Category Archives: Free will

The Enigma of Evil

AR-AE960_LEGO_P_20140130112656It is the age old problem – “How can a good God allow evil?” It is answered normally in two ways – either he is loving but unable to do anything to stop it (making him a benevolent but impotent being), or he is able to do something, but is unwilling to act (making him a malevolent dictator). This conundrum is not easily solved…if God really is as loving as he claims to be, then surely he would do more to stop the evil we see everywhere. If he is really as powerful as he claims to be then he could stop so much suffering instantly. We put ourselves in his shoes and see things so differently – we imagine what we would do if we were him.

Imagine for a moment you are the CEO of a large company. There are things in your company that are not good – people fighting, people getting emotionally hurt, people leaving in frustration. The situation really hurts the CEO because he or she cares about people and about their company. So what does he do? Does he have the power to sort things out? Obviously, he’s the boss. But is getting stuck in the best course of action? If he does nothing people will question whether he really cares about the hurt and pain they are experiencing. But if he intervenes in every case his employees will treat him as the police enforcement or judge to arbitrate even the smallest disagreements. They may also resent the fact that he is always interfering in things that are not his responsibility. Surely this is not the wisest thing for him to do either?

So, he comes up with a compromise – he decides to constantly lead by example and be the kind of leader he is looking for; he teaches his most senior leaders what it takes to be a good leader; he makes an example of some of the more serious grievances and he coaches people in private about how they should act in a given situation. There are some things that were set by his predecessor and he cannot change them easily (think of long term rental agreements) that are causing institutional pain, but eventually he will deal with these too.

Through these methods he slowly sees the company change, people becoming more what they could be, less what they shouldn’t be. All the time he has patiently waited and instructed, but not dictated the behaviours he expects from his staff. This is a good analogy of how God deals with the problem of evil….

1) He experiences our pain – rather than being a distant God, untouched by evil, he comes to earth to face it head on and feel the full force of corruption, jealousy, betrayal, greed, hatred, contempt and murder. In the life of Jesus God shows us how we should overcome evil with good, and learn how to not retaliate when we are reviled. Jesus was heartbroken by the death that took away his friend Lazarus, he is not immune to the pain caused by evil in this world.

2) He gives examples of a better way – the lives of the apostles and prophets give us ample examples of how to live in the midst of suffering and evil without succumbing to it. In the life of Job we learn how to suffer patiently and accept trial from God as well as blessing; in the life of Joseph we learn that what our brothers meant for evil God uses for good.

3) He shows us how seriously he takes evil – in the punishment dealt out to the rebellious Israelites in the Old Testament we have a vivid picture of how seriously God takes evil. Interestingly, these are the passages that people today use to try and argue that God is not loving – and yet it is his loving judgement on evil that shows us that he really does care enough about evil to do something about it.

4) He allows us room to learn – he does not intervene to stop every mistake we make. We do things that hurt ourselves and each other, we act selfishly and destructively, and he allows us to do it. Why? Because he wants us to grow in godliness through making our own choices, rather than restraining our freedom to act independently. We might wish he would stop people doing bad things, but would that apply to us as well when we act selfishly or self-centered or are proud?

5) He gives us his Spirit to teach us – if we are willing we can learn how to change the only evil we can control, the evil within our own hearts. We look at the world outside as the problem, but this problem is really inside of us. It is in our hearts where the darkness lies, and as we allow him into our lives he extinguishes the darkness with his light.

6) He is active to restrain it now and will ultimately remove it – just like the CEO, there are some things that are more structural than social. Unfortunately evil is a fundamental part of a corrupt and fallen world. While we may wish he would act now against evil, we should not take his patience for complacency. One day he will purge the world of evil, but if we would not be part of the problem on that day, we must come and submit to his rule in our lives in today. However, it is a mistake to think that he is distant from his creation and just waiting for the end, he acts in multitude of unseen ways to restrain evil everyday in the lives of his creation.

Maybe being a CEO isn’t that easy after all!

The Good Life

1975_television_the_good_life_02One of my favourite family programmes growing up was The Good Life. For those outside the UK, this was a 1970s sit-com following the lives of the Tom & Barbara Good (in case you’re wondering I saw the repeats not the orginal series!). They sought to go back to basics and live life as it should be; to live off the land and provide for themselves by their honest hard work. The wife was played by Felicity Kendal and I thought of her this week when studying Augustine. For in book 5 of Augustine’s City of God he speaks about the pursuit and possession of felicity.

Felicity

For most of us, felicity is probably a rather old-fashioned girl’s name, but long before the olden days, it meant the “complete enjoyment of all that is to be desired” – what we call happiness. Felicity, or happiness, is the ability to enjoy life. It is more than being blessed in our material possessions; it is the ability to enjoy whatever possessions and situation we find ourselves in.

Augustine frames felicity within a wider question to his reader: “what is the virtuous life; how much is it due to God, and how much is it due to us?” His penetrating question combines 1) the concept of felicity (the ability to enjoy life), with 2) God’s Providence (his provision and direction over our lives), and 3) our virtue and choices.

He describes how the ability to enjoy and be satisfied in our blessings is a greater gift than simply the possession of those blessings. He compares our possession of blessings to a meal that has been prepared and served. It is great to possess a meal, but even better to participate in it; to eat and enjoy the meal. How much more the blessings of life – not just to have them, but to enjoy them?

However, he also recognises that God bestows felicity as he wishes, even on those who are not good. Therefore, he asks the question “why then was God willing that the Roman Empire should extend so widely and last so long?” That is, how did Providence, felicity and virtue play out in the Roman Empire?

Providence

Augustine begins by attacking the practise of worshiping multitudes of gods in every aspect of life. He wonders why they need all these gods, when if they only had Felicity they would be content in life. “Why not worship Felicity?” he asks, for felicity is to be sought above all other gifts.

He then goes on to confront the superstitious belief in astrology that held sway amongst many Romans. Many saw their destiny dependent on the position of the stars at the time of birth or conception, others believed in pure chance. Augustine argues that God cares for and directs all of life. However, if God has already planned what will happen, does this take away our free will? What is the interaction between free will and God’s foreknowledge?

For Cicero the two things were mutually exclusive, he believed we must have free will and this meant no room for God’s will. For Augustine “the religious mind chooses both, foreknowledge as well as liberty; it acknowledges both, and supports both in pious faith.” But how can this be? Augustine argues that as every event must be preceded by a cause our wills also have causes and have been included in the preceding cause of God’s foreknowledge. God is the ultimate cause, we have a perceived freedom because we are a participating cause and our will is important because it forms part of the overall plan of his will.

Augustine says God is free to do his own will, for he is truly ALL-powerful. We do what we desire, so does God. He cannot do what he does not desire. Sometimes we desire and will something and it does not happen. God alone has the power to desire and the will to achieve. Augustine argues that if he foreknew our will then there was something he saw, not nothing – therefore we have a part to play.

He says that we have responsibility for willed sin. In God’s providence he has given man governance of creation. We share our existence with the stones, our reproductive life with plants, our senses with animals, and our intellect with the angels. We are responsible creatures and have been endowed with responsibility, over not only individual creatures but also their kingdoms.

Virtue

Augustine argues that the best characteristics of this governance were displayed in the Roman Empire. For, at its noblest, it was passionate about glory and this passion restrained other vices. Men were “greedy for praise, generous with money, seeking vast renown and honourable riches.” They were prepared to die for what they believed in, and this was a powerful force for good.

The important thing for the men of that time was “either to die bravely, or to live in freedom”. However, he also recognises that “in early times it was the love of liberty that led to great achievements, later it was the love of dominationWhen liberty had been won such a passion for glory took hold of them that liberty alone did not satisfy – they had to acquire dominion.”

They sought glory, honour and power – the good men sought these through virtuous deeds, the “worthless wretch” sought them through deception and trickery. However, over and above all these stood virtue, for virtue was considered greater than glory “since it is not content with the testimony of men, without the witness of a man’s own conscience.”

In a devastating critique of the decline of Rome he asks where have the virtues that made Rome great gone? Things that have ceased to exist: “energy in our own land, a rule of justice outside our borders; in forming policy, a mind that is free because not at the mercy of criminal passions. Instead we have self-indulgence and greed, public poverty and private opulence. We praise riches: we pursue a course of sloth. No distinction is made between good men and bad: the intrigues of ambition win the prizes due to merit. No wonder, when each of you thinks only of his own private interest; when at home you are slaves to your appetites, and to money and influence in your public life.” The parallels for our own time are too obvious to mention.

Conclusion

Augustine saves the biggest challenge for the citizens of the heavenly city. “Very different is the reward of the saints” for our reward is to be enjoyed forever in the next life. However, in this life we are despised “for the City of God is hateful to the lovers of this world.” Nevertheless, we can learn much from those who sought their reward from earthly dominion. If they were willing to expand such devotion to virtue for earthly praise and honour, should we not be rebuked for our love of ease? Can we not learn from their self-denial, single-mindedness, integrity, poverty and temptations? If we have been made citizens of the City of God by the Providence of God, should we not seek even deeper virtue without the need for glory?

The Good Life is worth living because it is the only way to really enjoy life. Virtue is worth seeking even if no one else ever knows or sees. Felicity can be achieved without achievements.

Father help me not to seek power, prestige or popularity. Help me to seek only you and enable me to enjoy the blessings you have given me. Amen.

You asked: how can I know I am elect?

Reader Question: From a Reformed perspective (I am relatively new to this thinking in many ways), assuming the Doctrine of Election is true (I believe this to be true myself), what is the role of parenting? Knowing that there is no way to know whether or not your children are “elect”, how can a loving parent subject his children to Biblical teaching – assuming that teaching could some day be held against them on judgement day? (wouldn’t it be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those who know the Gospel and don’t respond?). If they are elect anyway, perhaps telling them once and seeing how they respond is better than consistent training?

Again, I am not being facetious or devious- but really struggling through this. I grew up in a church and always assumed I was a Christian. Lately, I have doubted that as I have not seen the Spirit’s activity in my life, nor fully reflect the fruit of the Spirit, nor am I sure that I have fully repented from my sin. You may say to just repent and believe, but I am finding it more difficult than that and wondering whether or not I could possibly not be “elect”. Having sat through countless sermons and podcasts and books, am I more accountable?

Then, I take that to my children and wonder if I teach them the Gospel and they don’t respond, are they destined for a much more difficult eternity? Wouldn’t love for them wish for them to find Christ, yet not subject them to countless hours of instruction knowing that they may not choose that?

I am really confused, discouraged and honestly disheartened. I feel like my efforts to find God or grow closer to Christ or even to repent are “works” of my own and can’t any longer separate the true work of the Spirit from my own efforts.

I guess I am not looking for a counselling session, rather perhaps a perspective on what my responsibility is as a parent from the Reformed perspective. Thanks for your time and consideration on this (you can pray for me as well if you desire- I would not pass on that!).

Dear reader,

Many thanks for your questions, these are real heart-felt issues that we all sometimes struggle with as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I will try and provide some help on the issue of election before then turning to how this impacts our parenting.

As an opening comment I would say that election can be a very controversial subject and, not rightly handled, thinking deeply about it over a prolonged time can get us tied in knots. In some ways I would compare it to a person’s life assurance policy – it needs to be understood and applied, but then put in the back drawer and not obsessed over. Similarly with election, if not rightly understood and applied, rather than confirming and assuring our faith, it can actually have the opposite effect and undermine and make us doubt our faith. But once, in God’s mercy, we are granted a true understanding of the doctrine, we should allow it to support our devotion and growth, without being the test of it.

It might help to think of election as God’s side of the salvation story. Our side is the call to repent and believe and live a life of obedience in thankful response. From God’s side there are the eternal decrees determining each day of his children’s lives, from our side it is the moment by moment experience of living in this world and responding to his word. From God’s side there is ultimate and supreme sovereignty and freedom of will, from our side there is the wrestling with the sinful nature and the secret work of the Spirit in the inner life. No one can understand both sides of these things. We can see our side, and God has revealed some of his side through the scriptures. But much remains hidden and we must eventually reach a place of trust and submission if we would ever achieve assurance of our faith and peace of conscience.

It’s also important to realise that an assurance of our own faith is something that must be nurtured. Like a flower that will eventually bloom under the right conditions of soil, water and sun, so too our faith will be confirmed if we nurture the means to grow that faith. We will come to hear his Spirit confirming with our spirit that we are the children of God (Romans 8.16). At the moment of first confession we may have been told that we are saved, and some may feel assurance based on this their entire lives, but most of us will question it at some point in our lives. You certainly are at the moment, and this is a healthy thing if done for a season.

I’m sure you have heard and read many sermons and books on assurance of faith, so I’ll not go into that in detail. I just want to outline a few practical thoughts that I have found helpful:

1. The danger of relying on our feelings (and ignoring them completely) – do we feel elect when times are good and doubt our election when times are hard and we sin? The question we need to ask is what do we really believe to be true? Do we really truly believe that Jesus died for my sin – and if we do believe have we honestly asked him to forgive us. If so then we have planted the seed of the word in our hearts – we must then examine ourselves to see if the word is bearing fruit. But what is the fruit that we look for? If we seek perfection then we will be disappointed, if we seek love, joy, peace etc, then we will only see partial fruit, for we all are a pale reflection when it comes to these attributes. Perhaps a better indicator is how our desires, motivations, even feelings are being renewed. Do we grieve for sin when once we could have sinned without a second thought? Do we wish we were a better disciple and become frustrated when we fail? Good – so we should, for our desires are sometimes a better indicators than our characters, for character takes years to cultivate and while desires come and go, the fact that they do come sometimes should encourage us that God is at work.

2. The danger of self-deception – the false disciples of Matthew 7 thought they knew Christ when they only knew about him. Many people in churches will realise on the last day that this is true of them. The key question here is – have I personally appropriated the salvation which is freely given? I preached on this topic last year (click here).

3. The danger of despair – we should recognise that our minds are not infallible and are a battle ground for spiritual warfare – the helmet of salvation as Paul describes it, protects our minds. We should guard against entertaining every doubt, and emulate David in preaching God’s truth to ourselves. Don’t let our insecurities trump the truths of God’s word – for example, God has said “Never will I leave you never will I forsake you” – if we have addressed the first two items above then even though we might not feel in our experience the presence of the Lord, if doesn’t mean it is not true. The same can be said about forgiveness of sin – 1 John 1.9 promises complete and utter forgiveness of confessed sin – even if we don’t feel guiltless, or like we have been forgiven.

4. Sin, doubt or fear does not mean you are unelect – each of us face periods of failure and darkness, but like a life jacket that is pressed under the water, we are inevitably brought back to the surface again by the inner workings of the Spirit. The time to worry is when this no longer happens are we are content to wallow in our sin – then we are in danger of having our consciences seared and proving our profession to be false. If we have (as honestly as we are consciously able to) repented of our sins and confessed Jesus as our Lord, then it comes down to trusting in the promises that God has made to us – not the other way around. The promise is clear – “if you repent in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved” (Romans 10.10). If we do this and then doubt it, it doesn’t render the promise void – “for if we are faith-less, God will remain faithful” (2 Timothy 2.13).

5. The doctrine of election does not necessarily lead to complacency – unfortunately some who have misunderstood election have thought that this gives them a carte blanche to behave how they want. Like those objectors in Romans 6.1 who, after hearing that where sin abounds, grace abounds more said “well lets keep on sinning so that God’s forgiveness looks even better.” Election should be viewed holistically – not just in relation to salvation, but also sanctification and glorification (Romans 8.30). God has elected that we will be those who not only begin the Christian walk, but finish it and we will surely finish it more like Christ than when we began. Moreover, he has elected us to one day be glorified in his presence. God has not only ordained (or elected) the end (Christ-likeness in his presence), but also the means (life by the Spirit through our active obediance Galatians 5.16ff).

6. Works are not all bad – at one point Jesus was asked “what are the works that God requires” and he answered “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6.28-29). So we see belief is a work of God. Not all works are to be despised, spiritual disciplines are works that can greatly help us in our daily obedience. The works that are condemned are the reliance on these things for acceptance with God. We should, we must, be a people of (godly) works – abundant in our labour of love, but these are in response to the mercy and grace of God, not a way to gain that favour, or even as a means to confirm our election.

Consider this illustration – election is like the engines of a plane, in the same way that the engines power the uplift and flight of the plane and enable it to make progress towards its destination, so our election is the secret working that enables us to believe, preserve and overcome. But if during the flight the pilot decided to stop the engines while he inspected whether they were really working as efficiently as possible, or if they were needing a service, the result would be disastrous. So too with election – our object and goal in life should be a close walk with the Lord Jesus, filled with His Spirit and obeying his commands, not always scrutinising the reality of our faith.

Once we get diverted off this focus, we risk becoming introspective and our focus shifts to ourselves rather than away from ourselves. Yes, there is a time for examination and personal reflection, but constant examination and persistent introspection is more likely to lead to you coming to a complete stop. The Spirit will guide you as you seek God’s face what is required of you at this point in your spiritual journey.

Finally, all this plays itself out in our parenting. In the same way that we cannot fully see God’s side of the salvation story for ourselves, so we cannot see it for our children. We must allow only God to know his ultimate decrees for their lives. We do not have any guarantees for them. Rather we must see that we are seeking to follow our side of the story – doing the things that we have been commanded by God to do – instruct them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord (Deut 6.7-9, Proverbs 22.6, Matthew 19.4). We must use the means God has given us, if we would have the ends that we desire for them. Again I say that I cannot see any guarantee that God has given Christian parents, and as a father of three beautiful, precious children this scares me. But I believe that God is a good God and that as he used the means of Grace in my life to save my at 9 years old, so he is able to bring my children to himself.

But we must seek to move beyond simply indoctrinating them with abstract truths, to demonstrating the reality of our own faith in the life that we live. We must open our hearts to them that they would see our vulnerability and honest struggles. They must see that it is more than a tradition or a culture for us – that it is our lifeblood. We must exhibit the graces and character that we want them to grow towards, to make room for their questions and doubts, to have spontaneous times of prayer and thanksgiving. Oh that God would grant us the immeasurable blessing of believing children and the grace to love them (and him) no matter what happens.

I hope this is of some help for you in your struggles. I pray that the God of all compassion would make himself known to you in such a powerful and real way that your faith is confirmed, your hope renewed and love deepened. In His name, Martyn

PS You can read my four posts on Calvin’s chapters on election and predestination here:

Faith acquires what the law requires

Book II Chapter V Section 1-19

In this final chapter on the subject of free will Calvin addresses some of the questions that are raised in response to his teaching on this topic. So far Calvin has argued that our will is free only in so far as it means we act voluntary and not under compulsion, in our natural state we willingly choose to do what we love – sin. He claims that we are not ultimately free to choose whether to do good or evil until we are created anew by the indwelling Spirit. He recognises that the Spirit acts in the heart of people to restrain them from evil, but this is not sufficient to transform them. We need a new heart. A living soul of flesh implanted by God that wills to serve Him and is enabled by His grace to have the power to serve Him.

Some of the questions he tackles in this chapter are:

  • Does God mock us in demanding things we are not able to do (when he commands us to obey precepts He knows we are unable to do)?
  • Does this teaching not make the promises and precepts of God pointless if we have no power to respond to their encouragements and warnings?
  • Why does God rebuke the people of Israel and blame them for things they were unable to avoid?
  • How can mankind be held accountable for things they are powerless to change?
  • If the scripture teaches that God waits for us to repent then surely something must depend on us?
  • The scripture describes good and bad works as our own, how then is it that we are held responsible for the bad works but the good ones are attributed to Him?

In answer to some of these questions Calvin repeats the comment of Augustine that “God does not measure the precepts of the law by human strength, but, after ordering what is right, freely bestows on His elect the power of fulfilling it”. Augustine himself says “God orders what we cannot do, that we may know what we ought to ask of Him…Faith acquires what the law requires…nay, more, God demands of us faith itself, and finds not what He thus demands, until by giving it He makes it possible to find it”.

Calvin argues that there is no contradiction between God demanding a new heart within us, and then declaring that He gives it. Again from Augustine: “What God promises, we ourselves do not through choice or nature, but He Himself does by Grace”.

How does all this work in practise? Does God do everything while we sit back and relax? Well, not quite. God has given the believer a new heart to love and serve Him. Now they have the Spirit within to empower them to live for Him. So we want to act righteously, and although we often fail, we freely choose to follow our Saviour. Calvin puts it this way “you act and are acted upon, and you then act well when you are acted upon by one that is good…nature furnishes the will which is guided so as to aspire to good”.

Response
What Calvin is essentially saying here is that our nature has provided the power to will, but God provides the new direction and sustaining power. We have the innate ability to reason and decide on a particular action, but like the horse illustration that was used in the last chapter, we need to be broken in. God must tame our stubborn wills and bring us to a point of submission. Although the final victory over our old nature was certain from the moment of regeneration, there is a moment by moment decision required of whether to yield or resist.

God pleads with His people to be willing, “do not be like the horse or mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32.9). But we are weak and our efforts half-hearted. How we need His forgiving, healing Grace. Praise Him that our salvation does not depend on us, but on our sinless, spotless, Saviour.

“For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit”. Romans 8.3+4

Father, help our weak wills and sinful hearts to long and search for You. Forgive us our sins and renew our hearts that we may walk with You in unity rather than grieving Your Spirit within us. Pour out Your Grace today Lord, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

The law of unintended consequences

Book II Chapter IV Section 1-8

The law of unintended consequences states that any purposeful action will produce some unintended consequences.  It means that however much we try and control the effects of our actions some things will happen that we did not intend. The truth of this law seems pretty self-evident and thinking about this law can provide some insights into Calvin’s arguments in this short chapter. In it he returns to the question of God’s control over both evil and indifferent events and how He manages to overule everything to His own ends. If He is overuling such events then how much responsibility can be attributed to man and how much to the devil?

Calvin begins to answer this question by using Augustine’s analogy of comparing the human will to a horse where God and the Devil are the riders. When once the control of the will is given to the Devil “like an ignorant and rash rider, he hurries it over broken ground, drives it into ditches, dashes it over precipices, spurs it into obstinacy or fury”. By contrast when the reigns of life are given to God “like a temperate and skilful rider, guides it calmly, urges it when too slow, reins it in when too fast…and keeps it on the proper course”.

Calvin next attempts to explain how we can attribute the same work to God, to Satan and to man without either excusing Satan or making God the author of evil. This issue was also addressed in Chapter 18 of Book I. Calvin argues that we can understand how these various factors interconnect if we look “first to the end (or purpose), and then the mode of acting” (italics mine). Using the example of the Chaldeans attack on Job’s camels in Job 1.17, we can see the three different purposes in the same act:

  1. God’s purpose is to exercise the patience of His servant through adversity
  2. Satan’s purpose is to drive Job to despair
  3. The Chaldeans purpose is to make unlawful gain by plunder

Calvin argues that “such diversity of purpose makes a wide distinction in the act”. We can also note the diversity of the mode of action:

  1. God allows Satan to afflict his servant, he hands over the Chaldeans to the impulses of Satan
  2. Satan willingly incites the Chaldeans to commit the crime
  3. The Chaldeans willingly rush to fulfil their desires

Thus, we can see how the same act can be attributed to God, Satan and man “while, from the difference in the end and mode of action, the spotless righteousness of God shines forth at the same time that the iniquity of Satan and of man is manifested in all its deformity”.

Response

This one illustration powerfully demonstrates the boundaries of the law of unintended consequences. All created creatures, whether spiritual or human beings are bounded by this law. Neither angels, or devils or people can control all the outcomes of one simple act. However, God is not bound by this law, He sustains and controls all things for His own purposes. He works within His own law of intended consequences.

Often we cannot understand what He is doing and why, and sometimes it is impossible for us to see any good to come out of an act. But we can rest in this truth that our God is able to overule the most impossible situations to bring His purposes to fulfilment. One day we will more fully understand how God has caused all things to work for the good of those that love Him. But for now we walk by faith, trusting our loving Father.

“It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God”. Genesis 45.5+8

Father, we pray you would enable us to fully trust that you are in control of all things, overuling them for our benefit. Even in the darkest night we hold onto Your hand and look to You to lead us. We believe and know You are working for our good, help us to find our peace in acceptance of this truth, for Your sake, Amen.

Free to do what you love

Book II Chapter II Section 1-27

After looking at original sin (or as Calvin calls it, hereditary sin) in Chapter 1 of Book 2, Calvin moves on to consider whether as a result of the fall man really has the freedom to choose to do good or evil. Does man really have a free will?

In order to answer this question Calvin first outlines how the mind works, how we make decisions. He identifies various elements within the soul, including the intellect, sense and appetite or will. He outlines the view of the philosophers who saw reason as illuminating the mind and informing the will to make decisions. However, they acknowledged that the will could be diverted from following reason by sense (pleasure and passion) that distort the appetite and turn will towards lust. But they believed that if man could rise above the influence of such carnal desires then he would be able to act justly and live an upright life. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is an excellent example of stoic philosophy that taught distancing ourselves from pleasure and pain in order to live a just life. Thus, the philosophers saw our innate reason as essentially pure and perceived the problem to be in trying to follow its inner light.

Discarding this view as not fully appreciating the impact of the Fall, Calvin then assesses the view of the church fathers on the topic of free will. He concludes that all of them, with the exception of Augustine, see man as corrupted at the sensual level only. They, like the philosophers, see our innate sense of reason as largely unaffected. He thinks this was driven by a misguided attempt to prevent people from feeling impotent to change their behaviour. Augustine defines free will in this way “it is a power of reason and will to choose the good, grace assisting, – to choose the bad, grace desisting”, emphasising man’s reliance on God’s grace for every good act. Calvin agrees with Augustine that without the transforming effect of grace man is completely powerless to live uprightly. He admits that mankind is not without the occasional spark of insight into the right path to follow, but our love for sin is such that we continue to decide to do that which we love – our sin.

Calvin goes on to describe three types of freedoms – the freedom from necessity (or compulsion), the freedom from sin, and the freedom from misery. He argues that the first freedom – the freedom from being forced how to act – is inherent to man and could not be removed, but the other two freedoms have been lost through the Fall. So, man has the free will to act however he so chooses, but he cannot act free from the power of sin. Calvin sums it up this way: “man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily and not by compulsion”. But is this any type of freedom? “that man is not forced to be the servant of sin, while he is, however, a voluntary slave, his will being bound by the fetters of sin”.

Response

The issue of free will is contentious, we feel like we act freely and make up our minds over how to act. Indeed, it is true that even after the Fall, reason is able to act as a guide. But it is also in some measure corrupted, our conscience is not always reliable and even when it points us in the right direction we do not have the moral power to carry out our good intentions. Even when we recognise that we are caught in a trap, our will is not free to step out of the net.

We need help from outside to change. Just like the English rugby player who after he was caught for doing cocaine was actually pleased that he had been found out before his addiction completely ruined his life, we need someone to step in and save us. Someone who has the power to overcome our weak will and set it in a new direction.

The case for the Saviour is being steadily built as each chapter unfolds. He is able to take us from being voluntary slaves to sin and make us willing love slaves to Him, so that we desire to do what’s right and have the power to carry it out. Then and only then are we willing and able to do what pleases Him. The struggle with sensual desires still wages but we have a new power within to will and to do what we now love – live a godly life.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. John 8.34

Father, if we are completely honest we recognise that there is nothing in us that desires you. It is only by your Spirit working in us that we desire to draw near to you and begin to love and serve you. Thank you that you have taken away our heart of stone and given us a heart of flesh. Fan into flame this desire and give us a steadfast heart to seek Your face, for your name’s sake, Amen.