Freedom to Choose Badly

(Spectrumbot) #1

Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, May 23, 2015

It is appropriate that we periodically remind ourselves of the importance of religious liberty—what some call “the first freedom”. However, too often Adventists think about it only in terms of our freedom to practice our faith, rather than about freedom of religion as such; or we think about it in purely apocalyptic terms, since scripture prophesies that we will lose our religious liberty at the end of time. But religious liberty is bigger than this. Religious freedom is fundamental to the Christian faith, because it is rooted in God’s love for all humanity. And so religious liberty is something we should uphold for all, not just for us, and not just with one eye on the future apocalypse. Religious liberty is an expression of the divine character and of divine love.

Luke 15 comprises three parables; stories of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son—all three told in answer to the sanctimonious sneer of the scribes and Pharisees: “This man accepts sinners and even eats his meals with them.”[1] While the substance of the stories may be familiar to most of us, the implications go beyond the obvious ones that God loves us, that we are extraordinarily dear to Him, and that He ardently desires our salvation. Even though on the face of it the parable of the prodigal son may seem to have little to do with religious liberty, in fact it cuts to the very heart of why Seventh-day Adventist Christians should campaign for religious freedom.

Luke begins by telling us that so compelling were Christ’s words, “all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him.”[2] The pious proceeded to sneer to each other behind their hands about how this allegedly godly Galilean is constantly getting up close and personal with the wrong sort of people, when Jesus suddenly pronounces: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.”[3]He then unfolds a three-fold story, sketching out an allegorical triptych of the human need and divine desire for redemption and restoration.

The shepherd, after finding the missing one percent of his flock, “Joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then … calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’” Jesus explains:“there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”[4]

Jesus then supplies another story, for a different demographic, asking his listeners to “suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.” The Greek word that is translated as silver coin is drachma—in ancient Palestine, women were often given a garland of ten drachmae as a wedding present. It is likely that Jesus is describing the loss of one-tenth of such a garland, in which case the missing drachma had more than monetary value, for it was a symbol of the woman’s marriage. “Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, [Jesus declares], there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”[5]He concludes with probably the most famous parable in the gospels and one of the best-known stories in all literature: the parable of the prodigal son.

First, we should note that in both the first two parables, the thing which is lost is ascribed no part in its own misplacement. Some might presume that the missing sheep, like sheep, had gone astray, but Jesus literally says that the man lost the creature. How the woman’s coin became separated from the other nine, we don’t know, but we do know it was not fault of the missing drachma. The story ascribes to neither the shepherd nor the housewife any real volition in the loss of their sheep and coin. They do not want them to go missing, but the stories do not identify any decision on their part that was responsible for the loss. No, these very short stories seem to be telling us that losing a sheep or coin is just one of those things that happens.

Note the difference with the story of the lost son. For a crucial fact in this parable is that the son’s departure results from conscious decisions taken by both the father and the son.

“And He said: “There was a man who had two sons;and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.”[6]

The boy doesn’t somehow just become lost. He has become restless and impatient at home. This is clear from the action he takes, which is the trigger for the whole story.

This is such a simple thing and if we know the parable, it is so familiar, that we lose a sense of its deep significance. The son is not simply asking for some of his dad’s wealth—he is asking to be given, now, what would usually come to him only on his father’s death. The younger son’s sin is often seen as being his descent into what in verse 13 is variously translated as “riotous living”, “loose living” or “wild living”.[7]But his first sin was when he took a conscious decision to violate the fifth commandment, and to dishonor his father, for what is he saying here? “I can’t wait for you to die, dad.” The work of Biblical scholars reveals that itwas not unheard of “for a father … to make a division of his inheritance among his sons while he was yet alive rather than … upon his death.”[8] But that simply meant specifying which of his properties and treasures would be left to each son when he passed away. Thus, on those occasions when “a division of property was made during the father’s lifetime, the property remained intact until the father’s death.”[9] The younger son wantedhis dad to do much more than merely designate what will be his on his father’s decease. Forget about waiting! The boy makes a request that was so “unusual” it was outrageous: “he asked his fatherto give him hisshare of the estate” then and there.[10] “But the father was by no means obliged to do so.”[11] In fact, by contemporary standards, the father would have been well within his rights to rebuke, or even to physically punish, his presumptuous younger child. Instead, he granted the audacious, impertinent request. But it is imperative to recognize that, in doing so, he was not merely countenancing insolence; he was paying a price—he was losing something.

First, in contemporary Jewish culture, the father would have lost face by not upholding patriarchal authority against rebellious youth. In a culture in which shame and honour were vitally important, many friends and relatives would have felt he had been dishonoured. Indeed, we get a hint of this in the way, at the end of the story, in verses 29 and 30, the elder son, supposedly the “good boy”, treats his dad with disdain. The father had lost some of his authority by giving way to the younger son.

Second, the father paid a literal financial price in granting the exorbitant demand. “According to the Mosaic law, the eldest son was to receive a double portion of his father’s estate, and the younger sons were to receive a single portion each . . . . If a father had only two sons, as was the case here . . . the younger son would receive one third of his father’s estate.”[12] From the story it seems clear that the younger son promptly “converted his share of the property entirely into cash”, or else he could not have gone to a foreign country.[13] In other words, a third of the family estate, which those listening to Jesus would assume had been built up over generations, had been essentially sacrificed, given up for no familial gain, to indulge the selfish cravings of a feckless youth.

There was a third price to pay, of course, and a third loss; for the father lost his younger son.

So, in contrast to the loss of the sheep and the coin, the son is lost because of choices that were made. The son chose both to ask for his inheritance and then, having received it, to go far from home and squander it. He was lost of his own volition. We are right to point the finger at the son for his disrespectful, disreputable, behaviour—for the decisions that took him down the path of prodigal living, to the doors of prostitutes, and finally into a pig field.

Yet we should not ignore that another decision was also crucial to the son going missing—the father’s decision to give his son the power of choice; and then his choice to honour his son’s decisions. This was not a notional, theoretical, abstract choice for the father—it cost him, dearly. But having decided to give his sons the freedom to choose, he did not take away that freedom when one son made bad choices. The son is lost against his father’s desire but, in a sense, not against his volition.

Why would God, whom the Father in the parable represents, be willing to sacrifice in order to honour the freedom to choose? Why, to bring it closer to home, was Jesus willing to be tortured to death because of the decisions we made? What is so important about human beings’ ability to decide? The Scriptures say nothing explicit on this score, but of course we know that humanity was created with free will. Adam and Eve’s obedience to God could not simply be commanded; they had to decide for themselves whether or not to trust and obey God. Sadly, their decision was a bad one. But their freedom to choose is an essential pre-condition of the entire story of redemption in the Bible. Furthermore, since it was present from the very start, their power of choice was something God Himself chose to give them. The ability to consider and make judgments, rather than simply acting like an automaton, is an integral part of being human.

Imagine for a moment that Jesus had told His audience of tax collectors, sinners, scribes and Pharisees only the first two parables found in Luke 15. Jesus would still have answered the question of just why the Son of Man was consorting with moral outcasts, even spending quality time with them. We would still value these two stories and tell them, because they tell of a God who desires to save the lost so much that He does not focus on the 99 per cent that may stay—no, He will inexorably search for the one per cent that has gone astray.

So there is great value in these two tales; but we would not have the same picture of God without the third parable. This is true in two ways. First, there is the fuller picture it gives us of God’s attitude to us when we are lost in sin; but second is what it reveals about the divine gift of free will.

Where the third parable tells us something quite different is in what it reveals about the importance, to God, of our divinely granted freedom to decide for ourselves how we will live and how we relate to our Creator.

And this is treated at the end of this story, as well as at the beginning. When the father welcomes back his younger son with open arms, he is honouring the freedom to choose which was his gift to his sons. He hadaccepted the younger son’s decision to disastrously experiment; he welcomes his choice to return to his childhood home. But he imposes no conditions: there is no “I told you so”, no “Well I hope you learned your lesson”, no “You’re welcome back this time, but if you make the same mistake again, that’s it.” The father’s welcome is unconditional. The restoration of the son to his position before he left means he is also free to make a mess of his life again—if he so chooses. Maybe the younger son woke up the morning after the feast with the fatted calf and said: “Well that was easy! I’ll grab some cash from dad’s safe and be off down the bar and the brothel. Fun times tonight!” However, not only does the story not tell us “what happened next”, it doesn’t do so, because it doesn’t matter. The son is free to choose, free to err, free to make mistakes; and because the father honours his ability to choose, the son will always be welcomed back when he makes a better choice.

What is religious freedom? It is acknowledging the freedom to choose that God gave to every man and woman. It is acknowledging that God Himself does not compel obedience: He seeks to persuade us; He honours our choices, even when they are bad ones; and He does this because He loves us and wants us to love Him.

Jesus Christ suffered the excruciating, indescribable, agonies of the Cross even for those who would not accept His sacrifice. So often we say “Jesus died to save me from my sins”. And of course that’s true. But it’s only a partial truth. To be precise: Jesus died to give me an opportunity to be saved from my sins. It is a powerful, humbling thought that He “humbled Himself . . . even [to] death on a cross”,[14] to give human beings a chance to choose whether to accept salvation or not. SinceJesus was willing to die even for those who would decide to reject Him, even the thought of compelling another human being to believe or worship against their conscience must be repellent to those who follow Christ.

And so, religious freedom is something every Christian ought to be passionate about because it reflects the very nature of God. As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we need to see religious liberty as more than protecting Sabbath privileges for ourselves or our fellow church members. We should strive to defend the freedom of every man and woman to choose who or what they will worship and how. Religious liberty is not just for us, it is for everyone—including people whose choices we dislike or even detest

This is no small matter. For religious freedom is not just a human right; it is a divine gift. When we uphold it for people of all faiths and none, we are truly reflecting the image of God, who loved us so much that He gave us the freedom to choose.

[8] SDABC, V, 818, on Luke 15:12.

[9] SDABC, V, 818, on Luke 15:12, emphasis supplied.

[10] The Bible Knowledge Commentary, on Luke 15:12-20a, via Logos Bible Software – emphasis supplied.

[11] SDABC, V, 818, on Luke 15:12.

[12] SDABC, V, 818, on Luke 15:12.

[13] SDABC, V, 818, on Luke 15:12.

[14] Philippians 2:8 RSV.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Dudley) #2

Powerful comments, Evelyn! Are we really ready for this? I think we tend to want religious liberty for us, but not so much for other people. If gay Christians want to celebrate their marriage, we don’t want to honor their choices as we want others to honor ours! Of course the implications go way beyond that one issue, but it’s the most obvious one with relevance right now, right here. The teachings of Jesus Christ are so radical. Thanks for the reminder and for the clear exposition.

(k_Lutz) #3

What is going on here? Do you not know the difference between fact, a story, and fiction, a parable? How dare you use the word of God for your own devices!

Trust The BEing!

(Peter) #4

It seems to me that our religious liberty leaders used to have a wiser approach than some of our leaders/ members do now:

“Organized religion seems to have abandoned the use of personal moral persuasion and replaced it with a quest for political power. The preachers can’t write God’s law in men’s hearts, so they try to get it written in statute books. Unable to convince people to act morally on their own, the preachers want to use the law to force them instead. In so doing, however, churches give up the high ground. After all, attempting to use the power of the state instead of the power of the pulpit doesn’t say much for the power of the pulpit.
But organized religion seems to have abandoned the use of personal moral persuasion and replaced it with a quest for political power. The preachers can’t write God’s law in men’s hearts, so they try to get it written in statute books. Unable to convince people to act morally on their own, the preachers want to use the law to force them instead. In so doing, however, churches give up the high ground. After all, attempting to use the power of the state instead of the power of the pulpit doesn’t say much for the power of the pulpit.” Vernon Alger, director of religious liberty, Lake Union Conference, 1998.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #5

an Excellent commentary, thank you. Tom Z

(Ron Rosenquist) #6

Please enlighten us…How is the author using God’s word for her own devices?

(Allen Shepherd) #7

I am not sure the parable goes there at all. If the son chooses to bring prostitutes home, would the father allow such in his house, and say, “So glad you are here, son! Find one for your older bother!”?

I think not. The house had rules. The love was NOT unconditional. Would the father allow the younger son to destroy the house with his selfishness and profligacy? No. He could do that in the far country, but not in the father’s house. We will not be allowed to bring your sin to heaven.

I think the sign should read: "freedom TO go to Hell.

(Gerhard Dr Svrcek Seiler) #8

Thank you so much for widening our view ! We used to dwell on the luxurious, profligate life in the (supposedly) red light districts of a faraway city, maybe also - rarely - questioned the other sons character but never took into consideration that Jesus deliberately took the economical situation of a father respüonsible also for the life and income of the whole rural household, the estate. I say : Jesus deliberately chose this example - in its economics present to his listerenrs - no bank account, immediately sell one third of farmland also with olive trees and wineyards, the basics of a great households living.-

I believe Jesus was aware of all the impacts in this very parable, he knew about the pack of messages to be seen there - and these he teached his audience…

(Steve Mga) #9

I think there might be another thought in this picture the word artist is drawing for us.

Does God GO to Hell WITH us when we go? To be there and suffer with us as WE are suffering?

Off Topic:—
This weekend TWO GREAT Religious Events Collide.

  1. Jewish – the commemoration of the Giving of the Law [the Torah] at Mt. Sinai by God.
  2. Christian – the Birthday of The Christian Church at Pentecost.
    It isnt often that these both Collide on a Religious Weekend, and not in the middle of the week.
    Wear RED, ORANGE, or YELLOW to Church to celebrate the Fire, either from the Mountain, or the fire on the Heads of those in the upper room.

I will be celebrating Saturday Night at the Rabbis house beginning at 9PM – one hour after sunset.
I will be celebrating Sunday Morning singing an anthem with the choir praising the Holy Spirit.
I will be quietly meditating at my Sabbath SDA church. We dont celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit there.

(Elmer Cupino) #10

There’s a vast difference between “unconditional love” and “limit setting.” Don’t confuse the two. It is possible to have “unconditional love” and adhere to strict “limit settings.”

Agree with you here.

(Steve Mga) #11

Perhaps the sign ACTUALLY has a Double Speak.

  1. Since they are dressed as they are, they mean for FREEDOM to Go to Hell.
  2. Perhaps their English expressiveness is poor, as it might be a Second Language.
    And, It might really ALSO mean “Freedom to go to Hell.”

(efcee) #12

Evelyn’s article expresses many valuable viewpoints. I will spend some time today to meditate on her thoughts. We need more items like this on Spectrum. Thank you Evelyn.

Those of us who meet Adventists who possess such a narrow view of religious liberty (from my own experience I’ve found only this to be “rarely” rather than “too often”) should direct them to the following statement from the PARL (Office of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty of the Seventh-day Adventist Church). Better yet, they should contact one of the lawyers who actually work on cases for the IRLA to find out the true number of non-Adventists and non-Christians who are helped by the organization:

"The Seventh-day Adventist church strongly believes in religious freedom for all people. A person’s conscience, not government, should dictate his or her choice to worship—or not.

We have advocated for these goals for more than 100 years, through our department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL), to governments and religious and international organizations.

This advocacy takes many forms—fighting against laws that would inhibit an individual’s religious freedoms, working to obtain the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons and supporting the rights of individuals fired from their jobs for following their conscience, to name a few.

As the official voice of the Adventist Church on matters of religious freedom and human rights, …PARL also sponsors the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) on behalf of the Adventist Church. IRLA is a non-sectarian organization supporting religious freedom around the world.

The first organization of its kind (founded in 1893 by the Seventh-day Adventist Church), IRLA brings together representatives of many faiths—including Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Buddhists and others—to support religious liberty. "(end quote)

I have met people of other faiths who have used the legal services of the PARL/IRLA and are grateful that these organizations exist. There are very few other like them.

(Gerhard Dr Svrcek Seiler) #13

Should the son bring prostitutes with him - - I darkly remember, when a true chirstian fellow believer said : “You are wlecme” invited the persons to the daily family worship amd to the Sabbath service , held in a large room of his farmhouse - other SDAs from around comng .,

(I here transform my experinece, how my parents dealt with refugees, a German deserter , displaced persons and lieutenant Mischa , soldier of the Red Army in 1945)

The son had arleready endangered the whole estate and its economiy by breaking away a good part of the basics for living . Part of the fileds, the olive trees, the wineyars thaa must have been for sale - to get the money .

House rules : OK, have your beer - along as you mean to have it. But please, Sabbath is the day of our rest in quietness, so be silent and have you laundry done. - - -

(Bill Garber) #14

I’m doing my best to lovingly declare the thesis of this article to be a mistaken view of God, in support of religious liberty. The best I can come up with is that in deep reality the mistake will not preempt God’s will for every human.

God so loves the world that he sent Jesus and Jesus saved the world He had created. God didn’t choose to save us, he saved us because He is God. Therefore our salvation is surely not because we have chosen to be saved.

Stories told by Jesus are certainly open to interpretation, including the story of the Prodigal Father. This is the story of the Father, primarily. And thus it is not in the least a story of choice, but a story of love that the Father has no choice to withdraw. There is no reference to the Father thinking through whether to love or not. God is Love. God doesn’t choose to love. It is thus no surprise that 1 Corinthians 13 declares that faith, hope and love all remain.

The bible does not support the assertion that Jesus came to give humans a second chance. There is no direct biblical support for human choice playing any role in human salvation. There is much biblical support for choice playing no role … We are the clay, He is the potter; we are the sheep, he is the shepherd; we are lost, he is our Savior; we are the creatures, He is the Creator; we are orphans, and by adoption we are children of God; we are the Snake’s remnant and Jesus slew the Serpent to save us as He promised in Genesis 3; God chose us, we did not choose him.

Indeed, one of the most cogent non-biblical arguments against human choice playing a role in personal salvation is Ellen White’s observation that should faith and works purchase the gift of salvation for anyone, then the Creator is under obligation to the creature.

The letter to the Philippians confirms that “it is God who works in each of us to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose.” Thus neither our mental efforts nor their resulting actions in any way result in or secure our salvation.

In terms of religious liberty, we do well to avoid advocating that religious liberty trumps common civil rights. Were common civil rights not well understood and enforced, there seems little doubt that there are religious people who would be led to exercise their religious liberty to, following the Old Testament writings, stone members, including children not respecting their parents, in church parking lots in the U.S.

Civil rights trump religious liberty and should, it seems.

(Dudley) #15

God’s sovereignty does not trump our free will. If you think otherwise, gosh, Mr. Garber, just join a Calvinist Church. But that is not Adventist theology and it is not Biblical. Or are you a Unitarian who imagines God saves everyone? Again denying free will. I think that what you’re saying is that we don’t have any agency in being saved but that’s not the point of these parables or of Mr Vaughan’s essay.

(Corran Vincent) #16

Or is that only to believe in what the SDA Church believes. If someone believes something different then we do then we have to brow beat hem to believe as we do


I wonder who is the most prominent cleric, clergy, person who teaches this?

And Ken , you liked this?

(Elmer Cupino) #18

Or more relevant with the neurodevelopmental perspective, when we uphold religious liberty, we are but reflecting our true cognitive image of ourselves and show the world how far we still have to work towards reflecting the true image of God. This gives a better explanation as to why the SDA only considers protecting sabbath privileges as “the” religious freedom. Our church has to eventually discard its belief of being the “remnant church,” a product of egocentric thinking and work towards achieving mutual respect as a universal principle. A hard sell.

(Bill Garber) #19

Reformed/Calvinists represent about 1/3 of Protestants in the U.S.

Seventh-day Adventists are Wesleyan/Arminian primarily.

The offhandedly humorous comparison is that Reformed believe God could save everyone but won’t, while Arminians believe God would really like to save everyone but can’t.

I am hopeful God can and will universally save his universal creation. The more I linger in that hope while reading scripture, the more assured I feel. It sure feels better than having to conjure hope that I won’t mess up in the end and be lost (Arminian) or struggle to merely hope I will mysteriously be numbered among God’s chosen.


That we have some degree of “freedom of choice” should be evident by the reality that we so often make choices not in our own best interest. Adam and Eve for example. However, it does not therefore follow that we may “choose” our way into either heaven, or into hell. Instead, what we have “chosen” is our context and this context is thus what God is obligated to work through. To the rebel, it will seem as God’s severity; to the repentant, as God’s kindness. (Seems a fair reading of Romans 11:22)

Freedom of choice is all-too-often, and wrongly I believe, held as an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Surely though, freedom has it’s limitations. What is so often termed “freedom” is, in fact, bondage. And what obligation does God have to honor bondage? None so far as I can tell. Rather, He is thereby released to free us from our bondage, so that, when truly free, we may choose Him. (Recall Jesus nearly getting tossed over a cliff for claiming He was here to release us from captivity.)

At minimum, to be free, a choice must be informed, undetermined, and rational. A choice made against oneself and one’s true best interest, in the absence of any conceivable reason to make it, and in the presence of compelling reasons not to make it, is neither free, nor sane, nor rational. Thus the freedom God promises does not include Him standing by helplessly watching us destroy ourselves, which is what Adventists and the Arminian tradition holds.

Rather, God’s response is to properly inform, so our decisions are not based on illusions, to bring us to sanity (here, in Luke 15, the son “comes to his senses”… in Philippians 2:10-11 Paul predicts/promises that everyone comes to their senses!) and to give us rationality to discern what really is in our best interest. And in so doing, God in no way violates our freedom, but instead insists upon it.

Bad choices of course do have consequences. The prodigal son really does end up in a despairing and desperate situation. But God uses these consequences as the context and vehicle through which He leads to sanity, a stripping away of illusions, and a rationality that recognizes where the actual source of true joy and life. This use by God of consequent harshness in the service of His goal of salvation is further seen in 1 Corinthians 5. Here, the defiant sinner is handed over to Satan! – the goal of which is his salvation, not his eternal destruction.

That the Victory of God, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is diminished (as this author, Adventist and Arminians in general do) to merely an “opportunity to be saved” is not only sad, but deeply misinformed I believe. It’s the difference between Jesus tossing the drowning soul (that’s us) a life preserver which we must grab hold of so that we might be pulled to safety and Jesus plunging into the tempest, grabbing us by the neck, and dragging us to the safety of the shore.

Missing from this diminished formulation is an awareness of the plethora of ways the bible speaks of the completeness and totality of God’s Victory. Missing too in the bible record is any lingering sense of sadness or melancholy or loss which should be expected if God fails in His mission to save all.

Does God therefore compel salvation? Of course not. What He does not tolerate though is bondage – which is freedoms absence. He has come to set us free! (note in John 17 Christ’s self declared mission, which He claims He has fulfilled, is to make manifest God’s name!) And when truly free, we will choose life with God. What Arminians take as evidence of freedom (ie bad choices) is actually evidence of bondage.

I must say that it does feel strange, in holding to God’s Total Victory in Christ, to thus be at odds with the majority of Adventist and Arminian thought.

Thank you for this essay and discussion.

PS to Bill Garber: it seems, on this issue at least, we are kindred spirits! I’d love to learn more of your journey if you’re willing to contact me.

Moderators: please be free to share my address with Bill should he ask for it. Thanks!