All the problems of life and all the truths of revelation are brought to a focus in Christ. His life and death show in a living example the working out of problems which baffle human judgment and defy human intellect. One instance of this is in the reconciling of man’s freewill and God’s foreordination. Here is a problem which it is safe to say has never been solved in intellectual terms. Theories put forward tend either to so exalt determinism as to make freewill a shadow, or to so emphasise freewill as to limit God’s power; attempts at explanation of a less technical kind may glibly cover the surface while really leaving the problem untouched. We are faced with an inherent contradiction or antinomy which it is probable will never be resolved intellectually as long as we have only finite minds.

Yet when we look at Christ we see both ele­ments of the contradiction present in full measure and resolved in practice. We may be no nearer a metaphysical definition but we can recognise the truth as a reality of experience.

To take first the aspect of God’s predetermina­tion, the death of Christ was no historical accident: he was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). We must not whittle away the force of the language. God not only knew but marked out the course to be pursued according to His own wisdom and will; and for that end He not only gave His Son but gave him up into men’s hands that they might do their worst. Paul uses the same term at Athens when he says God has “determined the times before appointed”, and again, “He will judge…by that man whom he hath ordained” (Acts 17:26,31). Jesus uses it of himself: “The Son of man goeth, as it was determined” (Luke 22:22). Even more emphatic is the same word (horizō) with the prefix “before” (proorizō) in Acts 4:28: “…whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel de­termined before to be done”. It is true that the words mean something marked out or delimited, like the horizon (which is simply the noun form of the same word, from horos, a boundary), and so indicate a plan or design rather than something working with the inevitability of a machine; but where God is the designer it is unthinkable that the finished result should fail to conform to His blueprint. Where God marks a line, that line is a limit.

Yet nothing is more certain than that what Christ did was his own voluntary act. This is implicit in the whole story of his life and is expressly shown in such words as Luke’s: “He stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Jesus himself declares it in the most unmistakable language: “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17–18). While what he does fulfils the command of his Father and is done with the Father’s authority, the words are emphatic that he himself lays down his life by his own deliberate act; and for this act of obedience his Father loves him. At the same time it is not only an act towards God; it is the supreme act of love towards men: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Love is a phantom unless the lover gives what it would be in his power to withhold; obedience is an echo unless the one who obeys has the capacity to disobey. God loves a Son who obeys, not an engine running on rails; Christ’s love to God and men is a reality, not a shadow.

Nowhere is Christ’s freewill more evident than in Gethsemane when out of his agony he cries, “Not my will, but thine, be done”. The agony is incomprehensible unless it was the outcome of a real conflict of desires; the words are meaningless unless he had a will of his own to set aside, and by an act of will he deliberately set it aside in order to do his Father’s will.

We are compelled to see in Jesus the conscious action of a free and independent personality deliber­ately submitting himself to do God’s will. Anything less would make his life a mere seeming and nullify his sacrifice. Atonement would be impossible apart from Christ’s freewill, and his life and death are the final proof that freewill is a fact.

There is a meeting point between these op­posites when Christ takes upon himself the fulfil­ment of the Father’s design as a moral obligation. That design is shown in God’s words through the prophets. Here was marked out or delimited the course to be pursued by the Anointed of the Lord and this course Jesus took as a binding moral necessity. “The Son of man must be delivered … all things must be fulfilled which were written … thus it behoved Christ to suffer” (Luke 24:6–7, 26, 44, 46) are a few instances among many, of the way in which he spoke of the necessity laid upon him by the written word. Not only must the Father’s design be fulfilled but he as the Son must fulfil it – he and no other. But he fulfils it as a moral necessity and not as something he cannot physically escape; it is within his power to summon “twelve legions of angels” to his rescue. He fulfils it with the love of a Son and not with the inevitability of a machine; it is at one and the same time both predetermined and voluntarily accepted.

However we attempt to explain them, here are the facts unmistakably revealed in the life of Christ and above all in his death. But one more aspect of the subject is brought into a clear light by that crisis, and that is the moral responsibility of those who kill him: “The Son of man goeth as it was determined, but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!”; “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (they, the Jews, had slain him, though they did it by the agency of “the hands of the lawless”, the Gentiles); “Both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.” It was their crime and by it they were judged; and because of it desolation came upon Jerusalem. Where Christ’s fulfilment of God’s will was deliberate, theirs was unconscious; they were pursuing their own ends and giving rein to their own passions and for the act which resulted they were condemned. It was no merit of theirs that by that means God’s purpose was fulfilled; they bore a responsibility for their acts which would be intoler­able had they not been free to act of themselves.

Here, then, are the three elements of the case: God’s predetermined plan; Christ’s submission to it of his own will; and men’s blind fulfilment of it, which did not relieve them from their guilt. God’s determination does not preclude either the willing submission of Christ or the wilful malice of the Jews; it does not relieve men of the moral respon­sibility for their acts for good or ill; and it therefore leaves the way open for the righteous judgment of God, whether to reward or to condemn. God’s predetermination does not make His dealings with men arbitrary or despotic, or men merely pawns moved by a Fate which deprives them of choice.

Christ’s agony in the Garden is proof that his death was a real triumph of moral heroism. Doubtless it is morally unthinkable that he should have failed; we cannot contemplate such a situation and it is futile and irreverent to speculate on it. But that does not make his conflict the less real or his victory the less glorious: “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”. What is certain is that there is no understanding the relation between men and God apart from the reality of men’s freewill and the perfect example of that freewill is in Christ.

Footnote

The Christadelphian, 1953, p212–213