Free Will Is Far From Free

Today Lex is hosting this week’s discussion, Chapter 5 of RA Torrey’s What the Bible Teaches – The Personality of God.

Join the discussion and read it here.

Torrey describes “the extent of God’s care and government,” but he uses the word government in the sense of being the governor of His creation. Some believe God is like a clockmaker, winding up the universe and stepping back and letting it run. But the God of the Scriptures is very different from this caricature. God plays an active role. That God is intimately involved in running His creation consider that everything even down to the atom and every subatomic particle, He is consciously holding it all together by his power, indeed, as Paul says of Jesus, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (Col_1:17) I certainly can see an explicit declaration for Jesus being that unifying theory the scientists are looking for in how atoms and all material holds together, as in gravity, electromagnetism, and weak and strong nuclear force. And since He is that intimately conscious of every particle of His creation, consider that if just for a second He forgets about any of it, then it will cease to exist. That is a comforting thought, that he will never forget about you, as He states in Isaiah, “Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually before Me. (Isa_49:16)

It is interesting that when Paul broaches the topic of God’s control of His creation in his own Institutes Institutes of the Christian Religion – namely the Book of Romans – he talks about Pharaoh. “The LORD said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.'” (Ex. 4:21) Remember what Paul said to the detractors when asked (in Romans 9), “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” As if it is not man but God who should be blamed for everything: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” Paul’s answer seems to us very cryptic, “who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (Rom. 9:20) That sounds like a cop out, but really, it is the perfect answer. He goes on to say “The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” Just so, God has the right to do whatever He pleases to the things He has made, indeed He can do no other. But it takes incisive perception to understand how this could be. Could God really be God if there were things beyond His control? What kind of a God would He really if He could be surprised by anything that transpires on Earth or the rest of His creation? He knows the end from the beginning. He knew what was going to happen on earth, in all of its totality, and He still created us. Why? I think that some day we will know the answer to that question. Until then, it is something beyond our comprehension. As in, “what do you know that you can question God?” He told Job the same thing in His twenty-questions in Job 38. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who set its measurements? Since you know” “Have you ever in your life commanded the morning, And caused the dawn to know its place.” A very effective way to silence Job’s complaining, how small man is when considering just how big God is!

So where does free will enter this picture of God being in total control? Free will is a marvelous topic; just read Martin Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will.” (I know, this book can be very thick and plodding.) Or much better, read Calvin’s treatment of free will in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. (See Book 2, Chapter 2, particularly sections 4 – 12) In my opinion, after Paul, John Calvin is the most brilliant theologian humanity has yet seen, even over Augustine. And while I don’t always agree with his arguments (like he believes Romans 7:17-25 concerns the saved and I believe it concerns the unsaved, but that is for another time) his discussion of free will in his monumental Institutes is spot on. (See the Coffee with Calvin blog discussing Calvin and Free Will here.)

Are we fettered, merely doomed to play a role, unable to deviate from the script? The Scriptures indicate that this is so to a certain degree. But here is the catch. We don’t know the end from the beginning. We don’t know the next line in the play. As far as we are concerned and from our perspective, we are making the next step as we see fit. And we are responsible for what we do next, because ostensibly we have a choice, because we don’t know what we are scheduled to do next. And because we don’t know what our next line it, it is our responsibility when we make it.

So free will is one side of God’s coin. Heads, God has is in complete control and has preordained everything from the beginning, for His own purposes and His own good will. Tails, we don’t know what those reasons are or what comes next, so we make our own decisions and are responsible for them. Moses tells God’s people “that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” (Deut. 30:19) And Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44) But by the same token He pleaded with the people “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Mat. 11:28) Two sides to the same coin. There is no conflict between the two sides, it is still one coin with the same dimensions and value. But we, in our limited vision, don’t see everything God sees. How could we? If we can’t figure out how atoms hold together how are we supposed to figure out the majesty of God?

I’m glad He is in control, even if sometimes bad things happen to good people. Remember when David was offered three punishments for the sin of numbering the people, he chose the punishment that was directly in control by God, saying, “I am in great distress. Let us now fall into the hand of the LORD for His mercies are great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.” (2 Sam, 24:14) That’s what trust is about. And His word speaks plentifully to that. What is greater in that we could place our trust?

[Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible © 1995]

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