One of the great joys of being a parent is the opportunity to disciple your children. No youth minister, teacher or coach has as profound an impact on our kids’ lives as we do.
An important lesson I regularly try to impart to my son is that choices matter. Every day, we either make the difficult decisions to act in ways that help bring about desired goals, or we choose easy paths at the expense of God’s best for us.
In an attempt to explain to him the harmony between God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will, I have used the analogy of the dynamics within the game of dodgeball.
The ultimate, sovereign ruler in dodgeball is the referee. He’s fully in charge of the game. He can stop, start or pause the game, remove and reinstate players, and in the summer day camp version, he can even insert himself into the game as a player/ref.
However, even though the ref is the ultimate ruler, he doesn’t control the players’ thoughts and actions. They have the free will to think and act as they please. They can stand cowering in corners, or they can repeatedly attempt to take members of the opposite team’s head off. All of these actions have consequences, whether good or bad.
From cover to cover, the Bible displays God as the ultimate sovereign ruler. Yet, from cover to cover, the Bible also reveals mankind’s freedom to either accept or reject God’s gracious promptings.
One passage that is often cited to support mankind’s free will is Matthew 23:37. A few days before being murdered, Jesus said to the Pharisee-filled crowds, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.”
Any parent can identify with Jesus’ statement here. We want the best for our kids. Yet, no matter how much we counsel them, no matter how passionately we direct them away from disaster and toward life, at some point they will choose to follow their heart and experience the consequences.
They are going to spend periods of time without brushing their teeth and end up with cavities, even though you saw them standing in front of the bathroom mirror with their toothbrush. They are going to gleefully watch and listen to things they know they shouldn’t absorb while away from your house, and little by little hearts get hardened. Pushing your warnings aside, they will fall in love (lust) with someone that is not at a place in life to love them in a godly way, and experience a heartbreak that God never intended them to go through.
Though many people angrily shake their fists at God, one of the main reasons for much of the suffering in this world is humanity's free will.
The conversation about free will began long before Calvinism and Arminianism in the 16th and 17th century. It began before Augustine in the 5th century. The issue of free will was critical to the Christians of the first 300 years because the only folks who professed to be Christians that claimed humans didn’t have free will were the Gnostics. That’s right, the people 1 John 4 says are under the influence of the antichrist.
This is an example of one famous early Christian teacher commenting on Matthew 23:37:
If any one is unwilling to follow the Gospel itself, it is in his power [to reject it], but it is not beneficial. For it is in man’s power to disobey God, and to forfeit what is good; but [such conduct] brings no small amount of injury. … Man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of free will, in whose likeness man was created. Advice is always given to him to hold tightly to the good, which is done by means of obedience to God. … The Lord, both showing His own goodness, and indicating that man has his own free will and his own power, said to Jerusalem, “How often have I wished to gather your children together, as a hen [gathers] her chickens under her wings, but you were unwilling!” - Irenaeus 180CE, Volume 1, p. 871-872 [CD-ROM]
After doing extensive research on the early Christians’ writings on the issues of God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will, I decided to devote an entire chapter of my book to discuss how they harmonized the two subjects. Here is a short excerpt:
God is absolutely sovereign and the ultimate ruler of all. He created all things and reigns over all things. Nothing happens that He is not aware of, that He does allow, or that He will not use to accomplish His good, pleasing, and perfect will. … God is not a wicked slave master who toys with His slaves by offering them liberation while knowing they are incapable of achieving it. He does not delight in punishing them when they fail with extreme tortures that would put our world’s cruelest sadists to shame. God is love, and love can only thrive where there is the opportunity for it to be either chosen or rejected. Love requires free will.
When my wife and I adopted our two beautiful African American children, the last step was for the family to stand before a judge and be questioned. Our prospective son and daughter could not have made it through that step if we had not first drawn them to ourselves. By the time of the court hearing, they had lived in our house for six months and were every bit a part of our family. However, at the courthouse that December morning, the judge gave them the opportunity to say they wanted to go back into foster care with a different family. We had already chosen them, and I’m so glad they chose us back.
Mankind was created by God with free will. The greatest command Judas was given is the same command all of us have been given. We must choose to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and choose to love our neighbors as ourselves. Like Jesus, we must choose to rely on God’s power and choose His choices.