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Predestination and Human Freedom

“In whom we have received an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of the one who works all things according to the counsel of his will, to the end that we who exist to the praise of his glory — those who first hoped in Christ; in whom you also, in hearing the word of Truth, the Gospel of our Salvation, in which you also believed and were sealed in the Holy Spirit who was promised.”

(Ephesians 1:11-13)

The other part of the “predestining” that needs to be fleshed out is the human part. One of the common challenges that people raise against the Biblical notion of predestination has to do with where there is room for the human will and responsibility. If God predestines all things, can it be said that we ever really make a choice of one thing over another? And, if God predestines all things, how can we be held accountable for that which we do?

These are matters that have brought debate within the Christian community across the centuries. In today’s world, it is at the heart not only of the debate between Calvinists and Arminians but extremes on both ends lead to heresy — namely hyper-calvinism on one side and open-theism on the other. Thus, it is worth picking at this question a little bit here. 

To begin with, the “all” of “all things” is presented in the absolute. It is true that in some places in scripture, the “all” refers to “all kinds of things” or to “all kinds of people,” but context determines the reading of the word. In this case, there is nothing in the text to suggest anything but the most comprehensive use of the term πᾶς (pas)…or “all.” This is not a reference to God predestining this but not that; it is a reference to God predestining this and that — both the greatest things and the smallest things and all things in between.

It must also be said that the Bible affirms both that God is sovereign and that we are responsible for our actions. If we loose God’s sovereignty in our theology as does Open-theism, then we enter heresy. If we loose human responsibility in our theology as do the Hyper-calvinists, then again, we enter heresy. What the Bible affirms, we too must affirm.

So, how do we balance these two doctrines in a way that keeps our views consistent with that of Scripture? To begin with, we affirm the language we find here in Ephesians 1:11 — that God has predestined all things that come to pass according to the counsel of His will. From the birth and death of a sparrow to the birth and death of the Messiah, God is sovereign over all of these matters. Second, while our will is not free in the libertarian sense, we do make real choices every day of our lives. When I woke up this morning, I decided what I would wear and I decided what I would have for breakfast (amongst other things). These were genuine decisions where I had the option to do other than what I did. Yet, God is the one responsible for creating me and for forming my psyche as a Christian man. And thus, the decisions that I make are perfectly consistent not only with my character but with God’s eternal predestining design.

Does that mean that God has ordained my sin? In a sense, yes. Because we are fallen, we have inherited a sin-nature from our first parents, Adam and Eve. This sin nature means that I am bent toward sin. It is my natural default. Think about that toy car with a bent wheel axle. No matter how you push it, the car will drift to the side and not go in a straight line. Such is the case with humans, except that our bend is far worse and far more encompassing than a bent axle.

And so, God does permit our sin. At the same time, He also permits that sin for a purpose — most commonly for the glory of God and to draw us back to himself in repentance. In other words, sometimes we need to see and experience our own depravity before we will take that depravity seriously. Also, we will never understand grace until we really understand just how undeserving we are of it. Yet, not only are there no surprises when it comes to God and our sin, but it can be said that God is sovereign over our sin as well and further, that God uses our sin in a sinless way to do His will. Somewhere that is going to cause our brain to melt just a little bit, but as this is what the Bible affirms, this is what we too must affirm if we are to remain orthodox in our thinking.


“In Him we have deliverance through His blood — liberation from trespasses — according to the riches of His grace, which abounds to us in all wisdom and understanding,”

(Ephesians 1:7-8)

To start with, let’s talk about the idea of deliverance. In context, Paul parallels the idea with the phrase, “liberation from trespasses,” giving us a degree of additional clarity as to specifically the kind of deliverance that the Apostle has in mind. The word in question is ἀπολύτρωσις (apolutrosis), which most commonly refers to paying a ransom to free someone from slavery or bondage. The next logical answer to ask, then, is “what kind of bondage are believers delivered from?” The answer is found in Paul’s clarification — from our bondage to sin. 

One of the errors that crept into medieval theology was the notion that the ransom payment for believers was paid to the devil. Yet, we are not bound by the devil, we are bound by our sin. Further, the devil has no rightful or legitimate claim upon us as if he were some sort of equal power with God (that would be Manicheanism). No, we are bound by our sin and it is the Law that reveals our sin (Romans 7:7) and thus, any ransom that is made is ransom to the Law. In turn, then, given that the remission of sin requires the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22), then the ransom paid is not one of gold or silver or other forms of wealth, the ransom was made in blood…namely the blood of the one who has ransomed us from the bondage of sin before the Law.

The real issue that Christians too often struggle with today is that they do not see their sin as a form of bondage. Worse, some even see grace as a license to sin! Paul is very clear that such is not the view of the believer (Romans 6:1-2). Sin, all too sadly, is soft-pedaled in churches. It is seen as “not that bad” because there are others who are far more sinful than they. Thus, church discipline, too, has been put to the side. If sin is not that big of a deal, why take it so seriously as that? And the circle of cause and effect spirals downward.

Sin, even the smallest and most “insignificant” of sins, is bondage to us according to the Biblical text. Even the most minor “little white lie” would have cost Jesus his life upon that cross on Golgotha. Woe to those who will not treat it as such. Woe to the ones who excuse and justify their pet sins and an abundance of woes to the ones who look upon sin and call it by any other name. When one justifies sin, one justifies remaining in bondage and even celebrates the bondage of others. 

Loved ones, do you not see that your sin binds you? Do you not recognize the toll it takes on your life? Do you not realize that obedience to the Law in Christ is a blessed freedom, not something that robs us of all our fun. You must realize that in heaven we will be unable to sin — unable! Yet, shall we be any more free than when we are in glory? Most certainly not! How sin has so muddled our brains that we would think of bondage as good and of freedom as unstimulating and tedious. 

In Christ we have been redeemed from our bondage to sin just as the Israelites who followed Moses were redeemed from their bondage to the toil of Pharaoh’s work details. Sadly, just as there were complainers under Moses, people constantly nostalgic for the stewpots of Egypt, there are Christians in the body of Christ who likewise pine for their pet chains and shackles of sin. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free from our slavery (Galatians 5:1), shall we not enjoy and rejoice in the freedom that Christ has sacrificed to provide for us?

A Presumption of Innocence and a Sad Era in America

I will be the first to say that I love being an American — proud even, in a sense of the word. I am an Eagle Scout back from the mid ‘80s when the Boy Scouts were not willing to compromise their religious footing and spent years saluting the flag as a youth and as an adult-leader (there was no “taking the knee” for me). And, having had the privilege of serving for several years as a pastor just off of Eglin Air Force Base, I have had the privilege of serving many soldiers and military families and I have the greatest respect for those men and women who serve our country to preserve the freedoms and rights that I hold dear.

I also travel overseas…not a lot, but more than many. In those travels I have seen real poverty, not just poverty “American Style” as we often see here (and having served as chaplain for an inner-city rescue mission for three years, I have seen that too). I’ve also seen the effects of oppression on people when their rights have been trampled — or, as in many parts of eastern Europe, those rights have been non-existent.

When I travel, there is no mistaking that I am an American — my cowboy boots and jeans give me away every time. My friends in Ukraine will sometimes ask, “Why would you wear shoes like that?” My response is usually something like, “It is a very American thing to do” or, “Don’t you know that Chuck Norris wears cowboy boots?” Even so, they are comfortable and well, I do like them. Further, on my way home from overseas, there is something of a good feeling that comes over me when I discover we are back over American soil. 

America, to me, is more than just a nationality of origin and a name on the cover of my passport; it is both an idea and an ideal — a place where the promise of “liberty and justice for all” is not just something that is said at the end of our pledge, but something for which we strive as a nation. It is both a principle of conduct and a goal for living out our lives.

One aspect of a nation founded on “liberty and justice for all” is that of due process and a presumption of innocence. In many other places of the world, you are guilty because the state declares you guilty, or worse yet, guilty because the mob that happens to be in power declares you guilty. If you think through the ramifications of living under such oppression, well, it is scary. And, one need not go looking too far to find totalitarian governments who have operated in such ways. Orwell’s Animal Farm is not just a warning of “what if” but it is a depiction of what has happened in so many cases where rampant socialism and its uglier brother, fascism, has risen to power.

Over the past week or so, I have watched many of the latest supreme court nomination hearings. And regardless of whether you are a supporter of Dr. Kavanaugh or are not a supporter of his views; the media circus, the accusations flying in every direction, and the dirty politics ought to disturb you no matter whether you sit with the political right or the political left side of the aisle. Yet, what ought to disturb us most, as Americans, is that from the very beginning of Dr. Ford’s accusations, there has been a presumption of guilt and due process has been ignored. Do we now live in such a world where accusations (founded or otherwise) can ruin a man’s career? If that is the case, let us all beware. 

According to the ancient Biblical laws, to make an accusation such as this, one had to have two or three witnesses to a crime — “he said, she said” was considered shaky grounds for any accusation, let alone a serious one. And while we do not live in ancient Israel, the presumption of Innocence is considered to be a universal human right by the United Nations and is a fundamental part of English Common Law (which was influential in developing the American Constitution) and is an umbrella that gives meaning to the 5th, 6th, and 14th amendments to the Constitution. The bottom line is that the burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused. 

While I certainly have my own opinions as to the guilt or innocence of Judge Kavanaugh, but they are irrelevant. A man ought not be tried in the courts of public opinion just as he ought not be judged in the courts of the media. There is no question that there are political lines being drawn at the moment — frankly they have been drawn in the sand for a while now, they are just becoming more brazen — but there is something even more important than politics at stake right now — it is the fundamental right of a man to be considered innocent until proven guilty. And do know, if we continue down this road, we must ask ourselves, “What other fundamental rights will we lose?” 

It is a dangerous road on which some in our nation have embarked.

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!

It seems that these days people speak a lot about liberty, protecting their liberties, and how their liberties are being threatened by this legislation or that group of people. “We live in a free society!” people proclaim and use that status to excuse or protect all sorts of behaviors. When the government speaks of laws that would restrict gun ownership, the conservatives yell that their liberties are being compromised. When the government speaks of controls on the spread of pornography on the internet, the liberals  yell that the freedom of speech and of the press is being compromised. When a homeowner’s association tries to restrict the way renovations are done to a house, homeowners cry out that their liberties are being infringed upon. Even in theological circles, the matter raises its ugly head. When Reformed Christians begin speaking of God’s absolute sovereignty over a person’s life, death, and salvation, the Wesleyans wave the banner of libertarian freedom for the human will. And so the debates ensue.

But do we really even understand what it is that we are saying? There is no question that there are things we oppose, and with good reason, but is liberty and freedom the right plank to stand upon when taking a stand for one or more of these matters? In fact, do we even know what these words mean in the first place? True, we know the mantras. Patrick Henry is famous for proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death!” in the face of British oppression. We have a giant statue personifying liberty standing in the New York Harbor. As Americans, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” But if we do not understand what is meant by these statements, then the mantras become nothing more than repetitious slogans fit to adorn bumper-stickers and drink coasters and are useless when it comes to living out one’s life.

So, what is the definition of liberty and freedom? The dictionary defines liberty as “the state of being free within a society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s life, behavior, or political views” and “the power or scope to act as one pleases.”1   Liberty comes from the Latin word, libertas, which means “freedom or independence.” The word free is derived from the German word, frei, which has roots in the Indo-European word meaning, “to hold dear.”2

But what does this imply? If freedom means that I can do whatever I feel like doing, then a free society sounds more like an anarchy than something that would honor God. Surely there must be some qualifications placed on our liberty lest a free society become a horrific place to dwell.

To really understand the implications of these ideas, we need to begin by looking at the source of freedom and liberty, God himself. Though Jefferson was anything but an “evangelical Christian,” he did get one very fundamental idea correct…that is that we derive our “unalienable”3  rights from our creator — a creator who has these rights within his person in a perfect sense. God has perfect liberty, but does that mean that God’s liberty is absolute in the unlimited sense of the definition given above? Particularly for those who have grown up in a culture that has told them that “God can do anything…”, the answer to this question may be surprising. For God cannot do anything (he cannot lie, he cannot sin, he cannot cease to be God,  he cannot cease to be perfect and infinite, he cannot make a bolder so large that he cannot move it, etc…). Instead, God can do anything that is consistent with his person and perfections.

You see, it is the perfection of God’s own character that limits his own liberty. That does not mean that God’s liberty is imperfect, far from it. The liberty to be chaotic and inconsistent is hardly a true liberty at all; instead, it is deprivation. In God’s perfect4  liberty, he acts in a way perfectly consistent with his attributes and perfections (His holiness, righteousness, joy, etc…). At the same time, his liberty is restrained by his character so it is expressed in a fashion consistent with his character and ethical norms (which flow out of his character).

Thus, while we often talk about our need for unlimited liberty in society, such liberty is no liberty at all, but chaos and anarchy. What is best for us is liberty that is constrained by an ethical norm, yet if this ethical norm is not outside of us as humans, it cannot provide a consistent norm within which we can enjoy our liberty. And, since human government is nothing more than a gathering of people exercising authority over other people, neither the individual nor the government can establish such norms — as mentioned before, anarchy is the result of the former and governmental oppression is the natural result of the latter. What is necessary is to appeal to a norm that is transcendent and greater than human existence who also is benevolent, not malicious, in his character.

With that in mind, then, true liberty becomes living in a way that is consistent with one’s character and personality (not under coercion or intimidation) but that is also in accord with an ethical standard established by God. In turn, when we pursue immoral ends, we sacrifice our liberty by degrees that are equivalent to the immorality that we have chosen to pursue. When Jefferson argued that we have the unalienable right to liberty, this is the sense by which he understood liberty (remembering that this liberty he speaks of is endowed upon us by our creator — if we share God’s liberty as a result of the Imago Dei, then our liberty must be of the same kind and category as our creator’s liberty). He sought to advocate for perfect liberty in contrast to unlimited liberty, which is no liberty at all.

Sadly, as a society, we have lost the vision set before us by our early American Fathers and our Christian Theological heritage. It is neither taught in school nor in church and then we stand and wonder why it is that our culture has gone astray and that moral chaos reigns in the culture. The book of Judges is an excellent commentary on American life today; when every man does what is right in his own eyes, the culture will fall into immorality and bondage. Christ has established the church to be the agent by which the culture is preserved (we are salt and light); yet, the message of the church has been anything but preservational. We have feared the culture rather than fearing for the culture (given the direction it is bent toward). And thus the church has tended to follow rather than to lead. And, with that in mind, it is well past time where we begin to step out and engage once again, bringing truth into dark places and the life-preserving salt of mercy to those in our midst. And in that, let us learn ourselves first what it means to exercise perfect liberty and then teach the world to do the same.


1 From the Oxford American Dictionaries.

2 Not surprisingly, the word “friend” also comes from this Indo-European root.

3 Unalienable means that something can neither be given up nor taken away. It is part of the very essence of the thing. Thus, were humans to no longer have these “unalienable rights” we would cease to be human. The only way that such a right can be part of our essential being is if we are made in the image of one who also has these rights (in an ultimate sense) as part of His essential being. As Christians, we refer to this as the Doctrine of the Imago Dei — we are made in the image of God and thus these rights that are perfectly found in God are also found in us, though in imperfect ways.

4 Notice that I am using the term, “perfect” and not, “unlimited” here.

Inalienable Rights

On July 4, 1776, 56 men gathered to sign a document that would swiftly plunge the 13 colonies that they represented into a war for independence from Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence was designed to be a clear statement of their justification for rebellion against the world’s dominant empire. This document, from the beginning, lays out these men’s fundamental presupposition: that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were inalienable rights guaranteed by mankind’s creator.

We hear this language a lot, but what does it mean that these things are “inalienable” and why did these men believe that such rights were guaranteed by their creator? To begin with, the word inalienable (also written as “unalienable” at times, these are just two spellings of the same word) means that these things can neither be taken away nor can they be given away. In other words, our forefathers understood that these three rights were part of our very makeup as human beings and there is nothing one could do to remove or sacrifice these rights. I can no more give up these rights than I can change my species.

So what makes these rights inalienable? The immediate answer, which comes right from the text of the Declaration of Independence, is that such rights come from and are guaranteed by God, our creator.  But why? In Genesis 1:26, God says: “Let us make man in our image and after our model.” This verse is the basis for what is known as the doctrine of the “Imago Dei,” or that mankind is made after the image of God. In other words, what is being taught is that human beings have some of the same attributes that God has. Certainly there are some attributes that belong to God alone: his infinity, his omniscience, etc…, but many traits we share. Thus, when we talk of God having intelligence, will, and a freedom to pursue his pleasure, we recognize that, as image bearers, the same language applies to us as well. Thus, the reason that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights is because God has these rights in his very being.  For us to be human and in the image of God means then, that we too have these rights.  In turn, if a government or an institution seeks to usurp those rights or treats us as if we do not have those rights, they are no longer treating the people as if they are human.

As we celebrate the Fourth of July this year, it is worth remembering that the reason we have dignity and certain inalienable rights is because we are image bearers of God, yet what happens when a government rejects the very notion of God as foundational? What happens when a society is no longer taught the doctrines that undergird some of these ideas? Friends, while many of our founding fathers were not what we would define as evangelical Christians, all of them had a clear understanding that Biblical principles were an essential part of the foundation of a free society and if you lose those principles you will lose the society that the principles protect. Currently, the government, the ACLU, the teachers unions, and many other secular groups are working hard to eliminate God’s word from our classrooms and from our government.  What happens if a generation grows up thinking that either there is no God or that if there is a God, he has no relevance to life in society? As such takes place, we will lose those freedoms that our founding Fathers understood to be inalienable and grounded in the fact that we bear God’s image in our persons.

Pray for our nation. Pray that God will convert our political leaders who are not born-again Christians. But just as importantly, pray that those in influence will once again realize that if we are going to preserve freedom in America, we need to preserve the Biblical foundation for the rights that our founding fathers understood to be inalienable.  My fear is that people no longer desire to be “human” by God’s definition, but want to be human by their own definition—Man made in man’s own image.  If that is true, we will cease to be “human” and will lose the freedoms that we have.  As Christians, we have the knowledge of the truth—it is a shame that so many in the church keep silent about that truth.  Let us be bold and outspoken and let us call for reform to our very wicked government lest we be in a situation where Abraham must stand before God once again and say, “if I can find just 10 in America…”