Being Free. Did Jesus Believe in Free-Will?

*After you read the post below come back and read this one which dovetails and elaborates further in an even thicker theological way.

Freedom, a concept that has assailed philosophers, theologians, and just everyday people in its various contexts of understanding and engagement. In this post I want to riff on that concept as we receive it in the dominical teaching of Jesus and the Apostolic teaching of Paul (remember this is a blog post, and thus is off the top and reflective in nature).

31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. 38 I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”

39 They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus *said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. 40 But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. 41 You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. 43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me.46 Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me?47 He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.”[1]

A few observations:

1) This is one reason I am Reformed, theologically. Jesus’ teaching and thought is underwritten by a strong commitment to what some have called total depravity, and he believes it extent and reach is so deep that it blinds even religious people so deeply that it aligns them with the disobedience and revelry of the devil to the point that this alignment becomes conflated with doing the work of God (so the Pharisees and all religious people, including all of us).

2) For these religious zealots they couldn’t understand how Jesus could assert that they were enslaved; after all they were the religious elite, the theological supermen, and they had the Torah, the Law of Yahweh, which historically they believed in and of itself made them righteous over against those who did not have Torah (the Gentiles) who were the sinners enslaved by their passions and desires.

3) But Jesus understood something that the religious establishment of his day did not; he understood that what God was looking at was the heart, and the need for it to be circumcised, the need for it to replaced with his soft heart of flesh (cf. Ez. 36:24ff; II Cor. 3:1ff). He understood that they were just as enslaved as the Gentile sinners among them, and that they were enslaved to the devil as much as anyone else.

Theological Reflection

This is the riff part I mentioned in my opening. Jesus thinks of ‘freedom’ not in the sense of deliberative libertarian free agency (which underwrites so much of what it means to be a person in our individualistic Western contexts); Jesus thinks of freedom as for God, as for his Father. There is only one conception of freedom when we come to Jesus, it really has nothing to do with the frequent conversations we encounter in regard to free-will. There is no such thing as “free-will” except in God’s life of freedom; he is the only free-will around. In order for us to be truly free, we need to find that freedom by being in union with and participating in God’s triune life through Christ. This is what Jesus understood (and what the Apostle Paul understood in Romans 6, which we’ll have to address later); he wasn’t really all that concerned about establishing a place for human beings in an individualistic sense, as if they could be “human” in abstraction or annexed from the life of God. Indeed, Jesus’ life itself bears witness to this fact; in order to be truly human, according to Jesus, means that God and humanity are hypostatically united; it means that humanity is living in right relationship with God by grace. This is where and how the Pharisees could be ‘free indeed’ and it is how we too can be free; free for God, since he alone is freedom in himself, and he has graciously and freely chosen to be with us and not against us, in Christ. Amen.

[1] NASB, John 8.31-47.

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for addressing this topic, Bobby.
    The concept of free will seems to turn up fairly frequently these days, and I guess a lot of people feel it is necessary for us to be free agents if God is to be completely just in judging us.
    But I’ve never felt comfortable with accepting it when scripture is pretty clear about what our choices tend to look like when we choose to do what is “natural”.

    I especially appreciate that you went directly to Jesus’ own words rather than try to emotionally or rationally proof-text your way around the issue.

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  2. While I’m certainly not opposed to this conception of human freedom and indeed find it promising, I feel that the question it sidesteps–is the human will completely determined or not?–still needs addressing, and in a way that is still a question which can fall under “free will.”

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  3. If us Barthian types were into dancing they might call our dance side-steppin’.

    But seriously, no I don’t think it side-steps the question I think it places the discussion in a properly order dogmatic frame starting with God and working into a theo-anthroplogy. It just doesn’t privilege the category of free-will to be determinative of the discussion in a kind of philosophical way. What I am describing I believe sets things up so that genuine Christian theological consideration can be given rather than doing philosophy of religion analytics and imposing that on this discussion.

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