Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Is There Really Free Will?

The Maze of Theology
Dear Friends,

After last week’s AMEN Corner on the sovereignty and providence of God, a reader told me that it left her more confused then ever. That’s understandable. Even the church is confused. There has been a dispute about the sovereignty of God versus the will of man ever since the Reformation five hundred years ago. God's sovereignty refers to the power that God has over His creation. Providence refers to God using the power of His sovereignty to control all things in the world. “We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they will fall.” Proverbs 16:33 NLT One of the things that we like to say in Evangelical Christianity is that God is in control. But is He really? How about our own will? Can we override God? And if we can exert our will to override God then who really is in control? This doctrine of free will is not an insignificant matter in the church, and Christians have gone to battle and killed each other over this doctrine.

Let’s go into this theological maze to see what we can find. Martin Luther began the Reformation with a denial of free will that was fundamental to his doctrine of justification by faith alone. In his book “On the Bondage of the Will,” Luther adamantly argued against the concept of free will. Luther said, “I condemn and reject as nothing but error all doctrine which exalts our free will.” John Calvin agreed with Luther and taught the monergistic concept of providence meaning that God is the single active cause of all activity in the world. Many churches believe that today, but the difficulty with an absolute concept of divine providence is that if everything that occurs is a direct action from God then that makes God responsible for both good and evil. Meaning that God causes cancer, earthquakes in California, tsunamis in Japan and planes to fly into New York buildings. God recently caused the mother to torture, kill and dismember her three year old daughter and He was behind the bombs that killed 258 people and injured over 500 in Sri Lanka during Easter morning services. According to Calvin’s reformed theology, the evil that God wills is the necessary dark side of a greater good and all things are worked out according to Romans 8:28. But if I was a Christian who had just lost my spouse and children to a drunk driver and I was told by someone in the Presbyterian, Reformed or United Church of Christ (Calvinistic) churches that it was the will of God, I’d become an instant atheist. 

While those first Protestants were wrestling with Luther’s and Calvin's denial of free will, here comes a reformed Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius who ascribed to the historic, classic and Apostolic doctrine of free will that had been taught by the church for the 1,500 years leading up to the reformation. Arminius said about Luther’s and Calvin’s teachings that “It is not in the character of God to plan and carry out evil.” Arminius said that evil arises out of the corrupt intentions of fallen human hearts and not from God's perfectly loving and benevolent will. Arminius believed in the providence of God and believed that He does not cause sin, evil, and tragedy but does permit them for the sake of our freedom of will. This is an action of self-control on God's part. He is sovereign and has full power but chooses to allow us to have free will and make choices. You and I can choose to do evil, and when we do, those sinful choices incur God's powerful wrath and His judgement.

When I was growing up in the Episcopal church, the trend was to speak only about moral topics from the pulpit – typically on the social justice issues of the time. So I began to study Calvinist theologians because they were the only ones writing theological books. But I couldn't accept that God creates both good and evil and tried to talk about this with the pastor at a large Calvinist Baptist church when I was in my mid-20's. He told it wasn't my place to understand God and to not think about it any longer. All righty then..Thanks Rev! But my problem was that I couldn't stop thinking about it and while it was not a barrier between me and God, it did keep me out of church for a long time. 

Many years later, the Holy Spirit seized me and I recommitted my full life to Him despite the free will issue remaining unresolved in my mind. It was not until I went to Bible College and learned about Arminianism that it all fell into place. I remember when I first heard that explanation of God's sovereignty operating synergistically with man's freewill and feeling a rush of peace and understanding. Finally I was hearing a doctrine that perfectly dovetailed with a loving God and coincided with everything that I had read in the New Testament. Today, I say it like this:“We walk through our Journey in life in partnership with God. In all things, we can’t do it without Him, and He won’t do it without us.” 

A few years ago two Muslim brothers detonated bombs during the Boston Marathon and Joel Osteen was asked on a news program what he would say to the victims. I don’t always agree with Osteen but I appreciated his thoughtful response from the Arminian perspective. He said, “I would tell them that God has us all in the palm of His hand.” He said, “There are many things we don't understand, but God has given us our own free will and people choose to do evil things. When people put their faith in God, however, He’ll give you a peace and grace for every season.”

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Note: If you would like a more detailed and scholarly treatise on Calvinism and Arminianism, I invite you to read theologian and professor Roger E. Olson who has made it his life's work to explain these doctrines, You can read him HERE

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The AMEN Corner is a weekly devotional for the family and friends of New Hope Family Church. It is intended for this devotional to be strengthening, encouraging or comforting and your comments too should be for the glory of God and reflect the intended purpose of these posts.

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