Was Judas predestined to betray Jesus? When Jesus was praying with his apostles shortly before his Passion, he said, “I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12). If he was destined to betray Jesus, then did Judas really have free will?
And what about Pharaoh? When Moses went to the ruler of Egypt telling him to give the Israelites freedom, Pharaoh refused. So God sent a series of plagues in an attempt to make Pharaoh change his mind. Although Pharaoh’s heart seems to have melted when the plague troubled the nation, the moment the calamity passed, his heart became hard again. However, Scripture explicitly states that it was God who hardened the heart of Pharaoh on more than one occasion (see Exodus 9:12; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:8). So if God was hardening his heart, did Pharaoh have free will?
There are several other narratives in Scripture that raise similar questions about free will. Some questions are relatively easily understood. Take the case of Judas. God is omniscient—all knowing—so he knows everything that is going to happen. He knew that Judas would betray Jesus. However, foreknowledge does not imply predetermination. Because God knew that Judas would betray Jesus, he used this knowledge to fulfill his plan of salvation, but he didn’t compel Judas to do anything to fulfill his plan. That was Judas’ free will.
However, other questions about free will are not as easily answered, especially when one introduces grace into the equation. Grace is generally defined as ‘unmerited favor’ but we will revisit this later for a more complete definition.
It is grace—God’s greatest gift to man—that brought salvation to us. Paul famously declares: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8‑9). In another letter Paul writes: I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6) implying that it is the continuing grace of God that ensures we remain saved. So how do we reconcile grace with free will? And what about the matter of works?
This feature hopes to provide some answers. It is mostly based on Augustine’s ‘On Grace and Free Will’. All answers are backed up with relevant references in Scripture.
Let us begin with some definitions. What is grace? What is free will? And what is the issue of conflict between them?
Merriam-Webster defines grace as unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification, and a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine assistance.
The same dictionary defines free will as the freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.
The main issue is that there are those who say that Scripture emphasizes grace over free will, and others who say that it is actually the other way around. The result is a great deal of confusion that we hope to resolve by looking at what Scripture teaches about both grace and free will and reconciling the two.
Why is this important?
True followers of Jesus want to live a life in imitation of Christ, but while they are told what to do in order to lead such a life, they are seldom told how to do it. Understanding the roles that grace and free will plays in this journey will help us learn how to do this. Resolving the conflict is a step in that direction.
Paul wrote: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own (Philippians 3:10-12). Then he adds: Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained (15-16).
We all know how we are saved. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8‑9). There is hopefully no confusion in any one’s mind about this verse, which we shall return to several times over the course of this study. Once we have attained salvation, however, it is not the end of everything. Like Paul, we have to press on. How? By depending on grace? By works exercised through free will? By both? This God will reveal as long as we hold on to the salvation that we have already attained.
Do we really have free will?
Yes. We find God presenting man with choices from the very beginning of creation. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17). The command would have no meaning if there was no free will.
When the psalmist says that happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord, and on his law meditate day and night (Psalm 1:1-2), he shows that a person chooses to do this by exercising his free will. Other verses, right through Scripture indicate the same thing, that the option to choose what to do is implicit in the command, itself.
"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds," advises Paul (Romans 12:2) .
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal,” advises Jesus (Matthew 6:19-20).
"Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge,” advises James (James 4:11).
And the choices we exercise (or the works we do), determine our reward or lack of it, for it is written that God will repay everyone for what has been done (see Matthew 16:27).
What about ignorance about the commands of God?
Just as ignorance of the law is no excuse when one commits a crime, ignorance of the commands of God cannot be offered as an excuse when one commits a sin. However, to sin with knowledge is graver than to sin without knowledge. In the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Slave, Jesus says, “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:47-48).
But, we cannot try to seek refuge in ignorance with the hope of using this as an excuse. Augustine puts it succinctly. “It is one thing to be ignorant, and another thing to be unwilling to know.”
Can God lead people to sin?
This might seem a strange question, but when we start looking at the role grace plays in our lives, this needs to be clarified, especially because there are people who apportion the blame for the wrong choices they make onto God. Adam tried to do that in the Garden of Eden when he tried to justify his sin by telling God: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). The implication was that if God hadn’t given him the woman, the woman wouldn’t have been able to tempt him!
It is of these people that Solomon wrote: One’s own folly leads to ruin, yet the heart rages against the Lord (Proverbs 19:3).
Ben Sira wrote: Do not say, “It was the Lord’s doing that I fell away”; for he does not do what he hates. Do not say, “It was he who led me astray”; for he has no need of the sinful. The Lord hates all abominations; such things are not loved by those who fear him. It was he who created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice. If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given (Sirach 15:11-17).
And more recently, James wrote: No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death (James 1:13-15).
So, no one can blame God for sins that they commit; they can only lay the blame at their own doorstep. Such people might, in all humility, admit that they are slaves to their concupiscence and bitterly lament the evil in themselves, but they need to understand that they are still not without free will, however desperate they might sound. Paul says, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21), again implying we all have the ability to make the choice.
So, what role does grace play then? With so much of emphasis on free will in Scripture, what is the need for God’s grace?
While there is in man a free determination of will for living rightly and acting rightly, without the grace of God we are not able to do any good thing.
Consider the matter of sexual continence. Paul’s general advice to people is to remain single. He explains: I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:35). Priests, who take this advice seriously, are supposed to lead celibate lives. But this cannot happen unless they despised conjugal pleasure and resolved to exercise self-control. In continuation to his exhortation, Paul writes: If someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, he will do well (1 Corinthians 7:37).
We see the power of the will exercised here, but in another context, when the apostles suggested to Jesus that it might be better not to marry, he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given” (Matthew 19:11, emphasis added).
Paul, himself, was celibate. “I wish that all were as I myself am,” he wrote, before adding, “But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind” (1 Corinthians 7:7).
So, we can see that all the precepts given by God imply a free will, yet the observance of these precepts are the gift of God.
As another example, consider the matter of temptation. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus cautioned his apostles, “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
We are all concupiscent beings; beings with an inclination to sin. We will not give into temptation if we overcome our concupiscence through our will. Yet, the will is not sufficient unless God grants it victory in answer to prayer. If Jesus has just said, “Stay awake and do not come into the time of trial”, it would have just been a command to the will, but his addition of the words, “and pray”, indicate the need for grace to assist the will.
Isn’t grace conditional to our exercising our will, though? Scripture says that God will turn to us provided we turn to him.
This is an ancient heresy that has worked its way into modern Christian thinking. Pelagius [see Box: Pelagianism] was a proponent of this theory, which was condemned in Church Councils. To understand his general argument, consider the verse in question: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts (Zechariah 1:3). The rationale is that when we use our free will to turn towards God, God’s grace is given to us, and while one can see the appeal of this argument—it does sound logical, doesn’t it?—the very act of returning to God requires God’s grace! In addition to several verses in the Old Testament indicating this (see Psalm 80:7, Psalm 85:4, Psalm 85:6 for a few examples), this is what Jesus says: “No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father” (John 6:65).
Another verse that appears to suggest the Pelagian view might not be without merit is this one. The Lord is with you, while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you abandon him, he will abandon you (2 Chronicles 15:2). The problem, if we accept this theory, is that grace is not grace. Paul offers some clarity when he speaks of his calling to be an apostle. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1 Corinthians 15:9). And then he continues, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
This is all very confusing ...
I understand. Let me try to explain this through an analogy. Consider the act of breathing. It keeps us alive. Breathing can be described as the movement of air into and out of the lungs. Air is a free gift of God. Imagine this to be grace. Breathing is something that we do. Imagine this as free will. However, the very act of breathing is also a free gift of God! We cannot breathe if God didn’t will it. We can, however, choose to suffocate ourselves if we are determined to, thereby exercising our free will to choose evil.
So we exercise our free will to choose evil, but it is God’s grace that turns us towards him? Is this true even when we do evil?
Yes. Consider something that Paul wrote to Titus. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another (Titus 3:3). As we have seen already, we can’t blame God for this because God doesn’t cause us to sin. Then Paul continues. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7). We can see these truths evident through the testimonies of so many believers.
Why does God choose to act in this manner? Why does he not allow our own actions to determine our salvation?
So that none may boast!
Consider Ephesians 2:8-9 again. We have been saved by grace through faith so that none may boast. What makes us imagine that having saved us by grace so we cannot boast, God will now let us “remain saved” by our efforts, thereby leading us to boast? Paul scolded the Galatians when they tried to do that. You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3).
I am confused again. Doesn’t Paul also tell us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling?
That’s only part of the sentence. The full sentence reads: Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
“Work out” has another meaning other than using effort. It also means “figure out”. What is he asking us to figure out? That it is God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will (that’s free will he is talking about here!) and to work for God’s pleasure!
Consider these passages from Scripture. They all have one thing in common. See if you can spot it before it is pointed out.
Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live (Deuteronomy 30:6).
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jeremiah 31:33).
I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God (Ezekiel 11:19).
Did you spot what’s common? In every case it is God who initiates the action. He will circumcise our hearts. He will put his law within us. He will remove our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. It is God who does it all!
So if everything depends on God, then why do we need to make any effort to be good?
We don’t! This is where we have fallen into error believing personal holiness depends upon our efforts. Everyone who has relied on their own strength to lead lives of holiness have failed, and then tortured themselves with guilt and shame, some even abandoning the faith because God’s commands seem impossible to follow.
So we don’t need to be good?
Of course we do. God tells us to be pure (1 John 3:3), to be holy (1 Peter 1:15,16), even to be perfect (Matthew 5:48). He gave us the Ten Commandments as a guide on how he expects us to lead our lives.
How do we lead holy lives then?
By depending on God! Jesus says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Apart from God we cannot do anything. This passage contains a lot of the answers that we seek. This preceding verse sums it all: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15:4). Have you ever seen a fruit tree? Surely you have. Have you seen fruit hanging from a branch? How does the branch produce the fruit? Simply by remaining on the tree. Cut off from the tree, the branch is dead; it cannot bear anything. Remaining on the branch provides it with all the nutrients that it needs. Remaining in Jesus provides us with all the grace with need.