Monday, May 31, 2010

Total Depravity and Free will by the Jolly Blogger

First of all, I want to address a comment that is commonly made in evangelical circles. The comment goes something like this "God is a gentleman and there is one thing He will never do - He will never violate a person's free will." I've heard variations on this in many places and I have to admit that I think it is one of the most ludicrous things that a Christian could say.

Anyone who has ever prayed for God to change a person's heart has prayed that God would "violate" that person's free will. Which parent, who has a child who is walking away from the faith really wants God to not interfere with that child's will.

Certainly we have biblical examples like God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart and the proverbial statement that the heart of the king is in the hands of the Lord, and He turns it whatever way He wishes.

But having said that, all of the questions are not answered. We Calvinists affirm that man has a free will. The question gets into just what does do the effects total depravity (or radical corruption as I like to call it) do to a person's will and how does God apply His will to our will.

When I was at Columbia Biblical Seminary Robertson McQuilkin was the President and he was famous for saying that we must always remain in the center of biblical tension. I am sure he would never say that the bible contradicts itself, but he acknowledged that there were seeming polarities in Scripture. This would be one area - it seems that the bible affirms human freedom and God's absolute sovereignty. President McQuilkin said that we need to stay in the center of biblical tension on this regard. I am pretty sure I know what he means and that I would be pretty much in agreement with him. However, such a statement could mean that you take the biblical statements on human freedom and the statements on God's sovereignty and pick a mediating position between the two.

This is in error. While we do our best to seek to harmonize all of the biblical data on a particular subject, we have to harmonize it in such a way that we don't denude it of all meaning.

So, in this regard, biblically, we have to affirm human freedom and God's sovereignty. This may sound like I am giving away the farm and basically taking a non-Calvinist view. However, I would ask the non-Calvinists to carefully consider how they define human freedom. I've written on this before, but I'll repeat my assertion that freedom is always circumscribed in some way. Our freedom is always bound by our nature.

This is a real conundrum for Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike. If the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, is the Lord controlling His every thought in an immediate fashion? I think this is what some Calvinists believe and there is a set of biblical data that, taken to its logical conclusion, would lead us to believe that.

But, the bible clear in saying that God is not the author of evil. The locus classicus in the Scripture for this thought is James 1:13-15:

13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

In that passage, we see that God specifically distances Himself from the evil intents of a man’s heart.

This is why I think the Westminster Confession is wise in defining free will in the following way in chapter 9, section 1:

God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil. (Matt. 17:12, James 1:14, Deut. 30:19)

Basically, it defines freedom as the ability to will and to choose apart from coercion.

The confession then goes on to describe the four-fold state of man (innocence, fallenness, grace, glory). I find it interesting that, in the most hopeless state – that of fallenness – the confession speaks of the will in the following way:

Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: (Rom. 5:6, Rom. 8:7, John 15:5) so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, (Rom. 3:10,12) and dead in sin, (Eph. 2:1,5, Col. 2:13) is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. (John 6:44,65, Eph. 2:2–5, 1 Cor. 2:14, Tit. 3:3–5)

The thing that stands out to me the most in this statement is that the confession defines the loss of free will as a loss of the ability to convert himself, or “prepare himself thereunto.” This leaves open a great deal of freedom, while denying that this freedom encompasses an ability to believe in Christ, apart from regeneration.

So, to the hyper-Calvinist who hyperventilates every time someone speaks of human freedom needs to lighten up and see that the Westminster Confession itself has a very robust view of human freedom. We believe that each and every person has the power to will and to do whatever he or she wants to will and to do. To those who think that such a view minimizes God’s sovereignty, we need to remember that the Scripture forces us to this position. In James 1:13-15 God specifically disclaims responsibility for the evil in men’s hearts. Hyper-Calvinists, or those with such tendencies, think that such a statement impugns the sovereignty of God. If man can have a thought that is not controlled by God’s sovereignty they say, then God is not absolutely sovereign. This makes a good deal of logical sense. But it won’t wash with the totality of the Scriptural data.

I am suggesting that the fact that God disclaims responsibility for evil intentions does not negate his absolute sovereignty. Yet, even the evil of man is controlled by the will and plan of God. Can I reconcile such things? No, I can’t. Can I affirm that the bible affirms them? Yes.

Those who want a theological system that would make Aristotle proud by connecting all of the dots in a perfectly logical sequence, need to remember that the bible isn’t bound to the principles of Aristotelian logic. This doesn’t mean that the bible is illogical, it simply means that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man and transcends all human systems of thought.

To the non- or anti- Calvinist we say that you every man has absolute freedom to do what he wants to do, but due to the presence of sin, natural man will never want to believe in Christ unto salvation. That is the problem – we have a “wanter” that doesn’t want God. This is the real crux of the free will debate. Calvinists believe the bible teaches that man, in his natural state, just doesn’t want to believe savingly in Christ. And his “wanter” can only be changed by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.

Man has a free will, but this freedom is dependent upon the sovereign grace of God. Yet God sovereignly orchestrates all of the events of this life, even the free choices of man according to His purposes. Even in our freedom, we have never willed or done anything that is not according to God’s purpose. Yet, the choices have been ours. The Westminster Confession chapter 5 on providence speaks of this:

Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; (Acts 2:23) yet, by the same providence, He ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. (Gen. 8:22, Jer. 31:35, Exod. 21:13, Deut. 19:5, I Kings 22:28,34, Isa. 10:6–7)

Notice, that though God’s will is immutable and infallible, He causes things to come to pass according to the nature of second causes – necessarily, freely or contingently.

So, the whole point of all this is to say that Calvinists shouldn’t be afraid to admit that man has a free will. On the other hand, non-Calvinists need to understand that there is not a moment when, in their freedom, they are acting apart from or contrary to the will of God. And I hope that all of us would realize that the only reason that any of us can be saved His through a divine violation of our free will, in causing us to believe savingly on Christ.

In a chapel message at RTS Orlando several years ago Dr. Roger Nicole used Exodus 23:28 to illustrate how God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom work together. In that passage it says that God sent hornets to drive out the nations before Israel

. Thus, God sovereignly decreed that the nations would leave the promised land and He caused them to leave. Yet, it is just as true to say that the nations chose to leave of their own free will. To those who disagree I offer this as an illustration, not a proof, and I know that this doesn’t answer every question that could be asked. But it gives an example of how God can be absolutely sovereign and we can be fee at the same time. The mechanics of how God works out His sovereign decree may be different in different situations. But God is absolutely sovereign and man is truly free.

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