Free Will and Free Grace

Don: The concepts of free will and free grace are deeply linked to the prospect of salvation. The idea that choices matter—that what we do has consequences, for good or bad—is a notion held by all the world’s major religions, but the concept of grace upsets the theological apple cart by suggesting that the law of cause and effect is suspended in the kingdom of heaven and replaced by undeserved kindness.

Free will presents the idea that we can approach God and receive the reward of His approval through our willful, righteous choices. Free grace, on the other hand, presents the idea that God approaches us. It shows that our righteousness is like a filthy garment, as Isaiah put it:

For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

Regardless of how hard we try to be good, we remain “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). In such a condition, nothing that we do matters. Only God’s eternal, unlimited, unmerited, and unbelievable grace is sufficient.

Can we balance these two giant religious concepts that stand like competing bookends in the Library of Faith? Are they both correct? Are they both wrong? Or is one right and the other wrong?

In the garden of Eden, immediately after the Fall and as a result of eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve had a sudden awareness of their nakedness:

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. (Genesis 3:7)

The willful act of eating the fruit was followed by the second willful act of hiding and covering their nakedness with fig leaves. Instead of approaching God, they exercised their free will to flee and hide, to isolate themselves. But God did not let them get away with it. He sought after them, found them, and gave them something more lasting and durable than fig leaves to wear:

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

This bespeaks the robe of grace that was created from the sacrifice of life—of God Himself—on the cross. The product of our free will is fragile and impermanent. Fig leaves dry out, crack, and crumble within a day or two at best.

God’s pursuit of Mankind is highlighted at the very beginning of the Bible and all the way through the Old and New Testaments, in story after story and in the parables of Jesus. They show us that the willful acts of Man seeking God are always superseded by God’s grace.

It’s as though you were to go shopping in a store and pay for your goods at the register but are called back as you are leaving and given a full refund. Why, then, bother with the register at all? Why is the transaction important? Why not just take away free will, which only ever leads us astray into sin, despair, and loss? Then there would be no need for grace. But since our free will remains intact, there must be something important in the transaction. What is it?

Ultimately, the question is: If God’s gift is so amazing—it covers our sins and is free—why did He give us free will in the first place?

Last week, we discussed the Parable of the Prodigal Son—a son who was “lost” to his father but then found again, to the great joy of his father. This parable immediately succeeds two other “lost” parables: The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin:

Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So He told them this parable, saying, “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:1-10)

In all three parables: Something (a son, a sheep, a coin) is lost; the “owner” is distressed; the “owner” pursues what was lost; the “owner” experiences unanticipated joy at finding it; and there is celebration. But there are also significant differences. First, unlike a son or a sheep, a coin cannot lose itself. It can only be lost through the carelessness of someone else. Second, a coin has no will to be lost or found. A sheep does have such will, but its actions are instinctive rather than premeditated. Third, in contrast, a son like the Prodigal is lost through his own premeditated purpose. And yet the son’s access to grace is no less than that of the coin or the sheep.

Fourth, unlike the coin and the sheep, the son had a role to play in being found: He had to “come to himself” or “come to his senses” as various Bible translations put it. What does that mean? Is it relevant to our discussion of free will? More importantly, does the father have a role in the son’s coming to his senses? Does their shared spiritual DNA program the son toward returning home?

Why, like the Prodigal Son, do we seem to value free will more than we value the free grace of our Father? Why are we allowed to exercise free will in the first place? Why is the transaction of paying for sin, only to be fully recompensed, necessary?

David: A Jesuit priest, Raymond Smullyan, concluded that God does not “grant” free will in and of itself, because it is an inalienable part of a sentient creature. In other words, sentience is defined in part by the possession of free will.

Don: The 19th century British “Prince of Preachers” Charles Haddon Spurgeon—revered for his brilliant sermons by Protestants of many denominations—held that free will, with all its tenets, is utter nonsense, a “monstrous” doctrine “akin to blasphemy.” [Here is a sermon in which he discusses it.—Ed.]

David: If there were no free will, then the Prodigal Son would not have left home, or his leaving and his return would have been preordained, and why then should the father care?

Jay: The traditional viewpoint is that free will is necessary for the expression of love in its highest form. To me, free will and grace are symbiotic. It is not either/or (which we tend to prefer because it simplifies things!) There seems to be a disconnect in the story of Creation, where God made light on Day 1 but did not make the Sun, Moon and stars until day 4. The creation of light is greater than just the making of the Sun, etc. Rather, it reflects the institution of love and grace—the components that broaden the universe. Just as we cannot understand Good without Evil, neither can we understand grace without free will.

Donald: Visiting your dying mother, who has dementia and might not or might not recognize you on any given day, nevertheless may bring to her love and grace in the moment, whether she remembers it or not the next day. Your free will might prompt you to discontinue visits that appear to be a waste of time; but if so, what happened to love? Where is the grace?

Leif: Revelation 3:20 says:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.

Christ is knocking. He wants to give us His unconditional love and grace. But it is up to our free will to open the door and let Him in—or not. Peter looked away from Jesus when he (Peter) tried to walk on water of his own free will and was only saved from drowning when he looked back to Jesus, who offered His hand, which Peter took—he accepted the grace of his own free will.

Robin: In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was burdened with knowledge of His impending death. His mortal will did not want to accept it, but He let God’s will decide. The soldiers who came to arrest Him at first fell down in awe at His divinity, and He could easily have kept them down and avoided death, but He chose to sacrifice Himself instead. He was, after all, God, who said that holiness cannot exist alongside sinfulness. But instead, He gave His grace to the soldiers and revived them, at His own cost—as He did for all of us, through His sacrifice. And that is perfect grace.

Donald: Which side of the door is the handle on? Our side, or Christ’s side? I think we all know the answer. The handle is on our side, and to turn it requires an act of our free will.

Jay: In Gethsemane, Jesus essentially sacrificed his free will as a precursor to the greater sacrifice of His life. How does grace work in such a situation? We usually regard free will as resulting in something negative, and grace as eliminating the negative. But if there is no free will left—because it has been sacrificed, abandoned—what role is left for grace to play?

Robin: Was He only surrendering the right to justice? He was being persecuted and was rejected. Justice would not have seen Him punished, but His grace and love and mercy set justice aside, or even re-defined it: Justice still exists, but God is just in choosing grace.

Dr. Singh: Nothing is free. We have to follow the rules of society, family, and church, otherwise they are divided and destroyed, and there is no salvation. We have to change our lives and follow Jesus.

David: I maintain that grace is an end-of-life event. The “grace” we talk about receiving mid-life I think of as love. The only way to sacrifice one’s free will is to die—as Jesus did for us. Not counting the Resurrection, the Bible does not recount any grace being given to Jesus after He was nailed to the cross, drained of His mortal free will. It recounts the exact opposite:

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46)

If grace was given to Jesus, it must have come at the very point of transition between His life and death. We might sacrifice life for a good cause, but loss of mortal life is not the sacrifice God cares about: He wants us to sacrifice our free will and accept His instead, at the point of death. Our little daily sacrifices—going to a church meeting or visiting the sick in hospital or even being the Good Samaritan, instead of going to a ball game—are good but not at all in the same league as sacrificing one’s will to God at the end of life.

Don: Why is the transaction important? Why not just eliminate free will, so we eliminate the door as well. The existence of the transaction suggests it is critically important. The transaction can be dramatic, as in the cases of Jonah, Balaam, and Saul. Each was pursued in dramatic fashion by God and persecuted by Him until they did God’s will. If free will is necessary for sentience, then perhaps the transaction is necessary…?

Jay: I think that is the case. Grace is necessary because without it, free will would separate us from the Creator. Grace unites us with Him. Even the angels seem to have free will—which led fully a third of them to fall from heaven. For reconciliation to exist, for love to exist, there has to be a mechanism to counter the tendencies of free will, no matter how evil those tendencies are.

Don: John 5:39-40 affirms that our will is not to turn toward God:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.

Similarly, in John 6:65:

And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”

Only grace will get us there. It was not enough for Peter to reach out his hand to Jesus: Jesus had to extend His hand to Peter. Is “coming to ourselves” a necessary part of the transaction?

Donald: We consider a transaction as being mutual: If you do this, I’ll do that. To walk out of a store without the transaction of paying for the things in our cart is theft. It’s part of the rules Dr. Singh said we must live by. It’s not just how we live, it’s the only way we can make sense of our relationship with God—as an “If you do this, then I’ll do that” transaction. What we earn and pay for, we then regard as our just desserts. But we cannot earn or buy God’s grace.

Leif: We were born with a sinful nature. Adam sold us into sin. But does free will even allow us to not sin? We are simply incapable, by nature, of not sinning. We are born under the devil’s jurisdiction. What we can do is reach out to Christ, who will then and only then usurp the devil’s place as our master. This is why the transaction is important. We are born to sin. But through the transaction—by reaching out to Christ—we can overcome our sinful nature.

Dr. Singh: So many Christians think they are saved no matter what they do. But Jesus told the disciples: You trust me because I am with you, but blessed are those who don’t see me. Salvation is a free gift following the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but we still must follow the rules. There is no guarantee of salvation. Each case is individual.

David: Of the three cases Don mentioned (Balaam, Jonah, and Saul) only Saul actually sacrificed his will to God. The other two fought to retain their own will even under direct pressure and even outright coercion from God, and even though they could see that in the end God’s will was done (Balaam saw the Midianites defeated, Jonah saw the Ninevites were saved). Both were grinding their teeth. Unlike Saul, they never gave up their free will. Their cases illustrate the point Leif made so cogently: Free will makes it very difficult to accept God’s will. But not impossible.

Leif spoke of opening our hearts. There is an inner light—an “eternity”—set within our hearts. It is the Holy Spirit of God. Therefore God’s will is also inside us, but generally covered under a bushel of our own free will.

Don: Is that the difference between being saved and lost?

David: To me, being saved happens only at death. God’s statement: “…you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” suggests that we are unwilling to die a mortal death. God is surely speaking of eternal life. He is in heaven, on the other side of (what we think of as) death. So when He says: “Come to Me”, he is inviting us to die. Most of us are generally most unwilling to accept that invitation.

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