The Question of Free Will

by Mark Marikos


Why would a perfect God create us with free-will?  Surely He would have known we would turn our wills against Him.  Wouldn’t it have been easier to make us to be obedient and unquestioning?  And in Genesis 1:31, how could God say (about the creation of man) that it was not just “good” like he said on the other five days of creation, but “very good”, knowing how that free-will would manifest itself throughout history?


When my wife and I were expecting our daughter, we actually prayed that God would give us a strong-willed child.  Man, did He ever answer that prayer!  That sounds insane, because strong-willed children challenge everything, from an early age. Early on, we concluded she would grow up to become a hostage negotiator! 


But we prayed that prayer for a reason.  We knew it would be a challenge to raise a strong-willed child.  But we also knew that if we, by God’s grace, could get her pointed in the right direction, we would not have to worry about her.  If she went in a particular direction, it would be her choice, her commitment, her conviction.  She would not have to depend upon ours.


The point is, that free-will is absolutely necessary for commitment and conviction, and even more so, for love, grace, and mercy.  In fact all of the spiritual fruit listed in Galatians 5, are acts of free-will, a free-will that has willfully submitted itself to God’s will, and is intentionally living out the imago dei.  Without the freedom to reject God, you could not truly love Him any more than your lawn mower can love you.  Love is an act of free-will! 


He created us for a relationship with Himself, an intimate, loving relationship in which we freely choose to love Him, because He first loved us.  Not out of compulsion, guilt or manipulation, but out of gratitude for the love He sheds into our lives continually.


So free-will was an absolute necessity, despite its messiness and risks.  It was the only way to achieve what God was after.  He knew the risks, nay the inevitability, and He was prepared to deal with it before time began.


One might assume that it was maybe through some weakness in God that He was unable to make me obedient, that God is not as all-powerful as He claims to be.  But let’s think about it.  Yes, it would take a mighty God to create “perfect” humans that never did anything wrong.  Even with all of our technology and science we cannot create perfect machines that never fail, much less “autonomous” ones that make decisions for themselves.  Surely that would be an impressive feat of power and might!  That would surely be worthy of glory – at least from our perspective.


But God had something far more glorious in mind.  He wants us to choose to love Him, not out of compulsion, but because we feel that is in our own best interest.  Does it not take far more strength for God to woo me back to Himself than it would to force me to be obedient in the first place?  The way He made me requires that He, at some point, convince me that living for Him is in my best interest.  Then, and only then, is it my decision, not His or anyone else’s.  Every believing parent looks for the day when they know their child is living in her own faith, not that of her parents.  Does it not take an amazingly awesome God to win me back through loving mercy and grace rather than by means of intimidation?


Free-will is also a pre-requisite for creativity, another part of the imago dei.  Without free-will, our repertoire of possible solutions to challenges would be limited to that which was pre-programmed into us from the beginning.  And our response to any challenges would be mechanical and instinctive.


But how is free-will consistent with God’s sovereignty?  In his book, “Chosen by God”, R.C. Sproule addresses the apparent conflict between mankind’s free-will and God’s sovereignty.  He concludes that the two are compatible, because of God’s eternal nature and His ability to arrange the circumstances of our lives in a way that convinces us that a particular course of action would be in our own best interest.  While some may look at this as a form of divine manipulation, I prefer to see it differently.  God loves me so much, that He will move Heaven and Earth to help me see my need for Him and His love for me!  He so wants me to “not perish” that He goes to great lengths to convince me. 


One word that Sproule uses as he talks about how we make decisions is interesting.  He doesn’t say we make decisions based upon what we think to be in our own best interest at the time.  He says we make decisions based upon what we feel to be in our own best interest at the time.  There is an important difference. 


If we made decisions based upon what we think, probably not many people would ever smoke, over-eat, speed, etc.  We have so much information available to us that none of these choices should really make any sense.  Statistically, they all put us in danger and are shown to decrease the quality (and quantity) of life.  The data are very clear, so it is not really logical to choose doing any of these things.  So why do we do them anyway? 


Research has clearly demonstrated that no matter how much we know about potential consequences and risks, when it come down to making decisions of all types, it comes down to what is emotionally appealing to us at the moment.  Somehow that over-rides any logical conclusions we have come to previously.  If we perceive some temporal emotional gratification from a particular choice, we will ultimately find some rationalization to make that choice. 


Rationalization is one of mankind’s strongest faculties, right up there with denial.  And they both are useful because it allows us to set aside the cold, hard facts and make the choice that gives us the most immediate sense of gratification.  It takes great discipline and intentionality to overcome that tendency, and a willingness to delay gratification for some future greater good.  It takes conviction!  And conviction is the result of your values, what you really believe in your deepest being, that determines who you are.


True, many of us have personal or corporate value statements that are pretty lofty.  But if you really want to know what you or someone else really believes deep down, who we, or they, really are, look at the actions.  Jesus says it this way.


Matthew 7:15-2015 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.


So the issue becomes how do I make my “personal values” match my “public values” so that the choices I make reflect what I really want to become?  The Apostle Paul speaks of this struggle.


Romans 7:14-2514 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. u For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!


This ties into the story of Adam and Eve.  They both knew what was the “right” thing to do, but a thought was planted in their minds that just maybe they were missing something really good.  As they continued to ponder the thought (or meditate on it) it grew bigger in their minds and hearts until they were able to rationalize deviating from the proper course in hope of gaining that so-called “greater good”. 


And that is why it’s so important to be careful what I let into my head, but become intentionally disciplined about how I think about things.  I need to not dwell on things that may look good or feel good for a moment, but have negative consequences.  Instead I need to diligently fill my mind with truth, and meditate on that, so that it sinks down into the deepest parts of me and becomes part of my true values.  And that is how I build conviction.  It’s all about building an accurate world-view!  I believe that is why Paul admonishes us to be intentionally and proactively mindful of our thoughts.


Philippians 4:8 – Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.


Free-will is also part of the imago dei.  God is the ultimate in free-will.  No one does, or ever could control His thoughts and actions.  God does what God wills!  While we are the imago dei, we only imperfectly reflect that attribute.  There is probably no one on earth or in history, except Christ, who perfectly exercises free will.  And even Christ said He only did what the Father willed.   In most cases, what we call free-will is choosing the lesser of two perceived evils, especially when free-will is only practiced in reaction to our circumstances.  We approach perfect free-will more closely when we are intentional and proactive in our lives.  But even then, our choices are strongly influenced by perceived immediate threats and opportunities.


So when God created us with free will, He determined that He would not force His will upon us in regard to His relationship with us.  He knew that would not allow us to love Him as He desires.  Instead, He allows us adequate room to express that love in our own way, and in our own time.  He lovingly draws us to Himself.


Jeremiah 31:3 – The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.


The old adage that “you can draw more flies with honey than with vinegar” also applies in our case.  God knew we would more likely respond out of gratitude than out of fear, and that the response would be to enter into deeper relationship.  Fear never deepens a relationship; it builds walls that hinder relationship. 


His loving kindness includes mercy (not getting what we deserve) and grace (getting what we could never deserve).  If all He had done was to die on the cross so our sins could be forgiven, that mercy would have been more than enough.  But He goes far beyond and pours grace into our lives continually through the power of His Holy Spirit.  He fills our lives with good things that we in no way could deserve as a way to show His delight in us and as an invitation into deeper fellowship with Him.


He delights to give good gifts to His children, just as any good father would (Matthew 7:11, Luke 11:13).  He desires that we, in gratitude, would enter into the delight with which those gifts are given.  They are an invitation into deeper relationship.  When we, of our own free-will respond in gratitude, we are blessed because our greatest relational need is being fulfilled.  As we draw nearer to Him, we see that His motivation is love, and we are changed.  We learn how to love others with the same unconditional love that He showers upon us.  Then we begin to understand a bit of the blessing He receives as well.  And our free-will seeks to follow His will.


God’s mercy and grace are not limited to those who are obedient.


Matthew 5:45b – … For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. (NASB)


1 Peter 3:18 – For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; (KJV)


If it were limited to the obedient, we would all be without hope. 


Our free-will, more often than not, results in bad decisions, decisions made from wrong motivations. 


James 1:14-15 – But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.  Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.


Such decisions almost always have negative consequences, not just for us, but for others as well.  In spite of Hs mercy and grace, God generally lets us experience the negative consequences of bad decisions, not because He can’t prevent them, but because He, like any good parent, realizes that we learn more from what we experience than what we are told.  Like a loving parent, He sometimes mitigates the severity of those consequences, when the consequence would prove too severe.  But rarely does He eliminate them altogether.  And when He does mitigate the circumstances, He often does so at a dear cost to Himself, the ultimate example being His death on the cross.


But despite our bad decisions, God never withdraws His love.  He never rescinds His invitation into deeper relationship.  In fact, many times He uses the consequences to hem us in, so we are more likely to see Him waiting for us at the mouth of the box canyon into which we have fallen.  We are still free to practice self-sufficiency, trying to climb out on our own, or making the box canyon our new home.  He stands at the mouth of the canyon waiting for us to tire of our way and take Him up on His invitation to join Him on the hike to higher ground.


God continually places growth opportunities in our paths.  He knows that growth only comes when we are stretched beyond that to which we have become accustomed.  Many of the “challenges” of life are opportunities to climb out of our box and flex muscles we have used little or not at all.  It is when facing such challenges that we must decide whether we indeed climb out of the box, or just pull the lid down and hide. 


Even when we climb from the box, we still face decisions about how we will respond to the challenge.  There are fundamentally two categories of choices we face that start with the decision to either move towards God, or to move away from Him.  There are generally a limited number of responses that will result in growth towards godliness, but many more that compromise what ground we have already gained.  Fortunately, He does not leave us to ourselves to figure out which is which.  His word is rich in wisdom, and for those that yield to Him, he sends His Holy Spirit to live inside of their spirits to teach not just their minds, but also their hearts.


God’s unconditional and unwavering love for us frees us from many self-defeating choices.  If we accept His unwavering love and acceptance, we escape the self-condemnation that so often defeats us on our journey to becoming what He created us to be.  If I recognize that nothing I do will make Him love me any less, there will be no reason to beat up on myself when I do fail because I will recognize that He already knew I was going to, but He still chose to love and accept me.  He sends conviction my way, but never condemnation.


Romans 8:1Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…


Before Christ climbed upon the cross, He knew every horrible thing I was going to think, say, or do.  But He still chose to die for me.  His free-will is so strong that not even I, or anyone else can convince Him to quit loving me.  He cannot be disappointed in me, because disappointment implies that He expected me to do something different than I did.  But He already knew what I was going to do, and He took that to the cross along with all my other sins – so it’s covered! 


Self-condemnation keeps me focused on the sin.  Accepting His unconditional love keeps me focused on His loving mercy and grace, and deepens my relationship with Him.  I am free to chose which path I take!  And as my relationship with Him grows, it changes me; I want to draw even closer.  And because it is my “want” that ultimately drives my decisions, my decisions will naturally grow to be more in line with His will, what He wants for me.



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