A stained glass window depicting Jesus

Free Will and Salvation

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In this post I’m going to look at the heart of the gospel – the idea that we are sinners in need of salvation. Is this really true?

I don’t at all doubt that Jesus existed. I find the New Testament provides compelling evidence that Jesus was a real person, with a radical message – a message that would proceed to change the world and find billions of converts. But does the teaching of Jesus make sense in terms of a rational view of God? Let us briefly explore this question and see what we can decipher.

My conception of God is that He is omnipresent, and in control of His creation. I find it impossible to accept that God has boundaries and that He could somehow be separate from creation. I see God as the animating force that produces all activity in creation, from the growth of plants and trees, to the movement of celestial bodies, to the beating of our hearts.

God is not spatially limited. That notion is very bizarre, as it would require us to believe there is a specific point where God’s being ends and freedom from God begins. This scenario would only make sense if God is ‘embodied’ somehow – a physical being with a form and shape. But this is not the God I believe in. I believe God is everywhere, and is pure spirit, without boundaries. “Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet”, as Alfred Tennyson once wrote.

We find scriptures that point to God’s literal omnipresence. In Colossians 1:17 the apostle Paul says “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together”. In Acts 17:28 Paul says “In Him we live and move and have our being”. John 4:24 says “God is spirit”. And to give an Old Testament example, Psalm 139:7-10 says “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

So God is everywhere, He is holding together all things, and of course must therefore be animating all things.

Human anatomyIf God is the animator of creation, unfolding a plan for the universe by His sovereign will, then it makes no sense to argue that we are free to act independently of the will of God. God would have to be limited spatially in order for us to have free will.

Also, if we were genuinely free from God’s animating control, we would have to look for alternative explanations as to why our hearts beat, our blood circulates, our bodies digest food, why our hair and nails grow, etc. I suppose we would have to embrace the materialistic idea that our bodies are machines, powered by our brains or even our genes. But that doesn’t really sound like free will at all.

If we are not machines, and God is not controlling our bodies, how is it that all of our bodily processes are going on? Would you argue that you are controlling them? If so, how are you doing it? Please consider this deeply, and I believe you will see that it’s most logical to conclude that God is animating your body. We are not free, but are instead as ‘puppets’ in the hands of God.

If we embrace the understanding that God is sovereign over our lives, this will cause us to think differently about the Christian worldview. If God has been in control of our lives since our conception, then every action we have taken has been in accordance with the will of God. In this context, the Christian idea that we have all sinned against God seems very strange. Do I deserve punishment from God for actions that God unfolded in my life? There’s something deeply problematic about this idea.

Of course, we all experience feelings such as guilt and shame, and we do have the illusion of free will, in that we make decisions and experience emotions in relation to those decisions. But the crux of the matter is that God is in control of every decision we will ever make, and our reactions to those decisions. If anyone reading wants to deny this, let them offer an alternative explanation for our bodily processes and our growth from embryos to babies to adults, other than God. You are welcome to leave a comment with your theory.

All of this considered, it could still be the case that embracing the gospel and living a life of faithful devotion to Jesus is the only way to inherit eternal life. That could well be the way God has chosen to unfold His creation. But at least on some level, we must acknowledge that the decision is not in our hands. And if we are to be judged by God one day, He will, in a sense, be judging His own actions. This is a significant problem with the Christian worldview, the basis of which is freedom of the human will.


For a more in-depth argument concerning God’s sovereignty over all events, with a Christian response, I invite you to read my essay entitled ‘An Almighty Predicament’ which is available as a free PDF download from my Essays page.

39 comments

  1. I don’t have an answer that addresses all your questions, but I see the individual’s ability to accept or reject salvation as an instance of free will…especially considering that, even if one could force people to obey them, they can’t force people to love them (though I suppose some might argue against that?). Do you believe, in the same vein, that God chooses the saved and the damned, or is our salvation our choice? It could be some of both…if He calls to some people harder than others bc of His plan for them, but anyone who knocks will have the door opened for them? Free will vs. God’s plan is such a big topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lily! It is a big topic. And they are all good questions that you are asking. But I believe the answer is relatively simple, which is that God is unfolding all events. Now of course that in itself is going to raise a lot of questions for Christians, and if you’d like my take on the matter, I’d humbly invite you to read the essay that is linked to at the bottom of the post. I spent a lot of time on the essay and I hope it provides lots of relevant insights.

      If you do choose to read the essay and would like to discuss any aspect of it, my email address is on the Contact page, and I’m always open to discussing anything to do with free will and God’s sovereignty, or Christianity in general.

      God bless you, and thanks so much for reading my post!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jane!

      Thanks so much for reading. If by saying you hope it’s a teaser you mean you’d like to read more on this topic, I have written many posts, essays, and a couple of books going into more depth. Just have a browse around my blog 😊

      If by teaser you mean you hope I am teasing, then I would respond by saying I’m very sincere in my writing and my beliefs 😊

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

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    1. Oh good! I thought that was probably what you meant 🙂

      Interesting that you note God’s control over your salvation, and His involvement in your choice to read the Bible. I would say everyone who reads the Bible does so by God’s will. But I’d also extend that to say anyone who reads any book (or does anything) does so by the will of God 🙂 The very act of reading is an act of God bringing about understanding in our minds as we look at words (which without God’s activity in our minds are merely markings on a page). Food for thought!

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    1. Okay, well I’m glad you’re at peace! For the record, I don’t believe in predestination – I believe in a God who is actively unfolding events in the present moment, rather than a God who acted some time in the past to set the wheels of life in motion before stepping aside to watch things unfold. God bless you and thank you for the comments 🙂

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  2. Hi, Steven. Your point of view is interesting, however the Word shows us that when God created the world, He gave dominion in the earth to man. When man sinned, dominion was handed over to satan. God is not in control of everything, as people like to believe, which is why you find satan being referred to in the Word as the “god of this world.” God can only do what people allow, or invite Him, to do, through prayer. He is only in control of what people give Him control over. We very much have free will, & have the choice whether to walk in the ways of the world or God’s will. It is God’s will that all people accept Christ & salvation, & join His family. That is why we believers are commissioned to go into all the world & spread the Good News. However, He cannot force anyone to join His family. He certainly does not choose who will be saved & who won’t, He doesn’t send people to hell, people choose hell when they reject Christ.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Gerri!

      Thank you for reading my post and sharing your thoughts.

      God can only do what people allow, or invite Him, to do, through prayer.

      Wow, you really have a very low view of God! We certainly have very different views concerning the nature of God. But I respect your perspective.

      Peace and blessings 🙂

      Steven

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      1. Quite the contrary, I have an extremely high view of God & have experienced His amazing power. I also have a very strong understanding of the Word & what He is telling us in Hos Word. While the things you state here in your post are your own musings & opinions, my response is all based on what the scriptures tell us about God.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I actually think that most Christians I know would disagree with your view that God is only able to do what we ask Him to do. And the fact that there are many varying perspectives concerning different doctrines among Christians means interpreting Scripture isn’t as black and white as you imply. You might think you have a perfect understanding of Scripture, but I would urge a little more humility.

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          1. I never said I have a perfect understanding, but I do understand that scripture is very clear about most things. People often look at it as something to be “interpreted,” when it really means just what it says. Rather than looking at different theories & perceptions, I choose to look at the Word- what were the original Greek or Hebrew words used, & what do they mean? That gives greater clarity than any the musings of any person. Jesus clearly told the people “You have not, because you ask not.” Many other times throughout His ministry & the New Testament we see emphasis placed on our responsibility to ask God for what we are believing for.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. So how would you explain, for instance, the fact that both Calvinists and Arminians who are very well versed in Greek and Hebrew disagree profoundly on doctrines that are central to the Christian gospel? Just because the New Testament urges us to pray, doesn’t mean God isn’t in a position to do whatever He pleases. He is omnipotent.

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            2. The problem in today’s world, is rather than focus on what the Word is saying, people choose to follow religion & legalism. Jesus came to set us free from all that, & put the focus back on Him- He is the Word, was the Word, & forever will be the Word. He is Truth. People & religion have been polluting the Truth with their opinions & interpretations & legalism for centuries, but God is building up His people who will stand on & share the Truth fearlessly.

              Liked by 1 person

            3. God’s omnipotence does not mean He is in full control, the Word very clearly tells us that satan is the god if this world. Your answer to the qurstion about Calvinists & Arminians- they’re both wrong. How can you tell when they’re wrong? When they’re caught up in legalism rather than simply the love of Christ & His good news.

              Liked by 1 person

            4. Wow. Okay. I don’t see how holding a position on what Scripture says about salvation is ‘legalism’ – aren’t these people just trying to understand Scripture like you are?

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            5. Maybe that particular position is not legalism, but when you look at all the “do’s & don’ts” of their religions- rules & laws about how to live & what to eat- legalism. Jesus came to set us free from legalism, & denominational religion often gets their positions wrong, their legalistic mindset hinders the ability to seen the Truth in the Spirit.

              Liked by 1 person

            6. I’ve never known any Calvinists or Arminians who have these rules and laws you speak of. Just be careful that in your fearlessness you’re not actually being somewhat hostile towards large numbers of well-meaning people. I know how easy it is for Christians to be so zealous that they are actually very judgmental. I may even have been guilty of that to some extent in the past. Often love is best expressed with gentleness and kindness, don’t you think?

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            7. Well if I come off as hostile or judgmental, that is certainly not my intent. When it comes to sharing the Truth, I can get a little carried away & should maybe restrain some. I think it bothers me to see so many thoughts & opinions being put out into the world labeled as “fact” with no actual basis in the Word. Unfortunately, when what I say is truly being shared out of a desire to correct in love, as Christians have a responsibility to do, the written words may not be read by recipients in the tone they are meant.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. So would you say that we are saved when we simply “agree with God” on the matter? Truth is truth. We either believe it or we don’t. I really like this post and it’s got me thinking in a little different way and it brings peace to my heart. It could have been twice as long and I would have loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi David! I think we have to acknowledge that there are different ‘dimensions’ (as I call them). As we’re going about our daily lives making decisions and taking actions, we often have the illusion of free will. But ultimately God is controlling our decisions and actions. While in the human dimension we may experience a sense of responsibility, ultimately this is just part of the plan God is unfolding for our lives.

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  4. Hi Steven,

    As you probably already know, I don’t accept your world view, but I do appreciate your view of God’s sovereignty. There’s a specific assumption of yours I may be misunderstanding. You say at one point:

    I find it impossible to accept that God has boundaries and that He could somehow be separate from creation.

    And then at another point:

    God would have to be limited spatially in order for us to have free will.

    And then,

    If we are not machines, and God is not controlling our bodies, how is it that all of our bodily processes are going on?

    I guess my question from this is, “Does God have free will?” I ask this because something is missing in your explanation. According to you, we’re not “machines” we’re “puppets”, another type of machine actually, animated by God. But, since He’s not in any way separate from the material of the universe, how then can He be conscious? How is it, “embodied” by the universe itself, can He be anything other than a “machine”? It’s easy to say, “God is without boundaries”, yet your description is of One bound by the matter of the universe. To say otherwise, then allows for “embodiment” elsewhere, which you deny. Your position seems hyper-materialistic in the same way it seems hyper-sovereign.

    I don’t see why, if God is aware, cognizant, and choosing, why if He has all power and all knowledge, He is incapable of restraining Himself to allow freewill within His creation? It sounds like He Himself is a machine, controlling other machines (I think that’s a SciFi movie, isn’t it?).

    The Scriptures from which you derive this description of God also describe salvation, and clearly hold His human creatures responsible for their actions, including choosing His Son, Jesus, as the means through whom they can relate to their Creator. This is the description from Scripture, the same corpus of writing from which you gain some understanding of a panentheistic God.

    I guess, I don’t see why it makes sense to read the descriptors of God that expound on His limitless, but then, disregard other Scriptures in the same corpus that describe consequences for out bad choices. Why is Psalm 139 more a description of our relationship with our Maker than Psalm 51? Why would you think the Psalmist is “literal” in one place, and mistakenly figurative in the other? If one is figurative or mistaken, and one isn’t, why do you think it’s 139 and not 51? There are plenty of Scripture on both sides to support both views, are there not?

    It’s the same with Paul. Yes, he clearly describes Jesus in terms of a “filling” (plaroma) of all things. But this same Paul says we are apart from God without confessing Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10). That sounds remarkably like we need to choose our Master.

    I find it more “reasonable” to believe in an incomprehensible Being, powerful enough to create all matter, and yet be separate enough from it to both control, but also to limit His control to provide alternatives. I suppose I believe that the Creator created beings He wanted to be like Himself, in that they could also choose, just as He chose to create them in the first place. Perhaps, if He has a limit at all, He finds it difficult to relate to those who have no choice in the matter (and yes, that was a pun). Scripture describes an “enemy” of God, so, at some point, even the higher creations in the heavenly realms, rebelled by choosing against their Creator. Scripture seems to describe choice, even beyond the material realm.

    Anyway, those are my questions and thoughts.

    Thanks for the post, Steven!

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    1. Hi Matt!

      Always good to hear from you, and thanks for engaging with me on this, although it is a very long comment and I may not be able to fully respond to every point you made and question you asked, simply because I like to keep comments as short and concise as possible (I’m always happy to go into more depth via email, although I appreciate that our discussion could be useful to others).

      I guess my question from this is, “Does God have free will?”

      Yes, I believe God is completely free. He can do anything (within the realm of possibility) at any time.

      According to you, we’re not “machines” we’re “puppets”, another type of machine actually, animated by God. But, since He’s not in any way separate from the material of the universe, how then can He be conscious?

      The difference, in my opinion, between machines and puppets, is that machines are pre-programmed, whereas puppets are animated in the present moment, which is what I believe God is doing with us. I don’t believe God is the same as the material universe – as I said in the post, God is spirit. But the universe, I believe, is contained within Him, and His being pervades every part of it (this is omnipresence as I understand it). I believe the universe could cease to exist and God would still be perfectly God and perfectly whole. Consciousness is an attribute of God.

      I don’t see why, if God is aware, cognizant, and choosing, why if He has all power and all knowledge, He is incapable of restraining Himself to allow freewill within His creation?

      I believe it’s impossible for God to limit His being in this way. It would mean applying boundaries to a being who is by His very nature boundless. There are some things that God cannot do (some examples would be ceasing to exist or creating another omnipresent God), and I believe limiting the extent of His being is one such thing.

      Regarding Scripture, I agree that there are many things in Scripture, and in the Christian worldview, which are problematic if my worldview is correct. This is why I have struggled with Christianity so much. I think you and I may have discussed this in the past, and that you may have read my essay entitled ‘An Almighty Predicament’ which fully expounds my difficulties.

      I can’t answer every question in relation to God, but there are certain attributes of God that I believe in wholeheartedly, and in order to embrace the Christian worldview I would have to pretend not to believe those things. I’ve tried that. I have gone to church and attempted to immerse myself in Christian living, hoping that the inconsistencies I see in Christian doctrine would go away. But unfortunately, they came back powerfully. The thing is, if I’m right, and God is in control of my life, then He must want me to have these thoughts and write about them. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing that. And I’m convinced He is in control of my thoughts, words, and actions, for the reasons that I’ve expounded in depth on this blog and in my essays and books.

      What do you believe is causing our thoughts, words, and actions? The question I asked in my post was about our bodily processes and what’s controlling them. Do you believe it’s our brains (and if so what is controlling our brains?), or do you believe you are controlling them (if so, how do you do it?), or do you believe they are an effect of the Big Bang? In my view, it’s obvious that God is in control of our bodily processes, just as He is controlling all aspects of our lives.

      Thanks again and blessings,

      Steven

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Justin!

      Thanks, I did have a read through both of your predestination articles yesterday. It seems that you don’t believe God is actively involved in the unfolding of our lives? (Correct me if I’m wrong!) So that’s where I think we would disagree. Many Christians present a vision of a God who is detached from His creation, but that doesn’t make sense to me at all, as I see God as the animator of all activity in existence.

      I go into more depth concerning these issues in many of the posts in my theology category. If you get a chance, please do take a look and feel free to respond to any specific points I make 🙂

      God bless and thanks again!

      Steven

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      1. Hi Steven,
        Thank you for taking out time to go through my article! I do believe that God is actively involved in our lives. Was there any portion of the article that seemed to convey otherwise?

        I am looking forward to read your articles!
        Thanks,
        Justin

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Justin,

          Please forgive me if I’m misrepresenting your position, but it seemed that you presented a God who is ‘aware’ of our actions (or has knowledge of them) rather than actively causing them. Is this correct?

          Best wishes,

          Steven

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          1. Hi Steven,
            I just wanted to know if I had written some parts ambiguously. If so I could correct them!
            Yes, I had presented God who is aware of our actions. But I don’t follow by what you mean by God actively causing our actions? How can God actively cause our actions? I guess I will have to read your posts first to get some background on your position. 🙂

            Thanks,
            Justin

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Hi Justin,

              Yes, take a look around when you get a chance, and hopefully you will understand my perspective on the free will issue. Do let me know (either comment or email me) if you have any questions 🙂

              Blessings,

              Steven

              Like

  5. God is in sovereign control over ALL, even Satan. This is noted in Job Chapter 1, verses 6-12:

    “6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. 7 The LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” 9 Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.”

    Everything is in God’s hands. In this passage we see that Satan cannot do anything until the LORD first gives him permission. In verse 11, Satan tells the LORD that by touching all Job has, he would curse Him to his face, so in Verse 12 the LORD says, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” God was giving Satan permission to destroy all Job had, but he could not touch him personally.

    Also, in Isaiah 45:7, God says, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

    Desiring God (www.desiringgod.org) has a four part article in their archives called “Does God Author Sin”. I’ve read part of it, but basically it spells out how God is even sovereign over sin, but in no way is He the author of it. Everything that happens, whether good or evil, are all things that God has Sovereignly decreed to happen because it all works to His glory and to carry out His good will and purpose. Basically, He’s God and He can do whatever He wants and doesn’t need our approval nor our permission to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Susan!

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      God is even sovereign over sin, but in no way is He the author of it. Everything that happens, whether good or evil, are all things that God has Sovereignly decreed to happen because it all works to His glory and to carry out His good will and purpose

      It seems to me that there is a contradiction here. You say that everything that happens is ‘decreed’ by God, and yet God is in no way the author is sin. If this is so, what exactly do you mean by decree?

      In my view, God is sovereign over all events, but this necessarily makes Him the author of sin, and this is a significant problem with the Christian worldview.

      Thanks again!

      Steven

      Like

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