I will begin my sermon to you this morning by asking you a big question: do you believe that you have free will? You may groan. I can already hear your thoughts: Pastor, you just got back from vacation and rest, and you hit us with that of question? Are you insane?
My sanity is irrelevant, but I’d probably answer in the affirmative. I am a bit insane, but to return to the original question I think is more pertinent. Do you believe that you have free will? Most of us would probably without hesitation answer, “yes.” We believe and act as though we have free will. Our entire criminal justice system is based on the idea that we have free will. Our entire society is based on the idea that we are free to choose what we want to buy; what we want to do; what career we want to pursue. So why even ask the question?
Well, for a couple of reasons because there are more than a few folks who argue that we don’t have free will, but that we simply are under the illusion that we have free will. There are some noted scientists including Stephen Hawking who believe that we are governed by our genetics and scientific law, we have no choice in what we do. Sam Harris, a noted atheist and neuroscientist, talks about studies that show us making choices before the brain is even aware of our choice. He concludes that we aren’t in control of our actions. I share this so that you are aware that there are those who are making strong, scientific, secular arguments that we don’t have free will. But it is not only some in the secular crowd that believe we have no free will. There are many theists and Christians who do not believe in free will either. Some Christians believe that God has planned out every single moment of our lives. God has counted the numbers of hairs on our head–for those of us who still have hair, and He knows all and has all power. And if He is all powerful, then He controls everything. Nothing happens without His say so. Oftentimes we call this predestination.
I am reminded of the story of the preacher during the civil war who preached encouragement to a platoon heading into battle. “Men,” he said, “God has ordered the days of your life. He has planned everything out for you. If it is not your day to die, no bullet from the enemy can harm you. Have no fear!”
As the battle waged, enemy forces pushed the platoon back to the point where even the good reverend had bullets whizzing by him. And it just so happened that the reverend found himself taking shelter behind a tree with a private whom he had preached to earlier that day.
The private looked at the reverend cowering behind the tree and said, “Reverend, I thought you said that if it wasn’t our time to go, no bullet could harm us. Why are you hiding behind this tree?”
The reverend retorted quickly, “My son, you misunderstand the finer points of predestination. This tree was predestined to be here, and I was predestined to be behind it.”
You may be wondering why I am even bringing this up or even spending time on it, and the answer has to do with the nature of who God is. If God controls everything–each and every moment of our lives, then we have to wrestle with some significant questions. If God controls us as a cosmic puppet-master, then why does He allow evil in the world? Why did He allow that microburst to affect us last week and devastate so many houses in Sealy–including some of our members homes? If God is in control of our actions, then why does he allow people to kill and murder? If He is in control, does that make God a murderer? If God is in control of everything, is God just? Is He righteous?
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we come before you today exploring the mystery of your will and your power. Do you give us free will? Are you in control of everything? And if you are in control of everything, do you cause evil to happen? Open our hearts and our minds to understand you, to know you, to have some insight into how you work to ensure that your goodness shines through, and that we can have confidence in knowing that you are just. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
This question of whether or not God is just is front and center in our biblical text this morning from the book of Romans. Paul is dealing with the fact that most of his fellow Jews have not come to belief in Jesus Christ. This has called into question whether or not the promises that God made to the people of Israel in the Old Testament are still valid. Can God revoke a promise that He has made? Paul is making the case that God has not revoked those promises and will not revoke those promises because God is consistent. Paul has begun working through the Old Testament to show this, and Paul began by showing that God made choices along the way when it came to passing down the covenant promises. God chose Isaac instead of Ishmael. God chose Jacob instead of Esau.
But that has led to the question: if God chooses one person over another in regards to the passing down of the covenant, is God just? Is God righteous? Is it fair that God chooses one over another?
The short snippet from Romans 9 that we have before us this morning deals with these questions head on. Paul begins with these words, “14 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses,‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ 16 So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”
Let’s delve into what Paul says here about Moses. Paul quotes a snippet of Exodus 33, and this is quite a chapter. At the beginning of the chapter, God is angry beyond belief. The people He had brought out of Egypt had worshiped a golden calf saying that it had brought them out of Egypt instead of the God who had brought the ten plagues upon the Egyptians and had parted the Red Sea. In a short period of time, they had rejected their Deliverer, and God was intent upon abandoning them.
In fact, God said straight up to Moses, “Take these people into the land of Canaan, but I will not go with you.” God was leaving them on their own. But Moses interceded for the people. Moses begged God to go with them, and God relented. God decided to stay with His people. Then Moses asked God to show His glory to him. And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
Interestingly enough, God is especially showing mercy on His chosen people. They deserve His wrath and punishment for abandoning Him. They deserve His abandonment because they abandoned Him. But He is merciful toward them. He gives them what they do not deserve. And this is at the heart of God’s statement here. This is why Paul quotes it. For at the beginning of the book of Romans, Paul showed that all are deserving of God’s wrath and punishment. All have fallen short of the glory of God. None deserve His mercy and compassion. They didn’t in the Old Testament; yet, instead of bringing condemnation on everyone, God chose to have compassion. Instead of being just–giving people what they deserve, God chose mercy. That was actually a marvel and wonder. This is why Paul includes that statement, “ So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.” If the passing of the covenant were dependent upon human will or strength, the covenant would never be passed on because we would not be worthy of having that covenant. The Israelites were certainly not worthy of having that covenant bestowed upon them, but God showed mercy and compassion.
And if Paul would have stopped here, we wouldn’t be having too many discussions about free will and predestination. But Paul doesn’t stop with these words. He continues with more from the Exodus. Verse 17 “For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ 18So then he has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses.”
This is a bit concerning because it very much looks like God hardens a person’s heart so that they never come to believe in Him. It looks like God actually condemns a person because of God’s own actions. But we need to remember what was going on here. We need to remember that God was using Pharaoh for a purpose. God was using Pharaoh to reveal to the world who God is and what God can do.
Remember first off, Pharaoh was not a good guy. Pharaoh had ordered the killing of all the first born sons of the Israelites. He had also enslaved them and made them do back-breaking work. Pharaoh was guilty of infanticide, genocide, and enslavement. And God needed to show the world that God was a God of justice–God would not allow infanticide against His people to go unpunished; God would not allow genocide against His people to go unpunished; God would not allow the crime of slavery against His people to go unpunished. And so, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that justice could be served. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that the world could see what kind of God the Israelites had. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that God’s ultimate plan of revelation could be made manifest.
And I think it is this that unlocks the meaning behind verse 18, “So then he [God] has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses.” God needed to have mercy on the Israelites to bring His covenant promises to fruition. God needed to harden Pharaoh’s heart to bring His covenant promises to fruition. Sometimes God must show mercy to keep His promises, and sometimes God needs to harden the hearts of people to bring his covenant promises to fruition.
Now, what does that mean? What does that have to do with our free will? I think it means this: we both have free will and we don’t. That sounds really, really stupid, but hear me out. In these verses from the book of Romans, Paul shows that God has a plan and a purpose. God has a covenant to fulfill. God has made particular promises to the people of Israel and now to the rest of the world through Jesus Christ. And despite our individual choices, God will work to make that covenant come true. Let me say that again: despite our individual choices, God will work to make His covenant promises come true. And so, we have free will to make our choices, but God will work–sometimes despite our choices–to make sure His promises come true.
Let me try and show you how this works with a previous reference to the work of the Holy Spirit. Today is Pentecost, so I should talk about the Holy Spirit at least a little. Remember several weeks ago when I preached the sermon about prayer–that we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words? Think about how that works out. Think about how that process takes place. We pray. Our prayers are our choice. We put together the words. We put together the phrases. Sometimes, we don’t know what to say and we are simply silent. We are exercising our free will in these prayers. We are exercising our free expression, but then the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. The Holy Spirit takes our prayers and molds them and makes them into prayers that are holy and acceptable before God. The Holy Spirit transforms them so that they are in accord with God’s will and not our own. So, we have free will to ask for whatever we wish. We have free will to pray for whatever we wish, but then we don’t have free will in how those prayers are delivered. We don’t have free will in the overall outcome of those prayers. God’s will will prevail.
God’s will indeed will prevail. And that is what we most need to hold onto. God’s promise will not be revoked. And God will do what it takes to ensure that His promises will come to fruition. We will see this play out even more in the weeks to come as Paul continues to wrestle with what is going on. We will see that sometimes, God will harden people’s hearts–so that His promises will come true. And ultimately, God’s mercy and love will reign. Ultimately, God’s compassion will shine through–even though Israel’s heart is hardened. Even though, sometimes our hearts are hardened.
For God ultimately, God wants no heart to remain hardened. Ultimately God wants every heart to come to Him. Ultimately, God wants to save the world. That’s at the heart of the Gospel: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. And God acted through Jesus in a manner that is designed to melt even the hardest heart–having Jesus die for us when we least deserved it. Giving us a priceless gift when we were least worthy of it.
And God will pull out all the stops to bring you to know His love. Sometimes He will show great mercy to you so that you can sense His love. Sometimes He may harden you so that the glory of His promises can be revealed not only to you but to others. For it is His will that will reign supreme. It is His love that is meant to be revealed to the world. Sometimes because of our choices, and sometimes despite them.
Let us pray, Gracious God, help us to see that your will reigns supreme. Help us to see that even though you may harden our hearts–even though you may harden the hearts of others, that in the long run, you are working to reveal your love in Jesus Christ to the world. May our free will come to align with your will so that you may receive glory and honor. In Jesus’ name. Amen.