Free Moral Choice

  1. Peter exercised free-moral agency. Peter was also an apostle and a Spirit-inspired man. However, in Antioch of Syria he ran into some problems because of his lack of courage. In Antioch he at first freely associated with Gentile Christians. However, when some Jewish brethren came up from Jerusalem, Peter exercised his free-moral choice, and subsequently made a bad decision. He “withdrew and separated himself [from the Gentile brethren], fearing those who were of the circumcision” (Gl 2:12).

Paul confronted Peter about his fear of the legalistic Jewish Christians from Jerusalem. Paul later recorded, “I withstood him to his face because he stood condemned” (Gl 2:11). During the incident, “even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy” (Gl 2:13). The problem was that both Peter and Barnabas were greatly intimidated by the Jewish brethren from Jerusalem. Their lack of confidence to continue to walk according to the gospel in the presence of these legalistic Jewish bre­thren led them to behave in a hypocritical manner. They were thus not being straightforward about the gospel. We can understand Paul’s harsh judgment of Peter on this matter for Paul had faced similar false brethren in Jerusalem who sought to sinfully bind Jewish laws on Gentile Christians. Paul said that he and others “did not yield submission even for an hour …” (Gl 2:5). But during this encounter in Antioch, Peter yielded.

The above illustrates that though Peter was an apostle of Jesus, the Holy Spirit did not directly control or change the moral beha­vior of Peter. As previously stated, Peter was intimidated to be a hypocrite even though he had been given the witness of a special vision and experience of God’s acceptance of the Gentiles (See At 10,11). He had even experienced the working of many signs and wonders (At 14:3; 15:12). Nevertheless, he stood condemned on this occasion in Antioch when he allowed his personal lack of boldness to be revealed because of the intimidation of the Jewish brethren from Jerusalem.

The point is, though God used Peter to do great things, the Holy Spirit did not make them bold enough to withstand intimidation. He was struggling to overcome this lack of confidence even these many years after becoming a disciple. Peter’s lack of confidence remained with him even after he had walked with Jesus for over three years.

"If the Holy Spirit is to work directly upon the heart of man in order to change one’s character, we would wonder why He failed in the case of changing Peter’s lack of confidence so that he could stand up publicly for the truth of the gospel.
The situation with Peter in Antioch must also be viewed in the context of Paul’s request for prayers for boldness while in prison in Rome.  He wrote to the Ephesian brethren to be ...

… praying always with all prayer and supplication … that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (Ep 6:18-20).

Consider also the request for boldness by the disciples after the miraculous release of Peter from Herod’s prison. The disciples prayed, “Grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word” (At 4:29). For these prayers to be made, it seems that in some way boldness can be granted. However, it cannot be granted in a way that would free us from our personal responsibility. It may have been that Peter did not pray for boldness in Antioch when he feared the Jewish brethren from Jerusalem. It was certainly the case when Paul needed from the Ephesian church special prayers for boldness when he was in prison in Rome. In both cases, we would not conclude that the answers to the prayers set aside the responsibility of one to free-moral choice to stand for that in which he or she believes.

The Holy Spirit does not directly work on the moral behavior of man in any way to influence directly the attitudes and prejudices of men in violation of free-moral choice. At least, in the case of Peter in Antioch the Spirit did not do this. Also consider as an example, the lives of Balaam and David. Though inspired by God to give testimony concerning the Israelites, Balaam did not change his moral behavior or evil counsel (See Nm 22:38; 24:13; 2 Pt 2:15,16; Jd 11). Though David was inspired to write many psalms, the Holy Spirit did not directly control his moral behavior by deterring him from commit­ting adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sm 11:2-5). And though some of the Corinthian disciples possessed the miraculous gifts of the Spirit in abundance, Paul said they were behaving carnally (1 Co 3:1-3). Some were selfish and covetous.

When speaking or writing by direction of the Holy Spirit, Peter and the other Bible writers spoke and wrote truth by inspiration. Their behavior, however, was subject to their personal decision. Though their revelation of the truth was under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, their moral behavior was under the indirect guidance of the truth that they revealed by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And by such, they exhorted themselves and others to exercise free-moral choices in relation to their behavior.

Peter exhorted Christians to give “all diligence” to grow in the graces of gospel living (2 Pt 1:5). In recognizing our responsibility to take ownership of our spiritual growth, he exhorted Christians to “be ever more diligent to make your calling and election sure” (2 Pt 1:10). Concerning his guide for gospel living, he said, “If you do these things you will never stumble” (2 Pt 1:10). What is illustrated here is that Peter by inspiration reveals things to be done. He expresses individual responsibility that these things be done in their lives. Emphasis is not placed on the Holy Spirit activating one’s heart to respond to the instructions to be carried out in their lives. It is the responsibility of the individual Christian to “be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless” (2 Pt 3:14). It is the responsibility of Christians to “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jd 21). Only in view of the fact that we are true free-moral individuals do these injunctions make any sense.

[Next in series: May 17]

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