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…]