Are we ever free to choose?

It used to worry me when my kids watched horror movies. But they weren’t the least bit perturbed. “Don’t worry, Dad,” one of them told me, “I can handle it.” And obviously in his mind he thought he could. He talked as if he had complete control.

Paul, however, talked as if we have no control over our minds at all, because we’re constantly being influenced – even controlled – by other forces. He called one of those forces “my sinful nature,” Romans 7:18, and it was so powerful in him that even though he wanted to do good he could never carry it out without some ugly, self-centred motive spoiling it for him. And Paul hated it. But there was no escape, his sinful nature had him by the nose.

But Paul talked of another force too, the Holy Spirit. And he talked to Christians in terms of this force being in control of them instead. “You, however,” Romans 8:9, “are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.” And the Spirit is so powerful that it overrides the sinful nature. According to Paul, it can even completely set us free from the “law that wages war in our minds” that’s always messing up our motives. No longer, therefore, do we have to “live according to the sinful nature but (instead) according to the Spirit,” verse 4.

And how the Spirit does that for us is by setting our minds on what it desires, not on what the sinful nature desires, verse 5 – “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” The “set” of the mind changes with the Spirit. It’s set on “life and peace” mode (verse 6), enabling us to “put to death the misdeeds of the body,” or kill off all those awful thoughts and questionnable motives that wrecked our life and peace before, verse 13. They have no control over us anymore.

Our minds are now tuned to a different frequency. And we find ourselves with a completely different mind. It even loves God. But now our minds are actually capable of love, unadulterated by selfish motives. And it’s all being done for us by the Spirit.

So are we ever free to choose? Not really, because as non-Christians our sinful nature had control of us, and as Christians the Spirit has control of us. But with the Spirit in control we can be good without any selfish motive messing things up for us.


The day that free choice died

In the beginning God presented Adam and Eve with a choice, and their lives from that point on would be affected by their choice.

It was a real eye opener, because it demonstrated clearly that human beings make really stupid choices when given the chance to choose, and even when we’re faced with dire consequences for wrong choices, we still make them anyway.

And to prove the point, God allowed a whole era in which humans could do what they wanted, and look what happened: the rise of brutal empires, weird religions, human sacrifice, abuse of the weak, endless violence and evil people with no conscience. Several times in this awful era God intervened to slow the results of human choice, making it very clear after four thousand miserable years of human history that, unless he intervened, human beings would self-destruct. It was a fact of history that, given the freedom to choose, humans choose death.

Then came the day that Jesus took that entire era of free choice to the cross and killed it. It was the end of the beginning, the death of the era that allowed free choice to determine the lives of humans. It was also the beginning of the end, the start of a new era that would gradually and relentlessly put an end to the results of human choice, by the pouring out of God’s Spirit on everyone (Acts 2:17). The healing of a world wrecked by human choices had begun. No longer would humans have to choose to determine their future, because their future from now on would be taken care of by the Spirit.

It should have been a great relief that humanity was no longer ruled by its choices, but to many people it hasn’t been a relief at all. They still want to be free to choose, so they resist the Holy Spirit. They don’t want help. They think they can handle life and death on their own strength, and their pride won’t let them think otherwise.

But now they’re a menace in this era too. They account for most of the world’s problems. So the time comes when God brings an end to their mischief. He isolates the rebels and removes their influence, and they have no choice but to seethe in their pride until they’ve had enough of their stupidity. And that’s when “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come, and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life'” (Revelation 22:17). Put all that silliness of freedom of choice behind you, and please, just come and join the fun.

When Jesus talked of faith, what did HE mean?

When Jesus talked of faith he wasn’t talking to us, he was talking to his fellow Jews in the first century. It was their faith he was interested in, not ours. And what he was asking of them was revolutionary.

Imagine, for instance, being the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner in Luke 11:37. The first shockwave hit early when Jesus sat down to eat without washing his hands first. It was a flagrant breach of protocol – and in front of the Pharisee’s very important lawyer guests, including, probably, several other highly respected leaders in the Jewish community. Imagine the second shockwave, then, when Jesus doesn’t apologize, and instead he launches into a speech slamming these proud leaders and their protocol. “You foolish people,” he calls them in verse 40, and in six devastating “woes” he explains why they’re foolish: All their silly rituals and traditions had actually “taken away the key to knowledge,” verse 52, and “hindered those who were entering.”

You mean the “key to knowledge” wasn’t obedience to all these rituals and interpretations of the law the Pharisees and lawyers insisted on? But how could that be? Surely it was their expertise in the law that identified them as God’s people, and their obedience to all their rituals and traditions that God required to deliver them from their enemies and restore them as a glorious nation again. But here was Jesus saying that none of that was necessary, and in fact it was hindering people from entering the new Israel that all their rituals were supposed to create.

This was revolutionary, as we see in the fierce and bitter reaction of the Pharisees and lawyers in verse 53. But no one thought to humbly ask, “Well, if we don’t have the key to knowledge of how people enter the new Israel God promised, what’s the key instead, and who has it?”

In their pride they could never bring themselves to accept that Jesus himself was the key. He was the one God had sent to restore Israel, and it was faith in Jesus that would decide from now on who the true Israelites were, and who would enter the new Israel God was creating. It was faith in him that was the key to all their hopes and expectations as Israelites being fulfilled. Jesus himself was the source of their deliverance and healing, not the Temple, not the Law or their traditions, or the interpreters of the law and the priests, nor their clean hands at mealtime.

When Jesus talked of faith it was to his fellow Jews to trust in him and his work from now on, not theirs.

Faith, the distinguishing mark of God’s people

When Jesus said, “According to your faith be it unto you,” he was talking to his fellow Jews, who understood that faith was the distinguishing mark of God’s people. Faith was the only right response of God’s people to the great God who had chosen them and promised in his Covenant with Abraham and his descendants to bless them as a nation.

But here they were, still under the thumb of pagan overlords many years after their return from exile in Babylon, and the deliverance they’d expected from God hadn’t happened. Their faith was being sorely tested. Surely Israel’s God would send his Messiah soon, but some couldn’t wait any longer and exploded in violent rebellion.

They failed the test of faith, in other words, because it was clear in the Old Testament that when God’s people were in crisis they should remember who they were: They were God’s Covenant people, so they should trust God to sort things out for them his way, not theirs. He’d delivered them successfully in the Exodus from Egypt, and he would do it again, so trust him.

But when Jesus arrived to begin the second Exodus, the reaction he got was much the same as Moses got. Despite obvious and clear miracles that Moses and Jesus had been chosen by God to deliver the nation, the leadership resisted, resulting in dire warnings from Jesus that their entire system would come crumbling down at the hands of the Romans. Those who did believe he was the Messiah, however, and heeded his warnings, would escape the horrors to come. And from them would grow the seeds of a new Israel, exactly as God had promised.

It was a huge test of their faith, then, when Jesus arrived as the One whom God had sent to fulfill his Covenant with Israel. Did they really believe Jesus was the Messiah? – because if they did believe, then “according to their faith” the blessings promised through the Messiah would come to them, the proof of which was the miracles Jesus was already doing for those who trusted him.

It all came down to faith. The Israel of the future would evolve through those who believed that Israel’s God was fulfilling his Covenant promise through Jesus. Faith in Jesus, therefore, was now the distinguishing mark of God’s people. It was no longer the Law, the Temple, the priesthood, or strict obedience to the extra rituals added by the religious zealots like the Pharisees. A true Israelite was the one who believed the actions and teaching of Jesus were the proof that God’s long-awaited Kingdom had begun.

“According to your faith be it unto you”

When lightning struck my house and blew a hole in the roof I was told it wouldn’t have happened if I’d had enough faith. And when I didn’t have the dream that someone predicted I would have, I was told it was my lack of faith that the dream didn’t happen, because in these people’s minds everything comes to those who have faith – health, wealth, protection and special messages from God – based on Jesus statement, “According to your faith be it unto you.”

But what did Jesus mean by that statement? Or better put, what did it mean to the people he said it to? – taking into account he wasn’t talking to Christians, he was talking to his fellow Jews in the first century. When they heard him say, “According to your faith be it unto you,” what was the “IT” he was referring to in THEIR world, and why did faith make “IT” happen for them?

The ultimate “IT” for the Jews of Jesus’ day was the arrival of the Messiah to heal and revive Israel in fulfillment of the Covenant that Israel’s God had promised to Abraham and re-promised through the prophets in the Old Testament. So when two blind men were following Jesus around in Matthew 9:27 calling out, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David,'” they clearly believed the “IT” had happened because in Jewish terms the “Son of David” and Messiah meant the same thing (Matthew 22:41-42), so the blind men were openly claiming the Messiah had arrived – in the person of Jesus.

They went one step further too, because they went to Jesus for healing, meaning they also understood what the Messiah had come for, to heal them as a nation, clearly demonstrated by Jesus in all the physical healings he was doing. Before Jesus healed the blind men, however, he asked them in verse 28: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” Did they really believe he was the Messiah who’d come to heal? – because if they did believe, the “IT” – the healing that the Messiah had come for – was theirs.

Their answer was simple: “Yes, Lord.” Of course he was the Messiah, and of course this is what the Messiah had come to do. So Jesus “touched their eyes and said, ‘According to your faith will it be done to you,’ and their sight was restored.” The “IT” – what the Messiah had come to their nation for – happened to them personally, and their lives now joined the many others the Messiah had healed as clear proof that not only was Jesus the Messiah, but also that what the Messiah had come for was really happening.

Why does God need our faith so much?

God doesn’t need our faith; he wants to give us faith, Ephesians 2:8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

So it isn’t that God needs our faith, it’s that we need his faith. Faith is still something we humans desperately need – the belief that we are saved purely by God’s grace from being “dead in (our) transgressions” (verse 5) – but God doesn’t require us to create that belief ourselves. It is “because of HIS great love for us” that HE “made us alive with Christ” (verses 4-5), and because of “the incomparable riches of HIS grace, expressed in HIS kindness to us” that “we are seated with him in the heavenly realms” (verses 6-7).

And logically I can read these verses in Ephesians and accept that my salvation is all God’s doing. But do I actually believe it, that my entire life, for now and forever, is (and will be) the product of “GOD’S workmanship” alone, not requiring any works from me (verses 9-10)?

I realize how difficult that is for a human being to do in the relationship I have with my son. My relationship with him is based purely on love, mercy and grace. I don’t need his obedience, his trust, his help at home, his success at school, or his desire to please me, for me to continue loving him and continue extending mercy with his mistakes and foibles. But how does that make him feel? Here he is living with a Dad who loves him, regardless of what he does or doesn’t do. Think of the pressure that must create in his head to do something for me in return, just like the obligation we feel to return a kindness extended to us. It’s our natural reaction.

But God isn’t after our natural reactions. He doesn’t want us loving him out of a sense of obligation, or trusting him because we feel we have to, or feeling we should do something good or loving or kind in return. I don’t want that kind of relationship with my son either. I would rather he accept my love, mercy and grace as a gift, with no pressure on his part to respond. But how do I get him to that point, when it’s so engrained in our heads that love given requires love in return?

I can do it by never giving my son the impression I need anything from him. I don’t need his love or his trust. My only interest is giving him love and trust, because I’ve learnt from God that’s the key to a relationship.

Raising the dead is already happening

Jesus chose disciples because he had a job for them to do. The job began after Jesus “saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven,” Luke 10:18. The result of Satan’s fall was a new age in which Jesus gave power to his disciples to “overcome all the power of the enemy,” verse 19, and begin the process of undoing the terrible damage caused by Satan. There was no job more important.

Wherever his disciples went, therefore, they’d leave healing of Satan’s damage in their wake as proof of the near presence of God in this world, verse 9. In the first stages of that healing it was in the form of healing people’s physical illnesses and releasing people from the control of demons, first demonstrated by Jesus who healed all who went to him for such healing. But it took on new and deeper form when Jesus told Paul in Acts 26:17-18, “I am sending you to open (people’s) eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

And how was Paul to do that job? By preaching a simple message, that “God made him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” 2 Corinthians 5:21. The result of such preaching was the Spirit “working miracles” in people, Galatians 3:5, miracles that would free people from the awful, selfish attitudes “of the ruler of the kingdom of the air,” Ephesians 2:2. And as people were freed, the evidence would keep mounting up that the era of the dead endlessly burying the dead was over. Instead, the dead were being raised to new life.

By James 5:15 a “prayer offered in faith” would make a “sick person well” and with it a promise that “the Lord will raise him up.” In context it meant raise people up in every way, from whatever sin or “multitude of sins (verse 20)” the devil’s world had infected them with. Such was the job God gave his disciples to do, and the power to do it.

Why, then, would a disciple be more concerned about burying the dead when it was in his power to heal the dead? Did it not cross his mind that he was now a carrier of healing power wherever he went? Did it not stir his imagination as to the effect he could have on people? Did he not realize this was the amazing service in the kingdom of God that Jesus had specially called and equipped him for? – and us too, of course.