the fuss over something that is crystal clear?
The Issues Behind the Issue.
Potential Issue 1: An Effort to Defend God.
In his book Arminian Theology, Roger Olson writes:
The real reason Arminians reject divine control of every human choice and action is that this would make God the author of sin and evil. For Arminians this makes God at least morally ambiguous and at worst the only sinner.”
Â One issue behind the issue, then, is often an effort to protect God from the appearance of evil. Though I can appreciate the desire for God to be seen in a positive light, our thoughts about goodness and justice must never be read into Scripture. Rather, Scripture must inform our thoughts about goodness and justice, but more about that later.
Potential Issue #2: An Effort to Dethrone God.
Years ago, my perspective on election was that God offers salvation toÂ everyone, but does not decisively save anyone. He leaves the final decision for salvation to the individual. “If God is love,” I would argue, “then He must offer salvation to all people.” Then I read Romans 9 and questions flooded my mind:
“Esau I hated?”
God raised up Pharaoh for destruction?
God held Pharaoh accountable for doing what God created Him to do?
I didn’t understand, and I became angry. If only I had a dollar for every time I thought or said the words, “That’s not fair.” And I meant every word of it. In my mind, it wasn’t good or just for God to ultimately determine who would and would not be saved. Though I would’ve never voiced it or even allowed myself to consciously think it, my subconscious response was, “If Paul is right in what he says about God in Romans 9, then I could orchestrate a more just and fair reality of election than God. Perhaps if God would scoot over a bit, I could do things better.”
Addressing the Issues.
I’ve addressed the problem of evil elsewhere, but I want to conclude by speaking to the problem of evil in the context of election:
If I ask 1,000 (actual) Christians who or what is the most valuable thing in the universe, I suspect that the overwhelming majority will say, “God” or “the glory of God.” And they would, of course, be right. What, then, is the essence of idolatry? It’s treating as most valuable that which is not most valuable. For us, that means we glorify God because He is most valuable. For God, that means He glorifies Himself because He is most valuable. Admittedly, He’s in a unique situation that makes some insist that He is egotistical, but I will ask such a person to consider what God becomes if He fails to glorify that which is most valuable, namely, Himself. Is not the essence of idolatry the failure to glorify that which is most valuable? If so, then what if, in God’s infinite wisdom, He knows the way to most glorify that which is most valuable, namely, Himself, involves predestining some for salvation, but not all? Is He not required to pursue His greatest glory? The clear answer is, “Yes, He is.” And I Â believe that’s exactly what Paul meant in Romans 9:20-23.
In light of this, I’ll submit the following two responses to the two issues with election that I acknowledged above:
Responding to Potential Issue #1: If God is doing what is required to glorify that which is most valuable, what protection from the appearance of evil does He really need?
Responding to Potential Issue #2:Â Why assume that you (the created) have more wisdom and insight than God (the Creator)?
Where to Go from Here?
I plan to address in the next couple of weeks both the worship implications and practical implications of God’s sovereignty in election. I hope you’ll plan to read it.