Stumbling vs. falling away: Matthew 18

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“Does Jesus really want me to cut off my hand or foot?”

The following verses have always bothered me. Even taking the use of hyperbole into account, it perplexed me why Jesus would want anyone to take such drastic measures to deal with sin.

If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. Matthew 18:8-9

For added emphasis, Jesus gave this same message in the sermon on the mount. So why would he make so much of the need to do whatever it took to stop this sinning? We look at that word, stumble, and think, “I stumble. I’ve probably stumbled several times just today. Doesn’t everyone stumble?”

Recently I was reading Steve Gallagher’s book, At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry, and he pointed out that the better translation of the word for stumble would be fall away. It’s the same word Jesus used to describe how the disciples would leave him when he was arrested, when he said, “You will all fall away, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ ”  In Matthew, Jesus wasn’t talking about a little sin, a stumble, but a continuous pattern of sin that demonstrated an unregenerate heart. Such a person had fallen away from God and was in danger of eternal condemnation.

There are two conclusions I draw from this new understanding of Jesus’ warning. First, he’s not talking about the occasional unintended sins. We don’t need to cut off our hand for those. Second, there are people whose repetitive sins trap them (the original word for falling away described the stick holding up an animal trap). For those people their sin is a life and death matter. Their continual sinning signals a separation from God that dooms them. They must do whatever it takes to repent, abandon their life of sin, and turn to God for salvation.

Image by Neil Hester on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

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66 thoughts on “Stumbling vs. falling away: Matthew 18

  1. And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Luke 18:22

    Not a hand or a foot, but still the cause of his sin. The recurring path of his life that leads not to God, but away from God. Shut the gate, chart a new course.

    What do we say in confession? “I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” Shut the gate, chart a new course. The path I am on is leading me to perdition. Lord, guide my feet to a new path.

    Imagine the anguish Paul must have felt, having baptized countless souls into The Way, and later hearing stories of how they are falling away from the faith, some back in their old pagan ways, some back into their Jewish rituals, both rejecting the saving grace of Jesus. He knows it isn’t the declaration made at the beginning that matters, it is how one is running as one crosses the finish line that counts.

    Take the life examples of Billy Graham and Charles Templeton. Almost everyone would have readily agreed at the start of their careers that both were saved. They both crusaded tirelessly for the Lord. But Templeton “fell away”. He fully rejected God and died an atheist as far as we know. So our salvation is never sealed on our terms, it is only sealed in God’s terms. We have the free will to reject Him, even after we have accepted Him. How could we truly love Him if it were any other way?

    • We have the free will to reject Him, even after we have accepted Him. How could we truly love Him if it were any other way?

      Does this imply that it must be true that God can free-will reject us, even after accepting us? Can He only “truly love us” if there’s some possibility that he might stop loving us of his own accord?

      • Why apply human attributes to God? Why especially when He has demonstrated an endless capacity to love and forgive? It is we who have broken the covenant again and again, while He has remained faithful. His very nature is unconditional love, proven beyond questioning by the sacrifice of His son on the cross.

        Like the perfect parent He is, He will let us choose, He will let us have our free will, even if it means rejecting Him after we have come to know Him. Charles Templeton seems to be one example of that. He is not alone. Satan, though not human, is the prime example of knowing God, and rejecting Him. Judas may be the prime human example.

        By contrast, who can love the parent who never allows his children to change their mind? They remain yoked to their condition without recourse to petition for change. No, this is not the nature of God. And though God has remained faithful to His covenants, He is not bound by His commandments. We are.

        How far will God let us go on our path of rejecting Him? This far:

        “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.” Romans 1:28-32

      • Does God ever stop loving someone? That’s an interesting question. Are there verses to answer that question? I think of “he remains faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to him” and “the Lord changeth not.” But there are also OT references to God “burning hot” against people.

      • Why apply human attributes to God?

        Well, let’s be clear on what we’re saying, here. As I understand your original point, you said that “truly lov[ing]” requires the possibility of freely, in a non-causally-determined way, rejecting a person that you love. It seems to me that, logically speaking, one of three things must therefore be true:

        (1) It must be possible that God will freely, of his own accord, choose to reject us, even though we have come to him for salvation.
        (2) God does not truly love us.
        (3) True love does not require the possibility of free-will rejection of the loved one.

        As you quite rightly note, (1) is absurd on the face of it – God is the very measure of forgiveness and steadfast, unchanging love. As you also suggest, (2) is equally absurd; God is love, and it is only because of his love that we love. How can the author of love be said not to truly love?

        Of necessity, then, (3) must be false. If one disagrees with this conclusion, one has to either reject the three way-split (which seems problematic, from the perspective of logical non-contradiction); defend (1); or defend (2).

        (You may counter that God loves us in some different way that still counts as “true” or “real” love, despite it not being possible that he should reject his children. But in this case, love does not in general require the possibility of rejecting the loved one; why then would we assert that, in our particular case, love does require this possibility? Why is it not possible that we love him as he loved us: in a way from which we can’t turn aside?)

        (You may also counter with concrete examples – but I can simply argue that human observation isn’t enough to infallibly determine whether someone loves God, and that any such examples are just cases where we couldn’t see the heart. Judas probably looked good to most observers, too – but Christ called him out as unclean. Perhaps he would have done the same to Templeton.)

      • Does God ever stop loving someone? That’s an interesting question.

        The biggest question mark being, of course, “Does God still love the damned?”

        I don’t know if I have an answer to that I could 100% back up with Scripture.

      • By contrast, who can love the parent who never allows his children to change their mind? They remain yoked to their condition without recourse to petition for change. No, this is not the nature of God.

        Is it not? Who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Does the clay get to say to the potter, “Why have you made me to be this way?” Doesn’t the potter have a right to make anything he wants from the clay – some vessels made for noble purposes, and others made to be destroyed?

        What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, patiently endured the objects of his wrath – those people he destined for destruction? What if he created such doomed men to make obvious his mercy to those whom he chose for glory?

        (Paraphrasing Romans 9, o’course.)

        Or perhaps the question is this: when Adam fell, would God have been within his rights to write off the whole human race – to leave Adam and his progeny forever condemned, with no course of appeal – or was he morally obliged to proved “recourse to petition for change?” Was God obliged to die for his creation, or was that a gift?

        Because if he was not so obliged, then we must say God can be all-good and yet allow no opportunity for changing our minds.

        (I think any discussions that rely on “free will” would also benefit from a good, solid definition of the term. The most common one in use, philosophically, is contra-factual free will: that is, the idea that if we could rewind time and “replay” events, that they might turn out differently. Is this the definition you’re using, or is there another?)

  2. Isn’t that the heart of the story of the prodigal son?

    “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
    Psalm 100:5

  3. No, true love means you allow someone you love to reject you, not the other way around. God never stops loving us, but many of us stop loving Him.

    Not only was Charles Templeton said to be saved, he was considered by many to be destined for greater good than even Billy Graham. Who are we to say he wasn’t saved? I take him at his word. He rejected God. I believe that too.

    The real truth, is that only God knows who among us is saved. We have faith that we are, but only He knows for sure. No doubt Charles felt at one time, just as you do now. None of us are given the right to judge otherwise. This is why Paul’s analogy of a race is so perfect: there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. And only at the end do we know the score. This is why he says, “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” Salvation comes at the end, not the beginning. Charles Templeton seems to make that point clear, though in truth, we are not privy to the final results. God knows.

    • No, true love means you allow someone you love to reject you, not the other way around.

      Hm. I’m not sure how to understand this in conjunction with your opening post. To quote it:

      “We have the free will to reject Him, even after we have accepted Him. How could we truly love Him if it were any other way?”

      That’s the sentiment to which I’m objecting: the idea that we cannot truly love God unless it’s possible for us to subsequently reject him. Is this a miscommunication between us? Which way was your intent?

      Because if you’d say we can truly love God, and this does not necessarily require the possibility that we reject him, then this line of objection is settled.

      Who are we to say he wasn’t saved?

      Well, we’re not in a position to judge whether he was saved or not – that’s the point. “So-and-so said he ways” doesn’t really matter, unless “so-and-so” is omniscient. Therefore, arguments that rely on the claim that someone was saved and later wasn’t saved are non-starters, because we can’t know the truth of either claim.

      The real truth, is that only God knows who among us is saved. We have faith that we are, but only He knows for sure. No doubt Charles felt at one time, just as you do now.

      This seems to me to be a subject change. I would prefer that we stick to the question of free will and apostasy, rather than that of assurance of salvation – that seems to be quite enough for one conversation!

  4. From the CCC:

    1731 Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.

    As scripture points out again and again, there are those who know God face to face and reject Him (Satan and demons) and those who know Christ and reject Him (Judas, Charles Templeton, on and on).

    But no one is asked to surrender their free will in order to be saved. We can reject God at any time, and sadly many do, even after accepting Christ: “even the demons believe and tremble.”

    Perhaps the term to define is faith, and how that is different from knowing, and why it is God chooses for us to be saved by grace through faith.

    But the point remains, we are not the judge of ourselves, or of our fellow man. Only God knows if we are truly saved. For the rest of us, there is faith.

    • I’m not sure I understand your definition. Reposting it:

      Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility.

      It’s not clear to me that this is inconsistent with determinism. Is it? Depending on the answer, I’d say either that I’m possessed of a deterministic (and therefore guaranteeable) free will, just as I was before salvation, or that I never possessed any sort of nondeterministic free will win the first place.

      Maybe an example will help to clarify this definition. Let’s consider, for the sake of argument, Peter on the morning of his betrayal. Christ has infallibly prophesied that Peter will deny him three times by the rooster’s crow, and Peter is aware of this prophecy. The rooster’s crow is approaching.

      Q1: Is Peter an agent with free will on the matter of whether to deny or not?

      If you say no to Q1, then free will is apparently not absolute on the matter of our obedience or disobedience; I argue it is, likewise, not absolute on the matter of our rejecting Christ

      If you say yes to Q1, then Q2: Might it have happened that Peter would not have denied Christ – that Christ would have been wrong in his prophecy?

      If you say no to Q2, then free will is consistent with there being impossible actions – such as, for instance, Christians rejecting Christ.

      If you say yes on Q2, then… well, then Christ is either dishonest, misinformed, or guessing about the future, and either way there’s a much bigger issue on the table!

      • To lay my own cards fully on the table: I hold to Harry Frankfurt’s definition of free will, which is to say, an agent has free will if it is able to alter its own desires as it wishes – that is, if it’s able to have the will that it wishes to have. So, for instance, a man who wants to no longer desire chocolate and, in time, manages to purge himself of this desire is possessed of free will. A heroin addict who longs for his drug, but futilely wishes he could stop longing is not.

        In any event, I don’t think we’re guaranteed this sort of free will, though I think we often possess it. I think most other definitions of the term are poorly formed and don’t really hold up to analysis – we can no more possess them than we can possess square circles.

        So I don’t see any loss of (more traditional conceptions of) free will, because I don’t think we had any such things in the first place, because I don’t think they’re well-formed concepts. I do, however, think we choose, and that we choose according to our wills, and that our choices matter.

  5. So which is it? Do you possess free will or not? The hairs on your head are numbered. God knows your life beginning to end. By your logic, you are not a man, you are a puppet, powerless to make decisions that effect the course of your life. Salvation isn’t based on faith, it’s based on God’s preordained choice for you? Is this what you believe?

    How exactly do you see Templeton’s life?

    1) He professed to be a “born again” Christian publicly. He led thousands to Christ. He was saved. The fact that he later renounced his faith is of no matter. He was saved, and “once saved, always saved”.

    2) Despite professing to be saved, he ultimately rejected Christ and died an atheist. He was never saved.

    3) He accepted Christ, was “born again”, but later rejected Christ and the Spirit, committed the “sin unto death”, and died without salvation.

    4) Some other option that I cannot think of that perhaps you believe. Fill in the blank.

    Which of these fits your interpretation of his life in terms of salvation? Sure, we don’t know his fate, God does, but how do you see his outcome based on what we know of his life?

    • It feels a bit like most of my questions to you are going overlooked – understandable, given our lengthy exchanges! Without getting answers to those, though, it’s hard for this to feel like a dialogue; could we back up and address those before going on?

      Here are the questions I’ve laid out so far:

      1) Is it only possible for Person A to truly love Person B if there is some possibility of Person A later rejecting Person B? Your first post appears to assert this; your later post appears to reject it. Which is it?

      1a) If you answer (1) in the affirmative (e.g., “It is only possible to love a person if you may later spontaneously reject them”), then doesn’t this require the possibility of God spontaneously rejecting us?

      1b) If you answer (1) in the negative (e.g., “It is possible to love a person with no possibility of later spontaneously rejecting them”), then what contradiction is there with the idea that salvation is immutable?

      2) Is the RCC’s definition of free will compatible with determinism?

      3) Is Peter, on the morning of his betrayal of Christ, possessed of free will regarding his decision to reject Christ?

      4) If you answer (3) in the affirmative (e.g., “Peter is possessed of free will on this matter”), then was there some possibility that Peter would not, in fact, deny Christ, despite Christ’s prophecy that he would do so?

      ***
      To answer your questions:

      So which is it? Do you possess free will or not?

      Depends on how we define “free will!” For most conventional definitions, I would say “No,” or at minimum, “Not universally” – that’s probably the simplest way to answer. This is because I don’t think most conventional definitions make sense – as they are logical contradictions, I can’t be possessed of them.

      Scripture, obviously, never explicitly references free will – which means that, if we’re going to claim we possess it (for some definition), we have to rest our inference on what Scripture does say. It doesn’t appear to me that the Bible makes any particular guarantees in this regard.

      On the other hand…

      The hairs on your head are numbered. God knows your life beginning to end. By your logic, you are not a man, you are a puppet, powerless to make decisions that effect the course of your life.

      … this isn’t true in my position. I have a will; I act according to my desires; I choose. The thing determining the outcome of my decisions is me: I make the decisions that a person like me would make. There is a me; there is a self – it’s just a deterministic self.

      If this makes me a puppet, that’s a case that needs to be argued, with an unambiguous alternative presented.

      How exactly do you see Templeton’s life?

      Either your option (1) or (2) appears to be true of Templeton, from my understanding of Scripture. From what I can see, (2) appears plausible, but I do not have enough evidence to judge unambiguously between them.

  6. 1) I think my first comment was confusing. Anyone can love anyone. The point I was making is that the overbearing parent risks stifling love in their child. As someone said, “If you love a thing, you let it go.” God will surely let us go and do as we please, even if we reject Him completely. He loves us that much.

    1a and 1b) I cannot make sense of this, and I think it is because there is a false construct to this theorem. Again you are attempting to apply human attributes to God. God does not love as we love. We are broken and in need of a savior. He is that savior.

    2) No, it is not.
    3) Yes, he has free will.
    4) Depends on your frame of reference. If you are Peter, yes, there is a choice to be made, deny or not deny. That is his free will. If you are God, you already know the choice, because you see time from beginning to end. But God is God, and Peter is Peter, and as Isaiah 55 tells us, they are not living and functioning on the same realm at all. So free will for us functions independently of prophecy, just as you state here:

    “… this isn’t true in my position. I have a will; I act according to my desires; I choose. The thing determining the outcome of my decisions is me: I make the decisions that a person like me would make. There is a me; there is a self.”

    I think you are right here. You are describing free will. Even though God knows the choices you will make before you make them, your free will is preserved, just as it was for Peter. Otherwise, life really is just a puppet show.

    Regarding Templeton, #1 is likely false, sense Jesus tells us if we deny him he will deny us to the Father.

    #2 could be true, but this makes the point that we cannot declare ourselves or anyone else saved, only God can. I am sure Templeton looked at felt saved to himself and everyone else around him. But his race was not complete. If there is any single moment of time in salvation (and I don’t think there is) it’s at the end, not the beginning. More reasonably it seems to be a process that occurs over our lifetime. How else can it be that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers”? (Romans 13:11)

    #3 absolutely could be true, and is consistent with both scripture and tradition.

    I do enjoy our discussions. No doubt God loves us digging deep into the mysteries of His creation and straining to know Him more intimately!

    • The point I was making is that the overbearing parent risks stifling love in their child. As someone said, “If you love a thing, you let it go.”

      It’s not unambiguous that God agrees with this sentiment, though. That’s the whole Calvinist idea of irresistible grace: the notion that God loves us enough to say, “No, you are mine.”

      That’s overbearing in a parent, because parents don’t have a right to absolute ownership of their children. The rules may not be the same for God – that’s the problem with casting these in human metaphors.

      It seems to me that God has at least the right to claim us without the possibility of our refusal. That doesn’t mean that he necessarily does so, of course, but we’d have to take the fight to Scripture with either possibility morally on the table.

      I cannot make sense of this, and I think it is because there is a false construct to this theorem. Again you are attempting to apply human attributes to God. God does not love as we love.

      If you’ll agree that it is logically possible to love someone with no possibility of later rejecting them – which seems to be what you’re saying above – then these two are non-issues anyhow. The question then is, “Okay, so it’s possible that God loves us and is not willing to let us go. Is that possibility true, or not?” And again, for that we have to go to biblical evidence.

      2) No, it is not.

      Okay, thanks! I am basically a determinist, so take that as you will.

      3) Yes, he has free will.

      All right – so Peter, on the morning of his betrayal, has free will with regards to that decision. That kicks of question (4), then, so let’s look there.

      Depends on your frame of reference. If you are Peter, yes, there is a choice to be made, deny or not deny. That is his free will.

      But that’s not in question; we both agree that Peter has a choice to make. The question is, is there any possibility that Peter will make any choice other than to deny Christ? Would it be worth betting on another outcome, at any possible odds?

      Free will is typically defined in terms of counterfactuals – the idea that, if we could rewind to a moment of decision and play it out multiple times, we might see people choose different things at different times. Suppose we replay the same hot afternoon over and over again; perhaps 98 times out of a hundred, I choose to eat chocolate ice cream, while one time I choose vanilla and once I go without altogether. Without counterfactual language, it’s very hard to convey the idea that a person might choose differently – that choices have multiple outcomes that “actually could” happen.

      If that’s not consistent with how you view free will, I’d really appreciate a clarification – and in particular, an explanation of how events look different (even theoretically!) based on whether free will exists or not.

      The alternative to counterfactual free will is determinism: a person chooses, but any particular choice in any given moment will inevitably resolve in the same way. No matter how many times we play out that same sunny afternoon, I eat the chocolate ice cream.

      But Peter is a problem for counterfactual free will. Is it possible that God should be proven wrong? It is not. It is therefore necessary that Peter should deny Christ; there is no possibility of any other outcome. Suppose we have the power to play these events out over and over again – then every single time, Peter will choose to deny Christ.

      Definitionally, then, Peter’s choice is determined.

      Is Peter still morally responsible for his choice? Apparently yes – because it’s still Peter who chooses; he’s still acting the way that Peter would act. He’s the kind of person who would deny Christ, who does deny Christ, and he deserves punishment for that.

      The relevance here is that God could give the same guarantees on persistence of salvation. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a choice on the matter – to stay or not – but it does mean that the outcome of that choice can be inevitable; that no Christian commits apostasy, no matter how many times the events play out.

      #2 could be true, but this makes the point that we cannot declare ourselves or anyone else saved, only God can.

      No one’s disagreed with that; I’ve just disagreed on whether I can know (for some definition of “know”) what God has said about me. But assurance of salvation is still a separate conversation, I think – related, to be sure, but a whole other world of complexity beyond free will in general – and one that’s going to dump us back into free will in fairly short order, in any event.

  7. Is this what you mean by determinism?

    de·ter·min·ism
    dəˈtərməˌnizəm/
    nounPhilosophy
    noun: determinism

    the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

    • (Google+ doesn’t seem to be authorizing this morning – pardon the change in accounts!)

      That’s a pretty restrictive definition of determinism – there are a lot more variations than that. This (link) article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is better reading – so, quoting:

      “Causal determinism is the view that everything that happens or exists is caused by sufficient antecedent conditions, making it impossible for anything to happen or be other than it does or is… According to causal determinism, however, one’s deliberations, choices, and actions will often be necessary links in the causal chain that brings something about. In other words, even though our deliberations, choices, and actions are themselves determined like everything else, it is still the case, according to causal determinism, that the occurrence or existence of yet other things depends upon our deliberating, choosing and acting in a certain way…

      “In keeping with this focus on the ramifications of causal determinism for moral responsibility, thinkers may be classified as being one of two types: 1) an incompatibilist about causal determinism and moral responsibility—one who maintains that if causal determinism is true, then there is nothing for which one can be morally responsible; or 2) a compatibilist—one who holds that a person can be morally responsible for some things, even if both who she is and what she does is causally determined.”

      I’m a compatibilist; I read Paul, for instance, to be one as well. I don’t think there’s any conflict between, “I chose to act in the only way that was consistent with who I am,” and “I am morally responsible for making that decision.

  8. God loves us enough to say, “No, you are mine.”

    Are you saying then, that he loves others less, and into the fires of Gehenna with you?

    • Otherwise, why wouldn’t He say all are saved, and none shall perish in hell, since that is what he desires? (1 Timothy 2:4)

    • I’m not intending any statements about how much God loves different groups; that’s rather above my pay grade. God pretty clearly chooses different people for different roles – not for any virtue of theirs, but simply because he wills to do so. Those he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed.

      Whether or not you agree that this is how God does operate, would you agree that this is a way in which God is morally entitled to operate? That if God chose to irresistibly nominate some for salvation, and to leave others unable to come to him, that this is not wrong or unjust of him?

      Otherwise, why wouldn’t He say all are saved, and none shall perish in hell, since that is what he desires?

      We are both forced to conclude that God’s desires are not reducible to a single statement of priority. If God was willing that none should perish, and this was his sole objective, he could have refrained from creating Adam in the first place – or he could have created something vaguely Adam-like, but without moral agency. He didn’t do these things, even knowing that some would perish as a result of his decisions. Clearly, then, there’s something else he values more than ensuring that none perish.

      I suggest that the “something else” is God’s own glory: that both the saved and the condemned are ultimately monuments to his overwhelming mercy and justice; that God bears with vessels of wrath that those he’s saved might praise him more fully. Perhaps you’d say that the “something else” is his desire to preserve human will. But either way, there has to be something God wants more than for no one to perish, because people are perishing.

      This isn’t a contradiction for either of us.

  9. “But that’s not in question; we both agree that Peter has a choice to make. The question is, is there any possibility that Peter will make any choice other than to deny Christ? Would it be worth betting on another outcome, at any possible odds?”

    Ahhh….here we are at the crux of the matter. Do you believe in free will, or not? I do, and thus believe Peter was free to make his choice. Since God knows the choice he will make, he will always make that choice, but this does not negate his free will. It is TRUE that Peter will make that choice, it is not NECESSARY that he will make it. Hat tip to philospher Alvin Plantinga for that one.

    • What is of course especially painful to Peter, is that he knew the prophecy, and still committed the sin. He forgot it in the midst of his human foibles, and painfully remembered it as the cock crowed. But his free will remained in effect, for which I am sure he felt lifelong pain. I doubt he consoled himself with platitudes of “God made me do it”.

    • Plantinga’s a sharp guy, but I obviously disagree with him on this point.

      Do you believe in free will, or not?

      I don’t! But here: if you do, then make plain its import. Suppose we have Peter1 and Peter2: identical in all respects, save that Peter1 has free will on this decision (by whatever you understand “free will” to mean), while Peter2 exercises a deterministic will.

      How could anyone – even an omniscient being, or one with power to replay events, or whatever other criteria you like – distinguish between Peter1 and Peter2 on this decision? They both deliberate. They both choose. They both, always, choose the same way. What separates their decision-making processes from each other? At what point are they anything other than identical?

      I’ve offered the usual answer of counterfactual free will – that sometimes, Peter1 chooses differently – but that’s clearly inapplicable in this case. Peter1 can never make a different decision here, because doing so would prove Christ a liar. What’s left? What does it actually mean to say that Peter has free will?

      Because my suspicion is that, in many cases, it doesn’t mean anything – that all we mean when we say free will is that our decisions matter, and that we are morally responsible for them. Which isn’t a point that we disagree on!

  10. “If you’ll agree that it is logically possible to love someone with no possibility of later rejecting them – which seems to be what you’re saying above – then these two are non-issues anyhow.”

    If I have led you to think I believe that, I apologize. I think nothing of the sort. Human history would prove that this is completely counter to our nature. Sad, that like the black widow, we are prone to murder those we love. So no, I do not believe that for a moment.

    • Okay. Then I’m afraid I have no idea what point you were making in your original post – every time I’ve tried to restate it, you’ve denied the restatement.

      What does this:

      We have the free will to reject Him, even after we have accepted Him. How could we truly love Him if it were any other way?

      mean, in conjunction with:

      No, true love means you allow someone you love to reject you, not the other way around. God never stops loving us, but many of us stop loving Him.

      ? (Bold mine.)

  11. One perspective that deals with some of these ideas of will and determinism is Molinism. It says that God could have created any of an infinite number of Universes, with an infinite number of timelines in any universe, but that he chose to create this particular one because it fulfilled his will. Within this specific created universe individuals make choices, act on them, and are responsible for them, while at the same time God’s will is accomplished as he determined by choosing this universe and timeline.

    • This is more-or-less the position I hold to, yes. Part of “determining the timeline,” for me, is “determining the character of all the people in the timeline” – so God chose whether you’d be honest, faithful, loving, etc., which in turn determines the choices you make. But it’s still you making the choices: you’re responsible for them.

  12. We have the free will to reject Him, even after we have accepted Him. How could we truly love Him if it were any other way?

    mean, in conjunction with:

    No, true love means you allow someone you love to reject you, not the other way around. God never stops loving us, but many of us stop loving Him.

    Using the definition of free will I cited from the CCC, it means that we choose to love, or we choose not to love. We love for one day, or we love for a lifetime. The choice is ours. What is incompatible with free will is choosing to love and then no longer having decision rights about whether to continuing loving or not. That is neither free will nor love. That is slavery. That is bondage. So if we are powerless to stop loving Him after we start, then our love is only that of a hapless slave, not an adopted son.

    Going further, true love, God’s love, is endless (His steadfast love endures forever). So where we may one day choose to love Him and the next day reject him (a la Templeton), He continues to love even after we reject Him (Calvary).

    His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55) which is why we cannot ascribe to God characteristics that are merely human.

    And if Peter does not have free will to proclaim or deny Christ because God has determined his actions through foreknowledge, then since God also knows all of our lives (Psalm 139), we and Peter alike are mere puppets in a Punch and Judy show. I can scarcely imagine a darker more sinister existence than that. That is the very antithesis of love.

    I know the sun will rise tomorrow. But I will not have caused it to rise.

    • What is incompatible with free will is choosing to love and then no longer having decision rights about whether to continuing loving or not. That is neither free will nor love. That is slavery. That is bondage. So if we are powerless to stop loving Him after we start, then our love is only that of a hapless slave, not an adopted son.

      Going further, true love, God’s love, is endless (His steadfast love endures forever). So where we may one day choose to love Him and the next day reject him (a la Templeton), He continues to love even after we reject Him (Calvary).

      Then, necessarily, God doesn’t have free will or love.

      This is the necessary conclusion of what you’re saying! If love requires continued “decision rights” – that is, the actual possibility that we will at one point stop loving someone – then either God might decide to do that one day, or God doesn’t love us. That’s logically necessary; the alternative is that God is in slavery and bondage. This is literally what you’ve said in the opening paragraph.

      If you object that no, there’s some loophole by which God’s love is allowed to play by totally different rules but still count as love – well, then, I say that when we come to Christ, he gives us just a touch of that sort of love for him: a love that endures forever, with no possibility of rejection. If God has a form of love that allows no rejection but doesn’t enslave, then logically, he could bestow the same on us.

      This was my original point.

      His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55) which is why we cannot ascribe to God characteristics that are merely human.

      Perhaps not, but God certainly could apply to us attributes of himself. That’s what love is; for that matter, it’s one of the things salvation is: the conforming of our attributes to Christ’s.

      Is it logically impossible that God could allow us some measure of the same kind of love for him that he has for us – a love that cannot be abandoned? If so, why? If not, that’s a pretty big loophole in the “slavery” objection, isn’t it?

      And if Peter does not have free will to proclaim or deny Christ because God has determined his actions through foreknowledge, then since God also knows all of our lives (Psalm 139), we and Peter alike are mere puppets in a Punch and Judy show.

      That we are all, constantly, in the same state as Peter is the conclusion to which I’m pointing, yes! But saying that you find this possibility horrific isn’t an argument; it’s not evidence against this conclusion. Perhaps your sense of what is horrific and what isn’t is wrong in this instance; saying the alternative is like a puppet show has emotional appeal, but it’s still not clear what you think is different between your vision and mine.

      Can you argue any evidence against the argument? Can you suggest any meaningful difference between Peter1 and Peter2? Does the existence of what you’re calling “free will” actually change anything, or not?

  13. The existence of free will or the absence of it changes everything. And I will elaborate on that, but I want to first clarify what you are saying.

    Are you saying Peter had no free will when he denied Christ three times, that this was God’s will being exercised, and not his own?

    • No, I’m saying there is no such thing as free will: that, depending on the definition, it is either not a logically well-formed concept, or it is inconsistent with Scripture. I’m not arguing that God uniquely violated Peter’s free will: Peter is just a convenient example where it’s pretty clear that counter-factual free will (a commonly-used logically-consistent variation) doesn’t hold.

      That doesn’t mean that Peter didn’t have a will, or didn’t make a choice; simply that his choice, like all choices, was not “free” in the sense that’s usually meant. The choice was determined: by who Peter was, by his history, by his circumstances, by Peter. But given Peter, it couldn’t have gone any other way; nor could any other choice have gone differently from the way it actually went. That’s what determinism is.

      So it’s insufficient to distinguish Peter1 from Peter2 by saying Peter1 has a choice, or that he actually has a will, or that he has moral responsibility: these things are (or at least may be) true of both of them. In philosophy, a standard thing is to describe free will by explaining how things would be different if a being didn’t have free will: “Free will is the thing that means X event happens, where otherwise Y event happens.” (So counterfactual free will says, “Free will means that if we had a hundred perfectly identical worlds, with perfectly identical free-willed Peters, that sometimes Peter would deny Christ and sometimes he wouldn’t.”)

      That’s the bit I’m asking for here: explain how the presence or absence of free will as you understand it causes this scene to play out differently. Feel free to propose any super-human powers of perception, or time manipulation, or what-have-you, as in the example above – but lacking some difference in the progression of events for Peter1 and Peter2, I submit that free will is not a meaningful concept.

  14. And again, you continue to ascribe human characteristics to God. Yes, we have qualities that come from God, that are similar to God in ways, but that does not mean God has all of our qualities (thank God for that, or no doubt we would have been completely obliterated long ago). So where we often choose to stop loving (even when we shouldn’t), God continues to love. Thus love for Christ which should be eternal (and we pray it is with us), simply isn’t eternal for all (e.g. Templeton). The perfection of God’s love for the world is that He continues to love us, even as we reject him.

    • And again, you continue to ascribe human characteristics to God.

      Respectfully, I explicitly did not do this thing. Rather, I ascribed attributes of God to the people he’s indwelling.

      that does not mean God has all of our qualities

      Again, I did not suggest that he did. I suggested that he might give us some fraction of one of his qualities.

      Is it logically impossible that God should cause Christians to love him as he loves us – in a way that will never stop – or not?

  15. I would like to sum up some of the conclusions that I would draw from the previous arguments.

    True love does not require the possibility of free-will rejection of the loved one. It may co-exist with true love but it is not necessary for true love. I believe Brian’s arguments about this are convincing.

    God is different than man. God’s attributes include a subset that is shared with man, but the two are not equal. Sometimes we make God too human.

    God’s allowance of man’s choice and God’s determination of the outcome by his choices in creation are not exclusive. “The power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility” (sometimes called free will) is not mutually exclusive of God’s ability to determine the outcome. As an example, Peter did of his own will deny Christ, but God knew that he would because he knew the universe he had created.

    Free will can coexist with God’s ability to keep men from rejecting him. Whether he actually does this is another question, but it is logically possible. However, experience seems to show that men do sometimes accept and then reject God, and even accept him again, as Peter did.

    • As an example, Peter did of his own will deny Christ, but God knew that he would because he knew the universe he had created.

      And indeed (I would argue), given the universe God had created, Peter’s choice in this matter was certain. God could have designed a different universe, with a different Peter, and gotten a different outcome – but he chose this one, for whatever reasons of his own.

      Free will can coexist with God’s ability to keep men from rejecting him. Whether he actually does this is another question, but it is logically possible.

      Depending on the definition of free will, I think. The process theologians, for instance, have a very strong definition of free will that requires them to reject even God’s foreknowledge – which is its own huge problem, but just shows that there’s lots of definitions floating around out there.

      However, experience seems to show that men do sometimes accept and then reject God, and even accept him again, as Peter did.

      This is an area that bothers me a little bit, basically because of Hebrews 6:4-6. I don’t see any way to unify that with the idea that you can fall so completely as to lose your salvation and still return.

      Hebrews 6 doesn’t rule out the possibility of losing salvation, of course – if that’s impossible, we have to turn to other verses for it. But it seems like we have to conclude from Hebrews that, whatever happens to Peter and those like him, they can’t have a progression of Saved -> Not Saved -> Saved Again. Either they were never saved in the beginning, or they never lost their salvation in the middle, or they never regained their salvation at the end – which is itself a pretty horrific thought.

  16. I would agree with all of that, unless by “determine the outcome” you mean cause the outcome. If you mean instead that he discovers the outcome through omniscience, then I agree. If God is fixing the outcome, then we are back to a Punch and Judy show, hyper-Calvinism, and God actually creating evil. That I cannot agree with. That is darkness and deceit, and God is truth and light.

    • I would agree with all of that, unless by “determine the outcome” you mean cause the outcome. If you mean instead that he discovers the outcome through omniscience, then I agree.

      No, that’s very much not what I mean. Neither of those are what I mean. I mean that God created a particular world and, given the world he created, the choices that follow are inevitable.

      Now, it is true that, had God not created the world as he did, things would not play out as they do: that we would not have a world full of pain and evil. But that’s true in both our views. Suppose God hadn’t made men or angels – that was within his power to do, wasn’t it? Had he not, there would have been no fall, and no evil, only an endless perfect Trinity. So if all that matters is that God acted in a way necessary for evil to occur, and that he knowingly could have acted instead so that evil didn’t result – if that’s enough to condemn God for creating evil – then he’s condemned in both our views.

      But then, I don’t think this is all that matters: I think people bear moral responsibility for their own acts. That God’s choice determined what our choices will be doesn’t change that our choices are ours – and shall what is made say to him who makes it, “Why did you make me thus?”

      If God is fixing the outcome, then we are back to a Punch and Judy show, hyper-Calvinism, and God actually creating evil. That I cannot agree with. That is darkness and deceit, and God is truth and light.

      As a nitpick, this isn’t hyper-Calvinism; it’s just the regular kind.

      I don’t think it’s helpful to continue to appeal to the puppet-show descriptor; while it has an initial emotional impact, it doesn’t have any weight of argument. It’s particularly limiting without presenting a clear alternative: without making it explicit, in other words, how a world with “free will” is practically different from one without.

      So what alternative can you offer? How would it be even theoretically possible to tell the difference between Peter1 and Peter2, given that they are both conscious, thinking beings with wills, who make morally significant decisions – given, again, that the only difference is that Peter2 makes his decision deterministically?

  17. And I would ask the question this way, Did Peter deny Christ of his own free will, or did God make him deny Christ? Perhaps that will clarify my question about your position.

    • And again, my answer is: neither. Peter didn’t deny Christ out of his own free will, because free will as you’re defining it doesn’t exist. Peter denied Christ because Peter was the sort of man who denies Christ.

      As I’ve answered your question twice now, what’s the answer to mine?

    • What if God created the universe in which Peter wills to deny Christ? I think we all agree that God created this universe, I think we all agree that Peter chose to deny Christ. We are arguing about how much God’s choice of this particular universe determines Peter’s choice.

      • I think this sheds some light:

        He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

  18. If free will does not exist, then you are just an automaton. Sadness.

    This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

    Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.

    So God’s will is insufficient that His desires come to fruition?

    No indeed. There is a far more excellent way. Peter can both have his free will, and God’s sovereignty can be preserved.

    • If free will does not exist, then you are just an automaton. Sadness.

      Quoting myself:

      “I don’t think it’s helpful to continue to appeal to the puppet-show descriptor; while it has an initial emotional impact, it doesn’t have any weight of argument. It’s particularly limiting without presenting a clear alternative: without making it explicit, in other words, how a world with “free will” is practically different from one without.”

  19. The difference is that you now have God determining Peter to sin. where I have God wishing that all be saved, and that none sin. We cannot tell the difference between Peter 1 and 2, but God can. But John tells us your version is simply not how God is. God is truth and light, not sin. Sin in fact, is the result of free will. God doesn’t need to determine anyone to sin, evil takes care of that well enough on its own. From the beginning, from the Garden, you see the same pattern repeated over and over. God gives man the free will to make choices with instructions on how to make the best choices. Sometimes man choose well, sometimes not, but he chooses because God has allowed him to choose. In fact, don’t we have it all there beginning with Eve? She makes her choice. God could have determined her to make the perfect choice; He didn’t. He could have determined her to make a bad choice; the one she made. But that has God forcing her to sin, going counter to His nature. No, she makes her own choice, exercises her God-given free will, inadvisedly listens to Satan against God’s commandment, and as a result it banished from Paradise. Does God determine her to sin, and then punishes her for doing what He determined her to do? Of course not, she does what her free will leads her to do, against God’s wishes. Thus sin is the price we pay for free will.

    Armstrong states it this way:

    1) With free will and free choice comes the necessary potentiality for evil choice.
    2) The only way to absolutely avoid the evil choice altogether (even for an omnipotent being) is to eliminate all choice, and create mere robots or automatons.
    3) #2 doesn’t allow a free, loving relationship. It eliminates meaning and purpose, and creatures made in the image of God. It reduces human beings to animals.
    4) Therefore, because of #3, God chose the option of #1, because love with the presence of evil also is better than a state of affairs with no evil but also no love and meaning among creatures.

    But you seem to go further and insist that God participates in evil, determining that Eve, Peter, and others must sin. That would seem to go against what John tells us about God’s nature.

    • The difference is that you now have God determining Peter to sin. where I have God wishing that all be saved, and that none sin.

      No, that’s not true. We both have God desiring that none should perish. You didn’t respond to my argument to that effect (link), but I’d be happy to engage on it.

      Sometimes man chooses well, sometimes not, but he chooses because God has allowed him to choose.

      Neither of us denies this. We dispute whether choice is deterministic.

      Does God determine her to sin…?

      No. Eve determines Eve to sin. But her action is no less determined just because it’s her own nature that determines it.

      God is truth and light, not sin. Sin in fact, is the result of free will… But you seem to go further and insist that God participates in evil.

      It seems as though you seem to want to claim that, given determinism, God is necessarily morally responsible for my sin. But that’s certainly not my argument; I argue that determinism can be true without God participating in evil. If you’re going to debate me on this, that’s the point you have to contest – your argument right now assumes its conclusion pretty baldly.

      Here’s my argument on that subject again, if you want to address it:

      “Now, it is true that, had God not created the world as he did, things would not play out as they do: that we would not have a world full of pain and evil. But that’s true in both our views. Suppose God hadn’t made men or angels – that was within his power to do, wasn’t it? Had he not, there would have been no fall, and no evil, only an endless perfect Trinity. So if all that matters is that God acted in a way necessary for evil to occur, and that he knowingly could have acted instead so that evil didn’t result – if that’s enough to condemn God for creating evil – then he’s condemned in both our views.

      “But then, I don’t think this is all that matters: I think people bear moral responsibility for their own acts.”

    • We cannot tell the difference between Peter 1 and 2, but God can.

      Bold mine. I want to be clear on what you’re saying, then: you’re telling me that the consequence of Peter1 having free will is that he is different from Peter2 in some way that is impossible for you to detect or describe, regardless of what superhuman senses or powers we hypothesize for you – that he is, in other words, different in a way that has no detectable consequences of any sort.

      Is that accurate to what you’re saying? If it’s not, then tell me how one could even theoretically tell the difference!

    • Exodus states that Pharaoh hardened his heart and that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Sounds similar to our discussion that determinism (God’s choosing) and will (man’s choosing) are both at work.

      God pushed Pharaoh
      To become hard hearted.
      It was so easy.

      • Pharaoh’s the most common example, but the Old Testament is filled with similar instances. I was really struck rereading 2 Samuel 24:1: “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.””

        In other words, David’s choice is itself God’s punishment on Israel – and yet God judges David for the action; it’s still his choice, and he still carries the moral weight of it. That properly should terrify us a little bit, I think.

  20. Eric, if I can make a bit of a summary of my last few posts here:

    One of the things one periodically finds in Christendom is the “How to Defend Our Beliefs to X” scripts – where X might be Muslims, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or (yes) Catholics/Protestants. These are great tools; they’re incomplete, obviously, but they’re a nice foundation for helping to distinguish what we believe from what we don’t, and for equipping all the saints with at least a basic argument for what they believe. But real arguments don’t tend to stick to the scripts. While they’re a great beginning, they necessarily have to stop somewhere.

    I bring this up because it feels a bit – and this may just be my perception – as though you’re arguing with me from a How To Defend Our Beliefs To Calvinists script, with a standard set of positions and critiques such as, “Calvinism means people are puppets/robots,” and “Calvinism means you can’t really love,” and “Calvinism means God is morally responsible for evil.” There’s nothing wrong with these statements in themselves; we could have an interesting conversation about any of them. The problem is that it seems sometimes as though you’re treating them as axioms, to be accepted as self-evident truths, rather than as conclusions that themselves have to be defended via proof. This is particularly problematic because I (obviously) don’t agree with these statements and have, as best I’m able, offered arguments as to why I think they’re false and/or ungrounded analogies.

    Several of these arguments have gone unanswered. That’s your prerogative, of course – we’re doing this on our own time, not for a job! But the argument becomes a little bit circular when I offer a rebuttal to one of your propositions, only for the same proposition to be offered again a few posts later with no mention of the rebuttal. So, for instance, I made some arguments on the subject of God’s moral responsibility for our sin when that subject first arose upthread. I’d be glad for us to focus on those arguments and debate their validity, or not, as you like. Unless we have that conversation, though, it seems odd to claim again that, in my view, God must be darkness and sin. So likewise the “puppet/automaton” language; so likewise the business about God being willing that any should perish.

    So likewise, to some extent, the Peter1/Peter2 argument, where I’ve asked for an explanation of what quantifiable difference free will actually makes – and your answer seems to be that there is, in every measurable sense, no difference whatsoever. These seem to be the points on which we are contesting! They’re the points that underlie the “script” answers – the ones that determine the truth or falsity of those answers – and it seems to me that we can’t return to those answers without settling these more primitive arguments first.

  21. Pingback: Bible Daily Devotional – Stumbling vs. falling away: Matthew 18 | ChristianBlessings

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