“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15)
As Joshua addresses Israel for the last time he wants to make sure they recognize the situation in which they find themselves. YHWH has delivered their fathers from Egyptian slavery and had preserved them through the wilderness. YHWH brought the Israelites into Canaan and dispossessed the nations before them. The nations had all sorts of gods; their gods could not deliver them, and did not exist. At that moment, and henceforth, Israel was confronted with a moment of decision: would they serve YHWH or the gods of the nations around them?
Throughout its history Israel often attempted to make the “non-decisive” decision, seeking to serve both YHWH and the gods of the nations. Yet, as Joshua and the prophets made known, to go for the “non-decisive choice” is itself a choice against following YHWH as God, for He is a jealous God, and brooks no competition (Exodus 20:1-7). The choice which God gave to Israel, as well as the choice God gives to all humans today, can instruct us about the nature of free will and choice.
What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? God forbid. Know ye not, that to whom ye present yourselves as servants unto obedience, his servants ye are whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered; and being made free from sin, ye became servants of righteousness (Romans 6:15-18).
The choice is rather limited. In Israel, you either served the gods of the nations, or you served YHWH and all that the covenant required (cf. Joshua 24:16-27). According to Paul, you are a slave; your choice is whether you will serve sin (which leads to death), or God in righteousness (which leads to eternal life; Romans 6:15-23). In these situations we are not given the power to make the rules or set terms for our service; those rules and terms have already been established. We follow God or we do not; we serve the Lord Jesus or we serve sin. There is no “middle ground”; there’s no way to serve both the ways of God and the ways of the world (cf. James 4:4).
Even if the choice is limited, however, the choice must exist. God is love (1 John 4:8). As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 13:5, love does not seek its own; this demands that love cannot compel or coerce. We understand this in our relationships; we would never want our friends or spouse to feel compelled or coerced into loving us! Love must be freely offered by a person capable of deciding whether to love or not; forced love is a contradiction in terms.
We know that God was not forced to love us; He has chosen to love us deeply even when we least deserved it (Romans 5:6-11). Jesus was not forced to die; He willingly submitted to the will of God because of His love for us (Matthew 26:39, Hebrews 5:7-8, 1 Peter 2:21-25).
In the same way God does not coerce, compel, or force us to love Him or to seek His will. To love demands the ability to not love; a person must be able to make a free will decision to love for such a decision to be meaningful. God gave Adam and Eve the choice to obey or sin; God gave the Patriarchs the same choice; God gave Israel the choice; God now gives all humans the same choice in Christ. God has watched countless people throughout the generations willfully reject and spurn Him to their own destruction (Matthew 7:13-14, Romans 10:21); He is grieved, He will come against them in judgment, but their condemnation is just because they are the ones who chose against God (cf. Romans 2:11-15, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). For God it is all worth it on account of those who have freely chosen to honor Him as their Creator and God, who seek His ways, and who love Him because of the love He has given them (1 John 2:3-6, 4:7-21).
God is love; He will not coerce, compel, or force you either into loving Him or rejecting Him. He has made you and done all that He can to rescue you from the dangers of your condition (Genesis 1:1-31, Romans 8:31-39). But He cannot force you to be saved; in so doing He would deny Himself. Therefore the choice remains for you and me and everyone who lives: will you serve God in righteousness and obtain eternal life? Or will you serve sin and obtain condemnation? May we all seek to love God as He has loved us and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry