Hands down, there are people who fully believe in the "power of prayer" (whatever that might mean) there are cynics of varying degrees, and there there are those like me, who engage in it while wondering if they even understand what they are doing.
In my entry "Letter to the Romans, part 1," I made it my goal to stick to Romans 1-7 as an outline for my essay. Romans 7 is a nice endpoint, but I am compelled to continue because the next two chapters are so controversial. In part 2, I will be focusing exclusively on those two chapters. I will do my best to explain what Paul is talking about, but if I am completely honest, I think I should let you know that there is still much disagreement among scholars on this matter. This interpretation is entirely my own and, in my opinion, it reconciles the existing disagreement.
So what makes a Christian a Christian? If Jesus died for everyone's sins and sinning apparently has no influence on our standing in God's eyes, it should seem like I've defined "Christian" to be the current state of humanity, not a religion you can choose to be a part of. Is there anything you can actually do to become a Christian? This is the central focus in "Part 2" of this study.
First of all, the Bible is pretty clear that one's reaction to what Christ has done is imperative. (Romans 10:9) (In fact, I would even argue that the Bible says if there is even one thing that is "unforgivable", it would be the rejection of this gift.) we know (by empirical evidence, as well as scriptural support) that there are people who have accepted grace and people who have rejected it. It is then safe to conclude that while Jesus enables everyone to receive the gift, not everyone does. Therefore, while the label is often abused, it is reasonable to say one person is a Christian and another is not. It is reasonable, but whether or not humans can responsibly utilize labels is another question. The question we will focus on is: "How is God's righteousness upheld in a world like this, where some people will accept Christ and billions of others won't?" To me, this is the same question as "How can God let people go to hell?" (Although the second question is often asked with as much fascination in hell as in God. With good reason too, as hell is another neglected topic.)
Paul addresses this in his letter to the Romans and unfortunately, his explanation gets very little attention in church. I myself have never heard a sermon, neither in person nor recording, nor participated in a church-affiliated Bible study that addresses the idea Paul introduces in Romans 8. I have found resources online, but there is a lot of disagreement. In fact, this issue is how I learned about Calvinism and Arminianism. (These ideas are taught in seminary school, just not - apparently - in church.) The disagreement stems from the meaning of "predestination".
I am arguing that if God exists and if He is just, God both completely predetermines everything and completely depends on our free will. It cannot be strictly one, but both. To understand this better, I will point out a contradiction in both predetermination and free will separately, then explain how both can coexist.
Suppose there is no predestination. When I say "predestination," I refer to God designing your fate before you yourself have had a chance to act. However, any amount of divine intervention (or lack of it) is effectually a degree of predestination because God's involvement would have ramifications effecting destiny. Therefore, let us suppose God is more or less "hands off", at the very least, if God is involved, let us assume he doesn't treat anyone in a way that is incongruous to anyone else (Neverminding the fact that there is no evidence of God ever having treated humanity equally outside of salvation.) There are inherit problems with this. Imagine two people who are born to different families in different countries, during different eras. They have different life experiences, a different biological make up, and different personalities. Most, if not all of these factors, lie outside of their own control. Imagine one of these two, by no fault of her own, has had more faith-based experiences and therefore a stronger tendency follow God. The other "chooses" not to. How is God to judge the other? If He condemns the other, He is unjust because the other could not be held responsible for circumstances outside her control. Each person can be held equally accountable only under equal circumstances. For God to be just, every circumstantial variable must be eliminated, but to have a humanity consisting of only one "version" of a human being would not embody free will: all things being equal, such a humanity would behave like a synchronized hive.
Now consider the other extreme.
Suppose there is no free will. Without free will, human beings are "robots", acting on the program God installed. Even if a robot "believes" it is thinking for itself, a robot's belief is only a function of its programming. God would therefore be unjust, since he could only judge humanity against a program he himself wrote. Furthermore, if some were "destined" for heaven and others were"destined" for hell, what difference would Christ's life make anyway? God could just do what he wanted without bringing a Savior into the picture to pretend to save everybody.
Consequently, there must be free will and there must be some degree of divine intervention to orchestrate destiny. Only by free will can God justly judge a person's actions, only by predetermination can a person be held responsible for the choices made in the circumstances they've been born into.
While the logic above makes sense to me, the conclusion seems itself to be contradictory. While I am ultimately willing to accept there are some things only God can understand, it still gets to me. I want to understand it and I want to be able to provide a reasonable explanation when others ask questions or express doubt. I can't stand having to tell others that there are some things only God can understand. Analogies help with this a lot. I came up with this one while describing the characters of a book.
Imagine a universe where there are 100 people who have complete free will. This universe had its own God, one that watches as an outsider. There's no predestination, no fate. Complete. Free. Will.
God sees how the people live their lives and after careful observation, he observes there are 30 people who, for whatever reason, are living in such a way that they would make good followers of him.
In an unprecedented move, this God steps into our imaginary universe. He gathers the 100 people, outlines what he has to offer to those who follow him, and announces, "I'm looking for anyone who is willing to bend their will to my own."
As predicted, 70 of the 100 people say "No way. I want to keep my free will - no God for me." 30 people say: "Sure, God. I will put your will above my own." God says, "Glad to hear it, because I would have picked you 30 anyway."
One of the 30 is perturbed by this. He says, "If you were going to pick us, are we really choosing?"
God says, "Yes, I simply foreknew you would choose before I called you."
The guy says, "What if I decide to change my mind?"
And God says, "Then change it."
Now here is the problem. If the guy changes his mind, he upsets God's plan, right? If he leaves, there will only be 29, not 30 like God predicted. But what is the cost to himself? Whatever God is offering, if he leaves, he gives that up. Does he really gain just from proving his point that he had free will? He must make his decision based on his values. If he values his free will more, then on principle he will leave to prove a point. But if he values whatever this God is, he will concede that he doesn't really care about his free will enough to not accept what this God is offering. Therefore, God doesn't need to know what this person will choose before he calls him, he only needs to know this person's values.
I can imagine our God's relationship with free will to be something akin to this imaginary universe, but the analogy isn't complete, since I claim we don't actually live in a world with complete free will outside of God's influence. The reality is, we live in a world were God was first and our "free wills" were created and designed. I can improve the analogy, however, if I offer this twist:
The God of that story is me. I am the author. I am the one who wrote 100 people into existence and decided that 70 would be the number to reject and 30 the number to accept. Not even you realized it, but even though I wrote "There's no predestination, no fate. Complete. Free. Will." It was I who wrote that because I wanted the characters to believe they had free will so that I could prove a point. I even wrote myself into the story just so I could solidify my point. In the story, I observed and foreknew, in reality I predestined. Bottom line is, if you think you are real and you think your free will is real, you need to realize that you are right, but they are only as real as the characters in the story. God, on the other hand, is (by comparison) as real as me, the author, relative to the story. The characters don't NOT have free will because they are characters in a story. They certainly do have free will because the story says they do. But from my perspective, they don't because I am on a much higher plane of reality.
This is how I make sense of the matter of free will. I accept the idea that God is so much more real than me that my free will -which is indeed real - is beneath his reality.
Is there anything you can do to become a Christian, in light of predestination?
First, to use the book analogy, even if the ending is written, we ourselves cannot "read" it. If we could read it, there would certainly be no hope, but because we cannot, we are free to act on our free will and free to hope for what is to come. (Romans 8:22-25)
But even while we have free will, we know the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf, so that we are not completely on our own, left to navigate circumstances that were thrust upon us beyond our control. (Romans 8:26-27)
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. Romans 8:28-30
In Paul's letter to the Romans, he cites God's predetermined justification as a source of comfort, saying "if God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31) And also,
"I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God". Romans 8:38-39
This is indeed comforting (and often quoted) to the Christian, but in today's world, to the critic it sounds like God is exclusive. Initially, Paul is pretty unapologetic about it too, saying,
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? Romans 9:19-21
For a moment, it really sounds like Paul is reinforcing the illustration of the "programmed robots" in the world of no free will. But then Paul makes a comparison to something Moses wrote conceding Jewish law. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses tells the Jews that their law (means of righteousness) is very straight forward and easy to understand. He says it isn't like you have to ascend into heaven or cross an ocean to figure out what God wants from you. Rather, it is very near : in their hearts and mouths. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) Paul uses nearly the same terminology to explain what righteousness by faith is. For his audience, there is no way the reference to Deuteronomy would be missed, but he makes a minor change: in stead of putting it in terms of ascending to heaven or crossing an ocean, he says righteousness by faith isn't about asking who should "ascend into heaven" or "descend into the abyss". Rather, righteousness by faith, like the law of Moses, is in their hearts and mouths. (Romans 10:5-8) This is profound. Paul spent the last two chapters hammering predestination only to say that we shouldn't be asking who is going to heaven or hell, but that we still have a choice in the matter:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9
What must you do to be a Christian? You must believe there is nothing you've done and nothing you can do. (Romans 9:30-33) The result of the admission is paradoxical. Christians don't live a certain way because it is what we have to do, (Romans 12:9-21) we live a certain way because it's what we don't have to do. Such is the nature of the freedom that comes with a new life in Jesus Christ. We give out of the abundance that comes from what Christ gave to us. (Romans 12:1-2, Romans 15:5-7)
As a Christian, I stand behind some hard-to-swallow beliefs. How can I believe in a God that would let someone go to hell? How can I believe in a God that lets bad things happen to good people? If God is all-powerful, what does that say about our free will? And perhaps the worst of all: how can I call myself a Christian when self-proclaiming Christians have been behind such acts of judgement, intolerance, and hate?
I began studying Judges 19 with the goal of better understanding the gospel, or rather, to find a way in which such an objectionable story could underscore the gospel, if that was even possible. I think the parallel act of both Judges 19 and Genesis 19 illustrates that while both Sodom and Benjamin exhibited the same act of immorality, in Sodom we saw the inoccent protected by the intervention of God and the guilty destroyed at the hands of God, while in Israel, the inoccent is given up and the guilty are spared.
I asked a few people to explain this passage. I only ever found an answer that was – to me – expected and too simple: "This story exists to provide evidence of the state of Israel during its darkest times and to point to its need for a Savior." I don't think this answer addresses the question. The question is really, why is this amount of detail is included. There are plenty of passages that have a similar effect but omit the specifics. For example, Judges 12:1-16 (same book, only seven chapters earlier) ends with a civil war in which 42,000 Ephraimites were killed. (You will want to remember that, because it comes up later.) The cause of the civil war was merely that the Ephraimites asked Jepththah why he fought the Ammonites without calling them. Slaying 42,000 Ephraimites seems like a disproportional response, don't you think? It seems like some detail, something political, perhaps, may have been left out. But in Judges 20, when 25,000 Benjamites were slayed, the battle was clearly spurred by the outrage incited by the twelve pieces of the concubine that had been sent across Israel. Ultimately, what my question boils down to is: what is it about this particular event that requires a level of detail that similar stories omit? If I take Luke 24 literally, then it must be that this story of rape somehow points to Christ in a way that is so significant, it cannot be omitted. I need only to figure out why.