July 12, 2020

Sin & Free Will

Deuteronomy 30:19-20; Romans 7:14-25

 

What do you believe about human beings, their will, and God’s will? How does it all work? This Sunday’s sermon topic comes again from people in our congregation, who want to understand how God’s will, our will, and sin work. Theologians David and Randall Bassinger, in their book, Predestination and Free Will put it this way. “The Christian faith presents us with a dilemma. On the one hand, we believe that God made us morally responsible beings with the ability to make meaningful moral decisions. If we were not able to make meaningful decisions, then why would scripture exhort us to turn from evil things, or to lead Godly lives? On the other hand, Christians also believe that God is sovereign, omnipotent over all earthly affairs, the God of history and the God of our lives…” The dilemma becomes clear. Can both of these things be true- God is omnipotent, all-powerful over all matters of earth, over the lives and actions of all human beings, AND that we humans are fully capable of making our own free decisions every moment of each day? Are we able to choose between doing good and doing evil, or is it all set in place, all part of God’s divine plan for the world- that is, God knows and controls everything we are going to do in every minute, and free will is just a false concept?

 

For example, this past Friday morning, I set my alarm for 6:40 am so that I could get up early for a run. When I woke up, I began to remember the run I had 2 days prior, which was a difficult run. I was having allergy problems and couldn’t breathe very well throughout that run. So, I became less and less enthusiastic about getting up and getting out on the road for a run and began to talk myself out of it altogether. After about 5 minutes of going back and forth between running and sleeping in a bit longer, I decided I would get my run in on Saturday instead, turned off the alarm, played a game or two on my phone, and then pulled the covers over my head. This action, by the way, affected my sermon prep time on Saturday. I needed to get that run in and do it right after breakfast with Paula. So I ran at 9:00 am, before it got hot, and didn’t make it into the church until almost 10:45. So, whose will won, God’s or mine? Did God already know that I would choose to sleep in rather than run this past Friday? Was it pre-ordained? OR, did I have the free choice to do something good for my spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing (Something, God I think would give a thumbs up for), or to mess around on my phone and then fall back asleep (something older theologians would label as the sin of sloth?) Did God want me to have less time to complete the sermon, and feel stressed about getting everything ready for worship? Consider Proverbs 16:9, which says, “The human mind plans the way, but God directs the steps.” Perhaps God directed each minute detail of my life from that Friday morning up until now? Did God know I was about to raise my left hand just now?

 

God’s will, human will, and sin are all difficult concepts to untangle, and all are interrelated. I do believe “that the earth is God’s, and all that is in it, the world and all who live in it,” As it says in Psalm 24.  I do not, however, believe God’s will controls each of us like robots, and that everything we do or will choose to do God has already pre-ordained. Theologian Leslie D. Weatherhead in a well-known book, The Will of God did a good job in my opinion on the idea of God’s will being enacted in our world and upon our lives. Weatherhead believed that God’s will for creation worked with human free will, and can be separated into 3 different parts: God’s intentional will, God’s circumstantial will, and God’s ultimate will. The idea is that God has a perfect will for our lives- to serve others, to share love and compassion, work for justice, spread the hope of the gospel, etc. - That is God’s intentional will for our lives, each and every day.

 

However, due to our own free will, which was part of God’s intent for creation, enabling us to choose good or sin, circumstances can affect God’s intentional will. For example, did God intend Jesus to die upon the cross from the moment he was born? I don’t think God’s initial intentional will was for Christ to die upon the cross. I think God’s intention was that human beings would follow Christ and be changed. But due to sin and the rejection of Christ, because of the way sin changed the circumstances, Christ upon the cross became God’s circumstantial will.

 

This leads us to Weatherhead’s belief that God’s ultimate goal, God’s intent that human beings would follow Christ and find new life, free from sin was accomplished. So, God’s ultimate will was realized, and therefore cannot be thwarted by evil or human sin. This also keeps God’s omnipotence intact, for the most part, because God’s ultimate will is not thwarted. However, he goes on to say, “But we must come to terms with the idea that the intentional will of God can be defeated by the will of human beings for the time being. If this were not true, then human beings would have no real freedom at all. So, God’s intentional will for us can be circumstantially changed by our free will.

 

I think that based upon scripture and our own experience, human free will is part of the created order of things. Throughout scripture, we human beings are given choices to choose God’s way or to choose sin. The passage in Deuteronomy is one example. Here Moses is telling the Israelites that God is going to make a new covenant with them, God’s word placed in their heart and upon their lips in the land of Moab. This new covenant, however, does not mean all the people will then blindly follow God, and Moses knows this. He tells the people as they are gathered, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. CHOOSE life so that you and your descendants may live, loving God, obeying God, holding fast to God It was a choice for the people of God all of those centuries ago to choose life, and it is a choice today for the people of God now as well.

 

Then there is Galatians 5:13. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another.” We are given freedom as part of God’s creation. We can choose each day to speak or act out in faith, in goodness, in love, or we can choose to act out in anger, revenge, lust - that is in sin. St. Ambrose of Milan, a 4th-century bishop wrote, “We are not constrained by servile necessity, but act with free will, whether we are disposed to virtue or inclined to vice.

 

Why then, would God choose to let human beings be created with such freedom? Why not instead install within all human beings an innate sense of their Creator, and a willingness to do only good in the world? Wouldn’t that make for a world free from suffering, warfare, injustice, and hatred - that is, free from sin? 17th-century French bishop Jean Pierre Camus wrote, There are no galley-slaves in the vessel of divine love - everyone works his or her oar voluntarily.” I think that God loved what had been created too much for us to all be tethered to heaven by puppet strings.  I also believe that God lets us live in the freedom of choice so that we can grow and learn and change as human beings. The 20th-century American Novelist Kenneth Sollitt wrote, “No one learns to make right decisions without being free to make wrong ones.  We people of faith learn from our freedom. We learn in making choices, hopefully growing into stronger, wiser humans in learning from our sinful mistakes, and growing more and more into Christ’s likeness. Another great quote I found, by British theologian C.S. Lewis, says, Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.  So free will does allow for evil and sin. This leads us finally to our struggle with sin.

 

The word for sin in the New Testament is hamartia, (hamartia). This word literally means - “To miss the mark.” God places a mark, a target if you will out in front of us at the start of each new day. God wants us to aim our arrows, hit the mark, and shoot at love by what we do and what we say. Yet through each interaction throughout our day, we choose whether we will aim at love, or miss the target altogether and respond instead, in sin. This was Paul’s real struggle with his own free will. Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Paul looks back upon those moments in his life when perhaps he got angry with a congregation he was trying to establish, or he argued with a philosopher about religion and philosophy and said something he shouldn’t have; or some other moment when he wished he could have taken back what he said or did. Paul sees sin and evil in his actions, and that sin in fact dwells within him. He cries out in anguish, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  But Paul is not left in such a wretched state. The hope Paul finds in his struggle with sin and free will?  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ!”  What is it about Christ that gives Paul and gives us hope in the struggle against sin?

 

Jesus Christ, through his act of suffering, through God’s circumstantial and ultimate will, has freed us from sin. We have access to forgiveness. We have access to grace upon grace upon grace. We are not left to our own devices, a struggling state between our free wills and sin. Christ’s teachings give us a place to follow, a target to aim our lives towards daily. We are given the power to choose life over death, good over evil, love over hate. In a discussion on the power of sin, Paul says in his letter to the church in Corinth, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing will provide a way out, so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13) We have freedom from sin, thanks to Christ. God always shows us a way out.

 

For example, about 2 weeks ago, while I was playing a scrabble game on my phone called Words with Friends 2, a complete stranger wanted to play with me. This happens on occasion in the game, as players earn points when you play against someone new. (Although I mostly play against my family members and friends). Each of us in the game can choose to show a picture of ourselves if we so choose. Mine is one from far away, of me and our family on a jet boat in Grants Pass. The stranger appeared to be a lovely 20 something-year-old female. When you play the game, you have an opportunity to chat with your opponent, which I tend not to do when battling a complete stranger. This young woman was quite chatty, however. She began to get flirty in her language, and asked: “if we could get to know each other better.”  Here was this lovely young woman flirting with this 58-year-old guy. It did not take long for me to grab onto my faith, to remember who I was, how I am called to live and turn away from this temptation. At that moment, although a bit flattered, I chose life. I wrote her back, saying, “Look, I’m 58, I am a Presbyterian pastor who is happily married and with kids. Can we just play scrabble please?”  I don’t think she was used to getting such an answer. She wrote back, “Um…OK,” and then promptly resigned from the game, which was fine by me. That was one good example from my life of hitting the mark. There are plenty of examples I could share, however when I have missed the target altogether. As Paul states in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Yet, just like Paul, we are not left to wallow in our own sinfulness. We can seek forgiveness, new life, and grace and begin again.

 

So, in closing, God has an intention for our lives, a target to hit, but has given us the freedom out of love for creation to live freely and to be able to choose what we will say and do. My prayer for us all is that we chose life - in what we say, in what we do. Yet, when ultimately we fail, we can give thanks for God, through Jesus Christ, who forgives, and who offers grace upon grace. Alleluia. Amen.

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