Sermon, "Hot Topics: Free Will," August 19, 2018

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka

This Sunday is the second Sunday in our "Hot Topics" sermon series. This week's topic is Free Will.

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
— Romans 7:14-25a (New Revised Standard Version)

This week we continue out summer sermon series on “Hot Topics.” Burning questions submitted by people like you. This week’s topic, our second week of four, is “Free Will.” Free will being the idea that we human beings have the innate, the built in ability to choose between right and wrong actions. The good, and the not so good.

Generally, in our culture, we think of free will in one of two ways.

The first what I’ll call the generally conservative view. Those of us who are conservatives tend to think that success in life is due--for the most part--to making the right choices over the wrong ones. And if we make the right choices, then we will succeed. If we don’t, we’ll fail. The idea is that we are primarily, if not solely responsible for our lives and actions. Free will is available to all. If we just use it.

The second view is what I’ll call the generally liberal view. There’s agreement, in this view, that free will is available to all. But there are things outside of us that keep us from using it. People’s pasts and their personal circumstances are the primary factor that determines how life will go. Poverty, unequal distribution of wealth. Drug use in the family. Intergenerational trauma, racism, sexism, homophobia. There is free will. But we’re only really able to use it once other oppressions cease.

If you’re like me, you can probably see the truth in both views. That we see to have at least some agency and control over our personal actions. And that our personal actions are, in significant ways, shaped by where we come from. And who we are.

But the Bible, the larger Christian tradition, comes at the matter of the human will from a different angle. Where we generally see doing the good as a matter of our personal ability to accomplish something, the Bible sees it more as a tug-of-war going on in the human heart. A competition between two opposing wills. With our own wills caught in the middle.[i]

Our scripture passage for this morning bears witness to this. From the seventh chapter in Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome.

Before we continue, though, a little background. Unlike letters we’ve read recently, Paul didn’t have a hand in planting this community of faith. And he’s never actually visited the place, even though he seems to be friends with a bunch of its members. Most scholars believe that the story behind this letter is a bitter conflict between Jewish disciples of Jesus and Gentile disciples of Jesus. That is to say, Christians who see the importance of following the law of Moses, that prescribes what you wear, what you eat, how you rest. Or whether you need to be circumcised or not. It’s the way of life that leads to holiness, or away from it. And then there are Christians who believe that those things are cultural. Ultimately unnecessary to being a follower of Jesus. You can guess which side won out.

But for Paul, it’s not just about throwing away the law altogether. The law shows us which actions lead to the good life, and the law shows us what kind of life leads us to destruction. In fact, without the law, we wouldn’t even know when we’re doing something we shouldn’t do. Like our modern conservative, Paul sees the law as something necessary, something good. Something that, if our will is free, we can choose. And if we choose rightly, we can be rest assured of goodness, holiness.

But the problem for Paul is that our wills aren’t free to actually do it. This is where that struggle comes in:

“I do not understand my actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... I can will what is right, but can not do it.” Paul, who was once a killer and a fanatic persecutor of Christians. Paul who once encountered Jesus in a mystical vision that’s turned him around. Paul, who has boasted of this transformation from darkness to light. Paul is a spiritual athlete if there every were one. He knows the law, the knows what’s right. But still, this struggle still goes on. Even inside of him.[ii]

And the struggle goes on because of a mysterious force of will. “If I do what I do not want,” Paul says. “It is no longer I that do it, but sin that that dwells in me... for I delight in the law of God, but see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” “Sin” is the name that Paul gives for this opposing will.

Now we often think of “sin” as in “sins.” Doing individual bad things that lead to our condemnation. But for Paul, sin is more of a power, a gravitational force. One that inhabits us. One that sucks us into its orbit, pulling us away from the good. And towards the not-so good, the spiritually unhealthy. And even the outright evil.

I’m sure it’s no stretch for each of us here know what he’s talking about. Anyone who’s tried to stay on a diet. Anyone who’s tried to control their temper. Anyone who’s tried to give up smoking, give up watching porn, or give up drugs. Anyone who says today I’m going to turn over a new leaf, buckle down, work harder or actually study. Anyone who’s woken up and said “today I won’t spend that much time of Facebook,” or I won’t spend over my credit card limit. Any government that runs on the promise of actually doing something about climate change, balanced budgets, reconciliation, or good news for the poor. Anyone who’s promised to be a better, more thoughtful father and husband. Anyone who’s realized they need to be a more understanding spouse. Anyone who says I need to be more forgiving, and stop hating so much, or let everyone walk over me. Anyone who says “I’ll start giving my money away when I have more.” Anyone who says now’s the time that I won’t let my career get in the way of my family. Or I won’t let my broken family of origin get in the way of living a full, loving life.

If you’re anyone, period. If you’re anyone who’s tried to do something different or be someone different and failed. Then you know exactly what Paul’s talking about.

Anyone and everyone. Whether Jew or Greek, pious or impious. People who follow the law to the T, and people who disregard it. The great protestant reformer, Martin Luther, once called it the “bondage of the will.” Meaning each and every one of us has a spiritual ball and chain around our hearts, tugging us around like slaves. Even when we know what’s right. Even when we will what’s right. Even then, there’s something mysterious outside of us and something in us that keeps us from actually doing it. “It is no longer I who do it,” Paul says. “But sin that dwells in me.”

It’s not just a conservative matter of doing the right thing. It’s not just a liberal matter of being given the right social circumstance. But there is an inner struggle going on inside of each of us. Even if the prison cell of our experience has different furniture, everyone is captive to sin and its power. It’s the universal problem at the heart of human life. No one is exempt.

It’s overwhelming. It’s powerful.  But this power isn’t the only power that’s at work in our lives. Like I said, we’re caught in the middle. But it’s a battle between two opposing wills. Not just sin and our own.

“Who will save me from this body of death?” Paul asks. There’s a clue at the very end of our passage. “Thanks be,” he says, “to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And that clue leads us to the next chapter, chapter 8. “The law,” Paul says. “The law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of Sin and Death.” The law of the Spirit of Life has set me free from the law of sin and death.

The other will, is that of the Spirit of the Living God. Paul says that in the internal struggle in ourselves, the power that can overcome our greatest struggles is God’s own life and power.

It’s really hard to explain how this works. But if you’ve ever read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, you’ll know that the story is all about a ring of power. One that falls in to the hands of a Hobbit named Frodo. It has the incredible power to make the wearer invisible. But soon we discover that the ring has a power all of its own. It corrupts the person who wears it, making them obsessed with the ring itself. Stopping at nothing, including betraying friends and enemies to keep it. As such, Frodo is warned never to wear the ring.

But later on, Frodo’s life is in extreme danger. So he takes the risk, slips it on:

“All hope left him,” it says. “And suddenly he felt the Eye [the eye being the eye of Sauron, the villain of the novel]... A fierce eager will was there... it leaped toward him.”

And then Frodo hears himself saying two opposite things at once.

[Frodo] heard himself crying out, Never, never! Or was it Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the ring!

The two powers strove in him... he writhed, tormented. Suddenly, he was aware of himself again... Frodo rose to his feet. A great weariness was on him, but his will was firm, and his heart lighter. He spoke aloud to himself. ‘I will do what I must,’ he said.

One of my favorite preachers, Fleming Rutledge, says that this scene shows us the struggle that Paul’s talking about.[iii] The fierce eager will of sin that inhabits, holds us back, and is determined to enslave us all. But the revelation that comes to him from some other point of power is the power that sets us free for the purpose of goodness. If you’ve ever experienced a sudden reversal in your life. If you’ve ever found yourself with the strength to overcome when you thought all was lost. Then you’ve experienced the freedom of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even if you didn’t recognize her by name.

It’s a power that allows us not just to do what we should. But a power we can cling to that empowers us to do what we must. As we say every week in the Lord’s prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” “In Christ,” Rutledge says. “In Christ there is a new will for those whose will is in bondage.”[iv] Our wills are only truly free, when they are given over to God’s good will for all creation. And when you do:

You’ll find room in your heart to love the unloveable, even your enemy. You’ll find the courage to seek forgiveness, or forgive a friend. You’ll find the courage to make peace with your parents (or your children). You’ll find the strength to help you give up your drink, drug, or other addiction of choice. You’ll find the spiritual muscle to start giving away money out of your abundance instead of being afraid you don’t have enough. To reach out to help transform a life of despair a life of hope. Or to stick out your neck for social justice and the health of our beloved earth. Because that’s what a truly free will looks like, when it’s in line with love at the heart of the universe.

Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. The truth is that there is that there is a mysterious power at the heart of our existence. One that holds us captive, and finds itself deep within our lives. We “do that which we do not want to do.” We can “will what is right but [we] cannot do it.” But there is an other point of power, a greater power. One that longs to be welcomed into us. One that when we give our lives over to it, when we yield to it, takes root in us, grows as thick and as tall as ancient cedar. One that can not be shaken, or moved. Because it is the very Spirit of the Living God. And under its shady branches you will find the courage and strength to do not what you should do. But what you must do.

For “the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of Sin and death.”

And for this, thanks be to God.


[i] Scholars point out that Paul echoes rabbinical thought that there are two conflicting impulses, “yetzer-ha-tov,” the “good inclination,” and “yetzer ha-ra,” the “evil inclination.” See “Romans,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” 267ff. I see the difference here is that Paul sees neither of these as being innate to the human character, but rather part of the struggle between the power of Sin and the Spirit of God.

[ii] Scholars debate as to whether or not Paul is referring to himself, or referring to himself in the present tense. According to Michael Gorman, scholars are divided between thinking that Paul’s referring to himself in the present tense, in the past tense (that he’s describing himself before being saved meaning he is now free from Sin and Death), or that he’s referring to humanity in general (a throwback to his earlier language about Adam being the source of sin). The issue is debatable enough for the answer to be unclear. As such I have been persuaded by George Hunsinger who appeals to the church’s history of interpretation citing Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, as well as contemporary scholars to read this as Paul referring to himself in the present tense. See George Hunsinger, “Romans 7:15-25a,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, vol. 2, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 62.

[iii] Tolkien, the Fellowship of the Ring, quoted in Fleming Rutledge, “Frodo and Free Will,” in Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 217.

[iv] Rutledge, 219.