You shouldn’t expect every Bible passage to teach every doctrine. Very often a Bible passage teaches one idea. If we expect to find something in a passage that isn’t there then we’ll end up twisting it to suit what we want to find.
However we should expect the Bible to present a consistent message. I believe that it does. The Bible is God’s Word and God isn’t confused about what he wanted to tell us. This is the basis of the famous principle of biblical interpretation: ‘compare Scripture with Scripture’. If something in a passage confuses you then compare it with other passages that touch on the same topic. A passage treated in isolation can often be made to teach almost anything.
I’ve heard it said that Jesus’ famous parable ‘the Prodigal Son’ teaches Arminianism (Luke 15:11-32). That is, rather than reflecting the Bible’s teaching on God predestining people to salvation it teaches free-will. The Son rejected his father and ran away. He squandered his inheritance and found himself in hardship, but eventually decided that he should return to his father. The father passively sits at home, powerless to intervene. It’s a story (we are told) about free will and how all sinners are able to return to God in their own strength if that’s what they decide to do.
But is this Arminianism? Is there free-will here?
The Bible nowhere teaches that human beings have free-will. It certainly describes people as making real decisions for which they are responsible, but to speak of ‘free’ will is a far grander claim than that and is contrary to the Bible’s teaching.
The Bible nowhere teaches that human beings have free-will. It certainly describes people as making real decisions for which they are responsible, but to speak of ‘free’ will is a far grander claim than that and is contrary to the Bible’s teaching. The Bible speaks of us as being dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1), enslaved to sin (Rom 6:20; John 8:34), spiritually blind (2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 2:11) and unable to come to Jesus unless he draws us to him (John 6:44). The problem of sin is more radical than we realise. Blind people can’t see Jesus, enslaved people can’t walk to Jesus, and dead people can’t do anything at all. Our wills are broken and distorted to such an extent that we simply can’t choose Jesus without God intervening.
So how is it possible for people to become Christians? The Bible teaches that God not only provides salvation in Jesus as a theoretical possibility if we respond (which we can’t do) but by his Holy Spirit he first opens our eyes, renews our hearts, breaks our chains, makes us alive… choose your analogy. The point is that the Holy Spirit enables people to respond to Jesus. He frees our will to respond to Jesus. All who receive the Spirit turn to Jesus and it is impossible for us to do this apart from his Spirit. The biblical doctrine of free will is that prior to conversion we have enslaved wills, but that the Holy Spirit frees our wills to be able to follow Jesus.
How does that square with the Prodigal Son?
We mustn’t expect every theological detail in every passage. Nonetheless, this parable is not only compatible with what the Bible teaches about the Spirit’s work, it describes what it looks like.
The son is miserable, even desiring pig-food but unable to get any. He was in great need. This is the spiritual state of everyone without Jesus. However most of the time misery doesn’t cause people to turn to God in repentance and faith. Rather, it causes them to blame God. It would have been very easy for the son to blame his father. The father sent him away, let him have lots of money without teaching him how to use it… there’s no end to the number of pathetic excuses he could have made to justify his terrible behavior. Perhaps he did do that for a while, we don’t know. However he eventually came to a better response, a response that is only possible by God’s Spirit: “When he came to his senses…” (Luke 15:17).
The Son saw reality for what it was. It wasn’t just that he knew that he was in need. Anyone can realise that, before immediately absolving themselves of all responsibility! What happened here is that he saw clearly that his father had salvation to offer him and that he should go and ask for it.
Of course, he didn’t dare ask for everything. He’s seen his sin clearly enough to know that this would be as presumptive an offensive as his running off in the first place. He set out to ask for a servant’s position, which would at least secure him food and shelter. The son had come to his senses.
The son had come to his senses. That is what the Spirit does. He makes us see the reality of our situation before God so that we will turn to Jesus.
That is what the Spirit does to bring people to Christ. He makes us see the reality of our situation before God so that we will turn to Jesus. It’s what Ezekiel prophesied:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. … Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices’ (Ezekiel 36:26, 31).
Like the prodigal son, when we turn to God we discover far more than we expect: a loving Father, watching for our arrival, rushing out to meet us with grace, forgiveness, and adoption into his family (Luke 15:20). But the Father was at work far earlier than when he saw his son coming on the horizon. By his Spirit, it was the Father who had brought that boy to his senses so that he could see his misery and need, and so he would recognise that he should start walking home.