And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods, for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD.” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.” And the people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” (Joshua 24:15-24 ESV Emphasis mine)
Joshua 24:15 is a favorite verse of those on the free will side of the free will vs. predestination debate. They throw it out at those of us who believe the Biblical doctrine of election as proof that people have a choice in whether they serve God or not. That verse is in the text above, but I will quote it here for easy reference.
And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15 ESV Emphasis mine)
There are a few things in the immediate context and the context of the entirety of Scripture that they tend to overlook, though.
First, and this is the context of Scripture itself, these words are being spoken to God’s chosen people, the Israelites. This isn’t a blanket statement to all people that they have a choice in the matter of whether they serve God or not. Joshua is giving God’s people an ultimatum. He is saying, in essence, “Either serve God or serve something else! You can’t serve both! Pick one!”
Second, and this is just something that free willers tend to miss when they interpret verses that seem to give man the final choice, this verse isn’t actually saying that they have a choice in the matter. It is not God that is giving them the choice, but man. Whether or not they are able to “choose this day whom [they] will serve” is not stated until later. And that brings me to my third and final point.
The immediate context of this verse refutes the idea that this verse is an affirmation of the free will of man. Check out verse 19:
But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. (Joshua 24:19 ESV Emphasis mine)
This people did not have the ability to serve God so therefore they couldn’t have had the ability to choose to do so. Had they chosen (and they did), they would not have succeeded, and their choosing would have been in vain. Common sense (which is not that common these days) would affirm this statement.
I can’t wake up one morning, go outside, and, by a plain act of will, decide to flap my arms and fly. It is not possible. I am able to choose to flap my arms; I am able to say, “I choose today to flap my arms and fly”, but that doesn’t mean I have the ability to do that which I have chosen. The same idea is shown in this passage. In 24:15. Joshua tells the people to make a choice, and, later in the passage, they say that they choose to serve God. Then, Joshua tells the people that they can’t do what they have chosen. So, simply by reading Scripture and using plain reason, the idea that this verse (Joshua 24:15) is an affirmation of the free will of man to choose God has been refuted.
Of course, this is crummy logic for man does seem to still have the ability to choose to serve God, but it is whether he can do so or not that is left out of his determining. And there lies the final refutation of the free will notion in this passage. These people in Joshua 24 are stubborn and choose to do that which they are unable to do. But why are they unable?
Paul states in Romans,
For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it. (Romans 7:18 HCSB)
The reason they weren’t able to do the good that they were choosing to do is because they were trying to do so in the flesh without reliance on God to do it through them and for them. Paul was humble enough to acknowledge that He could do nothing good because there was nothing good in him. Any good that He did was only done through the power of Christ.
For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to will and to act for His good purpose. (Philippians 2:13 HCSB)