Is a Glorified Will Still Free? (part 2)

In the previous post I wrestled with the question of whether God’s sovereign overruling of my will makes me merely a robot, or whether my will can still be free even in a glorified body where there is no more sin. In this post I will explore what God brings about through the New Covenant.

This is what the New Covenant guarantees: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27) God Himself will give the new heart. God Himself will put His Spirit within. God Himself will remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. God Himself will cause His people to walk in His statutes. God Himself will do it. Does that mean that my will was not free in that transaction? Perhaps. But whether my will was free or not, praise be to God for His indescribable gift of grace!

What Christians are given through the New Covenant is an entirely new nature. Therefore since our freedom is always in accord with our nature, in Christ we are given a nature that is now free not to sin (Romans 6:14). Instead of being slaves to sin, we are now slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:18). Our new nature is gradually being sanctified—being made more and more holy—as we behold the glory of the Lord and His Spirit transforms our hearts from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18). This process of sanctification will one day end in glorification in the very presence of God, where the new nature will be complete and therefore fully free to worship God only, without any pull toward autonomy from Him.

There is tremendous security in God’s promise in Romans 8:30 that “those whom He justified He also glorified.” Piper again says this: “Eternal security is based on the new covenant oath of God that he will cause the obedience which he requires in those whom he has called and justified.” (emphasis added) Christians are not robots—we are still responsible to obey and follow and trust—yet we can do so with the confidence that God Himself has given us a new nature, and God Himself is going ensure our obedience in order to keep us for all eternity. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14, emphasis added)

So perhaps the question still remains then: Does God overrule my will in election? And does He overrule my will in glorification? I would say that yes, God does overrule my will in both electing me to salvation and in glorifying me so that I can no longer sin. Apart from His merciful intervention, I would not be saved. And apart from His merciful keeping power, I would not remain saved. But does that then make me a robot? Do I have no will of my own? I don’t think so. But maybe that’s not even asking the right question. Maybe instead I need to consider whether God has so changed my nature that I no longer even desire to have a “free will” that acts in autonomy from Him, but instead “I delight to do His will” (Psalm 40:8) and my will is finally free to only do what it was designed to do, namely to humbly worship and joyfully obey my King.

Perhaps it can illustrated this way: If a little boy is starting to run into the street as a speeding car approaches, and the boy’s father forcefully grabs him and pulls him out of the way of the car, did the father overrule the free will of the boy? Yes—very clearly! Does that mean the little boy is merely a robot under his father’s control? Not at all. In fact, the boy was exercising his free will, but it was a will to disobey his father, and if his will was carried out it would have resulted in his destruction. Therefore the father’s act of overruling the boy’s will was actually an act of great mercy and love.

Doubtless there is much more that I have to still wrestle with in understanding the immensity of God’s sovereign grace toward me, but one thing I know, and in this I find great comfort, that if indeed God overrules my free will through His election and justification and glorification of me, then it is done as an act of great mercy toward me. And for that I am eternally grateful.

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Is a Glorified Will Still Free?

Several recent dialogues with some good friends have been challenging my thinking about the sovereign grace of our God that stretches from our election all the way through to our glorification. One question that seems to be at the bottom of much that we’ve been discussing is the question of what it means for our will to be “free.” Does “free will” necessitate the possibility of sin? Or is it possible that my glorified will in heaven can be incapable of sin and yet still be considered “free”? The flipside of that question is: If the sovereign grace of God overrules my will, does that then make me a robot with no will of my own? Or is it logical that my will could be overruled by the gracious action of God and yet remain “free” in some sense?

In Western culture, individual autonomy is worshiped as a foundational human right and “free will” is considered a baseline of what it means to be human. Therefore anything that appears to counteract our human freedom is immediately considered bad and oppressive. (And certainly there is much evil and oppression in our world that denies human freedom and must be opposed, but that’s a different topic for another time.) The problem comes for us as Christians when we adopt the same worshipful attitude toward individual freedom and autonomy, and fail to understand or appreciate God’s sovereign grace.

According to Pastor John Piper, we tend to think of “free will” in this way: “Our will is free if our preferences and our choices are really our own in such a way that we can justly be held responsible for whether they are good or bad.” If someone does not have this kind of freedom we would say they are a “robot” or a “puppet.”

However, Biblically speaking, our freedom is always in accord with our nature. After the fall, every human being is born with a nature that is opposed to God, thus the only “freedom” that the unregenerate person has is the freedom to sin, to act in accordance with his nature. “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:7-8, emphasis added) This person is not able not to sin—he is a slave to sin (Romans 6:17). Yet even in this condition, his will is free—his choices are his own, and God holds him responsible as a genuine moral agent. Jesus said “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). The will is free, but only in accordance with it’s nature.

Therefore in order for any human being to be saved by God, God must overrule our free will to sin and cause us to believe. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (I Peter 1:3, emphasis added) “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:4-5, emphasis added) But notice in both those verses that the sovereign overruling of human free will to bring salvation was seen as an act of tremendous mercy. Apart from this merciful act of electing grace, none of us could be saved. So, like Paul and Peter in these verses, I am tremendously grateful that God did not leave me alone in my freedom to sin, but He foreknew and predestined and called and justified me (Romans 8:29-30).

[to be continued in a subsequent post…]

Why We Don’t Change

I recently listened to a very insightful and challenging message by Pastor Tim Keller, in which he spoke of how God brings change in our lives. One insight he shared that really stood out to me is that often we do not change because we only hate the consequence of our sin rather than hating the sin itself. Therefore we only make changes to the extent that it will relieve the negative consequences, but we do not address the sin in the heart that is producing those consequences.

But we will not have the courage to face the depth of our sin apart from understanding in the depth of our heart what Christ has accomplished on our behalf. In the hymn-writer’s words: “My sin, O, the bliss of this glorious thought, My sin not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

You can listen to Keller’s message here.

 

Entering a Heart of Wisdom

Moses’ prayer in Psalm 90:12 is something I deeply desire and pray for as I enter into another New Year. After rehearsing God’s timelessness and holiness (in the first part of the psalm)–and mankind’s smallness and sinfulness that stands in stark contrast to God–Moses humbly prays:

“So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

I attended a memorial service this past Saturday for a dear brother named Tom Kira. He was only 71 years old, a very strong and capable man, enjoying all his grandchildren, and about 3 weeks ago, he had an aneurism that burst and he was gone, just like that. My guess is that he was not expecting that to happen, but it did. But Tom was a man who had learned how to number his days. He had the wisdom that came with facing the reality of sin and of death. And it was such a blessing to hear all that his sons and his wife shared about the kind of man he was. Those testimonies spoke volumes of one who did not know when he would die, but who did know that death would come, and he lived his life in such a way as to make the most of the days that were given to him. As one of his sons said, he was a great man, not because of degrees he earned or wealth he accumulated but because he loved God supremely and loved people well. His life is a testimony to me of what it means to number our days—to live wisely in light of the reality that is coming.

So when Moses is asking God in this prayer “Teach us to number our days…” he is asking  that we would not just know something—not just gain some information—but that we would do something—that the evaluation of our time would result in different ways of living. And the goal of numbering our days is that we would “get a heart of wisdom.”

Our English word “get” (or some translations use the word “gain”) doesn’t quite capture what Moses is asking God in his prayer. When we use the word “get” or “gain” we tend to think of it as a single transaction. If you “get” a gift for Christmas, someone gives it to you, you receive it, and then it’s yours. You got it, and now it’s done. The transaction is completed. “Gain” might have a little more sense of it being a process—if you “gain” the respect of a coworker it’s probably little by little over time, but there’s still a sense of it being done once you’ve gained it. If we read this verse with that understanding of “get,” then it might seem like the psalmist is asking God for a one-time favor: teach us to number our days, and when we do that a few times, we will be granted a heart of wisdom—poof!—and then we’re done. We got the wisdom. Transaction complete.

The Hebrew word used here is more often translated “come” or “bring” or “enter.” Therefore the esvbible.org study app translates the phrase more literally as “that we may cause to enter a heart of wisdom.” Entering in also implies that you go out, or at least that’s possible, right? It’s not just a one-time transaction, but it implies more of a sense of continual movement. And that seems to fit with what I experience in my own life about growth in wisdom. I wish I could say that God just gave me a heart of wisdom and now I am wise, period. But unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the way it works. Instead, I learn something and act on it, and through that I enter in to a bit of wisdom. But then I forget and I act from my old self and from my flesh, and I leave wisdom behind. And then I have to re-learn that same truth and act on it again, and enter once again into a bit of wisdom. And that’s the process, over and over again. Wisdom is not gained all at once, but little by little over my whole lifetime.

So the perspective that is gained as we reflect on the timelessness and holiness of God, and as we realize our own finiteness and frailty in contrast, that perspective then leads us to this petition that God would continually grow our hearts in wisdom by making us to really understand the brevity of our days. May God make that true of you, as well as of me, as we enter in to this New Year.