Radical Free Will

I recently read an article from Christ Hold Fast in which the author, Gerhard Forde, both misrepresents the free will position and re-defines the Gospel as his particular theological viewpoint. I am going to critique both aspects of his article.

Christ Hold Fast is an organization of Lutheran bloggers, podcasters (is that a word?) and speakers.

Free Will Against God

The article is called “Radical Gospel” and is an excerpt from a longer paper entitled “Radical Lutheranism“. Forde starts the excerpt:

The radical gospel of justification by faith alone simply does not fit, cannot be accepted by, and will not work with an anthropology which sees the human being as a continuously existing subject possessing ‘‘free choice of will’’ over against God and/or other religious goals.

Free will is assumed to be “over against God”. Is there another way of looking at free will besides countervailing the sovereignty of God? There has been since the beginning of the Church. Nowhere in the Early Church Fathers will you find a view of humanity which states it does not have free will to choose God or not. Not until Augustine in the 4th century does Forde’s view of humanity enter Christendom, and even then Augustine held both views through out his life. I am hard pressed to believe Forde had never heard of such men as C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer, and Herschel H. Hobbs. Let me quote each on free will:

When we carry it up to relations between God and Man, has the distinction perhaps become nonsensical? After all, when we are most free, it is only with a freedom God has given us: and when our will is most influenced by Grace, it is still our will. And if what our will does is not ‘voluntary’, and if ‘voluntary’ does not mean ‘free’, what are we talking about? C.S. Lewis – Yours Jack, pg. 186

“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.” – A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy

“According to the good pleasure of his will” expresses God’s sovereignty, which means that He can act in accord with His nature and purpose as redeeming love without the advice or consent of anyone outside Himself. However, the Bible also teaches the free will of man as a person made in God’s image. To violate man’s free will would make him less than a person, only a puppet dangled on the string of fate. The Bible never teaches that. – Herschel Hobbs, God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will

Those of us who affirm free will do not do see it as “against God” but indeed as affirming His sovereignty. Truly, I have yet to hear, and I would love to hear in the comments below, someone who holds to the Calvinistic, or in this case the Lutheran, understanding of sovereignty deal with this view of free will. Specifically, is God not free and powerful enough to create the world with truly free creatures? If the answer is, as R.C. Sproul seems to say, “No, God must meticulously control every molecule or He is not God” then answer me this; are you not putting God in a box by saying what He must do in order to be sovereign?

Conditional Grace

Grace is unmerited. We do not control whether or not God gives us grace. We do not force God to give us grace by doing good things nor by believing in Jesus. But is it unconditional? Forde asserts that it is:

Here we arrive at the crucial point. Here the pious old Adam can only recoil in horror from the thought of unconditional grace and try to protect the continuity of the old self by making compromises: some fateful mixture of grace and law, a little bit of human cooperation, …

This seems like another time when a biblical doctrine is created whole cloth out of the demands of systematic theology. Unconditional grace could be described in another way; mysterious grace. That is, we do not know why God gives grace to some and not to others, it is completely unconditional after all. The why is hidden in the mysterious will of God. Yet, the Bible teaches that it is no mystery at all who God chooses to give grace to:

“Matthew‬ ‭23:12‬, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” 

Psalm 18:27: You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.

1 Peter 5:5-6: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

Isaiah 66:2: “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.

James 4:10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”

2 Kings 22:19: “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord.”

Zephaniah 2:3: Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.

Matthew 5:3: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

It seems like Forde must take each of these passages and see God as effectually humbling, even when the passage says they humbled themselves, despite the Bible never coming out and saying this is what is really going on in the background.

Perhaps even worse, several of these passages contain imperatives, ie. commands, for human beings to cooperate with God and humble themselves. Such imperatives are pervasive in Scripture. Apparently, Forde sees God as giving human beings commands and then ordaining that they will disobey those commands. This would be like chaining your dog to a post, calling him to come farther than the length of the chain you gave him, and then punishing him for being unable to come. If a human being did this, it would be called cruelty. A monergist must call this “glorious”.

Radical Division

Forde is a great writer. I’m drawn in by the magnetism of his words. But as I re-read his paragraphs, I come to see what it is he is saying:

Furthermore, we miss the radicality of that if we do not see that this death is announced as accomplished fact: you have died. The death is not something yet to be done, one last act of spiritual suicide for ‘‘free choice.’’ If Jesus died for all, then all have died (2 Cor. 5:14). The being of the hearer is simply stamped with the theologia crucis, the death and resurrection of Jesus is done to us by the proclamation of the accomplished fact.

Forde is making synonymous the Gospel with effectual salvation. That is, if anyone denies his particular theological framework, that God irresistibly saves those individuals whom He chooses to save, then they are denying the Gospel. This is pure sophistry. It pits Christian against Christian in a fight to see who has the “real” Gospel. It allows fans of Forde’s view to deal in strawmen and hyperbole with synergists. Instead of “I think you’re wrong about synergism because of <enter reasoned argument there>” it becomes “You’re denying the Gospel!!”. This kind of thing distracts and is a hindrance to discussing our actual disagreements.

As evidence of where this kind of rhetoric leads, Forde comes up with a strawman of his own:

The continuing crisis for anyone who is grasped by that radical gospel comes both from the fact that the world and its church cannot do other than resist and attack that gospel (as a matter of self-defense), and from the fact that they cannot escape the constant temptation to make compromises which disguise or blunt the sharp edges of its radicality.

According to Forde, the only reason anyone could insist on the existence of free will is to defend the power of man above God and in doing so they compromise the power of the Gospel. It is the true position of the defenders of free will that is radical here. Forde has not conceived of it! If the proponents of Forde (or monergism in general) would like to deal with the true position of those who hold to free will in the comments below, I would love to have that discussion. Here it goes: defending the free will of man is both a theodicy and a defense of God’s holiness (as set apart from the sins of men).

As argued above, far from attempting to defend our own abilities to countervail the sovereignty of God, we see free will as establishing that sovereignty. Further, it is my view that our view of sovereignty is bigger than the monergists, who must see God as restrained to only being able to create a meticulously determined world. God is bigger and freer than that. Ironically, I also see synergists as holding to a more powerful Gospel than the monergists. From Forde’s own words, the Gospel merely informs the elect what has already taken place on their behalf; God has already effectually saved you. In contrast, I see that Gospel as being the Holy Spirit wrought power of God that enables men to believe and draws sinful men into relationship with Jesus.

In order to have a real, fruitful discussion about our differences, monergists like Forde would have to see synergists as sincere but mistaken faithful Christian brothers instead of those who strive to defend our own autonomy from God and decrease the power of the Gospel.


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3 Responses to Radical Free Will

  1. JP says:

    I find it a bit funny how the Calvinists, and apparently some Lutheran’s, are so afraid of free will somehow trampling on God’s Sovereignty. Apparently God can’t handle it? Come on. Also, since when do Calvinists get to change the meaning of words… where does Sovereignty mean meticulous determination/control? It doesn’t.

    2 Chronicles 30: 1-12/13 is an example where God seems to “effectually humble.” I don’t think the implication is that this is always the case as the Jews were dealing with some very specific circumstances, however. Thoughts?

  2. truthseeker00 says:

    It is absurd to insist that Sovereignty MUST mean meticulous, deterministic control – there is no historical or linguistic legitimacy to such a claim. One could, at best, suggest that Sovereignty MIGHT imply meticulous, deterministic control, did such a definition stand up under scrutiny of the rest of scripture. Without question, it does not. There are countless instances in which scripture records men and nations who rebelled, disobeyed, refused to turn from wickedness, murdered, committed adultery, exchanged the natural use of men and women, offered their children to idols – all described as angering God and earning his just wrath. It would be utterly absurd of God to be angry, wrathful or to punish men for doing what he had Sovereignly (deterministically, irresistibly) ordained/decreed/compelled. More than absurd, it would be downright cruel to ordain men to certain actions, then punish them when they irresistibly performed that which they could not escape doing. The most basic reason rejects such absurdity and condemns such injustice – which is why Calvinism must constantly advocate the abandonment of reason and logic for the self-claimed authority of men. Men must be persuaded to exchange the truth for a lie. Rampant evil can only prevail when men are persuaded to abandon God-given reason and submit to whichever authority has the power of the sword at the moment. Having seized control of the magistrate, a Roman Pope or a Protestant Calvin could burn a man at the stake for merely disagreeing with his teaching. Those who practice cruel tyranny must persuade men that God is the author of cruel tyranny.

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