A Free Will, the Bondage of the Will, a Freed Will

This is my homily on Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Jesus ben-Sirach) 15:11-20, preached at my church on 16 February 2020.

11 Do not say, “Because of the Lord I left the right way”; for he will not do what he hates.

“he will not do what he hates” (Hebrew) = “you will not do what you hate” (Greek)

12 Do not say, “It was he who led me astray”; for he had no need of a sinful man.

Compare this to James 1:13-14 “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.”

13 The Lord hates every abomination, and they are not loved by those who fear him.

Those who fear God don’t love abominations.

14 It was he who created mankind in the beginning, and he left him in the power of his own choice. 15 If you desire, you will keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of choice.

This is identical with the teaching of Deuteronomy.  Two examples:

Deut. 11:26-28 “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God”

Deut. 30:19 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”

16 He has placed before you fire and water: stretch out your hand for whichever you wish.

“fire & water” also typify damnation and baptism

17 Life and death are in front of people, and whichever one chooses will be given to him. 18 For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything; 19 his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows a person’s every deed. 20 He has not commanded any one to be ungodly, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.

Objection: What about total depravity?  Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will, arguing that the human will is corrupted by sin such that we are unable to choose the good and live righteously unless we are freed by God himself.  Righteousness is imputed by God before it can be practiced.  This draws from the giant of Western theology, St. Augustine of Hippo himself, who refuted Pelagian heresy, which asserted that mankind is still essentially good and able to choose not to sin if we just follow the example of Jesus instead of that of Adam.  Augustine famously wrote non posse non peccare – fallen man is not able not to sin; only in Christ do we become posse non peccare – able not to sin.  As Ephesians 2:3 puts it, people are “by nature children of wrath.”

Answer: The language of ben-Sirach is the same as in Deuteronomy and Joshua.  Perhaps this text from Joshua 24:14-25 will help capture the biblical tension between free will and the bondage of the will:

“Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.  And if you be unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD, to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, and who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed;
and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land; therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD; for he is a holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”

And the people said to Joshua, “Nay; but we will serve the LORD.”

Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.”

And they said, “We are witnesses.”

He said, “Then put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.”

And the people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.”

So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

Notice that hints of both doctrines can be found here.  Joshua makes a case for the bondage of the will, with Luther and St. Augustine, when he warns the people that “You cannot serve the Lord.”  And yet he gave them the choice to obey God or not, and accepts their answer of “yes” and he cut a covenant with them to renew the community God had established through Moses several decades earlier.  Clearly, the biblical evidence points to both realities: free will and bonded will.  The question left to us therefore is not to choose one exclusively over the other but to learn how this apparent paradox resolves.

One of the ways we can approach this is look at external versus internal righteousness, or extrinsic and intrinsic righteousness.  Externally we have free will: we can choose what we eat and drink (and if it’s excessive or not), we can choose whom we marry (and if we want to honor the marriage bed or not).  We can choose the words we say to people we dislike, and whether to kill them or not.  In Old Testament terms, we can choose to keep the Law on the face of it, or choose to rebel and ignore it, or parts of it.  But internally, at the level of the spirit or soul, free will is broken by sin.  It may be possible to keep the letter of the Law with enough will power, but the spirit of the Law is impossible to keep perfectly; sin is too pervasive for that.  The Old Testament Prophets recognized this again and again – priests and people kept the fasts and offered their sacrifices, but generation after generation fell into routine and empty lip service, resulting in abhorrent offerings that God hated, even though the Law was being kept on the face of it.

In other words, it is possible to make and keep a checklist of what holy living looks like – hence following the Law of Moses – but it is not possible to be or become holy through sheer will power – hence the warnings from our Lord Christ in the Gospel.  It’s one thing to refrain from killing people you don’t like, but it’s impossible to stop your heart from being sinfully angry at people you don’t like.  It’s one thing to avoid sleeping around without with your spouse, but it’s impossible to stop your heart from lusting after other people.  Sin is too powerful, it has broken the human will, it has us in bondage, we cannot escape it no matter how successful our external obedience or how shining our extrinsic righteousness.

Unless, of course, the grace of God is within you.  Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the grace Baptism, the application of the promises of God, the declaration or imputation of Chris’s righteousness upon you, you are changed.  Your broken will begins to mend; your dead spirit is born anew; you move from non posse non peccare where you are literally unable not to sin to posse non peccare where you actually can avoid sin!  And, even better, you have the promise of the resurrection life where you will be granted a state of non posse peccare – not able to sin!  This is the wonderful reality of a living faith in God.  As it is written in Hebrews 11:6, “without faith it is impossible to please him.” And in Romans 14:23 “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”  Receiving Christ in your heart, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, being granted an abiding faith in God, is the lynchpin of all our righteousness and salvation.  Where we used to have only a limited free will, in bondage to sin, we in Christ now have a freed will.  The Christian life is one of coming to terms with that new freedom, and learning what to do with it.  How do we move from carnal lust to selfless love?  How do we move from murderous wrath to neighborly compassion?  These are paths we can only traverse with Christ; no self-help gurus or books will increase our intrinsic righteousness.  The human will on its own can only bury or hide our evils, never remove them.

This even impacts how we think about evangelism.  It is popular, in many traditions today, to present people with a choice: “choose Jesus and live!”  But this is flawed.  First, it sounds like a threat, and the Gospel is supposed to be good news, not a terror campaign.  But secondly, and more importantly in light of what we’ve just explored, people are not able to choose Christ on their own power.  Every offering of the Gospel we make to non-christians has to be accompanied with prayer that God would set them free from their sin, and break that bondage in their soul.  That spiritual battle is not one that they or we can win, only the Lord.

I’d like to close with a prayer by William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury for a couple years in the 1940’s.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
This entry was posted in Biblical, Theological and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s