So you think you have free will?

I’ve been thinking again, this time about the nature of free will as it applies to salvation (following up on my last post)–specifically, the concept of universal salvation. The basic Christian concept of universal salvation, that is, the concept of universal salvation in the context of Christianity, is that Christ died for all. There are a number of Bible passages that would support this, including:

This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…

1 Timothy 2:3-6

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…

John 3:16

and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

2 Corinthians 5:15

To name a few.

back to free will

The fact that not all agree with the concept is pretty obvious, and there are reasons for those disagreements. My personal assessment is that the “ayes” outweigh the “nays,” but that’s beside the point (for now).

Believing that God will “save” everyone, whether they like it or not, logically means that free will when it comes to salvation is illusory. I should mention that Calvinists also teach that whether you are saved or not is solely up to God’s will, but that He only chooses to save some. (This ugly teaching is, I believe, based on some very evil theology, but that, too, is an issue for another time.)

It is natural for us, especially those born into the Cartesian, Western world, to have a viscerally negative response to this concept. What do you mean, we don’t control our own destiny? How can God be so presumptuous? We are not puppets!

Now, both philosophers and scientists have been dealing with this issue of free will on secular levels, which is interesting, but not necessarily relevant to this discussion, as we’re dealing specifically with God’s will versus man’s will. (Clue, I think God has the advantage here.) So, let’s set aside the question of whether what we have for breakfast is a choice or scripted by either God or genetics.

The issue of whether or not we have the freedom to choose to be “saved” or not needs to be viewed in the context of a few undeniable truths:

  • We had absolutely no say in our own birth. None. We all were incepted, and about 9 months later, hello world.
  • We did not choose our parents. Seriously. Totally out of our hands.
  • We didn’t have any say on when we were born. You could have been a cave dweller, but instead, you have iPhones.
  • We had no input into where we were born. Proud to be an American? You had nothing to do with it.
  • Ditto with race. Proud to be white? You should be thankful.

And the list goes on. Who you are, whether due to God’s specific input or genetics based on a totally random sperm making it first to an egg (I mean, think of the odds), was handed to you at birth.

So, already free will not in the race. Later on, we start being faced with choices. And now, the philosophical and scientific questions arise–what part of our choices are still tied to genetics?

Free what?

I personally (or impersonally) believe that we have a great deal of free will (and the philosopher in me asks, “is this belief programmed?”). And what about universal salvation? What if I don’t want to go to Heaven (for lack of a better term)?

I think of it this way: We are told that we live in an imperfect world, because mankind chose to exercise free will. So, God allows that, because it was our choice. He also allows the natural consequences of our choices to exist (war, hunger, etc.). But God has promised to put things right, by saving not only all of mankind, but creation itself. Why shouldn’t we all benefit from that?

The word for salvation, or saving, essentially means rescue. What would you think of a God who says he will only rescue a few that He picks? Or only those who ask the right way? Food for thought.

I think of salvation as healing. Jesus once asked a lame man, “Do you want to be healed?” The man may not have been sure; presumably, he made his living by begging, and laying near a spring that supposedly had healing powers. It was a good question… did he want to be healed, or did he really want to continue as he was? Maybe he didn’t know, or didn’t even have the capacity to choose at that point.

It’s something to think about. Do we want rescue/saving/healing? Do we even know, without being healed first?

When it comes right down to it, I think free will is highly over-rated.

Ironic repentance vs. the real deal

There are people in every church I’ve been in who need to be set free.

This is not to say that some of these churches didn’t preach grace. But sometimes, it just takes a while for grace to seep in to where change needs to happen. Grace on the surface is one thing; grace in our innermost being is life-changing.

Much of Christianity teaches that we “miss the mark.” This is true, of course. However, much of Christianity forgets to teach that Jesus has hit the mark for us.  So, rather than hearing that we have succeeded in Christ, we only hear that we have failed and that we need to do more, and try harder. Once this concept is fully rooted in someone’s thinking, it may stay with them for years, in spite of their gaining an intellectual understanding of grace.

I suspect that some people first join these graceless, “miss-the-mark” churches because they already know that they don’t hit the mark, so they fit right in. They are given some guidelines that may help them hit the mark, sometimes, and they are promised that someday they will either make the mark in Heaven, or perhaps that the mark will simply be removed. And, being beat up every week for continually missing the mark helps assuage their guilt.

That’s the only reason I can think of to explain why people actually convert to a works-oriented form of Christianity. This parody of Christianity functions something like a 12-step group: The first step is admitting you are a sinner, and realizing that you will always be a sinner. The best you can hope for is God helping you to sin just a little bit less, or perhaps it’s enough just to know you’re surrounded by people who feel as lousy as you do.

This kind of graceless thinking gets into your core, because in your core you’re already feeling like crap. It simply confirms that what you have believed about yourself is really true. Here’s the irony about converting to a legalistic version of Christianity: In some ways, because you aren’t changing how you feel about things in your core, you don’t really have to repent all that much.

To accept salvation by grace takes real repentance. What you need to repent from is the thinking that your performance actually matters, in a spiritual sense. Yes, you’re a sinner, and if you ever think you can keep God’s law, it will condemn you. Now, get over it.

What you need to repent (turn) to is the truth that Jesus performed on our behalf; he kept the law, and more than that, he conquered death (the consequences of sinning). Think of the law as a video game (only with life or death consequences): Jesus has beaten all of the levels. In essence, the game is over. And not only that, the consequences for losing the game has been removed. You are now free to play the game (just make sure you log on under Jesus’ name).

The truth about repentance

Repentance (in a soteriological sense) has never been about changing your behavior; no behavior-mod program can save you. Repentance is about changing your core beliefs. For most of us, repentance is like peeling an onion; it happens layer by layer. With the discovery of each new layer of self-reliance, more repentance needs to take place. The good news is that it’s all by grace, the great onion-peeler.

So be free—because that’s why we’ve been set free.

An Orthodox view of Salvation

My friend Duncan posted the following video on Facebook this evening.  It’s worth watching, whatever your theological background; it’s especially worth watching if you’ve no familiarity with Eastern Orthodoxy.

I have a very deep respect and appreciation for Eastern Orthodoxy, although I do have some disagreements with various points. (Of course, to the Eastern Orthodox, my issues don’t matter.) I have just finished reading Three Views of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, in which a number of theologians discuss various differences in approach.  I have perhaps more disagreements with evangelicalism than I do with Eastern Orthodoxy; as I’ve remarked before, I tend often to side with Luther, who tends to be somewhere in the middle of these two camps.  This is not because I was raised Lutheran (I don’t think, anyway), but because Luther just seems to echo what Paul appears to say.

So, while I do agree with much that is said in the video, the Orthodox position on cooperative salvation – our work being added to the work of Christ – is something I have an issue with.  I do agree that we were saved 2,000 years ago, that I am currently being saved (Luther seemed to agree with the Orthodox understanding of theosis or deification), and that at the final judgment I will be saved.  Again, this is simply an echo of Paul.

My problem with the Orthodox view comes from 2 main sources: Paul, and Jesus.  And yes, these are pretty good sources.  The Orthodox view of cooperative salvation seems to beg Paul’s rhetorical question in Galatians 3:3: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”  Paul seems to be clearly saying in this letter that to add any human effort to the work of Christ is to lose the Gospel completely.

To this, add the words of Jesus in John 10:27-29:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.

I do believe that we are to continue in good works; that is the work of the Spirit in us. I just don’t believe that this contributes at all to our salvation, and in fact, can be as dangerous as Peter’s reverting to kosher food.  That’s not me, that’s Paul.  I’m guessing that there is an Orthodox interpretation of Galatians, and I would be very interested in seeing it.

Without further commentary, here’s the video.  Again, I do agree with most of it, and very much appreciate the spirit in which this is presented:

Luther on Salvation

Since God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his, making it depend on his choice and not mine, and has promised to save me, not by my own work or exertion but by his grace and mercy, I am assured and certain both that he is faithful and will not lie to me, and also that he is too great and powerful for any demons or any adversities to be able to break him or to snatch me from him. “No one,” he says, “shall snatch them out of my hand, because my Father who has given them to me is greater than all” [John 10:28 f.].

Luther, M. (1999, c1972). Vol. 33: Luther’s works, vol. 33 : Career of the Reformer III (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (33:III-289). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

h/t to Mark Latham