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The Freedom to Act Inconsistently with What You Believe

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Can believers act inconsistently with what we believe?

Some people deny it. If they see a Christian acting in an unchristian way, they take it as proof that they’re not really saved or were never saved to begin with. The only way to be sure is by looking at your behavior. You can claim to believe whatever you want, but it’s your works that really matter.

They assume that “true” faith necessarily results in consistent behavior.

Is that a safe assumption?

E. L. Mascall (1905–1993) says it is not. And he blames that kind of thinking on the rise of secularism. I had never heard that idea before. Here’s his reasoning.

According to Mascall (writing in 1965), our secular age has slowly been eroding our beliefs in human freedom, God, and immorality. Where human freedom is concerned, scientists, psychologists, and neurophysiologists have all been trying to show that human brains are nothing more than elaborate machines and that human actions are either the outcome of our brains being programmed a certain way, or the outcome of subconscious and unconscious regions of the mind over which we have no control. The end result is that the idea that we are free to choose our actions “has very largely vanished and with it the sense of responsibility” (Mascall, The Christian Universe, p. 16). No freedom, no responsibility.

If people are not free, then they are not free to act inconsistently with what they believe. Mascall gives this example:

“When we reflect on the barbarities of the Middle Ages, we are inclined to say that people who behaved like that obviously did not really believe in God” (p. 17).

The assumption is that if you believe that something is true, you are not free to act against it. And why do we say that? Because we assume that people are not truly free:

“It rarely occurs to us to admit that people may believe in one thing and do another, for we have, as I have already remarked, lost real belief in human freedom. We can no more admit that a sane man’s conduct may be inconsistent with his convictions than we can admit that a properly functioning computer can be given a set of data and produce the wrong answer” (p. 17).

In Free Grace thought, we readily admit that people can act inconsistently with what they believe to be true. That was Paul’s experience in Romans 7. And when David committed adultery and arranged for Uriah’s death, he knew and believed “Thou shalt not commit adultery” and “Thou shalt not murder” were both true.

In reading Mascall, it should come as no surprise that many of the people who claim that you cannot act inconsistently with your faith come from deterministic traditions, such as Calvinism and Lutheranism.

If you believe people are free, you should also believe we’re free to act contrary to what we believe!

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.

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