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 here. Thank you for reading!

45 comments

  1. 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!

    Liked by 1 person

    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

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  2. 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

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  3. Dear Steven,

    I appreciate your thoughtful essay.

    How do you account for moral evil? Do you believe it to be illusory, like free will?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello! I believe God is in control of everything that happens, both those things which you might describe as ‘good’, and those things which you might describe as ‘evil’. There’s a full and thorough treatment of the subject in my book ‘God’s Grand Game’, if you’re interested. Thanks for reading my article, and for your comment.

      Best wishes,

      Steven

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your reply, Steven.
        So I was correct in guessing that you view good and evil as illusory? Hence, the quotation marks?
        While I disagree, your view is logically coherent, while the Calvinistic view of God causing evil but not being the author of it, is not.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hello. Actually, you are putting words into my mouth. I never said I view good and evil as illusory. The quotation marks I used demonstrate my view that good and evil are subjective, not that they are illusory.

          Good and evil, in my understanding, are rather like value judgements. So I might say you’re a great or terrible singer, but that doesn’t make it absolutely true.

          In my view, evil doesn’t exist in some absolute objective state. Anyone who describes something as evil is expressing an opinion. This is true whether the subject decreeing what is good and evil is God, or a human being.

          Actually, I forgot to mention, God’s Grand Game is free to download from Monday (should be, anyway, if everything technical goes to plan!) from Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble, so if you’d like to better understand my perspective you are welcome to take the opportunity to get that book for free.

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          1. Oops! I didn’t intend to put words in your mouth. We may be using different terminology. By “illusory” with regards to morality I mean, not objective. But, I understand now that you take the latter not to necessarily imply the former.

            Let me try once more, and please correct me if I misrepresent you again. If I refuse a spot to a renter because of her ethnicity and she is offended, that is only “evil” in the subjective sense of her opinion, but not in mine. In other words, racism, while personally repugnant to many, is not in any sense an objective evil or universally wrong. Is that right?

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            1. It seems to me, from what you have written, that you are keen to make a point, rather than to understand my view necessarily. Am I correct, and if so, what is your point, may I ask?

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