How Free is Free Will?

Most of us who grew up in evangelical churches were taught that the answers to everything from the presence of evil in the world to the population of heaven were ultimately due to human free will. It was almost reflexive. In fact, it would seem from many of the sermons and evangelistic invitations that many of us heard that the most unstoppable force in the universe was free will of mankind. We were assured that God never messes with free will (ala “Bruce Almighty”). “God is a gentleman. He never forces His will on anyone.” We can refer to this idea as “libertarian free will.” While not historically orthodox it is probably the default position of most American evangelicals. And while it is certainly true that such ideas are flattering to the human ego, I wonder if we ever stop to consider whether or not the Bible actually teaches the idea of libertarian free will. Also, do we ever consider whether or not God has free will?

So my question is: does the Bible teach that God’s human creatures have free will? At the risk of sounding like a coward I will answer by saying, “yes and no.” It all depends on what we mean by “free will.” If free will means that somehow our will is unencumbered by any forces external to us (libertarian free will) then, no, the Bible does not teach free will in that sense. Observations from our own lives confirm that we are constantly being acted upon by things as varied as the weather and the actions of others. Even traffic has an impact upon the choices we make. If a choice I make is impacted by, say, the weather then was my will truly “free”? It might be a good exercise to consider how many choices you make that are completely “free” from any force beyond yourself.

Consider, also, internal forces. Would a chemical imbalance render someone’s will less than free? Does depression hinder free will in any way? Does one’s upbringing, past abuse, or fear of failure make one’s will less free? Most importantly, does God, through the influence of the Holy Spirit have an impact on free will? Is this not, after all, why we pray for God to change someone’s heart? For those who believe in a libertarian idea of free will it seems inconsistent to pray for God to change someone’s heart if He never “messes” with free will.

My standard questions for the evangelical that accepts the idea that we have truly free will are:
1. Was mankind more free prior to the fall?
2. Was the will of God’s human creatures impacted by the fall? If so, to what extent?
3. Does unregenerate man have the power of will to do anything that pleases God?
4. Will we be able to sin and rebel against God in heaven?
5. Since there will be no possibility of sin and rebellion against God in heaven then doesn’t it follow that we will only be robots and unable to truly love God?

The fall was a radical disruption in the nature of mankind. No part of our humanity was untouched by the fall. This includes, of course, our will. In the garden man possessed the freedom of will to remain sinless and in perfect communion with God. Since the fall, however, we do not possess the ability to live sin-free lives. We are sinners both by nature and choice. We are not born neutral in regard to God. We are born separated from Him. We are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2). That means that apart from an act of grace we will not choose God.

Jesus said in John 8:34 that the one who sins is a slave to sin. Jesus’ statement is radically inclusive for we all sin (Rom 3:23). A slave is anything but free. How can we imagine our wills being entirely free while at the same time enslaved to sin? Clearly we are predisposed to sin. We are bound and we cannot free ourselves.

Philippians 2:13 says, “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” If we need God’s grace and power to give us the will to obey Him do we not also need His grace and power to give us the will to choose Him in the first place?

Interestingly, John Wesley, perhaps the most famous arminian absolutely rejected the idea of libertarian free will and held the Reformed and biblical doctrine of total depravity and man’s inability. He believed rightly that we are born with sinful wills rather than free wills and that no one chooses God unless God changes something fundamental about the condition of their heart (prevenient grace).

None of this means that our decisions are not meaningful or “free” in any sense. Indeed, we choose to do just exactly what we desire. We act with as much freedom as our nature allows. This is why Protestant theologians and even the Baptist Faith and Message refer to man’s free moral agency instead of free will. The term free agency is a more specific term meant to communicate the reality that man acts in accordance with his nature and desires and is therefore always responsible for his actions. God does not force us to take actions against our own willing desire. Even the Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace denies that God makes man choose something against his will. Rather, irresistible grace asserts that God so thoroughly triumphs over sinful man’s stubborn will that he now willingly and gladly turns to Christ in faith.

The vital question is, outside of Christ do we truly have the desire and the ability to “choose God”? The Bible answers with a resounding “No!” The following passages teach total depravity and man’s inability.
· John 3:19-21
· Romans 3:9-11, 18
· Romans 7:18
· Romans 8:5-9
· Romans 14:23
· I Cor 2:13-14
· Eph 2:1-5
· Col 1:21-22
· Hebrews 11:6

The idea of free will that is prominent in much of popular evangelicalism is not drawn directly from Scripture. It is an extrapolation based upon certain a priori assumptions. One of those assumptions is that the only way for a choice to be meaningful is if it is “free.” However, as discussed already every choice we make is impacted by internal and external forces. We are always being acted upon. Why is it that so many believe that God does not act upon the hearts of certain sinful people in such a way that will guide the choices they make? Has God surrendered the outcome of His eternal purposes in salvation up to the independent whims of sinful people?

Another assumption is that since we are called to repent and believe, then we must have the power and moral clarity to do so. How many of us have been told that “God will never command us to do something that we do not have the ability to do”? This sounds nice and logical. But the Scriptures have many examples of commandments that we cannot possibly live up to. “Be perfect therefore as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” “Be holy because I am holy.” “Pray without ceasing.” “Be joyful always.” Do you know anyone who is literally always joyful? What about the law of God? Did God think that the Israelites would perfectly obey His law? Of course not. But their inability was no cause for God to lower His standard. God requires that his law be kept wholly, perfectly. We are lost because we are born into Adam and have fallen short of God’s standard. This reality did not force God to change His previous expectation. Incidentally, our inability to keep the law is what makes the active obedience of Christ imputed to us such a glorious doctrine.

Let’s be careful not to be so committed to asserting the free will of man that we diminish the sovereign and free will of God.


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