Ben Witherington – The Freedom of God and the Free Will of Human Beings

Bible scholar Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. A graduate of UNC, Chapel Hill, he went on to receive the M.Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Durham in England. He is now considered one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, and is an elected member of the prestigious SNTS, a society dedicated to New Testament studies.

Witherington has written over forty books, including The Jesus Quest and The Paul Quest, both of which were selected as top biblical studies works by Christianity Today. He also writes for many church and scholarly publications, and is a frequent contributor to the Beliefnet website.

Here are some excerpts from his post:

One of the more interesting subjects to discuss is the freedom of God. What exactly is God free to do or not to do? Is God’s will the primary and controlling divine attribute such that even God’s knowledge is dependent on God’s will in the first place? Are there things that a sovereign God cannot do? For example, is God free to sin? Or is God’s behavior determined by the unalterable divine nature? That is, is God subject to the same sort of determinism some Christians believe applies to human beings? These sorts of questions and their answers all have a bearing on how we ask and answer the question about human freedom and its nature.

…….I assume that when human beings were created in the image of God this meant, among other things that Adam had libertarian freedom to either obey God or not. It is not appropriate to judge this matter on the basis of the attributes of fallen human beings who indeed in various ways can be said to be in bondage to sin or addicted to sinful behaviors. No the question is, how did God make us in the first place, and how in Christ does God restore us in Christ as we are renewed in the image of Christ? Does grace restore the power of contrary choice in redemption or not?

…..In short, the discussion of the freedom of human beings should never be undertaken in isolation from the discussion of the freedom of God, and the ways God has chosen to limit himself in order to allow us to be beings with a limited measure of freedom, and so a small reflection of the divine character.


Ben Witherington on the Apostle Paul and Universalism

A Quote of Note—- Paul on Universalism

see full article here. (

Dr. Witherington on Paul’s Phil. 2.5-11 verse:

One of the texts most frequently used to prove Paul believed that in the end all human beings would be saved is of course the material in the Christ hymn in Phil. 2.5-11, particularly the line “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord….”   The problem with this conclusion is two fold.     1)  The partial quotation of Isaiah 45 provides a clue as to Paul’s thinking at this juncture since Isa. 45.24 refers not to universal salvation but rather says that “all who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame.”  2)  Phil.
1.28 has already referred to the destruction of those who oppose Christ.

Ben Witherington – Cross Carrying vs. Burden-Bearing

I was reflecting on Luke 14 and intense way Jesus makes demands in this chapter, if one wants to be a disciple.    All too often, Christians confuse ordinary suffering with cross-bearing.   Your physical pain or suffering may well be your thorn in the flesh, but it’s not ‘your cross to bear’.  Cross-bearing as a metaphor for discipleship to Jesus has to do with a deliberately chosen course of life, not something that simply happens to you.   The second thing to be said about cross-bearing is that Jesus does not call us to bear his cross, rather he talks about picking up our own crosses, and carrying them.

Among other things, this means that there is no room for Christians developing messiah complexes as if they could save the world, perhaps through dying a spectacular death.  No, while it is true that Jesus told his followers that they might well have to give up their lives for their allegiance to him, and not just their possessions or their families,  cross-bearing for the Christian is something rather different than what happened to Jesus somewhere around 30 CE.   That was a one time event,  but as Luke stresses, the disciple is called to take up their cross daily and follow Jesus.

What this likely means is a daily commitment to present one’s self to God as a living sacrifice, a daily commitment to live a Christ-like, self-sacrificial life.   And make no mistake about it, Jesus and Luke as well emphasis how hard this is to do.  Indeed, they suggest that it is impossible, except by the grace of God and the help of God’s Spirit.  It’s not a natural normal human thing to do.  It requires divine help.

Some preachers have thought that the way to get more people into the pews is by making it easy— Gospel lite— less filling, tastes great.    In fact Jesus suggests just the opposite.  He takes the approach of the Marines.   He tells one and all, it’s going to be hard to follow, hard to live up to his demands, indeed it may even lead to one’s demise and then he exhorts his audience—-‘whose up the challenge’?   Interestingly, cheap grace apparently is not the way of getting more people to be devoted disciples.   So what’s the secret?    Jim Elliot, a modern martyr who lost his life trying to reach South American Auca Indians for Christ, put it this— “he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep (i.e. this life), to gain what he cannot lose (everlasting life.”    Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested the same when he said that when Christ calls a person, in principle he calls him to come and die and indeed Bonhoeffer paid for his convictions with his life.  In other words,  when you realize this life is not the be all or end all of existence, you can sit more lightly with it,  take more risks for Christ with it,  be less self-protective or self-indulgent.   Following Christ will get you somewhere alright, and its not where the self-help gurus tell you you should go.

In reflecting on this very portion of Luke (as well as other Scriptures), Martin Luther wrote the great hymn of the Reformation entitled,  ‘Ein Feste Burg’  or as we know it ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’.    The line which should ring a bell after reading Luke 14 carefully is ‘let goods and kindred go/ this mortal life also/the body they may kill/God’s truth abideth still. His Kingdom is forever.’

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Battle Hymn of the Reformation, posted with vodpod

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Let Your Conscience Be your Guide? Not Exactly, by Ben Witherington

from 2005 Bible and Culture Blog

I am in the process of working on a commentary on the Pastorals and the Johannine Epistles both in one volume. While dealing with the latter I was looking at 1 Jn. 3.19-20 today — “This is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence, whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything.”

I came across a wonderful passage in a commentary by William Loader on the Johannine Epistles (pp. 43-44) on this text where he stresses that the writer of 1 John….

“assumes conscience [or heart] may deceive in much the same way as feelings may deceive. Faith means trusting in God’s love and making ourselves available for its action despite what we may feel. Faith cannot be based on feelings. Nor should its criterion of authenticity be absence of struggle. A troubled conscience or mind may coexist with a life of faith. By shifting the basis for confidence from human feelings and inner harmony to hard faith facts about God and behaviour, the author is boycotting a common religious trend, then and now, to make inner human experiences the criteria of spirituality…. It would [also] be wrong to read this passage as devaluing conscience or our thoughts and feelings altogether. They may be a guide, but their quality as guide will be determined by the quality of person who is being guided. The author is not operating with an idealistic notion of conscience as somehow representing the voice of God within….He operates rather with the notion that our thoughts and feelings are part of our own system of awareness which may be misinformed and misguided. There is also a touch of realism in the author’s obvious appreciation that Christians may well at times have to struggle with unresolved tensions within their personalities which have their origin somewhere other than God. There is a profound comfort in the assurance that God is greater than our conscience and knows all (3.20), because this God is the God of love and compassion and may be trusted.”

This passage has many insights to be contemplated but I will share just three:

1) a troubled conscience may at times be a good thing (a sign that one is deeply concerned about an injustice), it may at times be a bad thing (a sign of something done wrong), but it is not an infallible thing. The Bible never suggests— “let your conscience be your guide” or “to your own heart be true”. The problem with this sort of advice is that our hearts or minds or consciences are just as fallen and prone to error as our feelings.

2) There are times when persons struggle with being sure they are Christians. They wrestle with feelings of not being good enough, and the like. This text should be a great comfort. God has the trump card— he can over-rule your feelings or tender conscience and reassure you that you are in right relationship with God even if it does not feel that way;

3)the quality of the conscience depends on the character of the person in whom it resides, and just how sanctified that person truly is. Sometimes mass murderers sleep just fine at night, with no qualms of conscience. Sometimes some Christians have a weak conscience, and find offense in any little thing. Notice how Paul says that the overly scrupulous person in 1 Cor. 8-10 is the Christian who is weak in faith. In either case the conscience is not a good barometer of the truth or what is right. This is why at the end of the day the author of 1 John stresses that we must trust God and place our trust in the Gospel message, not trust ourselves as the last arbiters of truth, right, “and the godly way” and finally

4) the Pauline rule, whatever is not of faith, is sin for you, is a good one, when one is wrestling with one’s conscience. As faulty as the conscience may be, it is sometimes a good nagging voice that approves or disapproves what you are contemplating doing. You should listen to the voice, but not give it the final say. That belongs to God and God’s Word.

Read more:
  1. Jesus, Canon and Theology   (Witherington, Darrel Bock,Dan Wallace video lecture)
  2. What’s News about Jesus   (Witherington, Darrel Bock, Dan Wallace         video lecture)
  3. Ben Witherington on Luke 18:1-14 – The nature of Prayer
  4. Ben Witherington – The truth Structure and a Poem
  5. Ben Witherington – Claude Galen quote

Ben Witherington on Luke 18:1-14 – The Nature of Prayer

Luke 18.1-14 and the Nature of Prayer

from The Bible and Culture by Ben Witherington

For reasons not clear to me, Protestant Christians, whom I spend the most time with, seem to have some very funky notions about prayer, that are not well grounded in the Bible, or for that matter the early Jewish practice of prayer.  And some of them are based in a very bad exegesis of what Luke 18 says and implies about prayer.   Luke Johnson in his fine commentary on Luke (p. 274) has this to say about the matter:

“The parable itself makes clear that ‘always’ does not support any technique of ‘perpetual prayer’ or method of mysticism but rather consistency and perseverance in praying. Luke-Acts emphasizes not only the prayer of Jesus but also that of the disciples (6.28;11.12; 22.40,46;Acts 1.4;2.42;3.1; 6.4,6;10.4,9,30-31;12.5,12;16.13,16,25; 20.36; 21.5; 22.17;28.8).”

He helpfully goes on to add,

“The love of God can so easily turn into an idolatrous self-love; the gift can so quickly be seized as a possession; what comes from another can so blithely be turned into self-accomplishment. Prayer can be transformed into boasting. Piety is not an unambiguous posture.… The pious one [i.e. the Pharisee in Luke 18.1ff.] is all convoluted comparison and contrast; he can receive no gift because he cannot stop counting his possessions. His prayer is one of peripheral vision. Worse, he assumes God’s role of judge: not only does he enumerate his own claims to being just, but he reminds God of the deficiency of the tax-agent, in case God had not noticed. In contrast, the tax-agent is utter simplicity and truth. Indeed, he is a sinner.  Indeed, he requires God’s gift of righteousness because he has none of his own. And because he both needs and recognizes his need for the gift he receives it….For Luke, prayer is faith in action. Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety, carried out to demonstrate one’s relationship with God. The way one prays therefore reveals that relationship…if prayer is self-assertion before God, then it cannot be answered by God’s gift of righteousness; possession and gift cancel each other out. “

No wonder God so often answers our prayers with an emphatic NO!  Prayer as a means of self-exaltation, self-indulgence, self-agrandizement, self-congratulation, self-promotion, or prayer used as a sort of ouija board to get what we want out of a reluctant God are all very bad, and very unBiblical models of praying.  Thankfully, Jesus came to teach us a new model— the Lord’s Prayer, which should really be called the Disciple’s prayer, though interestingly Jesus seems to pray a form of this prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  What is noteworthy about the Lord’s prayer is that it is a collective prayer, a prayer for the people to use together— ‘give us this day’   it says,  ‘forgive us’  it says.   We should not be praying for things for ourselves that we would not want to share with the body of Christ.  And notice that this Lord’s prayer encourages us only to pray about the basics—- praising God (hallowed be thy name), asking that God’s saving reign and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven (not his in heaven, and our wills on earth), asking for daily bread (not, notice, lavish banquets), asking for forgiveness of sins and debts (an increasingly necessary prayer in our debtor nation), recognizing that in some mysterious way, our receiving of foregiveness is affected by our willingness to forgive and actually forgiving those who have wronged us, and we pray not to be put to the test, but to be delivered from the Evil One.    This is Praying  101 for Jesus’ disciples, and it does not sound like the old Janis Joplin song— “Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends…..”

If we turn to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector there is yet more to ponder from this same chapter.

The example of the pious Pharisee in this parable, who is no hypocrite, reminds us that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, while all excellent religious practices commended by God and the Bible, in themselves don’t make a person more ‘spiritual’ or ‘holy’. Indeed, these practices may simply make you more focused on your own needs, more hungry, and poorer!  Much depends on the heart that uses these spiritual disciplines, and in the case of the Pharisee we are right to see a note of pride and self-centeredness in his prayer.  The word ‘I’ keeps coming up in that prayer, and he improves his sense of self-worth by putting others down.  It is then not the spiritual discipline itself that makes a person more holy.  It is the humbling one’s self in the sight of the Lord, being completely honest about one’s sins, and pouring out one’s heart with open hands to receive what God will give, that makes the difference in this story.  Notice that the tax collector has no previous ‘good deeds’ or spiritual practices to appeal to, to make his case with God.  It is God alone who justifies and sanctifies the man, not the spiritual practices, though God may use such practices to that end.

We are always looking for a short-cut, a how too self-help manual to improve our lives, but this parable warns about how one’s piety and spiritual practices can actually get in the way of your receiving what God would give, because one is in danger of thinking that the regular exercise of such practices entitles one to something, entitles one to make a claim on God, and so they become a means to a self-seeking end, rather than a means of growing in one’s relationship and dependency on God and his grace.

Think on these things.

Ben Witherington – The truth structure of reality and a poem

From Ben Witherington’s ‘Bible and Culture’ blog at

Have you ever noticed that there is a truth structure to reality itself?  What do I mean by this?  Well consider what happens when you tell a lie.  Go ahead, admit it, you’ve done that before.   What happens when the lie is challenged?  Well then you are confronted again with the truth of the matter and you have a choice either to admit the lie, orrrrrr  you have to make up another lie.   ‘Oh what a subtle web we weave….’ and indeed when you start weaving a web of lies and deceits, you have to keep going and try to be consistent with your previous lie, because there are always flaws with lies.  Lies, like the prince of lies, cannot stand the light of day and real scrutiny.  ‘Be sure your sins will find you out’.   Whereas when you tell the truth,  you don’t need to keep imaginatively inventing things, one story after another, one excuse after another.   The truth really does set you free, in so many ways,  free from having to cover things up, free from having to go on lying, freedom from having to live a lie.  One of the saddest truths about fallen human beings and lying is that after a while, a person is so enmeshed in their own web of lies, they begin to believe them, themselves.  Deception turns into self-deception, and all kinds of self-justification and rationalization.   But life was not meant to be this way at all.

Remember the story of the Garden of Eden, which turned out to be the Garden of Evil?  The down-fall began with a little lie, indeed as Jesus was to call it later ‘THE lie’— it was subtle, it was more of an insinuation than a frontal attack on the truth—- ‘did God really say?’   But in fact God had not prohibited eating from every tree in the garden, only one.   And the path from insinuation to a bold-faced lie is a short one— ‘you will not die’  lisps the snake.  The father of lies would make God out to be the liar.

An awful lot of discussion about sin forgets entirely that the most primal sin is lying.  Whether it is a little white lie, or a lie the size of an elephant, it is still a lie.  And any lie is a denial of God’s existence, not merely of his truth.  There is a reason why Jesus says  ‘I am the truth’.   If you want to be a saved person, then you have to face not merely truth in the abstract, you have to face the truth about yourself.   And the truth about ourselves is not entirely pretty.  There is something serpentine about us as fallen persons.  Like a snake that crawls along the ground, we are earthbound, though there is heaven in our hearts and dreams.   There is a reason why children aren’t named Judas in our culture, indeed probably a reason why really major sports teams don’t want to call themselves the ’serpents’.   Shoot, they will even call themselves the ‘fighting okra’ instead of that (check out Delta State U.).    There is a p.r. problem with the name ‘Judas’ or ’snakes’.  And part of it is that we realize deep down that there is something wrong with lying, which in part is a realization that there is something wrong with ourselves.

The truth structure of reality is such that it can be rather unforgiving.  I mean it is true that if you jump off a 10 story building with no parachute you will not merely experience a heavy bit of gravity, you will likely crash land. And it will hurt. Pain, as C. S Lewis once said is God’s megaphone reminding us we are living against the truth structure of reality.  God structured into reality accountability for words and deeds, at least in the long run.

There are always consequences to lies,  not the least of which is when you cry wolf too often and there is no wolf, you develop an air of unbelievability. No one trusts you.  And that brings us back to ground zero— truth.    Trust is grounded in truth and honesty.  Love is grounded in trust which is grounded in truth and honesty.  You cannot unconditionally love someone you don’t totally trust.   You may ‘lust them’  but you can’t totally love them.  And trust always presupposes that truth in reality structure—- always.    A relationship not based in truth cannot last ultimately.  The reason we call it true love is because it is a love based in truth and honesty and loyalty and devotion.  True love is not blind love because it always wants the best for the other person, wants them to be their best selves, their true selves.

Have you ever taken a lie detector test?  I did once, and I learned something about myself, namely I need to be more careful in what I say, and hew as closely as I can to what I know of the truth.   Of course you can pass a human lie detector test simply by being honest, and not necessarily telling ‘THE truth’  only telling honestly what you believe to be the truth.   But when it comes to God’s lie detector test,  the bar is raised considerably.   God does not accept an approximation of the truth, he wants the truth, the whole truth, and nothing  but the truth.  So much does he want that, that he has sent us the Holy Spirit as a constant early warning and internal warning system to remind us of the truth, especially the truth about ourselves, which often is painful.

And then there is the whole deal about the moment of truth, the crisis moment, when we have a chance to be our best selves.      Here is a little poem to meditate on, on that subject.    And while you are reflecting on that,  I would just say—- despite all the psychological literature that urges us to ‘be who we are’   and ‘be true to ourselves’  the Bible doesn’t really agree.  We are to be who God intends us to be, created in his image, and modeling his character, and above all we can only be true to our best selves, when we are true to God.  It is not enough to be honest with God, we have to be tried and true.  God doesn’t just want our honest selves,  though that’s a good start, he wants our true selves,  being conformed to the image of his Son, Jesus.  Are you suffering from some truth decay?   We all do from time to time, which is why we always need reminders about the truth, and how it sets us free to be all He wants us to be.


It sneaks up on you unawares
While you are preoccupied
It catches you quite unprepared
Enthralled as you are in your pride.
Blindsided, you flinch instinctively
When suddenly you are accosted
You realize in an instance ‘it’s now…’
Or else you’ve totally lost it.
All those years of pure preparation
All those long times of careful thought
Have arrived at this destination
So why do you feel you are caught?
Shocked by the sudden challenge
Your defensive reflex, a surprise
Call up the ‘the hope that’s within you’
And look them right in the eyes.
Like fumbling with keys in the doorway,
You find you’re at a loss for words,
Why suddenly this ineptitude
Your nervousness seems absurd.
And there is no graceful exit,
No quiet bowing out
No way to delay the inevitable
You’re in the ring, no doubt.
‘Speak now, or else forever
Forever hold your peace’,
The questioner is insistent
She seeks some sort of release.
When the moment of truth is upon you
And you have no time to prepare
Will you know what to say in that instant
Will you find out how much you care?
Will you call on the Spirit for guidance
Will you ask that the cup might pass
Will you be alarmed by your feeling
That the moment is here at last?
Will you feel like a total coward
A child without his homework
Will the force of the question flatten you
Will you turn your head with a jerk.
Will you say ‘I don’t know him’
Will you deny him multiple times,
Will you say ‘I must be leaving’
When recognized, turn on a dime?
When all your learning fails you
And all your bravado too,
When you have no cup of courage
And you don’t know what to do,
Will the moment of truth unmask you
And reveal the imposter inside,
Are you really his true disciple,
Or are you just along for the ride?
In the moment of truth you find out
Just exactly where you are,
Either someone whole-heartedly committed
Or someone who hasn’t gone that far.
Are you flirting with being his follower
Without fully embracing his grace
And when the road gets bumpy
Are you wanting out of the race?
The moment of truth reveals all,
It gives you a progress report
As to whether the truth is within you
Or is it still something you court?
But the moment of truth need not define you
It’s not a final exam,
Even Peter’s denials didn’t end things,
“It need not decide who I am”
And when you see another failing
Fumbling, falling down,
Don’t turn away in scorn,
It could be you on the ground.
But for the grace of God,
We all would come up short
When the moment of truth comes calling,
Christian faith is no spectator sport.

What’s News about Jesus, Lecture 2 with Drs. Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, and Ben Witherington

EXTREMELY USEFUL information in these 2 lectures given at Dallas Theological Seminary by 3 of the foremost Evangelical New Testament Scholars. The second video’s discussion on theNew Testament Canon is one of the best I’ve heard and worth note taking as these scholars discuss the Canon within the Church Fathers context.Drs. Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, and Ben Witherington discuss the current media coverage about Jesus and address issues concerning the “lost” tomb of Jesus, extra-biblical gospels, and the DaVinci Code. (76 minutes)

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Jesus, Canon and Theology, Lecture 1 with Drs. Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, and Ben Witherington

80 minute apologetics discussion from 2007:Drs. Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, and Ben Witherington dialogue on the historical and biblical foundation for the person of Jesus, the formation of the canon, and the development of theology.

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Ben Witherington – quote from Claude Galen

Written in 2nd century but mirrors our times- from Witherington’s site:

The reason I deferred in writing this is because of „the danger of wasting my time, since pretty much no one cares about truth these days; rather they eagerly chase after money and political power and insatiable enjoyment of pleasures, and to such an extent that they think you are crazy if you spend your time on any serious pursuit of knowledge.” Galen, 2nd century A.D. (Emphasis mine- …and the more things change, the more they stay the same). Read more at:

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