God gives us impossible conundrums in order to show us our own folly, weakness and inability. Once we understand that we can’t understand everything about God, we can then surrender the effort to try to understand, an effort that leads us deeper into self and pride. We are so committed to ourselves that we often have to invent explanations of things that are simply beyond us and suit nothing but our own pathetic minds (hearts and desires to justify our sin). Once the efforts of self-explanation or self-justification are surrendered, we are then able to drop our self-made presuppositions and read Scripture without the lens we have heretofore imposed upon it, and read it in faith. But biblical faith is not mine or yours, as if it wells up inside of us. Rather, it is God’s faith in Jesus Christ, which has been imposed upon us through regeneration.

I’m not arguing for mysticism, Scripture has plenty of mysterious depth within the bounds of human intelligibility. We don’t need to speculate beyond what Scripture tells us.

Scripture speaks about past, present and future as if the relations between them and God’s decrees are fixed, as if the certainty of history’s movement to fulfill God’s decrees will unfold without modification of God’s purpose.

“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” (Isaiah 46:8-11).

We don’t have to speculate about why people choose or don’t choose to respond to God. Scripture tells us: He hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and many others. We did not choose Christ, “but (He) chose (us) and appointed (us) that (we) should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16). We are not to trust ourselves, our own understanding of things (Proverbs 3:5, etc.), but we are to trust God and His understanding (Scripture).

So the only real freedom available to anyone in this sin-drenched world is obedience to God through Christ, which is only possible through regeneration. Through regeneration we are given new hearts and minds and desires. Following regeneration we want to live in obedience to God. And when we then live in obedience to God and Scripture, we contribute to God’s will, which is the only free will in the universe. In obedience to God we freely add our wills to God’s free will. Our only freedom is being caught up in God’s will.

But the rejection of God comes entirely out of our own personal will because it is not God’s will that we reject Him. God’s will is that we live in obedience to Him, so rejecting Him means rejecting the only real free will in the universe, and defaulting to the slavery of our own narrow, limited, personal will. How can we not be responsible for what we personally choose to do? Unrepentant sinners are personally responsible for their rejection of Christ. But repentant sinners understand that they have been saved apart from their own will, apart from their own ability or understanding. Repentant sinners thank and praise God for imposing His free will upon them, because they know that apart from God’s imposition they would be just as lost as everyone else. Apart from obedience to God (by grace through faith, of course) our lives and our world are bound for death and destruction.

The key to understanding this is realizing that we are not in an independent, objective or neutral position to begin with. It is not that we are born into some neutral situation, and then can choose good or evil. It is that we are born sinners awash in a world that is hell-bound for the pit. We are born on a locomotive heading full steam toward the cliff. That’s where we start from. God is not engaging us in a philosophical discussion about reality. He’s on a rescue mission, and time is important to the success of His mission. God may be engaged in spiritual triage for the sake of humanity.

So, God treats these two classes of people (sheep and goats) differently. Why? Because He is just and justice demands different treatment for the obedient than the disobedient (or the faithful and the faithless). Just like on earth, those who obey the law are treated differently than those who don’t. And that difference is called justice, though the disobedient always want another definition of justice. Everything is different for these two groups of people. Why? Because Jesus Christ makes a real and an important and an all-encompassing difference. If God were to treat these groups the same, then Jesus Christ would make no real difference in their lives or in history. So, because Jesus Christ is real, God treats believers differently than unbelievers.

Again, to drive this point home: God does not treat everyone the same, just as the law does not treat everyone the same. The law treats law breakers differently than it treats law abiders. And the difference is a function of justice. Justice requires different treatment for law breakers than for those who abide by the law. Thus, those who refuse God’s grace, who refuse God’s gifts of mercy and reconciliation do so out of their own strength, their of desires, their own wills, their own stubbornness. And because they refuse it, it is not given.

How so? If I try to give you a gift and your refuse it. Then the gift has not been given. You haven’t received it, and I haven’t given it. Whose fault is it that you don’t have it? Yours, and yours alone. You are completely responsible for not having the gift because you don’t want it. And so it is with God’s gift of grace and mercy.

Which group enjoys real freedom, those who do their own thing? Or those who do God’s thing?


  1. Good article, Phil. I couldn’t agree more. I might have added as requirement “trust”. If I obey while not really trusting, I will not have peace with my freedom.
    Also, concerning your illustration of giving a gift, it seems to me that if a person offers me a gift and I refuse, it profits me nothing other than sensing good will on the part of the other. Yet still the gift was given, it seems to me.

  2. Thank you.

    Gift giving is tricky. If you gave me a gift of $10,000, but I refused to receive it, neither the bank nor the IRS would consider it a gift. From their perspective it was never given.

    Remember that God operates outside of time, so for Him the giving and the receiving are not time bound, as they are for us.

  3. Thank you, Phil, for a thoughtful and thought provoking argument/illustration. I am away from home at this time – overseas on business. There is a certain emptiness in being away from one’s homeland on Independence Day. What a joy to read such a message at just this moment – in the lobby of a hotel in Copenhagen at 3:20 am.

    I would only add to your illustration re justice and the law that man’s law and man’s justice are imperfect. Our Father’s law and justice are perfect.

    Many thanks for this timely gift.

  4. Phil,
    Well said! I have a friend who is struggling with his understanding of free will. I am going to pass this on. I’m sure it will help him! Thanks.


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