Pastoral Perspectives

Free Will

Do I have free will and will it diminish the sovereignty of God? This is an age-old question that Christians all over often ask, especially after the Reformation, and will linger on until the Lord returns. And in a recent YAM session, this question popped up as well. I suppose there is no good answer to it such that one can fully convince those who deny it or silence those who insist on it. But I believe one can have a healthy Christian’s perspective that allows the person to trust God and yet be responsible for choices made.

First, let me explain briefly the issues behind this great debate on the sovereignty of God and the free will of man, which arises when people consider them to be mutually exclusive. Those who believe in the free will of man argue that it gives humans the power to make real moral decisions freely and hence be fully responsible for it. Else humans are nothing more than mere robots. They also absolve God of guilt for not saving all people because they choose not to accept Jesus. So God merely acts upon his foreknowledge of their choices. The other camp denies man’s free will because if humans have the ability to freely choose, then God cannot be fully in control of humans. So how can he be sovereign?

But as for me, I can accept both the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. They need not have to be mutually exclusive. It depends on how one defines free will. If it means to be TOTALLY free so as to choose WITHOUT any constraints or limitations, including the will to choose God (which is the condition set in the great debate), then I agree that they are mutually exclusive. But is this condition possible in the first place? I personally doubt so. Why? Well, allow me to illustrate with my doggie experience!

To begin with, I am free to choose whether to bring my dog to meet his friends in the neighbourhood or not. But we can only meet at the void deck because the playground is out of bound to dogs. Of course we can still choose to disobey and congregate there. However it is a different thing when it rains. We are constrained by elements beyond our control unless we choose to be fools. But void decks’ space is also limited and sometimes we find other groups beating us to it. I am also free to choose which path to walk home but some paths might not be accessible at times due to upgrading work. So as much as I am free to choose, I cannot choose that path. Then there are three ways to get to my house on the third floor but if one lift is down and the other is out, what choices do I have left except for the stairs.

So am I still free to choose? Yes but not TOTALLY in that sense. There are constraints and limitations that set a boundary to the choices that I can freely choose. This is the real world that we live in and who can deny it? So when we decided to congregate at a particular void deck space or if I had to carry my dog up three flights of stairs because the lifts went AWOL and he refused to climb, I cannot insist that I chose to do so out of my total free will. So if free will is defined as making our choices within the boundary set before us, then we do have the free will to choose and it does not have to be mutually exclusive with the sovereignty of God.

Ever since Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden and the earth cursed, humanity no longer dwells in God’s good creation. They would have to toil the ground and yet thorns and thistles it would produce against their best efforts. It wasn’t their choice! So you may say that only Adam and Eve who were created good and lived in a good creation and knew God personally could claim to being able to make choices out of their total free will. But they chose to disobey. The rest is history! Humanity now lives in a cursed condition and so our free will are constrained, limited and also tainted by our sinful nature. We are still free to make choices within the boundary and be fully responsible for it, like whether to repay good with evil and vice versa or to love someone and hate another. But we are not free to make choices outside of it, like choosing not to grow old and die or to fly like an eagle so that we can do away with soaring COE. More importantly, we cannot exercise free will to believe in God because we are spiritually dead and cut off from his presence, just as a physically dead person cannot choose to come back to life. Therefore I am able to subscribe to the doctrine of Election and believe that unless the Sovereign Lord first chooses me and makes his presence alive in me through the Spirit’s regeneration, I am unable to choose him out of my own free will. So this is my personal conviction though it has its weaknesses. But it is good enough to enable me to trust in a sovereign God and be responsible in exercising my free will so that I may account to the Lord when he returns.

Finally the response that flows out of such conviction is this: why then would God not choose to save everyone? Isn’t he supposed to be good and loving? If he saves one and not the other, he cannot be good, for any good human being would surely save both! And so we put guilt on God for not choosing to save everyone. Come on! Let us suppose that two evil murderers were arrested and awaiting execution. The law somehow allowed for them to be freed and so a man came by and chose to free one but not the other. No one in his right mind would put guilt on that man for not freeing the other. On the contrary they should put guilt on him for freeing even one. For both fully deserved to be punished! So when we engage in such rhetoric, we become arm-chair critics, questioning the character of God and not knowing the true depth of our wretchedness. Nevertheless, I was asked the question during that YAM session. So why wouldn’t God save everyone? Well, I am asking the same question as well. But I trust God is able to answer it for himself.

Rev Ronnie Ang

June 9, 2013