This is the second of a series of blogs about R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will. If you haven’t read the first one, “Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?” you really ought to. It covers some foundational questions about free will. Moving right along…
Chapter Three: “We Are Capable of Cooperating”
“If anyone says that man’s free will [when] moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God… in no way cooperates… [and] that it cannot refuse its assent if it wishes… let him be anathema!” – Council of Trent
Ah yes, the Council of Trent and their favorite word, Anathema! (Not the band from Liverpool.) Anathema is church-speak for excommunication. Keep in mind as you read this that over 1000 years have passed from the time of Pelagius and Augustine. The church has been through the Dark Ages. The Council of Trent takes place not too long after Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses and the Protestant Reformation started spreading like wildfire. The Roman Catholic Church felt that it needed to regroup, so they met 25 times over the course of 18 years and decided among other things, Tradition + Scripture = The Rule of Faith, condemned Protestant “heresies,” and affirmed the Latin Vulgate as the official Bible translation. The Protestants were guaranteed safe passage (in other words, they wouldn’t be killed going to and from) for Protestants who wanted to attend the church council meetings. They were allowed to participate in discussion, but they were not allowed to vote. This is the backdrop for what you are about to read.
While Pelagius asserts humanity has the ability to obey God, Augustine asserts that humanity is incapable of obedience. Many people, unable to figure this thing out, decided on what is called Semi-Pelagianism, a sort of hybrid doctrine. The Council of Trent, according to Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz, “both reaffirmed the church’s condemnation of Pelagianism and retreated from a clear condemnation of Semi-Pelagianism. In the sixth session of the council this declaration was made, “If anyone says that after the sin of Adam man’s free will was lost and destroyed, or that it is a thing only in name, indeed a name without reality, a fiction introduced into the Church by Satan, let him be anathema.” For some reason, I have a hard time punctuating anathema with a period. It really feels like it needs an explanation point, doesn’t it? Anathema!
Chapter Four: “We Are in Bondage to Sin”
“Free-will without God’s grace is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil, since it cannot turn itself to good.” – Martin Luther
Martin Luther considered his most important book to be The Bondage of the Will, “because it spoke to issues that he regarded as being the […] very heart of the church.” He even went so far as to say that anything he wrote besides this and a children’s catechism could be tossed out. Sproul explains,
To the chess player these are contingencies, events he cannot predict with certainty. We speak of a contingency plan, to which we will turn if our original plan does not work as we hoped. […] In his perfection God knows all things perfectly. […] He is not a Great Chess Player who must wait to see what we will do, but he knows absolutely what we will do before we do it.
If God has decided ahead of time how everything happens, who believes, who does not believe, then free will is more than irrelevant, it is non- existent. It is with this in mind that Luther claims, “This bombshell knocks ‘free-will’ flat, and utterly shatters it…” Luther sees no middle ground at all in this argument. Salvation belongs completely to God, because a person can’t choose to believe or obey. God’s grace isn’t mere assistance for salvation, it is necessity.
Is God a Bully?
I started in the first blog asking, “Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?” Let’s suppose for argument’s sake that we cannot obey God or believe God unless He intervenes and causes it to happen. If you take this idea in combination with the idea that God chooses only some to believe then the implications are huge. Why would God command people to believe, knowing all along that they can’t? Is He rubbing our own weakness in our faces? This is what Erasmus infers. Luther comes against Erasmus’ idea, saying that we must consider God’s character. God’s cosmic game of nanee-nanee-boo-boo-stick-your-head-in-doo-doo is a ludicrous assertion. So is there any other reason that God would command us to do what He knows we are completely incapable of doing? Luther says there is a perfectly good reason, that is, “God is trying us, that by His law he may bring us to a knowledge of our impotence.”
If the objective is to make us aware of the fact that we cannot save ourselves, then this whole thing makes a little more sense. God is teaching us, not being a bully. This should be a relief, but we still have a huge problem that has yet to be addressed. If Luther is correct, that we are in bondage to sin, and so much so, that we cannot obey God’s commands, and we can’t even believe for salvation unless He first places that desire to believe in us, then all of us are in big trouble. So far in this adventure through R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will, it is implied that God will place the desire to believe in only some of us.
Your Feedback, Please
What do you say, reader? Does God do most of the work in salvation as long as we cooperate with Him? Do we have any part at all in our own salvation? Or are we completely helpless and at God’s mercy? And what do you think about this idea that God has chosen only some to be saved? Did He choose the ones who He knew ahead of time would choose Him back? If this is the case, then why does Jesus explicitly say, “You did not choose me, I chose you”? Why does the Bible say that we love Him because He first loved us? If His loving us and choosing us is what causes us to love Him, why would He only choose a few?
For anyone who feels very upset by all of this, please understand that the content of this particular blog (as well as the next one in this series) could be compared to walking out of the movie theater while the girl is still tied to the railroad tracks, and the good guy is being chased by a bunch of bad guys with guns. It always looks hopeless until the last 5 or 10 minutes. You know how it is. This is not the end of the story. There is much more to be said about Who God is and what God does. Unfortunately, there is also 1500+ years worth of religious bullshit to clear out of the way as well. Don’t walk out of the theater prematurely.
Chapter Five: “We Are Voluntary Slaves” & Chapter Six: “We Are Free to Believe” (These are the big two, in my opinion, because they hold such influence over modern Christian thinking – the views of Calvin and Arminius.) See you then.