A Book Review: Free Will Revisited

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I tend to talk about Dr. Robert Picirilli in sycophantic tones. I suppose it is hard not to come across that way even though I am sincere in my praise of him and his influence in my life. I actually had him as a professor at a small school with intimate classes. Beyond that, he has been humble enough to answer my emails about Greek long after I graduated. And then there’s his published works, which have a special place on my bookshelves.

I’ve read all of his works at least once, and Grace, Faith, Free Will at least 20 times–mostly because it takes many, many readings for a man like me to absorb the fire hydrant of material. And even then I do not think I understand it all. Anytime I feel like I’m getting a little too proud of my intelligence, one chapter of that book will bring me down a notch.

So it was with great joy my Senior Pastor told me not to buy Dr. Picirilli’s new book, Free Will Revisited, because he already had a copy for me. And despite it being a slim 135 pages, it still took me days to get through it. Because this treatment of a crucial difference between two major branches of orthodox Christianity cannot be discussed simplistically. The reasoning gets into deep waters at times. I will be rereading.

I want to say up front that yet again, just as with Grace, Faith, Free Will, Picirilli goes to admirable lengths to make sure he presents his opponents views accurately and fairly. Like a champ, he takes on three of the heaviest weights of the last 500 years of church history in Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards. And he spends probably 35-40% of the book trying to express their views in their own words. There are no straw men being batted down. In stark contrast to the Social Media Debate Generation, Picirilli reads to understand, articulates the other position, and does not jump quickly to his responses. And by all means note the subtitle of this book is a “respectful” response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. I implore all of us to take a note from Picirilli’s format and approach. Listen or read carefully. Do not misrepresent your opponent’s views. Be humble and respectful.

As far as the content itself, there are times where Picirilli makes a more simple and straightforward argument against the writings of these three men opposing human free will. As when he notes that it is very difficult to get around teaching that God coerces us if we believe our will is completely against God prior to salvation and that God by his grace changes our will to His. Yet there are other times Picirilli shows how complex the debate can get, as on pages 86-87 when he talks about how things that are certain are not “necessary” and how God’s knowledge of the future is like our knowledge of the past. He dealt with this in the early part of Grace, Faith, Free Will but I believe Picirilli to be a very self-aware man, knowing that many of his readers would have read that volume and in my opinion avoids rehashing that part of his previous book but instead explains it with a fresh perspective.

In the past I have written for REO on Arminius’s own words and how much overlap there is to Calvinism and Arminianism. I did so based on what my professors, like Picirilli, have taught me. Here again, he accomplishes the same goal. He does not cite Arminius yet he still makes the point plainly and necessarily that Arminians believe that man is totally depraved, that God draws us to Himself by grace, that man does zero to contribute to his salvation in a way that could be called “works” and that God is completely sovereign over all creation, including human will. The difference lies, in large part, on the focus of the book. Do Christians accept salvation like a drowning man who realizes he cannot swim and chooses to take a rope to save him or are they saved completely void of any free, self-determined choice?

Tribalism can be dangerous in politics and Christianity. I consider myself an Arminian because I think the doctrines are important. Yet I attended a Calvinist seminary, have close Calvinist friends and will gladly lock arms with them in worship and ministry any day. But I consider this topic important enough to read and write about a couple of times a year. And I am thankful yet again to Dr. Picirilli for the impetus to think about, react to and create in the sphere of theology. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to have their mind stretched, even if it is by Jonathan Edwards more so than Robert Picirilli. Because the point of the book is to debate, not pontificate. I only wish the other three men were alive to respond.

Gowdy Cannon

I am the pastor of the bilingual ministry of Northwest Community Church in Chicago. Our church is intentional in trying to bring English and Spanish speakers together in worship and community. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married two years. I teach ESL (English as a Second Language) classes to adult immigrants in my community. I am, at times, a student at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

13 thoughts on “A Book Review: Free Will Revisited

  • January 4, 2018 at 10:54 am
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    Thank you, Gowdy Cannon! Very well reasoned and stated. Dr. Picirilli’s ability to accurately and fairly express another’s view, and his avoidance of straw men (a weakness of so many) is one of the many reasons he’s my all-time favorite teacher.

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  • January 4, 2018 at 11:02 am
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    Well-written commentary, Gowdy.

    Would you care to interact a bit more with the content? What arguments did Pic make that were compelling to you? Did you feel like he had legitimate objections to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards?

    Thanks Gowdy.

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    • January 6, 2018 at 11:43 pm
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      Great follow up question Jacob, because I knew I would not do the content justice, partly by design (to focus on the approach) and partly because there are so many details to the arguments, it’s hard to know where to begin. I also need to reread to help think through it more but I also need to reread because when I ‘get’ something I still can’t explain it to others and rereading helps me do that.

      That’s kind of where I am with this but I’ll give a couple of things a try that I do understand. Keep in mind as well that beyond the debate between Erasmus and Luther I have not read the other two men’s material before.

      One major point that Dr. Picirilli answers well is the argument that if God presents us with “if you do good/if you do evil…” then that strongly implies free will. The counter – that God does this to show us we cannot keep the law (citing Romans 3:20 even to support OT “if” commands) – is answered adequately in that in real time and space people did obey so that simply showing people they could not obey cannot be the reason for the apparent free will scenario. Among other rejoinders. And Luther, et al, may have other reasonings that I cannot recall right now after one reading. I don’t want to sell them short.

      Some of the arguments by the three deceased men are so intricate I’m still wrapping my mind around them, as a rationalistic (to use Edwards word) argument by Edwards that because of cause and effect we cannot have free will. Dr.Picrilli answers this one too to my satisfaction but I’m still so turned inside out mentally by it I don’t think I can explain it. I need to keep thinking through it.

      A lot of what the three men write on this topic is logic instead of Scripture. That was a huge plus of the book to me that Dr. Picirilli doesn’t rely on logic as much as basic interpretation.

      I need to skim the book again so I can come up with more stuff. I hope that helps some though.

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      • January 23, 2018 at 4:42 pm
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        Thanks Gowdy. How unsearchable are His ways, eh?

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        • January 24, 2018 at 12:57 pm
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          Exactly! As deep as I get, others get deeper and then it’s obvious the depth is unfathomable.

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  • January 5, 2018 at 1:02 pm
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    I too read this book over winter break, and I read it to fast and now have a headache. I appreciate your words here and your sharing about not only the book but also its author.

    My question to you Gowdy is did you will in complete freedom to freely choose to write this commentary or was it already determined because your choice dependent on your will that cannot exist in complete freedom because it cannot exist alone but is dependent on a prior existence,thus beginning with a first cause that set in motion a will, choice sequence that would ultimately make you write this commentary?

    Out of all the confusion I fought through in this book, I really enjoyed the simplicity of the summary! It was satisfactory, like working through the recipe of baking cookies only to relish in the taste of the treat. The difference of one system of thought is salvation to faith and the other system of thought is salvation on faith was mmm, mmm good to me and my understanding. I liked how he referred to taking the scriptures as a whole and not just parsing verses. It seems so clear to me that story from Genesis to Revelation is about faith, a faith that is the determining factor of salvation. Not a faith that is the outcome of salvation.

    Tyler Penn

    Tyler Penn

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    • January 6, 2018 at 11:45 pm
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      That is a fantastic illustration! You should be a preacher. I totally agree with your last statements. If it can be proven biblically that Salvation is by faith and not unto faith then the crucial part of the debate is settled in my mind. And it is. But I’m not going to be a jerk about it. :)

      Reply
  • January 6, 2018 at 11:47 pm
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    And I definitely agree with you and Picrillie about the Genesis to Revelation thing. I was even reading in Esther the other night and the entire conversation between Mordecai and Esther in Chapter 4 seems utterly odd if they didn’t believe that Esther had free to go to the king. That’s how every narrative in the Bible is to me.

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  • January 9, 2018 at 8:45 am
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    I would encourage all Senior and Lead Pastors to buy Dr. Picirilli’s books for your staff and leadership. I also hope Randall House will be very intentional in providing this work and many others in Spanish.

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    • January 9, 2018 at 9:26 pm
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      He chose a different publisher for this book so Randall House would not be able to do a Spanish translation.

      Grace, Faith, Free Will is in Spanish now and hopefully some of his others will be soon.

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      • January 9, 2018 at 9:43 pm
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        I have Grace, Faith, Free Will in Spanish and I LOVE IT!! (Even though Spanish makes it even harder to understand some of the more intricate points!)

        Reply
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