Thursday, April 18, 2013

What Is Free Will According to the Bible?

The issue of free will is a common topic of thought that influences so much of how we perceive the world. In Christian circles, it delineates how we understand God’s sovereignty. The relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s will may not be immediately evident if you’ve never thought about it, but when the different views are investigated, it’s not man’s will that is primarily at stake, but God’s sovereignty.

The two general views I will be discussing loosely be referred to as “synergism” held by “synergists” and “monergism” held by “monergists”. Other terms are often used for either view, but these more closely describe their differences.

  1. Synergists hold that God created man with a free will that God has no control at all over. This doesn’t speak to how God has no control over man’s will. Synergists vary widely on their explanations here and I won’t discuss those here. Essentially, for man to be saved, God does his part and man does his part.
  2. Monergists hold that God created man with a free will that is limited by God’s will. For man to be saved, God does all of it including giving faith to the man. With the faith that God has given, man therefore freely chooses God.

Systems of Categories

To properly understand the issue, we need to clarify the differences in categories. Because of cultural sensibilities in the West, most people categorize willful actions into two mutually exclusive categories:

a. Things God controls.

b. Things man controls.
This is the basic understanding of synergists.

The question then arises whether this categorical system is understood and employed by the Biblical authors. Paul, writing to Jews and Greeks alike in his letter to the Romans, understands that some may use this system. In chapter 9 he anticipates the question, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But his answer is to imply a different system of categorization: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

Paul had already discussed this other system of categorization in Romans 6. There he indicates that we are either in bondage to sin or in bondage to righteousness. There is no middle of the road. He indicates that we will either desire sin or desire God’s will when he says in verse 17 that “you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” Even still, he recognizes that cultural philosophies will make it difficult for many to understand when he says in verse 19, “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.”

He also teaches this to the Corinthians in the second letter we have to them. In chapter 4 Paul writes in verse 7 that “the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” The verses that follow spell out the nature of what this means. But the previous verse tells us something else about how the will of man and God’s will differ:

‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shown in our hearts to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’

Some synergists contend that this means that God brings us up to the point where we can choose freely, indicating that we could choose to deny God at this point. I would disagree saying that this is a description of what Paul indicates in Rom 12:3. However, I want to point out something else that both side should agree with in this verse: God’s will is creative and man’s will is reactive. In other words God’s will creates what God desires by the sheer power of God. Man can create nothing. Rather, we make choices that are before us based on factors that are entirely within God’s creative order. God’s will creates. Our will reacts to creation. There is nothing above God that hinders him in any way.

But perhaps our best example is Jesus Christ. Both God and man, he has a will that is both creative and reactive. This is why he told the disciples in John 6 that he came “not to do my own will, but of the will of [the father].” Therefore, we are to use a different system of categorization than the one above:
a. God’s will

b. Man’s will

This is the basic understanding of monergists.

On the surface, this looks like a different way of writing the same categories. However, they indeed are different. In the first set, man controls things that God does not. The set of things that man controls are subject to his decisions. Following God is not in the set of things that God controls. In the second set of categorizations, man can either choose to do God’s will or to do his own will. If it is God’s will that he chooses to do God’s will, then even that is God’s will. Man’s will is anything that does not agree with God’s will. So if we do Man’s will, we are in bondage to sin. If we do God’s will, we are in bondage to righteousness and free from sin.

The mistake in most debates is to conflate these two systems. You can’t impose one system on the other and expect to have a reasonable debate. The reason is because the method of God’s influence is confused. Synergists will incorrectly interpret monergism as indicating that God manipulates his people like puppets. This is an incorrect understanding of the second system. Monergists may incorrectly interpret the first system as indicating that synergists don’t truly believe that God is sovereign. 

The Fundamental Difference

However, Monergists aren’t far off base. What synergists do in order to claim God as sovereign is to modify their definition of sovereignty. Many of them hold definitions that are within the pale of Christian orthodoxy, so they should be well accepted as brothers and sisters in Christ.

What I do note is that synergists actually hold to some limitations on the free will of man. For example, who would say, if asked, that men can make decisions that are not before them to make. Can I decide to buy a blue car if only a green one or a red one is available? No. That decision is not before me. Can I decide to create a new universe that does not exist? No. I don’t have that power. I can perhaps imagine another universe to some small degree, but actually creating one is outside of my will. Can I make a decision that belongs to someone else? To be sure, people try to do this. They influence public opinion with propaganda or try to manipulate the factors that influence a person’s decision. However, none of us has the power to directly make a decision for someone else. We have limits on our will.

So, synergists should agree that man’s will is limited. Monergists already hold this openly. The difference is merely one of degree.

What is truly different is that monergists place no limit whatsoever on the sovereignty of God. Synergists must. If man is to have things that he controls that God does not, then God must not have control over those things. That’s a limitation on his sovereignty. So the question of free will is really no so much about the will of man, although it is to a degree; it’s really about the sovereignty of God. 

Monergistic Method of Free Will

For the Synergists out there who might chance to read this, you may be wondering how it is that monergists believe that God gives free will, limited as it is, and yet remains completely sovereign over all things. I will explain what it is that monergists generally believe.

There are two areas of influence that God takes with people. Everyone is influenced by his created order. No one makes any decision or choice that isn’t contingent on God’s created order. God doesn’t directly influence decisions, but the free will of man flows out of what is to us an extremely complex set of physical and spiritual factors. Remember that I said that God’s will is creative and man’s will is reactive.

But there’s another factor that only some people have. God himself indwells some people. That doesn’t mean that God is directly making the decisions for the people he indwells. Rather, he guides, like a father, those he indwells. He holds back information until his people are mature enough to handle that information. They can use the information they obtain as they grow in their understanding of God to make decisions. What God creates in them is not a compulsory faith, but a faith of life. Indwelling his children has made them alive so that they are no longer in bondage to sin, but free from sin and in bondage to righteousness. That means that they have a desire for God. What God gives his children in the regenerating life of the Holy Spirit is a desire for God that they absolutely did not have before.

That’s how God influences his children. As such, I will testify that my will is not my own, but my desire, like Christ, is to do the will of my Father in heaven.

To God be the Glory!

Called to Give Up?

I read an article by Dan Phillips, pastor of Copperfield Bible Church in Houston Texas, on his Pyromaniacs site recently that prompted a question:
So I have a question. If you wrote and no one read or you spoke and no one heard, yet you know you had something valuable to offer by way of writing or speaking, would you give up or try to figure out how to be better "heard"? I know of many who have far fewer, if any, readers and listeners than you do who likewise have valuable things to communicate.
Dan replied:
Me personally? I'd probably give up. As long as I could stand it. Then I'd try something else when I couldn't stand it any longer.
Right now, I'm writing to a scant few people. This will automatically post notifications on both my Google+ account and my Facebook page. Normally, I don't see much traffic from these. I don't get much traffic from elsewhere either. The fact is that very few people really care what I have to say - ever.

So perhaps there's another ministry I should try. I took a spiritual gifts assessment recently so I could discover what direction I should go. Now, to be honest I've gone through this exercise more than once in the past. I have plenty of strengths. I have plenty of weaknesses. What I don't have is a ministry niche.

What I do have are scattered and diverse opportunities:

  • I sing with a choir made up of older people from around the North Carolina Piedmont a few times a year. We do a pretty good job singing to small crowds in small churches and in nursing homes. Largely it's fun. 
  • I occasionally get to provide music or give a talk in a local off-brand Cursillo movement. A few people's lives are changed by the movement and I get to have fun doing it.
  •  One church is considering asking me to lead the music at one of their services.
  • Another church has asked if I would be their interim pastor if something happens to the retired pastor who is currently serving them.
  • I can do a few technical things like run sound and edit videos. No one is looking for a good sound tech, but a few sound techs are looking to pawn off lesser gigs to some chump who isn't doing anything better.
  • I'm knowledgeable and extremely gifted in understanding things. But I'm a mediocre teacher at best. When I've tried to teach, few people are interested in my classes - except overseas.
  • If I had the means, I would go to the mission field and stay there. However, I'm not qualified by any reputable mission organization's standards.

So where does that leave me?

My greatest weakness is that I lack the ability to administer my own gifts well. I'm weak and in this weakness, should I expect God to glorify himself? I'm planning on it. I can't say he's done it yet.

But perhaps Dan has a point. I've tried and tried and God doesn't have a place for me to serve him where I'm anything but a passerby and fly-by-night. I like occasionally typing up my stray thoughts and submitting them to the few souls who have little better to do than waste their time reading my sorry musings.

However, as long as I don't have anything better to do, I guess I'll keep typing on occasion. Maybe something I write will make sense to someone out there someday and God will be glorified in some small way through me.

Should I expect larger things? I've tried that. It doesn't work.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

When Being Wrong is Okay (For the Time Being)

One thing that is often pointed out by non-Christians is how Christians have so many different interpretations of the Bible. First of all, such observations usually lack the recognition that we agree on so much. Second of all, such observations fail to take into account that Christians typically recognize that understanding comes over a period of time for Christians.

The law of noncontradiction is true. That is, something is not what it is not. Regarding beliefs, some people forget this simple law of logic and want to claim that truth values are relative to individuals. The reason is because they want to believe what they want to believe without being scrutinized for it based on some larger discoverable objective truth. But the law of noncontradiction indicates that where we have more than one person who believes mutually exclusive things, only one of them can be right (and possibly none of them are).

The only conclusion is that most of us wrong about something, and are certainly ignorant about many things. The Bible takes this into consideration. There are certain core things we need to get right and we have the testimony of God’s revelation as well as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to guide us. Because of the guilt of our sin, we cannot bear to understand the truth fully. Knowing this, the Holy Spirit of God guides us gently, revealing things as we are able to handle them.

This is why Paul tells us not to violate the conscience of people who believe that we should not eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8). Who is right? Should people be allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols or should they abstain? Read the passage. I won’t go into it here. But I will make these observations:

  1. People abstained from eating meat sacrificed to idols because they worshipped those idols before they understood the truth of Christ and partaking of that meat was a burden to their consciences. However, not everyone had that problem. So, we are allowed to be wrong in ways that benefit us.
  2. However, we are still wrong. God doesn’t want to leave us there. He wants us to grow in our understanding. That means putting of childish things as Paul also tells the Corinthians in chapter 13. So this cannot be used as an excuse to believe whatsoever anyone wants.
  3. Therefore, we need to be humble to the fact that we need to improve our understanding. We cannot have pride in the belief that we have it all figured out or to deny that there is any understanding that is greater than what we currently understand. If a donkey can inform Balaam, then God can use anyone to enlighten us.