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‘Not My Will but Thy Will’ and our Free Will

September 15, 2011

Theology comes from two words meaning “God” “talk”. But there is more than one way to put those two words together. Does theology happen when we talk about God? Or does it happen when God talks to us about Himself? The answer, of course, is both. But the order is important. Before we talk about God we must have thoughts about Him. Our God-talk is the fruit of our God-thought. For this thinking to be in touch with the true God, however, it must be rooted in the revelation God has made of Himself. So the process of “God-talk” is: First, God speaks in Scripture and we listen. Second, we think over what God has said, asking for the illumination of His Spirit. And only then do we have anything to say about what God has said.

This need to hear Scripture clearly is particularly important as we cultivate a theology of free will because this topic stirs our society to speak with an especial energy. This means that the opinions we hear will be forceful, but may not be faithful to Scripture. Here are the steps we have taken in our study so far. In the first post we wondered at the biblical preoccupation with the final freedom of God’s will. In the second post we realized that our salvation depends on our dependently working out what God has decisively worked in. In the third installment we watched Scripture tear the veil of tension thought to exist between God’s unsurrendered sovereignty and our authentic responsibility. This post examines how closely this divine sovereignty and human responsibility can coexist – namely, in the one Person of Jesus Christ. Scripture teaches that man has a nature (Acts 14:15; Js. 5:17) and God has a nature (Rm. 1:20; Heb. 1:3). Furthermore, these natures are not the same. Yet Jesus is fully God and fully man. How does the union of these two natures help us think biblically about our free will? 

One Person with Two Natures

We are helped here by a bit of history. Along with the Nicene Creed (325), the Chalcedonian Definition (451) forms the basis of orthodox Christology (Christ-talk). After Nicaea affirmed that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, Chalcedon took up the question of how this double-fullness could exist in one man. After thoroughly listening to and carefully thinking through what God’s word revealed, the divines answered that Christ was two natures (God and man) in one Person (the God-man). They then devoted most of their energy to describing how these two natures worked together. They explained it like this:

We…teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man…to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ….

So Jesus is fully God – He has God’s nature. And He is fully man – He has man’s nature. These two natures are undivided, undiluted, unconfused, and unchanged as they come together in what theologians call “the hypostatic union” [hypostasis – person. ie: two natures united in one person].

A Conversation between the Human and Divine Will

What Chalcedon describes, Luke 22:42 illustrates. Here, Jesus prepares to go to the cross by praying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” The Chalcedonian key helps us unlock what is happening here. The one Person of Jesus is submitting his human will (remove this cup) to the divine will He shares with His Father (your will be done). He is willing (as God) what He does not want (as man).

There is much to worship here. There is much to wonder at. But we can also see a profound statement about our own nature. When Jesus chooses to walk by his divine will (which saw the cross as a soteriological necessity) instead of his human will (which saw the cross as a cup to be avoided) he is locating the will in the nature rather than the person. Remember, there is only one Person talking here. One Person with two natures. When this one Person gives voice to two distinct wills, if we are to take both statements seriously, these wills can only correspond to His natures.

This same point can be seen in the Trinity. Chalcedonian churches were agreed that all three Persons of the Godhead share one will. They are unique Persons (Father, Son, and Spirit) all sharing one Nature (as God). It is in sharing the single nature of God that they all share the will of God. The point to grasp is that our will is tied to and flows out of our nature. There is no other way to make sense of how Jesus is praying here, given who He is.

Dismantling (un)Willing Robots

Tethering our will to our nature is significant for any talk about its freedom. First, it dismantles all the robots. A common objection to God’s absolute sovereignty (in salvation or otherwise) avers that a lack of self-determination (which is a popular, if unbiblical, definition of free will) would render us robotic in our obedience. This objection proves to be a profound missing of the person/nature distinction. As the true and full man, Jesus has demonstrated that our will is not located in our person, but in our nature. This means that our personhood is unchanged by fluctuating amounts of freedom in our will. This popular distortion of a high view of God’s sovereignty sounds good as a stump speech. If it was carried through consistently, however, it would deny either the full humanity or deity of Jesus in Gethsemane,  and we would have to image the Godhead held hostage to politicking for a tie-breaking vote.

Recognizing Willful Depravity

Second, Scripture identifies our nature as spiritually decapacitated by the depravity of our flesh. Our will is tied to our nature, and our nature is tyrannized by our flesh. This means that our will is free to do only what the flesh wants to do. As Paul says in Eph 2:3, we live in the passions of our flesh…walking (which is an exercise of our will) as sons of disobedience. When it comes to salvation, therefore, we are free to go on resisting Christ, but not free to begin receiving Him.

Any talk about the freedom of our flesh-subjected will should be conditioned by texts like these:

– I am by nature a child of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph 2:3). So my spiritual deadness (Eph 2:1) is found not first in what I do, but in who I am.

– By nature I love the darkness and hate the light (Jn 3:19-20).

– By nature my ears are deaf and my heart is hard like stone (Eph 4:18; Ezekiel 36:26).

– By nature (which Paul calls “the mind of the flesh”) I am hostile to God, for [my nature] does not submit to God, indeed it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rm. 8:7-8).

– By nature [which Paul calls here ‘the natural person’] I do not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to me, and I am not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (I Cor. 2:14)

– By nature I am unable to come to Christ or accept Him as Lord since “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 12:3) and “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me drags him”…”no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by my Father” (Jn. 6:44,65).

– By nature I am a slave to sin, held captive by the devil to do his will (Rm. 6:17; 2 Tim 2:26).

Gospel Answer: New Creation

This dark captivity of our will is why it is such stunningly good news to hear that God has caused us to be born again to a living hope (I Pt. 1:3); to hear that we have been born again through the living and abiding word of God (I Pt. 1:18); to hear that of His own free will God brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creation (Js. 1:18); to hear that God’s mercy is so rich and His love is so great that He made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5)! The gospel answer to our situation is new creation! As Paul celebrates in II Corinthians 5:17 “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation! The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

New Nature – Freed Will

With this new creation comes eyes of the heart that can receive revelation of Jesus, a soft heart that can feel affection for Jesus, and a liberated heart that is freed to choose Jesus. In other words, with this new creation comes a new nature, and with this new nature comes a freed will! Scripture describes it as a new self that has been created after the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24), a new self that is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Col 3:10), a new nature that is alive in the Spirit (Rm 8:9). In fact, through the precious and very great promises that we have received, we are becoming partakers in the divine nature (2 Pt. 1:4). Our person is the same. I am the same ‘Nathan’ that I was before I was saved. But my nature is radically (at its very root!) different, meaning my will has now been freed to choose the One who is all-together lovely. The same is true of you at conversion. You are you (person), but new (nature)! Thank the Lord for His sovereign salvation that freely effects our nature-freeing new creation.


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