Are we free to choose God? A number of verses suggest that we are not:
· No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44, 65; 3:3; ESV)
Why can we not choose God? Is this evidence of the Original Sin of Adam – that as a result of the Fall, we were born as children of wrath with a nature that can only hate and reject the Light? Is this why we cannot come to the Lord?
This is a weighty theological issue. It not only says a lot about humankind, is also says a lot about God. On the one hand, if we were born without the capacity to choose God, then our culpability is either reduced or entirely eliminated. After all, how can we blame people who reject God, when they never had the possibility of doing otherwise? It is like kicking our cat because he cannot speak to us. However, in our case, it is even more than a kick; it is hell.
Even worse, if God punishes us for something we were never able to do – to come to Him – it calls into question His righteousness and love, His very character. This also brings derision upon the Biblical revelation. Skeptics dismiss Christ, saying:
· God will throw us into hell if we do not believe in Him, but it was never possible to believe in Him. Your god is the worst monster ever invented.
Is this an accurate Biblical assessment? I want to argue that it is not. Why then cannot we come to God on our own? Indeed, numerous other verses claim that God had hardened people so that they cannot come. Paul had quoted one such verse from Isaiah 29:10:
· What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” (Romans 11:7-8)
When did God give them a “spirit of stupor?” At birth? Certainly not! Let’s look more closely at the context:
· For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes (the prophets), and covered your heads (the seers)… And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore… the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” (Isaiah 29:10-14)
Israel was blinded, not because the Fall had made humanity blind and at enmity to God, but because of Israel’s sins and rejection of God. In fact, we never encounter one prophetic word against Israel based on the addumption they were born children of wrath.
Paul quoted David next:
· And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.” (Romans 11:9-10)
Once again, in this Messianic Psalm, the hardening of Israel is not attributed to the Fall but to their own sins:
· Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents. For they persecute him whom you have struck down, and they recount the pain of those you have wounded. (Psalm 69:22-26)
Israel could not see because they didn’t want to see. They loved the darkness rather than the light (John 3:19-20). Consequently, they received the very thing they wanted. God merely allowed them to pursue the very thing that they had wanted – to have things their own way. Paul related the same message:
· Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:24-28)
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we find that Israel’s hardening and subsequent inability to come to God as a product of their own sins, and God withdrawing from them:
· “Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears, but hear not. Do you not fear me? declares the LORD. Do you not tremble before me? I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail; though they roar, they cannot pass over it. But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart; they have turned aside and gone away.” (Jeremiah 5:21-23)
Israel’s problem was born out of their own stubbornness. God had given Moses a song to teach to the Israelites. This song was to testify that Israel had been the problem and not their righteous God:
· “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.” (Deuteronomy 32:4-5)
How did Israel become “blemished?” There is never a hint that they were born with a blemish, an adversity towards God. Rather, the blemish was the result of their rejection of God.
We encounter many verses where God claims that He had done everything that He could for Israel, but this was never enough for His people:
· He [God] dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes… What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? (Isaiah 5:2-4)
Israel had often complained against their God. However, they never once complained that God had created them without the ability to choose Him. This indictment never seems to have ever entered into their thinking. Why not? It would have sounded entirely ludicrous to them. Instead, God always asserted that Israel had had absolutely no justification to reject their God:
· “Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine? Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me,” declares the Lord GOD. (Jeremiah 2:21-22; Micah 6:3-4)
Nor did Israel’s Prophets ever suggest that there were mitigating circumstances, that Israel had been birthed with a fatal flaw. Nor are we doing anyone any favors by cutting them this kind of slack.
Well, shouldn’t we be compassionate? Certainly, but not by mitigating our guilt before God! Instead, compassion should arise from these two facts:
· We are no more deserving than others.
· God had mercy on us, and we must have mercy on others.
We all had gone astray, and this didn’t take place before we were born:
· All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
It is we who have actively turned from God, not God from us:
· The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)
To claim that we were His enemies from before birth is to muddy the entire Biblical revelation and to call question to the nature of God, clearly set forth in Scripture.
However, there are verses that seem to suggest that we are born sinners. David had confessed:
· Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5)
This entire Psalm is penitential – David confessing his sins. Therefore, we cannot take it literally that it had been David’s mother who had been the problem, that she had conceived David in sin. Nor should we think that David is making an excuse for himself, claiming that he was a sinner even before he was born – no fault of his own. Rather, David is taking full responsibilities for his sins.
Instead, we should regard this verse as hyperbole. John W., Haley termed it:
· An Oriental hyperbolic way of saying that he had begun to sin at the earliest practicable period. This language is no more to be pressed literally than is Job’s. (Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, Baker House, 1977, 161)
Job had boasted hyperbolically:
· For from my youth the fatherless grew up with me as with a father, and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow. (Job 31:18)
Certainly, Job was not able to provide for the widows while he was still in the womb. Instead, he was saying that, as soon as he was able, he cared for them. We should regard David’s statement similarly and not an endorsement of the notion that we are born sinful.
Here is a similar hyperbole:
· The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies. (Psalm 58:3)
Certainly, they couldn’t speak lies at birth. Instead, this Psalm tells us that the wicked gave indications of their wickedness early on, from the get-go.
In contrast to the idea that we are sinners before birth, Solomon declared:
· See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. (Ecclesiastes 7:29)
Therefore, it is wrong to blame God for our sinfulness. It is we who have sought out our sinful schemes. Instead, James has warned us that we must take full responsibility for our sins:
· Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (James 1:13-14)
God has not coerced us to sin by implanting sinful desires within us before birth. Instead, these are our own sinful desires. We therefore, cannot say, “God (or the Fall) made me do it.”
Instead, it seems that these sinful desires grow within us over time as we harden our hearts to God and become more accountable. Therefore, Israel’s infants were not held accountable for the rebellion at Kadish Barnea:
· And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it. (Deuteronomy 1:39)
No mention of them being guilty of Adam’s sin! This is why Jesus was able to talk about children as exemplars of the Kingdom:
· [Jesus] said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3-4; Luke 18:16-17)
It is hard to understand Jesus’ teachings if we believe that children are guilty of the sin of Adam from before birth and are vessels of condemnation.
Paul also doesn’t give any indication that children had been guilty of Adam’s sin:
· Though they (Esau and Jacob) were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— (Romans 9:11)
Evidently, Paul didn’t regard the children as having sinned with Adam. Nevertheless we do bear the consequences of Adam’s sin. For one thing, we all die (1 Corinthians 15:22).
However, Paul also regarded us as “children of wrath”:
· And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. Ephesians 2:1-3 (ESV)
However, these verses do not claim that we were born “by nature children of wrath.” Instead, the context argues that we were dead in our own “trespasses and sins” in which we “once walked.” We were not dead by virtue of Adam’s sin, but by virtue of our own. Therefore, we became in nature children of wrath.
If, instead, we were birthed “children of wrath,” this would also make Jesus so:
· Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17)
However, Jesus was without sin. This suggests that we too were born without the guilt of Adam’s sin, only its consequences.
Why then are we unable to come to Jesus on our own? This inability does not seem to be the result of the Fall but our own sins, which have hardened our hearts against the Light.
This means that we are as guilty as sin and rightfully deserve the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). It also means that our righteous God is just in His condemnation of those who reject Him (Romans 1:18-20).
Besides, this understanding should enable us to see His free gift of life as what it is – the sheer mercy of God upon those not at all deserving.