Sometimes, we gloss over what we read in the Bible too quickly, and we don’t spend enough time digging deeper. I have read over the following verse in John 1 many times before I thought, “Wait a minute!”
“But to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”John 1:12
John wrote that “all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, HE GAVE THE RIGHT to become children of God”. My emphasis added is the phrase that caught my attention.
For all the verses in Scripture about God choosing us, predestining us, foreordaining us, we find verses like this that put agency squarely in our own hearts and wills. But that isn’t the beginning of the story – or the end of it.
Yes, God chooses us; and in choosing us He gives us “the right to become children of God”.[i]
Yes, He made that choice before the foundation[ii] of the world, and He made us children of God not by blood descent, not by the will of parents or anyone else – maybe not even by our own will – but by His own choice.[iii]
We didn’t choose Him; He chose us, but the vehicle of the choosing was to give those who received Him the right to become children of God. The implication is that He didn’t those who did not receive Him the same right to become His children.
I do not have a systematic theology. I am not a theologian. My understanding of systematic theology is limited, but free will has always seemed self-evident to me as I read Scripture.
God created us in his own image[iv], and a primary characteristic of God is agency – the ability to decide how to act. We see in the story of Adam and Eve that God gave them agency also. By giving them dominion over the animals of the earth and in giving them the choice to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God gave them agency.
God is love. If He created us in His image, that “image” includes the ability to love. I believe the freedom to choose is a necessary condition of love.
Since God is love[v], and he created us in His image, we are created to to reflect His love, to love His creation, and to love Him. John Piper says,
“The point of an image is to image. Images are erected to display the original. Point to the original. Glorify the original. God made humans in his image so that the world would be filled with reflectors of God. Images of God. Seven billion statues of God. So that nobody would miss the point of creation. Nobody (unless they were stone blind) could miss the point of humanity, namely, God. Knowing, loving, showing God.” [vi]
God created us to love him. Therefore, we must have agency/”free will” in order to be able to reflect back His love as He intended.
But there is another side to this. There is not only what we call faith; there is grace. There is God’s unmerited favor. God chooses us. We call this predestination, and we attribute it to God’s sovereignty
I have conflated a lot of issues here, but the bottom line is that the Scripture presents to us a tension between the agency of man and the certainty of God’s sovereignty. John says that God gave the people who RECEIVE Him the RIGHT to become children of God. Paul says that we have been chosen before the foundation of the Heavens and the Earth. How can these two things be true at the same time?
I am not here to claim that I know how these two principles fit together, other than to affirm God’s word is true and I believe it. Just because we cannot wrap our heads around it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just because it doesn’t fit into our systematic theology doesn’t make it any less true.
In fact, I fear that our attempts to define everything and reduce everything to formulas are doomed for failure and may not be very fruitful in the end. As we define things, we necessarily define them according to our finite understanding. When we reduce things to formulas we limit them in ways that we may not understand.
This is not to say that we should not care about systematic theology and should not think these things through. Paul urged us to have “sound doctrine”[vii]. The danger of heresy and false doctrines is as real in the 21st century as it was in the 1st century.
But there is a balance to everything. We must be careful of the extremes. “Sound doctrine” means healthy (as in holistic or balanced) teaching (as in applied knowledge). It doesn’t suggest an airtight, academic theology as much as a healthy reflection of the truth of God and of our relationship to Him.
We tend to want certainty, but Scripture doesn’t always give us certainty. Job didn’t even really get an answer to all his questions. God’s response was, basically, to tell him he wouldn’t understand.
I don’t believe on my reading of Scripture that God will be grading us on our theology.
A desire for certainty was a tendency we see in the Pharisees, and Jesus called them “bind guides” who straining out gnats, while swallowing camels! (Matt. 23:24) They added minute details to the requirements of keeping the Sabbath, for instance, and they missed the forest for the trees in the process. (Mark 2:27 (the Sabbath was made for man))
Our desire to understand everything and to reduce everything to certainty can get in the way of our knowing and understanding God. Once we lock in our theology, we are closed off to other possibilities, including the possibility that we might have gotten something wrong.
Maybe there is something that we haven’t considered or fit into our system of theology. Maybe God and His ways are so big that we can’t our arms completely around them, and maybe we never will!
When I write about love and the necessity of free will, I don’t want to be unmindful of the fact that God chooses us., that God is sovereign and that, ultimately, we are not the captains of our own souls. It isn’t by our will that we are saved, rather God loved us; He chose us; He redeems us.
But, God also gives us agency as He has agency. God gives to those who receive Him the right to become children of God.
He only gives this right to those who receive him, and what He gives us is the RIGHT to become children of God. A right requires some agency in exercise of that right.
God chooses us, and, if God doesn’t choose us, our choice doesn’t matter. Still, though, we have a choice that needs to be exercised. We reach toward God as He reaches toward us.
[i] John 1:12
[ii] “[H]e chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will….” (Ephesians 1:4-5)
[iii] “But to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God— children born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)
[iv] “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26-28)
[v] 1 John 4:8
[vi] Why Did God Create the World? Message by John Piper, posted to desiringGod.org SEPTEMBER 22, 2012
[vii] 2 Timothy 4:3. The word translated “sound” is hygiaínō (the root of the English term, “hygiene”) meaning, properly, in good working order, conveying the idea of “health,” sound condition (in-balance). Hygiaínō (“healthy, working well”) means to be free from debilitation (incapacity, handicap) – hence, functioning holistically with all parts working together (“sound”).