Monday, November 10, 2008

Can't or Won't? Is there a Difference?

It’s an interesting question. In the book it makes a vivid point. The Christian and the other man are driving together. The other man believes in a God, rather because it was undeniable. But he hasn’t trusted Jesus for salvation because he’s not sure he likes God. After all, there is suffering in the world, and God could have stopped it.

“The time is now…” says the Christian, referring to accepting God’s grace through Jesus’ death on the cross.

“I know, I know.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“I can’t; I just can’t.”

The Christian uses one of those pushy phrases, “Can’t or won’t?”

And the conversation concludes with the non-Christian asking, “Is there a difference?”

(adapted from a book by Joel Rosenberg, but I really don’t want to give anything away, so I did leave out a lot. You should read his books. Latest review coming later this week.)

That question sums up the thoughts I’ve been thinking for weeks now. Can’t or won’t; is there a difference? Christians have been debating this for centuries. I believe there is much more biblical evidence for an answer of “No, there is no practical difference.” If you won’t trust Jesus, it’s because you can’t. We humans are born completely without strength (Romans 5:6), utterly without righteousness. Calvinists call this Total Depravity. So how does anyone choose Christ? He chooses them first, and gifts them with faith. That’s what I believe, and it’s a topic pretty rampant in the New Testament.

But there are those verses that don’t seem to fit, and I’ve been wondering if interpreting them away is fair. Sometimes I believe the verses that initially seem contrary, in context and the original languages, actually say just the opposite of the meaning we get by just reading them. Take James. If you pull any one verse out of that book of the Bible, and try to build a doctrine on it, you’ve got a mess on your hands. But if you read the book as a whole, one long argument with both sides of a balance, you get the idea that James knew exactly what he was saying. He just didn’t have to go over all the doctrines of justification by faith alone, because they were already there, already “givens” in his proof. I had an experience like that on Sunday as I taught our ladies Sunday school class. We’re in the middle of a series, and I cannot possibly re-teach the four previous lessons just to build one more point. I have to summarize the lessons before and move from there. This is a point made in the ever-fascinating Hebrews 6. We can’t keep reviewing the basic doctrines.

Can’t or won’t? Some people say it’s the other way, that because we won’t, we can’t. God’s foreknowledge saw that we wouldn’t, so He left us helpless so we couldn’t. I think this is rather illogical. There’s no cause. The question abides: if some won’t, why do some will?

Can or will? When people talk about free will, what do they mean? Is there a different kind of will, one that isn’t free? What does will mean? I see it as the ability to choose. If you have a will, you can make a decision. Is it possible there are wills that will always make the right decision? Are we saying that Jesus didn’t have free will here on earth? Is it possible that there are wills always making wrong decisions? Or could we explain human nature as will-enslavement to sin and evil? “There is none righteous, no, not one.” I believe this is taught in Ephesians 2. (Read it in Greek; it’s ten times better!)

In that chapter, we are told that before salvation, we humans were incapable of doing anything without the empowerment of the devil. After salvation we were made alive through the empowerment of God. But we now seem to have the ability (can) to move on our own. This movement and will and choice can lead us into service of the devil again (Romans 6 and 7) though not empowered by him, or into submission to God, whose power through us produces good works. Why did God leave us with that choice? And are those choices, as quickened spirits, matters of true free will? Doesn’t God still have control? Is it true that we could have chosen the right thing when we as Christians chose the wrong? If so, why didn’t we? If not, why can’t we?

What I’m coming to is a place where there are questions either way. Right now I don’t have answers. I still believe that God is sovereign, that predestination is true, and that God chose (elected) those whom He would save. The details? Why did God let the first humans sin and how did they decide to sin and is God responsible for allowing sin and death into the world? Is God in control of our choices now? Does God ordain my sin and rebellion? Does He ordain the rebellion of nations? Does He want to have rebels so He can punish them? Does He want to have rebels so that His forgiveness can be demonstrated? I don’t have answers to these. Some days I think that I know. Other days I’m in doubt. Most days I’ll argue strongly for complete sovereignty and predestination of every event, choice, and inclination – whether I believe it or not.

And all these things are difficult to express, to write down or even to talk about. I run circles around the main questions, hoping to stab in and pierce through to the core truth. Almost any question in life can be brought back to the issue of predestination. Just now I can’t say what I believe.

Can’t or won’t? I’m pretty sure it’s can’t. I can’t tell you facts I haven’t discovered, or conclusions I haven’t reached. At least that’s settled.

To God be all glory.

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