There is a problem with “free will.” As a young believer growing up in the Calvary Chapel movement, I was taught that God created man with a free will, a hole in his heart made for God to fill, and the ability to choose eternal life or eternal damnation. I was taught that, while man was inherently evil, he was capable of pursuing God and accepting the gift of eternal life when it was presented or was revealed. I was also taught that once that had happened, it was important not to “backslide” as that could lead to a choice on the part of the sinning believer to relinquish his/her salvation.
In short – I was taught Arminian views on salvation. And it was wrong.
As my daughter lay dying in my arms in December of 2000, I had already been wrestling with the fact that my views on salvation didn’t hold much water when tested in Scripture. I had realized the previous couple years that verses in the Scriptures I’d used to justify my positions were woefully taken out of context, that election and God’s ultimate sovereignty were screaming out at me from Genesis, the Gospels, Romans, Hebrews, and other places in the Scriptures. But as life drained from my daughter and her body became lifeless, I was confronted with the most painful question a parent faces: where is her soul?
I received many books on the subject from concerned friends and family. All of them well-meaning but each taking Scripture grossly out of context to make their points. The worst one was “I’ll Hold You In Heaven” by Jack Hayford. Terrible book. It hit me: there is no Scriptural basis for my beliefs. My Arminian belief system was the result of human nature desperately reaching into the Scriptures trying to find what it wanted – control over our destiny. I found no comfort in it because I didn’t see it in Scripture.
I read phrases in the Scriptures like “…Jacob I have loved but Esau I have hated…” and “…having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will…” and a lightbulb went off. I don’t know where my daughter is. I don’t know if she is one of the elect. Adoption is based on the pleasure of His will – not my efforts or some mystical “age of accountability.” And I find solace in that. It’s not up to me. It’s not up to my family history, our choices, or even our daughters’. There is no magic “age of accountability” in the Scriptures but there is a God who loves us and may choose my daughter to honor me and my wife. Or He may not because He is God and I am not. Either way, I am grateful enough for my own election in spite of total depravity that I am no longer arrogant enough to tell God that He isn’t fair.
Many point to verses that suggest that God loved the “whole world” and desires that none perish. I’m sure those verses mean what they say. It is rarely considered by typical American evangelicals, however, that John 3:16 is actually saying that because He sent His Son, every believer will not parish but have everlasting life. It is rarely considered by Arminian followers that the words “world” or “all” in John 3:16 et al. could be clarification that election is not only for the Jews (which was common thought at the time) but for the Gentile as well, the entire “world,” and for “all” types of peoples.
But this issue of free will and choice goes beyond salvation. It is an issue that separates Calvinists into camps as well. Although all with reformed theology (another world for calvinistic theology or Biblical theology :)) agree that God chooses some for justification, the question of how much choice we have
in our daily walk with Christ becomes burdensome.
Here are my thoughts on the subject as of now:
I believe that if God is truly sovereign and if there is a larger Story playing out, that He must direct at least some of our daily and major life decisions. I believe the Scriptures that say that the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord. It also says that good works were created before time in order for us to walk in them.
So I think the logical outworking of this doctrine is that sometimes I have a choice in what I wear on any given day, and sometimes God chooses for me. Sometimes I choose to take a different route to work. Sometimes He directs me. The mystery is when are your actions your own and when are they His working through and in you. How many times does a child really think he is steering the car the first time dad puts him on his lap to let him “drive?” I believe my job is to be so in tune with God that I am ready to make the right choices when the choice is truly mine to make.
I believe in something I call “Resonant Faith.” If I concentrate my efforts and my strength on resonating with God; getting to know Him, singing to Him, praying to Him, and learning about Him…if I practice gratefulness and faithfulness to Him, than the rest of life falls into place without much if any additional effort. Because if good works are already laid out for me as is stated in the Scriptures and if fruit grows on trees when it is their season, than my willingness to resonate with God is all I can do to prepare for those times. And in my depraved state, I can not do one thing to please Him or accomplish a good work without His action in my life anyway so if I’m not fully resonant with Him, I do everything for nothing.
Does this make sense? I am not advocating that we not living holy lives or live disciplined lives. It is, however, the focus on living holy lives and disciplined lives that lead to living pharisaical ones. If we focus on resonating with God through gratefulness and engagement, than living holy and disciplined lives requires little or no extra effort.
How does this work out in practice? Say a man struggles with pornography or drunkenness or arrogance. The believer has three choices: not deal with the sin, attack the problem and ask for God to give him/her the strength to overcome the stronghold in their life, or focus intensely on being more like Christ, asking for gratefulness, dying to self, and engaging God on the level of the heart knowing that this will diminish the desire for porn, alcohol, or pride. I believe striving to have the heart of God is far more effective at tackling a habitual sin than “trying hard” and asking God to push from behind. The former is dying to self. The latter is fighting for holiness.
The man who fight for discipline and holiness will open himself up to lies when he fails (God didn’t help me, I failed, I’m not going to win this, etc.) while the man who dies to himself and clings to God will have rest in his relationship with God and his depravity knowing that his heart is renewed and desires holiness. There is a security in attacking the problem from God down instead of from effort up.
Human nature strives after free will. A regenerated heart seeks to die to self. Daily death is better than fighting for life.