Free Will, Promises, and Prophesy in Joshua

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Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon by John Martin, 1816. From nga.gov

I got the chance to lead a Bible study lesson on free will, God’s sovereignty, human responsibility, and predestination to an audience of eager and confused students. As you could imagine, there was far too much material to cover in one night of discussion. My students left me with brilliant, hard questions, which I attempted to answer in part on the spot and in more depth in the following weeks. This was one such question, and my response: 

Hey Patrick, if we do not conventionally have free will, then what is the meaning of Joshua 24:14-15? “Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Emphasis mine) 

Good question. So first, let’s review what we talked about. Human nature can be fall into one of four categories first explained by St. Augustine of Hippo, and later elaborated on by Thomas Boston.1 In what sense do we have free will? In the sense that we are free to act on our will in any which way we want. Our will is the mechanism or force that drives us to act according to our nature/identity. In other words, nature determines desire and desire determines actions. This is all what I like to call a background reality. While it’s always true, Bible stories aren’t always framed in a way that helps us see that reality. In fact, for the most part from an earthly, human perspective, the world doesn’t really appear to operate on that nature->will->action paradigm. 

Most of the time, we just act (or react) without having to think about it. I wake up and get out of bed every morning to go to work because that’s just what I do. It’s my job. It has to be done. I don’t have to lie in bed and process “Okay, why should I get out of bed this morning? Why do I want to do my job?” Sometimes, I do have to put some thought behind that. Maybe I got a terrible night’s sleep and when my alarm goes off, the last thing I want to do is crawl out from under my covers and put on clothes and get to work. But at the same time, I want to not lose my job even more. That battle between desires, and my choice of which one takes precedent, reveals something about my character (or “nature” or “identity”). I am the type of person that prioritizes diligence and responsibility over personal pleasure (at least when diligence and responsibility is what puts food on my table). For students, replace “job” with classes and a paycheck with grades. The nature->desire->action reality is still in effect; we just don’t have to think about it. 

While it’s intuitive, we know this reality is true because of a few foundational principles from the Bible. That’s our ultimate source of authority, not personal experience. First, we know that all Scripture is true. Second, we know that Scripture interprets other Scripture. When we read passages like Matthew 7:15-20 and Luke 6:43-45, Ephesians 2:8-9, and Romans 9-10, there’s no other way to interpret those verses than to come to the conclusions we’ve established. Then, once we come to understand free will, God’s sovereignty, and the means of salvation by grace alone in light of the aforementioned verses, all other passages in the Bible can line up with that interpretation.

So how does Joshua 24:14-15 line up with this understanding of free will? Well, we can work backwards. What we see in the passage is Joshua reciting Israel’s history in verses 1-13. What do we see throughout Israel’s history? God’s sovereign choice. God working on behalf of an undeserving, often unrepentant people. Everything is from God’s perspective: “…I took Abraham…I multiplied his descendants…I gave Isaac both Jacob and Esau…I sent Moses and Aaron…I plagued Egypt…” Read verses 1-13 and God is always the subject. He’s the active one. Israel only finds victory in verses 8, 11-12 because the Lord gave their enemies into their hands. Verse 13 succinctly tells us just how much Israel deserved the life they now had in the promised land: “‘I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and cities which you had not built, and you have lived in them; you are eating of vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.’”

God’s people are forever unable to do what He commands them without either doing it with them, for them, or through them. So now, we come to verses 13-14. Joshua extends an invitation, or an exhortation, to choose between the pagan gods of the Canaanite locals and the God of their fathers. See Israel’s response in verses 16-18:

The people answered and said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for the Lord our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and who did these great signs in our sight and preserved us through all the way in which we went and among all the peoples through whose midst we passed. The Lord drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God.” 

They express a vow that they will serve the Lord (actions) because God has been so faithful, because it is the most rational decision they could make, because “Where else could we go?” Here’s the cool part. Look at Joshua’s response, and the ensuing discourse between him and Israel in verses 19-28. Joshua prophesies “You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins” (emphasis mine). They’ve made a vow to change their actions, but they will be unable to keep it. Israel insists. Joshua makes them put it in writing. Then, in verse 27, Joshua declares “Behold, this stone shall be for a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord which He spoke to us; thus it shall be for a witness against you, so that you do not deny your God.”

This is reminiscent of what we read in Galatians 3 regarding the Law. The Law was to serve as a “mediator” which convicted Israel of their sin. By expressing God’s perfect, holy standard for humanity, the Law reveals to anyone who tries to follow it that they are unable to do so. Look to Romans 7, especially verses 7-13. The Law leads to death. This can be taken in two ways. Either one attempts to attain righteousness by obedience and they die with guilt heaped upon them, or they realize that they are unable to follow the law and “die to self,” finding new life in Christ.2 That’s what it means to become a Christian. We must die to self and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We must be made into a new creation. 

So looping back around to Joshua 24, let’s see how it fits into the overarching Biblical narrative. God has delivered Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land, fulfilling His promise to Abraham and every generation following him. Israel vows to remain faithful to God, and Joshua, speaking on behalf of God, tells them that they will be unable to stay faithful. Of course, Joshua is proven right. See the book of Judges. See 1-2 Samuel. See all the rest of the Old Testament. Israel cannot keep their end of the covenant. God remains faithful despite their failure. The prophets foretell what must happen for Israel to be saved, for them to be able to keep the covenant. See Jeremiah 31:33, 32:40 and Isaiah 35:8-9. A time will come when the law and will of God will be inside them, written on their hearts. Isaiah 1 promises that though their sins stain like scarlet, they will be washed white as snow. Isaiah gives us a glimpse of how these things will come to pass: God Himself will descend and will suffer on behalf of his people. See Isaiah 9 and 53. 

At last, Jesus comes and fulfills all these things. He pays the penalty for sin. He gives us the Holy Spirit so that we will be able to know and follow the law of God. He promises to return and make all things new, finally conquering Satan and sin and death. He will remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. We will shed our sinful bodies and be given new, perfect, sinless bodies. We will live with God in harmony for all eternity. 

Hopefully that helps show how Joshua 24 fits into the larger biblical narrative, the whole Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration dynamic. I’ll try to answer a few more questions that might remain. First, when Joshua says “He will not forgive your transgressions or your sins” in 24:19, what does that mean? Well, that can be interpreted in two ways. Either he means that God will not impute His own righteousness to them through the work of Jesus (in other words, He will literally not forgive them of their sins) or it’s saying that God cannot excuse their sins, as in He cannot simply ignore sin and leave it unpunished. This latter interpretation would point Israel to their need for a sacrifice—not just sheep and oxen, but a perfect atoning sacrifice. The Hebrew word for “forgive” literally translates to “lift, carry, take” which works for either interpretation. 

Remember that Joshua isn’t speaking to an individual here. “Israel” is an entire nation, millions of people. So Joshua isn’t saying “God will not forgive each and every one of you. Every individual in Israel will be condemned.” Instead, he’s talking to them as a whole. Israel will not be able to keep the covenant, and in general, Israel will not repent. This is where we need to remember the idea of the “remnant” as it’s called. Look to Isaiah 1:9 “Unless the Lord of hosts had left us a few survivors, we would be like Sodom, we would be like Gomorrah.” The remnant is a recurring theme in the Bible. A few faithful people are saved from the destruction of all the wicked around them. When we bring that dynamic in to Joshua 24, we can acknowledge that as a whole, Israel will not keep the covenant. Many will die bearing their own sin. Yet, God promises to save and keep a remnant in every age and generation. 

Let’s conclude all this. Joshua invites Israel to choose who they will serve. They choose God in word, but Joshua prophesies that they will not be able to keep their own promise. It’s like what God says in Isaiah 29:13 “This people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote…” Again, this is spoken to the nation as a whole, and not every individual in the crowd. A remnant will be saved. That remnant, even in Joshua’s time, is saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Their faith points them forward to the gospel, just like how our faith points us backwards to it. That remnant (which we are a part of; you can also call the remnant “True Israel” or the Church) lives righteously by faith, not their own effort. 

What is your reaction to this? Do you see this line up with the rest of Scripture? What questions do you have? Let me know!

 

Notes

1 https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/four-fold.html 

2 See Matthew 10:37-39, Mark 8:34-36, Luke 14:27, Colossians 3, Philippians 1:21

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