What the Bible says about
Free Moral Agency
(From Forerunner Commentary)
At the very beginning of the Book, God tells us what He is doing. His project, His work, began with the formation of man as a physical being in the bodily form of God, and it will not end until mankind is in the nature and character image of God.
To accomplish this, God gave men free moral agency to enable us to choose to follow His way and assist in the development of His image in us, since we cannot be in His image unless we voluntarily choose to do so. Then the character is truly ours, as well as being truly His, because it is inscribed in us as a result of what we have believed and experienced.
God is not merely eternal. He is supreme in every quality of goodness, and in Him absolutely no evil dwells. In the Bible, this goodness is called holiness, which is transcendent purity. It permeates every aspect, every attribute, of God-life. God's character is holy, and it flows out from Him in acts of love, making it impossible for Him to do anything evil. This is the state towards which He is drawing us.
Law must be seen in this context. If we tear law from the context of God's purpose, then we can come up with anything we want to say about law. We can say, "Oh, it is all done away," or "We do not need to do this." However, we cannot tear it away from the purpose of God, and there is a reason for this.
Does God abide by law? The creation screams at us that He does! Everything He creates operates by law, and it does so because it came from His wonderfully orderly and organized mind. It is a reflection of what His mind is like because this is the way He is. He is a law-abiding God.
However, we cannot see Him - not literally, with our eyes. It is here that faith enters the picture: We can see evidence of Him, and we can believe what He says. His law outlines the way that He lives. It is the way of this holy, law-abiding God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part Twenty)
God makes some people very difficult to deal with. "And the Lord said to Moses, 'When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go'" (Exodus 4:21). It was not mere happenstance that this Pharaoh was particularly hardheaded, nor was he merely reacting to circumstance. God caused him to be intractable. God did a similar thing to Ezekiel before Israel:
Behold, I have made your face strong against their faces, and your forehead strong against their foreheads. Like adamant stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not be afraid of them, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 3:8-9)
If God will do this for one of His servants, a prophet, why can He not do it to Pharaoh, who, though an enemy of His people, is also serving God's purpose?
Exodus says Pharaoh hardened his heart nineteen times, and of that total, ten say God hardened Pharaoh's heart and nine that Pharaoh hardened it. This shows a balance. Undoubtedly, Pharaoh had a proclivity toward stubbornness, but God helped him along whenever necessary.
This suggests that on occasion God will disregard free moral agency to suit the purpose He is working out. If life and our destiny to be in the Kingdom of God is all a matter of free moral agency, then free moral agency is supreme God, not the Creator God. But it is true, the Potter has power over the clay to do with it as He pleases (Romans 9:21). Ultimately, God's power of choice trumps man's.
This is further underscored on other occasions revealed in the Exodus events. The sovereign God's power, when combined with Pharaoh's God-aided stubbornness, produced a calamity of monumental proportions for Egypt and glory for the eternal God. God says in Exodus 7:3-5:
And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.
He was producing yet more because He makes a similar statement in Exodus 14:4, as Israel was about to be confronted with crossing the Red Sea with Pharaoh's army not far behind: "'Then I will harden Pharaoh's heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord.' And they did so."
Where was the Egyptians' free moral agency throughout this entire affair? The Egyptians who died—in many cases, violent deaths during the destruction of Egypt's power—had little or no choice in the matter. In addition, they came to comprehend God's power only for a brief period of time, which did them no good and brought Him precious little honor. He may have received honor in the form of terror, and little or none in the form of grateful appreciation, admiration, and obedience from them. God, however, has a longer-range view: The time is coming when they will remember and give true honor to Him in thankfulness.
John W. Ritenbaugh
God's Sovereignty and the Church's Condition (Part Two)
When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them a law for community relationships. Did He say, "All of My commandments you must keep—except for one"?
The Sabbath is not a minor ceremonial regulation that rarely affects man's relationship with God. It is one of the major Ten Commandments, the laws that spell out God's character, defining love and sin for us. This is why James explained that the law is a package (James 2:10); if you break one law, you break them all. Once the package is broken up, it loses its effectiveness.
The fourth commandment is especially important in keeping the other nine. In Ezekiel 20:7-8, 12-13, God specifies two specific commandments that Israel broke: the ones concerning idolatry and Sabbath-keeping. They are linked: If one does not keep the Sabbath, he will commit idolatry.
In one sense, these are the two key commandments around which all the others revolve. If we break the first one, we will certainly break the rest. If our god is not God, then we are off the track already. In the same way, if we break the Sabbath day, then the others will be broken. Without the Sabbath, contact with God is lost.
God has called a meeting of His Kingdom and Family to occur on that day. If we fail to attend, we are obviously absent and unable to benefit from it. For God to command something that we do not really have to keep would not be beneficial. It would be double-dealing, like handing someone a biscuit with one hand and taking it back with the other.
People observe the practices of their religion because they matter to them. Yet, we have been told that one can be a Christian without keeping this beneficial day. Some people claim that it does not matter. If, then, we can meet the requirements of being a Christian without keeping the Sabbath, a law that does not fit the flow of this world's social, business, and religious activities, then why keep it? That would not make sense.
What has happened? They have bought into the Protestant notion that God is only trying to save people, and that His law only defines sin. Such a belief has ramifications: The law will be seen in a totally negative light, rather than God's intended positive purpose. Law not only defines sin, but also provides a guide that will produce character in us identical to the Creator's, if we live by the power of His Spirit.
Our small part in this entire wonderful purpose is not merely to say, "I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior," but it is to use our God-given free moral agency to make the right choices in order to do our small part in producing godly attitudes and character.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 1)
God Almighty has given man the power to make choices regarding his ultimate destiny. As a free moral agent, man has the awesome responsibility to choose between a hapless, physio-chemical existence with a dead end or a rich and rewarding eternity as a member of God's Family. Though the choice appears easy, the challenging road to the Kingdom of God dismays many because they are unwilling to undergo the rigors of the journey.
God has set before us the choice to obey or disobey, hoping we will choose obedience and giving us reasons and promises that persuade us to that end, but He wants us to make sure that it is our intention, without coercion or brainwashing on His part. It takes a free moral agent, making the right choices, to create the mind of Christ in us. Though He has a good idea how we will choose, God ultimately does not know what we will decide when given the choice. He will do all He can—short of rescinding our freedom to choose—to convince us to choose Him.
David F. Maas
Fasting: Building Spiritual Muscle
2 Chronicles 20:3-6
Is God really actively ruling His creation? His sovereignty over His creation is something we frequently take for granted. This presents a potentially serious problem because it results in our failing to think through His sovereignty's practical aspects to our personal situations. Thus, we greatly discount His involvement in our lives and His willingness to intervene for those who live by faith, indicating we are really living by sight (II Corinthians 5:7).
Far too many of us have unknowingly bought into the thinking of materialistic science and atheistic philosophy, which have ushered God right out of His creation by teaching that impersonal laws regulate everything. Impersonal laws exist, but they do not regulate everything. We can choose between that approach or what Jehoshaphat says in his appeal for direct intervention for Judah's deliverance. If what is now part of Holy Scripture is not true, we may as well throw the Bible away because it cannot be trusted. God rules, not impersonal laws that merely react.
Besides overseeing the affairs of nations, the Creator and Ruler of the universe is directly and personally involved in His people's lives. He does not merely respond to those who trust Him—He creates circumstances and events, and/or He directly intervenes to make things happen. Science and atheistic philosophies have relegated God to nothing more than a distant spectator—a Being who cannot stop men from engaging in dreadful wars even though He longs to do it. Men believe that, since He has endowed humanity with free moral agency, He is obliged to let man make his own choices without interference because interfering would somehow destroy man's moral responsibility. However, this ignores God's own plan and purpose for His creation, so it cannot be a true concept.
If this were true, free moral agency, not God, is supreme. But God is ruling, not man's free moral agency! Notice these verses from just two books of the Bible:
I Chronicles 5:22: "Many fell dead, because the war was God's."
II Chronicles 11:4: "Thus says the LORD: 'You [men of Judah] shall not go up or fight against your brethren! Let every man return to his house, for this thing is from Me.'"
II Chronicles 24:24: "For the army of the Syrians came with a small company of men; but the LORD delivered a very great [Israelite] army into their hand, because they had forsaken the LORD God of their fathers."
This is not to say that God has brought about every war or every scattering or directly intervened to stop every threatened war that was averted during man's history. However, the Bible's record is clear: He acts when the occasion fits His will. God's direct activity regarding His purpose and plans must be considered because His Word declares that He is directly involved in the lives of His people. He makes events happen so He can form and shape His people into His image. God is not a mere spectator viewing our lives.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility: Part Eleven
God is superintending or managing events on this earth. When He wants something done through a man, He interfaces with him. Perhaps without the person even being aware of it, God can insert thoughts into the person's mind to do what He wants him to do.
The event related here is Jeremiah's Seventy Years Prophecy. This verse does not tell us what political, military, social, or economic events God may have manipulated to get Cyrus to consider and finally to choose to issue this edict. It would be beyond belief to think that Cyrus thought of it on his own, out of the blue. Nations act in their national interest. Somehow, Cyrus concluded that it was in the national interest of Medo-Persia to relocate a small portion of the Jews, and he also gave them the opportunity to restore the Temple in Jerusalem. This particular occasion was not unique: Cyrus did this for other peoples that the Medo-Persians had conquered, perhaps to curry the favor of their gods or as a carrot to dissuade them from rebelling.
However it occurred, God inspired it without removing Cyrus' free moral agency. Some modern translations translate the phrase "stirred up the spirit of Cyrus" as "God moved Cyrus' heart."
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Holy Spirit and the Trinity (Part Three)
Verse 10 is essentially saying that God is sovereign, and some things that He has established cannot be changed. Naming a thing is an indication that the thing so named is set. This is why the principles given in John 4:34 and Psalm 16:11 are so important to the converted. Being in God's presence is the overall solution. These statements by Jesus and David give assurance that contentment in life lies within the combination of properly blending the knowledge of God's purpose and deliberately choosing to live according to that purpose within a relationship with our very Creator.
This combination is what makes everything in life matter in a positive way, producing satisfaction and contentment in life. In this three-verse section, Solomon addresses four situations that revolve around not getting much in the way of these qualities from life because people do not give of themselves sufficiently to make the relationship work. Each verse, rather than answering, produces questions that, with a brief explanation, are helpful. If one does not get answers he can accept, then dissatisfaction and discontentment remain.
The questions that arise in these verses are expressions of justification that a converted person might give himself for not zealously throwing himself into the relationship with God. They are for the most part expressions of doubt that linger to support the lack of progress.
Solomon touches on five questions. The first is based in verse 10: “Since what's going to be is going to be, why bother to make decisions? Isn't it all predestined anyway?” This is broadly why some will not really cooperate with God in a relationship. Martin Luther gave this German proverb: “As things have been, so they still are; and as things are so shall they be.” In other words, the proverb is asking if there is anything we actually control. Things are so far from our control, why make an effort?
In this verse, the One “mightier than he” is God. We must firmly accept that God can indeed accomplish His purposes without our cooperation. He does not need us, but He most assuredly loves us! God indeed has “fixed,” that is, named what He will accomplish, but He has also given us free-moral agency.
We must know that the world we live in is not a prison. We are free to evaluate and then choose what our personal world will be, but we are not free to change what the consequences of our actions will be. This is why we should give everything thoughtful consideration. Stepping off the roof of a ten-story building may be our choice, but once we commit ourselves and do it, there is no altering the outcome! The reality is that our choices do make a great deal of difference. Like everything in life, they matter.
The second question is also based in verse 10. Why disagree with God? We cannot oppose Him and win, can we? This question suggests that God's will is difficult, painful to accomplish, and should be avoided at all costs.
Compare this with what Jesus says in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Add to this what He says earlier in His ministry about doing God's will being nourishing and energizing to a Christian (John 4:34). Why would anyone, making a fair analysis by comparing God's way with his self-chosen way and seeing what mankind has produced in this world, rather have his own way rather than God's? That makes no sense whatever!
If God really wanted to make life truly difficult, He would give man absolute freedom. It really builds satisfaction and contentment, right? No, not at all.
Like Job, we must know what our limits are, and one of them is that we do not have the wisdom to out-think and out-talk God. We must truly realize that the more we talk, the emptier our words become, which is exactly what happened to Job. This leads to the fact that humanity must accept that God, as sovereign Creator, is free to act as He sees fit in every situation. Such acceptance will help to produce the contentment that mankind yearns for.
The third question appears to be drawn from Solomon's many words in writing this book, in addition to all the words we might hear in sermons and the like. He asks, “What do we accomplish with all these words? Does talking about it solve the problems?”
Verse 11 in the New International Version reads, “The more words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” Are we not receiving a thorough education in this as we listen to all the convoluted political and economic arguments in recent times? Yet, these are all words of men. The Word of God is exactly what is needed because it is truth! God's truths do not bind people; they free (John 8:32). Satisfaction and contentment are the fruits of truth that is accepted and used. One must listen to God's Word and use it for satisfaction in life.
The fourth question arises from verse 12: “Who knows what is good for us?” This question is directly linked to the previous one. It brings to mind a saying that this same Solomon states twice, in Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
Human history proves that without the knowledge of God, mankind finds himself satanically deceived, drifting forever on a vast sea of human speculations. However, God knows what is good for us, and He is willing to share it with His children. Without the knowledge of God's truth, life remains vanity, meaningless. God's Word says, “He who does the will of God abides forever” (I John 2:17)—in, I might add, satisfaction and contentment.
The fifth question also derives from verse 12: “Does anybody know what is coming next?” This question must be understood within the context of the entire book. It is not talking about small, day-to-day issues, but rather the huge ones that pertain to the overall purpose being worked out on earth. Of course, the answer is that nobody knows perfectly except for God. Everybody else's opinions are largely speculations. If God gave us more specific detail, it might severely damage the vital use of faith. He gives us enough information to keep us looking ahead and to encourage us to be patient and make the best use of the time that He gives us to prepare, because time is valuable.
The proper answer to all of these questions—especially if it is correct that they are self-justifications raised by converted persons due to a lack of growth—lies in one's use of the faith that God has given us to function within the relationship that He has opened to us.
Life is God's gift, and He desires that we spend it involved with Him, using our faith to prepare for an eternal relationship with Him in His Family Kingdom. This will produce the enjoyable satisfaction and contentment in life that He desires for us. Involving Him is the above-the-sun life.
If there is no Kingdom of God, and if no grand purpose is being worked out, then nothing matters except for what is happening at the moment. This mindset is tilted toward either humanism or secularism, and its fruit is the moral and ethical depravity of a Sodom and Gomorrah. Those with this mindset have nothing glorious to prepare for, so why should they deny themselves any pleasure, any excitement, that their minds and bodies desire right now? God's children, however, because they possess the faith, cannot allow themselves to drift into such a destructive mindset.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Seven): Contentment
The prophet Isaiah is saying the same thing in more detail as what Peter says in Acts 3:19: "Repent." That is how the breach, the separation, between God and man will be healed. That is how atonement is made. Atonement is not all something that Christ does. There will never be oneness with God until man does something with his free-moral agency.
The problem in Isaiah 1 is a hypocritical people just going through the motions. They were observing the rituals: burning incense, making the sacrifices. Yet, at the same time, their daily lives were filled with all kinds of unlawful acts—business shenanigans—that, according to God's law, is taking advantage of others. They were lying about the weights and balances, selling shoddy products, and as a rule, not conducting business in an upright way. They were murdering one another's reputations through gossip, and lying to one another using charm and deceit. God is saying that their lives were full of hypocrisy.
In the same way, people who today claim to be children of God, who attend Sabbath services and holy days yet have a heart full of greed, covetousness, anger, hatred, bitterness, envy, and so on, are simply hypocrites.
As it pertains to us, what we see in Isaiah is that there must be a relationship between worshipping God and our character in its practical aspect out on the streets, in our homes, in the way that we conduct business. We might say our character away from church, out of the eyesight of God's people, must reflect what we profess to believe. How can those who treat their fellows with contempt, greed, envy, jealousy, anger, hatred, and revenge, do those things through the week and then come to church services before God, thinking that somehow or another they are not separated from Him? Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-24, "If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." That is quite plain.
Because of all these things, God treated His people Israel in the same way as pagan idols treated their worshippers. Remember, the idols are not alive; they do not have ears that can hear, eyes that can see, or mouths that enable them to speak. So idol worshippers made their lamentations, their prayers, and their praises to their idols, and the idol never responded. God says, "I am going to be just like an idol to you. When you talk to me, I am not going to talk to you, and when you look at me, I am not going to look back at you. I am not going to see you." So in this way, He became as one who is dumb and deaf. He did not respond to their prayers.
It is essential to note that God, in His wisdom, knew before creating mankind that mankind would sin. If there were to be both reconciliation and character building, He would have to provide a means that would not only satisfy the legal requirements, but also contain within it the moral and spiritual influences that would motivate a man to cooperate on his own.
We play a major part in this because God has given us free-moral agency. By and large, the Protestant world has convinced Americans, Canadians, and Western Europeans that Christ did it all for us. It is a bald-faced lie! But sometimes, we who know better act as though it all depended on God. God gave us free-moral agency so that we can respond to Him, put His Word into practice, and exemplify before others what God is like.
It would be nice to say that we live lives like Christ so much that we could say of ourselves what Christ said: "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father" (John 14:9). There is a Person who was really at one with God.
What God is trying to do with the things that He has provided—namely, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of His Holy Spirit—is to motivate man to repent—to change, to turn to God, to resist the desire to continue in sin—to work at building character and learn to live by faith.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Reconciliation and the Day of Atonement
It becomes clear, once we fit this together with II Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6; Revelation 12:3-4,9; and Ezekiel 28:12-14, that God assigned the angels to the earth under their commander, Lucifer (Helel in Hebrew), who was the sum total of all that God could create by fiat in a created being, perfect in his ways until iniquity was found in him. We see a picture of a being of awesome beauty and power, of tremendous intelligence, and like us, a creature of free moral agency.
Something happened to that great being, and he began a campaign of deceit. He began to separate from God a number of the angels, undoubtedly using the reasoning that they should have more, that God should treat them better, that God was being unfair, that they did not have the liberty or the power that was due them. At some point he began to express, "I will be like the Most High."
Some commentators say that the Hebrew says in reality, "Iwill be God," not just like God. We can see what he wanted: complete power, authority, and control. He did not want to be under another; he did not want to be submissive. He did not want another being pulling his strings or controlling him.
He wanted to sit, as it says, on the mount of the congregation. So he decided, "I willmake war. I will ascend into heaven." So the demons left their first estate, the realm of their authority, and they mounted up in war and attacked God. They were soundly defeated and cast down. Their first domain became a place of restraint, literally "a silo," a pit, where they were chained. This suggests that, as a result of their rebellion, they no longer have the liberty that they once had, but are now held in restraint. A great deal of their free moral agency was taken from them.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Satan (Part 1)
It is obvious that He lays the choices—the decisions, the judgments to do these things—not on Satan's shoulders, but on man's—that man should know enough to resist any Satanic impulse to do these things. So, who does God hold responsible for obeying Him? Truly, we learn from Revelation 12:9 that the Devil has deceived the whole world, but when we add these other factors, we find that God holds each person responsible for what he or she has done. He holds Satan responsible for his part, and He holds each person responsible for his or her part. It has to be this way, otherwise what consequence is free moral agency? It would be no consequence at all.
So God, from His position, does not view us as being free from blame because we have been duped by Satan. We can see this in a simple example of God's judgment concerning Adam and Eve. He dispersed a portion of blame to each exactly where it belongs: on all three participants.
This is especially important for us to understand because the Bible is written for those who have made the covenant with God. It is only written indirectly for the world. It is given to those who have had their eyes opened—to those to whom God has revealed Himself. God has put Christians into a position very similar to Adam and Eve's. God revealed Himself to Adam and Eve from the very beginning, and they were in a position where they knew God and could make a choice that others may not have been in the same position to make because they did not have that initial contact with God. However, God has revealed Himself to us, and thus, we are in much the same position as Adam and Eve.
By far, these verses apply to us more directly than they do to anybody in the world. We have to face our responsibility squarely concerning whom we will choose to serve. Will it be the sovereign Lord Creator or Satan, a fallen angel? Who is sovereign in our lives?
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Sovereignty of God (Part One)
An honest evaluation of what Jesus teaches will show that He gives very few rules, if any, for keeping the Sabbath (or for that matter, for anything). There is a reason for that. For one thing, the rules were already laid down in the Old Testament. Also what He came to do was to magnify the spiritual application of that law, that is, teach and expound the spirit of the law, the intention for the law.
There is hardly a law that He paid more attention to than the Sabbath, magnifying its use. There are at least seven different occasions in the four Gospels in which the Sabbath is the issue, when Jesus magnified its use for us. Every one of them has a theme of redemption in it.
What He teaches us are principles for applying the rules that have already been given in the Old Testament. For some of us, that is kind of disconcerting. We would like to have something like a bus or an airline timetable to take us through life in which every possible avenue is detailed as to exactly how we should go, where we should do something, when we should do it in every possible situation that might arise.
God allowed the Jews to try that. They eventually came up with 1,521 rules concerning the Sabbath, which they felt would cover every situation that one might possibly get into. What God is showing us through Jesus Christ is that this is unnecessary. In short, it does not work, or God would have done it. A person is not free when he is bound to those kinds of regulations.
Living in the twentieth century is not quite the same as living in the first or second centuries. Besides, that approach does negative things to a person's character; it produces an extremely narrow, intolerant, and critical casuist. What Christ did in giving us principles is that He gave us things that will last unalterable to the end of time and allow us to be free. They allow a person not always to do exactly the same thing each time. Every situation has to be judged on its own merit.
What does God want to do with our lives? What is He trying to form? He is creating in us an ability—an expertise—to judge. We are going to be kings and priests (Revelation 5:10). What does a king do? A king judges in civil matters, things that pertain to the community. What does a priest do? A priest also judges, but he judges in things spiritual. God is teaching us how to judge.
How we use the Sabbath is an integral part of His training program, and so He has purposely left out all kinds of details. But what He did through Jesus is magnify things so that we can see the intent. What we are seeing is that the intent for the Sabbath is to free. It is to liberate. It is not to bind people with rules.
There is a risk involved in what God is doing. In one sense, it puts a person at very grave risk.Blundering, foolish, and self-centered as we are, there is a grave danger of taking our liberty and turning it into license to do virtually anything we want. Or, on the other hand, to take our liberty and do as the Jews did, becoming so restrictive that we turn the Sabbath into bondage.
But God has to do that! If we are going to become judges, trained in the purpose that He wants, He has to allow us this liberty to make the judgments. So it is a risk that must be taken if a person is going to grow in judgment and character, so one will be prepared to be a king and a priest, knowing when to act and when not to act. God offers to us His Holy Spirit to give us counsel and to guide. But we must apply the principles in the circumstances of our lives.
In no case did Jesus give any indication of doing away with the Sabbath. Always the examples show Him magnifying the Sabbath's intent by doing an act of freeing someone.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part 3)
Jesus Christ's statement limits who can be converted: Only those the Father selects and draws may be converted. Indirectly, the verse intimates that men will not come to Him unless drawn.
Paul adds in Romans 3:11-12, "There is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all gone out of the way; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one." People suppose they are free to choose to seek God at will, but this verse vigorously disputes that notion. Nobody seeks after God!
Jesus reinforces this: "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life" (John 5:39-40). In this instance, they had God in their very midst, and they would not choose to follow Him. He states this even more bluntly in John 15:18: "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you." "Hated" is a strong word!
However, some did choose to follow Him. Notice what Scripture says about them: "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13). This passage clearly says that those who followed Christ did so, not by exercising their wills, but because they were prompted by God's will. Recall Paul's statement in Philippians 2:13, "It is God who works in you both to will and to do. . . ."
The fulfilling of God's twin promises in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:24-28 in our lives makes all the difference in the world concerning the use of the will. By them, we have a new heart as a gift from God - a heart that does not hate God. The proof that the hatred has been removed is that one who has received this benefit consistently uses his will to choose to obey God's will as expressed in His law. The new heart and submission to God's will go hand in hand.
A statement from the apostle Paul helps to put our attitude on the right trajectory: "For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" (I Corinthians 4:7).
What we have received is a gift of grace, unearned in any way. We need to understand that man's free will is free only in that God never compels anybody to sin. The sinner is not free to do either good or evil because his corrupt heart, formed by Satan's dominion, always inclines him to sin. Man is enslaved by that heart, a bondage that can be broken only by God's merciful intervention.
By virtue of God's gift, only the called of God are truly free to exercise their will to choose the good. God's gift does not merely counterbalance the evil heart corrupted by Satan's world, but can thoroughly dominate human nature because God works in us to do His will. Exercising this will that is motivated by a God-given heart will enable us to flee Babylon's evil influence.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Communication and Leaving Babylon (Part Two)
Our calling, our life in Christ, begins when the Father directly interfaces with our mind for the purpose of revealing Himself, His ways, His purpose, His plan, His mind, His attitude, His perspective, His character, His love, His power, His mercy, His forgiveness, and on and on, that we might use our life and free-moral agency to choose life
But most important is that the Father Himself does this. God miraculously joins His own mind to ours! There is nothing mysterious about this at all. He begins to transfer His thoughts, His attitudes, His character—the Spirit of His mind—into our minds. When it tells us, "Grieve not the Spirit of God," he means, "Don't grieve the Father by resisting Him." He is transferring the invisible essence of His mind through the access that we have to Him by means of the death of Jesus Christ. He is by no means kidding about the importance of this process. He is helping us to understand that, even as we are influenced by those around us, unless we are in the presence of God, we will not be influenced by Him. This is why it is so vital for us to share life with Him.
This is where prayer and Bible study become important because we are literally in His presence and He can transfer the essence of His mind into ours. Nobody sees it. When we obey, we are giving Him permission to do this. We submit, using our free moral agency. There is nothing magical about this at all. It occurs when we respond to the influence of the interface that He creates between us when we believe His Word and submit, and when we strengthen the relationship through prayer, Bible study, and meditation.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Holy Spirit and the Trinity (Part One)
Salvation can easily and accurately be described as "being at one with God." As long as we are separated from God, we do not have salvation. When we are "at one" with God, it means that we are becoming like Him, that we are walking along the same path with Him and will be saved.
Jesus Christ's death bridges this impossible situation for us. We can then begin to contribute to being at one with God. What remains yet undone, despite the gap being bridged, is a change in character and in attitude that must be worked in us in order for us to become like God. It takes living God's way for us to become like God. This is why humility is necessary.
We can see from Jesus' prayer and from our own experience (and from the history of man) that mankind is not at one with God, yet that is God's aim. Satan motivated Adam and Eve, and subsequently all the rest of mankind, to separate themselves from God. As long as Satan can keep us separated from Him, salvation is impossible. Satan's thinking, which was passed on to Adam and Eve and then to us, is that we all have the right to set our own standards or codes of right and wrong. He has convinced mankind that they have the same prerogatives and that these Satan-inspired, man-made standards can produce abundant prosperity, good health, peace, and a sense of well-being in our lives.
But they do not, and that is the problem! Humbling oneself means giving up that devilish notion and submitting to what God says. He has given us free moral agency to choose whether to obey His standards and codes, not the freedom to set our own.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Division, Satan, Humility
1 Corinthians 6:12
The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 14:23, “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” This indicates that there is more to Christian living than merely following rules. It is key for a Christian to understand the principles involved in God's laws, not just the letter-of-the-law wording.
Those in the world argue that the law is done away altogether, and believing this, they find numerous gray areas. To support this belief they will use I Corinthians 6:12. However, just a few verses earlier, he seems to say something totally different! Notice verses 9-10:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul does not intend for this list to encompass every sin possible, but he does cover a lot of ground. In addition, he begins verse 9 with “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom,” which casts a wide net. So if fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, the covetous, and drunkards will not enter the Kingdom of God, how then can all things be lawful?
Verse 12, we find, is a poor translation. Paul is paraphrasing what some people were saying—and still say today. Notice that he repeats “all things are lawful for me, but . . .,” following each phrase with an objection. The Contemporary English Version renders verse 12 as, “Some of you say, 'We can do anything we want to.' But I tell you that not everything is good for us. So I refuse to let anything have power over me.” The New International Version is similar: “'I have the right to do anything,' you say—but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything'—but I will not be mastered by anything.” Clearly, Paul is telling us what others have said and giving his response.
We are free-moral agents, in other words. We can make our own decisions. We can sin, if we wish to, but there are consequences. Paul says he refuses to let “anything have power over me.” He implies that he keeps a close watch on his thoughts and actions.
Notice verse 9, again from the Contemporary English Version:
Don't you know that evil people won't have a share in the blessings of God's kingdom? Don't fool yourselves! No one who is immoral or worships idols or is unfaithful in marriage or is a pervert or behaves like a homosexual . . . .
Are there gray areas here? Not to God, but our definition of “evil people” might be different. Certainly “immoral” is open to wide interpretation these days in the world. To “worship idols” can be looked at in different ways. Is “unfaithful in marriage” just an affair or is it more? Each of us knows exactly what these things mean to us, and that is as it should be. We do not need an exhaustive list, or we should not, of all the possibilities of each category. We should know the principle involved.
This is one reason we do not see many lawyers as members of the church. Lawyers are taught to see everything as a gray area. “It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is,” as the lawyer Bill Clinton famously said. It seems that, as we grow in the faith, gray areas disappear, and the line becomes clearer. Satan and his world, on the other hand, are busy blurring the lines, trying to make us feel guilty or prudish if we judge something to be sin and choose not to participate.
I have known ministers who thought they were the town sheriff and had to be in on all decisions in our lives. Others, though, taught the principles involved and left it to church members to make decisions for themselves. Once our teachers have taught us God's way, the burden is on us, not them, to know right from wrong. We must know where the lines are.
Do We See the Line?
1 Corinthians 16:12
Apollos told the apostle, "I am sorry, but I have something more important to do." Does Paul give any indication of being offended, or that Apollos did something wrong?
We have been taught to obey without thinking. That is wrong. In every situation, God wants us to think! It is not wrong even to tell an apostle, "I am sorry, but I feel I have something else to do that is more important at this time." That is not heresy! That is the truth of God. God put this episode in the Book to show us that we are a free moral agent. Sin is not involved in this; it does not concern the law of God. This is simply a circumstance that arose, and there is no indication that Apollos was disrespectful. He merely felt that he had to do something more important at that time—even though an apostle urged him to fill this need for the sake of the church.
John W. Ritenbaugh
What Is the Work?
2 Corinthians 4:4
What does the gospel do? It reveals to us what God's purpose is. We are to grow to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesian 4:13) so that we can inherit the Kingdom of God. However, to do that we need light. God has given us free moral agency. By what guide are we to make choices? What direction are we to head in? What is our creed? What are our standards? Who should we emulate? The gospel reveals those things, giving us the right perception, understanding, judgment, and conduct because the true light, the truth of the gospel, is provided to us.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Truth (Part 3)
Satan subtly persuaded Adam and Eve that by taking the knowledge of good and evil, they would be like gods, and by this he inserted himself as a rival to God for man's loyalty. He implied that they could institute their own ways and standards. However, he concealed from them that he would influence mankind in establishing those ways and standards so that he, the god of this world, would be sovereign and obeyed. The result of this is that those who submit to him are made in the Devil's image, rather than God's.
Satan, eminently successful in his ruse, has been imitated by all mankind. By the time God calls us, we are thoroughly in his image. We are so indoctrinated into his way of life that even by nature we are children of wrath!
Satan cunningly hides something else from Adam and Eve: His brand of freedom to establish standards and to choose creates tremendous diversity and thus a constant and wearying confusion. When vanity enters this mix, the result is divorce in the family, social problems in the community, and on a larger scale, bloody warfare. Mankind has paid a horrible price for wrongly choosing Satan as sovereign.
From His nature of love and wisdom, God pre-determined what is right and beautiful, and He taught Adam and Eve His way of life, instruction now included in His Word. If we want to achieve His purpose and be in His image, unlike our first parents, we must limit our free moral agency to choosing whether to submit to the universal, life-encompassing standards He has already determined.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Sovereignty of God: Part Six
The apostle is urging us, not to work to achieve salvation, but to labor to carry out the responsibilities that the receipt of God's grace has imposed on us (Titus 2:11-15). Christianity is not merely the passive receiving of forgiveness and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We are to carry forward what we have freely received from God to its proper end.
We need to add to this another thought found in Deuteronomy 5:29: "Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" Which of these - the will to carry forward what we have received or the heart - is more important to growth in conversion and leaving Babylon? Which of them is subject to the other? Is the will a self-determining agent, or does something else determine it? Is the will superior to every other faculty of the body? Is it sovereign or servant? Does it govern, or is it subject to the pleasure of other faculties?
Most who consider themselves Christian, believe that, because free moral agency exists, the will is the more significant. Human philosophies also insist that the will governs man. However, this cannot be. To the contrary, the Word of God teaches that the heart or mind is the dominating center of our being.
Consider a circumstance that each of us faces, perhaps many times on any given day. If a person has before him two options, which will he choose? Unless some overriding reason exists, he will choose the one most agreeable to him, that is, to his heart, his innermost being.
What if the choice is between moral or immoral alternatives? If a person is what the Bible calls a "sinner," and he must choose between godliness and sinful indulgence, which will he select? He will choose the latter because he prefers it, all arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.
Why? Because, as Jeremiah 17:9 says, his heart is desperately wicked. Jesus reinforces this in Matthew 15:19-20: "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man. . . ."
If one were to present a truly converted person with the same options, he would choose the life of piety and virtue. Why? Because God has given him a new heart:
For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezekiel 36:24-27)
Ezekiel's prophecy is in perfect harmony with God's promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Thus, it is not the will that makes the sinner impervious to all appeals through the gospel to forsake his way, but it is his corrupt and sinful heart.
The sinner will not come to Christ and keep the Sabbath and holy days, quit stealing from God, or do any other thing commanded by God because he does not want to. He does not want to because his heart hates Christ and loves sin. Romans 8:7 is proof that human nature is at war against God.
The human will is the faculty of choice, but it is as much subject to the mind as the hands, feet, eyes, and sexual organs. It is a servant of the mind, and in turn, various influences affect the mind throughout the course of life. Proverbs 4:20-23 confirms this:
My son, give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your eyes; keep them in the midst of your heart; for they are life to those who find them, and health to all their flesh. Keep your heart with all diligence, for out it spring the issues of life.
The heart determines one's preferences and inclinations, and thus it determines one's choices, subjecting the will to it. Because of this, it is imperative to understand the evil that Satan and his demons have communicated to us either directly or through the course of this world. The world has shaped our pre-conversion heart, and thus it affects our relationship with God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Communication and Leaving Babylon (Part Two)
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