Such a Coercive Play

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Most Christians do not have a problem in acknowledging God’s control over the physical creation. Not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the Father, and He know the numbers of atoms that make up the planet Jupiter. Not only does He know the number of atoms there, He also knows the position and velocity of each one.

But this means we should spend our time considering the two areas that give us the most problems. Either we have trouble accepting God’s control over these areas of our lives, or we accept it with no problem — but have trouble explaining it to those who ask us about it. Does God control the free actions of human beings, and does God control sinful actions? The biblical answer to both questions is yes.

First let us consider how God controls free actions. To some this sounds nonsensical. How can you have controlled freedom? Isn’t that like squaring the circle? No, because the Bible describes God drawing square circles. It does describe Him controlling free actions.

“‘But Micaiah said, ‘If you ever return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me.’ And he said, ‘Take heed, all you people!’ Now a certain man drew a bow at random, and struck the king of Israel between the joints of his armor. So he said to the driver of his chariot, ‘Turn around and take me out of the battle, for I am wounded’ (1 Kings 22:28,34).

In this situation, God had said that something particular would occur. He then used the random act of an unknown archer to accomplish His purpose for Ahab.

“Since his days are determined, the number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5).

Until the time comes which God has established, every man is immortal. As far as God’s determination is concerned, we cannot lengthen and we cannot shorten our lives. Humanly speaking, can we? Of course. People commit suicide and people quit smoking. But whatever we do will not alter God’s decree, settled before the foundation of the world — whatever we do will be His instrument for accomplishing His decree. We have the same teaching in Ps. 139:16 in different words. Before we existed, our biography was written.

“The preparations of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD” (Prov. 16:1).

What is more indicative of a man’s freedom than that which he wills to speak? When you ask me a question, I answer you the way I wish. Is God somewhere else? No, of course not.

Now the reason we have a problem with God’s control of free actions is that we do not want to say that men are nothing more than puppets. But the assumption of “puppetry” is a false inference. God’s relationship to us is not that of a bully on the playground making others do what he demands. It is more like Shakespeare and Macbeth — the more Shakespeare writes, the freer Macbeth gets. Macbeth never wonders how he wound up in such a coercive play.

Objections to this illustation come quickly. Yes, but we are much greater than two-dimensional literary characters. What about that? Well, God is much greater than Shakespeare. And His greatness surpasses that of Shakespeare much more completely than ours surpasses that of the characters in the plays. So the analogy does break down, but not in the way we would like. And further, the analogy of the playwright and play is in no substantive way different than the scriptural illustration of the potter and the clay, and the same objection can be brought, and answered the same way. We are greater than a lump of clay. Yes, but God is much greater than a Potter.

And besides, if God’s control of human actions annihiliates the freedom of those actions, then this means that the orthodox doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is destroyed. Is Romans the word of Paul or the Word of God? You have, by this objection, established the fact that it can’t be both, right? So which is it?

What about sinful actions? Another false inference lies behind our objection to God’s control of sin. We think that this would make God sinful Himself, or the author of sin. First, the teaching of Scripture:

“But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20; see also Is. 45:7 and Amos 3:6).

“Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that today, even this night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times'” (Mark 14:30).

“And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22).

“For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27-28).

When we ask the Lord for traveling mercies on the road, He doesn’t reply to us, “Yes, I will protect you as best I can, but drunkenness is a sin, and I don’t ‘do’ drunks. Good luck with them.”

We must always remember that the objections which crowd into our minds here are not textual objections — they are philosophical, as much as anything driven by bruised egos can be philosophical. Nowhere does the Bible say, “Thus saith the Lord, ‘Do not think or say in your hearts that the Lord God controls the behavior of the wicked, for I, the Lord your God, am a holy God'” (Hez. 8:2).

So what does real freedom means? In Matthew 12:33-37, Jesus teaches two fundamental truths about human choices. The first is that choices are determined by nature. The second is that this is fully consistent with our exhaustive responsibility for what we say and do. The will is that which reaches into our hearts and brings out the strongest desire we have in order to act upon it. This is what it means to have creaturely freedom. Given this definition we see that we are free in Baskins & Robbins to choose whatever flavor we desire. There is no coercion. How this freedom can be reconciled with the exhaustive sovereignty of God is a question we cannot answer. The Bible simply tells us that we are free in this sense, and that God controls every detail of history. Man as a creature has creaturely freedom. We are not puppets, and no, we can’t do the math.

But moral freedom is another thing altogether. Consider the teaching of Romans 6:6-7 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. What this amounts to is the fact that man as sinner is not free at all. The place where we most want “free will” is the one place where it is excluded in Scripture. We are dead in our sins. We are slave to sin. Apart from Christ, we have no freedom, and consequently, God’s sovereignty in salvation doesn’t have to be reconciled with our freedom, because we don’t have any with which that sovereignty needs to be reconciled.

We kick against this because of the idol of “autonomous free will.” But where Scripture has spoken we must bow down. And if our hidden (or not so hidden) idol forbids it, we must topple that idol.

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