Thursday, August 23, 2018

No Coercion Required

How hard it is even for Christians to believe that God intends to save the whole world. This is even though the New Testament indicates in several places that this is exactly what God has purposed in Jesus Christ (see What If “All” Means All). One objection that comes up, and I encountered it twice just yesterday, is that for God to fulfill his purpose would require that he must coerce people to believe — and wouldn’t that just make puppets of them?

The first time it came up was in a discussion I had with a Christian friend on his Facebook page. The second time was because I posted the opening sentence above on my Facebook page: “How hard it is even for Christians to believe that God intends to save the whole world.” Almost as if to demonstrate my point, another Christian friend, who I hadn’t heard from in a while, brought up the same objection in the comment section. Here, with a few edits to smooth it out a bit, is how I responded:

The question at hand is, of course, about free will. And it is usually asked as if anyone has a will that is truly free outside of a relationship with Christ. But the human will apart from Christ is not in any way free; it is in deep, dark bondage. This is one reason why Christ came into the world: to set free our bound and broken wills so that we may turn to God.

Many people think of freedom of the will as the ability to choose between competing options, to deliberate between good and evil, to calculate between choosing God or not choosing God. But which tree in the Garden of Eden does that sound like to you? The Tree of Life? Sounds to me more like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The decision to eat of that tree was not one freely made but by one who was deceived, and it led only to misery, destruction and bondage to fear and further deception. A will that is bound up in deception is not one that is truly free.

Many other folks, and I am one of them, understand freedom of the will to be the ability to act and respond according to our true nature. This leads us to ask, what is our true nature? I understand it this way: God made us to be in God’s own image and according to God’s likeness — that is, to be like God. That is our true nature, the truth of who we really are and were always meant to be. But through the deception and darkness of the evil one, our true nature, and so also our will, was bound up so that we were no longer able to act according to how God created us to be.

But Christ came to set us free from all bondage. He came to destroy all the works of the devil, to bind up the “strong man” and plunder his house. Through the Incarnation, Christ joined himself with all humankind — he did not become merely one like us but one with us. That is why his cross, which was inevitable because of the Incarnation, was not just Christ’s victory but our victory as well.

Christ, who is fully human as well as fully divine, is the perfect expression of God. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ in human form. Christ is the one to whose image God conforms us. Christ is exactly what God had in mind from the beginning, when God said, “Let us make man in our image.”

We were chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world (see How God Chose Us In Christ and Chosen in Christ for the Unity of All Things). This is the truth of all humankind: Christ is now our true nature. With Christ as our true nature, then, freedom of the will is the ability to act according to Christ.

And the love of God is always at work in us like a consuming fire to burn away all the chains of lust, anger, violence, pride, egoism, rebelliousness, etc., until our wills are truly free and we are able to simply respond to God according to our true nature, the truth of who we are in Christ and who Christ is in us.

In the end, every knee in heaven and on earth will bow before Christ and every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:9-11). This is not the language of anyone being coerced. It is the language of that which is offered freely and willingly. A coerced confession is not a true confession but a contradiction in terms. A coerced confession would be nothing more than lip-service, and God has no interest in that. The confession of Jesus as Lord is not one that can be made apart from the Holy Spirit (12 Corinthians 12:3), and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, not coercion.

So, no coercive force is required for the complete fulfillment of God’s purpose to save the whole world — or else God would be no better than Zeus, a cheap and petty deity, and not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The only “force” needed is the power of God’s non-coercive, self-giving, other-centered love. It is out of such divine love that God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself, not counting our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19).