We had a very good debate in Bible study last night. It wasn’t heated, it was good; it was a quest to understand the truth, and it’s implications. We need more of this among the people of God. The topic was, “God’s choice, or our free-will.” The discussion got me thinking and searching. I can’t say I’ve got it all down, but I think I’m seeing more clearly as I test and seek.
This debate regarding the sovereign choosing of God and predestination versus our free-will to choose has gone on for centuries. I don’t plan and settling the issue today. I do think we need to begin by defining our terms. Predestination is not choosing, is a pre-determined outcome and it can be very open ended. When Romans 8:29 says that “those God foreknew, he predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son,” Paul is saying that the pre-determined destination for those who believe is Christ-likeness. Predestination is not actually identifying “who,” but rather “where.” “The likeness of his Son” is the pre-determined destination. The question as to whether God has already decided who reaches that destination and who doesn’t lies in the question of choosing. Has God already chosen those who will be regenerated, or is that left up to the individual?
Clearly there are conditional aspects to what we call salvation. Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied the penalty of sin (physical execution by God) and provided legal, personal forgiveness unconditionally for all, without exception (see John 3:16, Romans 5:18, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15). Now, we see the call to confession and repentance through the resurrection of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:5-11, Romans 5:9-11, 2 Corinthians 5:15) for relational forgiveness in regard to the consequences of sin. Eternal separation from God (what we most often think of when we talk about salvation) is a relational consequence of our rebellion/treason (sin), not a penalty, and this, as well as the many other consequences of sin, are overcome conditionally in proportion to our confession and repentance. “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 5:17, emphasis mine). “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44, emphasis mine). “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15, emphasis mine again). “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:7-9, no emphasis needed).
There is reward and life in confession and repentance and if we do not respond to the conviction of the Holy Spirit by coming into agreement with God about the destructive nature of our sin through confession, and following up by making a change to follow Jesus through repentance, we will not walk in the grace and blessing of God. So then, the question is, Does God chose who will repent, or is the choice entirely ours? Is relational forgiveness of the consequences of our sin God’s sovereign choice, or our free-will? As best as I can determine, it’s both… and that’s not a cop-out, honest. To support my case, I present exhibit A: Moses.
If God had left things to Moses’ free-will, we wouldn’t have the book of Exodus. We know from Esther’s adventures that if she had refused, God would have delivered the Jews another way (Esther 4:12-14). We could reason that when Moses refused, God could have delivered Israel from Egypt through someone else. Moses literally begged God to send someone else, yet God chose and sent Moses, even against his free-will. Why? Because God knew Moses’ heart and knew that what Moses rejected today, he would embrace later. Moses, whom God foreknew, God predestined to deliver Israel. There are a number of others we could list whose free-will was overridden by God: Jonah, Nebuchadnezzar, Samson, Hosea, even the apostle Paul. And this list is far from exhaustive.
Every exertion of God’s will over someone’s free-will is based on what God knows of that individual’s heart; knowing that what they reject or resist now, they will embrace later. God chose Jacob over Esau, even before they were born and had a chance to make choices (see Romans 9:10-18). We should find great security in this! This is not a truth of exclusion, but one that assures us that every single person whose heart’s desire is to know God and please God will be delivered, even from themselves. God knows us better than we know ourselves and will respond to our heart’s cry, even if reason, logic, and emotion cloud our understanding and judgment. Truly, nothing can separate from the love of God—not even our own poor decisions.
Sadly, God also knows that some will always reject him. By way of example, Ramses, Pharaoh of Egypt at the time of Moses—God “hardened,” or “strengthened,” his heart against Israel. God did not force on Pharaoh anything that was not already in his heart, but based on his foreknowledge, God placed Pharaoh in position to glorify God through his rebellion. Why would God satisfy the penalty of sin for those he knows will reject him? As a demonstration of his goodness, mercy, and grace. He commands us to love our enemies as a reflection of his own character. Well, he did it first. He demonstrated perfect love for those he knew would not choose him.
Are we free to choose? Yes. Does God know what our ultimate choice will be? Yes. Will God overrule our free-will based on that knowledge so that we can experience his goodness and grace? Absolutely. For those whom God has foreknown, he has predestined. No one with a heart for God will miss out, and that’s the bottom line.