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Is free will an Illusion?

March 10, 2012

Now if you have ever really given time over to studying theology then you will have almost certainly come across the doctrine of election. You may not even know that’s what it’s called but I’m certain that if you haven’t studied it at great length you’ve at least wondered about it for a minute or two.

This is, in my opinion, probably one of the hardest (if not the hardest) doctrines to cope with – I find its implications are hard to swallow and (at first) hard to get on board with.

In it’s simplest form, essentially this doctrine (often referred to as predestination or God’s Sovereign Choice) teaches that before time began God chose who he was going to save and this decision had nothing to do with our behaviour but everything to do with God’s Sovereign choice:

“15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
Romans 9 v 15-16

Now the reason I find this teaching so difficult to cope with is that it raises a few uncomfortable questions, of which 3 are below (there are other questions worth asking, but these 3 will do for now):

1. If God has already chosen me then does that mean that freewill is an illusion?

2. If God has already chosen those he will save does that mean he has chosen those whom he will condemn?

3. If there’s no such thing as freewill then how is it fair to condemn anyone to an eternity of Hell and separation from God? After all they had no choice.

Now before we look to do our best to unpack this heavy teaching we need to remember something crucial. If you are already a believer then you will probably already trust in the inerrancy of scripture, in other words, you will believe that the bible and all it teaches is the final authority for us on earth. It is God – breathed. It is 100% accurate, 100% faultless and 100% timeless – that means it remains, as Paul says in 2 Timothy chapter 3;

“16…profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

If you don’t believe in the inerrancy of scripture then that’s another blog for another day, but for now it means that when we come across some difficult teaching – it is us that must adapt, we should never try to twist scripture to fit our sensibilities and fragile opinions. After much thorough, yet humble study, thought, discussion and prayer what we are left with is what we adhere to. If not, we do ourselves an injustice and stand ourselves on shaky ground. This issue is ever important in our day when discernment seems to be dripping down the drain. As Paul says later on in 2 Timothy:

“2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

So then, what does the inerrant word of God seem to be telling us about election?

Now when learning a biblical principle or doctrine then it’s always important to remember to take all of what the bible says into account. However Romans 9 is a great place to start as it dedicates a whole chapter to the topic at hand – but please check out all of scripture.

For a quick read of the chapter follow this link.

I don’t want to spend ages picking out every little detail from this chapter or the rest of the bible because, let’s face it this is a huge topic and I need to keep this blog as succinct as possible. However that being said there’s a few key points worth picking up on.

The very first thing I notice when reading this chapter is that Paul talks about the unceasing anguish in his heart. This is important for us to notice. This tells us that if we are not struggling with this doctrine then we’ve either not understood it, or we’ve probably tried to water it down so much that we’re left with something unbiblical and easy to cope with. So in about 5 minutes when you’ve read more of this blog and you’re sat there thinking “No I don’t believe that’s right – it’s too painful to cope with.” Just remember that Paul warned you.

So having read Romans 9 I wonder what your view is currently?

Here are the conclusions I draw from this chapter:

1. God has already chosen who he will save – to demonstrate his mercy
2. God has already chosen who he will condemn – to demonstrate his wrath.
3. Neither decision is in anyway swayed by our behaviour or choices at any point, as the decision was made before time began.

Remember if you’re finding this hard to swallow you’re not alone, but make sure that you don’t try and twist the bible to suit what you would rather believe. We are the ones who need to adapt. It’s ok to try and argue your corner with this topic but just make sure your desire is to find out what the bible actually says rather than just to come up with a more comfortable conclusion.

Why don’t we go back to the 3 questions I raised at the beginning of this blog:

1. If God has already chosen me then does that mean that freewill is an illusion?

As far as I am concerned there is plenty of scripture to support the fact that we have freewill, see just two (of many) examples below (don’t forget to scroll back and check out the context of what’s being said):

Matt 11 v 28

Here we see that Jesus invites us to follow him – indicating that there is a choice involved, we can choose to follow Him or choose not to.

John 5 v 40

Here we see that Jesus is addressing people who have chosen to not follow Him.

Furthermore the whole of scripture seems to show that we are held accountable for our choices.

I would suggest, therefore, that we have another biblical tension (of which there seems to be a few). On the one hand God has chosen us before time began, irrespective of our choices and behaviour. On the other hand we have choices with implications.

For thousands of years people have debated over this topic and there still isn’t a comfortable solution. I think the reason for this is because we have to fight for both claims. Both notions have to run parallel with each other. Imagine a train track if you will. Both tracks of the railway need to run parallel. If you try and bring them together to a comfortable point then the train will crash.

2. If God has already chosen those he will save does that mean he has chosen those whom he will condemn?

This is probably the hardest aspect of this doctrine, although verses 22 and 23 of Romans 9 seem to make it clear to me. The answer appears to be yes. Although we have to remember that freewill is still a part of this. So even though God chooses we still act and therefore are still responsible for the implications of our decisions.

This gets really difficult when you start to make it personal. I can just about cope with the idea of people out there in the big wide world being condemned for their sinfulness, but what about people I care about? What about my 18 month old son? Can I cope with the idea that he may not have been predestined for salvation? If I’m honest no I can’t.

But in the midst of this very difficult discussion it’s worth noting that too often people fixate on the wrong part of this teaching. People get caught up in the idea of a just and holy God punishing sinful people. The fact that He might actually choose to forgive anyone is what we ought to fixate on, let alone that he would send His only son to secure that forgiveness – surely that’s what’s scandalous! No one who ends up being punished by God is ever innocent…except Jesus who was punished for us!

3. If there’s no such thing as freewill then how is it fair to condemn anyone to an eternity of Hell and separation from God? After all they had no choice.

Whilst answering this question we need to remember that tension. Yes God foreknew and predestined but somehow in the mix of that we are still making decisions for or against Christ. If we do not remember this tension it all falls apart. We can’t push one extreme at the expense of the other – nor do we have to.

Paul pre-empts our discomfort with this part and in verse 20 asks the following question; ‘who are we to question God?’

“Well that just seems like a huge cop out!!” I hear you say – why doesn’t Paul give us an answer? Well as much as it seems like a cop out – it is also a totally relevant question to ask. Who ARE we to question God??

This must remain a checkpoint for us throughout our lives. The Psalms remind us that Our God is in the Heavens and does as He pleases. He is not accountable to anyone – especially not us!

As I finish I want to add that I am young, foolish and naive. Those of you who know me personally will likely agree. As such there’s every chance I could have this all wrong – but I really want to make sure that my motivation here is to actually understand what the bible is saying?

At the end of the day when I’m faced with things I don’t understand, concepts that are too painful, I have to choose to put my trust in my Sovereign, Faithful and Good God. Just like my son has to trust me.

There’s plenty my son doesn’t quite understand just yet, ideas and notions that are too difficult for him to grasp. But for nowuntil all is made known to him, he trusts me.

I want to do the same with my father.

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12 Comments
  1. Here’s a way of holding to a strong monergist understanding of justfication while avoiding some of the fairly horrific consequences that seem to mount up on first glance.

    http://www.theologyweb.com/campus/showthread.php?138168-Could-God-have-Saved-Everyone

    (I’m not sure whether you have to be a member to view it or not)

    • It’s an interesting perspective, I’m not sure it’s particularly biblical, and not very accurate but this makes for an exciting discussion.

      • I’m not sure what Kenny says that would be considered unbiblical. It is certainly “beyond” the Biblical text in that the Bible doesn’t /teach/ that view. But that’s not saying a lot. The Bible doesn’t often go in to the philosophical nitty gritty of its doctrines. Kenny’s explanation ought to be understood as a philosophical model which takes what the Bible does explicitly teach, and puts these teachings together in a logically consistent way which also leaves logical space for some form of synergism.

      • I agree with that, I just don’t feel that Kenny achieves this. Will post a more coherent response soon.

  2. Bob permalink

    You may be young, but I certainly don’t consider you foolish and naive from what you’ve written here. I’ve been wrestling with TULIP doctrine for a while and am ever frustrated that, to me, particularly with regard to unconditional election, there are compelling arguments on opposite ends of the spectrum. Both can’t be right. So, where’s the truth? I honestly don’t know and my own Christian faith seems somewhat in limbo because I’m struggling. One consideration I’ll toss your way is that Roman 9:30-32 seems to be a summary of chapter 9 and, for me, this tends to sway the argument that Paul is talking about corporate election i.e. Jews and Gentiles as opposed to individual election. I sense you may be farther down the “comfort road” of Calvinist theology than I am. Still, I wish you well on your journey in seeking the truth that surpasses all understanding. Regards // Bob

    • Hi Bob, thanks for your comments. It is, as you infer, a difficult area of theology. I hope you find more answers on your journey. I hope I do too. God bless mate.

  3. I’m a former Christian and I have a few thoughts about what you’ve said. You said “I can just about cope with the idea of people out there in the big wide world being condemned for their sinfulness, but what about people I care about?”

    I understand your belief in the doctrine of original sin. But, have you really thought through all of the implications of this belief? Have you spent quality time and made friends with people from other cultures and religious backgrounds? I think that we ought to be extremely careful when we divide the world into our own small little bubble and the billions of other people out there and the amazing variety of their actions, experiences, and beliefs.

    You also said “Well as much as it seems like a cop out – it is also a totally relevant question to ask. Who ARE we to question God??”.

    The problem I have with this type of thinking is how do you know you are questioning God and not just an ancient conception of God? I think we should be questioning these things because a lot of these ancient scriptures were written down by people who lacked a real understanding of how their world worked. There have been so many amazing advances in just the last two hundred years and we only know what we know now because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

    To end I’ll just say that when I was a Christian I believed that there was a mix of free will and pre-destination, and I still believe that to some degree. But now, I understand a bit better just how powerful determinism is.

    • Hi SciAwakening.

      Thanks very much for taking the time to comment on my blog – really appreciated.

      Thanks also for your helpful comments. I understand where you’re coming from and have at times pondered upon similar thoughts.

      I would suggest that perhaps most of the content of your comment here is more questioning whether the notion of God (or at least the Christian concept of God) is a valid one, rather than looking at the topic at hand (predestination).

      Can I encourage you to continue to follow my blog if your interested in this topic as I hope to dedicate an entire post to this exact question sometime very soon.

      Thanks again.

    • Also to answer your question:

      “Have you spent quality time and made friends with people from other cultures and religious backgrounds?”

      Yes I have, although that being said, you are right to highlight this – I would certainly like to do it more often.

      Please continue to comment, your contribution is appreciated more than you will know.

  4. reverb1983 permalink

    I have a few thoughts on these issues. But I think your looking in the wrong place to try and bring out these points.

    “Here are the conclusions I draw from this chapter:

    1. God has already chosen who he will save – to demonstrate his mercy”
    2. God has already chosen who he will condemn – to demonstrate his wrath.
    3. Neither decision is in anyway swayed by our behaviour or choices at any point, as the decision was made before time began.”

    Where in chapter 9 do you get the impression that God has “already” chosen these things?

    Where do you find evidence in chapter 9 that this decision is made before time began? I don’t see any language in this chapter to support this?

    Lastly, (for now) I like your train track analogy, but the trains are heading in opposite directions. I see genuine free will to be incompatible with personal predetermined condemnation/salvation.

    If God has chosen me to be among his predetermined elect, no decision I make or action that I take has any bearing on my salvation. It’s all gods choice. But in chapter 9 here, Paul is explaining that our faith is the deciding factor. He explains that being a part of a people group (Israel) that God chose does not qualify you for salvation, but faith does. And those gentiles that have faith are justified even though they are not among gods chosen people.

    It seems to me that actually, chapter 9 strongly suggests that pre determination was what Israel thought they could rely on for salvation, and Paul explains why it is their salvation is not predetermined.

    Comments?

    Reverb

  5. Hi mate,

    Yes I agree that Paul is stating that being part of Israel does not qualify you for salvation, and yes faith is a deciding factor, but it’s not the deciding factor – our faith comes as a response to what God has already initiated, the whole point of this chapter is that it’s telling us that it’s God’s choice that is the deciding factor. To say that you don’t see any language that speaks of God’s decision being made before hand confuses me:

    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.”

    15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion,[b] but on God, who has mercy.

    These two verses alone make sense of why Paul starts the chapter the way he does by stating ‘that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.’ He’s giving us a clue that this is difficult to cope with – if we sanitise it we are changing it. It also makes sense of why Paul then writes:

    “19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”

    Paul is saying here; ‘given all that I have just said you will logically conclude by stating that it’s not fair that God could judge me as I have no choice if it’s already been predetermined.’ Paul then goes on to answer that but this comment does show us that Paul genuinely is stating that our salvation is predetermined.

    The thing about Romans 9 is it’s easy to understand – it’s hard to cope with but it’s easy to understand. It’s not hard to see what Paul is saying here. God has already determined our destiny and our actions have no bearing on it. A good benchmark with the bible is to look at it and ask ourselves ‘in its simplest form what is the bible telling me here.’ We often over complicate it and look for other explanations because we don’t like what we’re reading.

    Other verses that support this idea of predestination are:

    4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in Scripture:
    “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
    and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
    7 So the honour is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
    “The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone”,[a]
    8 and
    “A stone of stumbling,
    and a rock of offence.”
    They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
    1 Peter 2 v 8

    (“as they were destined to do”)

    3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
    Jude 1 v 3:4

    (“they were designated for this condemnation”)

    At the end of the day mate, I agree with the Apostle Paul when he warns us that this is NOT EASY TO SWALLOW. But it is unbelievably clear what is being taught here.

    JI Packer, a man far wiser than I, puts it in the following helpful way:

    http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/packer/predestination.html

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