The Father: God’s will and human freedom

This post is part of a series investigating the most important items of Christian doctrine. View all posts by clicking here or the DOGMA tag above.

At the end of our service last Sunday, I took some live questions from the congregation. An interesting pattern revealed itself. Here are all the questions that came in:

  • How do you mix all knowing, all powerful, and free will? Do we mess up his plan? Or does he choose not to know what we are doing so as not to compromise our free will?
  • Can you expand the reality of God’s power & righteousness as it applies to being in or “outside” of God’s will?
  • If the Bible doesn’t discuss a particular issue, is the answer always “It’s God’s Will”?
  • If God knows the future, why did He create us if He knew we would fall?

Each question came from a different person, but nearly every question addressed the issue of how God’s will relates to human free will.

The relationship between God’s will and human free will is nearly as complicated as understanding how God is by nature one and three at the same time. However, it’s far less essential to our understanding of God than is the notion of the Trinity, so there has never been consensus among Christians regarding how the two relate. There are many different ways Christian scholars have understood the relationship.

  • Some scholars downplay the idea of human free will. Many passages in the Bible support this. Galatians 5:17, Romans 6 & 7, John 8:34. The logic is that Adam and Eve are the only people who have ever had “freedom” and that only in the Garden of Eden before they ate the Forbidden Fruit. Ever since that moment, human beings have been captured in sin, enslaved to their selfish passions and desires (Titus 3:3). Then, when God breaks into a person’s heart, reveals the truth of Salvation to them, and woos them to respond to him, he grants them the gift of his Spirit to both empower their conversion and to gradually sanctify them through the rest of their lives. Then, their new life is in slavery of sorts to the Spirit who lives in them.
  • Some scholars downplay the idea that God always gets what he wants. They say that God has a vague idea of what he wants, but that he has chosen to be ignorant about certain things. The claim is that God is “open.” He could know the future. He could determine the future. However, he chooses not to. He chooses to leave some things open to chance and human freedom. Under this way of thinking, they conclude that God is often surprised by what humans do, and that he enjoys the surprises. There is scant biblical support for this notion, but it plays well with those passages of the Bible where God appears to “change his mind” such as when Abraham pleads for Sodom, when the angel prevents Abraham from killing his son Isaac, or when Moses pleads for the nation of Israel.
  • Some scholars attempt to pick the middle road and have chosen to divide God’s will into two, understanding the two different types of will separately from each other. The one kind of will, they call his decretive will, meaning the will of God by which he decrees what must happen. It was God’s decretive will that the universe would be created, that the Son would give his life, that wickedness will be destroyed in the Lake of Fire, etc. The second kind of will is called his permissive will, and specifically refers to the realm in which God has stated his preferences but has created room for the agency of others. He “permits” some things to happen for his own reasons.

The first option upholds the teaching of the Bible, but is personally unsettling to people who feel a sense of freedom. It is also unsettling to think that God is 100% responsible for both the salvation of the redeemed and the damnation of the lost.

The second option upholds the feelings of the human heart, but fails to adequately address the firm teaching of the Bible.

The third option feels better on the surface, but if God willfully permits certain things to take place, knowing they are going to take place, isn’t that the same as willing that they take place?

A final option is that described by R. C. Sproul in his book “Essential Truths of the Christian Faith” and posted online here. Summarizing:

  • God’s will may be understood in three categories. His decretive will refers to God’s eternal intentions. His intentions cannot be thwarted and his plans cannot fail. What he wants to come to pass will come to pass. However, this aspect of God’s will is hidden from all but himself. Both his methods and his ends are a mystery to us. Secondly, God has a preceptive will describing the precepts he communicates to his people. Thirdly, God has a will of disposition which refers to his personal desires for his people and his creation. By combining the precepts of God and his revealed will of disposition, we can gain a glimpse into his overall decretive will and our place within it, but we will never fully know that secret will of God.

practically speaking…

With all of that out of the way, let me simplify matters by saying that God has revealed to us his “big picture” will. He has told us that he wants people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. He has told us that he wants all people to follow his Son, love each other, and steward the resources of this planet. He has told us that we are to serve the world and bring the message of Jesus to more and more people.

However, God has not revealed to us his “present details” of how he intends to accomplish his “big picture.” We are concerned about the details, but he does not give them to us. In fact, it’s in the darkness of not knowing those details where we are forced to exercise our freedom in positive ways. By understanding the Father’s precepts and disposition, we can make free choices to walk in his “Will” even if we don’t see the big picture.

Likewise, we can reject his precepts and his disposition, but that doesn’t mean we have somehow broken his ultimate plan or that God has to come up with a contingency solution in the case that we don’t cooperate. In fact, Jesus’ crucifixion was not a contingency plan after Adam and Eve failed. It was always the plan. Revelation 13:8 tells us that Jesus was “slain from the creation of the world” meaning that even before creation, he was “the Lamb that was slain.” His death was determined before the world was created.

Finally, take any human being living in sin. God’s precepts clearly define how that person should live now. God’s disposition clearly shows that God wants that person to repent and return to Him immediately. However, God’s decree might, for reasons unknown to us, include the salvation of that man 30 years from now. God’s decree might include the salvation of that man as he breathes his last. Or, again for reasons unknown to us, God’s decree might include the eternal destruction of that man in Hell.

If R. C. Sproul is right, and if what I’ve just said is right, then it is perfectly in conformity with what Paul taught in Romans 9:21-23:

Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—Romans 9:21-23

Other translations soften the language:

When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? God has every right to exercise his judgment and his power, but he also has the right to be very patient with those who are the objects of his judgment and are fit only for destruction. He also has the right to pour out the riches of his glory upon those he prepared to be the objects of his mercy—Romans 9:21-23 NLT

Nevertheless, it seems that Paul is teaching the God has the right to create “objects of his wrath” “prepared for destruction.”

back to the questions…

So if we return to the questions above:

How do you mix all knowing, all powerful, and free will? Do we mess up his plan? Or does he choose not to know what we are doing so as not to compromise our free will?

Scholars disagree on how to mix all-knowing, all-powerful, and free will. My personal conviction is that human beings often do things that are outside of God’s desires for us, but that since he anticipated what we would do, his plan already accounts for those behaviors. Therefore, we never mess up his plan even if we are responsible for violating his commands.

As a result, we are often outside of God’s preceptive will or outside his will of disposition, but we are never fully outside his decretive will.

If the Bible doesn’t discuss a particular issue, is the answer always “It’s God’s Will”?

This question might go in two directions, and I wasn’t sure on Sunday the intent of the questioner, so I’ll answer both pieces.

On the one hand, the question is asking, if the Bible is silent on an issue, does that mean it’s okay to do that behavior? Some have used this argument to support homosexual marriage. Since the Bible never talks about the kind of homosexuality we have in our society today (meaning loving, monogamous, homosexuality), then we should allow it. I’m not going to address that particular issue in this paragraph, but I will say that if the Bible is silent on an issue, there are probably other principles in the Bible that touch on the issue. Don’t claim something is okay too quickly.

On the other hand, this question could be asking, if the Bible doesn’t tell us why some things happen, can we just say “Well, God wanted it that way, I guess?” For example, since the Bible doesn’t tell us why natural disasters happen, can we just say that God wanted the earthquake in Haiti to happen? The simple answer is to just say, “Yes!” That is, if something happens, we can conclude that God specifically decided to allow it to happen. Therefore, it’s in his decretive will even if it is something that he would have a negative disposition toward. We know that God takes no delight in the suffering of people, but he may at times “will” that suffering happen as for example when he willed that the Son would suffer a literally excruciating death.

All these answers are not fair!

This text came into my phone while I was answering the final question on Sunday, and it’s worth addressing now.

Yes, as a matter of fact, God isn’t fair. “Fairness” is a human concept that is derived from our flawed understanding of “love” and “equality.” We think that fairness is a virtue, but what we really mean is that we think everyone should have the same opportunities. However, we don’t really believe that every human being should have exactly the same skills, same land, same personality type, same health, same climate, same income, etc. Fairness as a concept only works within a small society. You can express fairness within a Kindergarten classroom populated by kids who have roughly equivalent abilities. However, you can’t express fairness on the level of a professional sports club or in public office. We fool ourselves into saying that running for office should be a “fair” process, but to make sure it’s fair, we’d have to give every single student in our society the same opportunities leading up to their 35th year when they are equally eligible to run for President.

Could God create a society that is completely fair? Theoretically, yes. But he didn’t.

What he did was create a society where love can be expressed. The strong look after the weak. It’s not fair that some are strong and some are weak, but it leaves room for the expression of love.

What he did was create human beings who have equal worth though very different circumstances so that he could get great glory in some lives and even greater glory in the lives of others. Was it fair that Jesus healed a strange centurion’s servant at a distance but let his friend Lazarus linger and die without even visiting him? No. That wasn’t fair at all. However, in the story of Lazarus, Jesus gets great glory by raising him from the dead after four days in a tomb and many people put their faith in him.

last thoughts on human tragedy

Finally, I said something on Sunday that I’m sure rubbed some people the wrong way, but it’s something I’m convinced of. God has commanded humans to treasure human life. We are created in the image of God and we should treat our neighbors with that same kind of dignity. However, human life persists beyond physical death, and even though physical death was not part of God’s original design for humans it is nonetheless part of his decreed will. He is the one who banished Adam and Eve from the Garden making it impossible for them to return to eat from the Tree of Life. He is the one who decreed that they and their descendants would die.

And he is the one who sent his Son to die.

In other words, God isn’t afraid of death. In fact, the preservation of human physical life is not God’s highest priority even if it needs to be an incredibly high priority for us. Therefore, from God’s perspective, the loss of one hundred thousand earthly lives is not a greater tragedy than the loss of ten. The great tragedy is for even one to enter eternity without repenting of sin and receiving the forgiveness of God.

For humans, however, the death of 100,000 lives is terribly tragic because that represents 100,000 people we will never be able to share the gospel with. Their eternal condition is in God’s hands, but then again, it always was.

I would love to hear your comments on this.

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