A few weeks ago, a friend asked for my thoughts on “free will.” He’d written a blog post about the subject, and someone contacted him to say they didn’t believe in free will. The ongoing discussion has prompted a fascinating Bible study for me, and I think I’ll have to make this a two-part post to fit everything in.
The idea of predestination has a long history in Christianity. My understanding is it basically says God has foreknowledge of all things that will happen and predetermines who will receive salvation and who will not. The idea that God is all knowing would imply He knows things like how and when we will die and whether or not we’ll be in His family. And if He already knows the course of our lives, doesn’t that mean we don’t have free will?
Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory (Rom. 9:21-23)
At first, this scripture does seem to indicate that God determines our fates and we do not have free will because He shapes our lives. However, when we start looking at examples of how God deals with people, I think we see more evidence for free will than against it. While God does directly intervene to shape the course of some individual’s lives, we also have choices.
Dealing With Jonah
Let’s take the case of Jonah. If it looks like anyone in the Bible didn’t have freedom to choose his own path, it’s Jonah. He was told, “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jon. 1:2). He decided that wasn’t a good idea, and we all know how God used a storm and a big fish to override Jonah’s decision and get him back on track.
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon. 3:3-4)
The people of Nineveh responded with repentance, and “God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it”( Jon. 3:10) The prophecy of Nineveh’s destruction still happened, but God changed the time-table to spare all these people who chose to repent (my study Bible says the destruction happened 100 years later). The Ninevites had free will.
And really, so did Jonah. God was determined to use him for the purpose of contacting Nineveh, but that didn’t stop Jonah from choosing to try running away and then choosing a bad attitude about God’s mercy toward Nineveh (Jon. 4:1-11). Though God directly molded Jonah’s life, Jonah still chose how he would respond to God’s work.
The life of Abraham is another example. In Genesis 15, the Lord promised Abraham a son and made a covenant with him. Then, after living in Canan for 10 years and having no children, Abram and Sari took matters into their own hands and conspired to create a son using Sari’s Egyptian servant, Hagar (Gen 16:3, 15). But this was not how God planned to give Abraham a son.
And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.” (Gen. 17:18-21)
Though Abraham and Sarah did not act in the way God had intended, He worked with His peoples’ choice. God’s plan moved forward as He willed, but with the addition of Ishmael and all the consequences of his birth.
Ananias and Sapphira
A New Testament example of free will can be seen in Ananias and Sapphira. God does not tempt anyone with evil and does nothing for our harm (James 1:13), so I don’t think we can say that He set them up to fail or that they had no choice but to sin. This is born out by the wording in Acts when Peter confronts each of them about keeping back part of the price of the land they sold as a donation to the church.
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4)
Though Satan is identified as putting the evil idea in his head, the blame for choosing to do wrong is laid squarely on Ananias (and later on Sapphira as well in Acts 5:8-9). Both these individuals had the power to chose what they did with their possessions, and they chose wrong.
Authority to Plan
I think the point of Romans 9:21-23 is not that we have no choice, but rather that God has the authority to make decisions regarding how He deals with individuals and shapes future events. If we back-up and look at the verses leading to this point in Romans, Paul is talking about Israel. He covers the issue of Abraham’s children (Rom. 9:6-9), and then moves on to Isaac’s sons.
And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” (Rom. 9:10-13)
This is not telling us that Esau had no choice when he sold his birthright (Gen. 25:29-34), or that Jacob had no choice but to steal Esau’s blessing (Gen. 27:1-40). Nor does it mean Isaac and Rebekah were fated to pick favorites and set up a rivalry between their sons. It means God has a plan and He was going to carry it out using or (in spite of) the good and bad choices His people made.
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. (Rom. 9:14-18)
God chooses who to work with and who not to. I suppose you could say there are elements to predestination in this, since God pre-determines which people He will call in this life, which will be nudged toward completing His will, and which will be left to “time and chance” and their own devices.
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? (Rom 9:19-21).
In my mind, this is actually one of the stronger arguments in favor of free will. We have free will, and God has free will. He get’s to choose how He interacts with His creation, and to a certain extent we get to choose how we interact with God. Even being chosen by God doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll end up in His family — Hebrews 6:4-6 tells us it is possible to “fall away” and reject God’s calling. And if someone is not being called by God right now, that doesn’t mean He is ignoring the choices they make. It’s possible to get His attention (Matt. 15:21-28) and to call upon His name (Rom. 10:13).
Any thoughts or comments? Notice something I missed? Have a scripture to add? One closely related topic that might come to mind is God’s omniscience and the extent of His foreknowledge. That’s what I’m focusing on next week.