Question:I struggle with sin and the nature of free will, and have a question about why we sin. Despite the Lord's message to us, I've heard that sin comes from pride, and so we disobey because either we have (1) imperfect knowledge or (2) irrational beliefs. If we had perfection knowledge and perfect rationality, we would not choose to give in to our sinful natures, no matter how much we are fallen. But our ability to see things is far short of God's knowledge and reason... part of the limitations of being Man. What then, was Satan's excuse for rebelling? And does/did he not possess information that he will not win this war? Unless he is not privy to this knowledge, or possesses an irrational pride (such pride would surely not be rational), it seems that he should never had made the free will choice to rebel. I say this not to debate, but as a serious question that plagues me as I struggle with my own sin, and why I think one way and then fail to behave as I wish. I wonder what free will is truly about.
Answer: Greetings friend. It will be a particular pleasure to respond to your question today — and there are three main reasons for this. First, you have submitted the best question that I’ve seen in my eight years of service. It is deep, well thought-out, well-articulated… and honest! Second, since I am between two and three times your senior in life (and therefore, in sinning), I am even more deeply invested in these issues than you. Third, one of my theological distinctives is a belief that, for the universe to make any sense, humans must possess a robust free-will... so you can see why I’m so excited to engage a person who really wants to explore that further.
“How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit.” (Isaiah 14:12–15, NIV)
The above passage takes us to a spiritual realm — and at a time that might be before the physical creation… we just don’t know… but the point is that this is a seminal event. Isaiah was describing the first sin — and that sin was indeed pride… but more exactly, it was hubris.
Pride is a strange word because it has two antithetical meanings. It is both a good and a bad thing. For instance, I am proud (but also humbled) to be made in the image of God; I am proud to be a child of the King; I take pride in my work, etc. But pride is also (and perhaps usually in biblical discussions) a pejorative term, and I would agree with you that all sin comes from pride… but only in the respect that Satan opened the floodgates. But now that we are on the other side of salvation, we must be careful to differentiate between the different types of pride.
Satan passed the DNA of (bad) pride to all of us, his offspring, and this is the sin that we must overcome for salvation. Salvation requires a full reliance on God — so full in fact, that the self disappears. But even after salvation, the bad type of pride finds its way into the Christian life. But at this point pride is just one sin among other sins — and no sin can condemn the Christian (Romans 8:1). But this has implications.
You see, we used to be Satan’s children (1 Jn. 3:10). As such we were condemned to hell, and we sinned while we lived. But now we are God’s children (Rom. 8:15). As such we are guaranteed a home in heaven… yet we still sin while we live. Why do we still sin? Wasn’t there a big… and I mean a life-changing… change in us? Yes. But this is not our final change; this is an intermediate one. We have become saved sinners… but we are sinners nonetheless.
We must wait until this end of the age to be glorified — and for sin to finally be dispatched. Jesus himself will make that final end to sin when he returns, and there will be no possibility of sinning thereafter. But that is then… and this is now — and we disobey now because we are not yet glorified. Therefore, even if we had “perfect knowledge” and “perfect rationality,” the moral entropy of sin would still overtake us — it would still trip us up. So I find it helpful to remember that we are in the best possible shape for this age… but we are not in the best possible shape. Sin is still in us, so we sin. This will change in the new creation… but no sooner.
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…” (Revelation 21:1, NIV)
There is no need for you to feel alone in your trials, by the way, because no number of positive actions will fix our proclivity to sin (… although God does appreciate your efforts!) I’d like to think that the Apostle Paul — brilliant, filled with the Holy Spirit, specially gifted to write Scripture and savant at explaining doctrine — would be too advanced spiritually to be affected by sin. But not only did sin affect him… it exasperated him!
“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:14–25, NIV, emphasis mine)
I pray that everything above has helped to ease your mind in that you are not alone in the experience of… or the anxiety of sin. But you also wanted to understand the role of free-will in all this. To begin this journey, we need to drill down further into the human condition by considering every creature’s relationship to God — including Satan’s. Why did the smartest and most powerful being ever created… a being that had continual fellowship with God… throw that all away? But closer to home, why do God’s very children — beings who have an enormous capacity for reasoning in addition to a completed Bible, the indwelling Holy Spirit and opportunities for growth — throw that all away functionally by sinning? We do it because sin is the proof of free-will, and creation is absurd without either. That statement takes a while to digest, but it is the E = mc2 of my theological distinctives. You will see how everything points to this.
Let’s begin by talking about where and when all the “trouble” began — because there is a simplistic idea that sin began in the Garden of Eden; that cannot be true. Satan had already fallen before lying in wait for Eve. But when did he fall? The data is thin… but the Bible gives us glimpses of activities “before” the creation of space and time. Perhaps it happened then, or perhaps it happened concurrent with creation. Either way, his fall occurred in the spiritual realm.
Please note, however, that although angels and humans have true free-will, they are different types of beings — so humans do not become angels when they die. Note also that redemption is only for us humans. While the Bible does not address this directly, it seems reasonable that the angels who beheld God’s face… but then who rejected him to his face, would be rebellious by nature — and I don’t think that Satan talked them into anything that they did not want to do in the first place.
In my opinion, since the fallen angels had a direct view of God (as opposed to our faith view of God) and rejected him anyway, there was nothing left to redeem… I mean… when a servant stops serving, what’s left? (We humans are God’s children [Jn. 1:12] whereas the angels are servants to us all [Heb. 1:14]). Also, we humans have a faith-based (rather than a face-based) relationship with God — which is precious in his sight (1 Pet. 1:7)… and I’m sure that there are other differences too. But the fact remains that a fallen angel is eternally lost while a fallen human is worth redeeming… even at redemption’s high cost!
But Satan is more than just the boss angel. He is also the federal head of sin. Anyone who sins is under his headship (Jn. 8:44)… so your sensitivity to his importance is on the mark. Christians sometimes “under-sell” sin as the quaint foibles of saved people… but I think that we should measure it by what it took to destroy it. Jesus came to earth and died specifically to destroy the devil’s work. Therefore, there is no small work on either side.
“The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” (1 John 3:8, NIV)
In all of creation, only humans and angels have free-will — and the actions across both categories support my premise that sin and free-will are necessarily joined in this age. The Bible (and experience) tells us that salvation is a minority enterprise (Mat. 7:13-14; Rom. 9:27) — and that the number who use their free-will to ignore God is enormous. Perhaps a third of all angelic beings who had direct knowledge of God thumbed their noses at him (Rev. 12:3-9), and we know that every living antediluvian (except for Noah’s eight) were killed because of sin (Gen. 6:13). Furthermore, we know that this is the expectation for our current age (Lk. 17:26).
Now, these statistics are horrifying… but they do prove that God values a robust free-will in his volitional beings… of which we rarely count the cost. So let’s examine this “expensive” redemptive program more closely. But before we do, please note that these verses were written to people who were already living in linear time; to communicate with such people, God used words like “before” “when” “after” or “during” to describe activities that happened outside of time. This is a natural way to communicate; this is not a technical error or contradiction. In fact, the Bible was thousands of years ahead of science in declaring that space and time had a beginning (and a Beginner!)… much to the chagrin of the scientific community… upon whose heads the space-time theorems have been falling… replete with a causal agent. So, when we see the “activities” of a transcendent God who is acting outside of time, we must understand that a word like “before” means logically prior, not temporally prior.
“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, NIV)
“[Christ]was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”
(1 Peter 1:20, NIV)
“And all the people who belong to this world worshiped the beast. They are the ones whose names were not written in the Book of Life that belongs to the Lamb who was slaughtered before the world was made.”
(Revelation 13:8, NLT)
The above verses show that all the components for redemption were in place before God created the physical universe. So, what does this say about the possibilities of us living sin free lives? Well… if redemption is about saving sinners, then we never really had a chance.
First of all, any initial creation must involve volitional beings… or else what’s the point of creating anything? Does God need to prove to himself that he can create things? That would be absurd — as would be making a creation for non-volitional beings… I mean… who would care! But even God cannot make volitional beings who must behave a certain way… or who have a predetermined salvific outcome or have predetermined success in life… and say that they have free-will (although our Reformed brethren would disagree with me). But it gets worse. Not only must any initial creation involve volitional beings, volitional beings are sinful beings ontologically… even “before” they have committed a sin. This means that any initial creation will necessarily include sinful beings.
“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5, NIV)
Now, if you are in any way normal, you are probably incensed that God would go ahead and create a universe that was doomed to fail. But put yourself in God’s shoes for a moment. You have only two choices: to create or not to create. If you do not create, you remain the Self-Existent One — tri-personal and sufficient — in and out of time — and it’s good to be God… but is it best? Let’s compare.
If you do create, you are stuck with the logical constraints above. You have nothing to prove to yourself, so why bother creating unless there are beings who can appreciate what you have done? But here’s the problem: if you create beings in a way that they all will appreciate what you have done, then they have no free-will… and their appreciation would be a sham. For a creation to be valid, it necessarily involves risk — and even a God who is powerful enough to create the universe is logically restricted from creating volitional beings without the risk of having them rebel. As to risk, it’s all or nothing. God cannot create good little boys and girls who will only play nicely… and then get on with his life as if any true glory were his.
But was God even free to choose whether or not he created? Or was he constrained to create? Yes…constrained is a tough word! But I’m placing it within his nature — so our God is still not externally constrained. The logic is, any God who created any universe where even just one his creatures worshiped him as a free choice — even if multitudes rejected him — would have more glory than a God who did not create at all. And since God is by definition a being, greater than which, none can be conceived… and since we can indeed conceive of this Creator-God who could have more glory … then he has no option. He must create… or else he’d be less.
Let me be clear. It is my opinion that God could not not create. But let me be clear on this too: Many will necessarily perish in the process. Salvation is incalculably expensive in terms of human capital… let alone its cost to God in Christ.
But did you notice that I used the term initial creation and not just creation. That’s because there will also be a new creation. Remember Revelation 21:1? And guess who populates this new creation? God’s people — and only God’s people. The new creation will only be suitable for those who have had their sin cast from them… but as far as the east is from the west (Psa. 103:12). Is this important? It is critical. Only after sin has been totally dispatched, that is, atoned for, salvation optimally subscribed to, sinners judged, Satan judged, angels judged — and hell and death itself dispatched — will the old creation have served its purpose. It was designed to optimize redemption while slowing the progress of sin, and having performed that job, it will be destroyed… because it is totally non-recyclable.
With sin removed from the equation, the new creation will have new physical laws — ones that do not involve entropy (like the second law of thermodynamics). Also, we will relate to time in a new way — perhaps multidimensionally — but we will no longer experience any restrictions by it. We will see Christ, of course — and we’ll have a new way to relate to each other. There will be no dishonesty, no hiding, no one-upmanship… all that stuff we hate. It is possible that we will be able to have pure and intimate relationships with any number of people at the same time. So if you’ve wanted to talk to the Apostle Paul, just hang on. No appointment will be necessary!
But can you see why God could not make the new creation available in a world of sinful beings? The advantages of such a world would have likely accelerated evil. And since only people with true free-will can worship God, the old creation — with its great winnowing redemption — was the tool God chose to gather a populace that would enjoy him forever.
I spent a lot of time talking about the new creation when your questions only involve the old creation, but I think it’s important to see God’s real target in reasonable terms. This makes our current state a little more understandable, and perhaps… a little more hopeful.
Before I leave you, let me summarize my answers to ensure that I did not miss any points: You are not alone concerning sin and free-will. Whole denominations are divided over this. Human free-will seems to confront God’s sovereignty (and I pray that my solution eased that somewhat)… but sovereignty, too, is constrained by logic; sovereignty doesn’t free God from the things that he must do. We sin because we must. Sin is intrinsic to us in this age. But this does nothing to change the fact that we also sin because we want to. Redemption targets both, and redemption is the only remedy for sin. Even if perfect reasoning and perfect belief were available to us now (and Satan probably had something like these), this would only help us make better informed choices to sin.
Satan is not omniscient. He does not necessarily know the future (although he likely knows more than us)… but he sure knows who he’s up against. Rebellion was not a logical or sensible choice for him. My feeling is that he made an informed choice to swap eternal life with God for a season of passion and pride… just like many humans do. And finally, you can indeed improve your spiritual life by the proper exertions… but this has limits. Remember that the Apostle Paul was exasperated by the power of sin in his decidedly holy life. Sin is a juggernaut. It crushes us all… and perfection is powerless against it in this age. That’s why we have redemption instead of perfection. Sin crushes all and redemption restores some. Perfection is for the next creation.
Your profile indicated that you were not sure whether or not you are a Christian. I would be profoundly sad if a person with your sensitivity to God and ability to parse difficult ideas missed the salvific moment — but also — missed the peace that a life in Christ can offer. As such, let me invite you to visit a link that might proactively answer some others of those deep questions that you might not yet have asked.
May God protect you on your journey.