Human Freewill and the Pace of Reform

Years ago I remember a pastor saying that when Jesus raises the dead at His coming, it will be one of the easiest things He ever did. The same could be said, to be sure, of the many physical miracles recounted in the Bible story. To divide bodies of water, to supernaturally create food, to cause water to gush from a rock, to miraculously restore the function of human body parts and processes—all were accomplished, like the creation of the universe itself (Psalm 33:6,9), through a simple divine command.

Where it gets complicated, however, is when God’s miracle-working power collides with the precious gift of free will that He has granted to His intelligent creatures. God took a great risk in creating beings with free choice. But as God desires only a relationship of love with the intelligent beings He has designed, He had no other option but to create beings who could freely decide between good and evil, obedience and disobedience, righteousness and sin. There can be, in short, no love without liberty.           

The Pace of Corrective Change

It is for this reason that the reform of our personal lives in the context of the Christian walk, as well as efforts toward revival and reformation in the corporate life of the church, often proceed at a pace which to finite minds can appear annoyingly slow. But it is out of respect for creaturely choice, and out of deference to the conscience and its need to be voluntarily persuaded, that the reformatory process moves so often at such an apparently sluggish pace.

The following Ellen White statement, which describes the work of the Holy Spirit in bring home the Laodicean message to God’s end-time church, perhaps summarizes the principle best of all, both for individuals and for the church as a whole:

God leads His people on, step by step. He brings them up to different points calculated to manifest what is in the heart. Some endure at one point, but fall off at the next. At every advanced point the heart is tested and tried a little closer. . . . Some are willing to receive one point; but when God brings them to another testing point, they shrink from it and stand back, because they find that it strikes directly at some cherished idol. Here they have opportunity to see what is in their hearts that shuts out Jesus. They prize something higher than the truth, and their hearts are not prepared to receive Jesus. Individuals are tested and proved a length of time to see if they will sacrifice their idols and heed the counsel of the True Witness. If any will not be purified through obeying the truth, and overcome their selfishness, their pride, and evil passions, the angels of God have the charge, “They are joined to their idols; let them alone,” and they pass on to their work, leaving these with their sinful traits unsubdued, to the control of evil angels. Those who come up to every point and stand every test, and overcome, be the price what it may, have heeded the counsel of the True Witness, and they will receive the latter rain, and thus be fitted for translation (1).

In another statement, Ellen White cautions reformers within the church not to move too fast, and that if error is to occur in such efforts, it should occur in the direction of patience rather than excessive urgency:

In reforms, we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people (2).

In other words, the informing of minds and the wooing of hearts is a process often frustrating in its length and perseverance. For those whose awareness of Bible truth and its amplification in the Spirit of Prophecy writings is greater than that of others, this slow pace of progress can be disturbing. Especially is this the case when we see others exposed to error and wrongdoing which we wish could be corrected and curtailed far sooner than seems to be happening.

But while it is imperative for the striving faithful to do all in their power, in cooperation with divine grace, to keep the pace of reform advancing in their own lives as well as within the faith community, discouragement is most easily kept at bay when we remember that God remains in full control of the course of history, especially as it concerns His church. Make no mistake about it: God’s people must do their part in giving the straight testimony of the True Witness to fellow believers (Rev. 3:15-21). They must do all they can to hold one another and the corporate church accountable as the message of revival and reformation moves forward. But if at times events appear to move less rapidly than we might wish, we must keep in mind that human free will, together with the full awareness and resulting accountability of every conscience, play a key role in the ultimate testing process to which God’s church—and we as individuals—are subjected.

Examples from Sacred History

Reform, be it corporate or individual, almost never takes place in one fell swoop. Sometimes the rate of its progress is determined by a lack of full consecration, often coupled with cowardice, on the part of professed believers or those who lead them. At other times the speed of its accomplishment is slowed by an uncooperative spirit on the part of a godly leader’s co-workers and subordinates.

In our study of the Sacred Record, it isn’t always clear as to why at certain times spiritual reform was less complete than at other times. In the case of Jehu, the king of the northern tribes of Israel who was chosen by God to execute judgment on the house of Ahab (II Kings 9:6-8), it seems his failure to rid the land of Jeroboam’s idolatry (II Kings 10:29-30), in addition to the worship of Baal which he did in fact destroy (verse 28), was due simply to a lack of total commitment to the law and will of God on the king’s part. The Biblical account tells us, following its statement that Jehu refused to eliminate the golden calves of Jeroboam (verses 29-30):

But Jehu took no heed to walk in the law of the Lord God of Israel with all his heart: for he departed not from the sins of Jeroboam, which made Israel to sin (verse 31).

A number of the kings of Judah are depicted as doing right in the sight of the Lord, but nevertheless failed to remove the high places where heathen worship was practiced by various numbers of the people. Joash (II Kings 12:1-3), Amaziah (II Kings 14:1-4), Azariah (Uzziah) (II Kings 15:1-4), and Jotham (II Kings 15:32-35), are among the kings whose generally righteous behavior did not include a complete purge of these pagan elements from Israel’s worship. We aren’t told exactly why they permitted these practices to continue, but it is clear that in the case of at least three of these monarchs, the failure to fully cleanse the land of idolatry offers evidence of deeper spiritual problems which would later be manifested in open acts of apostasy on their part (II Chron. 24:17-22; 25:14-15; 26:16-21).

But even some of the greatest reformer-kings described in the Bible seem to have fallen short in their efforts to fully purge Israel of idol worship. Hezekiah is one such example. Unlike the four kings listed above, the Bible tells us that Hezekiah in fact removed the pagan high places from the country (II Kings 18:4). But apparently he didn’t remove all of them, because we read of how his great-grandson Josiah, the last of Judah’s reformer-kings, finally destroyed the heathen shrines built by Solomon for his idolatrous wives three centuries earlier:

And the high places that were before Jerusalem, which were on the right hand of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had builded for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Zidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of the Moabites, and for Milcom the abomination of the children of Ammon, did the king defile.

And he brake in pieces the images, and cut down the groves, and filled their places with the bones of men (II Kings 23:13-14).

One is led to wonder why King Hezekiah permitted these horrific emblems of some of the worst idolatry experienced by Israel to linger in Judah, despite what appears to have been a general purge of such shrines under his rule. And why, may we ask, didn’t King Manasseh, following his own remarkable repentance (II Chron. 33:11-13) include the destruction of these idols during his own reforms (verse 15)?

Neither Scripture nor the writings of Ellen White elaborate on the reasons why some of these efforts at spiritual reformation among God’s ancient people remained incomplete. Perhaps, as with Jehu and Amaziah (II Kings 10:31; II Chron. 25:2), lack of total surrender to the divine will was the ultimate problem. But one must remember that even ancient monarchs were constrained to rely at times on the building of consensus among existing social and political forces. Even absolute power depends to a degree on the cooperation and zeal of lower officials. Anointed sovereigns and other autocrats may not be subject to the constraints, checks, or balances of representative government, but simpler, more brutal, and final means of transferring power still exist in such settings, as even the Bible record bears witness (II Chron. 24:24-26; 25:27; 33:24).

At the bottom line, reform is a process, and its pace is often slow because of that pesky thing called free will, which God and His most dedicated earthly servants are invariably forced to wrestle with.

Allowing Evil to Come to Full Flower

But perhaps the most important reason why, so often in the historical process, evil is not fully corrected either by God or His chosen servants, is because divine providence intends that wrongdoing come to full fruition, so that when in fact it is eliminated, God’s justice and that of His servants will be fully recognized and acknowledged.

Consider the following inspired statement, written with regard to the apostasy of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai:

A great deal of time and labor and anxiety are required to counterwork the ingenuity of satanic agencies that are pressing their way among those who are ready to accept wrong philosophy, to cause confusion and division. Every jot of influence is needed to discern the great evils of Satan’s devisings, and to keep souls from being drawn into the net of the modern Aarons who are saying, “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”

Long before, the Lord could have told Moses what was taking place. He could have revealed that Aaron could not be depended upon. But for wise and holy purposes he permitted the evil to develop. He suffered this shameful representation to come to its height. Then when the leading men had done all that it was in their power to do, he sent Moses down to punish the transgressors. The Lord sees what is in the hearts of men. At times he permits evils to take place that he may prevent still greater evils that would appear unless he permitted the designs hidden in human hearts to work out (3).

We can be sure there were those among the faithful in Israel who wondered why Moses didn’t come down from the mountain sooner, or why God didn’t strike the idolatrous ringleaders dead, especially when the golden calf was made and the apostates “rose up to play” (Ex. 32:6). But in the end, God’s patient timing proved best. Evil was permitted to come to full flower, and when the rebels at last were slain (Ex. 32:26-29), a great revival followed (Ex. 33-36).

Moreover, we have the following inspired assurance as well, which should bring great hope to the hearts of those who yearn, pray, and labor for the defeat of rebellion within the ranks of God’s remnant church:

Said the angel, “Rebellion will occur up to the time of the closing up of the work of the third angel’s message. Marvel not, neither be discouraged. He who conquered the leader in rebellion stands at the head of this great work. Although Satan may exult and seem for a time to triumph, the first great Conqueror has His eyes upon him, and he can go no further than He permits. He is permitted to have power for a time to reveal the truehearted, to prove the faithful, to develop the spurious and separate them from the pure in heart. Rebels will be purged out from among the loyal and true in due time, for the truth has gathered of every kind” (4).


During the presidential primaries of the 2016 U.S. elections, one columnist described the different approaches to change, and expectations thereof, on the part of those supporting particular candidates at the time. He spoke of how some expect reformatory change to be “fast, triumphant, and thrilling,” as distinct from others who recognize that all too often, such change is compelled to be “slow, hard, and boring” (5).

Reading those words when they were first published, I couldn’t help but think of God’s dilemma in the purification of His people, both individual and corporate. However much He might desire for positive change to occur quickly—the way Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead—God knows that His reverence for free choice on the part of His creatures constrains Him to move slowly. This is why Ellen White describes sanctification as “not the work of a moment, an hour, a day, but of a lifetime” (6). It is why the controversy between good and evil, which as early as 1883 Ellen White said could have ended years before (7), has lingered through decades of war and genocide, boundless optimism and abysmal depression, blasted promise and harsh reality, and ultimately beyond a century whose horrors and tragedies far eclipse its material and scientific achievements. If these memories so pain our finite hearts, how much more can we imagine their effect on the tender heart of One whose love and sympathy for the erring and hurting is infinite?

Most assuredly, God will not wait forever. A people perfected through His power and by His grace will indeed emerge as the final conflict nears (Zeph. 3:13; II Peter 3:10-14; I John 3:2-3; Rev. 3:21; 14:5). The end-time shaking will indeed purify God’s remnant of its apostate, indifferent, self-indulgent majority (8). But much as the delayed advent is ascribed by the inspired pen to the insubordination of God’s people (9), only a God of supreme compassion and consummate patience—for whom the vindication of right takes precedence over the victory of might—would persevere so long in wooing His wayward church.

It is our appointed task, through heaven’s power, to do the same.



1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 187.

2. Ibid, vol. 3, p. 21.

3. ----Review and Herald, Feb. 4, 1909.

4. ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 5, p. 297.

5. Jonathan Chait, “The Essential Questions for New York Democrats,” New York, April 4, 2016

6. White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 560.

7. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 68.

8. ----Ibid, vol. 2, p. 380; Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 89; The Great Controversy, p. 608; Manuscript Releases, vol. 12, p. 327; vol. 20, p. 320.

9. ----Evangelism, p. 696.

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Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.