Tag Archives: free will

Channels for God to Work in Ourselves and the World

Many people discuss whether God can intervene in a person’s will. I understand that beneath a person’s belief about God’s sovereign and humans’ will is a vast range of life experiences that no one but one’s self can truly understand.

But the same time, there is a lot about ourselves that we do not understand. I have read that 95% of our brain activity is subconscious. Thus, we are only conscious of 5% of what goes on in our minds. This fact alone should make us cautious about sweeping assertions regarding free will. Can we really use the 5% of mental activity that we are aware of to manipulate the other 95% any way that we desire?

Even if our conscious minds had the theoretical power to control our subconscious minds, I doubt that our natural consciousness has the wisdom to do so. We may feel as though we have free will because we see a range of attitudes that we could adopt. I can, to some extent, choose to make myself righteously angry about something by deliberately thinking about how much damage it causes or how much it frustrates me. In the heat of that effort, I could get some sort of action to result from the anger.

However, in another sense, the anger I conjured up is somewhat of a show. If I was happy before I felt the need to get serious about something, I will still be having happy thoughts even while trying to get more serious, and those happy thoughts compromise any seriousness that I am trying to generate. Even when I am acting upon the so-called anger, I am still simultaneously enjoying the action – I am not really all that stern – and the action itself often reflects that.

So, while it appears that I have free will to make myself angry, my ability to adopt a genuine attitude of anger is often absent, unless there is an event to provoke it. Thus, it is hard for me to say that I really have free will.

Also consider physical forces of nature. I have heard complicated sermons, and sometimes arguments, over how God’s protection over humans works, what humans have to do in order to receive protection, and how that protection is manifested. However, beliefs regarding divine intervention could evolve when it is realized that the natural order itself is more complex than what meets the eye.

An interesting fact is that, as your chairs sits on the floor, there is an upward force (called the “normal force) from the floor pushing up against the chair? I didn’t know that until I took a Physics class. If the chair is stationary, it is because the normal force and the chair’s weight balance.

When we think of the supernatural, we tend to think that we are going about our normal lives until suddenly something happens that defies the natural order of existence. We then term that sudden event “supernatural” and distinguish it from natural life.

But when we realize that there are many forces of nature that we do not know about, and many behind-the-scenes processes in our brains and bodies that we do not know about, then suddenly there are many more channels through which God can operate. The fact that we are unaware of it does not make it any less of a divine presence.

I believe that it is only through the spirit of God that we can live from day to day. There are so many processes inside of our bodies that, were they to go awry, life would quickly end. The heart has to keep beating, whether we’re awake, asleep, idle, exercising, or stressed-out. One’s heart rate can rise up and down depending on activity and circumstances, and everything in the body reliant on it still carries on normally.

Many proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design say that the natural world could not have arisen by accident. I agree with that. But if creation cannot arise by itself, how can it be sustained by itself? I believe that it is the Spirit of God that enables all of us to be alive right now.

Ultimately, I believe that there are different reasonable views that one could hold regarding God’s sovereignty and involvement in the world. But I think that the complexity of the natural world and our own minds should give us caution about making any sweeping assumptions about what God cannot or would not do. There is much more to life than we are consciously aware of, and over time, we can gain glimpses into how God works through it by reflecting on our experience. This is God’s way of gradually teaching us His wisdom.

Romans 9

Romans Chapter 9 is a much discussed part of the Bible because it is often referenced in debates over predestination versus free will. As a result, some commentators think of Romans 9 as “the predestination chapter,” while others build a counterposition from the chapter to teach free will. But what I came to realize earlier this year is that, there are a lot of insights that can be gained from analyzing how Romans 9 relates to the rest of the epistle. Instead of viewing Romans 9 as a stand-alone exposition, I have come to look at it as part of a message that begins all the way back in Chapter 1.

Here is how I understand the theme of Romans spanning Chapters 1 through 8:

The epistle begins by describing the default fate for everybody. That is, each individual’s life would be judged based on works, and the outcome of that judgment results in either reward or punishment in the coming ages. But, what about the undisciplined folks out there who just can’t get their life in order and would be hopeless if judged on works? Well, in Chapters 3-5, Paul reveals a solution to this problem, namely, justification by faith. But then the question becomes, faith in what? The answer to that comes in Chapters 6-8 where Paul describes how we are justified by Christ’s death and resurrection, and that by believing this to be true of our own lives, we are led by the Spirit into a new way of life.

Well, that sounds nice, but it raises yet another set of questions, such as “Where does this faith come from?” “What does it mean to be led by the Spirit, and what role do we play in that? “What if we’re not believing the right things?” “What if we have doubts? Is the Spirit still working in us?”

So, to answer the question, “What is Romans 9 really talking about?” we should consider how a proposed interpretation answers the questions raised by the preceding chapters.

Paul opens Romans 9 by talking about Israelites who do not believe the Gospel. Paul, coming from a Jewish background himself, was very concerned about this, which sets the framework for the chapter. In particular, Paul sets out to address the question of what Israel’s unbelief means for the promises that God made to the nation.

Paul reasons that “not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants” (Romans 9:6-8).

I think that this concept of “children of the flesh” versus “children of the promise” is a subtle analogy for the theme of “living by the flesh” versus “living by the Spirit” in the preceding chapters. Although Isaac was not Abraham’s only child, Isaac was the only child for whom faith and a special work of God were required for the reproductive process to work. Hold that thought for now, we’ll come back to it a bit later.

Paul proceeds to give another analogy. This time it involves the children of Isaac and Rebecca.

Romans 9:11-13 – “Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.’

God does not hate anybody in the absolute sense. In this passage, love versus hate are relative terms to indicate contrasting relationships. That aside, the idea which “pops out” at me from the passage above is that, the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plans for individuals is attributed to God Himself. Now, granted, sometimes the meaning which immediately pops out at you is not the right meaning. There are times when the broader context conditions what something is supposed to say. Thus, can we trust the “pop out” meaning of the passage above? Or do we need to seek a different interpretation?

Well, the obvious objection to the face value meaning is that it seems unfair. Now, if the face value meaning really was unfair, it seems that Paul would clarify the issue by saying something to the tune of, “Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t saying . . .” However, Paul seems to do the opposite; he responds to the statement by essentially restating his previous point:

Romans 9:14-15: “What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’

And in case his point wasn’t clear enough yet from the analogies, Paul continued, “So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (verse 16).

Paul seemed to think readers would be unconvinced by that conclusion, so he gives yet another analogy that, once again, pretty much restates his previous point.

Romans 9:17-18 –“For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.

Now, once again, Paul sees what the objection is going to be. He knows that people will think this is unfair. However, he once again declines the opportunity to say, “Well, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean . . . “ Instead, he simply restates his previous point again.

Romans 9:19-20, “You will say to me then, ‘Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’

I have heard many commentaries which try to explain Romans 9 such that nobody would ask these questions that the Objector is asking. However, I feel like that approach is contrary to Paul’s own handling of the subject matter, and perhaps indicates that the proposed interpretation does not jive with Paul’s message.

Paul wraps up Romans 9, and opens Romans 10, by describing the problem of Israelites trying to become righteous through Law instead of through faith in Christ.

So, looking back over Romans 9, why did Paul get into the theme of God choosing people, when the overarching message of Romans is salvation through faith? Well, I believe that the theme of Romans 9 was meant to correct a possible misunderstanding of salvation through faith. The misunderstanding is that we “manufacture” faith in order to engineer our salvation. In and of ourselves, we do not have the wisdom, or the prudence, or the discipline, to make ourselves believers. The whole process of believing, and exercising our faith, is a process attributed to God. Earlier I mentioned that Paul subtly alluded to the theme of “living according to the flesh” vs “living according to the Spirit” with his analogy of Abraham’s children. Seeing the subsequent writing in Romans 9, it appears that a Spirit-filled life is a work of God as opposed to something we engineer by some means. Now, the mechanism by which God works this process is mysterious, and there are no concrete answers in Scripture. There are reasonable (albeit speculative) answers that I will discuss in the next post, but in this life we’ll never know all the details for sure.

Furthermore, Romans 9 should not be used to make sweeping conclusions about “predestination” of various events. Although there are speculative extrapolations of chapter’s theme which may be drawn at one’s discretion, such extrapolations should not be confused with the core message which is that we are not the engineers of our salvation.

So, the last question I want to address is, “if we do not engineer our salvation, how do we know whether the process of salvation is true of our own lives?” Well, I believe the answer to that comes in Chapter 10, verse 9-13:

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

If you are someone who calls upon the Lord confessing and believing these things, then your life is on a path of salvation, and you have the Spirit of God working in you. That’s the proof.

The principles I describe in this article are the only doctrines that I conclusively draw from Romans 9. There are other speculations that are worth talking about, and I will address those in the next post. However, I think it is important to separate those speculations from what I perceive to be the core message which I just described.

Why does God allow Evil? (The problem of addressing this directly)

There have been many attempts among theologians and philosophers to answer this question. However, it seems that there is not an answer that works to everybody’s satisfaction. But I think the biggest difficulty is talking about this issue directly, given that many doctrinal propositions are highly nuanced or qualified to the point where they can be construed to say many different things. The only way to know what a person is really trying to convey is to look at the prevailing theme that their teaching revolves around. That centric theme guides their treatment of the more subtle details.

For example, many Christians acknowledge the sovereignty of God and believe that there are events in our lives that happen by God’s design. Furthermore, many Christians will acknowledge that there are bad events in our lives that ultimately lead to a positive outcome, and that God in His mysterious ways was involved with that process. However, many Christians also want to avoid the concept of fatalism, which is the idea that everything in our lives was preplanned to happen regardless of what we do or don’t do. Many Christians have a desire to emphasize the role that human will, or the devil, or forces of nature, or faith of believers play in our own lives or world affairs, to encourage personal responsibility and avoid making God responsible for evil.

I think that 90% of Christians would express the ideas in the above paragraph. And there is a Biblical basis for those all those ideas: the sovereignty of God / predestination (Eph. 1:11), human will / decision making capacity and consequences (Deut. 30:19), adversities in life caused by the devil (1 Peter 5:8-9), Christians’ authority over forces of evil (Eph. 6:12).

But when we take those basic ideas, and put them together to explain why a particular event just happened, that is where things get argumentative. When Christians try to explain the cause of an event, the impression that their statement conveys depends not on the statement itself but rather on the overall focus of their theology. For example, some Christians, despite acknowledging both the sovereignty of God and human will, really want for people to focus on free will. For these people, the center of their theology is personal responsibility and accountability for choices. Their biggest fear is that people will abandon personal responsibility, or that God would be seen as the cause of a disaster. Avoiding such ideas is the cornerstone of their theology, even though they will acknowledge the predestination of some events if pressed about it. Thus, if you ask these people why something happened, they will give an answer that conveys an idea of free will, the devil’s activity, or Christians’ spiritual authority first and foremost, even if they hint of predestination in the fine print.

Other Christians are primarily worried about people taking too much credit for their own accomplishments. They think that a focus on predestination is essential to living in reliance on God; otherwise, people will become self-righteous about making the right choices. They are also worried about the implications for the character and wisdom of God if He created a world that He could not control, knowing everything that would take place. However, these people will acknowledge that part of life is making decisions and that there are powers of evil; however, these concepts are clearly put under the umbrella of predestination. If you ask these people why something bad happened, they want you to come away with the idea that things are not out of God’s control in the ultimate sense, even if they acknowledge intermediary forces at play.

Where do I stand on all of this? Well, I think that if you read my other writings on the blog, you could make a guess about my stance that better reflects my views than any direct statement I could make. I do not think it yields much benefit to argue with people over the causes of evil. The reason is that a person’s stance is rooted in other matters of theology, and you would have to uproot much of your opponent’s theology to convince him or her of your stance. People will sound very decisive and confident when they talk about predestination or free will. But I think they are acting confident largely because their answer is backed by an accumulation of other doctrinal elements and personal experiences (I say this about myself as well).
So, don’t let people intimidate you by hard and fast statements. Know that there is a much more complicated story behind what they are saying.

Christianity and Popular Culture – Part 4

We’re continuing the series on Christianity and popular culture, and this time, I want to discuss the approach of reinterpreting themes of secular media to fit Christian principles. This approach is very prevalent in the Contemporary Christian Music industry, although it has been applied throughout history, including the early church, and even in the Bible itself.

Let’s consider Christian pop music. The lyrics of Christian pop music are often similar to their secular counterparts. The Christian songs about God’s love sound a lot like secular love songs. The songs about resisting the devil and temptation sound like the post-breakup songs of the secular music scene. In other words, the themes of secular music become an analogy for Christian themes. An advantage to this approach is that you make Biblical themes more relatable to people who are interested in spiritual life but not theologically minded. Instead of bewildering people with theological detail, you can give them a practical illustration to help guide their lives.

Let’s examine the love story analogy in detail. Jesus is the “perfect boyfriend/girlfriend” who made the ultimate sacrifice by giving up His life us. By doing so, He inspired us to run from our old, bad lover (Satan) and commit our lives to Him instead. This way of thinking about the Gospel can be supported by Biblical passages such as:

John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Romans 5:10 – “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

When the Gospel is understood in terms of human love, some traditional Christian doctrines get reinterpreted. For example, judgment and condemnation take on a new dynamic. Instead of the hellfire preached by “classic” Evangelicals to depict God’s justice, contemporary Evangelicalism tends to imply that unbelievers are not condemned by God, but rather, their condemnation is the anguish and despair that they experience when they isolate themselves from God and His love. In other words, all those sad pop songs about loneliness become a metaphor for hell.

I don’t have a problem with the love story analogy thus far. But here is where I think it steps over the line: When people like myself come out and suggest that Christ’s death and resurrection actually has the power to save all mankind in the fullness of time, they get argued down with the claim that God cannot save everybody because He would be forcing a relationship on people. There is this idea that a relationship of love cannot exist without the possibility of one entity eternally resisting the other. Whether people agree or disagree with me on human destiny is irrelevant to the topic under consideration. I am just trying to highlight what I think are influences for popular culture on theological debate. If the romantic analogy is taken literally, some Scriptures have to be reinterpreted from their face value meaning. For example:

Romans 9:16-21 – “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?”

I have never heard a love song with lyrics like this. Now, I am willing to admit that when the Scripture speaks of God hardening one’s heart, it does not have to mean that God specifically determined the state of one’s heart or the course of one’s life (although I personally see predestination in Romans 9, some other commentators do not – see the links at the end of the article). However, this semantic issue does not obscure the core idea that pops out at me, which is that utilization of our will is not the ultimate, driving force behind our lives, for we cannot make ourselves set our will in just any way imaginable. I think that is the key idea in Romans 9; without it, the whole chapter doesn’t make sense to me. Whether God is involved or uninvolved with that is a secondary matter in my opinion.

Notice that, in the passage above, Paul predicted an objection to what he just said: “Why then does he [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?”

Suppose that Paul really meant to say, “God makes us fully capable of either accepting or rejecting Him.” If that is what Paul meant, I think he would have responded to the objection by saying something to that effect. But instead, Paul responds with,

“But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’”

To make Paul’s writing fit with the type of free will found in the love story analogy, you have reinterpret Romans 9 (and other similar Scriptures) to a considerable degree.

Having said everything in this article, I should emphasize that I do not have a “problem” with the Contemporary Christian Music industry. They create songs with great analogies for Biblical themes. I just think we need to remember that the lyrical themes are analogies. If taken too literally, they can cause confusion or frustration. In my own life I have had many spiritual analogies which were helpful at a particular time. However, as circumstances in my life change, prompting me to look at certain Scriptures a more closely, I periodically realize that my analogies need to evolve. It’s an ongoing, lifelong process. All you need to realize is that it’s an unfolding process, and the developments in understanding will unfold on their own.

Commentaries on Romans 9: