In Deut. 30:11-20, Moses sets before the people a critical choice that will determine the destiny and direction of their history, just as they are about to cross into the promised land. He lays before them the consequences of life and death, blessings and curses, depending on whether they choose to obey God or refuse. The choice that the people make is not something light or trivial, nor is it beyond their abilities: "Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach … No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart that you may obey it" (Deut. 30:11,14). The truth about God and what He had commanded them was not beyond their ability to believe and obey, but within them, since God had created them free creatures with the capacity to respond either in obedience or disobedience. Otherwise, the command to choose life in verse 19 would be meaningless and cruel if it were beyond their capacity as human beings.
But choice is something we do have, since we are made to be the images of God in His cosmic temple of creation. How can we adequately reflect the moral character of God without the freedom to choose between good and evil? Our freedom, as opposed to God’s, may be very limited in scope, but it is real. This measure of freedom is essential to our personhood: it is what makes us persons. Let us first look at what a choice is. A choice always involves two or more contrasting alternatives. We must first perceive a distinction between two or more options before we can choose. For example, a person who is completely color-blind cannot choose one color over another because she cannot perceive the difference between them. Such a choice would be meaningless for her. Choice involves recognizable alternatives. This is the fundamental law of opposites: we can only know something by comparing and contrasting it with something else. We can only know hot because we know cold. We can know one state of emotion like anger because we have other emotions with which to contrast it. This is true of choices as well. We can only perceive an option because there is some alternative to it.
Secondly, for a choice to be real, both alternatives must be available and realistic possibilities for the person choosing, that is, the alternatives must fall within the person’s ability to accomplish. We cannot tell a crippled person to choose between running or walking to the park, because, although the cripple can perceive the difference between walking and running, he cannot accomplish either due to his physical limitations. That choice doesn’t exist for the cripple.
Choice Must Be Real, Free, and Significant
Moreover, a choice cannot be coerced in any manner if the choice is to be real, free, and significant. It cannot be coerced externally by other persons; as when political prisoners are forced to sign a false confession. Nor can the choice be compelled by internal desires, motivations, or "sinful human nature." In that case, the choice would be no more real than that of an animal driven by instinct. If human choice is predetermined by external force or some internal nature, then it is an illusion and does not exist. We are not born with a sinful human nature that determines the way we act, yet we are not independent selves who control our own actions. Rather we are vessels containing either God or Satan, expressing their natures, and the only free choice we have as creatures is which spirit we will express in our lives (see 2 Tim. 2:20-21).
So human beings have only one choice that is truly free. All other choices are determined by this one fundamental choice, and there is nothing more important than knowing precisely what this choice is. Satan would fog our minds to keep us from this knowledge, for in making the right choice we will render him powerless over us. This one fundamental choice is what makes us spiritual beings, persons with a moral awareness, distinct from mere animals driven by instinct. This choice is portrayed for us in the garden of Eden, where God places man in a situation where he will be tested and compelled to make a choice. Prior to God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve lacked any moral consciousness; they could experience the goodness of the Lord, but they could not know it, for they had never encountered any evil with which to contrast it. God gave the command and created the tree of knowledge precisely to bring humanity to the level of moral consciousness.
God also ordained for the serpent, Satan, to be in the garden, so that evil could be presented in a persuasive and powerful manner. If evil had not been presented in this manner, Adam and Eve would have been deprived of their choice, and therefore of their spirituality or personhood. Evil had to be presented persuasively because the goodness of God in providing for all human needs was so powerfully evident. Without an equal presentation of evil, the choice would have been meaningless and insignificant. For example, if you offer a child the choice between a bowl of ice cream and a bowl of spinach, it is obvious what the child would choose. The child does make a choice, but it is not a significant one. Choice is most truly free when the alternatives are almost equally matched. For this to happen in the garden, God had to withdraw His visible presence from Adam and Eve to permit Satan to work his deception.
Deception Does Not Negate Choice
But does Satan’s deception negate the possibility of free choice, and therefore wipe out human responsibility for sin? By no means. For Adam and Eve knew the content of God’s command, and Satan could not erase that knowledge from their minds. Although Satan questioned what God had commanded, that is not where the deception took place. Rather, the deception concerned the consequences of choosing to disobey over choosing to obey. Satan minimized the painful consequences of disobedience: "You will not surely die" (Gen. 3:4), and magnified the pleasurable consequences: "Your eyes shall be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (3:5). Deception, therefore does not interfere with the exercise of choice, for although Satan’s words were untrue, Eve had to determine who she would trust, and whose words she would bank her life on: God or Satan. Deception only works because a person wants to believe that something other than reality is the truth. Deception can only work where there is a self-will that wishes to remake reality according to its desires. Thus, the success of Satan’s deception depended on Eve’s desire to remake reality and to deny the truth. In 2 Thess. 2:10-12, Paul speaks of the end-times when there shall be false miracles and signs that deceive the perishing. The reason they perish, Paul says, is because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved. Refusal to love the truth involves a willful choice to reject the truth. Deception, therefore, does not negate human responsibility or free choice.
What We Choose Enslaves Us
What was the alternative that Satan presented Eve? Asurface understanding of the text would make it seem that the alternative was disobedience to God in eating the fruit of the tree. This is true, but does not penetrate to the spiritual core of the text. The real temptation was to lead Adam and Eve to rebel against God in declaring themselves as gods over against God, gods who could decide for themselves what good and evil were, decide for themselves how they would live their lives, without reference to God. The self would replace God at the center of their lives. The result of the choice would mean they would be operated by God’s spirit as image-expressers of God’s character, or be operated by Satan as expressers of his rebellious independent attitude. This is the only choice that human beings have: whether or not to believe Satan’s lie that they can be independently selfoperating selves who play at being gods. We cannot actually choose to be independent selves; that is the lie. All we get to choose is our view or perception of ourselves, and by that choice we determine what spirit operates us. Hence, our freedom is very limited and circumscribed in scope. It is not the freedom to be or do anything. In fact, once we choose whether or not to believe Satan’s lie of independent self, every other action or choice is not free, but determined by the spirit which indwells and operates us. So, as Norman says in his books, freedom always expresses itself in a specific choice, and that choice results in the enslavement of the will to what it chose. What we choose, chooses us, and we express the consequences of that fundamental choice in every area of our life.
As a consequence of Adam’s choice, we are born joined in spiritual union to Satan in rebellion against God. To be joined to someone means to be in a covenantal relationship with him, as a wife to a husband or as a vessel to an overlord. To be joined to someone, then, means to be under their authority in a binding relationship. The joining to Satan fixed Adam’s choice in his direction, so that Adam and the rest of humanity was no longer free to choose. What they had taken, took them, and the rest of humanity with them, since Adam acted as humanity’s representative. Originally created free, humanity became slaves to Satan, fixed in their choice.
Unless God had intervened, humanity would have remained fixed in their choice for Satan beyond possibility of redemption. Once the choice was made, the human will was no longer free. But by His grace, God determined that, although humanity was in spiritual union with Satan, He would grant humanity the option of choosing out of that union. God does this when He promises to put enmity between the serpent and the woman in Gen. 3:15. God declares war on Satan, and works powerfully to draw men to Himself and to restrain Satan’s control over humanity (2 Thess. 2:7), thereby restoring to humanity the opportunity to choose freely.
For each person, then, God graciously grants the opportunity to choose out of the spiritual union with Satan, and therefore the option to repent (Acts 11:18; Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 2:25). But the option to choose again is not a right, but a matter of God’s grace, so that even our free choice to accept the offer of salvation in the gospel is not any grounds for pride or boasting. It is not a work that we independently accomplish, for without God holding Satan back from fixing us in the wrong choice, we would not possess free choice.
What of those who are ignorant of God’s truth, whether in the form of God’s standard in the law or in the form of the gospel message? How can God hold accountable those who have never heard the gospel and received a chance to accept it? How can they have a free choice if they never get the opportunity to respond? But the Scriptures do not present the human condition in this manner. Romans 1:1832 speaks clearly to this matter. Humanity willfully "attempts to suppress the truth by its wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-His eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Rom. 1:18-20). The mind of humanity became depraved, because they do not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God. For that reason they have become darkened and ignorant, because they harden their own hearts against God (Rom. 1:21, 28; Eph. 4:18). Humanity is ignorant by its own choice, not wanting to face the truth available to them. Some light is always available to people, whereby they may make the right choice to come into the light and so be saved. I believe God directs missionaries to those areas where people have already responded to the light they have. Perhaps the truth about God in nature is not enough to save a person, but if a person does respond to that truth, then God honors that response by getting the gospel to them. Thus humanity is without excuse before God.
God’s Response to Willful Disobedience
But other verses seem to speak of humanity not having a choice, but rather of God hardening whomever He wills to harden, as in Romans 9:14-18. When Paul says that God will have mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and harden whom he wants to harden, he is not referring to unconditional decrees before the foundation of the world, but to God’s response to human choices. The original context of this quotation is Ex. 32-34, where Moses asks God’s forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf. God responds by claiming the sovereign freedom to respond to the human choice to sin in whatever way He chooses to do so, to forgive whomever He chooses to forgive (32:19), and (as Paul adds) to harden whomever He wants to harden. God has mercy on and hardens people who have deliberately and willfully rejected God’s way. God is free to respond to human choice either by fixing the per son in their choice, thereby hardening them, or by continuing to have mercy and allow them the freedom to choose again. Thus God’s hardening of people does not violate their free choice, but rather is God’s fixing them in their free choice, His confirmation and sealing of the human choice. God accomplishes this hardening by handing people over to the ultimate consequence of their unbelieving rebellion: He delivers them over to the devil, who in turn seals and fixes their union with him: "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so they could not see, and ears so they could not hear" (Rom. 11:8). The ultimate punishment for sin, then is the loss of the opportunity to repent, to freely choose out of sin. The hardening is the result both of human choice and God’s withdrawal of His merciful restraint of Satan. Hardening of the heart is not something for which we can blame God, but the result of willful and deliberate rebellion against Him.
Therefore, as the author of Hebrews states, "Today, if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as they did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert" (Heb. 3:7-11). Today is the day of opportunity and the day of testing. Constantly we are faced with the choice whether or not to believe Satan’s lie of independence. But beware, lest you be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness, and fail to appreciate the consequences of choosing to sin. For the Israelites, the consequence was that they never entered God’s rest in the Holy Land, for us, it means failure to enter into the eternal Sabbath rest of God. Just as Moses confronted Israel with the choice at the River Jordan, so we too have a choice to make, we too have life and death set before us (Deut. 30:15, 19). Do not be fooled, because God is not mocked, whether we sow to the flesh or to the Spirit, we will receive the just recompense for what we do in our lives, whether eternal life or eternal death (Gal 6:7-8; 2 Cor. 5:10).