I’d like to spend a little time today covering some basic questions regarding the will of man. This is an often hotly debated topic in philosophy and within Christianity, so the goal here is more to share my overview on the topic. I do not presume to settle the matter for everyone else.
What do you mean “Free Will”?
The biggest problem with “free will” debates is that of definitions. Okay, the problem of definitions is the biggest problem for all debates, and this debate is no different. Free will is one of those things that is generally assumed to be a given and then argued from differing contexts.
If your definition of free will is predicated on the notion that your choices have to be completely unknowable, unpredictable, and able to surprise everyone, you are attempting to hold to an infinitely free will. The problem with this definition is that there is only One who can have this level of free will, God the Father. Apart from describing God, this definition of free will is hyperbolic, and is used by atheists to deny a Sovereign God and used by Christians to straw-man anyone who disagrees with their description of monergism as a Pelagian. A false dichotomy is created between free will and the sovereignty of God based on an impossible definition of free will, a definition that is designed specifically refute the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful, sovereign God. If you are drawn into this debate by a worldly philosopher, he’s set you up for either denying a Sovereign God or an attack on the Character of a God (as one who created evil since man has no free will). I recommend exposing the false definition of free will outright… we are not arguing whether or not we are equal with God. No Christian can justify arguing for this level of free will. It is the unbeliever whose god is themselves who holds to this extreme definition of free will.
The polar opposite of infinitely free will is a sort of fatalism that suggests that none God’s Sovereignty makes Him incapable of allowing us to make any decisions. I’ve never seen it postulated in this way, but I’ve often seen it come out as an attack in the form of “your statement just un-godded God”. For those who fear sliding into open theism, I can understand feeling the need to over emphasize the Sovereignty of God above all of His other perfect attributes (Love, Justice, Holiness, Mercy, Grace, etc) but only so far as they recognize they are creating a hierarchy of their own in an attempt to guard against their own fleshly failings.
For there to be an honest debate regarding the will of man in a Christian context, its definition must fall somewhere in the middle. God has granted mankind the ability to make decisions, and He holds man accountable for the decisions he makes. God is not surprised by any of your decisions… ever, nor can He be held to blame for your sinful choices… ever.
Your Free Will is Limited
You were created with the ability to make decisions, but all decisions are limited by options, abilities, consequences, and the Will of God.
Options. When you sit down to a table in a restaurant, and the waiter asks what you’d like to drink, you have the freedom to choose whatever option is available. Seems rather simplistic, yes? It is that simple. Oddly enough, mankind has the freedom to make irrational and meaningless decisions, like imagining a drink choice that isn’t an option, or ordering food while calling it a drink… but none of this changes what the options are, this irrationality only skews the individual’s perception of reality. It remains irrational and meaningless.
Abilities. Only God created ex-nihilo everything that is. God spoke everything into existence. None of us has that ability. I cannot will myself into the NBA, even thought the basketball and the NBA are man-made concepts, I cannot will myself to have the ability to play professional basketball. If I cannot will myself into such an inconsequential and ultimately vain pursuit of men, how much more am I limited in what my will can accomplish when it comes to eternity and the things of God? I suggest, “infinitely more” is the answer.
Consequences. This plays more to the limits of freedom in the concept of free will. There is a very childish thought that free will involves a freedom to make choices and unmake them without consequence. Every choice has a consequence. There is no freedom from consequence.
The Will of God. God is Sovereign. When He gives us a choice, that choice is framed by His Will. God’s Will is bound only by His Nature, for there is none Greater than He.
Hebrews 6:13-20 (ESV) | The Certainty of God’s Promise
13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself,14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.”15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath,18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
Your Free Will is Bound by Sin
At creation, our ability to choose was limited by the options laid before us by God. In the Garden of Eden, there were many choices available to man within God’s Will. There was only one choice that had eternal ramifications, either to trust in the Lord God by faith, or rebel in sin. Man chose the latter, seeking to be like God rather than Trust in Him completely.
Genesis 2:15-17 (ESV) 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
We are not born in the Garden of Eden. We are born as products of the consequences of sin. As such, any notion that our will is free to improve upon the decision made by Adam is folly. Our will is bound to our sin, the sin of rebellion, the sin of seeking to be equal with God. It is our very nature at birth. We are born into the consequence of sin and death, and cannot escape it by an act of the will of man.
God, in His mercy and grace, does not leave us to be destroyed by our sinful wills. God is Sovereign and restrains evil until the time of the end comes. He has also acted in time to demonstrate His love and grace to His people throughout history.
Genesis 6:1-8 (ESV) | Increasing Corruption on Earth
6 When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. 5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
God, in His mercy, acted to preserve Noah and all of mankind for the sake of His Glory. Every inclination of man was evil continually. Man’s will was not free from sin, it was completely bent toward it and consumed by it. God showed Noah grace and spoke to Noah and Noah believed God and that belief was credited to Noah as righteousness. Credited to him, not earned by him.
Hebrews 11:7 (ESV) 7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
An heir doesn’t earn an inheritance, it must be given to him. One can opine that had God not warned Noah, righteousness would not have been available to him. What we see throughout the Old Testament, if we are reading it properly, is not a case of man turning their will towards pleasing God; rather, what we see is a Merciful and Gracious God acting in time to rescue for Himself a people who are called by His Name out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Heaven, by faith. At no point can we ever make the case for man initiating righteousness by an act of their will. We are not born with faith, nor are we born free. We are in-fact born dead in our sins and trespasses, and in our unrighteousness we suppress the truth.
Romans 1:16-17 (ESV) | The Righteous Shall Live by Faith
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Romans 1:18-32 (ESV) | God’s Wrath on Unrighteousness
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
What should be clear by now is that I hold a monergistic view of Salvation, Grace, and Faith. Beyond this, I do not like to dictate to others what the limits of their free will versus the Will of God and His Sovereignty are apart from what is clearly written in Scripture. I avoid hypothetical conjecture in the what if’s of Scripture. I do not seek to reconcile every mystery of scripture on my own. I accept what Scripture clearly teaches… even when my finite, fleshly, mind struggles to make sense of it.
To understand the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, one must first have been preached it faithfully. However, even having access to the written Word of God does not on its own does not ensure understanding of the Truth of the Gospel, as we see Paul explaining throughout Romans regarding the Jews who lacked faith. Paul preached from the same scriptures they had, but Paul had faith and they did not. Faith comes from God, and that faith is by the Grace of God through the Word of Christ.
Romans 10 (ESV) | The Message of Salvation to All
10 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek;for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For“everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
18 But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for
“Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
and their words to the ends of the world.”
19 But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
“I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”
20 Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,
“I have been found by those who did not seek me;
I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”
21 But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
We see throughout Scripture God intervening, making Himself known, and keeping His Promise of a Savior in Jesus Christ. We see the Gospel of Jesus Christ spreading throughout the world, and we see many coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ while the majority deny Him and remain condemned in their unbelief. What do we do with this? For those who believe, urge them to grow to maturity in the faith, stand firm in the faith once-delivered to the saints, and place their hope in the Christ Jesus who will return to judge the living and the dead. For those who continue in their unbelief, we must endeavor to preach the Word of Christ, and also follow in the example set by the Apostle Paul in this passage… pray to God that they might be saved. Beyond this, there is little advantage engaging in conjecture of what may or not be happening “behind the scenes” in the heart of man, nor in the revealed Will of God for specific individuals. We must uphold all of the attributes of God, for He is Worthy of all Praise and Glory and Honor, forever and ever, Amen.
Ephesians 3:14-21 (ESV) | Prayer for Spiritual Strength
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think,according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
In Christ Jesus,