In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, an alien creature called a Tralfamadorian believes that the universe is random and driven by a hopeless sense of fatalism, which causes this strange being to be perplexed by human beings and their fascination with liberty. Talking to someone from Earth, the Tralfamadorian said,
If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings, I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by “free will.” I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.
Vonnegut, like so many of us, wrestled with how God can be in control of all things and yet man can be free. It seems like a contradiction, and one that he tried to explore in fiction, just as philosophers through the ages have tried to understand this mysterious nature of God and man in relationship to each other.
My purpose in writing this article is not to delve into the theology of free will and debates that focus on doctrines of salvation, though I will, out of necessity, mention different thoughts regarding freedom of the will in redemption. My goal, however, is to bring some insight into the matter of liberty that will help us to appreciate it in a deeper way, one that will make us value it spiritually, practically, and politically. This is particularly important in a time when Americans are losing their liberty.
Give Me Liberty
Last week, presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway made an uncharacteristic statement for a renowned defender of limited government regarding wearing masks: “You’ll get your liberty back if you wear a mask,” she said. No matter what you think about masks being effective or not, it should concern every American when a government official makes a conditional statement about liberty: “If only you do A, you’ll get back the liberty we’ve taken from you.” Such a comment brings to mind Ronald Reagan when he warned, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” Or even more on point is Ben Franklin’s famous quote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Why is liberty so foundational to the American way of thinking? Why are people bothered about being forced under government pressure outside the bounds of proper legislative procedures to cover their own body parts, especially when scientific findings conflict and wearing masks correlates, not with a decrease in cases, but an increase? What is it about freedom that is so key to American democratic ideals that Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me liberty, or give me death”?
This love of liberty is not only an American value, it is a human value. The only reason it is such an American-centric focus is that our nation is the first in human history to bring this fundamental value into the political realm and provide citizens equality before the law and liberty. This came from a fusion of moral and political philosophies, but at its core is a Christian truth, one that is sewn into the very fabric of the created order.
As I explain this, I would like you to keep in mind the juxtaposition of safety and liberty in our social contract and why our Christian founders chose liberty over security—because this is the issue of our time, as we’re being told that we must have our liberty stripped for the sake of security and safety.
While there might be occasions for such actions, they’re rare and they should be self-evident and incontrovertible. This is simply not the case today. As I said, experts conflict in their analysis. Science is debatable. Data reveal contrary conclusions about the effectiveness of lockdowns, shutdowns, masks, and school closings. This is especially significant when the “safety” of approximately 99 percent of the American public is not an issue, since less than a percent of Americans die from the virus and the majority of those are in a very small, easily protected demographic of elderly people.
So what is this business about liberty and why is it so essential to us—and why should we fight for it? I’d like to explain it from a theological standpoint, breaking it down into an analysis of human ontology as we were created by God in the beginning, the state of our being and our “free will” after the Fall, and what happens when we are redeemed by the power of God’s grace.
Free Will and Creation
In Galatians 5:13, Paul makes a profound statement that is often lost to those skimming through scriptures looking for justifications to lose our liberty. “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather serve one another humbly in love.” What does Paul mean by “You were called to be free”? Primarily, he means we are called by Christ to be free of sin and to live righteously as imitators of Christ, not to “indulge the flesh” (i.e., sin). But there is something even more fundamental here. This restoration of freedom takes us back to an ontological reality about human nature. We were made by God in his image; in his image we were made free.
When God created our first parents, he made them different from the animals. We had physical bodies similar to animals in their function, but we were different because he breathed life into us, making us in his image. One essential characteristic of God is that he is free. His will is bound by no one—by nothing. He is pure freedom. We’re not exactly like God in this because we live in time and space, we have physical bodies, and we’re limited and therefore bound by external realities. We walk down a path and we hit our toe on a rock, stopping us. Gravity holds us to the earth. We can only apprehend a small portion of life while the rest escapes us. We can’t will to know everything.
But, regardless of these practical limitations, we do have a will that is free to do what it wants (within the confines of being able to act according to our “wants” in relation to ability—for instance, I can’t fly no matter how much I might want to). We, however, can choose. We’re not like animals programmed and driven by instinct. We make choices. This ability to choose is preceded by our ability to think rationally. We can’t make choices if we can’t think about those choices. We think, therefore we choose.
But thinking isn’t all there is to it. This rationality doesn’t guide the will alone. There is also our morality, something else animals don’t have. We can choose to do good or to do evil. We think, and we have a moral frame in which to make our free choices. This freedom to choose is the very essence of humanity’s calling as designed by God—to love one another. If you can’t choose freely, you can’t love—our moral imperative as human beings. God wanted to create beings that could love as he loves. The only way to make such beings was to give them free will.
The glorious thing about creation—pre-Fall—is that our first parents had pure rational thought (they weren’t confused in their thinking). They had moral ability (the ability to be perfectly good, to love without blemish, and to be righteous as God is righteous). And they were free—free in a way none of us knows today. The Roman philosopher, Boethius, who lived in 500 A.D. and wrote on providence and free will, rightly concluded that
Human souls are more free when they persevere in the contemplation of the mind of God, less free when they descend to the corporeal, and even less free when they are entirely imprisoned in earthly flesh and blood.
It’s when we are most like God in mind and spirit that we are most free. When we are living only according to the flesh, we are bound by the constraints of the flesh. But when we fly among the vast glories of the eternal, we experience freedom. For that to happen, our minds, which make the choices, must be free of chaos and our hearts must be free of the chains of sin.
The freedom that God gave us is so precious, so true to his own Self, so key to love, that he would do nothing to violate it, even if that meant saving humanity from the horrific effects of evil. In the Garden, God placed a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree was a focal point of man’s liberty. He alone of all the creatures God had placed on Earth could freely choose to eat of the tree (disobey) or not (obey). This ability to choose between good and evil is the heart of free will. The trap is that to choose to do evil is to lose liberty, to lose that moral power to be perfectly righteous as God is righteous.
God so treasured our freedom that he was willing to sacrifice our safety and security for us to have it. Many people wrestle with the problem of evil in this world, asking, “Why would a good God allow for evil to exist, for people to suffer, for bad things to happen?” Well, the answer is simpler than we realize. He allowed it because he is a God who gave us free will. If we want God to make everything good, to keep evil at bay, then he will have to remove our ability to choose. He will make us like animals, driven by instinct, or like automatons, mere puppets performing on a stage full of silence and emptiness. He will become an authoritarian dictator, not a loving Father and Creator.
Free Will and the Fall
We know how the story goes. We know what our first parents did with their free will. They chose to eat from the tree, to disobey. And why? They wanted divine knowledge, they wanted equality with God, they wanted to exalt their freedom over his will—more than that they defied the very essence of liberty, allowing temptation to override the construct of liberty itself—that without righteousness and true rational thought, liberty would be lost.
So where does that put humanity now? Regardless of your thoughts on the Garden story, whether it’s literal or figurative, or even if you don’t buy the whole Christian doctrine of the Fall, no one can deny the reality of evil, sin, brokenness, irrationality, selfishness. Anyone who says there is a morally perfect person on this planet is delusional. If there is anything we can all agree on it’s that people aren’t perfect. We are sinners, and as a result, we face the consequences and judgments that befall sinners. Death, war, sickness, plagues, destruction, imprisonment, even slavery (like what happened to rebellious nations in the Old Testament)—all judgments for sin and wickedness.
We’re also not free, not like our first parents were. We have the natural ability to make choices because our thinking isn’t completely absent. We have some measure of morality, but we can’t be perfect like we’re supposed to be. We make all kinds of choices every day between doing what’s good and right or—more often than not—doing what’s selfish and wrong. Our moral ability to be perfectly good (or even to “save” ourselves through good works), to be righteous—to be free as God is free—is gone.
In this sense, we are totally depraved, corrupted—we’ve fallen short of the glory and perfection of God. The intent of our hearts is never freed from sinful impulses and desires. Our thoughts aren’t pure, and they’re not always rational (and certainly not purely rational, for we can’t even form right premises to reach right conclusions). We can’t be like our parents in the Garden, and as such we can’t contemplate God, commune with him as they did, and walk in freedom as they walked without a shred of shame or fear in the coolness of the day.
Our wills are free to make choices within this fallen frame like rats are able to choose which tunnel to take in the maze, but they cannot be freed from the maze. Our wills are bound by sin, even as we make “good choices” at times. We are slaves to our sin in ways we can’t even begin to understand, which is why we often do things we don’t want to do. We wrestle with our thoughts, we question our own decisions, we saturate ourselves in anxiety as we try to unravel the threads that wrap around our lives, pulling on this and that to discover what we’re to do, who we are, and what we can become.
Yet, even in this—with this small measure of natural freedom born of the remnants of God’s image within us—God will not violate our freedom. We still choose, and he still lets us. Oh, we whine and complain about the consequences, and even blame God for not doing anything about them, but he lets us live, figure things out, choose, and sin. For those who think I’m describing a dispassionate, uninvolved, deistic God, hold on. I’ll make a few closing points about God’s sovereignty in the midst of all of this.
But the point is—call it a paradox if you will—God doesn’t strap strings onto us and pull us along like puppets for his entertainment. For one thing, we are still human. Like I said, we still have remnants of his image—moral (though not morally perfect), rational (though stupid compared to how we were before the Fall), and naturally free. Even in this state, we are still called to love and to do the right thing along the winding path of life’s fleeting moments. If we weren’t free in some measure, we wouldn’t be able to love—yet we do love. Imperfectly, to say the least. But we love. We long for it. We thirst for it. The problem is—in this fallen, sinful state—we love those things that don’t deserve our love or we love that which is worthy to a lesser degree than we should.
The state of sin can be pretty abysmal, can’t it? It’s no wonder some philosophers think we live in a jungle, that we need all sorts of contracts and human efforts to create a society in which we can live in some degree of peace. The human heart is bent on itself—not on the good of others. Even if a moment of goodness comes, a choice made out of love, it fades—and even at its height, it’s nothing like the purity and liberty of a life without sin.
Where, then, is the hope? We have a measure of liberty, but we do little with it. It’s so fragile that we have to be ever vigilant to keep it—both by watching our own actions as well as others. The trajectory of human existence is downward, not up, though seasons come and go when there’s a lift—America, I believe, is (was) one such season in the human narrative. But what is the hope of human existence as we live out this state of struggle?
Free Will and Redemption
Christ tells us: through faith in him we are redeemed. We are made new. We are set free from the bondage of sin. This is such a profound change that he even speaks in terms of moving from being a slave to sin to becoming a slave to Christ. This is not a violation by God of free will, but it is the state of a relationship. Without the Spirit’s sanctifying work in our hearts, we remain forever slaves to sin, our moral ability and will bound to the intents of sin. But when Christ renews us by his power, we have a new master—Christ. Our will isn’t controlled by him, but it is made so that we want to do what he says, so that we are internally compelled by our state of being to be righteous as we were originally designed.
This is what Paul meant when he wrote,
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. (Romans 6:20–22)
As this relates to free will, we must understand that even in redemption, God doesn’t violate it. He sets it free. You’re bound by sin, but God regenerates you to be able to choose the good—the truly righteous good of faith in Christ. This faith can’t be had by the natural man with his bondage to sin because he is enslaved to sin. So the will has to be set free from the locks and chains that hold it. God does that for us.
I realize I’m treading into some controversial theological waters here, and like I said, my purpose is not to get into a debate about the differences between Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism (or Calvinism). I’ll just say, briefly, that Pelagianism is a heresy that says the will is in no way bound by sin and can be justified without any work of God. The semi-Pelagian claims this work of justification is cooperative between God and fallen man. The Augustinian says justification is completely God’s work as he frees the will from the chains of sin, and in doing so, the only outcome—because of the state of a restored will—is a renewed desire to follow God and begin the tumultuous journey of sanctification (a cooperative effort, though one which God’s Spirit ensures will lead to glorification).
The point here is that for both semi-Pelagians and Augustinians, the will is not violated by God, but it is set free (the difference is a matter of degree). Neither of these views has God violating free will, only freeing or working with it. Again, this is how much God honors man’s created nature as a free agent. He doesn’t force people to become Christians.
Those of you familiar with Calvinism might be asking, “But doesn’t God’s choosing of some and not others violate the will?” No, and not even John Calvin would say that God violates the will. The issue of God’s sovereignty in salvation is a paradox that even good Calvinists who haven’t slipped into determinism and fatalism respect. God is sovereign and man is free—that is the paradox, and the wise leave at that. I (though I’m not trying to be foolish) will examine it a bit more.
To do that, I’ll return to Boethius. Like many philosophers and theologians who followed him, including Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin, Boethius believed that God is both sovereign and that man also has free will that is respected by God (even to man’s detriment). Boethius tried to explain this paradox in the context of freedom and time and a fundamental difference between God and man relating to both.
God is not in time, but man is, therefore, we can’t put God’s actions or knowledge in the same space as man’s. When we do put them in the same space, we have a contradiction between God’s sovereign control and man’s free will, for a contradiction is “non-A and A existing in the same space and circumstance.” But man and God do not exist in the same space and circumstance. “Just as you see things in the temporal present, God must see things in the eternal present,” Boethius wrote. God is not limited and knows the past, present, and future at the same time. In other words, it’s not like he’s sitting in time with us and seeing into the future. He is above it all in the eternal present. He’s time-independent, while we are time-dependent.
Such a concept is beyond our comprehension and even this might not be a satisfactory explanation of the paradox, but it, at least, gives some perspective on how God can know and seem to “determine” all even as he states that we are free—that he made us free and that we are personally responsible for our free choices—so much so that we’ll either be eternally separated from him because of those choices or we will live with him in eternity.
Probably one of the hardest issues of free will is not how God works in redemption according to his sovereign will, but how we can be held to account for a fallen nature that we as individuals had no choice in making. Is not the imputation of Adam’s sin nature onto all of his progeny a violation of free will? How can we be guilty of something we didn’t do? This can only be answered (beyond categorizing types of sins like Catholics do) in terms of organic realities of being born in the human lineage and the forensic aspects of violating God’s law and Adam being our representative head—by God’s choosing.
You might not like that God chose Adam, and you might claim that your will was being violated by God’s choice to make Adam your legal representative in his “court,” but God made you—he’s your Creator—and you are subject to his legal will—this, however, still doesn’t violate your free will. When you’re born, you still have choices, and they’re free even as your legal standing before God is that of one condemned and your moral ability is bound by sin. That inability and corruption have to do with the organic nature of being human. We’re all connected. We are who we are as the descendents of our forefathers. I’m of Irish descent, born with a temper from my Irish ancestors. This is part of me, genetically, organically—it is simply who I am. It is not a violation of my will that I’m naturally hot-headed. It’s my genetic reality. I can’t change it. Only God’s regenerative power can change it by freeing my will so I can become more like him.
After God frees our will, we begin the journey of sanctification in which our newly freed will sheds the remaining influences of sin. This is a long process full of victories and failures as we wrestle with the flesh and seek God’s Spirit to help us along the way. But through it all, our will remains free, affected by sin, but not bound to it—for we have this promise: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
As you can see, God takes liberty and our free will quite seriously. He let the whole Earth fall to honor it. He allowed sin to seep into the genetic material of the entire human race to keep it. He let Adam fail as our representative head in God’s court of law to maintain it. I don’t know if you’re going to think better or worse of God on account of this, but one thing you can’t deny is the fundamental importance of liberty—real liberty, not libertinism, but the freedom to choose without coercion and without force by powers claiming to be acting for your own good.
If God takes our liberty this seriously, shouldn’t those put in power by God himself also respect it? Shouldn’t the church that is tasked with upholding God’s truth and spreading his love and message of redemption in this world defend it? Shouldn’t each one of us as we live together in America where government is “we the people” fight for it? What does it say about us if we’re so easily and blindly willing to give up this glorious gift God gave us—all because we want a little security in a fallen world?
This article was originally published on Romans One and is reposted with permission from the author, Denise McAllister.
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