God's Will & Our Free Choices
Although the mystery between God's will and our free choices is a complex theological matter, I listed it under "ministry" because it is one of the most common questions and debates among Christians. Most churchgoers divide themselves between "Calvinists" and "Arminians" based on the doctrines of the French theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) and the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1506–1609), respectively. However, the question of God's sovereignty and human free will is much older than these men. Plato (427–347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC) both discussed the Greek concept of fate and where it leads us. Nearly every world religion and school of philosophy try to answer just how free our choices are. Even atheists—such as the American neuroscientist Sam Harris who offers a secular view in his book titled Free Will (Simon & Schuster, 2012)—must reckon with this question, although they deny God's existence.
We must define phrases such as divine foreknowledge, free will, omniscience, predestination, and sovereignty before exploring whether the scriptures emphasize God's freedom or human choice. So many of these conversations begin with an assumed understanding, but also tend to alienate the uninitiated. Divine foreknowledge refers to God's ability to know the realities and events before they happen. Paul of Tarsus clarified, "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son . . ." (Rom. 8:29). Predestination means that God has eternally chosen those of whom he plans to save; we must separate it from determinism which rejects all human agency and fatalism which too readily accepts life without hope. The doctrine of "predestination" does not necessarily rule out human choices. Moreover, there are three kinds of free will: compatibilist, determinist, and libertarian. Compatibilism refers to our free choices that are "compatible" with God's will. This is the truly scriptural view of free will, which was also that of Arminius. Yet, the Arminian tradition most often implies the libertarian perspective in today's debates on the matter, which means freedom with neither limits nor boundaries. Simply put, contemporary Arminians believe that God simply reacts to human beings who freely choose him, but he does little to begin the relationship. The Calvinist view teaches the opposite, that God very strictly determines whom he saves and guides the course of history with little choice given to humankind. This essay reviews the implications of both views and then offers a middle ground between them.
Omniscience versus Free Will
The word omniscience defines God's ability to know all things. It is synonymous with foreknowledge, but also expands from the past to the present and the future. In the determinist view, God is highly proactive in saving people from their sin and its consequences. In libertarianism (not to be confused with the political philosophy), God is merely reactive to human whims. The more theological terms—once we move past Calvin and Arminius—are "monergism" and "synergism," respectively. They stem from the Greek words monos (G3441, "one"), ergon (G2401, "work"), and sun (G4862, "with"). That said, monergists believe that God works alone to save us while synergists view humans as "working together" with God toward salvation. Incidentally, monergeō never appears in scripture whereas sunergeō (G4903) does—especially at Romans 8:28 ("We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" [bold mine]). There is no literary evidence to support monergeō ever being a real word in ancient Greek—even Strong's Concordance lacks a number for it. Of course, that does not mean theological terms must derive from biblical Greek to be valid (e.g., "trinity"), but in this context, we must consider the words Paul wrote about salvation specifically.
Not so fast! If this was simply a matter of vocabulary, there would be no debate. However, synergists oftentimes downplay scriptures that convey God's sovereignty and his ability to plan the events of human history. They correctly understand verses such as Romans 10:9 (". . . if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved") to suggest a free-will response. The monergists rightly point to verses such as Romans 9:20 ("'For who can resist his will?' But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God?"). This verse undergirds the doctrine of irresistible grace. For Calvinists in the English-speaking world, the mnemonic TULIP represents the five key points of monergism: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Yet, this is a fairly modern and debatable interpretation of the Canons of Dort (1618–1619), much less the New Testament letters. To summarize these points, 1) No one can seek God because of their depraved human nature, 2) God elects individuals to save, thus Jesus' atonement is limited to them only instead of the entire world, 3) The chosen sinner cannot resist God's grace out of both love and a desperate need to repent, and 4) The Holy Spirit regenerates the elect to keep their faith until death.
Conversely, Arminians offer the mnemonic DAISY: Diminished depravity, Abrogated election, Impersonal atonement, Sedentary grace, and Yieldable justification. This means God offers his grace that prevents the sinner from going too far astray—the doctrine of prevenient grace. The atonement of Jesus is unlimited, given to anyone who chooses to trust in him. Election is also conditional on one's free will. Those who deny God are totally depraved without him, but the saved freely choose to endure in their faith until death through the Holy Spirit's guidance.
Omniscience and Free Will
Late in the sixteenth century, a Jesuit theologian named Luis de Molina (1535–1600) discovered a philosophical solution to the omniscience/free will divide. In this little-known theology called Molinism, God has foreknowledge as well as "middle knowledge." This happens to be the view of the American philosophers William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. Because the scriptures do not use the phrase "middle knowledge," this concept relies more on philosophy than theology. However, it is a very defensible one with both scripture and reason (e.g., John 18:36). Middle knowledge encompasses God's will and every possible result even if creation or the fall of humankind never happened. This is not unlike the "best of all possible worlds" view of the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716). Simply put, the world we now live in is the "best possible" since we may choose to worship God or to sin against him. A determinist world in which human beings honored God in robotic obedience would not be the "best possible" since relationships cannot flourish under total control. Of course, evil may not exist if God chose to restrict our freedom, but this begs the question: "What is the value of choice?"
So, what does the Molinist teach about salvation? As in monergism, God is fully sovereign and controls the flow of world history. However, Molinism is still a modified form of synergism, in which humans freely "work together" with God. How does this work? God applies his middle knowledge to coordinate events in our lives in which he knows exactly how we would respond to them. For this reason, he gives us chance after chance to repent and serve him because he already knows the outcome. In our minds, we freely choose as God lays out several options before us. Yet, God sets the controls to each of these variables. From a neuroscientific standpoint, this is exactly how we make decisions for ourselves. The key trait which makes the human mind distinct from the animal mind is the ability to reasonably "predict" the future based on past experiences. However, we know our "predictions" may change with new information. When applied to God as "middle knowledge," we know that God takes his past, present, and future experiences and uses them to foreknow, elect, and predestine individuals toward salvation.
Molinism features the mnemonic ROSES: Radical depravity, Overcoming grace, Sovereign election, Eternal life, and Singular redemption. Thus, humans are not totally depraved, but retain something from God's image even after the fall (1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9 [Gen. 1:26-28]). We are not as evil as possible, but more accurately confuse good for evil and vice-versa (Isa. 5:20; 2 Tim. 3:5). If our depravity was "total," we would have anarchy and lawlessness. God then overcomes our rebellion through his persistence and grace, which makes it irresistible as well as willful. His election remains his choice alone, but in keeping with the synergist view, God desires the salvation of all people. Yet, one may still exhaust all of the options given to them and freely lose it (Heb. 9:27-28; Rev. 6:14-16). In his sovereignty, God chooses us, not that we choose him. He preserves our new life in Jesus with steadfast faith in him based on a result which God already knows. Finally, the Molinist believes that Jesus redeemed everyone sufficiently, but only efficiently for those who freely choose to walk in God's plan. Given that he only presents two options—heaven or the netherworld—our free will cannot ever be truly free in a libertarian sense. It is either grace or judgment that keeps us in check.
First-Century Jewish View
The problem with Arminianism, Calvinism, and even Molinism is that they both carry a lot of cultural and historical baggage from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Too often, responses to scripture may be tied directly to the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648), the Catholic Counterreformation (1545–1648), or the Enlightenment (1685–1815) rather than first-century Judea. To this end, the Anglican scholar N. T. Wright suggests, "For too long we have read scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It's time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions" (p. 37). So, what is this ancient Jewish perspective of God's will and our free choices?
One of the primary goals of Christian Origins/Current Faith is to explore New Testament biblical theology instead of rehashing the views of systematic theology. In other words, to find scriptural answers rather than ones based on culture, history, or mere speculation. In addition to the New Testament, the other tools we have to know about first-century faith is the Didache and Messianic Judaism. Because God chose the Jews to be his inheritance, they prioritize the doctrines of election and sovereignty. Even in Paul's letters, the Christian gentiles are grafted into Israel's election (Rom. 11). Likewise, Jesus tells us, "You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last . . ." (John 15:16). A first-century Judaic liturgical document known as the Didache outlines "the two ways" of life and death (Did. 1), which is based on God's counsel for the ancient Israelites to "choose life" before they entered the Promised Land (Deut. 28). It must be said, however, that even this counsel includes the ability of the Israelites to freely choose life or death. God ordains both his plan as well as the path for us to follow in it, but we may choose to leave both to our detriment. The Messianic Jewish theologian Asher Intrater presents this signifier TF3: Total sovereignty, Faithfulness to the forefathers, the Firstborn nation of Israel, and the First-century apostolic church. The difference between the gentile flavors of TULIP, DAISY, and ROSES and the Jewish one of TF3 is that it prioritizes relationship over the concept. Simply put, Jews mainly describe God's will by their experiences of it, whereas gentiles typically indulge in more speculation.
God is totally sovereign because only he has the libertarian freedom to choose. Yes, he does limit this freedom through covenants and the incarnation of Jesus, but he does so freely. God is the potter and we are clay in his powerful hands (Isa. 29:16; 45:9; 64:8; Jer. 18:6, 11; Lam 4:2; Sir. 33:13; Rom. 9:21). Think about the well-known sermon by the Congregationalist theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) titled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Even though the message has its faults, it still presents a right picture of our powerlessness in God's will. He elected the Jewish people to be his chosen nation by which to draw all the others in worshiping the one true God (Rom. 9:14-23). We are the beneficiaries of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who are the forefathers of Israel (e.g., Luke 20:37). As long as we acknowledge Jesus, who is the Jewish messiah, we are honorary citizens of Israel. This is the firstborn nation of the world because God first cut his covenant with them (Exod. 4:22). Any nation which seeks to do God's will must consult with the Jewish people. Keep in mind, each of the apostles was Jewish and the gospel writers except Luke. Therefore, the first-century church began as a Jewish movement, carrying out Israel's national election to the ends of the earth.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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