Forced to faith: an oxymoron?

I just came back to an interesting aside in a comment by Dave Warnock on his own blog, from a few days ago. Dave was replying to my own comment there, in which I wrote:

I hold that God does not force people to be saved who specifically reject it.

Dave replied:

I am with Peter in that I do not believe God will force anyone to come to faith (surely an oxymoron).

That word “oxymoron” caught my attention because it seems to go to the heart of why I reject the Calvinist, and indeed long before that Augustinian, position that God predestines certain people to believe, leaving them no personal choice in the matter. It seems to me, as apparently to Dave, to be a self-evident truth that faith or belief is an act of the human mind and will. Indeed this seems to be implied by this dictionary definition of “belief”:

  1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another: My belief in you is as strong as ever.
  2. Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something: His explanation of what happened defies belief.
  3. Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons.

If belief is an act or condition of the human mind, and if that mind has any kind of free will, it is indeed an oxymoron to suggest that anyone can be forced to believe anything.

Yet I am very aware that this understanding of faith or belief conflicts with one which can be traced right back to Augustine in the 4th-5th century, as he wrote (in On the Predestination of the Saints, Book I, chapter 3):

the faith by which we are Christians is the gift of God.

I am also aware that there is more to Augustine’s position than this, but I don’t want to be distracted by the details from my main point in this post.

There are nuanced versions of Calvinism, which embrace compatibilism and are not accepted by all Calvinists, according to which human free will is real but also compatible with determinism and divine predestination. I do not reject such descriptions. On this basis it is possible to hold both that God decides who he will give faith to and that each human being decided whether or not to believe.

Indeed the idea of faith as a gift can be found in the Bible, as it is listed in 1 Corinthians 12 as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But it seems clear that this is not about saving faith. It is often understood as referring to faith for miracles or healing. Nevertheless this does suggest that there is something in the idea that God gives to people the ability to believe.

So is it perhaps impossible for the human mind to believe or have faith in something beyond its normal experience, such as in the saving death of Jesus Christ or that a miracle is about to happen, apart from a special gift of God? Or can it believe such things with sufficient effort and practice? Was Alice or the White Queen right in this exchange?:

Alice laughed. `There’s no use trying,’ she said `one ca’n’t believe impossible things.’

`I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. …’

Then, can the human mind be forced to believe something against its own will? I am thinking here not so much of the Calvinism that teaches that people cannot believe and be saved without God’s help, as of the universalism that teaches that everyone will believe and so be saved. Yes, one day

at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow … and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord …

Philippians 2:10-11 (TNIV)

But that will be when faith is no longer necessary because all will see the risen Jesus. Will it then be too late to believe? Will the owners of every knee and tongue still be able to benefit from this promise?:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9 (TNIV)

I don’t know. But I feel sure that there will even then be some who, even though seeing the reality of the Christian message and of the fate in store for them if they do not accept it, will still choose to reject Jesus and the salvation he offers. In fact Jesus himself seems to have predicted just this, at the end of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, when he put these words into the mouth of Abraham:

If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

Luke 16:31 (TNIV)

God our Saviour … wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4 (TNIV)

But he chooses not to force people to be saved, and so the inevitable result is that some will choose not to be. We can simply hope and pray that in the end only a few people will not be saved, and by repenting and believing in Jesus be assured that we will not ourselves be among that number.

0 thoughts on “Forced to faith: an oxymoron?

  1. Hi Peter-

    I think you might be conflating “faith” and “belief”. If you are defending the view that a person cannot be forced to believe something (i.e., that they freely choose to believe things), I think you will be hard pressed to support it. Personally, even as a staunch free-will advocate, I doubt that we have any beliefs that we freely choose. Beliefs seem to be things that are “forced” on us (for lack of a better term) by external pressures.

    Think about any belief you have, and I think you will find that you didn’t freely choose to believe it. Beliefs seem to arise from the status of things external to the will. If you disagree, try to consciously choose to not believe something you do believe (try believing the earth is flat, for example). You will probably find it difficult.

    On the other hand, “belief” in the sense of trusting and submitting to someone is arguably something the will can undertake. To submit before God, for example, appears to be something we can choose to do (and something that God doesn’t force us to do, which may be what you were getting at in your post).

  2. First, I predict more than 30 comments on this post due to its controversial subject.

    Now, about the subject: Can’t it be that God sovereignly chooses to save those who freely choose Him? That way, you preserve both God’s sovereignty and our free will. Also, there is still a place for grace in that He enables us to make that free will choice. It’s an enabling or prevenient grace.

    I’ve been able to answer all my questions about free will and predestination using the above formula. Now, if I could just as easily answer the question of human origins …

  3. Peter, both repentance and saving faith are gifts from God (Acts 11:18; Eph 2:8).

    If God does not draw, none will come to Jesus (John 6:65). Sin has made it impossible for sinful human beings to come to Jesus on their own.

    God must open the heart. God must shine that light. (Acts 16:14; 2 Cor 4:4-6).

  4. Josh, you are right that I skated over the distinction between faith in a person and belief in facts. But I think what I wrote is true of both, except perhaps when the fact forces itself on us. I was hinting at this when I wrote that everyone will believe that Jesus is alive, when they see it with their own eyes, but that does not imply that they will have saving faith. Yes, society puts pressure on us to believe certain things as facts. But there are enough people out there who believe something totally different from the norm of society, e.g. that the world is flat or that it was created in six days 6,000 years ago, that we can see that this kind of belief cannot be forced.

    Tyson, only three so far in 12 hours, we’ll see if it gets to 30! I’m not sure if your position is compatibilism (God’s determination and our decision are different ways of looking at the same reality) or Arminianism (we choose, God has committed himself to honouring our choice). But my own position wavers between these two.

    TC, Jesus draws everyone to himself, John 12:32. I agree that it is only because of this that anyone can be saved. But since not everyone comes to saving faith 6:65 must allow that some reject this divine initiative. The same applies to God opening the heart in Acts 16:14 and shining into it the light of the gospel in 2 Corinthians 4. The New Testament knows nothing of irresistible grace. In Acts 11:18 the emphasis is on “life”: anyone can repent, but only God gives life in response. In Ephesians 2:8 the gift of God is not faith (or grace) but salvation, as is in fact clear from the Greek grammar (neuter touto cannot refer back to feminine pistis or charis).

  5. Peter, in a context (John 12) where the Greeks are inquiring about Jesus, it seems best to apply “everyone” (Gk. pantas) to people-groups rather than every individual that were alive or will ever live. Therefore your use of 6:65 is suspect.

    On what basis then does God open the heart of sinners? Because of something he saw in them that compelled such opening? Surely not! What then?

    Regarding Acts 11:18 the emphasis, from the Greek text, is on “repentance,” thn metanoian, not the prepositional phrase, “to life,” eis zwhn, which could be conceived as resultant.

    Yes, touto refers to salvation, but how is this salvation procured, if not through charis and faith?

  6. Hi Peter –

    I don’t think it’s so easy to argue for free will as you define it. Even once you rule out determination by God, you still have to deal with it at the level of the physical world. From a philosophical perspective, it’s very difficult to defend a form of free will – if by free will you mean that people are able to make decisions freely without some kind of prior cause or inclination.

    There are nuanced versions of Calvinism, which embrace compatibilism and are not accepted by all Calvinists, according to which human free will is real but also compatible with determinism and divine predestination.

    Again it depends on how you chose to define ‘free will’ and ‘compatible’, mainstream Calvinism would still believe in ‘self determination’. Incidentally, Calvinism is not the only approach to election/predestination in the Reformed world – Lutherans would hold multiple arguments together via paradoxes, rather than attempting to reason the fine points.

    It seems to me, as apparently to Dave, to be a self-evident truth that faith or belief is an act of the human mind and will.

    However, you are claiming rather more than that, and your wider claim is one that philosophers generally would tend to reject. Furthermore they would come to their rejection independently via Hume rather than Calvin. If you are appealing to reason alone – as you do when trying to argue against Calvinism above – you still have to deal with those objections to your arguments.

  7. On what basis then does God open the heart of sinners? Because of something he saw in them that compelled such opening? Surely not! What then?

    There is an easy way of personalising this argument. We’ve all known people (friends) who have been in roughly the same position as us in the past, and yet chose to reject God whilst we chose him. Why?

    Are we really saying that ultimately it’s something about us – that we were a little bit cleverer, a little bit wiser, a little bit more spiritual – that caused us to accept God whilst they rejected him?

  8. TC, there is nothing in John 12:32 or its context to suggest that pantas has anything other than its ordinary meaning of “all people”. There may be something in a system of theology which you are trying to impose on the text, but that is a different matter. There is a textual variant panta “all things” which might support your position, but I hardly think you can base your whole theology on a variant reading rejected by most scholars. As for why God opens the hearts of sinners, that is his decision, not based on their own works, but perhaps based in part on the prayer of others; but the response to that opening is ultimately our decision. Of course salvation is procured by faith, but that faith would be useless if God didn’t choose to give salvation in response.

    Chris, I am aware that I have somewhat simplified the argument. Have you seen philosopher Jeremy Pierce’s Theories of Knowledge and Reality series? I learned a lot of what I know about these matters from there, and I don’t intend to go against Jeremy in these matters.

  9. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Freedom and self-evident truths

  10. Chris, I am aware that I have somewhat simplified the argument. Have you seen philosopher Jeremy Pierce’s Theories of Knowledge and Reality series? I learned a lot of what I know about these matters from there, and I don’t intend to go against Jeremy in these matters.

    Except that you started talking about dictionary definitions and truths that were self evident, at which point definitions matter, as do the issues above 🙂

    As I said, your argument against Calvinistic notions of predestination are ultimately based on reason, hence arguing back on the basis of reason is a valid counterpoint.

  11. Hi all.

    Here’s my contribution to the ‘more than 30′ comments…

    We should be clear that no-one can come to God – that took Jesus’ death. We respond to that truth. That is our action. God’s action is, in a sense, to send Jesus’ death to us. The Holy Spirit came, in addition to many other reasons, to convict the world of sin. In salvation, that is the action of the Spirit convicting us, making us painfully aware of our sinful state and the sufficiency of Jesus’ death as regards forgiveness.

    Does God force us to be saved? – ‘The Lord said “Thou art now a Christian – behold! And behold there was a (new) Christian, and the Lord saw that it was good’


    God can force us, since nothing can utterly be outside his sovereignty. Or can it? The work of God in salvation is convincing us of the Truth, our part is a response to that.

  12. Thanks, Jamie. Yes, God could force us, but he chooses not to because he doesn’t want robot slaves but willing servants. See Psalm 32:9 for the biblical version of that image.

  13. The Church and the Robot Slaves – good title for a book.

    Hmmm…. I’ve an idea….

    No, not really. Sorry.

    The whole of Psalm 32 is great. Particularly the early verses with the turning to God, acknowledging transgression. Thinking about it, the moment we become aware of the depth of our sinfulness there is nothing else we truly can do but turn to God. Is that force by another means? The answer to the posted question is still no, but there’s an interesting side, methinks.

  14. One of the huge reasons this causes distress for me is the practical application. I’m currently travelling in Australia and I had the pleasure of going to church twice last Sunday. Well meaning great people; however both sermons disturbed me.
    The bushfires have ravaged through Victoria, Australia killing 300 people and leaving thousands homeless. I had to sit through two sermons telling me that this was God’s will, yet I can still hope in Him.
    So…he can burn my family to death, my little girl and boy, my wife and leave me homeless yet I can still trust him? (They are countless stories like that)
    That does not sound like the God of scripture and the God revealed to us through his son Jesus Christ who is the full representation of God.
    I truly admire people who have faith in God despite the fact that they think he causes such devestation.
    Why can’t we leave the ‘oxymorons’ out of it and take God’s word for it that it is Satan and unfortunately the way of the world that causes such devastation. God doesn’t need to bring about arbitrary evil to have good come from it.
    He’s so much better than that. Jesus said he came to defeat sin and death, not his Father.
    That’s the main thing I’ve been wrestling with lately; who did Jesus come to save us from. Did he come to save us from sin and death or did he come to save us from his Dad?
    Sometimes Christians preach like we sinned (which God ordained in the first place), God’s wrath is upon us but it’s ok cause Jesus saves us. That looks like Jesus saves us from God to me. Not ourselves or Satan.
    I’ve read Piper, Milne, Carson, Ware and I met with my Calvinist pastor every week to discuss it but I’m still completely unconvinced in the Calvinist way of Jesus.
    I just think God is so much better than we give him credit for.
    Oh and I should add I don’t doubt people who hold to that way of thinkings love for Jesus.

  15. Ferg, I entirely sympathise with your concerns. But I can’t give an adequate answer in a short comment, especially when it is past my bedtime. Maybe another time.

    One thing I will say is that very often even natural disasters like this can be blamed to a large extent not on God or Satan but on human folly, building houses in forests which naturally burn regularly (without allowing fire breaks around the house), or in earthquake zones, by tsunami-prone beaches etc. It’s not of course any individual’s fault, and saying that doesn’t lessen the grief of those who have lost loved ones. But this is an aspect of the matter that sometimes gets forgotten in the human desire to blame others, whether God or the devil.

  16. Back to the issue of Free Will and salvation, and the question: Can Faith be forced (or must it be by fre will?)

    It required a certain definition of free will to ask that question.

    Imagine another question: Is it fair that human beings have to drink water? Shouldn’t God have given them a choice? I can imagine two sides. The ‘calvinist’ water drinkers line up on one side, with their conviction that God has given them the desire to drink water, and this is right and proper. The arminian, and other ‘freewill’ drinkers line up on the other side, drinking a mixture of water, petrol, and various other chemicals. Before long the calvinist water drinkers win the argument, or rather, they are the only people still alive, or not recieving hospital treatment. Most interesting is the fact that all the surviving arminian and freewill drinkers convert to being calvinist water drinkers. It turns out that it is the only way to survive.

    Originally things were simple. God was the cretor, and human beings were his creations. It was natural, right etc that they should trust/have faith in their creator.

    Then the human beings sinned, and hid from God, and sin increased and became a bondage that enslaved them.

    The free will argument’s misunderstanding is that it assumes that we begin in a neutral position, and that free will enables us to choose to have faith or not.


    Where did God say to Adam and Eve in the garden: ‘You can choose to be my friends if you want to, or of course there is the other option’. Nowhere.

    There was no option. There was just fellowship with God.

    Adam and Eve created the other option, distance from God, when they his from him following their sin.

    We are not created neutral, that we should choose God or not.

    God created us to be Good.

    But sin enslaved us.

    God’s grace frees us from that slavery. Not into neutrality, but into a positive ‘Yes’ to God.

    The real FREE will is the FREED will. The supposed free will that assumes neutrality before decision making is a philosophical construct.

  17. Bernard, I don’t really understand your argument. But didn’t Adam and Eve have the choice between continued fellowship with God and the disobedience of eating the forbidden fruit? Their free will was not corrupted by sin. Ours is, but not I think as seriously as you seem to suggest.

  18. I’ve read many current and historical testimonies of people who were fully determined not to believ but were “hijacked” as it seemed to them, by God. All were profoundly grateful afterwards. Human free will has to be upheld if we are to be held accountable. It seems that God sometimes gives someone an experience that temporarily overpowers them (E.g. the gunman pimp who walked to the front of Ken Gott’s church in Sunderland to shoot him, but was pinned to the carpet by God for 24 hours, at the end of which he had repented) but that they subsquently have the choice whether to go on with God, or renege. I am sure that God does these things – I’ve seen and read of too many to seriously question them, but I know that God jealously guards human free will. The only way I can see to reconcile these is to accept that the instance is subject to subsequent testing and confirmation to verify that it is indeed the will of the recipient. Any other opinions?

  19. I’d agree that sometimes God intervenes directly and powerfully in someone’s life against their existing desires (Apostle Paul?) but to continue in a relationship does hinge partially upon our free will. It is by grace we are saved, and indeed remain in that salvation, lest we boast. That’s God’s action. Ours is to continue, ‘running the race’, persevering, in that salvation, seeking to grow in our faith. The mix between God’s action and our free will is a beautiful thing, not seen anywhere else.

    Praise God!

    And Ferg, I don’t think for a second that God is behind the fires in Australia. People who proclaim God’s judgement run the risk of seperating God’s justice from His mercy. Yes, a complex issue, but the fires were (I think from my reading of the papers and such) started by people, with their own ideas.

    Jesus didn’t come to save us from His ‘Dad’. God saving us from Himself? Jesus came, in addition to many other things, to fulfil the demands of God’s righteous justice, setting us free from the punishment due to us on account of our sin. Let the nitpickers pick, but that’s part of it. Hebrews is a good starting place.

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