Do we really have free Will?
Greg E. Williams, MD
There has been a debate in religious circles about Christian salvation; whether it is by choice or whether our salvation was predetermined. There are a number of scriptures which seem to support both positions. For example, we are free to choose salvation as suggested by the following verses.
“For all have have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) and
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life. … For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.(1john3:16)”
But at the same time where our free decision seems to be the gateway of accepting salvation, we read also another passage that hints at our Will as a back seat driver, like this verse suggests.
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:29–30)
There are a number of other verses which seem to bring us back to the table on this particular debate. However, there may be a way to embrace both predestination and free Will without contradiction. What I would like to offer through a graphic representation is a possible answer to this matter.
There are many places in scripture that at face-value, appear to bear contradiction. If we wish to explore more difficult passages, it is important that we understand how we approach our reading and how our presuppositions impact what we are to cover. Since I believe that the scriptures are sacred, I begin this article acknowledging that the scriptures were divinely inspired and allow us as finite beings to look upon the infinite in some fashion. Therefore, I approach scriptures from the Bible as truth which must be esteemed above me; a rank above all knowledge. Such an effort is certain to be imperfect, like viewing our round earth presented on a flat map. We are not able to fully grasp the depth and width of application within our limited frame, which is why we are encouraged to accept God’s Word by faith. I realize that from our human seat, the best we can expect is a curved glass view on the infinite. Yet, I do not believe we should consider this a no-cross barrier to what we can unravel. However, it necessitates that we align our perspective differently to examine truths that are beyond our common conversations. The message of the gospel, if illustrated well would stir us to discover more about the character of our loving and merciful God.
Even though this is not a theological paper, my perspective starts from the position of faith, since the scripture is a faith-based message. From this posture I begin by embracing the scripture as true , while attempting to untangle a philosophical knot that can be a point of contention to those who strive to understand how two competing ideas can coexist; that of free Will and determinism. I have always held that all truth is God’s truth no matter where it is found. We do not need to avoid matters we do not understand. In fact all truth, if really true will lead us to the author of truth, which is God himself. When we consider truths which are evident we must accept that the more accurate our interpretation of scripture, the more agreement we will have in common to the truths revealed across multiple disciplines; a fingerprint of the author of our world.
To begin with our approach, there are four points which must be established as foundational.
- We are absolutely free to choose to accept salvation or deny it.
We are told that God is love. He desires us to love him. To love is a choice. If we are not free to choose to love, then it would contradict the very nature of our relationship with God. Also if we are preprogrammed to behave and act like we serve God, then we would be living like robots without any range of decision-making, it would remove us from any responsibility. The greatest point of arguing for Free Will, is the level of sacrifice required, that God sent his only son to die for us in order to be saved. It would be completely a vain act of God, to sacrifice his only son, where he could just as easily determined us to just worship him. But that was not the case. His son, Jesus had to die for us in order to offer the way to be forgiven and restored in a relationship with our God.
- God is not only a God of love, but also a God of immeasurable grace.
When you consider how frail we are in our walk of faith, there is no way we can expect any salvation based on our efforts. Consider those that modeled lives of righteousness in scriptures, with prophets, priests and kings. There was no perfect follower, no perfect person that would be worthy of following God, except for the love and mercy God, who so readily poured out his grace on those who followed after him.
- God is timeless.
God has always existed. There was no beginning or ending for our creator. Since he does not operate within the boundaries of time, he is able to transcend time. If God can transcend time, everything is known to him from beginning to end. In fact we read in Psalms 139:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.[a]
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them
- God is intimate and knows us completely.
I remember a quote from a science class I attended long ago. The quote goes something like this:
“If we knew everything about one square inch of earth, we would know all answers of the universe”. If you knew how pressure, temperature, the nature of soil, its potential to promote life in plants, the way light is converted to the air we breathe, the organization of cellular matter, how molecules can organize and communicate to each other in order to scaffold life, etc. If we knew all things about that small region of matter, we would unlock all secrets to the very universe”.
More simply, if I could just know how any flipped coin could land on heads, no matter the height, the force of flip, the way the arm moves and the posture of the person flipping the coin, I would have to be thoroughly familiar with all aspects of physics and anatomy and physical sciences in order to have this confidence. Even our creator has this level of familiarity about his creation.
Now if we hold these principles to be true and foundational, we can move to the next section without any reservation.
Our freedom to choose
In order to understand how predestination and Free Will can coexist without out contradiction, let us consider the following example. Let us say, we enter a room that has a large table and we are handed a jump rope like the one above. Let us imagine that we only have one instruction given to us. We are told to stretch that rope from one end of the table to the other and we were told to make any design or pattern with that rope that we would like. You are free to arrange that rope as you wish, as you wanted without any other instruction. Let us say that I completed the task requested and you see the result below.
As you can see, the handles are over each end and I was free to arrange the rope to my liking.
If I am asked, “Were you free to choose the design you made?” My answer would be, “Yes, I was free to arrange it without any other influence, according to my liking”.
Now, I step back to the doorway of the room, and the Master steps up to the table. Let’s say he wants to add some of his own items to the table. Without disturbing my pattern, which was a product of my choice, he adds a couple of shakers and a candle, where he chooses in order to accent my chosen pattern.
So now, after the Master has placed his items, which accents my pattern he returns to my side. What the Master has done is to use my decisions of my display in order to accent the items he has contributed.
The rope here is representative of my life, from beginning to end. I had the freedom to choose any pattern or points of decision during life’s course. Christ gave me freedom to choose and only after I made the decision, did he choose to add items to the table. All the items the Master added only result to give glory to the Father. There will be days of salt, of healing and preservation. There will be days of pepper, when pain and trials come my way. There will be days where I will find a candle, when insights, repentance and re-dedication will restore my footing. The things the Master adds, despite my choices in life, serve to glorify our Father in heaven. Even for the sinner, or the wickedness and wrongful acts of evil people, our God will use such situations to bring glory to the Father serve as a witness for knowing our Master.
Sometimes, the master will see the choices of others and understands how his glory can be magnified by our relationships with these of common faith. I do not believe the many souls we touch in our lifetime is by accident. The fellowship of believers is a very special addition to the table of our lives. In great wisdom, the Master has a way to bring glory to our Father by the people we encounter on life’s journey. It may be a church member, a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a neighbor, a pastor. Only an intimate Savior can know how to negotiate our life in such a way that would not disrupt the free Will of others we encounter in life.
The Start of the journey
Now, as the Master has returned to our side, he prepares to take the lifelong journey with us.
Knowing that our Master is aware of our free choice, knowing the Father will be glorified, knowing that there are no surprises for Christ, our companion and guide; we can walk in confidence that, not only does he walk with us in the journey, he will also perfect us in all things, no matter what we encounter, until the journey is complete.
This model can also help to explain another difficult area of scripture, like when God “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart or where Judas was ‘assigned’ a role of betrayal which lead to Christ’s death for our salvation. When we have made our FREE WILL choices and the Master contributes to our choices, to the glorify the Father. Such contributions of the Master would not infringe upon our free Will, but contribute to how the Master can use our choices to provide good to those who are His without interference of free will choice to reject the gospel. The underlying message here is that our clear decision to reject Christ’s salvation will, by circumstance and life events, promote hardening of our hearts; where yielding to God after receiving salvation will impact our life much differently.
I hope you, the reader may be able to step back and reflect with me about how we could compress together all steps of Free Will, the Master’s involvement and the intimate journey we have with Christ when you incorporate the “timeless, merciful and intimate “character of God. For God, all of these steps can be wrapped into each moment of our daily walk. Our decision of accepting salvation, Christ’s interventions and his intimate involvement in our lives, though introduced by teased out steps, do not have to present incompatible ideas. When you allow them to fold upon itself it is possible to combine these two different views of predestination and free will into a compatible and logical feasibility. Our lifetime is a series of moments that are already set in motion by the spin of our life-changing decision in accepting or rejecting salvation. All steps I have outlined, can therefore allow predetermination and Free Will to coexists when we consider our God who is merciful, timeless, and intimate.
Do I have Free Will? Was I predestined before I began?
I hope this helps to bring some clarity to what I imagine is the best way to answer the debate.
I hope it also brings both assurance and confidence in your journey.
Many thanks to my Pastor, Tim Brubaker and my cousin, Pastor Brent Hardesty for their insightful review and recommendations for this article.