The Gospel as Free Will, Part II (Conclusion)

  • Sumo

If you are arriving here and haven’t seen Part I (but would like to), you can go there by clicking here. But I have inserted a short review below, for those who want to skip Part I or for those who have already read it but would like to revisit key points. To skip the 11-point review, click here.).

It took Christ's victory for God's relationship with man to become like a two-way street.

It took Christ's victory for God's relationship with man to become like a two-way street.

The Bible can be read as God’s pursuit of wayward, lost mankind and His eventual establishment of a means of reconciliation – a reuniting that is comparable to an eternal marriage. This relationship differs in one important way from the relationship He had with the ancient Israelites, in that this (Christian) relationship introduces something new: the fact that human beings can choose God by free will. This choice makes the affair more akin to a two-way street. Marriages are like that. They involve the consent of both sides. How God achieved a platform of mutual consent is sometimes referred to as “the Greatest Story Ever Told.” We will not understand the full implications of His pursuit, and this relationship, until we understand the difference free will made to us, and the cost it imposed upon God.

To resume (and conclude) this discussion of the gospel as free will, let us recap these points covered thus far:

1.  The Israelites in times before Christ were children of God.

2.  They were saved by the blood of Jesus (Heb. 9:15), even though Jesus was yet to arrive on earth.

3.  The faithful among them went to Heaven (Heb. 11:6) – the same Heaven we will inhabit. The unfaithful among them did not go to Heaven.

4.  Regardless of whether they were Heaven-bound or not, all of the Israelites had spiritual life – spiritual aliveness – while physically alive on this earth. They were not spiritually dead. (I Corin. 10:1). (Understanding this distinction requires an understanding of the difference between spiritual life and salvation. For those who are not clear on this difference, please know that we will be exploring this matter in later issues.)

5.  No ancient Israelite (that is, no Israelite in the ages before Christ) ever had, at any point in his or her earthly life, anything remotely describable as a “moment of conversion.”

6.  Therefore, they were children of God by genetic heritage… by being born Israelites. They were children of God from infancy. By “accident of birth.”

7.  Meanwhile, Gentiles of those ages were not children of God. (Eph. 2:12)

8.  Salvation was “of the Jews.” It was not “of the Gentiles.” (John 4:20-21)

9.  In saying that the Gentiles, after the conversion of Cornelius in the book of Acts, became “fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise of Christ” (Eph. 3:3-6), scripture is saying that the Gentiles could, from that point forward, enjoy what the Jews had enjoyed for 1,500 years already – that is, spiritual life, salvation… and Heaven. The Gentiles were thus “added to” an inheritance that already existed on earth.

10.  To dispute the idea that the ancient Israelites (Israelites before Christ’s time), whom God called “a light to the nations,” were in any way involved in evangelizing among the Gentile nations or otherwise proselytizing among the other nations, we revisited the story of Jonah and the Ninevites. I will refer you back to that account (Part I) rather than trying to share it here. But that story, when properly understood, refutes the idea that Jonah was trying to make children of God from among the Gentile peoples.

11.  So… what has happened, in the Christian age, is not a matter of spiritual life coming into the world, for there was already spiritual life in the world. It was not a matter of eternal life becoming a possibility for some human beings, for eternal life was already a possibility for at least some human beings. What has happened is the manner whereby spiritual life is obtained. It is no longer to be obtained by human procreation. It is henceforth to be obtained by the exercise of human free will. This is a profound difference.

More like a marriage: Christianity introduced consent - the "moment of conversion" - into relations between man and God.

More like a marriage: Christianity introduced consent - the "moment of conversion" - into relations between man and God.

When we left off Part I, we were discussing the gospel. So, let us define it. It is revealed to us in most succinct terms in I Corin. 15:3-4, “…that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, (4) and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day…”

When the gospel appeal was extended in Acts Chapter 2, that occasion marked the first time that people could become children of God by their own deliberation, by their own choice, by their own action. When Peter stood up and (in Acts 2:22) began, “Men of Israel,” that speech marked the introduction of free will as a two-way street in the affairs of God and man.

For us, obtaining free will, and exercising free will, is relatively free. We were not obliged to pay for the privilege. But for deity, extending free will to human beings is, as we shall see, a grim and grisly business. It is enough to make you sweat blood.

We will explore why that is so. Meanwhile, on another level, we should take note that some believers have sought to turn the gospel into something that we simply accept. It was never given to us simply as something to “accept.” It was something we assert.

There is a difference between accepting and asserting.

The Gospel: A Matter of Truth

Logic tells us that the gospel—God’s free will appeal to mankind—has to be something that is external to us. It cannot be something that is “about us” in the sense that it is something for us to select, to possess, to take receipt of. Anyone saying “I’ll have one of those” is not asserting his or her will. That is expressing one’s appetite. And expressing an appetite, a desire, a personal preference, is not taking a stand on a question of truth.

There are several conditions we could expect to be true about the gospel, even before we hear the gospel, if only we understand some things about the nature of God. If God has a nature that is discernible and somehow explicable, then by our God-given powers of reason we should have been able to ascertain, even in advance, certain conditions that would have to apply to God’s ultimate decree and final solicitation to His creations (that is, His gospel message).

Approaching matters from this direction, we can deduce that obeying the gospel would have to involve my taking a stand on a proposition that is external to me. We can test the gospel’s “externality” by asking ourselves if the gospel would exist whether or not we had ever been born. The answer is obvious. So from that we can deduce that the gospel is not “about me” in any way, shape, or form. To say, “I’ll take heaven” or “I accept Jesus” – these are not assertions about truths that are external to me. The gospel has to be something that remains true for all ages and all times.

Proceeding further, we can determine that if the gospel is to be something that is assertable, then it must be something that is true about the universe—assertably true in all places and at all times. Thus, it must be something that lies in history—that is, in the past. Only the past holds truths that are equally assertable by all peoples, in all (subsequent) times.

The Perfect Offer

And if we are reasonable in saying that the gospel involves, or leads to, an offer that the Creator is extending to human beings, then it follows that that offer would be a perfect offer, for the Creator is perfect. (Matt. 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”) And if the offer is to be a perfect offer, then the offer would be of an eternal nature, for anything short of eternity would be short of perfection.

And if we are reasonable in saying that the gospel is a proposition that is set before us as the ultimate determinant in matters between ourselves and God, then we are reasonable in saying that the gospel would have to be about a relationship. And that it would be a joyous relationship. (Rev. 21:4: “And God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying….”)

And finally, if the gospel is about a relationship, and if it comes from a perfect God, then it has to be about love. When we hear this proposition put before us by a perfect God who is seeking a forever relationship with us, then this appeal has to be one that demonstrates love. Or else God was not a perfect God.

For us to have choice, God's yes-or-no proposition had to be the perfect appeal.

For us to have choice, God's yes-or-no proposition had to be the perfect appeal.

If it is about a forever relationship, and if it is to be a perfect proposition from a perfect God, then it has to involve the ultimate sacrifice, because our own logic tells us—even without going to John 15:13, that “Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” The perfect offer would have to be based on the perfect appeal, and the perfect appeal could be nothing less than the ultimate sacrifice.

These conditions, set forth above, should have been true of any purported supreme deity who presumes to offer some form of salvation to mankind. We should not have to wait to hear the full revelation of any supreme deity to know that these conditions would have to be the end result of that revelation.

All of these points about the nature of the gospel, given above, are points that can, in some sense, be established a priori. That is, given the fact that we can understand certain characteristics of God as being truthful about God (and that is, of course, an understanding that each individual must arrive at independently), then it follows that we can extrapolate certain characteristics of the gospel, even in advance of hearing the gospel. That is what I have tried to do, above. And whether or not I have established these as a priori deductions, the fact is that Bible devotees know that these qualities are true, simply from the Bible’s own testimony.

God’s Own Nature  Anticipates His “Good News”

But it helps, I think, to see the gospel approached from a before-the-fact standpoint, because seeing it in such a light can only re-affirm, for many of us, the truth of the gospel. It is the way it is because it could be no other way. The very nature of God informs the gospel, and shapes the gospel.

Thus far, we have established that the gospel is a proposition, and that it is a proposition that was established by an action of God. We have established that it is a proposition whose truth is to be asserted by believers. This brings us to another question: Is the gospel free? Or is salvation free?

There is a widespread belief that the gospel is the “free gift of God” or (to be less  redundant) “the gift of God.”

I will not dispute the idea that someone who obeys the gospel receives the gift of salvation. But saying that is not the same thing as saying that the “gospel is a gift.”

Recently I conducted an Internet search for the term “gospel is a gift.” That search string brought back 1.5 million results.

I also searched this string: “gospel is the gift.” That query brought back 4.5 million results.

Thus, altogether, there are 6 million entries somewhere in cyberspace that treat the gospel as “a gift” or as “the gift.”

Salvation is free, yes, but the gospel is not a gift. And it is in treating it as a gift that many individuals succumb to the idea that it is something that is merely accepted.

The gospel is not “I’ll accept my gift now.”

The gospel is not “Okay, I’ll take salvation” or “Okay, I’ll take Heaven.”

The gospel is this: Somebody Did Something. To assert the gospel is to say something. It is to say, “This is so. This is true. This proposition is true.”

One does not receive the gospel. One does not (merely) accept the gospel. One asserts the gospel, but, just as important, one obeys the gospel.

One obeys the gospel, and for obeying the gospel, one receives the free gift that is salvation.

II Thessalonians 1:8 states, “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [italics mine]

People have completely gotten away from this truth. Those 6 million hits are just one indication.

Salvation’s Steps

Some believers, and I am one of them, believe that the Bible teaches five steps of salvation. Without mounting a defense of this doctrine—for that could entail a considerable digression here—I will simply recount each of the steps along with only two supportive scriptures for each. Anyone desiring a fuller treatment of this topic could find ample discussion by searching the relevant terms on the Web.

The steps of salvation:

Hear the Word: Romans 10:17, Romans 1:16

Believe the Word: Gal. 2:16, Mark 16:16

Repent: II Peter 3:9, Acts 26:20

Confess: Romans 10:9-10, I Tim. 6:12

Be baptized: Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3,4

Some people go further and say that a sixth step is required: living an obedient life. It’s not the number of steps that concerns me here, but the fact that obedience to the gospel involves something more than the initial two steps of hearing and believing. The steps that come after hearing and believing are also steps that are necessary if one is to obey the gospel.

It is not enough to contemplate the gospel or to mentally assent to it or even to change one’s heart with respect to it. Those are necessary preparatory steps, but they fall short of full obedience.

It is not until we reach the Book of Acts that human beings encounter a chance to become children of God by free will.

It is not until we reach the Book of Acts that human beings encounter their chance to become children of God by free will.

Confessing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, as the Ethiopian Eunuch did (Acts 8:37), is taking a stand on something that is not merely a matter of one’s own desires for one’s own self. It is an assertion of an external truth.

There is a virtue in confessing a truth. Now, why would there be? What is it about confessing something that makes the confessor more virtuous than he or she would be without that confession? To understand this, we must understand the difference between truth and fact.

The Bible is built upon the difference between truth and fact. I can well imagine someone interjecting, here, a challenge to the idea that there can be any difference between truth and fact. “If something is true,” that person might say, “then it is a fact. And if something is a fact, then it is the truth.” Such a person might question whether I think that Jesus’s life and work were factual.

Facts versus Truth

I do believe they were factual. I can say those words, but in saying them I (or anyone else) must stretch the meaning somewhat. How can anyone today “believe” a fact—a fact that is beyond normal means of factual verification? We are stretching one word or the other. We are stretching “believe,” in that a fact does not require “belief.” Or we are stretching the word “fact,” for anything that occurred in some corner of the world 2,000 years ago is not anything that I, removed by time and space, have any business discussing as “factual.” How can I verify the factuality of it?

There truly is a difference between truth and fact, and if we miss that distinction we miss an important dimension of what it means to have faith.

A matter of fact is something that does not require anyone’s faith. If faith—belief—is necessary, if there exists enough question about something that portions of mankind might believe it but significant portions of mankind might not, then that is not a matter of fact. That is a question of truth. Truth, to be an issue of belief or nonbelief, must exist outside of factuality.

We often use the terms “factuality” and “truth” interchangeably, but they are not synonyms. We accept a fact, we acquiesce to a fact, but we do not believe a fact. If belief is required, then the matter does not lie within the realm of proven, undisputed facthood.

God has deliberately created a gospel that, for people coming after the miraculous times of Bible revelation, does not lie within the realm of facthood, but rather within the disputable realm of truth. And He has done that for a reason. He wanted free will to be part of the equation.

The Conviction of Things Not Seen

Because the gospel is something disputable within this world, there is a virtue in our taking a stand on it. Because the gospel is a matter of truth versus falsehood, those who, by their “diligent seeking” of God, arrive at an “assurance of things hoped for” and a “conviction of things not seen” are those who have made themselves pleasing to God (Heb. 11:1,6).

The gospel is something that has been relegated to the disputable realm of truth—separated from us by passage of time, distanced from us by an absence of direct factual verification. This was all for a reason. Those who scorn Christianity for its disputability miss the very point of Christianity. Without its relegation to the world of truth, versus the world of plain, indisputable, unquestioned facthood, the gospel story would not serve the purpose God intended it to serve.

But it does. And because the gospel is a matter of truth versus falsehood, there is a virtue in standing up for that truth.

Matters of truth-or-falsehood are matters that invite the exercise of free will. Matters of fact do not invite, nor are they helped or hindered by, the exercise of free will.

There will always be people who see no gain in asserting truths. Their reasoning is, “If something is really true, then my agreement with it or disagreement with it does not change it in the least.”

But we should be able to see, from our inquiry into the question of truth, that truth really does gain or lose by the world’s opinion of it. Rather, human beings do gain or lose by their fellow human beings’ stands on truth. Causes gain or lose by human beings’ stands on truth. And in the realm of faith, God gains or loses by human beings’ stands on truth.

Confession as a Virtuous Act

Thus we begin to see that there truly is a virtue in confession—assertion, defense—of the gospel. There is something to be said for any of us if we square our shoulders and say to the world, “This is so.”

And if human free will was ever to have any place in religion, then it was to happen only after a proposition of truth was placed before the world by God.

We have seen how the nature of God Himself dictated that this extension of a proposition of free will to mankind cost God the ultimate sacrifice. We have seen that free will did not exist in revealed religion prior to the issuance of the gospel.

Freedom isn’t free. Paul said in I Corin. 6:20 that “you are bought with a price.”

Our free will is a powerful instrument. God will not tamper with our free will. He wants the love of free-willed human beings. To have it, He cannot influence us beyond our ability to make a free, uncoerced choice. The most He will do in His own favor is to place motives before us. That’s what His Book is – it’s a motive that is placed before you.

The Trait that Makes Us Most Like God

It has been said that the one attribute that we possess that makes us most like God is free will. We cannot compare in the least with God in terms of any other attribute. When it comes to qualities such as strength, knowledge, intelligence, awareness, and permanence, we cannot begin to compare. When it comes to virtues such as love, mercy, kindness, and righteousness, we fall abysmally short of God.

But when it comes to the ability to exercise free will – when it comes to the ability to say yes or no, yea or nay, I will or I won’t – we are arguably as equipped, and as free, to do that as is God.

Furthermore, on questions of free will, all human beings are completely equal. It is the most democratic of all possible platforms. One person might have advantages over another in mental acuity, physical stature, strength, aptitudes, winsomeness, or other such qualities. But notice: those are “borrowed” attributes. Our genes are not ourselves. Prior to our births, our souls were knit together with the genetic encoding that would determine our physical attributes. But that genetic encoding is not “us.” Our soul is “us.” We could each have easily been given a different set of parents and, accordingly, a different set of genes. And equally, by giving each of us a set of parents, God gave us a starting point in life, even to some degree a socio-economic standing. Our “heredity,” in that sense, determines our environment.

And yet this – our “environment,” in the form of familial placement and earthly starting point – is not “us” in the sense that our soul is “us.” Our environment, like our genetic makeup, is borrowed. It is on loan. We might make something good of it or we might not. It might lend us earthly advantages toward making our worldly lives ones of high accomplishment or recognition, or it might not. But in the end, our heredity and environment are what our souls make of them, whether we were loaned a high station in life or whether we were loaned a humble one. What is not affected in such considerations is our ability to choose. Our free will.

Thus it is that our earthly accomplishments, our merits, mean less to God than the inclinations of our hearts, which are revealed by our choices. For our earthly works, our merits, are enhanced or augmented (or hindered) somewhat by our borrowed attributes, and those borrowed attributes are not entirely “us.”

Equal Before God

But we all stand equal before God in our ability to exercise our free will. God does not judge us on achievement that comes from having superior genes or superior familial birthright. He sweeps those aside and examines the heart, knowing that all traits coming purely from “borrowed” qualities are not the best indications of who we truly are. Those borrowed qualities were all God’s possessions to begin with. They were His to dispense as He wished. He is not served by receiving the differences that those borrowed qualities made in anyone’s life. He is served, instead, by the choices made by the souls that were implanted in those borrowed, passing circumstances.

And He hopes that the choices made will lead to a relationship with Him. If this forever relationship He seeks is like a marriage, then we can understand that it matters to Him, as it matters to us, that the parties enter into a relationship that is mutual.

God had a family in Old Testament times, but that family was not a marriage that was entered into mutually.

The gospel appeal gives God His chance at that mutual relationship.

And so it is that God, in His divine humility, lays aside all His superiorities to us, and He meets us in a place where He, and we, stand as equals. It can be a beautiful thing to realize that God has chosen that quiet place—that sphere of free will—as the bower where He awaits our forever answer.

He waits there...

He waits there...

He waits there, knowing that we might say yes and we might say no. But He waits regardless. Waits for each of us—each in due time. For each soul whom He has knit to a human frame. And as He waits, powerless to affect our ultimate answer, He humbly keeps His own answer, unchanged and unchanging. His answer is, “Yes.”

Yes, He will have you. He died for you. Not just that you could make a choice, but that you would make the choice He hopes you’ll make.

You can exercise your free will, and the results will endure from everlasting to everlasting. He who has “set eternity in the human heart” (Eccles. 3:11) has given you His promise on that.

Thank you for giving your attention and your time to this study. I hope it can be a blessing to you.

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