Monday, September 28, 2015

All you have to do is... Seriously???

For this week's newspapers I answered a question about whether humans have free will and to what extent:  

Q:  Is it true that humans have a free will, or are our life and eternity laid down by another power which causes us to be destined for the events which happen? 

This is a question which both religion and philosophy have both struggled over the course of centuries, and among Christians, it has historically been the source of some of the most heated disagreements about doctrinal matters. 

Since for people who live in the Western world, particularly in the United States, much of our way of life is founded on the ideas of freedom and opportunity, we often get the impression that this freedom applies in all areas of life. 

When we are talking about earthly things, this is true for the most part.  The majority of the time, humans do have free will when it comes to merely earthly matters.  So, when it comes to what we eat, where we live, the things we purchase, what we will do for an occupation and how we will carry out that occupation, humans have a free choice, provided the choices of their fellow humans do not impose upon them. 

However, the Bible makes clear that in spiritual matters, circumstances are far different.  Some of the highlights among these include Paul’s statement in the book of Romans, quoting from the Psalms, that “No one seeks God” and “No one does good, not even one,”  along with the prophet Jeremiah’s statement that the human heart is deceitful above all things. 

Paul also makes statements throughout the books of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians that salvation is “by grace,” that is that it is a pure gift.  Now if our salvation is a pure gift, except that we must exercise an act of free will to make a choice, then it is no longer pure gift, but rather the result of the human work of making a choice. 

In response to this, some have suggested that there is no free will at all in humans.  They conclude that humans have no free will at all in spiritual things, and some even extend this to earthly things to the extent that all things are caused and determined by God with humans merely carrying out what has been decreed. 

This oversimplifies a highly-nuanced teaching of Scripture, though, whether we apply this idea, called determinism or fatalism, to only spiritual things or to all of life.  Simple answers are always attractive, but rarely manage to answer the question with the full depth of Scripture. 

The witness of the Bible’s authors is consistently that God receives full credit for any person whose sin is forgiven and that they played no role in earning or deserving that gift.  However, when speaking of those who receive the punishment their own sins deserve, God never receives the blame, but that blame is rather squarely assigned to the person who committed the sin. 

There is also a distinction regarding whether the question is asked of a Christian or of an unconverted person.  For those who are apart from Christ, it is as if they possess a free will, but it is restrained to only choose evil in spiritual matters, and in capable of choosing good.  However, for those who have been given the gift of trust in Jesus, that will has been un-chained from that point forward, the new person created through faith and Baptism does indeed have a free will, although it continues to struggle against the old sinner that still dwells within them for the remainder of their natural life. 

Ultimately, humans do possess a free will, which all people are able to exercise in merely earthly matters, but none at all as it touches on salvation; and even after being freed by the Holy Spirit’s work it continues to struggle against sin’s restraints until they depart this life to await the final Resurrection with their Lord. 

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