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.”
Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? 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?
We are left with a murky picture. 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.
Which is why the apostles warned of apostasy—on the one hand, it could only be a theoretical premise, for the elect are, well, elected. But on the other hand, that grey place in between solid faith and falling way must exist.
Does it feel like we are getting farther and farther away from Peter’s letter? Let us go back to those last few verses to remind ourselves why we are talking about free will, election, and apostasy.
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first.
For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them.
It has happened to them according to the true proverb,
“The dog turns back to its own vomit,”
“The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.”2 Peter 2:20-22 (NRSV)
Truly frightening words.
What Peter seemed to say is that these false prophets had somehow come to a saving faith—a faith that freed them—but then lost that freedom, became ensnared again, and . . . what? No longer believers? No longer Christ’s own?
Or were they never believers in the first place?
Not really Christians?
Was their experience one of true faith? Did they still believe in Jesus and still see themselves as Christians? Or did they see themselves as having evolved past that phase in their lives?
In considering all the training and teaching Peter received when he was with Jesus, I think the following parable comes to bear.
Four Soils, Four Stories
The whole point of Jesus’s parable about the sower and the soil was for the farmer to have a harvest. The importance of the seed taking root, growing full heads of grain, and being harvested was the key.
But there were obstacles.
The farmer went out to scatter seed in a field. While the farmer was scattering the seed, some of it fell along the path he was walking on. Some even got underfoot. As he sowed, that seed was quickly eaten up by the birds who were flying close by, waiting for their opportunity.
Other seeds fell on a thin layer of dirt that covered the hard rock below. These seeds quickly started growing because the soil, shallow as it was, had warmed up fast from the sun. But the plants were not able to develop much of a root system, and the shallow soil and hard rock wicked the water away. After a while in the hot sun, the plants were scorched, and they shriveled, and died.
More of the seeds fell among the roots of thistles and crab grass, lying dormant underneath the surface. The thistles and crab grass grew up faster than the seeds, as weeds are prone to do, and choked off the good plants before they had a chance to get established. So, even though the seeds grew into seedlings and even tall plants, they never developed heads of grain.
But finally, a few seeds did fall on good rich ground, where the moisture settled in, and the plants could grow deep roots. Some areas, the yield was a hundred to one! Other areas sixty to one, or thirty to one, which is still a handsome harvest.
In this parable, Jesus explained to the disciples, the seed was the word of God, potent and ready to blossom into new life in the right kind of soil.
Four Soils, Four Responses
This is one of the rare parables Jesus ended up explaining to his disciples.
- Soil on the path: The farmer knew that some of the seed would never make it. Some people, like the path, are so hardened that God’s word never even penetrates. We have a saying for this: falling on deaf ears. In effect, Jesus explained, Satan steals the truth away and really, the hardened person does not care.
- Being unteachable can do that, a person thinking they know everything they need to know already.
- Sometimes people are prejudiced against a message or a messenger, and decide ahead of time not to listen.
- Sometimes people are afraid that the truth is going to condemn what they have grown to love—a philosophy of life, or life choices. Since they do not want to give up their way of living, they do not want to hear anything they fear might go against it.
- Soil among the rocks: Some people, like the shallow soil, do not think things out, or think things through. Jesus said this one immediately responds with warm joy. But as soon as they meet with any kind of negativity, any pushback on account of their new interest in the Gospel, they are quick to drop the whole thing.
- Soil among the weeds: Some people, like the root-infested soil, have so many interests in life that the most important thing, the gospel, gets crowded out. Jesus spoke of both the cares of the world and the lure of wealth, those things that drag a person down and those things that entice a person away. In the end, though they may have spent some time in the Christian world, ultimately it comes to nothing.
Think, now, about what Peter wrote, “After they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered . . .”
- Verdant soil: Some people are like that rich, pungent loam, with open hearts and the kind of depth that gives God’s word roots and well-watered maturity.
Four Soils, One Harvest
Some confusion can come from wondering what happened with the seed that fell into the rocky soil, apparently sprang to life, but then died off, or the seed that started growing in the root-infested soil only to be choked off.
Is that like being born again and then losing your salvation?
Being born anew, born from above, in theological terms, is referred to as regeneration. Regeneration takes what was once dead spiritually and causes it to be born again in newness of life. It is a new generating, a new genesis, a new beginning.
It is not simply “turning over a new leaf.”
Regeneration marks the beginning of a new life in a radically, supernaturally, renewed person. It is that act by which the Holy Spirit puts God’s eternal life into a person who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. When the Holy Spirit recreates the human heart, God puts into your heart, and mine, an inclination towards God and a desire for the things of God.
This is something that God chose to do, making faith possible and real. It is a divine act of recreation, something that can only come from above.
This is different than an enthusiasm to try something new that sounds good. New birth is more than an enthusiastic response, it is an abiding in Christ, roots that grow deeper and deeper, that over the course of their life produce spiritual depth, a character like Christ’s, and a lived experience that enriches those around them.
[Hortus Deliciarum, Das Gleichnis vom Sämann | By Herrad of Landsberg – Hortus Deliciarum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31485263