Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Freedom Pt. 3 - Will You

In the meditations on "Freedom" I've been sharing with you, we've been wrestling with the Biblical teaching of what Martin Luther called "The bondage of the will." This week, we build on the foundation laid in the previous two sections.

The theology of "the will" is a hot point of debate in many circles of Christianity. Even the so-called "non-denominational groups (who will tell you, "I'm just a Christian," or "Our church just teaches what the Bible says,") still end up sitting in one of the classic denominational-dogmatic camps (usually a slightly Baptist Methodism.) No matter that they might think, all churches and all Christians believe something about the human will.

The Lutheran position on the will stands alone like an eye in a storm, a middle ground between to towering mountains on either side. The purpose of this chapter is to try and bring out the uniquely Lutheran contribution to the table, precisely because by holding up all the passages of Scripture, the Lutheran view finds that the teachings on our will press us once more back into the Good News about Jesus.

For that very reason, this chapter (along with the entire book) is written as something of a gimmick. It doesn't come out blasting, "We are Lutherans! We have the answers!" (Or, at least, it tries not too.) Rather, it's written so that, if it falls into the hands of those people who like to say, "I'm just a Bible-believing Christian," they will be confronted with everything that the Bible actually says.

It's a gambit, to be sure. As I pointed out last week, writing a book is a somewhat loony thing to do to begin with. On top of that, as I said in the first section on freedom, this chapter is the breaking point for the entire book, at least, for any one who is not already a Lutheran. The earlier chapters on "Vanity" (original sin,) "Entropy" (the cursed world,) "Aliens" (resurrection) and "Goodness," (justification) are topics that most Christians will be able to engage in, if only with an "Oh yeah, I remember that!" approach. That's the hook. But then, with "Freedom," the reel starts to tug. If the reader fights it the hook down and swallows it, then the hope is that, from that point on, the Bible will be a newly opened book once again: the depths of the good news in baptism, forgiveness, the Supper, and much more, will all start to slip into place.

In that sense, this "book" is trying to be something of a post-modern large catechism for popular consumption (or, more precisely, [and perhaps ironically!] an

So...last week's "You're Will" moves into this week's "Will You," continuing to delve into the dilemma of discovering exactly what being a "will" means, especially a "will" that is now "free" in all the wrong ways, particularly from the constraints of God, and hisown (much more perfect) will.


The struggle over understanding what Scripture has to teach us about the relative “freedom” of our wills often stems from those passages which clearly state that God does and will hold all humans accountable for their rebellion against him.1 If God is going to hold us accountable for our deeds, then it seems reasonable that we must have some way of pleasing him, of choosing him, or of avoiding the condemnation which he threatens to bring. In a sense, humanity did have that chance. The problem is, that choice was already made a long, long time ago.2

There is an old saying: “The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.” When my grandparents used to say this, what they meant was that a daughter is always the product of his parents. “He's a real chip off the old block.” The son is no different than his father. Although this conventional wisdom doesn't always hold true in every corner of our lives, it is a wonderful description of the Biblical truth that “all mankind fell in Adam's fall.”3 We are all chips off the old block. We have fallen from the tree in more ways than one.4 The entire predicament of humanity is wrapped up in one man's choice, so much so that now there is actually nothing that any of us can do about it.5

Adam originally sinned. That means that he rebelled against God. This choosing of evil over good was not a part of God's plan. We know from Scripture that God didn't say “oops,” but we also know that this sin was not some sort of trojan program implanted on Adam's hard drive, as if humanity had no choice in the matter.6 We very much had a choice, and there is the kernel of this entire paradox. But it's a nut we are not quite able to crack, and Scripture never cracks it for us.7 Instead, Scripture reveals two sides of a coin that seem as different as heads and tails. 1. God did not break the world. It was not his idea. He did not will it to be.8 2. We broke the world by choosing abandon the Almighty God – a God so powerful that it is impossible to abandon him and live.9

What this means is that Adam's original sin was the closest thing to an absolutely “free” choice that has ever been made in the history of the cosmos.10 He was not a robot. He had a will, but he chose to corrupt it – horribly so! And the apple didn't fall far from the tree. His children, each and every one, is a chip off the old block. You have a will – the same one as your father before you. Like him, your will has been bound to seek more freedom from God, so much so that you are an utter slave to it.11

“You will be like God,” the serpent said to Eve. “If you come to know both good and evil, your will will be free to choose, to make, to be. The true image of God is having a free will.”12 This was the great lie. It's just not true. You have a will that your ancestor segregated from his God, but it did not give him everlasting, god-like freedom. Quite the opposite. Like the proverbial monkey who puts his hand in a jar to grab a nut, he became trapped by his own greed, unable to let go of the nut even though it meant remaining caught in the trap. This is the reality of your everyday struggle between God's good and the evil which ever seeks to be “freed” from him. Such freedom is no freedom at all.13

All of us have far less freedom than we'd like. You do not have the freedom to not die, no matter how hard you wish it. Neither do you have the freedom to, should you accidentally die, choose to rise to life again. Even in much smaller matters, say, for example, what you chose to wear this morning, you aren't very free. Think about it. Even if you had no constraints put upon you by anyone outside of yourself, you still couldn't bring yourself to wear that old shirt you once spent money on but now can't seem to stand. (You know the one.) But the reason you weren't “free” to put it on was because of no one but yourself. You were bound to do nothing except your own will. Yet for that very reason, your own will was the only thing you could do. In one very important sense, you didn't have any choice in the matter at all.

At first glance, being a slave to your own will might not seem like such a big deal. But Scripture reveals it to be the one, great human predicament.14 We simply cannot “will” ourselves to prefer the things we don't prefer.15 I can't decide to dislike the things which I already adore (except when I realize that I'm enslaved to them, in which case I love them and hate them at the same time, all the while hating myself for loving them, and loving that I love them even though I hate doing so.) Perhaps, by training and discipline, a person might be able to train himself to stop loving something – like, say, that cup of coffee I have every day. Or, one might learn to like something he hates, like, say, running on a treadmill. But this is the most strange kind of freedom, for it is a case where one must work (and very hard at that) in the hopes of thwarting your own will.

At the end of this road likes the fact that you are not so free as you would like, most especially when it comes to the tyranny you hold over yourself.

All of this is to show once more that any freedom that you do have is an incredibly relative thing. Your will is always as much in bondage as it is free. This comes to bear powerfully in the Biblical teaching that because you are segregated from God by the choice of Adam, you now are absolutely powerless to will yourself back into his good graces, most especially by trying harder and harder to exercise your free will to do so.16

It's like being trapped in quicksand. The harder you struggle to choose the actually Almighty God, the more you are exercising your attempt to free yourself from an actually Almighty God – so much so that when Jesus comes and says things like, “I have chosen you,”17 and “you are predestined,”18 and “not because of anything you have done,”19 the “natural man” in us has the terrible audacity to think that we would have been better off if he'd left us some choice in the matter.20

On top of all of this, the truth remains that even the most ardently freed will – a will freed from God – is still not actually free from God. God is still God, even if we don't believe it. He still controls, upholds and propagates the universe. You can't escape it. The more you try, the more you will find yourself trying to escape you – and you are the one person you can't ever get away from – not a robot, but a sinner and a rebel “will” enslaved to your own freedom.

This is the bondage of the human will, our collective chips off the old block. There is not answer to it that you can choose or find. Even the problem itself needs to be revealed to us. The only hope is that there is someone left beyond ourselves who is powerful enough to save us from it.

1. Romans 2:6 “He will render to each one according to his works.”

2. Genesis 2:16-17 “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.' ”

3. Romans 5:12 “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

4. Genesis 3:24 “He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”

5. Romans 5:14-15 “Death reigned from Adam....Many died through one man's trespass.”

6. Psalm 139:16 “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”
Ezekiel 18:23 “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”

7. Romans 9:11,15 “They were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls...he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.”
Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

8. 1 John 1:5 “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

9. Genesis 3:17,19 “And to Adam he said, 'Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you...cursed is the ground because of you...till you return to the ground...for you are dust....”

But “how did he, a good being, choose a bad choice”? That is the nut we can't crack. It is the great unanswerable mystery in all Biblical theology, called the “crux telegorum” or “the problem of the cross.” It is the heart of the nagging question, “Why some, not others?” and it is at the root of all controversies we have in discerning the bondage of our wills. God has not revealed in Scripture “how” Adam fell. But he has revealed that Adam did in fact do so, and with petrifying results!

11. Ephesians 2:1 “You were dead in the trespasses and sins.”

12. Genesis 3:4-5 “The serpent said to the woman, 'You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.' ”

13. 2 Peter 2:19 “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.”

14. cf. Romans 7:7 “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet.' ”

15. Romans 7:15 “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

16. cf. Mark 10:17-31

17. John 15:16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you.”

18. Romans 8:30 “Those whom he predestined he also called...”

19. Ephesians 2:8 “This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

20. 1 Corinthians 2:14 “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

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