In my entry "Letter to the Romans, part 1," I made it my goal to stick to Romans 1-7 as an outline for my essay. Romans 7 is a nice endpoint, but I am compelled to continue because the next two chapters are so controversial. In part 2, I will be focusing exclusively on those two chapters. I will do my best to explain what Paul is talking about, but if I am completely honest, I think I should let you know that there is still much disagreement among scholars on this matter. This interpretation is entirely my own and, in my opinion, it reconciles the existing disagreement.
So what makes a Christian a Christian? If Jesus died for everyone's sins and sinning apparently has no influence on our standing in God's eyes, it should seem like I've defined "Christian" to be the current state of humanity, not a religion you can choose to be a part of. Is there anything you can actually do to become a Christian? This is the central focus in "Part 2" of this study.
First of all, the Bible is pretty clear that one's reaction to what Christ has done is imperative. (Romans 10:9) (In fact, I would even argue that the Bible says if there is even one thing that is "unforgivable", it would be the rejection of this gift.) we know (by empirical evidence, as well as scriptural support) that there are people who have accepted grace and people who have rejected it. It is then safe to conclude that while Jesus enables everyone to receive the gift, not everyone does. Therefore, while the label is often abused, it is reasonable to say one person is a Christian and another is not. It is reasonable, but whether or not humans can responsibly utilize labels is another question. The question we will focus on is: "How is God's righteousness upheld in a world like this, where some people will accept Christ and billions of others won't?" To me, this is the same question as "How can God let people go to hell?" (Although the second question is often asked with as much fascination in hell as in God. With good reason too, as hell is another neglected topic.)
Paul addresses this in his letter to the Romans and unfortunately, his explanation gets very little attention in church. I myself have never heard a sermon, neither in person nor recording, nor participated in a church-affiliated Bible study that addresses the idea Paul introduces in Romans 8. I have found resources online, but there is a lot of disagreement. In fact, this issue is how I learned about Calvinism and Arminianism. (These ideas are taught in seminary school, just not - apparently - in church.) The disagreement stems from the meaning of "predestination".
I am arguing that if God exists and if He is just, God both completely predetermines everything while we have complete free will. It cannot be strictly one, but both. Of course, this is contradictory. When faced with difficult Biblical ideas, whether on the issue of free will or otherwise, I am accustomed to hearing, "there are some things only God can understand." Though I believe that is true, it still gets to me. I want to understand it and I would like even more to be able to provide a reasonable explanation when others ask me questions. Personally, I can't stand having to tell others that there are some things only God can understand. So for this particular conundrum, I put some thought into it and came up with my own little parable.
Imagine a universe where there are 100 people who have complete free will. This universe has its own god, but he is one that watches as an outsider. There's no predestination, no fate. Complete. Free. Will.
This god sees how the people live their lives and, after careful observation, he observes there are 30 people who, for whatever reason, are living in such a way that they would make good followers of him.
In an unprecedented move, this god steps into the imaginary universe. He gathers the 100 people, outlines what he has to offer to those who follow him, and announces, "I'm looking for anyone who is willing to bend their will to my own by following me."
As predicted, 70 of the 100 people say "No way. I want to keep my free will - no god for me." 30 people say: "Sure, god-guy. I will put your will above my own." The god says, "Glad to hear it, because I would have picked you 30 anyway."
One of the 30 is perturbed by this. He says, "If you were going to pick us, are we really choosing?"
The god says, "Yes, I simply foreknew you would choose before I called you."
The man says, "What if I decide to change my mind?"
And the god says, "Then go ahead and change it. You have free will."
Now here is the problem: If the guy changes his mind, he upsets the plan of his god, right? If he leaves, there will only be 29, not 30 as was predicted. But what is the cost to himself? Whatever this god is offering, if he leaves, he gives that up. Does this man really gain just from proving his point that he had free will? He must make his decision based on his values. If he values his free will more, then on principle he will leave to prove a point. But if he values whatever this god is, he will concede that he doesn't really care about his free will enough to not accept what this god is offering. Therefore, the god of our fictional universe doesn't need to know what this person will choose before he calls him, he only needs to know this person's values.
I can imagine our God's relationship with free will to be something akin to this imaginary universe, but the analogy isn't complete. To extend the analogy, consider this fictional universe not as a universe in itself, but for what it really is: a story written by me. I am the one who wrote 100 people into existence and decided that 70 would be the number to reject and 30 the number to accept. I wrote the free will into existence and I even wrote "myself" into the story. I observed and foreknew. I predestined. Ultimately, it isn't a story about these 100 people, it is a story about my intervention. Yet, it doesn't change the fact that the characters in the story had free will. Within their context, their free will was absolute. Within my context, their "free will" was entirely contrived. I am on a higher plane of reality.
This is how I make sense of the matter of free will. I accept the idea that God is so much more real than me that my free will -which is indeed real - is beneath his reality.
Is there anything you can do to become a Christian, in light of predestination?
First, to use the book analogy, even if the ending is written, we ourselves cannot "read" it. If we could read it, there would certainly be no hope, but because we cannot, we are free to act on our free will and free to hope for what is to come. (Romans 8:22-25)
But even while we have free will, we know the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf, so that we are not completely on our own, left to navigate circumstances that were thrust upon us beyond our control. (Romans 8:26-27)
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. Romans 8:28-30
In Paul's letter to the Romans, he cites God's predetermined justification as a source of comfort, saying "if God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31) And also,
"I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God". Romans 8:38-39
This is indeed comforting (and often quoted) to the Christian, but in today's world, to the critic it sounds like God is exclusive. Initially, Paul is pretty unapologetic about it too, saying,
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? Romans 9:19-21
For a moment, it really sounds like Paul is reinforcing the illustration of the "programmed robots" in the world of no free will. But then Paul makes a comparison to something Moses wrote conceding Jewish law. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses tells the Jews that their law (means of righteousness) is very straight forward and easy to understand. He says it isn't like you have to ascend into heaven or cross an ocean to figure out what God wants from you. Rather, it is very near : in their hearts and mouths. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) Paul uses nearly the same terminology to explain what righteousness by faith is. For his audience, there is no way the reference to Deuteronomy would be missed, but he makes a minor change: in stead of putting it in terms of ascending to heaven or crossing an ocean, he says righteousness by faith isn't about asking who should "ascend into heaven" or "descend into the abyss". Rather, righteousness by faith, like the law of Moses, is in their hearts and mouths. (Romans 10:5-8) This is profound. Paul spent the last two chapters hammering predestination only to say that we shouldn't be asking who is going to heaven or hell, but that we still have a choice in the matter:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9
What must you do to be a Christian? You must believe there is nothing you've done and nothing you can do. (Romans 9:30-33) The result of the admission is paradoxical. Christians don't live a certain way because it is what we have to do, (Romans 12:9-21) we live a certain way because it's what we don't have to do. Such is the nature of the freedom that comes with a new life in Jesus Christ. We give out of the abundance that comes from what Christ gave to us. (Romans 12:1-2, Romans 15:5-7)