Toward not despising the day of small things*

I was on the mock trials team in college, but I was not very good at it. Well, I actually was pretty good when I was playing the role of a witness, but when I competed as a lawyer, I just couldn’t seem to get it right. This was a bit demoralizing for someone who, at the time, thought he wanted to go to law school. It was also odd, because I had done well in high school debate. I could not figure out why mock trials lawyering did not “click” for me, but in hindsight I think I know. Unlike debate, mock trials is a team event. There are three “lawyers” and three “witnesses” on each team, and you are judged as a group. It is literally impossible for one person to win it or lose it, and everyone has to do their part. When I was playing a witness it was easier to just focus on my piece and let the lawyers manage the big picture, but when I was a lawyer my debate instincts and competitiveness kicked in and I was always looking for the one killer argument or perfect point that would win the case for us all–and therefore I wasn’t a very good lawyer, because I was trying so hard to do our job that I wasn’t focused on my job.

Is there anything that the people who made Just Do It one of the most successful advertising slogans in history hate more than outcomes that are in someone else’s hands? It’s part of what makes marriage and parenting so hard; the fact that you are making something with someone else, like two pianists sharing one instrument. We cannot stand the feeling of responsibility without control.

I think a lot of Christians are feeling that way about our culture. We know all the Bible verses about evangelizing the nations, about being ambassadors for God in a lost world, and we realize they are talking to us. Meanwhile, we see our country falling away from any sort of Christian identity and enthusiastically and publicly embracing every flavor of sin, and we think, hey, the church needs to do something about that; I need to do something about that. But what can you do about a problem made up of hundreds of millions of people, most of whom have already heard the gospel and consciously rejected it?

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Free Choices, God’s Sovereignty, and Apparent Contradictions

I was talking with a group of high school students last year about making wise decisions as a Christian. As I planned what I would say, I kept wanting to discuss how our ability to make meaningful choices can coexist with God’s control over all things, but I suppressed the urge to wander off into philosophical weeds that the audience would find boring and abstract. The evening of the event, I spoke briefly and then opened things up for discussion. One of the first questions was about how our ability to make meaningful choices can coexist with God’s control over all things. As was the next question. And the next. Apparently, there are a lot of us poking around in this particular clump of philosophical weeds.

Thoughtful Christians throughout history have struggled to reconcile these two plain yet paradoxical teachings of Scripture. First, the Bible is quite clear that God controls all things. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” In Daniel 4:35b, Nebuchadnezzar confesses, “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?'” Or consider the many detailed prophecies that were fulfilled centuries later. Why do God’s “best laid schemes” enjoy somewhat greater certainty than those of mice and men? One hundred percent accuracy in predicting the future is only possible for One who controls all the variables necessary to ensure the outcome He promised.

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Human freedom and divine sovereignty

I was recently listening to R.C. Sproul in an audio series on divine sovereignty when he made an argument which is rather common in such discussions, that total freedom for man and absolute sovereignty of God are mutually incompatible. If man is absolutely free, then God cannot be fully sovereign; if God is absolutely sovereign, man cannot be completely free. Sproul took the position that God’s sovereignty is absolute, while man’s freedom, though real, is limited and bounded by that sovereignty. He pointed out that the existence of “one maverick molecule,” that is, a single molecule which is truly free from divine control and capable of acting contrary to God’s will, creates at least the possibility that any or all of God’s plans might be undermined. Since God’s plans cannot be frustrated, nothing in creation can be absolutely free.

While I agree with Sproul’s point as regards his maverick molecule, in making his overall argument he is unclear on the meaning of “freedom” and thereby reaches a conclusion which is misleading at best. In fact, man may be absolutely free and God absolutely sovereign without contradiction, depending upon what is meant by the word freedom.

When we speak of human freedom, we can mean one of three things: freedom of action, volitional freedom, and freedom from obligation. Working in reverse order, freedom from obligation refers to a state in which there is no “ought,” nothing which a man should do, regardless of whether he actually does it. This is the sort of freedom demanded by French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who declared that God cannot exist because “man is free, man is freedom,” and therefore there can be no “infinite and perfect consciousness,” for such a being would necessarily imply an objective Good that would have some claim upon man.

I introduce this sort of freedom first in order to dismiss it from the discussion, because Sproul, I, and any orthodox Christian would agree that man is not free from obligation; indeed, I would argue that such freedom is an ontological impossibility. It is the other two sorts of freedom which Sproul appears to conflate.

Freedom of action is the freedom to do whatever we please. Man does not have absolute freedom of action, and a moment’s reflection would suffice to convince even an atheist of this point. Sartre himself, apostle of freedom though he was, acknowledged that one’s circumstances are necessarily limiting. Even the freest man is not free to fly like a bird, breathe underwater, or exist in multiple locations at once. The world around us imposes multitudinous constrains upon our actions, most of which are so routine that we don’t even notice them.

As Christians, we would add God to the list of things which can constrain our freedom of action. The Red Sea blocked the Egyptian’s freedom of action and a sudden appetite for grass blocked Nebuchadnezzar’s, while a large hole in the ground effectively constrained that of Korah and his household. One could open practically any page of Scripture and find an example to support the point that our sovereign God, against whose will even Satan himself is powerless, can and does limit our freedom of action. If God could not constrain our freedom of action – or that of any would-be maverick molecules – he would indeed cease to be sovereign.

But there is a third and more morally significant kind of freedom: volitional freedom. This is the freedom to choose. When we speak of “free will,” we mean volitional freedom. It could be defined as the freedom to select from an array of options whichever one is most appealing to us at the moment of decision.

I said this freedom is more morally significant than the freedom to act, and that is because this freedom is the source of good and evil deeds. Our choices are the stuff of vice or virtue. Without choice a “bad” act is not sinful. This is why, for example, the church has always carefully distinguished between rape and adultery. On the other hand, a “good” act absent volition is not virtuous. If a man absentmindedly stumbles and knocks another out of the path of a falling brick his act was certainly convenient for the one who was saved, but it was hardly morally praiseworthy. Going all the way back in time to the Garden, Adam’s sin lay not in eating the fruit, but in choosing to eat it. Had Satan somehow compelled Adam to consume the forbidden fruit against his will, the Fall would not have occurred. The act of choosing matters. In fact, morally it is all that matters.

One may be volitionally free without possessing absolute freedom of action. Paul and Silas, imprisoned in Philippi, were severely constrained in their freedom of action, but they could still choose to respond to their situation in whatever manner they chose. In fact, man is always and absolutely volitionally free. The choice, whatever it is, is always ours to make. This, not due to any inherent power on our part, but merely because the sovereign God has decreed it so. If we were not free, then God could not justly hold us guilty for our sin, because, as noted earlier, free choice is a necessary ingredient of sin. To quote Augustine, “Evil deeds are punished by the justice of God. They would not be punished justly if they had not been performed voluntarily.”

How, then, does man’s volitional freedom coexist with divine sovereignty? Very easily. Remember that volitional freedom does not imply freedom of action. Our maverick molecule (or, perhaps, angel of light) may choose to rebel against God, but the actualization, circumstances, and fortunes of the actual rebellion are all controlled by God. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Man may choose whatever he will, but God determines the result. As the old proverb reminds us,

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The omnipotent, omniscient God who holds in his hands all horseshoe nails, horseshoes, horses, riders, battles, and kingdoms is as little threatened by the freedom he has granted to his human creation as a doctor is troubled by the freedom of an infant to kick while being delivered. As Mordecai reminded Esther when she quailed at the thought of risking her life to save her people, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Her choice rested in her hands alone, but the ultimate end was not in doubt.

Absolute human freedom of action is indeed incompatible with divine sovereignty. But a blanket statement that human freedom is incompatible with the absolute sovereignty of God ignores the more morally significant freedom of volition, because it is in fact possible for man to be completely free to choose without compromising the absolute sovereignty of God over all creation.

Cain, Abel, and spiritual tests

So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:3-7).

It is interesting that the Genesis account offers no hint that Cain knew beforehand, or had any reason to suspect, that his offering would not be accepted by God. There is also no hint that the offering was rejected because of any moral failing on Cain’s part. (God warns Cain against sinning in response to his sacrifice’s rejection, but does not suggest that the rejection was itself a response to sin on Cain’s part.)

Reading the story, one pictures Cain and Abel both approaching God, both offering sacrifices, and both watching as Cain’s careful-prepared offering is rejected, in what must have appeared to Cain to be a purely arbitrary divine preference. It certainly could not have appeared “fair.”

And yet, God is God. One is reminded of Paul’s inquiry in Romans 9, “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” God said to Cain, “Thus shall it be,” and all that was left to Cain was how to respond. However, note God’s promise: “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?” God was testing Cain, offering him the chance to acquiesce to the divine command and grow nearer God by his acquiescence.

Of course, we know that Cain did not “do well,” and rather than master sin, it mastered him as he murdered his own brother in his anger. But it was Cain’s reaction that turned God’s test into the impetus for sin rather than an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Free will and divine sovereignty

The reconciliation of the paradoxical realities of human free will and divine sovereignty has challenged theologians for two millennia. Various systems have been proposed, tending variously to emphasize either free will or sovereignty; all most likely missing the truth to greater or lesser degrees. While biblical teaching on the intersection of free will and sovereignty is sufficiently equivocal to render doubtful any claim of certainty, a lack of absolute confidence in any one position should not prevent us from concluding that certain views are clearly false.

One such view emphasizes divine sovereignty at the expense of human free will to such an extend that the individual’s moral choices are viewed as ultimately originating only from God’s will, to the exclusion of man’s. This position is usually associated with Calvinism, though it is doubtful if a majority of Calvinists now or throughout history have espoused it. In fact, the great Calvinist preacher Charles Spurgeon offered a different perspective on free will that is worth noting:

I see one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in great measure. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no precedence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. (Emphasis mine.)

It is when divine sovereignty looms so large that we deny the reality of human free will that we fall into the error I am now addressing: to paraphrase Spurgeon, God predestines, and that is all. In the following paragraphs, I will consider what is meant by “free will,” how real human freedom can exist in a universe ruled by a sovereign God, and finally, why God’s testimony regarding his own nature tells us that humans possess free moral will.

When I speak of a creature having free will, I mean that its choices originate within itself; in other words, that the mind which chooses for the creature is in fact its own. This idea of free will forms the basis of our concept of criminal intent. If someone carried out a crime while under hypnosis, we would pity him as a victim, not condemn him as a criminal, because he was not acting on the basis of his free will. It was not his mind which chose to commit the crime.

If human free will is real, then when Cain killed Abel, King David slept with Bathsheba, and Judas betrayed Jesus, they did so because they chose to. It was their minds which decided to commit the act. This means they could have also chosen not to do so, because choice cannot exist without real options. We laugh at Henry Ford’s promise that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black,” because it is oxymoronic – a choice without a choice. We can only say that Judas chose to betray Christ for 30 pieces of silver if we also believe he might have chosen not to do so. Otherwise, we can only say that Judas did betray Christ, much as one says that a flat tire caused a car wreck or a spooked horse caused a broken arm.

If we affirm this view of free will, are we diminishing divine sovereignty? After all, if the creature’s mind determines its actions, then the Creator’s mind does not. Only one ultimate cause is possible. Either God decided that Cain would kill Abel, or Cain decided that Cain would kill Abel. Even if God decided that Cain would kill Abel, while causing Cain to think he came up with the idea on his own, Cain’s perception does not alter the fact that his intention ultimately originated in God’s mind. If free will is real – if Cain decided “out of his own head” to kill Abel – then not all events originate in the mind or will of God.

If this means that human free will forms some sort of inviolable barrier to God’s will, divine sovereignty is certainly diminished, or rather, destroyed. (There is no such thing as semi-omnipotence.) However, free will does not necessarily entail a diminution of divine power. An NFL linebacker who refrains from flattening his son in a game of backyard football in no way diminishes the strength he chooses to restrain. Similarly, an absence of divine determinism is better understood as “God does not,” rather than “God cannot.” God’s covenant with Noah means he will never again send a worldwide flood, not because some obstacle prevents him, but because he chooses not to. If God chose to sovereignly grant to men the capacity to make free moral choices, the subsequent existence of human free will testifies not to a diminution of his power, but only to the fact that with God “there is no variation or shifting shadow.”

As a practical matter, however, it may be difficult to see how God could truly command the course of history while allowing humans the freedom to choose their actions. What if Judas had chosen not to betray Jesus? Let us suppose God had a “second-string betrayer” lined up. What if he also chose not to betray the Christ? And so on. If men are truly free to choose, how can any future event be certain?

While a full explanation of how this might be possible is beyond the scope of this article – and perhaps beyond the scope of the human mind – we catch an interesting hint in Mordecai’s words to Esther when she feared to approach the king on behalf of her people. “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Esther’s choice determined her fate, but God’s will would ultimately be fulfilled regardless.

Jesus seemed to make a similar assumption when he told his disciples, “For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” Jesus would be betrayed. He would die. That much was settled. But the man who did the betraying would still bear the responsibility for his choice.

This concept of moral responsibility brings us to the crux of my argument that God’s revealed nature requires the existence of human free will. It is interesting to note that in Spurgeon’s comments quoted above, he apparently considered free will so intertwined with moral responsibility that he completely substituted the one for the other by the end, writing only, “man is responsible.” A legal principle going back from our criminal laws through the common law to early Hebraic law is the mens rea, the “guilty mind.” The mind which directs the crime bears the guilt. When terrorists use children or mentally-disabled people to carry out suicide bombings, we direct our horror at those who recruited and directed the attackers, because it was they who planned the carnage. They bear the responsibility. What matters is not whose body carries out the guilty act, but whose mind and will are responsible for it.

This fundamental moral principle creates an apparently insurmountable problem for the view that God’s sovereignty means that he chooses our actions for us. We are told God is so holy that he cannot even tempt us (James 1:13-14), let alone commit evil. If, however, God’s mind is the ultimate originator of every human choice, that means he causes every evil, every perversion, every cruelty, that we see around us. It is not twisted warlords who kidnap and train child soldiers in African. It is God. It is not the serial killer who tortures his victims. It is God. We can only Paul’s cry, in a different context: “May it never be!”

The problem is that twisted evil, like every other effect, requires a sufficient cause. Torture, rape, and murder don’t just spontaneously occur. A mind directs them, and that mind is responsible for them. Either these evils originate with man, or they originate with God. There are no other options. If the latter, then evil flows from God just as surely as does good, and we are forced to ask if we can even meaningfully distinguish between the two. If good and evil originate from the same source, we are left with a pantheistic morality, where good and evil are just different parts of the universal pattern. This is a god who cannot be shoehorned into anything close to the Being we find in scripture.

If a good God cannot be responsible for evil, and God is good, we can safely conclude that he is not responsible for evil. Having already seen that the mind which conceives evil is ultimately responsible for it, it follows that evil cannot originate in the mind of God, which leaves only one other possibility: the mind of man. The choice to do evil, then, is made by man, and man alone. The choice does not surprise our omniscient God. It does not please our loving God. It does not confound our omnipotent God. And it does not originate with our good God.

Is God good?

In Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” he offers the following response to the Christian argument that objective moral standards are inexplicable unless God exists.

[The moral argument] has all sorts of forms. One form is to say there would be no right or wrong unless God existed. I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question. The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.

“Is that difference due to God’s fiat or not?” The problem is called Euthyphro’s Dilemma, taking its name from the Platonic dialogue in which Socrates wonders “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”

Both Socrates and Russell offer us a choice between two options. The first says that “good” means “that which God approves.” Love is good because God says it is; murder is bad for the opposite reason. At first glance, this definition may seem acceptable. The problem is that if God’s fiat, or preference, is the only standard of goodness, it seems meaningless to suggest that he is himself good. Imagine a god who declared torture, rape, and murder to be good. If “good” is merely an expression of divine fiat, then those acts would be good, as would the god who sanctioned them. However, if a god who approves of torture, rape, and murder is no less good than one who hates such evil, then the word “good” is meaningless when applied to God. Like Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, we may call day night, but only by sacrificing the meaning of both words. When goodness is founded only on divine fiat, we are left with an arbitrary morality dictated by an amoral God.

The alternative appears no more appealing, however, for then we must conclude that goodness is grounded in some standard other than God’s fiat. Love is good because it is, and God approves accordingly. However, if there is some standard of goodness which informs God’s approval of that which we call good, then God is in some measure bound by these external rules. He is not sovereign, for he is merely recognizing an authoritative goodness originating outside himself. We love our enemy because God commands it. If God loves goodness because goodness demands it, is he truly God?

This, then, is Euthyphro’s Dilemma: On the one hand, goodness grounded in the fiat of an amoral God. On the other, goodness constraining a less-than-sovereign God.

Fortunately, these are not the only two options. Russell and Socrates have offered us a false dilemma – an argument inaccurately positing only two options. In reality, Christian theology going back to the early Church offers a definition of goodness that falls into neither of these traps. Instead, the Christian understanding of goodness is grounded in God’s nature.

God is good. This is the Christian premise in understanding goodness. Therefore, that which conforms to God’s nature is good. Love is good because God loves. Forgiveness is good because God forgives. Intelligence, creativity, and even existence are good because God possesses these attributes. Goodness is not predicated on God’s amoral fiat, but neither does it direct him. God does not arbitrarily declare what is good; he is good. He is not bound by an external standard, because he is the standard.

Because the Christian defines goodness in an object (be it human, amoeba, or rock) as correspondence to God’s being within the bounds of the object’s created nature, both horns of Euthryphro’s Dilemma are avoided and we can have a meaningful definition of good grounded in the being of a good and sovereign God.

Things God cannot do

One of the most interesting speeches I assign to the students in my Intro to Logic and Rhetoric class is the question, “Does God’s omnipotence mean he can do absolutely anything?” Both Scripture and Christian tradition respond in the negative. There are, of course, several Bible verses that indicate things God cannot do:

  • He cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18).
  • He cannot be tempted by evil, or tempt anyone (James 1:13).
  • He cannot disown himself (II Timothy 2:13).

We could summarize these propositions by saying that God cannot do evil. There is also a second set of things God cannot do: he cannot do illogic. God cannot create a square circle, or make 2+2 equal 5. He cannot create another infinite being (because an infinite being that was created is logically contradictory). He cannot create nothing (since something must be created, if creation occurs).

Our initial response to this assertion may be a feeling that God’s sovereignty is diminished. After all, does this mean that the laws of logic constrain God? Certainly not, any more than the earlier list of things God cannot do implies that the laws of morality bind him.

If we say, “God cannot do bleh, bleh, bleh,” are we offending his sovereignty? No, because “bleh, bleh, bleh,” is simply a series of sounds without meaning. It is nonsense, an empty phrase. If we think about it, the idea of a square circle or a created infinite being is equally nonsensical. Our mind instinctively assumes it must be meaningful since the phrase consists of two words which both have meaning, but when we apply the modifier “square” to the idea of “circle,” we fall abruptly into meaningless. A square circle is a series of sounds that refers to… nothing.

The common thread that binds these two assertions – that God cannot do evil or illogic – is the fact that God’s omnipotence operates according to his nature. God acts morally because his nature is good. God acts logically because his nature is rational. God’s omnipotence means that he is able to do whatever he wills (which is in accordance with who he is), unbound by any external contraints.