Mind Blown: Destiny vs. Free Will by John Burke

At Gateway Church in Austin, we are topics which may be a source of confusion or resistance. Week one at our North Campus, John Burke spoke on “Destiny vs. Free Will.” Watch John’s message here.

Next Steps

Discussion questions for your family, running partners, or life group.

Listen to the message I shared at Gateway South here:

Here are notes from the message:

How do you view God?

  • Do you believe He is real?
  • Do you trust Him?
  • Do you seek Him for guidance?

What questions do you ask about God?

  • Does God have a plan for my life?
  • If God knows the future, and has a plan laid out for me, then what difference do my choices make anyway?
  • If God knows then are all pre-destined?
  • Is God pre-determining evil acts?
  • If people can choose good or evil, and God doesn’t control them, how can God be in control and give me confidence my future is secure?

This is the merry-go-round of questions about God’s Sovereignty (God’s all-powerful, all-knowing, rule over all he Created) versus People’s Free Will (our ability to decide and choose freely). How you understand this will determine how you pray, work, make choices, who you become—maybe more than any other factor in life!

These are all related to our perception of God’s Sovereignty and our free will. This is a debate that’s been underway since the 1500s, classically between Calvinists (who tend to emphasize God’s Sovereign Control and predestination) and Arminians (who tend to emphasize our free will), and now Open Theologians (who say God determines some of the future, but has chosen to leave the future partly open to free choice).

Let me give you some background history, and help us guard against the divisive spirit of the debates, and hopefully gain a mind-blowing better understanding of God.

Calvin and Arminius

John Calvin was a French theologian who lived from 1509-1564. Jacobus Arminius was a Dutch theologian who lived from 1560-1609. Both tried to bring a unified understanding to the passages of the Bible that refer to God’s Sovereignty and our Free will. Both systems can be summarized with five points.

The 5 Points of Calvinism go by the acronym TULIP: T is for Total Depravity—Calvinism holds that every aspect of humanity is depraved or corrupted by sin and evil; So human beings are unable to come to God by their own free will. And they’ll site verses like Rom 3:10-12:

As the Scriptures say, “No one is righteous—not even one. No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.” – Romans 3:10-12

Arminius came along and said, yes, every aspect of humanity is tainted by separation from God, but not to the extent that humans are unable to place faith in God of their own free will.

Arminians contend that if we have no ability to choose, it makes nonsense of many passages where Jesus says:

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. 38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’”
– John 7:37-38

Or where Paul pleads:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. – 2 Corinthians 5:20

Arminians will say, Jesus’ words are nonsense telling anyone to come if in fact they can’t. And why’s Paul begging them to be reconciled to God if they can’t decide?

To which Calvinism sites scripture confirming the ULI of TULIP– Unconditional election, Limited atonement, and Irresistible grace. They’ll site Jesus saying “You did not choose me. I chose you.” And Ephesians which reads:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. – Ephesians 1:4-5

Calvinists will say, see God alone chooses who will be saved by His sovereign choice. We are born spiritually dead, unable to respond to the grace of God. Therefore, God predestines who will be saved and it is in no way dependent on our reaction to God’s grace.

And Arminians will say: “He chose us, but for what?” To be holy and blameless if we respond and choose him. He predestined us for adoption. It’s not limited to God’s elect few but all who respond in faith:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned. – John 3:16-18

It’s “the whole world” and “Whoever” believes. To which Calvinists say, yeah but you can’t believe without God’s irresistible Grace:

All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.
– John 6:37, 44

So there—it’s not your choice and you can’t resist. To which the Arminian will argue…You left out the middle part where Jesus said:

“my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.” – John 6:40

And what about 1 John 2:2 which reads: 

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 2:2

It goes back and forth and back and forth!

In fact, people who don’t have faith in God see Christians fighting over these theological differences and it does damage to the cause of Christ.

The reason this has been such a huge theological debate for 500 years is that God claims to be revealing things in scripture that are true about God, yet they seem paradoxical to us. So you can find lots of scripture that talks about God’s Sovereignty and our predestination—that God knows, God’s in control, nothing surprises him or gets away from Him. We can have complete confidence that everything will work out for the good of those who love him because nothing thwarts his plan. That can bring great comfort.

God Can Turn Something Bad Into Something Good

In fact, even when someone is hell-bent on playing God and opposing God, God can even use what that person intends for evil to accomplish his plan for good—Joseph’s brothers are examples. Judas betrayal of Jesus and the Pharisees & Pilate’s crucifixion of Messiah—all against God’s will—yet it didn’t thwart God’s plans, he used it for the good of many. Nothing catches God off guard—because from the very beginning he knows how it will all turn out in the end—and he assures us that He is good—his plans and purposes for us are good.

To his people in Old Testament times he declared:

This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. – Jer 29:10-12

I think this tells us, God has plans for all who will turn to him, and seek him, and call on him—his plan is that you prosper and have a hope and a future. You don’t need to fear that if you wholeheartedly follow God, he will harm or hurt you or lead you into something you’ll later regret. That’s not his plan. If you are in His hands, you’re in good hands. There’s nothing that can ultimately thwart his plans or purpose.

Where Arminianism goes wrong is robbing us of the peace and confidence that comes from knowing God’s Sovereign and we can rest in that—it’s not all up to us.

To the prophet Jeremiah, God says his plans are very personal:

The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” – Jeremiah 1:4-5

So we know God’s plans and purpose can be extremely personal—but as Jeremiah found out, that doesn’t mean everything will go your way or according to your will and plans. And it doesn’t mean people won’t go against God’s will and do mean, hurtful things toward you—Jeremiah suffered.

Where Calvinism goes wrong is making it sound like God wills evil. Calvinist will declare that nothing happens that God doesn’t will, which would include evil acts—a form of determinism. This theological mindset can do real damage.

God is so great, He can even work his ultimate plans through those who freely choose to turn away, but they suffer, but His will is for all to turn and follow Him—that’s his desire:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
– 2 Peter 3:9

That’s God’s heart—that every person he created would turn back (that’s what repent means) to follow him.

So we really do have free will and choices that even affect God—affect God emotionally, affect what God then does, affect the co-creation of the future. Which seems paradoxical. If God already knows what I’ll do tomorrow, then I don’t really have a choice—do I? And here is where the debate goes wrong.

Calvinism and Arminianism are theological systems trying to make sense of God’s revelation AS IF God is bound by time and space like we are.

Both are right, and both are wrong. So how do we make sense of the Paradox?

Truth is, nature is full of paradoxes. Scientists have found that Light behaves as both particles (photons), but also like energy (waves)—that’s paradoxical. If we simply realize that God is not bound by our finite 4 dimensions, the paradox of God knowing the future, yet still interacting with our free will resolves. Both are true.

Affecting God

In Christ, we are secure. His plans will not fail, yet we co-create the future with God, and his love for us causes him to choose to allow our actions and choices to affect him. He sees not only every choice, but every possible choice, simultaneously. It feels like a paradox, that God knows all and his plans can’t be thwarted, and yet he chooses to be affected and even changed by our prayers and humble willingness—but that’s what He’s revealed. And even more personally…

Your choices affect God on an emotional level:

The LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. 7 I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not…Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful,’ declares the LORD…How gladly would I treat you like sons [and daughters] and give you a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation. I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away from following me. But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me.
– Jeremiah 3:6-13, 19-20

Do you see how this reveals God’s heart? He uses every human relational analogy to show you—Your choices affect God. You are personal and relational, you long to be known and loved, because God created you for himself—for an intimate, close, loving relationship…do you see it? It’s mind blowing when you do. But that’s his ultimate purpose for you—The Greatest Being in the Universe, who needs nothing from you—out of love, choose to create you to love Him. But that’s the painful part about love—You can’t force someone to love you—they must freely choose, and they can choose to reject you. That’s why God truly gives us free will—and subjects himself to the risk of love, and yet to all who chose Him, they can be confident He always had you and always will—you don’t need to fear because He’s fully in control.

So when people get so fixated on theological debates and they vilify and demean and slander other followers of Christ or other churches—they are missing the whole point.—Paul said “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up…if we have not love, we have nothing.” Jesus said ultimately, you will know the true believers by their fruit

In Holland in 1569, Right about the same time as Arminius and Calvin, Dirk Willems was an Anabaptist who got baptized as an adult, signifying it’s an individual’s free-will choice, not just infant baptism. and it got so ugly that people were being arrested, tortured and even killed for their beliefs. Now, next weekend, we’re having an adult baptism—you may feel like your parents will kill you if you get baptized after your infant baptism, but you don’t need to worry. But Dirk was arrested, awaiting trial which he knew would end in his execution—because it wasn’t really about theology—it was about power and control. Some may say “See religion does this to humans. No, humans do this to everything—we play God and use everything to get our will done—religion, politics, philosophy.” So Dirk realizes he’s doomed, makes a rope out of bed sheets and climbs out the castle prison he was held in. It’s the middle of winter, and he goes running across the ice of the moat lake. A guard sees him and chases him, but Dirk didn’t weigh much due to eating so little in prison. The guard breaks through the ice and Dirk hears him screaming for his life—starting to drown. Moved with compassion, Dirk turns back, pulls his assailant out of the water and saves his life. The less than grateful guard seized Dirk, hauled him back to prison, and Dirk was ultimately burned at the stake. The fruit of Dirk’s life showed that his theology was about love, not power.
You will know them by their fruit—Jesus said.

Let’s have good theology, but even better fruit.


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