Theological Vocabulary Thursday
Libertarian Free Will: Jesus’ Reaction to Jerusalem’s Rejection Reflects the Father’s Reaction

By L. Manning Garrett III, Ph.D., Pastor, East Laurel Baptist Church, Jackson, TN

Regarding last week’s article, “Two Versions of Free Will in Southern Baptist Life,” there were several comments pertaining to my reference to Jesus’ reaction to Jerusalem’s rejection of Him in Matthew 23: 37-39 and Luke 13:34-35. One respondent observed that it is not clear why nonCalvinists think this episode in Jesus’ life counts against Calvinism. I will show why I think this text supports the idea that Jesus believed that the Jerusalemites had libertarian free will — they rejected Him but could have accepted Him.

Calvinist compatibilists will argue that the Jerusalemites are responsible for rejecting Jesus because they were acting on their deepest desire: they wanted to reject Jesus. Further they will argue that the Jerusalemites “could not have accepted Jesus,” while libertarians claim that the Jerusalemites had the real option to accept Jesus but chose to reject Him. NonCalvinist libertarians and Calvinist compatibilists differ with respect to whether or not the Jerusalemites had the real option “to desire to accept Jesus.”

The following is Matthew’s account of this incident (Matthew 23:37, KJV):

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!

Before laying out several reasons from the text why I think Jesus’ reaction best fits libertarian free will rather than compatibilism, let me support an assumption with which I think most everyone agree: as my title indicates, “Jesus’ reaction reflects the Father’s reaction. It is this reaction by Jesus—pointing toward libertarian free will—that reflects an identical view of free will held by the Father.

The following points show that Jesus and the Father are in agreement on the things Jesus did, the things He taught, and—I would think by extension—the way he reacted to situations. We know from John 1:1 that Jesus is the Word, and is God. Further, Jesus taught that He is the only Way to the Father (John 14:6). In John 8:16, Jesus claimed that the Father was His Witness agreeing that Jesus’ testimony is true. Jesus claimed that his words (teaching) came from the Father who sent Him. His teaching was not His own; they belong to the Father. We know that he did many wonderful miraculous deeds. About these acts, Jesus claimed that he was doing these works because the Father was doing these things through Him (John 14:10). In other places in John’s Gospel, Jesus claimed that He was only doing what the Father does and what the Father approves. Finally, and perhaps closest to the Jerusalemites’ rejection of Jesus, we know that Jesus’ will is to do the will of the Father who sent Him (John 4:14).  These Scriptures support the fact that Jesus’ reaction to the Jerusalemites’ rejection of Him will not be inconsistent with the Father’s reaction regarding the Jerusalemites.

I turn now to making the case that Jesus believed that the Jerusalemites had libertarian free will. This belief will be consistent with the Father’s judgement about the type of free will the Jerusalemites had.

FIRST, Jesus holds the Jerusalemites responsible for rejecting Him. He said “You would not.” Both Calvinist compatibilists and nonCalvinist libertarians recognize that Jesus placed the blame for rejecting Him on the desire or “want to” of the Jerusalemites. Part of the reason for last week’s article was to show that both Calvinists and nonCalvinists maintain that the person who rejects Jesus is accountable (responsible) for rejecting Jesus. NonCalvinists hold that the Jerusalemites “could have accepted Jesus,” and Calvinist compatibilists maintain that the Jerusalemites “could not have accepted Jesus”—could not have even wanted to accept Jesus due to total depravity. On the Calvinist compatibilistic view they “were totally unable” to want to accept Jesus.

SECOND, Jesus’ action was a repeated action: He said “how often I would have gathered you to Myself.” Since He compared His action to a mother hen gathering her chicks, we see that He loved them and came to them on numerous occasions and deeply desired to gather them to Himself. Though they would reject Him on more than one occasion, still Jesus wanted them to accept Him. Jesus appears to express a genuine desire that the Jerusalemites want to be gathered to Him even though, on the Calvinist account they were unable to even want to be gathered to Him. Nonetheless, Jesus clearly states that He wants them to come to Him which would involve repentance. This reminds us of God’s desire that none should perish and that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). It seems that Jesus has made genuine and repeated offers to the Jerusalemites to accept Him. His offers were genuine reflections of Jesus’ will—“I wanted to gather you to myself.” If His will is consistent will the Father’s will (established above), then it follows that the Father also wanted the Jerusalemites to accept Jesus.

So, why did the Father not change the will of the Jerusalemites so they would accept Jesus given that Jesus and the Father have an identical will? Did Jesus have one desire and the Father another? I don’t think this is an attractive interpretation for either Calvinists or nonCalvinists. The nonCalvinist libertarian has a good explanation for why Jesus and the Father did not change their will. Jesus was giving them free choice in the sense of choosing to be gathered to Him. They “could have” willed to come to Him but chose not to will to come to Him. I am not sure how the compatibilist view explains Jesus’ plain statement that “you would not” come to me. Clearly, they did not want to do so. Surely Jesus would know that they could not even will to come to Him. Why then did He want them to choose to want to do something He must have known they could not do? Did Jesus and the Father genuinely want them to want to come to Jesus and to come to Jesus? If so, then why did the Father not change their will given they could not even want to come to Jesus?

FINALLY, Jesus’ reaction is interesting and makes perfect sense on the libertarian view. His reaction is twofold. First, as stated above, He is holding them responsible. This is a serious matter because a sustained rejection of Jesus leads to “eternal punishment.” Jesus told Nicodemus that “he that believeth not in Me is condemned already” (John 3:18). It is true the Jerusalemites sinned and deserved condemnation. However, for a Calvinist compatibilist, in what sense are the Jerusalemites responsible for doing that which they were unable to avoid — not wanting to accept Jesus? This inability led to their rejection and also led them into sin. The point here is important: Jesus is holding them responsible for not wanting to accept Him—not just for their sins. I am not downplaying their sins and their rejection of Him; however, Jesus focused on their “want to”—“you would not.” If they could not will to accept Jesus, why is He blaming them? So, the first part of his reaction is blame. I think the second part is equally as important.

Second, Jesus’ reaction was one of regret. Some commentaries say He was outside of Jerusalem “weeping over the city.” Why was He broken hearted? He tells us, “you would not,” meaning “you would not will to accept Me and then accept Me.” As stated earlier, Jesus’ reaction and the Father’s reaction are identical. So, we may conclude that the Father also was broken hearted over Jerusalem’s rejection of Jesus — both had deep regret because the people of Jerusalem refused to want to accept Jesus.

Regret with respect to human choice is not like regretting that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans or regretting that cancer killed my mother or regretting the death of my grandson two years ago by some “undetectable” cause at birth. There can be tears of regret over determining acts of nature. But there is no regret because, given the antecedent conditions, the outcome could not have been different. One may wish that the antecedent conditions were different so that the determined result would have been different, but there is no holding the hurricane or the cancer cell morally responsible for the determined results.

It seems that Jesus’ tears are due a deliberate choice made by the Jerusalemites; they chose to reject Him, and time and again He offered to “gather them to Himself” but they “would not.” For this, Jesus regrets their decision. The text indicates Jesus’ sorrow was because they chose to reject Him. He was heartbroken over that decision. A libertarian interpretation of free will has more explanatory power regarding Jesus’ reaction than does the Calvinist compatibilist explanation, at least for me. Jesus is sorrowful because He wanted them to do something they could do: want to accept Him. This seems like the most natural explanation for His sorrow. I am at a loss to explain Jesus’ sorrow and the failure of the Father to do what Jesus and the Father willed—change their “want to” so that the Jerusalemites would accept Jesus. I freely choose to go with the libertarian option though compatibilists may offer a different interpretation. The interpreter must choose the option that seems best.

In closing, I do not claim that Calvinist compatiblists do not have an explanation for why the Father did not change their “want to.” Jesus held them responsible for making the wrong decision, and expressed genuine tears over their decision to do the only thing they could do. Notice Jesus did not say “you could not.” He said “you would not” do that which I want you to do—accept Me. By extension we can also say that the Father wanted them to accept Jesus.

If God wants “all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4) and “all should come repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), and if Hell is a place Jesus labored to teach us is to be avoided at all costs (loss of hand, eye, metaphorically speaking), and if Hell is described in the most hideous, hopeless metaphors: eternal fire, utter darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, where the worm never dies and the smoke of their torment rises forever, then which interpretation of free will best reflects Jesus’ reaction and the Father’s view?

What is the impact of this for Southern Baptists? One respondent to my article last week stated that she felt the purpose of the article was “kick the Calvinists out of the SBC.” I am not among those who want to do that. I do think we can coexist. However, for the good of the SBC, I think that honest dialogue must take place so that churches do not continue to be hurt. We have honest differences on free will and other matters. Do most Southern Baptists know of these differences? Is it best to not discuss these things? What do you think?