Wherefore our wills also have just so much power as God willed and foreknew that they should have. . .
—Augustine of Hippo, The City of God (5th century)
For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin. . .
—John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (1543)
Making Changes, Making Choices
As we enter the New Year, we think about resolutions, changes, new beginnings. We think about making better choices. A new diet. More exercise. Picking up a new hobby. Sending timely reports to your boss. Finishing that book we’ve started a dozen times. Choose. Resolve. Do. It should be that easy, right?
Then why do we fail so often? And why do our resolutions accomplish so little? Why can’t we live out our choices?
Making Ourselves By Our Choices
Barack Obama wrote in his book, The Audacity of Hope, that American values “are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.” His claim echoes a long American religious and literary tradition that says that we have no fixed nature and that we create and define ourselves moment by moment by our choices, with our sin nature never getting in the way.
American roots run deep here. Before Thoreau and Emerson there was Charles Finney. Before there were public schools, there were McGuffey’s Readers. Before Netflix spies and superheroes, there was Hemingway. All have preached the American gospel of the self-made man, the man who creates himself good, on his own with never a mention of a dark or fallen side. It’s a Pelagian gospel, to be sure, and its definition of “good” has become increasingly vague with the passing decades. But not just that. Very few have even challenged the basic assumption that people can make and remake themselves by raw choice and willpower alone.
The Freedom To Choose
So, let’s examine this assumption closely. First, Scripture affirms human responsibility and the reality and significance of our choices. But it also teaches our fallen nature. Key point, often overlooked: Our choices flow from a heart corrupted by sin. In other words, fallen man is free to choose (our will is uncoerced; our actions are self-determined), but we will always choose, in some form, rebellion against God … until God changes our hearts.
The natural man finds this doctrine offensive and asserts his own freedom, his own autonomy. He doesn’t need God. But he can find no solid ground for this assertion. To see this more clearly, let’s go back to the extremes of materialism and pantheism discussed at Christmas.
The materialist reduces all to atoms. Reality is matter in motion. Everything is reduced to cause and effect. Like billiard balls scattering on the table after the break, energy particles generated in the Big Bang scatter, collide, and rebound … “off the glass” … exchanging momentum and transferring energy. Only this. Nothing else. Consciousness, volition, and choice are mere molecular interactions within the brain. After all, that’s all they can be. There is nothing else according to the consistent-thinking materialist. Appeals to quantum theory may seem to open a door to pure contingency, to pure chance, but pure chance isn’t free will. The concept of randomness isn’t consistent with the concept of a free choice. Think of it this way: Can you make a real choice if the concept of logic no longer exists?
The pantheist sees all temporal differences, all individual choices, as passing manifestations of the all-encompassing One. The individual soul is the cosmic soul and you can’t separate the two. The Hindu says “atman is Brahman.” But stop and think this through. To say “I like the Bulls but not the Cavs,” or that “Usain Bolt came in first and Bill Heid last,” or “let’s have lunch now rather than later” are all just illusions to the pantheist. Differences can’t be real if they are going to be consistent thinkers. Individual choice is irrelevant in this worldview. He who steals and he who thinks he’s been stolen from … are both confused. Not just that … even killing and dying are the same, both valid expressions of impersonal, divine reality. If “All” is one, you can’t make distinctions. If you can’t make distinctions, all choices are imaginary. Cosmic jokes.
The Gospel And Its Implications
Over against all of this, Scripture proclaims the reality of human choice and the power of God to liberate and transform the human heart.
First, the claims of Scripture are important. Scripture teaches the absolute reality of both Creator and creation. They are distinct. God exists eternally and necessarily as the Source and Ground of all created reality. (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1.)
In God, unity and diversity are equally ultimate. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is therefore absolute life and absolute personality. He is communion, love, and choice. This God created heaven and earth, not out of His own essence, but out of nothing. This means that the universe is wholly God’s. His deal. It exists at His pleasure and for His purposes, the terms of which are spelled out in His eternal decrees.
Second, Scripture tells us that man’s freedom is the freedom of a creature. Man can’t bend reality to his will. He can’t become a zebra or pass back and forth through time simply because he wants to. (“Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Jeremiah 13:23.)
He functions as a creature within a broader creation. And at every point, every moment, his freedom and choices are, in some way … checked, restricted, and given form by the rest of creation which itself moves at God’s sovereign command. Nobody is autonomous. Our choices are real, but not absolute. Man is, therefore, responsible for his actions and accountable to God. (Note to self: God will judge the world.)
Third, Scripture tells us that our main problem isn’t that we are creatures or that we lack total autonomy … our big problem is our ethical rebellion against God. Since the historical Fall of Adam in Paradise, we’re all sinners. (“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” Romans 5:12.)
We are still free, within the limits of our creaturehood. And we can make choices, to be sure. But (and this is a big but) because our hearts are twisted and messed up by sin, our “gravitational pull” is toward bad choices. Granted, our bad choices aren’t always as bad as they can be … but apart from Christ “bad choices” serve the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. And because our hearts are “bent” this way … our nature is to not seek God, let alone serve Him.
Fourth, Scripture presents us with the Gospel: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He gave His life as an atoning sacrifice wholly propitious (paid in full) to reconcile a holy God to unholy sinners. (“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:10.)
He died and rose again to offer His righteousness to those who will receive Him by faith. And by His Spirit, He transforms human hearts and so grants the very faith He requires. This is called regeneration, or new birth.
The man who has been born again is free to love and serve God. He is free to make good choices, albeit ones that often fall short. Since the work of the Holy Spirit isn’t complete in this life, we will continue to struggle with our choices. But the indwelling reality of the Spirit’s presence and power make growth in grace, love, and holiness real possibilities. The one who is born of God can overcome sin, the world and the power of the devil. All this means our wills are free from the bondage of sin … allowing for prayerful change and volitional choices in Christ.
What it all comes down to is this: Unbelievers can make New Year’s resolutions. I’m not saying they can’t. What I am saying is that they just can’t make sense of their resolutions or even their day-to-day choices if they consistently play out the full implications of their worldview.
The Gospel has enormous implications for all of life.
Happy New Year!