Our Free Will: A Gift of God’s Grace
We should expect to be surprised by the Bible. This expectation flows from our confession that Scripture is God’s Word. This means that the Bible is not only by Him, it is about Him. If God has thoughts that are above our finite attempts at thinking, and if He has ways that are above our creaturely attempts at synthesizing, and if in the Bible He reveals Himself to us, then we should expect to be surprised by the Bible. We should expect to be challenged out of our cozy mental ruts. We should expect to be invited into the joyful labor of building new categories. We should expect the opportunity to worship by prostrating our “natural” or cultural assumptions before the glory of holy wisdom.
Yet too often we come to Scripture expecting to find mesh rather than a mold. We are discomforted by the Psalms because of their imprecatory hatred of God’s enemies. We are embarrassed by the Song of Solomon because of its unblushing enjoyment of God-given sexuality. We nod uncomprehendingly at the Sermon on the Mount because we can’t imagine grace actually intensifying the demands of the law. And of course we explain away the book of Revelation because if such things ever began to break out across the earth our 21st century American dream would come crashing down.
The relationship of God’s sovereignty to our free will is one issue where we manage to be discomforted, embarrassed, uncomprehending and intent on explaining away the teaching of Scripture all at once! This is a popular and important topic – though for different reasons than we might imagine. What (surprises!) do we find when we go to Scripture and ask how to think and talk about free will?
An earlier post presented the overwhelming biblical emphasis on God’s final freedom. The Bible insists that we understand first what it means that God’s will is free and it discusses our free(d) will only in relation to His sovereignty. The unbounded freedom of His will defines the boundaries of our own. This post picks up where that one left off by asking how Scripture speaks about the interrelationship of these two (equally real but not identical) freedoms. I take up a New Testament text in this post, and an Old Testament example in the next. In both cases, from both Testaments, we learn to speak about our free will as a gift of God’s grace. Receiving freedom as a gift of grace means that our responsible exercise of that gift is obedience to the will of our Sovereign.
It is helpful to break our discussion of II Corinthians 8 down into three segments because Paul cycles through this issue three times in this chapter, reinforcing the main point and shedding more light each time.
(1) II Corinthians 8:1-5
II Corinthians 8:3 is one of the clearest identifications of human free will in Scripture (remember, there aren’t many!). Paul is marveling at the generosity of the Macedonian churches, which he describes like this: For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. “Free will” seems to mean here the ability to choose what to do with their resources, meager as they were. The Macedonians have been afflicted by a severe test and are enduring extreme poverty (vs 2), yet they freely choose to give beyond their means to assist the saints in Jerusalem. This is not the result of any kind of coercion. Rather, it is “free” and even coveted as a “favor.”
The free will of vs 3 does not exist in a theological vacuum, however. It is surrounded by the affirmations of God’s will at work before and behind this situation that come in vs 1 and vs 5. In vs 1 Paul introduces the scenario by saying: I want you to know brothers [in Corinth] about the grace of God that has been given among the churches at Macedonia. So the free will of vs 3 rests on the foundation of God’s grace given in vs 1. God gave them grace with the result that they gave of their own free will. Vs 5 returns the focus to God as the decisive “will” in the Macedonian decision: they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. So the free will in the church to give money flowed out of God’s will that they give themselves to the apostle’s work. God gave, and they gave. God willed, and they chose. In fact, the “favor” they begged for in vs 4 is the same word Paul uses in vs 1 – grace. They are begging earnestly for the grace to give. Vs 1 affirms that this grace has been given to them by God, because, as vs 5 teaches, it was God’s will that they give themselves to this work. So our free will is a gift of God’s grace and is to be exercised in obedience to His design.
(2) II Corinthians 8:9-11
If you were to stop here and ask whether God’s will overrides the human will, or makes their work unnecessary (a common accusation against a high view of divine sovereignty) then you need only read on through vs 10. Here Paul applies the Macedonian lesson to the Corinthian church (who have also received the grace of Jesus Christ…which likewise benefits you vss.9-10). The result of this grace is that a year ago [you] started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So God’s grace changed their desire (their will) so that they began to take up a collection. Does God’s work render their own will unnecessary or their obedience irrelevant? By no means! Vs 11 continues with the pastoral application: So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. God willed and worked to change their hearts (give them a desire). Their role, dependent on God’s grace, is now to engage their will and work and finish the task (In 9:5 Paul terms this obedience a “willing gift!). This is an amazingly consistent biblical picture of how our will works with God’s will. He is the decisive doer. We are the dependent doers. He must work, and we must work, and our work only works if He is working!
(3) II Corinthians 8:16-17
That this dynamic – our free will depending on God’s gift of grace – is not unique to this one situation is clear from vs 16 where Paul transitions to talking about Titus. Here again he commends Titus for being himself very earnest and so going to you of his own accord (vs 17). This means his upcoming trip is a choice Titus himself has made. “Of his own accord” seems to be a parallel with the earlier description “of their own free will.” In both cases human beings are freely choosing how to invest themselves.
But (or many “and” is better here) this free choice likewise rests on the foundation of God’s grace. God has done something first, and decisively. The same God who gave grace among the Macedonian church that resulted in them begging for the grace of giving, has now put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you (vs 16). Titus goes of his own accord because of his earnest care. An earnest care God put there. Here it is important to notice not only that Titus’ concern is empowered by God’s gift, but also that this decisive work of God does nothing to dampen Paul’s description of Titus’ care. It is an earnest concern. This description of a God-given concern as “earnest” and “of his own accord” should give us pause when we are tempted to imagine that a sovereign work of God on our will would empty our resultant decisions of moral value or emotional force.
Taking in this chapter as a whole, it is instructive to note how seamlessly Scripture toggles back and forth between an earnest, free human will and the ultimately earnest, ultimately free divine will. There is no hint of embarrassment, as if Paul realized mid-sentence he was talking out of both sides of his mouth. There is no pause to diffuse debates that might arise in Corinth over how both divine sovereignty and human responsibility can lie behind the same act. There is no sense that either the divine will is impinged upon or the human will violated by the activity of the other. It should strike us that this chapter is written as an example. It is meant to function as an encouragement, as well as instruction. This is a praise report and then a commendation. Paul apparently believes that the best way to stir not only the praise of the church, but also her practical obedience, is to tell two stories about fellow believers acting out of their own free will that they depended upon God to give.
It is clear that this same teaching does not produce either worship or a renewed confidence in our work today. To this degree, we are out of step with Scripture. We are being surprised by the Bible. When the dissonance between our assumptions and the biblical presentation jars us, our next steps are pivotal for our spiritual growth. The path to maturity summons us to thank God for His ways, which are not ours; thank God for His word, which reveals Himself to us; thank God for His work in our life, which has given us the light we have so far; and plead with God for a will that is freed to embrace His truth and obey His tasks through His continuing gift of grace.
That would be a surprising response to this topic – would it not?