Do human beings have free wills?
Most people, when asked that question, would probably say, “Yes.” So, when they try to explain why two brothers from Chechnya allegedly perpetrated the Boston Patriots’ Day bombings and killed an MIT police officer, most people would likely say that their behavior was an exercise of their free will.
But under other circumstances, these same people may defend their own poor choices by saying that, in a moment, their free will was overridden by forces beyond our control.
“I know it was wrong for me to say all those cutting things,” they will explain. “But I was having a bad day.”
“I know it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage,” others might say. “But I just got swept away by the moment.”
So, do we have free wills then?
Are we born with the ability to make the right choices in our lives?
Can we choose to walk with God and according to His will?
Article 18 of The Augsburg Confession, one of the basic confessional documents of Lutheran Christianity, summarizes Lutherans’ understanding of what God reveals in the Bible about the human will. The first paragraph says:
Our [Lutheran] churches teach that a person’s will has some freedom to choose civil righteousness and to do such things subject to reason. It has no power, without the Holy Spirit, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness. For [quoting 1 Corinthians 2:14 in the New Testament] the natural person [that is the person born equipped with original sin without a saving relationship with the crucified and risen Jesus Christ] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God...This righteousness is worked in the heart when the Holy Spirit is received through the Word...”Human beings, like say, my imaginary friend Ted, have wills that are free to choose what the Confession calls civil righteousness, the kind of righteousness that causes the world to say that Ted’s a nice guy.
You see, Ted pays his taxes, holds a steady job, has never gotten a traffic ticket or been arrested, takes his family out to dinner once a week, coaches his kids’ baseball and basketball teams, shovels snow and rakes leaves for his neighbors, and gives a generous offering to the church every Sunday. When Ted dies and family and friends gather at the funeral home for the visitation, someone will likely say, “Ted was such a good man. He surely must be in heaven.”
But the people apt to say such things could well be told, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged." Ted’s well-meaning friends would be guilty of judging Ted worthy of eternity because of the outward acts he chose to do. The Bible teaches that you and I are capable of choosing to do those things that elicit the applause of the world, that look good on the outside. But that’s not how God judges us!
As God told Samuel in the Old Testament: “...the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God judges us fit for eternity not on the externals that may wow the world, but on what goes on inside of us: in our hearts, our wills, our minds. And it’s precisely inside of us that we are incapable of fearing God, believing in God, trusting in His grace, or doing what God wills.
We can decide to live with civil righteousness, worldly righteousness. But we cannot decide to live in spiritual righteousness. We are incapable of freely deciding to live as Christians. We are incapable of freely deciding to live according to the will of God.
Saint Paul puts it this way in Romans 7: “For we know that the law [of God] is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin...nothing good dwells within me...I can will what is right [that is, I can want to joyously and happily do the right thing because I want to do the right thing], but I cannot do it...”
And the prophet Isaiah spoke for the whole human race, even exemplary guys like Ted, when he wrote: “...we are all like an unclean thing, and our righteousnesses are like filthy rags...our iniquities [our sins] have taken us away.”
It’s this reality that we can only choose an external, worldly righteousness, but are incapable of choosing, much less living, with a spiritual, internal, eternal righteousness that causes you and me as Lutherans to confess each Sunday, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves."
So, what hope do we have?
Please turn to John 15:1-5. Jesus is speaking to the disciples in the upper room on the night of His arrest. He begins: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.”
These words come a few short verses after Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
And after He says in John 10:30, “I and My Father are one.”
Here, in John 15:1, Jesus is expanding on the claims He has made about Himself earlier: He is God. He is one Person of the Trinity. And He is the vine, the new life of God invading a world dying in its sin. God the Father is the vinedresser, the One Who tends and nurtures this vine, which is the body of Christ in the world.
Look at John 15:2. Jesus says: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He [the Father] takes away and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear fruit.”
This is an amazing verse! Consider three things it tells us.
First: Everyone who believes that Jesus has died and risen to give forgiveness of sins and everlasting life to them is a branch of Christ, drawing new life and forgiveness of sins from Christ.
When we are connected to Jesus, God does the works of true spiritual righteousness through us, not because, like Ted, we’re good guys or good women, but because the goodness and life of Christ surges through the lives of those who humbly submit to Christ as their God and Savior.
Usually this will happen without our being aware of it or self-conscious about it. Many of you as followers of Jesus can probably remember times when someone has told you that that thing you did or that thing you said, something you don’t even remember doing or saying, was what shored up their faith in Christ or brought the truth of Christ to them clearly for the first time.
Many of you have heard me talk about my friend Sig, a committed Lutheran Christian man who, along with his wife, was involved in Christ Renews His Parish and marriage enrichment weekends, helping people to bring their lives and marriages under the renewing grace and love of Christ. Sig worked for a major company in the Cincinnati area. So was a man I’ll call Bob, who joined my former parish shortly after it got off the ground. During a conversation with Bob, I just happened to mention Sig and Bob told me, “Sig was a huge influence on me. I wanted to have Christ in my life the way I saw Sig did.” Though they worked for the same company, they were at different facilities, and they had only met a few times years before. Yet Sig's faith had made an indelible imprint on Bob. The next time I saw Sig, I mentioned what Bob had said. Sig was puzzled: He could barely remember meeting Bob and told me that he had no idea what he might have done to influence Bob for Christ so positively.
When you’re connected to the vine, you don’t usually think about the righteous things you do or even that what you do is righteous. Those deeds will be the simple, wonderful byproducts of staying connected to Jesus.
Second in John 15:2, Jesus says that, as we remain connected to Him, God will sometimes prune us. I don't know about you, but getting pruned is not something I particularly want God to do to me. The word in the original Greek in which John wrote his Gospel, katharizo, literally means cleanse. It's the root word for English ones, catharsis and cathartic, words often used of experiences, confessions, or conversations that cleanse our emotions or our psyches. Jesus is telling us that as we daily repent for our sin and surrender again to Christ, God cleanses us of sins committed, clarifies our thinking, purifies our living.
Sometimes, this will be extremely painful as God incites and empowers us to turn our backs on things we want to do. God replaces our corrupted, enslaved will with the will of a child of God living under the will and in the freedom of His grace! A man I know, an alcoholic, once told me of how painful it was for him to realize that he would have to give up beer for the rest of his life. There’s nothing inherently wrong with beer, of course. But as a person who suffered from an addiction, he knew that he would be ceding control of his life to the devil, the world, and his sinful self if he ever took another drink. Daily, he had to seek the power of God to make the right or righteous choice he could not make on his own. He had to submit to God’s pruning in order to stay connected to Jesus.
Finally, in John 15:2, Jesus says that God will lop off those branches that have given up on their connection to Christ. Those who refuse God’s grace won’t have God’s grace forced on them.
Now look at John 15:3. Here, Jesus, speaking to believers in Him, like you and me, says: “You already are clean [the word here is katharoi, the adjective form of that word that can be translated also as pruned] because of the word which I have spoken to you.”
The Word about Jesus, God-enfleshed Who loves sinners so much that He shared the death for sin they deserve (that we deserve) and rose from the dead as a sign that He conquers sin, death, and the devil for all who believe in Him, this Word, creates faith in those who listen. As Romans 10:17 puts it: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”
We can’t be saved by good works, by exercising that part of our will that’s free to do works that are pleasing to the world.
But we can be saved as we welcome into our lives God’s Word and the truth of God’s decision to die for us, to rise for us, and to count our faith in Him as righteousness, cleanses us from sin and makes us new!
Folks, that is very good news!
Our salvation and our eternal relationship with God does not depend on the good works we decide to do. These things depend entirely on the grace of God given in Jesus Christ and on the faith in Christ that the Holy Spirit creates in the lives of those willing to receive and abide in Jesus Christ, the true vine!
That’s why Jesus says what He does next in John 15:4-5: “Abide in Me [stay connected to Me, keep listening to Me, keep reading My Word, keep receiving My Sacraments, keep worshiping with like-minded believers in Christ, keep praying] and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”
Do human beings--you and I--have free wills?
The Bible and the Lutheran Confessions say we have free will when it comes to the decisions we make that relate to the kingdoms of this world--to pay our taxes, to be polite, to obey the speed laws, to obey our parents.
But we are completely lacking in free will when it comes to things of God’s kingdom.
Only God can cause us to willingly be sacrificial in loving others, joyful in giving to others, focused on God and not ourselves.
We can clean up our acts, but we can’t clean up our minds and hearts and wills, the places where sin starts, the places that God judges.
Only Christ and the Word about His death and resurrection and the new life He offers to those who believe in Him, can truly clean us up, from the inside out.
That’s why, like David in Psalm 51, we might well pray each day: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
God has come into the world in Jesus Christ so that whenever anyone who humbly trusts in Christ prays that prayer, God will answer it positively.
You see it’s God’s delight and it's God's will to give forgiveness, a purposeful life, and eternity with Him to all who humbly confess their inability to make themselves clean and ask that instead, their lives, their decisions, their wills are washed in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus, Who takes away sin.
God loves to answer that prayer, day after day till we see Him face to face! Amen