Free Will, Grace, and Judgment

Don: It disturbs us that grace is free, because it does not fit our expectation that a cause (in this case, sin) must result in an effect (in this case, punishment). But free grace, and also free will, are at the core of Christian theology, and despite our misgivings it would seem that none of us would want it to be any other way.

Another of our misgivings is that free will and free grace seem to be contradictory. Last week we asked if God could create a being that lacked free will. Mankind was created in the image of God:

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Does this mean that God has free will? It might be argued that He does, since being omnipotent He has the power to be whatever He chooses to be and to have whatever He chooses to have. But being omniscient as well, a perfectly good God knows and must make the best, the optimum, choice in any given situation; in which case He does not have free will—He may not choose a sub-optimum choice.

Adam and Eve were created, and were made husband and wife, not by their own choice. They were given no choice but to live under God’s direct jurisdiction in the garden of Eden, and were evidently required to tend the garden. But they did not choose what was planted in it: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life were already there. Not least, they were forbidden to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—it was not a request, it was not negotiable.

It was God’s garden, His plan, His rules. Free will played no part in it before the Fall, except for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which in itself was about a choice—good or evil. It might as well be called the Tree of Free Will, or the Tree of Choice; and the Tree of Life might as well be called the Tree of Grace.

Thus, there has been a contrast between will and grace right from the start. It seems that God’s plan was for Man’s will to be aligned with His will. The Tree of Life—the Tree of Grace—is the symbol of that alignment. It was this alignment, this oneness between Man and God, that died at the Fall. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—the Tree of Free Will, the Tree of Choice—symbolizes that loss.

Why did God put that tree in the garden? Christians value free will and teach it enthusiastically in churches, but the Bible is full of stories in which God’s will supplants Man’s will. The stories of God supplanting the wills of Jonah, Balaam, Saul, Moses, Jeremiah, Job, and dozens more leave no doubt that this is God’s world, His plan, His way.

Oneness with God was regained in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus proclaimed: “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” He taught us that same message in the Lord’s Prayer. Grace is the agent of re-alignment. It might be said that the only righteous thing to do in return for His grace is to relinquish our will to God. If so, is it really free will? Bible stories such as that of Balaam show that God will interfere in our lives and with our will repeatedly, urgently, and even violently; and yet, in the end, it remains our choice whether to succumb. Is that free will?

It seems we have some decision-making responsibility, but it may not be exactly what we have always thought it to be. The only decision we must make is whether to follow the urge to return to the our Father’s house and garden, like the Prodigal Son. Jacob wanted to return home to reconcile with his brother, Esau; but on the way, God wrestled with him and changed his life.

The call of grace is to return to our roots, which are in alignment with God’s will. It is how we were created. Our own free will and our choices, no matter how good we think they are, will never get us back to our father’s house, because they are never good enough.

So again, why the two trees? One exposes our nakedness and our utter dependence on the love of God; the other shows the long arm of grace, which realigns our will with God’s. Both seem to be imperative to God. They symbolize what the Prodigal’s father called death and resurrection, as perfectly demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Does God value free will, as we do? Why do we distrust grace so much?—Does God? Paul wrote:

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled [i.e., realigned] us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)

What is so important about free will that makes us cling to it? Is it a central concept of Scripture? Or are we missing something about free will in the context of grace?

Jay: One reason we hang on to free will so tightly is because we think of its opposite as slavery. Without choice, we feel we must be slaves. Another reason is that we tend to link free will with love, thinking that God gave us free will out of His love for us. But to relinquish our will totally to God and be in perfect alignment with Him is not slavery; rather, it surely must bring peace. But we have a hard time accepting it.

Chris: We think of free will in the context of a world of good and evil. But what about free will in a world of pure good? It would be liberating, because free will would be unnecessary and its loss would therefore not be an issue. We were never intended to live in a world of good and evil, only in a world of pure good.

Jay: If heaven is a place of perfection, there is no need for free will in it. There is nothing at all to fear or avoid. There are no bad or wrong choices.

Anonymous: Every choice we make would be a good choice. It is indeed liberating.

David: There is no Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the new heaven promised in Revelation. There is only a Tree of Life. So did God make a mistake in planting both trees in the garden of Eden?

To me, free will (like grace) is different during our mortal lives than at the end of our mortal lives. When we relinquish our will to God and accept His will and His grace in mid-life, we are still free to change our minds. Sadly, we too often avail ourselves of that choice. But at the end of life, the choice we make is final, according to the Bible.

Donald: What was the point in warning Adam and Eve, who could have had no experience or understanding of death, that they would die if they ate the fruit? Why should they suffer consequences for something beyond their comprehension? We have consequences for breaking the Ten Commandments and we need grace to ameliorate those consequences because (unlike Adam and Eve) we know our sin before we commit it. If we are in alignment with God, is grace necessary?

Anonymous: Grace is to save you from the consequences of unknowingly making a wrong decision.

KB: To me, grace is for everyone, whether they know they made a wrong decision or not. It is given to those who repent and admit their brokenness to God. God created Adam and Eve and must have given them a level of comprehension to understand His injunction against eating the fruit. God knew that they knew. That’s why He was able to say “I told you so!” at the Fall. But His grace covered them anyway.

Mikiko: God dignifies us with free will, the power to make decisions of our own rather than having God or fate predetermine what we do. The Bible tells us:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)

So although we were created in God’s image, we don’t make good decisions. Our free will goes astray, but to a great extent, we can determine our future. The Bible encourages us to “choose life . . . by listening to [God’s] voice,” that is, by choosing to obey His commands. (Deuteronomy 30:19, 20) This offer would be meaningless, even cruel, if we lacked free will. Instead of forcing us to do what He says, God warmly appeals to us:

“O if only you would actually pay attention to my commandments! Then your peace would become just like a river.” (Isaiah 48:18)

Dr. Singh: The founders of this country only accepted the last six of the Ten Commandments. So people are confused. I am sitting here by choice. There are good people in other churches. They have knowledge, but it is different. Sometimes they cannot decide.

Jay: It seems that we value free will more as we grow older. It’s evident when children reach adolescence. There is a massive difference in how children aged five and 15 perceive choice and free will. In calling on us to become like little children, Jesus is asking us to be more trusting of God’s will than of our own.

Donald: Where does repentance fit into all this? In order to repent, first we must know we have done something wrong. And we must have had prior knowledge of the consequences of doing something wrong.

Jay: How much does a two-year-old child have to repent before daddy forgives her? Does daddy forgive her even if she doesn’t repent her misbehavior? Most fathers do.

KB: But he wants her to know that she has done something wrong.

Jay: Yes, of course; but he don’t love her any the less if she will not learn.

Donald: How often does a parent tell a child: “Go tell (someone) you are sorry!” It’s a command.

Jay: Our parenting, compared to God’s, must leave much to be desired. The closest we can get to it is in the unconditional love we give our children. It surpasses even the love we give a spouse. But the older our children get, the more complicated becomes our relationship with them and the more strain is put upon it—often precisely because of their assertion of their own free will. The perfect father would make perfect choices for his child, so why would a child who knows her father is perfect not defer to his choices for her? Why do we think of that as slavery rather than love? We might even view it as punishment.

David: That’s because we don’t know any better. But a father knows better than a child. So a perfect loving father, knowing what to expect of adolescence, would never allow his child to grow up and exercise free will in the first place.

Jay: But can a being be created that does not have free will?

David: Knowing that free will is going to be nothing but a headache for creator and creature alike, why create the creature in the first place? Why have children? Why be a creator? The conundrum seems to me explicable only by the process theological argument that it shows God the Being overseeing God the Becoming—overseeing His own creation. The process begins at Alpha, with the garden of Eden and its two trees, one of which was the Tree of Choice, as Don put it; and ends at Omega, a new heaven with only the Tree of Life and no Tree of Choice.

Donald: When wheeled into an emergency room with life-threatening injuries, we make the decision to put ourselves completely in the surgeon’s hands. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the parents of a child who is in that position, who cannot understand what is happening and trusts only its parents. Other than at the end of life, do we ever truly surrender our will completely? We may say we do, but do we mean it? Can we maintain it?

Don: Does God value free will? Or is it a man-made concept?

KB: It seems important to God that we go to Him, that we choose Him, of our own free will.

Don: Yet the Bible stories we have discussed show God wanting to impose His will on us, and actually doing so violently and persistently (“us” being represented by Jonah, Balaam, Saul, et. al.) There is nowhere in the Bible where God sits down with Man and asks: “What would you like to do?” This is God’s creation, His plan, His rules, His way. If we don’t like it, we end up like Jonah, sitting on a hillside sulking because God’s will, rather than Jonah’s will, prevailed for the Ninevites; or like Balaam, who was forced by God to bless the Midianites he, Balaam, would much rather curse. Saul was also violently coerced into doing God’s will, yet unlike Jonah and Balaam, he was changed by it.

Dr. Singh: That’s why we must think of God as love. He sent so many prophets. We are sinners. There are so many religions. Even so he supplies our daily needs. He still loves us. He is giving us a chance. That’s why we are still alive. God-fearing people are still here. But we still have choice. We cannot understand God’s way of thinking.

Jay: If I think that God does not value choice, my gut reaction is to cringe, because I link choice to love, and a God who apparently does not is not the sort of God I was hoping for! Egypt’s Pharaoh too must have cringed when God gave him no choice and no love in forcing him to let the Israelites go. God even prolonged the agony for everyone, by hardening Pharaoh’s heart. There’s no sign that God values man’s will in this story.

Donald: If this is complex from the perspective of our personal relationship with God, how much more so is it from the perspective of religion!

Don: The concept of justice complicates it even further. Teenagers exercise their growing realization of free will to clamor for a form of justice they call “fairness.” “It’s not fair!” is a refrain most parents of teenagers will recognize. So to deny free will is to deny justice, at least in teenage eyes. If we are God’s teenagers, what are we to make of His apparent disregard for our free will? It seems there’s no room for negotiation, either.

Donald: Is that grace?

Don: Did Saul recognize as grace his being thrown from his horse, struck by lightning, and blinded? Did Balaam see it as grace when he tried to curse but was forced to bless? When he tried to go see the king but was forced off the road to prevent it? Did Pharaoh see God’s plagues on Egypt as grace?

Jay: Those are powerful challenges to the common perception of will and grace. We want grace and love in the form of unicorns, butterflies, and rainbows. Is it graceful to smack the hand of a child reaching out to touch a hot stove?

Donald: There are many hymns that call for the surrender of will.

David: As I proposed last week, free will may be simply an intrinsic property of any universe. If so, a universe without free will cannot be created. The creator of a universe then would neither value nor disregard free will: It is simply there, a part of the fabric of Creation. It just Is.

Don: Perhaps we cling so tenaciously to the notion of free will because we think that if we make the right choices we will be able to affect our own destinies. The idea that our destinies are predetermined, and that we must rely on God’s graciousness rather than on our own efforts to get through life, is really unnerving and remarkably difficult, even for a lifelong Christian.

David: Lifelong Daoists don’t have that problem. 😉

One thought on “Free Will, Grace, and Judgment

  1. David Ellis says:

    Here’s a beautifully written fictional story, published in the New Yorker, which is essentially about grace:

    “With a prayer of thanks to Jesus, Annie seizes on her power as a modern woman. She will take her life into her own hands and let someone else do all the work for a change.”

    And here is an interview with the writer, John L’Heureux on the Mystery of Grace.

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