Are We Forced To Be Obedient or Disobedient?
(Part of the "Predestination vs. Free-Will" series)
Does God cause us to be obedient or disobedient?
If you believe in predestination – that God has predetermined that some people will go to heaven but that most people will go to hell and there is nothing they can do to get to heaven – then you have to say that God ultimately causes us to either be obedient or disobedient.
But I strongly believe that we have the responsibility to decide if we will obey or disobey. And I think the whole Bible attests to this, from the Fall . . . to the fact that God lays out “the blessings path” and “the curses path” for the Israelites to choose between . . . to the many calls to “obey” and “choose whom we will serve.”
I strongly believe that God allows people to choose to do things His way or to disobey and rebel. He does not cause us to be one way or the other, but He can and does use our obedience and our disobedience for His purposes, though He is not responsible for it. He can use someone who willingly listens to Him and obeys. And He can use someone who is unwilling to listen and obey.
Consider for a moment Isaiah 10 as an example. In verse 5, God calls Assyria the “rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!” And God uses Assyria to punish His people who have turned to idols. And then in verse 12, He says that when it is finished, He will punish Assyria for their haughtiness and pride.
I used to struggle with this idea, thinking that God caused a nation to attack Israel, and then He turned around and punished them for attacking His people. But as I have studied this issue more and God’s character more, I have come to see it as more about “using them as they are” than about “causing them to be who they are.” I think it’s not that He caused Assyria to be a certain way or forced them to do what they did. It’s that He used them as they were for His purposes.
He looked ahead (I say "looked ahead" but He is actually outside of time) and knew what that country was going to be like, and He saw how they could be used to accomplish His purposes. And so He took them as they were (not forcing them to be the way they were) and worked it into His plan to discipline Jerusalem. And then, since the Assyrians were responsible for the way they were, for the kind of people and nation they had become, God could rightly punish them after He had used them to accomplish His purposes.
Imagine, as an imperfect illustration, an undercover sting by police. Let’s say that they need to get Big Man X. And they know the best way to get Big Man X is to use Little Man Y, his crummy toady. And so they work out a plan that uses Little Man Y to lead them to Big Man X, though Little Man Y is unaware that he is being used to mete out justice. And when the plan works, they arrest Big Man X and Little Man Y.
Now, they didn’t cause Little Man Y to be the way he was. They didn’t force him to be a criminal and do illegal things. They just used what he was to their advantage and to administer justice. And so he could be fairly punished after being used to catch Big Man X. This, to me, seems to be the best way to view it because it factors in God’s justness and sovereignty ... and our free-will.
The point is, God doesn’t create us to be (or cause us to be) obedient or disobedient. He lets us choose to follow Him or to go our own way. But He can and does use us as we are and use our choices to accomplish His purposes.
A few other verses to show that we are responsible for whether we obey or disobey (and that God responds to us according to our choice):
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and foolish hearts were darkened . . . Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts . . .” (Romans 1:21-24) Because they chose not to acknowledge or glorify God, their hearts were darkened and He “gave them over” to their sinfulness. It all started when they chose to ignore the truth about God.
“Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. . . . For this reason, they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: ‘He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts . . .’” (John 12:37-40) God did not just decide to harden their hearts for no reason. They had a chance – the best chance – to believe in Him, and they did not. “They would not” led to “they could not.” It’s not that they didn’t believe because God hardened their hearts; it’s that God hardened their hearts because they did not believe. They chose to reject Jesus, and God gave them what they wanted. (But when you turn to God, He takes the veil away so that you can see Him more clearly - 2 Corinthians 3:16. First you turn, then He unveils.)
"But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. 'When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,' says the Lord Almighty." (Zechariah 7:11-13) This is consistent with the rest of Scripture. We choose to listen to the Lord or to resist the Lord. And He responds accordingly. Besides, why would the Lord be "very angry" with them if He caused them to resist Him?
“But my children rebelled against me: They did not follow my decrees, they were not careful to keep my laws – although the man who obeys them will live by them – and they desecrated my Sabbaths. So I said I would pour out my wrath on them and spend my anger against them in the desert . . . I let them become defiled through their gifts – the sacrifice of every firstborn – that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 20:21, 25) Notice here that first the people rebelled . . . then God lets them become defiled. He does not force them to become defiled or compel them to disobey. They chose to be that way. And God lets them be the people they want to be – those who would willingly sacrifice their children - so that they could become filled with horror at the kind of people they became.
John 7:17: “If anyone chooses to do God’s will. . .” Once again, there is a human choice and responsibility about whether or not we do God’s will, whether or not we will obey Him.
The more I read the Bible and seek to understand God's character and how He interacts with people, the less predestination makes sense (and the more wicked Calvinism becomes!) and the more I see how God places the responsibility on us to choose to obey/follow Him and how He gives everyone that chance. And the more I see how just and fair and loving He is.
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