Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Heb 10:26-38 Freedom to Make Bad Choices




Heb 10:26-39 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will nojudge his people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, "Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him." But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

Before we were saved by grace, we were all slaves to sin and Satan--we were victims. Jesus said, "everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin" (John 8:4) and Hebrews 2:14-15 says, "through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery."  What this mean is that apart from God, we couldn't help sinning because we are in bondage to sin and Satan's temptations through our sinful nature (i.e. the flesh). In other words, we don't really have free choices. We are slave to one choice: obeying the desires of the flesh which are contrary to God's will.

That doesn't mean we do not know what is right and good, but just that we have no power to do so because our will is held captive to the desires of the sinful flesh. So, when someone says he or she can't help being what they are or doing what they do because they are "born that way", in a sense, they are telling the truth--they have no choice about living a particular lifestyle. They are held captive to that particular lifestyle because obeying the sinful nature has become, well, second nature.

In 1524, Erasmus asserted in his book, "On Free Will" that all humans retain the freedom of choice apart from knowledge of God. In other words, they have the power to choose what is right and good. But Martin Luther responded to Erasmus in 1525 with his scathing book, "On the Bound Will" (translated in English as "The Bondage of the Will"), rejecting Erasmus' position and asserting that humans have lost the freedom of choice because of sin. Luther argued that it was only by God's grace that humans can be delivered from his bondage to sin and Satan--he can't save himself by exercising his freedom to do good because his choices are consistently self-centred rather than God-centred. Without grace, we do not have the freedom to choose what is right and good even though we know they are right and good. This is consistent with Paul's statement in Romans 7:14-20
  • For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (ESV)
In arguing that only God's will is fully free and sovereign, Luther went to other extreme of asserting that there is no free will even for those inside grace--believers are not truly free as our salvation has been predestined by God's "hidden" will. So ultimately, human actions are not free choices (both outside and inside grace) but only God's "hidden" sovereign will carries the day to fulfill His sovereign purpose--so that "God might be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). While it is true that scripture does teach the sovereign freedom of God's ultimate purpose and that it always prevails, but it is not an either-or logic: God's sovereignty and man's freedom of choice are not mutually exclusive. This is the problem of Western logic which is dichotomous. But Hebrew logic is integrative--so we can emphasize equally God's sovereign free-will and man's freedom of choices at the same time.

My own view based on study of Scripture is that Christ came to restore to humans total freedom. When we were outside of grace, we have limited freedom of choice: we can still choose to do right, but by and large, we simply choose whatever our sinful flesh dictates. However, when a person is in Christ, this freedom is completely restored through the indwelling Spirit. Before a person knows Christ, he can honestly say, "I couldn't help it" when he yields to the sinful flesh. But now in Christ he has the Holy Spirit, and he cannot say, "I couldn't help it". Instead, he can only say, "I didn't help it" because he has the choice not to yield to the sinful flesh by obeying the Spirit. So Paul can tell the Galatian church:

  • But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh...If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Gal 5:16, 25-26)

So, a Christian now has total freedom to choose: flesh or Spirit. Total freedom implies we now can have two choices, not one. Like in Eden, God placed two trees in Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge. Adam and Eve had total freedom because they could choose between the two trees. If we can only choose one Tree (whether Life or Knowledge) then we are not truly free. But Jesus came to grant us true freedom: "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

Animals do not have total freedom because their choices are restricted by their built-in instincts, Bees will always build hexagonal beehives; they have no freedom to build a pentagonal or some other geometrical beehives. Beavers will always build dams across rivers; they have no freedom to build a bridge instead across the rivers. Cats will always clean up after they poo; they will not become like dogs, leaving their poos around. But humans can choose to do things differently everytime--that is freedom. But sin has severely restricted human freedom to doing only what the sinful flesh dictates. Christ came to set our will free from its bondage to the sinful flesh:

So in Christ, we have complete freedom--not just to choose what is right by God's "Spirit of grace" but freedom to walk by the flesh again. God's desire is that we will always choose to obey the Spirit until it becomes "second  nature" (Christ's nature), so that making right choices become "natural" as we continue to practice obedience to the Spirit--theologians call this process "sanctification." We have to make every effort to obey the Spirit so that what was once "unnatural" to obey God becomes "natural" -- as the "second nature" of Christ forms in us.

This long preliminary is to bring us back to today's Hebrews passage: there are preachers who insist that under grace, we cannot sin because we are now "slaves of righteousness." So by logical extension, God's sovereignty will not permit us to backslide and fall away. But Scripture is quite clear that we can slide backward because we have true freedom now. Unlike those outside of grace who "couldn't help it", those who claim to be inside grace now can help it. But it we don't, the judgement is more severe. Before I knew Christ, I sinned in ignorance because I was in bondage to sin and Satan. But now that I know Christ, I have true freedom. So when I sin, I do so deliberately by exercising my freedom to choose wrong over right, evil over good. That's why our judgement will be more severe.

So today's Hebrew's text warns us: "For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

No wonder Luther wanted to take Hebrews out of the NT canon! It does not gel with his idea of "bondage to the will of God" under grace.

So, those who are under grace are now truly free--back to the Edenic freedom. Free to choose good over evil, right over wrong. But this freedom entails also the freedom to choose evil over good and wrong over right. But because we are now truly free, we cannot blame the devil or the flesh but ourselves for not obeying the Spirit of grace: our deliberate sinning "has outraged the Spirit of grace." 

Thank God that He has rstored to us true freedom like Eden before the Fall. But this freedom means greater responsibility to exercise it in obedience, so that we can affirm that we have not only received Christ's nature, but are now becoming like Him in obedience to God. When obedience becomes "second nature", we are ready for God's new heaven and new earth. There is no longer a need for the Tree of Knowledge for the inhabitants of the New Earth, but only the Tree of Life. Because Christ's "second nature" has been fully formed in them, they would not choose anything but the Tree of Life: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.'" (Rev 2:7).

Father, teach us to exercise our freedom for Christ and for Your glory. Amen.

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