Michaelangelo's piece edited by Procopius
Much is made of man's free will, to choose good or evil, to accept God or reject him. The adage, “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”, is still made frequently, at youth rallies, revival meetings and on street corners, with the implication that the hearer needs to make a decision for Jesus in order to lock in the assurance of salvation.
On the surface it seems very orthodox, yet this ‘decision for Christ’ takes the onus for salvation out of God’s hands and into ours. He may want to save us, but what He has accomplished to this end through Jesus can only go so far. It is ultimately up to the actions we have taken or the decisions we have made. Salvation has become completely dependent and reliant on our own abilities and efforts.
Is this right? Are we more able to effect our own salvation than God is? Is salvation that dependent on us? As much as God wants to bring us into salvation, is he completely powerless without our say so? Or worse, does he really only love a few of us?
Following the script
A lot of Church culture these days certainly seems to hinge on our ability to procure salvation. Unless we have spoken specific words, or believed a set of doctrines particular to our chosen denomination, it seems we cannot hope to have the “fullness of the Spirit” or the acceptance of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is up to us to make the right choices, to follow the script.
This has carried over into beliefs around God’s favour. It is up to me to make sure my life is holy, that I am free from sin, that I have weeded out every impurity in my heart in order for God to draw near, for Him to pour out His Spirit on me, for Him to bless me financially, physically and relationally. The Holy Spirit is a dove, resting gently on my shoulder or so I’ve been told. Any impure thought or action on my part disturbs this sensitive spirit, and it flies away, only to return once I’ve repented enough.
God’s unconditional love has become more and more conditional on our performance. Even if we were to believe in His love for unbelieving sinners, that the fullness of his favour was poured out on all mankind through the cross of Christ, it is up to us, once we have heard of and accepted his unconditional love, to work hard to remain in this favour and love.
After receiving the beautiful and unconditional grace of God, we are burdened with a list of requirements and told we need to continually repent, beg forgiveness and feel bad for every commandment we break in real time. These are the conditions that are placed on us in order to remain in God’s love and favour. If we do not do these things, then we are deemed to be backsliding and that our salvation is at risk.
Struggling with an incompetent god
But this idea has never sat well with me. We crucify ourselves through penance and re-penance again and again. Jesus died for our past sins, but he apparently did not have enough forward thinking to die for our future sins. And so the need arises for us to ‘die daily’ so that we don't go crucifying Jesus all over again.
What is it about our ego that strives to make more of our sacrifices than what Jesus accomplished? Is it our actions or God’s love that births righteousness in us? So much has been made of our own free will to bring us to salvation that we have stripped God completely of any notion of having free will of his own.
Creación de Adán By Michelangelo - Public Domain
A battle of wills
Could it be possible that God is free to love all of us, regardless of our decisions, circumstances or backgrounds? Or is his will a slave to our choices? Is he bound to torturing unbelievers in hell because they made the wrong choices in this life? Is that out of His control or is it really the most loving thing He can do with us?
Do our actions force his hand so that he can do nothing but punish us? Do we really have more choice than God over the decisions he makes? Or does Jesus need to twist his arm to even love us in the first place? Is He free to forgive all sin or just the sin of repentant believers or the elect few? Does the cross really mean nothing until we believe in it? Is our belief a more potent spiritual force than Jesus’ sacrifice?
A God who cannot or will not love or forgive unless we or Jesus can otherwise convince him to is a most impotent God indeed. Or else He is not loving at all. Yet this is the god that we have created in our own image. This is the image of God that Jesus showed to be false in his teachings and actions.
The free will of the Lord
What I've come to see through Jesus, is that the Father showed that His free will, His choice, has always been to love us in spite of our continual rejection of Him. His wrath poured out, not on us, but on the separation from Him that exists only from our side of the relationship. His furious love, set on changing our minds about who He is and who We are; on revealing His unquenchable love for us in the face of all our wrath. A love that truly is unconditional, from a God who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. A love that truly sets all the captives free. This is something that I could choose to believe in.
Russell Croft has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft