As we approach the Christmas season, we review some holiday favourites. One of my favourites is "A Christmas Carol". I didn't realize until this week, how the theme of free will and whether our destiny is fixed runs through the story.
``You are fettered,'' said Scrooge, trembling. ``Tell me why?’' ``I wear the chain I forged in life,'' replied the Ghost. ``I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’' Scrooge trembled more and more.
``Or would you know,'' pursued the Ghost, ``the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!’'
`Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,'' said Scrooge, ``answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?’' Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
``Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,'' said Scrooge. ``But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!’' The Spirit was immovable as ever. ``Spirit!'' he cried, tight clutching at its robe, ``hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?’' For the first time the hand appeared to shake. ``Good Spirit,'' he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: ``Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!’' The kind hand trembled.
Gen. 2:15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Any "Freedom" We Have Is a Gift of Our Sovereign Creator
We have need to understand that Scripture does not begin with ourselves as the main actor of all that is and will be, but God. I Genesis chapter 2, if you read it in the original Hebrew, nearly every verse begins, “And the Lord God … [formed, planted, made to spring up, took, spoke, commanded, caused to fall asleep]. The freedom given to man in verse 16 [“You may surely eat of every tree in the garden”] is utterly dependent upon receiving the freedom as a gift of a Sovereign Creator. Thus we can’t approach this question of “free will” as detached philosophers, but as creatures whose very existence owes itself to the Lord of all Creation. We are dependent creatures, as the apostle Paul affirmed, “In him we live and move and have our being”. Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ “upholds all things by the word of His creation” and that God “knows the end of all things from the beginning.”
The God who extends the invitation to humanity to freely eat of any tree of the garden, already knows the outcome of what humanity will choose, for God has exhaustive knowledge of all that will happen. Our disobedience does not take God by surprise. Ephesians 1 speaks of God’s plan of redemption having been set in place “before the foundation of the world”, a plan that includes “redemption in His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses”, so that at the end of the age, in the fulness of time, all things will be united in Christ.
God’s exhaustive knowledge and sovereign rule over all that happens is not meant to confound us or confuse us, but to comfort us in the knowledge that no matter what evil or injustice or danger comes in the out folding of God’s providence, the God who created us is directing all things toward peace and harmony in Christ. Jesus spoke of God feeding the birds, clothing the lilies, knowing every hair on our head.
It seems that if we promote human autonomy of will over God’s sovereignty we not only fashion an idol that blasphemes the God of scripture, but in doing so we cut ourself of from our source of comfort in the present and confidence in the future.
God Holds Us Morally Responsible for the Choices We Make
Once we establish that our creaturely freedom is dependent upon God’s sovereign rule, we also must see and affirm that the creaturely freedom that God grants us is characterized by our making genuine choices for which we are held morally responsible. God gives Adam and Eve a genuine choice, that they themselves made, according their own will, and as such they are justly punished for their rebellion, just as we are justly punished for our own rebellion against God.
Now, just how God’s sovereign providence, redemptive plan, and exhaustive knowledge of all things is to be set alongside human moral responsibility, is obviously a matter of no small debate among theologians. And the Bible does not seem interested in explaining it to us, even as this fact is described to us throughout the Old and New Testaments:
- Joseph, for example, is able to see how the actions of his brothers are both condemned as wicked, but also were used by God to bring about good. Genesis 49:20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
- At times, the language of causation is blurred between God, humans, and even Satan, yet the moral responsibility for the action is placed on man alone, for he is the one who makes the moral choice and carries out the act. For example, in various places it is said that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh hardened Pharoah’s heart, and that Satan hardened Pharoah’s heart. Yet Pharaoh is condemned for the choice he makes to forbidding God’s people to leave. Some theologians have tried to explain this by speaking of ultimate and immediate causes. That God in his providence is the ultimate cause of all that happens, including the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart; yet Pharaoh himself, through the free exercise of his own will, hardened his heart and is thus condemned.
- Even the most treasonous of human rebellion ever committed is revealed in scripture both as being part of the sovereign plan of God, while at the same time an act committed by men for which men are held responsible. Peter preaches the gospel in Acts 2:22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” This was the understanding of the entire church. The entire church prays in Acts 4:27 “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
There is absolutely no excuse for any of us. We cannot try to philosophize our way out of the moral responsibility for the choices we make. As the scriptures says, Galatians 6:7: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” See, here we are prone to lie to ourselves particularly if we are yet thinking according to the flesh. On the one hand, we find the idea of God’s sovereignty offensive, because it means that we are not ultimately in control of our destiny, but God is. However, on the other hand, we do not want to be held accountable for our actions either, and so we minimize our agency and our moral responsibility. We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to be in control of our destiny, but we do not want to be held accountable for our actions. The biblical picture is that God is in control of our destiny and that we are held responsible for our actions.
It’s amazing to see what lengths the unbeliever will go to to deny human responsibility...
They are on to something. Once it is admitted that human beings are morally responsible for our actions, some things logically follows. To be held morally responsible, assumes a moral standard. To hold a moral standard ultimately points to a moral Lawgiver, and now we’re back to this sovereign Creator God who holds us responsible for our actions.
The biblical picture actually pushes us further, for it reveals to us that we are not neutral in the things that we choose, but that we, being sinners by nature and choice, have a will that is hostile to God. It is what we spoke about a month or so ago, when we spoke of our condition as human beings after Adam and found that sin has affected every part of our human experience, including our heart, mind and body, and has thus made us unable to freely come to God. Before coming to God, our nature is bound in sin. And because our nature is bound in sin, we desire sinful things, and thus the choices that we make ultimately lead to our condemnation. This state is described for us in Ephesians 2:1-3:
And you were dead [the spiritual death in Genesis 3:17] in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Our will was free in one sense, in that our choices were our own, yet because we were bound in our nature, we lived according to the passions of our sinful nature, carrying out our warped desires of body and mind. This is why we are called children of wrath. Apart from Christ’s intervention and the holy Spirit’s work of regeneration, we cannot please God because we will not please God, and are justly under his condemnation. Scrooge is right, in the Christmas Carol that is a man changes his ways his outcome could change; however, the problem is that man, so long as he remains bound in his old nature, with its old desires, cannot and will not change his ways. Ultimately, unless there is an intervention of God’s grace, we will die in our sins, still rebelling against a holy God and we will receive the ultimate penalty for the choices we have made in accordance with our rebellious will. God’s sovereignty provides comfort, man’s moral responsibility produces condemnation.
Only In Christ Do We Find True Freedom
So if our will is bound to our nature, and our nature is depraved and drives us toward sin and death, and keeps us under condemnation, how then can we be saved? Praise God, that he sent His son into the world, not only to bear in his own body the wrath of God poured out against all the sinfulness of man, but also to free us from our bondage to our sinful nature. In John 8:31 Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him,
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” John 8:34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Jesus here speaks of our need to be set free from our slavery to sin and that He has come to set his disciples free. Jesus sets us free by the power of the Holy Spirit putting to death our old nature, and, as it says in 2 Peter 1:4, “so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire."
Through our union with Christ and His indwelling Holy Spirit, we are now is able to love and serve God as we walk in accordance with his Spirit. What this means is that only the Christian has true freedom. Though we remain in the body of flesh, and are thus still affected by our old ways of thinking, our old passions and desires, we are no longer bound to carry out those desires.
- Romans 6:6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
- Romans 6:24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
- Col 2:11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,
- Col. 3:9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
- Trust the Sovereignty of God as a good thing, yet as a God thing. Find that balance between taking moral responsibility for every choice you make going forward, and as you do, you will look back and begin to see God’s sovereign hand over every situations and the choices that you made.
- Do not downplay or minimize the moral consequences to the choices you make.No matter how strong the pull of the flesh is, no matter how strong your addiction is, no matter that you are sick or have mental health issues, no matter your life scenario, you still have a choice to sin or not sin. Do not downplay the power of that choice.
- If you are an unbeliever, you will find that you may wish to choose good, but are unable to carry it out. You can do one of three things:
- Suppress the truth. Change the definition of good and evil to be more manageable.
- Squeeze good out of a bad nature: This is the most frustrating state.
- Surrender to Christ.
- Once you are a believer, you are now free and possess the ability to truly choose the good through the power of the Holy Spirit,
- Crucify the flesh daily (consider yourself dead to sin)
- Concede to the Holy Spirit
- Choose Good
- Confess Quickly