Tuesday, January 23, 2007

If God knows all, where's free will?

Third in the "Tough Questions" series looks at the dynamic between predestination and free will.

Romans 8:29-30, Ephesians 1:5, 11
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,

The story is told of a group of theologians who were discussing the tension between predestination and free will. Things became so heated that the group broke up into two opposing factions. But one man, not knowing which to join, stood for a moment trying to decide. At last he joined the predestination group. "Who sent you here?" they asked. "No one sent me," he replied. "I came of my own free will." "Free will!" they exclaimed. "You can't join us! You belong with the other group!" So he followed their orders and went to the other clique. There someone asked, "When did you decide to join us?" The young man replied, "Well, I didn't really decide--I was sent here." "Sent here!" they shouted. "You can't join us unless you have decided by your own free will!" (Today In The Word, August, 1989, p. 35)

Free will versus predestination. It’s one of the stickiest subjects in all of Christian theology. In layman’s terms it sounds a little like this:
If God knows everything, then he knows everything I’ll ever do. He knows whether I’ll choose salvation or not. My choice is an illusion if God already knows what I’ll choose.
Well, first let’s set some definitions in front of our discussion.
We all understand free will, right? It means that we’re not puppets. It means that God does not control our actions, we choose what we want to do and don’t want to do.
Predestination is a little different. The best definition that I’ve come across concerning this word is as follows: Predestination means to work out beforehand. In theology, predestination is the doctrine that all events have been willed by God. John Calvin interpreted predestination to mean that God willed eternal damnation for some people and salvation for others. As far as being marked out beforehand, well, there’s been a whole lot of discussion and disagreement over the course of church history concerning just what that means.
Some say God pre-selects those who are invited to receive salvation. And that pre-selection is seen in two ways.
One says that all people deserve to go to hell, but God in his infinite mercy chooses some to go to heaven. Theologians call this single predestination.
The other explanation says that he chooses some for heaven and some for hell. It sort of says that God makes up two lists. Theologians call this double predestination.
Those teaching pre-selection views base their views on two assumptions.
First, they emphasize God’s sovereignty. God’s omnipotence. God’s the boss. He can do anything he wants to do. Second, they say Christ died on the cross for those whom god selected, not for everyone. Otherwise they say, God’s plan failed if Christ died on the cross for people who would never accept him. So, since God’s plans are perfect and cannot fail, God obviously didn’t plan for those people to be saved in the first place.
Both assumptions are faulty. Because both of these views leave free will out of the equation. If God makes the choice for us, if we are either chosen for heaven or chosen for hell, then where is our free will?
Without question, God is sovereign.
Without question, God has power over all of creation.
Without question, God knows all.
But the reality is that God has chosen to limit himself at the point of our free will. God does not mess with the free will of humanity.
You can see this illustrated very clearly in a film that came out a few years ago. When God gives Bruce (in Bruce Almighty) his powers, he tells him, “You have all my powers. You can do anything you want, you just can’t mess with free will.” This is demonstrated very clearly later on in the film. After Bruce uses God’s powers to selfishly set his own life right, he loses his girlfriend Grace. Bruce shows up at the school where Grace is a teacher in order to try to get her back. When she rejects him again he tries to use his God power to force her to love him. It doesn’t work. She just looks at him and asks what he’s doing.
No doubt God could disregard our freedom if he wanted to. But God doesn’t treat us like hand puppets or chess pieces. He respects our freedom to serve him or to choose not to serve him.
Look at Luke 2:10! Angels announce to the shepherds in the field “good news of great joy that will be for all people.”
Look at John 3:16! “God so loved the world that whoever believes in him shall not die but have everlasting life.”
Look at Matthew 24:14! Jesus tells his disciples to preach the gospel throughout the world and make disciples of all nations.
Good news for all people.
Whoever believes.
All nations throughout the world.
The Bible clearly teaches that Christ died for everyone. Obviously, that’s not what predestination is all about. There’s a better way to understand this concept.
First, consider that God is not constrained by time like we are. God does not live a linear timeline like we do. In fact, it reminds me of something from a book I once read.
In “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut there is a race of aliens who are not limited to linear time. Instead, they explain that they can hold up time like a film and look at any scene at any time. This didn’t change the content of the movie and they didn’t change the movie. They simply knew what would happen.
God is much the same. God can look at any moment in time. That doesn’t change what will happen in that moment. Our free will is not thwarted by the fact that God knows what we will do.
Instead, consider that predestination does not determine who is picked for salvation, but what happens to those who do choose God’s gift of unmerited favor. Everyone who has faith in Christ, everyone who simply trusts Him for salvation, is guaranteed a place in heaven. Remember that God offers salvation as a gift. But he does not predetermine or force our choice.
Think of it this way.
Where I grew up in Palmyra the NJ Transit bus stop was a block from my house. The 9A bus stopped there several times every weekday and a few times a weekend. The sign on the front of the bus read “Center City.” It ended at Broad and Race Streets in Center City, Philadelphia. Now that bus driver didn’t carry a list of who could ride the bus. Anybody with the fare could ride to Center City. Nor did that driver just go wherever he wanted each day. He had a predetermined travel plan that took that bus to Center City. If I chose to get on that bus, NJ Transit guaranteed that I would end up at Broad and Race. Now I’m not forced to stay on the bus to the end. I can pull the cord over the window and get off at any time. But if I choose to stay with my original decision, I will get downtown, sooner or later.
That’s the way predestination works.
The bus of salvation passes by our heart. Jesus Christ sits in the driver’s seat. The sign on the front reads “Heaven.” The driver doesn’t have a predetermined list of riders. He invites everyone to come aboard. If we choose to get on and stay on the bus, God guarantees that we will end up in heaven. We can get off anytime we want. But if we choose to stick with our original decision, we are certain to make it to heaven someday.
So then what do we do with all this newfound information?
Well, I’d like to offer you a suggestion that I saw at the end of a movie the other night.
The movie is “Back to the Future part III.” In the second movie, Marty’s GF Jennifer picks up a fax in the future that Marty had received from his boss. There are two words in very large type on the sheet, “YOU’RE FIRED.” Toward the end of III, Marty avoids an auto accident that would have broken his hand and kept him from pursuing his dream of being a musician. When Jennifer looks at the paper after the accident, the words fade from the page. Shortly thereafter they encounter Professor Brown, the inventor of the time machine. Jennifer says: "Dr. Brown, I brought this note back from the future and now it's erased." Doc replies: "Of course it's erased." Jennifer: "But what does that mean?" Doc: "It means your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you."
So I offer you Doc Brow’s advice this morning.
Your future is not set.
It’s whatever you make of it.
So make it good!
Live well.
Serve one another.
And love your God with all your heart soul mind and strength.


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