Another Look At “Free-Will”

One of my favorite “grace teachers” is Paul Ellis who hosts the blog site Escape to Reality and who wrote the outstanding book The Gospel In Ten Words. Besides his championing a pure Gospel of grace he has recently come out against eternal conscious torment and revealed his position of the final destruction of unbelievers (a form of Annihiliationism or Conditional Immortality). This is a significant step toward a more coherent understanding of God’s final dealings with man although we challenge it as still falling short of the Biblical view.

In this post we will discuss the position of the “freewill of man” highlighting Paul Ellis as an example of a typical argument.

Inclusionism vs. Universalism

In Ellis’s article entitled First Adam vs Last Adam he discusses freewill in the context of the two views of Inclusionism and Universalism. Ellis rejects the belief that all are already saved in Christ until they consciously reject Him (Inclusionism) as well as Universalism which he defines as “everyone will end up in heaven saved.”  (We also would have problems with Inclusionism for if Inclusionism does not result in a universal salvation then as Ellis says, it is not good news.)

In this post we will focus on Ellis’s objections to a universal salvation based on his perception of the “freewill of man.”

The idea of freewill seems to be the bottom line as to why most believers do not have faith for a universal redemption. In his series deconstructing both Inclusionism and Christian Universalism Paul Ellis sets forth arguments against universalism in defense of man’s freewill. Here are a string of statements made by Ellis which are common assumptions in the defense of a freewill paradigm:

“Your freedom is a big deal to God…God took a risk…God loves us too much to force Himself on us…He wants us to choose Him because that is how love works. Love woos. It doesn’t snatch. The gospel isn’t the horrific announcement that a God who makes mistakes has taken you against your will.”

Ellis defines Universalism, as many do, as God giving man no choice and thus reducing him to a robot, forcing His salvation upon all against their will like a “Stepford Wife.” Ellis puts the following statement in the mouths of Universalists when he says: “Adam’s sin affected the entire human race, so Jesus has to save us all.” He responds by saying, “To say ‘Jesus must save us all’ is to say he has no choice and we have no choice. But Jesus, the Bible, and history all say otherwise: You have a choice.”

First, a Christian universalist would never say that Jesus is in any way trapped into saving us, or that He has to, must, or is forced to save us. A Christian Universalist would say that Jesus rather has the ability to romance all to Himself and promises to do so. As God He has faith in His own plan of salvation to redeem His image-bearers to their original design as very good. Jesus, as the second Person of the Godhead, had faith in His redemptive work on the cross enough so that He declared: “It is finished.”

Second, a Christian Universalist would never say that God “snatches you against your will.” Again this denies the ability of God to exceed our expectations with His beauty and ability to draw us to Himself. It seems to be a lack of faith in the reality of God’s beauty and goodness who said He was “The Desire of every nation.”

Indeed if you take the romance factor out of Psalm 22: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and return to the Lord” or from “Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Phil 2) then you must admit God is going to violate man’s freewill by forcing all to return to Him and bow to Him in worship. Will this be a forced obeisance …or a heartfelt worship? Which would be “to the glory of the Father?” If you believe this is forced then you have just deconstructed your freewill paradigm!

God’s Freedom is our only source of true freedom

Perhaps we need to come to grips with the fact that God is the only truly free agent in the universe. Could be that we are in the process of receiving our true freedom from our position of slavery to sin as He reveals His love for us in Christ who “reconciled the world to Himself”? In light of the fact that salvation is defined as “freedom” (“Freedom for the captives” and “The truth shall make you free”) it appears that we are moving from our bondage into His freedom. In the Scriptures we are never described as truly free apart from God. On the contrary we are said to be slaves to sin, blind to the truth, dead in our sins, and imprisoned in the lies of our fallen mindset. That leaves our sinful fallen state not free but in pure abject slavery. It appears that it is our so-called human “freewill” that needs to be set free and saved! God is indeed giving us freedom–but that freedom is in allowing us to exhaust all the alternatives to Himself which are clearly not free. He is allowing us the free journey of testing all that is not free in relation to His true freedom!

The Good News is not that you are free enough to choose God but that He has the keys of freedom for your life! To follow Christ is to be caught up into the freest life that you could ever imagine. That is the romance He is after–for your eyes to be open to see that your true identity and freedom lie in Him–not in your own attempt to self-create apart from Him which has led all of mankind into incalculable bondage.

Ellis is saying that it is our freedom that is the means for our true salvation. But God says:

His freedom = salvation

It appears that God has indeed given us “freedom” which we might call “alternatives” to the truth. But God knows that someday we will understand fully that all alternatives to His truth and freedom are dead-ends. God is so convinced that we are going to exhaust all the alternatives to His freedom that He has given us our “freedom” to work it out. And He knows that it is only in fully exhausting the alternatives that the alternatives are fully destroyed (thank you Andre Rabe for this insight!) He isn’t a “God who made a mistake and takes us against our will” but a God who allows us the freedom to make all the mistakes we need in order to discover that our truest freedom and truest life lies within our relationship with Him!

Other Thoughts Regarding “Freewill”

We ought also to ask how it is we can claim true freedom in ourselves when we did not choose where we were born, our parents or what opportunities we would be given to hear the Gospel? To defend the freewill of man in salvation in light of things sovereignly placed upon us creates quite a conundrum: How can we say that God is fair and loving if He determined our circumstances that created the lack of hearing the Gospel which leads most of mankind into a permanent state in hell or into destruction (annihilation)?

Set that against the statements made by Ellis and many other grace teachers who say things like: “the true Gospel is rarely ever preached”  The question I assume that comes to your mind is how is it that God demands saving faith from a world in which the Church has not clearly presented a saving Gospel?  How is man free within a world in which God has not at least insured His Gospel is adequately preached and fairly offered to all?

In addition if God wants this “choice” to come from us freely in this lifetime how do we understand infants who die or the mentally disabled? Does God take them to heaven against their will? And are they saved apart from a personal faith in Christ?

Again, the idea that man is free in and of himself apart from God is difficult to defend. We must come to understand that it is God’s allowing us our “freedom” to be slaves to the alternatives that all the alternatives will someday be destroyed, forever!

Are We Ultimately Saved By Our Faith Or Christ’s Faith?

Ellis sums up Inclusionism and Universalism as:

“The universalist: “All men will live, none will die.”
Inclusionist: “All men live though some may die”
Apostle Paul: “Life is freely available for all.”

Ellis’ last statement to define the Gospel obviously raises, at least the following questions:

If the Gospel is rarely preached where can the world go to freely grasp this “available Gospel”?

Is mankind’s salvation bound to and dependent upon the Church’s ability to make it coherent? Are we given that much power?

Are we saved ultimately by our faith in this poorly communicated and skewed Gospel …or locking into His faith in His own perfect plan of salvation?

Ultimately salvation is of God from first to last who is “the Author and Perfecter of our faith.” We are told in numerous passages that it is the faith OF Christ that we live by. These passages are rendered as “faith IN Christ” but that is not in the original Greek (see Gal 2:20 and Eph 3:12). While our faith and our love are important and vital to the relationship it is only a response to first HIS faith and HIS love. “We love because He first loved us.” We believe because He first believed in His design, His prized creation! We have faith because HE is the Author of our faith. A salvation offered indiscriminately to all mankind in general with little faith on God’s part in His own ability to romance the hearts of His own image-bearers is not good news.

I’m so glad God is not confused about who we are! No, God is not confused but rather He has faith in what He has created and redeemed in Christ! I’m so glad that my God has what it takes within His own irresistible Being for every knee to gladly bow and every tongue to joyfully and willingly sing to the glory of God the Father! I’m so glad that He has confided in us that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and return to the Lord” after they have finally and eternally rejected all the false alternatives to their true freedom in Christ!

When Were We Saved?

Much of the struggle is the desire to determine the timing of when we are “saved.” If you say everyone was already saved in Christ (as the Apostle Paul actually states in Eph 1) then where does our faith-response factor in? Similarly if one believes we are all “going to be saved” someday (as the A. Paul also supports), again, where is our personal faith? I appreciate the late Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance on this matter who saw clearly that God has three perspectives of our salvation: Before the foundation of the world (“before the Fall” Eph 1), 2000 years ago on the cross when we were associated in Him and thirdly, when we become aware of His faith over us and personally embrace the Lover of our souls! Our response to God’s reconciliation (literally “to kiss”) in the revelation of His already being reconciled with us by the cross will cause us to respond in free adoration. You have already been reconciled…now you be reconciled! (2 Cor 5)

The Gospel is the Story of a God who desires that we freely experience all our alternative stories and awaken to the fact that our stories of bondage are not worth re-telling. All mankind will believe that the only Story that will be worth repeating throughout all eternity will be about the God who “kissed a guilty world in love” and gave them the freedom to kiss Him back.  One by one, we will all “come to our senses.” One by One we will realize that it is only our union with Him that makes us truly free and truly ourselves. And He’s got time and He’s got love.  And He promised, “Love never gives up.”

Can We “Out-Desire” Or “Out-Dream” God?

In closing, as disappointed as I am in Paul Ellis’ determination to deconstruct Christian Universalism I am once again delighted by yet another Christian pastor revealing his heart of true desire. He began his post by saying,

“If the two-Adam argument is true, then everyone is either saved or will be. This is surely a happy outcome, and one we all long for.”

If “God is able to do above and beyond all that we could ever ask or imagine” then I am left to believe that God’s Ultimate Story must, and indeed will, “out-happy” and “out-long” anything Ellis has ever expressed publicly or dreamed privately in his heart.

Thank you Paul Ellis for heralding a pure Gospel. By both your positive teaching and your attempts to deconstruct Christian Universalism you are helping us join together many vital puzzle pieces of the Gospel Story which the Church has managed to scatter into disconnected confusion. You are demonstrating one more amazing way the Church is taking us into the Beautiful Story of the Restoration of All.

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12 Comments

  1. ILoveJesusChristTheLord says:

    These universalists and others who twist and distort Scripture are evil liars and enemies of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible is clear, Jesus Himself said that out of all of those who are able to choose Him, most will end up burning in the Lake of Fire forever. We should stick to this instead of compromising with fallen human emotions like so many do. I side with God against and over fallen, evil, depraved, wicked sinful man. Jesus said there are two gates, the narrow gate which is salvation by faith alone in Him alone and few there be that find it, and the wide gate to eternal torment in Hellfire, and many are on it.

    There is an age of accountibility: All the severe retarded and the people with child like minds who cannot and do not understand the difference between right and wrong are in Heaven. But everyone else, from people in modern cities to savage heathens in jungles, from youngsters to seniors, who understand right and wrong, good and evil, are responsible to either reject Jesus or accept Him. He knows who will accept Him and who will not, and He can send visions of Himself preaching the Gospel to them if necessary, but if they reject Him as their only Savior, they BURN IN HELL FOREVER.

    • It is really sad to read responses like this, but I understand because I was raised as a child with this view until fifty years ago our Father directed me to translations of the Bible that correctly rendered the words mistranslated as “hell” and “eternal, forever, etc.” The darkness of the dark ages continues, and many still sit in that darkness, but the true Light of Christ is progressively shining into this darkness.

    • glwadmin says:

      Your interpretation of God’s judgments create quite a conundrum for you. It makes being mentally handicapped a good thing and allows for a different source of salvation other than conscious faith in Christ. Same for unborn babies. That means that abortion is the best means of salvation–100% successful.

      You side with God against evil men? I thought we were all evil and that salvation was all of grace. I thought it was while we were still enemies with Him that He died for us.

      Where is this age of accountability? Is there a moment in one’s life where faith is instantly required of a person? There have been those who have murdered their children before this perceived “age of accountability” in order to secure their salvation. Madness.

      I’m so glad that we have so many promises from the Lord that He has faith in His original design of image and likeness and in His redemption through Christ of that design. His promise to make all things new cannot be revoked even in light of our unbelief (Rom 9-11).
      I’m so glad that we have the promise that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess praise that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

      It was the Pharisees, the “elder brothers,” who remained outside the party weeping and gnashing their teeth refusing to go in to celebrate.

      His love never fails and His mercies never come to an end. Someday you will choose to join the party hosted by “the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.”

      “All the inhabitants of the earth will remember and return to the Lord…” (Psa 22)

  2. A good article. Thank you for this website, as well.
    May I recommend my translation of the New Testament.
    Sample passages can be read at:
    http://www.jonathanmitchellnewtestament.com

    And expanded rendering of what Paul says in Rom. 8:
    28. Now [look], we have seen, and thus know and are aware, that to those habitually or progressively loving God – to the folks being called and invited according to [the] purpose
    (or: for, in and with the people progressively experiencing love for God – in, with, by and for the people being invited down from an advanced placing, congruent with a design and corresponding to a before-placing and a prior setting forth) – He is constantly working all things together into good and is progressively working all humanity together into that which is advantageous, worthy of admiration, noble and of excellent qualities.

    All His goodness to you all,
    Jonathan

    • glwadmin says:

      Thank you Jonathan,

      “He is constantly working all things together into good and is progressively working all humanity together into that which is advantageous, worthy of admiration, noble and of excellent qualities.”

      Yes, that is it…we are called according to His purpose. What was His purpose? To make us into HIs image and likeness which has been revealed and redeemed in His Son. Nothing less! Jesus is what is “worthy of admiration, noble and of excellent.” We have been remade in His image and likeness through our union with Him. “In Adam all died; in Christ all are made alive.” The plan of God cannot be thwarted…Hallelujah!

      • Some of your readers may wonder why I included the rendering “all humanity” along with “all things” in Rom. 8:28. It is because the form of the word “all” is both neuter and masculine. Most translations give only the neuter rendering, “things.” But the masculine indicates “people,” and the majority of times where Paul uses the word “all,” he is speaking about people.

        Another place where this is true is in 1 Cor. 13:7, where I give two separate renderings:
        7. [Love] continuously covers all mankind; it is habitually loyal to all humanity; it constantly has an expectation for all mankind; it is continuously remaining under and giving support to all people.
        (or, since “all” can also be neuter: It [i.e., unambiguous acceptance] progressively puts a protecting roof over all things; it is habitually trusting in, and believing for, all things; it is continually hoping in or for all things; it keeps on patiently enduring all things.)
        8. The Love (or, again: This unrestricted drive toward reunion) never – not even once – fails (falls out or lapses; = becomes fruitless or ineffectual; [other MSS: falls down; collapses])…

        The Agape of which Paul writes in ch. 13 is God’s Love — this is why it (or He) never fails.

  3. Sean says:

    So what happened to Judas?

  4. Jennifer Campbell says:

    Thank you! I’m so thankful to have found this article and website! It helps explain everything in light of the REAL truth and not just “what I was taught the bible said” by religious abusers using the threat of hell to scare the daylights out of their followers as a means to control and extort resources out of them!

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