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Posts Tagged ‘free will’


If our wills are in bondage to our desires, which are corrupt, if there any hope for us?

This is the question we resume with from Calvin’s Institutes, the Essentials Edition. There is no hope in ourselves. Our hope has to be with God. The remedy is grace.

“Thus the Lord begins his work in us, inspiring in our hearts a love, desire and eagerness for what is good and righteous- or, more properly, inclining, training and directing our hearts to righteousness; he completes his work by giving us strength to persevere.”

This is not the same as a general removal of our depravity that leaves us in a state of neutrality that we find in some forms of Arminianism. This is the fulfillment of the promise of the new covenant (Ez. 36:26-27). This must precede faith, or we wouldn’t believe. The “human will must be wholly remade and renewed.” He aligns himself with Augustine that ‘grace precedes every good work.’ Grace is not a response to our will, but our will works in response to grace.

Calvin shifts back to Scripture, noting Jer. 32:39-40; Ez. 11:19; 1 Kings 8:58. These all address the stubbornness of our hearts, and the grace that overcomes that stubbornness. In other words, this is no ‘philosophical’ matter but one of life & death; salvation. This is not an Old Testament idea, but we see Paul also teaching this. We see this in Phil. 2:13 and 1 Cor. 12:6; 15:10. Jesus affirms this in passages like John 6:45.

“We must indeed teach that God’s kindness is open to all, without exception, who seek it. But because no one begins to seek it until he is inspired from heaven, nothing here should be allowed to diminish God’s grace in any way.”

He goes back to Augustine. “In yet another place he states that grace does not destroy the will, but changes it from bad to good, and that once it has been made good it receives help. By this he means only that God does not push man by outward force, unfeeling, as if he were a stone, but that he is impelled in such a way that he willingly obeys.” And again, “the human will does not obtain grace through its own freedom, but that it obtains freedom through God’s grace.”

Calvin shifts to the problem of continuing sin in the believer. Calvin, following Paul (Peter, John, James …), notes that our deliverance “is never so complete that no part of us remains under sin’s yoke”. Regeneration does not end conflict in our hearts, but initiates it (Rom. 7 & Gal. 5). There is a new principle moving us toward love and righteousness, and a retention of the natural inclination toward apathy and unrighteousness.

“This produces a conflict which sorely tries the believer throughout his life, because he is raised high by the Spirit but brought low by the flesh. In the Spirit he yearns fervently for immorality; in the flesh he turns aside into the path of death. In the Spirit he purposes to live uprightly; in the flesh he is goaded to do evil. In the Spirit he is led to God; in the flesh he is beaten back. In the Spirit he despises the world; in the flesh he longs for worldly pleasures.”

Our heart and will become a battle ground. The regenerate person mourns their sin, which pains him or her. They affirm and delight in God’s law as we see in Psalm 119.

Even in his day, there were people claiming a form of Christian perfectionism. Some of the Anabaptists advocated this position. They think that regeneration is complete, and we have no more fleshly appetites.

He returns to the idea of man as sinner in bondage to Satan. He mentions Augustine’s analogy (also utilized by Luther in Bondage of the Will)of the will as a horse subject to the rider’s control. Calvin finds it sufficient in the  absence of a better analogy. “What is meant is that the will, being deceived by the devil’s tricks, must of necessity submit to his good pleasure, although it does so without compulsion.”

He then discusses the doctrine of concurrence with reference to the story of Job. In concurrence, more than one person wills the same action but for different reasons or goals. God, Satan and the Chaldeans all willed the theft of Job’s herds, but for very different reasons. We see this as well in the story of Joseph. God’s intention was very different from his brothers’ even though both willed Joseph’s servitude in Egypt.

“Accordingly, it is not improper to attribute the same deed to God, the devil and man. But the disparity in both intention and means ensures that God’s righteousness always appears blameless, while the wickedness of the devil and of man is revealed in all its shame.”

The bottom line for Calvin is fidelity to Scripture, for the Scriptures reveal the sovereignty of God over events big and small. He brings up a number of passages to illustrate his point. Satan, much like Assyria and Babylon in the prophets, is His agent to unwittingly accomplish His purpose. They serve His righteous purposes, even as they pursue their unrighteous purposes. Calvin notes God’s sovereignty over the “mundane acts of life.” He held to a meticulous providence, as God brings about “whatever he knows is needful, but also to bend men’s wills toward that same end.”

Calvin then addresses a series of common objections. First, necessary sin is no longer sin. While they “necessarily” have to do it, since God ordained it, it is still voluntarily chosen by them. He does not force them to sin, but they want to commit that particular sin at that particular time. Second, reward and punishment no longer apply. God is so kind that he rewards the graces which he bestows on people. The voluntary nature of sin makes punishment just. Third, good and bad are no longer distinguishable. If this were so, it would be so for God who does good “by necessity” or in keeping with his immutable nature. Fourth, exhortation and reproof become superfluous. They are, rather, the means God uses to help shape our choices. He not only ordains what will happen, but how and why.

“God is active in us in two way: within, by his Spirit, and without, by his word. With his Spirit enlightening the mind and training the heart to love righteousness and innocence, he makes man a new creature by regeneration. Through his word he moves and encourages man to desire and to look for this renewal.”

Calvin then notes a variety of Scriptural evidences including, the law and its commands, the command to repent, God’s promises & reproofs, his punishments and more. In many ways Calvin rightfully goes back to Philippians 2:13- For God works in us to will and work according to His righteous purpose. We are to believe that we are dependent upon God, but also that being gracious and powerful he consistently works in us to accomplish his purposes, which are good. This is an important doctrine which humbles us, and grants us confidence.

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In Calvin’s Institutes, the Essentials Edition, we’ve seen how the knowledge of God gives us a truer knowledge of ourselves. While made in His image, we have fallen into sin and unrighteousness. Instead of glorifying Him, we seek to glorify ourselves (make a name for ourselves) which typically means taking advantage of others and bringing shame to ourselves.

Knowledge of ourselves should humble us. We are not what we were intended to be, but a rather tawdry sham instead. We over-estimate our abilities and good deeds, while we minimize our faults, weakness and wrong-doing.

“However, the person who carefully measures himself by God’s standard finds nothing to give him inner confidence, and the more closely he studies himself, the more dejected he becomes until, bereft of hope, he has nothing to help him lead a well-ordered life.”

We have fallen so far from our created glory as the imago dei. The great endowments of Adam and Eve testified to the “Creator’s extraordinary generosity.” They had done nothing to receive these great gifts from His hand. Their disobedience stripped them of much this glory. “The heavenly image he bore was therefore erased; being estranged from God by sin he was likewise deprived of his share in the blessings which can only be had in him.”

This brings us to total, or radical, depravity. From the womb we are prone to sin. We are not born innocent and then personally fall when we sin for the first time. Calvin argues against Pelagianism briefly. We are not “basically good” and only in need of a good example but better ourselves. Calvin affirms original sin, “a hereditary corruption and perversion of our nature which in the first place renders us guilty of God’s wrath, and in the second produces in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’.”

I wish Calvin added “covenantal” to the hereditary. Adam was not just our father, but our covenant head. In this sense, we are also held accountable for his disobedience.

From here, Calvin moves into his discussion of the freedom of the will. Definitions matter greatly in this discussion, and often they are not laid out appropriately. Calvin notes two dangers: indifference and excessive boldness. When we stress our depravity, people can lapse into indifference or fatalism. They see themselves as unrecoverable, even by the God of grace. When we stress the imago dei, people can have a view of themselves that is unreasonably high, a sense of entitlement.

“To avoid both of these pitfalls, we will follow a middle course. Man must learn that there is no good in him, and that misery and want are all around him. But he must also understand how he may aim at the goodness he lacks and at the freedom which is denied him.”

He then moves to some philosophic theories of the mind and will. “The role of the will is to choose and follow whatever our mind judges to be good, and conversely to reject and shun what it reproves.” So, the will works with the mind, not independently of the mind. “All we need to know, without entangling ourselves in superfluous issues, is that the mind is like the helmsman and captain of the soul, and that the will depends on its good pleasure…”

In fallen man, the mind is not fully functioning and flooded with divine light. Romans 1 shows us that the mind is darkened and futile because it has exchanged the truth for the lie. It is no longer able to distinguish between good and evil, the very thing Eve wanted when she disobeyed.

Calvin notes that the Church Fathers are uncertain guides in this matter. He saw them as capitulating to philosophy on this matter at times. Chrysostom, for instance, notes,”The wicked man can become good, if he chooses, and the good man may change into a wicked one.” Calvin sums up, “We see from these statement that the Fathers credited man with greater power than was proper…”

He interacts with the 3 A’s: Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. He finds Aquinas’ definition sound: “Free will is an elective power which, intermediate intellect and will, inclines, however more toward will.” So, how free is the will?

Calvin wants to generally avoid the term “free will”. The Schoolmen note that “man cannot be said to have free will because he is free to choose both good and evil, but because he does what he does voluntarily and not out of compulsion.” He argues that this term has been wrenched from this definition as a “justification for self-pride.” In other words, people use it not for the voluntariness of our our decisions, but to freely choose between good and evil.

Augustine is presented as a trustworthy guide. He affirmed the enslavement of the will. It is grace, and grace alone, that frees it from bondage to our appetites. Augustine moves us toward humility by seeing our natural powers as “impaired, demolished, scattered, destroyed.”

“For the human mind, because of its ignorance, cannot follow a sure path in its search for truth, but blunders into various errors. Just as a blind man stumbles about in the darkness until he quite loses his way; so the mind, pursuing the truth, shows how ill-suited and ill-equipped it is to seek and find it…”

Calvin then differentiates between stuff of earth and stuff of heaven. The bondage of the will, the depravity of the mind does not mean we are stupid intellectually, but stupid morally. We are able to structure societies reasonably well (though the current state of American politics may indicate otherwise), and most citizens are reasonably law-abiding. People are able to master mechanical and liberal arts. We do have a capacity for rational perception. This would be an example of common grace. God gives us the ability to improve our earthly state. This is undeserved, and therefore gracious.

Calvin notes that these natural endowments are gifts of the Spirit, “who distributes them as he pleases, for the common good of humankind.” Our corrupt minds are not as corrupt as they possibly could be. Although the Spirit only dwells in Christians, He is infinite and “does not fail to fill, move and quicken by the power of that same Spirit all creatures, according to the nature with which he endowed each of them at creation.”

Heavenly things (knowing God, his will and living accordingly) are a different story. We are spiritually blind apart from grace. Part of people’s blindness is their inability or unwillingness to accept this. People fall for all kinds of superstitions and foolishness (including deviations from Christianity). This blindness is taught in Jeremiah 24, John, Ephesians, 1 Cor. 2 and Colossians as well as Romans 1.

Calvin affirms the reality of natural law, arguing that its purpose is to make us without excuse. He points us to Romans 2 for this purpose. He defines natural law as: “an operation of conscience by which it is able to tell good from bad, with sufficient clarity that man cannot plead ignorance as an excuse, being rebuked by his own testimony.” For instance, as a teenager I had the capacity to recognize certain things as wrong. But I did them anyway.

Our moral reasoning and judgments are often (always?) clouded by our self-interest and passions/desires. We can talk ourselves into almost anything. We fail to grasp how evil our appetites often are.

After about 30 pages (and there are 40 more) he gets to Paul, who is obviously more authoritative than the schoolmen. It is also very different. We see the inner conflict of Christians in Romans 7 and Galatians 5. We have the Spirit by regeneration, how much worse the condition of those outside of Christ. Believers do strive after good, but don’t do it as often as desired due to this inner struggle. It is the Spirit that leads us toward righteousness. Apart from the Spirit, apart from Christ, people do not seek good (Rom. 3). They do not experience such inner conflict (though there is often the outer conflict of consequences- fear of man).

“Now we are all sinners by nature, so it follows that we are under sin’s yoke. Furthermore, if everyone is held fast by slavery to sin, the will, which is the chief agency of sin, must be tightly restrained and shackled by sin’s bonds.”

As we see in Romans 8, the unregenerate mind is hostile to God and His law. This indicates the bondage of the will to sin. It is in bondage to its inclinations. What people want to do is wrong, but that is what they do.

Thankfully, God, in His grace, limits our capacity for evil. He restrains our sin. While our corruption is changed, and ultimately cured, in the elect, it is merely curbed in the non-elect and non-converted. People are not as bad as they could be. But people sin because they want to, not because God makes them sin. They live within the bondage to sin, so there is an element of necessity. But it is also a joyful necessity. The sinner has not been “stripped of his will but of the soundness of will.” Calvin also brings us back to the character of God, to understand freedom and necessity.

“So if nothing stops God’s will from being free when he does good, even though he does good of necessity, and if the devil always sins voluntarily, even though evil is all he can do, who will argue that man does not sin voluntarily simply because he is subject to the necessity of sinning?”

Here is how Calvin sums it up: “This, then, is the distinction we must observe: man, corrupted by his fall, sins willingly, not despite himself or by compulsion. He sins, I say again, through inclination and not because he is forcibly constrained; he sins because he is prompted by his own appetites, not by external force.”

I’ll resume Calvin’s discussion of this matter in the near future.

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My last full week of vacation didn’t start well. No, no one got hurt or sick.

I went to worship. Normally this is a good, even great thing. But I forgot the experience from last year and was reminded (again) why I love the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). For those who don’t know what it is, it means that God regulates our worship of Him thru the Scriptures. We are told who to worship and how. There are many things left up to common sense and wisdom, like what time to meet, how long, the precise content of prayers, etc.

One of my convictions, based on the RPW, is that the worship service is not the place to sing patriotic songs. A worship service has songs of worship to our great God, Father, Creator and Redeemer. We are instructed to pray for our government as part of worship, but singing songs (and pledging allegiance) to the State would be a violation of my conscience. We (actually they) ended up singing more songs about our country than our Savior.

There was a time to commission a large portion of our extended family for a mission trip to Costa Rica. That is a good thing. It is appropriate. My only concern is that it took the place of the sermon and as a result we celebrated the Lord’s Table without the preaching of the Word. My Presbyterian self was frustrated. Perhaps you wouldn’t be, but perhaps I should have stayed at the house listened to some songs of worship and watched my free Sinclair Ferguson DVD on the Holy Spirit. I need to remember this for next year.

When we got back to the farmhouse, I was surprised to learn that the aforementioned commissioning service was the cause of a luncheon at the Farm. Always the last to know these things. I needed some down time (aka I as in introvert time) after all the festivities of the night before. After people left, I took a nap. Then I enjoyed a cigar, a beer and a novel on the back porch. For dinner we decided on take out Chinese, a mere 20-30 minutes away.

Monday morning was another early morning. I tried to walk before the bugs come out. I failed. I forgot to bring the thick walking stick and was stalked by some dogs. I started to carry it after being harassed by a German Shepherd last summer. But the bugs were worse, and I ended up shortening my walk. But I was still a sweaty, stinky mess.

While I was reading, Uncle Dan helped the kids fill up 15 water balloons to throw at Evan for his 15th birthday. Uncle Dan reports that all the balloons hit Evan, bounced off and exploded on the ground.

Monday night was the beginning of VBS, which means the beginning of “Date Night” for us. The last few years, the local church has started VBS on Sunday. This year it is only Monday – Friday. It is the one about the Kingdom that seems omnipresent this year. This time it was Mega-Date Night, as Dan & Jeannine, Mima & PopPop and Kelli joined us. But since it was Monday, and nearly everything was closed, we ended up at Stewarts’ for some ice cream. The women didn’t seem to want to sit with Dan and me. Not sure why, but the black raspberry ice cream in my facial hair might have contributed to it. As you can tell, PopPop doesn’t really dress up for Date Night.

We then ran some errands at Tops, so I got to do some power lifting with the bags of potatoes and apples I was carrying. Redeem that time!

After picking up the kids and putting them to bed, we hung out by the fire for awhile. Eventually, the beds were calling our names.

Tuesday morning we went to Minerva Beach again. No rain this time. It waited until we were on the way home. Yes, the rain continues to come a few times a day. I think it has rained everyday we’ve been up here.

But that didn’t stop VBS, nor Date Night. MiMa & PopPop did not join us due to errands down in Glens Falls. But Bar Vino was open so it was time for mussels, frites and bread. Delicious food. CavWife had to settle for some peach tort kind of thing since she is allergic to shellfish. And then we took a walk down what passes for Main Street. I was surprised by how much the businesses of North Creek have changed in the last year. Too many “for sale” and “for lease” signs. One of the restaurants we’ve enjoyed for dessert the last few years is now closed. I am reminded of 2008-10 when so many businesses closed up here. There seems to be another downturn, irrespective of what DC says.

When putting the kids to bed, our younger daughter mentioned she wanted to go to the “good kingdom” where Jesus is. So we talked about faith & repentance. CavWife thinks it may have been a bit advanced for her since she has only been speaking English for a year. But there was a profession of faith- I am a sinner and Jesus saves by taking the punishment those sins deserve. I think she got it. What really matters is if the Spirit has given her a heart of flesh. If so, all the rest will fall into place in the proper time.

Wednesday was another rainy morning. As a result, it was a lazy kind of day as I read and blogged. CavGirl #1 went into town to get her hair cut along with her Aunt Jeannine. It remained hot and humid, with the obligatory condensation dripping off the toilet tanks. But the one in our bathroom had bigger problems. It was actually leaking water from where the bolts anchor the tank to the bowl. It leaked so much water that the suspended ceiling in the family room below had big wet spots. Off to the hardware store again, before it closed at 5 to buy the proper repair kit. I spent the next chunk of my life removing the old bolts and what little was left of the washer. Seriously, not much was left.

After dinner, we dropped the kids off at VBS and went over to Basil & Wick’s for dessert. This time “we” included MiMa & PopPop but not Kelli. Dan considered the frog legs, but decided the Cajun season might be a bit much, and there were 6 of them. This was a big risk if he didn’t like them (but smaller than the stuff calamari risk I took years ago in Atlanta- horrendous). As a result, he settled for the mozzarella sticks. I tried the Panko Shrimp. They were quite big, and tasted ok, but there were only 3 of them. I was disappointed. I think I’ve decided that B&W’s is not the place for appetizers or dessert. Thursday Pasta Night is another story, however.

Thursday morning was the morning of departures. Early in the morning Rich left for IL so he could serve in his role as Chaplain that weekend. Around 7 Dan & Jeannine left so Jeannine could work later in the day. And the CavFamily packed up the Envoy and headed east to NH to visit with some family and friends. This trip reminded me why we don’t often do such trips with the kids (sorry to all those who want us to visit with them). Some of them really struggled with the long drive. I struggled with listening to the VBS music ad infinitum.

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We’ve had a number of events recently that have shaken many Americans to the core. The reality of evil was pressed home in painful fashion. Sadly, most Americans aren’t prepared to face the reality of evil. If people are considered basically good, then we essentially think such things should not happen here where we are educated and prosperous. Those things only happen there, wherever there may be. But not to us, not on our shores.

There are a number of books that have tried to tackle this problem. Some good. Some bland. And some quite horrible, like the sadly popular book by Rabbi Kushner about the God who wants to help but really can’t. He also assumes there are good people.

“To come to grips with the problem of evil and suffering, you must do more than hear heart-wrenching stories about suffering people. You must hear God’s truth to help you interpret those stories.”

Randy Alcorn has released The Goodness of God: Assurance of Purpose in the Midst of Suffering for this reason. It is a shorter version (120 pages) of his book If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering. It makes a readable, meaningful book that you can hand out to people who are suffering, or struggling with the suffering of others. He covers lots of ground in succinct fashion, including illustrations and examples to help people understand his point. It is not dry and academic. He writes of his own suffering and how he had to make sense of it. He believes any faith that doesn’t prepare you for suffering is not a biblical faith, and our churches must do a better job teaching biblical theology to prepare people for suffering.

“The pain of suffering points to something deeply and unacceptably flawed about this world we inhabit.”

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The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has a strange history. Many, not all, of the Founders of the SBC would have self-identified as Calvinists, or Particular Baptists. J.L. Dagg’s Systematic Theology is one example. Tom Nettles traces the history in By His Grace and For His Glory. Over the years, Arminianism took root in the SBC. There has been a resurgence of Calvinism that parallels the resurgence of Calvinism prompted, in large part, by the ministries of men like J.I. Packer and R.C. Sproul. Men like Tom Nettles and Tom Ascol formed the Founders’ Conference. Let’s just say there has been some push back from the SBC at large.

The latest has emerged in a series of Affirmations and Denials in A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation. As I read the document, my thought was that they gutted the gospel in an attempt, in their minds, to save the gospel from those pernicious Calvinists. The affirmations and denials, in their own words, ultimately cause problems in understanding the gospel. This is an exercise in theological over-reaction. They fulfilled one of the CavCorollaries: in theological disputation we tend to move to greater extremes.

We deny that only a select few are capable of responding to the Gospel while the rest are predestined to an eternity in hell.

I would take issue with the phrase “select few”. I believe there will be a numberless multitude according to Revelation. They don’t affirm what Scripture means when it talks about election, chosen in Christ before the creation of the world (Eph. 1). But early on, you can see they are asserting a particular view of free will. They don’t seem to realize that Calvinists hold to free will (there is a whole chapter on it in the Westminster Confession of Faith). The difference is that they don’t really see much of an effect from Adam’s sin to the will of man.

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

Here is a denial of what we find in Romans 5- the imputation of Adam’s sin to all. Paul teaches that all sinned in Adam. He stresses the “one man’s trespass” in contrast to the “one man’s obedience”. You see, if you deny the imputation of Adam’s sin, you lose the basis for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. You … gut the gospel. Paul is teaching covenant theology here as the basis for the fall of humanity and salvation in Christ.

We deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted. We deny that the response of faith is in any way a meritorious work that earns salvation.

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Here are some more of the ‘controversial’ doctrines as I go through the Westminster Confession of Faith for licensure to preach.  Remember, no arguments- but if you think I misunderstood the Confession, let me know.

Chapter IX: Of Free Will

102. How is man’s will free, and not free? Can a sinner do anything good?   All we do, we do freely- without coercion- in accordance with our nature.  As those who have a corrupt nature, we are unable to do anything good.  We hate God, freely, and freely choose sin.  Even when we choose the right course of action, we do it for sinful reasons.

103.Why is man responsible for his actions if he is not morally free?  Though not morally free, we are volitionally free.  We love our sin and choose it freely.  We hate righteousness and avoid it freely.

104. When will a man be made perfectly free to do good?  Only at our glorification will we be perfectly and immutably free to good alone.

105.What do we mean when we way that a Christian is freed from sin? We are freed from the penalty and power of sin, but not its presence until glorification.

106. Describe the biblical teaching concerning total inability? Are you personally committed to the doctrine of total inability? We are unable to convert ourselves.  Faith and repentance are graces that must be given to us that we might be converted.  Yes, I am personally committed to the doctrine of total inability.

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