Incredibly, just one sentence in Jude opens up huge stories that, to the first century Christian who had grown up Jewish, would have been as familiar to them as, say, the story of Jesus’s crucifixion is to you and me today.

But their stories are not as familiar to us, so one sentence just does not carry the same impact for us as it would have had on Peter’s audience.

Peter took it in stride that all human beings are enslaved—either to God in Christ, or to Satan and darkness. The apostles taught there was no middle ground. Our question today, however, particularly in the west, and even more particularly in such places as the United States, is, “How much free will do humans actually have?”

And, on the heels of questions concerning how real our experience of agency are questions asking, “How real is apostasy?

Election or Free Will?

Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Was it Pharaoh himself? Or was it God?

Reading through the whole story, the evidence builds that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Yet, suddenly, it seems, the narrator changed the refrain, and now it was God hardening Pharaoh’s heart! Who is responsible, then? Who is to be held accountable for the decisions Pharaoh made with his hardened heart?

Perhaps the most famous treatise on this topic is found in Romans 9, where Paul dealt with this very story, as well as brought up the example of Jacob and Esau. Why would Jacob the younger and not Esau the older inherit the covenant and promises as patriarch?

The apostles routinely used such words as foreknowledge, election, and predestination to explain the history and destiny of humankind. Yet, how does that square with the Gospel’s open invitation?

The Bible does not offer a definition of what the phrase free will means. Actually, the Apostle Paul—chief apologist of the first century church—indicated faith is a gift from God, and does not originate in ourselves. And Paul’s teaching, as well as Peter’s, was in line with Jesus’ teaching.

From Jesus

  • No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.
  • God will send out the angels, and gather [God’s] elect from the four winds

From Apostle Peter

  • You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,
  • Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble.
  • [You] who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ.

From Apostle Paul

  • God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before [God] in love.
  • God destined us for adoption as [God’s] children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of [God’s] will.
  • For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works.
  • For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

This brings us to a series of experiments[1] that got physicists, neuro-scientists, and computer scientists talking about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place. These researchers now think that free will is more of a perception, or an experience than it is a driving force. In other words, “A person can choose to do what they want, but they cannot make themselves want something.”

The traditional definition of free will says people are absolutely free, and our actions are not predetermined.

Anything is possible.

Whatever choice you make is unforced.

Remember that scientists examine, measure, and define what they can actually observe. When a scientist is presented with an active and aware brain, he or she will define it as a conscious mind. If the brain is active, but not aware of its activity, that is called the unconscious. You and I know there is a third influence from the spiritual realm which scientists would have a hard time examining, and that is God.

Keeping that in mind,

After lots of research, scientists are now saying that free will is more limited than the traditional way of looking at it. Our unconscious brain decides something, and our conscious brain only has the power to agree with or veto that decision once it is aware that a decision has been made.

Put another way, we become aware of feelings, desires, even decisions about things that have come from some part of ourselves that we are not consciously aware of, and then we either continue with what has already begun, or we stop.

Yet, people also have the ability to look ahead and plan. As one scientist said, “That’s what gives us moral responsibility.”

People -do- have the ability to choose. Even if our choices are prompted and motivated by forces we are only partially aware of, you and I have to live our lives to find out what those choices will be.

Some people are afraid this limited version of free will would mean that “people are no more responsible for their actions than asteroids or planets.”

But these scientists have concluded that even though it is now observably true that we are limited in our use of (absolutely) free choice, the aspect of free choice we -have- is of great potential worth.

So, we are left with a murkier picture than expected. It is not a clear either/or situation, free will or election. Instead, you and I must think in terms of how God’s election interacts with what we call our free will.

Calvinism or Arminianism?

The question itself is a little bit unfair, even though those are the categories most familiar to people. The debate was first recorded in the fifth century with Augustine’s written rebuttal to Pelagius’s theories. John Calvin’s students, a thousand years later, was engaged in a very similar debate with Jacobus Arminius’s students. In both instances, the church sided against the theology of free will as proposed by Pelagius and Arminius. Eventually, both men’s teachings were deemed heresy by church councils.

Nevertheless, the debate has never been satisfactorily settled, and remains today one of the basic differences among Protestant denominations.

The following is a very condensed summary of the key concepts on each side.

400 AD, Augustine | Calvin, Council of Dort, 1610
400 AD, Pelagius | Arminius, Wesley, 1700’s  
Humankind is in absolute bondage to sin and Satan, unable to exercise their own will to trust in Jesus Christ without the help of God.
The fall of humankind was not total, there was enough good left in humankind for them to will to accept Jesus Christ unto salvation.  
God’s foreknowledge is based on the plan and purpose of God, election is not based on the decision of a human being, but the “free will” of the Creator alone.
A = ABROGATED (CONDITIONAL) ELECTION Election was based on the foreknowledge of God as to who would believe. A person’s “act of faith” was seen as the “condition” of their being elected to eternal life, since God foresaw that person exercising their “free will” in response to Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ died to save those who were given to Him by the Father in eternity past. All for whom Jesus died (the elect) will be saved, and all for whom Jesus did not die (the non-elect) will be lost.  
I = IMPERSONAL (UNIVERSAL) ATONEMENT Redemption is based on the fact that God loves everybody, that Christ died for everyone, and that the Father is not willing that any should perish. The death of Christ provided the grounds for God to save all humankind, but each must exercise their own “free will” in order to be saved.  
God’s grace that cannot be obstructed. The elect are regenerated (made spiritually alive) by God before expressing faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. If a totally depraved person was not made alive by the Holy Spirit, such a calling on God would be impossible.
Since God wanted all humankind to be saved, the Lord sent the Holy Spirit to “woo” all people to Christ, but since human beings have absolute “free will,” they are able to resist God’s will for their life. God’s will to save all people can be frustrated by the finite will of human beings.  People exercises their own will first, and then are born again.
5.“P” = PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS Salvation is entirely the work of God, humankind has absolutely nothing to do with the process. The saints will persevere because God will see to it that the Lord will finish the work God has begun.Y = YIELDABLE GRACE If humankind cannot be saved by God unless it is a person’s will to be saved, then humankind cannot continue in salvation unless that person continues to will to be saved.
Calvinism and Arminianism

[1] The following is condensed from an article that came out a while ago, entitled Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t (Dennis Overbye, New York Times)

[Daisy | Photo by and (c)2008 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Co-attribution must be given to the Chanticleer Garden., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons and Tulip | pxhere]

Leave a Reply