Monday, October 29, 2007

Free Will in Conversion, Part II

“The line between good and evil runs through the human heart.” So far, I have not found the primary source for these words, but they are attributed to Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

This is an important point in Christian anthropology and one with important social, cultural, and political implications. The line between good and evil does not run between you and me or between us and them. It runs straight (or crookedly!) through each of us. There is no saint here and sinner there; rather, each of us is some of both. Lutherans have something akin to what I am getting at in their doctrine of simul justus et peccator, at once just(ified) and sinner.

There is no “natural man” over there (somebody else) and “spiritual man” here; both “men” are conditions and degrees of being. Thus, St. Paul tells his flock at Corinth, who are baptized Christians, washed in the laver of regeneration, that they have not yet become spiritual men. (I Corinthians 3:1-3)

When he says of the natural man that he “does not receive the things of the Spirit of God,” he is speaking of the natural part of each of us, and not of separate human beings. Furthermore, St. Paul explains why this is so, and it does not have to do with man’s will, but with his darkened intellect. The natural man does not receive the things of God “for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)

There is no person over there who has one set of desires, which are always only sinful, and another person here (I, of course!) who has another set of desires which are holy.

On the one hand, even the Gentiles have some spiritual light “because what may be known of God is manifest among them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, namely His eternal power and Godhead.” (Romans 1:19-20) It is not the case that they know nothing of God, but rather, they “exchanged the truth of God for the lie” (v. 25) and “they did not like to retain God in their knowledge” (v. 28). St. John further tells us that the Logos (articulate intellect) of God was “the light that enlightens every man coming into the world.” (John 1)

Furthermore, the Gentiles know something of the will of God and are even able, in some degree, to do it. “For when the Gentiles,” says St. Paul, “which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and [their] thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.” (Romans 2:14-15) Yes, they can obey the law of God. Yes, they do it by nature. It is written on their hearts, by grace. “But they only obey very imperfectly,” you say? So what? Christians do the same.

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:15-25)

St. Paul is describing the fallen man within each of us. Here we see man having two sets of desires. The one is the desire of the flesh, residing literally in our bodies. Our bodies demand food, drink, sex, sleep, warmth, clothing, shelter, security, various pleasures, comforts, satisfactions and thrills. Meanwhile, the “inner man” delights in the law of God, namely love, which demands that we give all of ourselves to God and each other instead of to our own bodies, seeking always the welfare of others above our own. The “I” wants to serve God, but is in “captivity” to the desires of the flesh. Sin usurps the self, and sin (“no longer I”) disobeys.

St. Paul makes the same point in Galatians 5:17: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Note, you want to do these things, he says, even though the desires of the flesh seek to defeat you. You are both flesh and spirit, and as Jesus said, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)

Each of us has two sets of desires, between which he chooses. You can willingly set your mind on the flesh (Romans 8:7) or you can try (at least) not to. Your will is part of who you are as a human being, and is not the exclusive property of that condition called “the spiritual man.” Therefore, when a person is “dead in sins,” it means he is operating according to the dictates of the flesh, rather than in accordance with the Spirit – but that is not at all the same as to say his free will has disappeared. And I mean a genuinely free will, able to desire good or evil. To call anything else a free will is dishonest word games.

Please note carefully that I have not yet said a man can “choose Christ” at all, much less that he can do it on his own, apart from the grace of God. So far, I am only asserting that every man is genuinely able to desire such good as he knows, is able to strive after that good, and is able, with a high degree of imperfection, to perform it. There aren’t some people who can do this (believers) and others who cannot at all (unbelievers). There are, instead, only people whose free will is impaired by sin, and no people in whom free will is entirely ruined or absent.

There are various other reasons for asserting that a person cannot “choose Christ”. These I’ll discuss in another post. For now, all I want to say is, lack of ability to desire either good or bad is not one of them.


Christopher Orr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher Orr said...

According to Wikiquote, the Solzhenitsyn wuote is as follows, with citation:

"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

"During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn't change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

"Socrates taught us: 'Know thyself.' Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't.

"From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb. And correspondingly, from evil to good."

- The Gulag Archipelago, Part I: The Prison Industry, Ch. 4, "The Bluecaps"

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Thank you, Christopher. The rest of the quote, which you cite, shows exactly what I meant about this topic having important social, cultural, and political implications. The idea that some people lack the ability to desire the good makes them appear sub-human, with potentially disastrous consequences for their well-being and even their lives -- and for the souls of those who think they are better.


William Weedon said...

I am not sure that it is dishonest word games to acknowledge that there is a distinction between the freedom to choose in things below (including to be good!) and the freedom to choose in things above. It seems rather to accord with reality. I can indeed decide what to wear today, whether to speak an unkind word, and whether to render help to my neighbor. All of these are simply within my powers as a human being, and God wants and expects me to use my free will to serve Him and my neighbor also in these areas that we call "civil righteousness." That is, the life here below.

But to truly fear, love, and trust in God above all things! That is not something my will has the power to choose. I can make up my mind to love God with all my heart, but that doesn't mean I have the *power* to do so. The power to do so comes rather from the Holy Spirit granting me the experience of God's love in the Savior! St. John did not say: "We love Him because we chose to." He says: "We love Him because He first loved us!" Out from the experience of His love, comes freedom. Freedom to love Him and others in return - albeit it still in great weakness!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...


If I "make up my mind to love God with all my heart," as you say, right there already is an act of my will. My *will* has chosen it.

Granted, my ability to *do* it is something else again! The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

I'll certainly agree that both the power to will and the power to do are the gifts of God, and could otherwise not be done. That's why in Part III I write about making the choice as the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us, and as the Father draws us, and as Christ supports and strengthens our weakness.


"Civil righteousness?" Things above and things here below? If you are kind to your neighbor, is that now part of God's Law? Stg. Paul says when the Gentiles do the works *of the Law* (not some other sort of righteousness called "civil"), they show the law written on their hearts. (St. Paul says they do it "by nature," but that nature itself is also the gift of God.)

Fr. Stephen, over at "Glory to God for All Things" has a wonderful article on the "Two Storey Universe" here and another one here