Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?

Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?

As an old friend says, regarding paradoxical subject matter, this will “scramble your eggs” or as someone else said (I can’t remember who), it is a “logical pretzel.”  Free Will + God’s Sovereignty = Confused People.  Why is that?  What’s the problem?  The Introduction of R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will says,

How we understand the will of man touches heavily on our view of our humanity and God’s character… Any view of the human will that destroys the biblical view of human responsibility is seriously defective.  Any view of the human will that destroys the biblical view of God’s character is even worse.  The debate will affect our understanding of God’s righteousness, sovereignty, and grace.  All of these are vital to Christian theology.  If we ignore these issues or regard them as trivial, we greatly demean the full character of God as revealed in Scripture.  What follows is an historical reconnaissance of the debate over free will as it has played itself out in the history of Christianity.

Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, touches on the subject of free will, and this section is the only one which caused me to raise my eyebrows.  My current understanding of free will is a little tricky at the moment.  I’ll share it with you in the conclusion of this blog series.  Bell affirms Jesus’ statement, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And Bell clarifies, “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.”  R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe, explores the concept of free will from almost every possible angle.  I would like to take you on a quick tour through the book, and perhaps you will take the time to read it for yourself.  Each section of the book begins with an insightful quotation, which I will include.

Introduction

Here was the crucial issue: whether God is the author, not merely of justification, but also of faith… – J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston

The introduction touches on the Babylonian captivity, compares it to believers living in a “secular” world, and postulates that the secular world is becoming increasingly hostile to biblical Christianity.  This may be true in some circles, but I don’t see this happening in the people with whom I interact.  Usually, hostility proves to be a result of misconceptions about God.  Sproul’s introduction also includes a brief synopsis of regeneration and faith in the Calvinist versus Arminian views and a brief explanation of free will and election.  When I began studying church history a few years ago and sharing some of the information I found with different Christian friends, I was very surprised to find that many of them had never heard of “election” (also known as predestination), Calvinism, or Arminianism.  This is not to say that they did not hold to Calvinism or Arminianism; they were simply not aware of the fact that they had been influenced in one direction or the other, or that there was foundational inconsistency in trying to ride the fence between the two views.  While many of these believers were aware that they had been “chosen before the foundation of the world,” they never stopped to consider the idea that if there is a group of chosen, there must also, using basic rules of logic, be a group that is not chosen.  This is why the doctrine of election is so closely tied with the free will controversy.  If God has chosen, before time began, who will believe, then what, if anything, does free will have to do with salvation?  What if God chooses someone who doesn’t choose Him back?  What if some people choose God, but God does not choose them?  These are the topics Sproul’s book explores.

Chapter One: “We Are Capable of Obedience”

We, who have been instructed through the grace of Christ and born again to better manhood, …ought to be better than those who were before the law, and better also than those who were under the law. – Pelagius

Pelagius‘ main argument (in Sproul’s words) is that “God never commands what is impossible for man to perform.”  Pelagius asks, (in Sproul’s words) “Is the assistance of grace necessary for a human being to obey God’s commands?  Or can those commands be obeyed without such assistance?”  According to Pelagius, God is good and just, and if God were not good and just, then God would not be God.  Since God is good, then everything He creates must be good, too.  And if everything God creates is good, then there is no inherent corruption in man.  If man sins, it is because he chooses to sin.  Likewise, if man does not sin, it is because he chooses to not sin.  Free will and the ability to reason are gifts of God’s grace.  When Adam sinned, he exercised his free will, and he was not coerced.  Natural or spiritual death are not passed down from one generation to the next because of Adam; people die because they they are mortal, and Adam would have died whether he sinned or not, because Adam was created mortal.  Furthermore, Pelagius asserts that (in Sproul’s words), “God would not usher creatures into a world laden with a burden of sin that was not their own.”  Pelagius sees no cause and effect connection between Adam’s sin and our sin.  In fact, Pelagius sees each person as a perfectly new creation who is corrupted because of “the long custom of vices, which has infected us from childhood,” and since the individual is in the habit of sinning, the will is gradually and increasingly weakened.  This is where the grace of God is introduced in Pelagius’ view; it “assists us in our pursuit of perfection.”  Pelagius even suggests that some people have attained perfection in this way.

Chapter Two: “We Are Incapable of Obedience”

It was by the evil use of his free-will that man destroyed both it and himself. – Augustine

Augustine asks, (in Sproul’s words) “How does a creature who is evil recover from this condition and become good?  How does a creature who is alienated from God and indisposed toward God find his way back to God?”  Pelagius’ and Augustine’s views are very different.  Augustine says in his work, The City of God, “The will, therefore, is then truly free, when it is not the slave of vices and sins.  Such was it given us by God; and this being lost by its own fault, can only be restored by Him who was able at first to give it.”  In creation, Adam and Eve had the ability to both sin or not sin, and the first sin introduced into the human experience was pride.  Part of the punishment for sin is that all of their offspring (that’s us) are born into sin and suffer the consequences of the original sin.  Adam, in effect, chose and acted on behalf of the entire human race.  The free will of humanity was damaged in the fall, as well as the ability to understand truth.  God withdraws grace from humanity, so that we no longer have the desire to do good or to restrain our desire for evil.

In attempting to explain free will, Augustine contradicts himself, asserting that there is “always within us a free will, but it is not always good.  For it is either free from righteousness when it serves sin, and then it is evil, or else it is free from sin when it serves righteousness, and then it is good.”  Yet Augustine also asserts, “When man by his own free-will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost.”  To Augustine, there is a difference between free will and liberty.  His understanding of free will is “the ability to choose without external constraint.”  The sinner is free in one sense, because the sinner can do what the sinner wants to do.  The problem is that the sinner never really wants to do what is right.  Sproul says the sinner is “a slave to his own evil passions, a slave to his own corrupted will.”  The only way to escape this condition is through the grace of God.  Augustine says that the sinner does not choose to believe God for salvation in order to be liberated from his own corrupted condition, because this would require the individual to choose what is right (in this case, “what is right” is choosing to believe God for salvation), and this is something the individual is incapable of doing.  He or she always chooses against it because he or she never wants it.  God must provide the individual with the desire for good in order for the individual to make even one choice in the right direction.

So, what do you think of what you have seen so far?  Is there any truth in what Pelagius teaches?  Is there any truth in the which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg scenario Augustine teaches? How does Scripture compare to the ideas of these two men present?  Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Coming soon…

Chapter Three: “We Are Capable of Cooperating”

Chapter Four: “We Are in Bondage to Sin”

Chapter Five: “We Are Voluntary Slaves”

Chapter Six: “We Are Free to Believe”

Chapter Seven: “We Are Inclined to Sin”

Chapter Eight: “We Are Not Depraved by Nature”

Chapter Nine: “We Are Able to Believe”

Conclusion – My current views on free will as it relates to election, salvation, and the day to day decisions of believers and not-yet-believers.

 

 

Comments
  • Mary Vanderplas April 9, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    The issue is that, on the one hand, we all sin and cannot not sin, and, on the other hand, each of us is responsible for our sin – i.e., we are not forced to sin. Pelagius’ doctrine of human goodness and free will can’t account for the fact that every human being who has ever lived, except Jesus Christ, has been a sinner. Sin is inevitable, as both the biblical witness (Romans 3) and the history of the human race attest. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin (and variations thereof articulated by other theologians through the centuries), in my view, does conform to the witness of scripture and to human experience. Like Adam and Eve, who stand (or fell!) as the prototypical human beings, we all sin; we all are sinners. What they did in the garden of Eden in rebelling against God by wanting to be like God, knowing good and evil, we do. As a consequence, we no longer have free will; instead, we have become slaves to sin, unable to turn to God in love and obedience and unable to love our neighbors as ourselves. It isn’t that we aren’t free agents. We have freedom to do all kinds of things. But we are not free in the sense of being able to choose and do what is basic to our humanity created in the image of God, which is to live in loving relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. In this, we are slaves to sin and unable to extricate ourselves from its web. This doesn’t mean either that we can never do any good, only that we are never completely free to live as God created us to live, free from self-interest to live for God and others. I have a little trouble with Augustine’s assertion about how we become sinners – i.e., that because of Adam (and Eve), a sinful nature gets passed down through the generations. I’m not sure about this. I think our connection with the sinfulness of Adam and Eve is that they were representatives of all of us. At any rate, I subscribe to the basics of the doctrine. Pelagius did get one thing right. Adam would have died whether or not he sinned simply because he was mortal. The death that is connected with sin – both in Genesis and in Paul’s writings – is not physical death. It is the self-destruction we bring upon ourselves when we fail to live as God created us to live. It is being dead to our true humanity; and it is a condition that only God by God’s grace can undo. I think Augustine’s doctrine of original sin (and its consequences) conforms to the biblical witness as well as to the human experience of not being able to break the cycle of sin in our lives no matter how hard we may try.

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