One bad decision, chum, and off you go to hell – oh, really?

Does our free will have the power to determine our eternal destiny? According to many Christians the answer is, “Yes, what we decide with our free will makes the difference between going to heaven or hell. If we decide to believe in Jesus we’re off to heaven after we die, but if we decide to reject him we’re off to hell, to be tormented or destroyed forever.”

But at what point is our decision fixed forever? What if at this moment – and to the day we die – we reject Jesus because the picture we’ve been given of him is awful? Maybe Grandma turned us off Jesus by her holier-than-thou approach, or the church down the road had dreadful signs on its front lawn threatening people with eternal torment, or Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in our city, or Aunt Mabel was gabbling away in what she called “speaking in tongues” but it was all just gibberish and nonsense. And what about all those ghastly stories about the Crusades, and Christians going to war on both sides of a conflict and killing each other? And why does God allow horrible natural disasters and serial killers of women and children?

Does God take all these possibilities into account, that our decision to reject him is based on legitimate reasons? Or does he say, “Too bad, chum, you made your decision to reject me, so off you go to hell”? But what if we’d been given a wonderful view of God instead, and heard nothing but a good news message about his intention to save everybody and his promise to do so through Jesus, and therefore we didn’t reject him? Is it fair that God should judge us on what decisions we make when our decisions can be so easily influenced?

And when is our decision final, too? Is it final now, or final on the day we die, or final only after a period of judgment? Or is it ever final, because in reality it isn’t our decision that determines our eternal destiny, it’s God’s mercy (Romans 11:32)? And, what’s more, “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18), meaning HE also heavily influences our response to him. It’s only on HIS timing when HE decides to extend his mercy to us that our heads and hearts soften towards him.

In other words, it’s not our decision, chum, that determines our eternal destiny, it’s his. He’s the one who holds the strings. But, fortunately, the hands that hold those strings are directed entirely by mercy, love and the wisest of timing.

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Does God’s purpose overrule our free will?

Did Judas have any choice in what he did? Not at all, because in Acts 1:16, “the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas.” It was a foregone conclusion what Judas would do, a done deal, fixed in concrete by an unfailing prophecy in Psalm 41:9. Judas had no choice whatsoever. The Scripture HAD to be fulfilled. God’s purpose, therefore, totally overruled Judas’ free will.

Did Rebecca’s children have any choice in what happened to them? No. “The older will serve the younger,” whether they liked it or not, because in Scripture it was written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:12). The children’s future was sealed “before the twins were born, or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls” (verses 11-12). God’s purpose, God’s election and God’s calling totally overruled what Rebecca wanted for her children or what the children wanted for themselves. So much for free will.

Did Pharaoh have any choice in his resistance to God and Moses? No, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (verse 17). God’s purpose totally cancelled out Pharaoh’s freedom of choice. Pharaoh simply found himself resisting, whether he meant to, or not.

God didn’t wait for Abraham to make a choice either, or Paul, he simply chose them for his purpose and that was it, they did it. Israel only existed because of God’s purpose, so does the Church (1 Peter 1:1-2), and the only reason anyone can come to Jesus is because God decides it (John 6:44). Scripture even says that everything was planned “in accordance with his pleasure and will” before the world began (Ephesians 1:4-5), including us, verse 11: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”

That’s because our will is incapable of making the right decisions, as Adam and Eve made clear, and so did Israel, and so does a world that still resists God. So, fortunately, God stepped in to rescue us from the consequences of our will. And in time he’ll get to everyone, with the promise that “the one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (2 Thessalonians 5:24). Why should it bother us, then, that God’s purpose overrules our free will, when we obviously haven’t got a clue where we’re going or how to get there? But HE does.

Does God decide according to what we decide?

If the title above is true and God bases his actions in our lives on our decisions, surely that would clash with Romans 9:16 that says his purpose for us “does not depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” God isn’t waiting for us to decide to choose him. Instead, verse 12, it’s purely because of his mercy in calling us that his purpose in our lives gets started. He’s the one who gets the ball rolling. We had no choice in the matter, just as God had a purpose for Rebecca’s twin boys and they had no choice in the matter either (verses 11-12).

Paul makes it clear that God holds all the strings, by digging out a verse from the Old Testament that says, “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden,” verse 18. God is the one who decides what happens in our lives, according to HIS calling, his timing, his will and his compassion (or hardening). So if God is the one who decides, why would he base his decisions on what we decide? And why would he blame us for what we decide if he’s the one who either softens or hardens our response to him?

And that’s exactly the question Paul anticipated people asking him when he talked in these terms. “One of you will say to me,” verse 19: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?'” If, as Paul has just implied, God’s purpose for us depends entirely on what GOD decides, why would he blame us for what WE decide?

Answer? He doesn’t. Oh, he could if he wanted to, because he has every right to do what he likes with us, including wipe us out (verses 21-22), but that’s not the picture he wants us to have of him. He’d rather “make the riches of his glory known,” verse 23. How? By showing us through Paul that he “prepared (us) in advance for glory” (verse 23). God had already decided our eternal destiny BEFORE we even existed. He didn’t wait for us to choose him. He was already calling us “my people” and “my loved ones,” and even “sons of the living God” (verses 25-26) BEFORE any of us had decided anything.

He did the same with Israel. God didn’t wait for them to choose him, he chose them. And when they failed him he didn’t reject them either (Romans 11:1). Instead, he stuck to his plan to save them (verses 26-27). Their whims, weaknesses and bad choices did not deter God from fulfilling what he’d already decided for them – and for all humanity.

Is God’s grace limited by our choices?

COULD someone reject God – even after hearing the right gospel, seeing the fruits of it in millions of people’s lives, living in a world without the devil’s influence, watching God in action, and realizing the obvious fact that God loves him?

Some Christians would answer, “Oh yes, the possibility always exists that someone might reject God, because,” they say, “God gave us the power of choice, or free will, and he will never force his will on us. He won’t make us love him, and if we decide not to love him, he accepts our choice.”

But God didn’t accept Adam and Eve’s choice, did he? – and their choice affected all humanity too (Romans 5:12). As an entire race of beings, therefore, we made our choice long ago, but did God accept it? No. He personally set up Abraham and an unbroken line of his descendants all the way to the birth of Jesus, and through Jesus the promise of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike (Luke 2:29-32). Rather than accept our choice, then, God set about correcting it. Not for a moment did God let the poor use of our free will and our proclivity to wrong choices decide our eternal destiny.

When Adam made his choice “sin entered the world,” and so did death, Romans 5:12, “BUT,” verse 20, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” That’s a clear statement that God’s grace is greater than any sin or wrong choice we make. “When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down,” as The Message phrases it. In other words, God’s grace isn’t the least bit limited by our choices. Even if our wrong choices increase, grace simply increases all the more.

Fortunately, grace overrules our choices. If it didn’t we’d all stand condemned forever (verse 18), because look at the pickle our free will got us into. Because of our choices we all ended up “falling short of the glory of God” – BUT – God stepped in and “justified (us) freely by his grace” (Romans 3:23-24). Grace effectively cancelled out our choices, because that’s how great his grace is.

But what if we abuse his grace or even reject it? Is that the point at which God says, “That’s it, you’re dead forever”? To even think that of God, though, is to “insult the Spirit of grace,” Hebrews 10:29. The one thing that makes God extremely angry is not believing his grace is supreme (same verse). So why would Christians believe his grace is limited by human choice, when it wasn’t limited by the worst choice we ever made in Eden, nor was it limited by the whole human race falling short of God’s glory?

Belief, yes, but belief in what?

“Accept and believe and you will be saved,” many Christians say, but accept and believe what, exactly? The usual answer is, “Accept and believe that Jesus is our Saviour, that he died for our sins, and because of his death our sins are forgiven.”

But is that all God wants us to believe, that Jesus is our Saviour? No, it’s also believing that “God is TRUTHFUL,” John 3:33, meaning God has done what he said he would do. Which is? That he would send someone “from heaven (who) is ABOVE ALL,” verse 31. And that’s what we’re being asked to believe – and appealing to everybody else to believe as well – that “the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God; to him God gives the Spirit without limit,” verse 34.

The one God sent, therefore, is mighty powerful. He speaks for God himself, and his power has no limits. We then find out who this immensely powerful being, sent from God, speaking for God, and powered by God, is, in verse 35: “The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands,” and it’s BELIEF IN THAT, verse 36, that makes all the difference. It’s not just accepting Jesus as our Saviour, it’s accepting that Jesus is “ABOVE ALL,” that he has unlimited power, and the Father has put everything – the whole creation and the destiny of every creature in earth and heaven – in Jesus’ hands. Believe THAT and we have eternal life. Believe that and God’s anger evaporates, verse 36. Believe that and we have “certified that God is truthful,” that he’s done what he said he would do – send someone with the power to save all creation. And God only gets angry when we don’t believe that, or when we don’t believe that he sent someone with the power to save everybody and everything.

God sent Paul too, to remind us of what “God purposed in Christ,” that one day “ALL THINGS in heaven and on earth” will be brought “together under one head, even Christ,” because he gave his Son that kind of power. This is the “word of faith we are proclaiming,” Romans 10:8, or what we’re asking people to believe, “THAT,” verse 9, “JESUS IS LORD,” that Jesus is all-powerful, he’s Lord of everything that exists, Lord of our present, Lord of our future, Lord of our eternal destiny, given the power of God himself to bring it all together, exactly as God purposed and sent him to do.

So it’s belief, yes, but belief in one thing in particular, that God is truthful, that he truly did what he said he’d do – send someone with the power to save everybody.

Believers who don’t believe?

There are believers, I’ve discovered, who don’t believe. Oh, they believe 1 Timothy 2:4, that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” but in the next breath say, “Yes, BUT, that doesn’t guarantee everyone’s GOING to be saved. When God says he ‘desires’ everyone to be saved, that doesn’t mean he will save them, it just means he wants to.”

And what about those scriptures that support the view that some people won’t be saved? – like Malachi 4:3, for instance, that describes a day coming when “the wicked will be ashes under the soles of your feet.” Ashes means burnt up and gone forever, surely, not saved. Or Matthew 10:28, that talks of God having the power to destroy bodies and souls in hell, meaning hell is real and God destroys people in it.

And why would God throw people into hell and burn them to ashes? According to some believers, it’s based on our free will, that if we decide with our free will that salvation is not for us, then God accepts that and destroys us. So now we’ve got believers who believe it’s God’s desire to save everyone, but don’t believe he actually will save everyone, because some people might just use their free will to reject him, and if they do that they’re goners, they’re ashes, and that’s it.

But the reason God has believers in existence at all is to show it’s NOT our free will that decides our salvation. That’s why he called us, or, as he says of Pharaoh in Romans 9:17, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display MY POWER in you.” And the same goes for us. To “make his power known,” verse 22, God made us into “objects of his mercy.” We exist as believers, therefore, to show off God’s power and mercy. We are living demonstrations that God saves us humans by HIS choice, not ours. That’s why we’re here, “to make the riches of GOD’s glory known,” verse 23. And the riches of his glory is the power of his mercy that, fortunately, overrules our free will.

Our free will only made us into “objects of God’s wrath – prepared for destruction,” verse 22. We were all going go to hell. But God picked some of us off that conveyor belt and made us into “objects of his mercy” to show the world it’s the power of his mercy that saves us, not the power of our will.

And since our free will didn’t stop God saving us, what’s to stop God saving everyone? It would be nice if believers believed that too.