Few passages of Scripture haunt me more than Peter’s inevitable denial in Luke 22:60–62. I say “inevitable” because there was nothing Peter could have done to not deny the Lord that night. The dramatic steps toward Peter’s denial illustrate how that bold disciple’s free will worked in accordance with God’s foreknown future to accomplish what Peter intended to avoid through those very same actions.
After Jesus revealed that all of the disciples would fall away that night (Matthew 26:31), Peter brashly rejected the notion: “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” (26:33). Yet Christ’s words to Peter sealed his fate: “Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times” (26:34). In response to this second prophetic pronouncement, Peter passionately retorted, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You” (26:35).
Two wills collided that night: the will of the all-knowing Son of God who allowed Peter’s denial (Luke 22:31–32); and the will of the finite and fickle Peter, who disbelieved Jesus’s words . . . or at least took them as a personal challenge to prove his worth.
So, from that moment on, Peter’s primary focus was to make good on his promise to stay with Jesus to the end—to fight and even die for Him. So, just hours later Peter whipped out his sword and tried to defend his Lord while the other disciples cowered in fear or fled (John 18:10). When Jesus was arrested and hauled off to trial, Peter lingered within sight of his Savior, intent on reminding Him that he would fulfill his promise and not abandon Him. Perhaps as Peter warmed himself by the fire at the home of the High Priest, he awaited an opportunity to take heroic action and spring the Master from His captors. But in the process of trying to fulfill his promise to Christ, Peter ended up stumbling into the prophecy that he swore to thwart.
The first denial was probably terse, perhaps uttered under his breath. It certainly made perfect sense—to stay by the fire and keep a watchful eye on the Lord, Peter would have to keep from blowing his cover. Denying that he was a disciple was the easiest way to remain in a place where he could fulfill his promise.
The second denial brought him past the half-way mark. But what options did he have? Admitting who he was and fleeing from the questioners would mean abandoning the Lord who was just within sight. He vowed not to do that! But staying would snare him into doing what he promised never to do: deny the Lord.
Then came the third accusation, and Peter’s third free choice. But which was worse? Denying or abandoning? The “Rock” was stuck in a hard place. His monstrous fate had backed him into a corner in which every path was marked with doom. In desperation, Peter freely willed to be enslaved by an inevitable destiny. His response to the third charge is enough to make us weep along with that wearied disciple. Because of that, it’s one Scripture I could do without:
But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” Immediately, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:60–62)
Regardless of what we personally want to believe about the theological issue of free will, the fact remains that we finite humans are only free to do what God already knows we will do. This means He either decrees or allows everything that occurs . . . and that no human thought, word, or deed can catch Him off guard, thwart His plan, or defy His ultimate will (Isaiah 46:9–10).
I’ll be honest. I could do without all the passages of Scripture that limit my free will, because I want to be the captain of my own destiny. Yet numerous passages declare that believers were predestined before the foundation of the world, that God’s mercy—not our own will—saves us and sanctifies us, that even the evil done by us and to us results in God’s glory and our good. Believe me, I don’t like them any more than you do.
But here’s the alternative: A God who guesses at the future. A God who sends everybody to hell because He wouldn’t dare violate people’s freely-willed rebellion. A God who may have good intentions and a kind heart, but lacks the unalterable power to bring about what He declares. In short, a God whose plan is limited by our free will is a God who can’t be trusted.
In the end, whether I like it or not, I’m willing to sacrifice the me-centered myth of radical free will in exchange for the comfort of a sovereign God whose goodness and mercy I can fully trust.