There are various views of Free Will.
The Humanist View. This is the most prevalent view of Free Will in our culture, and that includes the Church. Free Will is defined as a person’s ability to make choices spontaneously. This means that the choices a person makes are in no way conditioned or determined by any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition.
Dr. R. C. Sproul notes two serious problems conservative Christians should have with this definition of Free Will.
First, there is a theological, or moral problem. If our choices are made purely spontaneously, without any prior inclination, prejudice, or disposition, then there is no reason for the choice. There is no motivation to choose one way or another. It just happens, spontaneously. If this is the way our choices operate, then we face this problem: “How can such an action have any moral significance?”
When Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, if their choice was spontaneous, then they cannot be held morally responsible for their choice.
But that is not what happened. The Biblical narrative is that something did influence the choice of Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat” (Gen. 3:6).
Eve’s choice, and Adam’s choice, for “he did eat” (Gen. 3:6), was not spontaneous. It was not without any prior inclination, prejudice, or disposition. There was something influencing the will. There was something prejudicing the mind and the emotions. There was something to be desired that compelled Eve to reach out and take “of the fruit thereof.”
God is interested not only in our choices, what we choose, but our intention in that choice.
In America’s judicial system, the Law is also interested not just in the choice a person makes, but why that particular choice was made. The bias, the prejudice, the inclination the reason for a choice is important.
The Court: “Did you kill that person?”
The Defendant: “Yes.”
The Court: “Why?”
The Defendant: “The man came into the church service to kill as many worshippers as possible. He shot and killed two innocent people. I shot and killed him in six seconds to prevent further bloodshed.” (Church of Christ, Ft. Worth Tx. December 29, 2019).
When the brothers sold Joseph into slavery, they had a reason. They were prejudiced against him. They were jealous of him. Their action was rooted in a desire, an inclination, to hurt him. They thought to injure Joseph. They meant their choice for evil, but God meant it for good (Gen. 50:20).
The concern of the conservative Christians is established. If our choices are purely spontaneous, there is no moral responsibility. Moreover, in our choices, God has a choice as well. In the case of Joseph, God allowed the inclination, the choice of the brothers to happen. But God also had a choice, an intention, in the matter, from a Divine perspective.
Keep in mind, if there is no intention in a choice, if there is no motive, then there can be no moral praise or condemnation. The choice just happened.
Second, there is a rational problem. Beyond the moral concern, there is the rational inquiry whether or not such a choice can be made. Is it possible for a creature, without any prior prejudice, disposition, or inclination, or reason to make a choice?
This is a valid inquiry, for there is a presupposition that the will is neutral. It is inclined neither to the left, nor to the right. The will is not inclined toward righteousness, nor toward evil. The will is neutral. That is the presupposition.
In the story, Alice in Wonderland, she comes to a fork in the road. She cannot decide to go to the left, or to go to the right. Alice looks up and sees a Cheshire cat in the tree grinning at her. She asks the Cheshire cat which road she should take. The answer comes, “That depends. Where are you going?” Alice replies, “I don’t know.” To that the cat answers, “Then I guess it does not matter!” If there is no intent, no plan, no desire to get anywhere, what difference does it make which road is taken?
It would be easy to look at Alice’s situation and conclude she has two choices. She can go to the left. She can go to the right.
In reality, Alice has four choices.
She can go to the left.
She can go to the right.
She can stay where she is until she perishes from her inactivity.
She can turn around and go back where she came from.
Here is the important question. “Why would Alice make any of those four choices?”
If she has no reason, no inclination, no prejudice, or bias behind her choice, if her will were utterly neutral, what would happen to her? The answer: Alice would not make a choice. She would be paralyzed.
So, the problem with the Humanist View of Free Will is that it is not rational, and it does not reflect reality. People do make choices for a reason, and that reason is rooted in the strongest bias, inclination, prejudice, or disposition brought to bear on the will. There is always a cause when a choice is made. A spontaneous choice is a rational impossibility. There can be no effect, i.e., no choice, without a cause.
The Biblical View of Free Will. The Bible does not put the choice a person makes in a state of neutrality. The Bible presupposes that the Natural Man makes a choice based on a Fallen Nature. The inclination is towards wickedness. The Righteous Person makes a choice based on having a new heart and a new spirit given by God (Ezekiel 36:26). The inclination is towards righteousness, for God does have a prejudice. God does have a bias. God does have an inclination. His choices are not neutral. His choices influence the choices of those in whom He has placed a new heart, so that they too are inclined to obey, by choosing to do right. Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The Christian View of Free Will. One of the most important books written by a Christian on the will of man was written by Jonathan Edwards. It has the simple title, Freedom of the Will. Another important work was written by Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will.
Edwards says that freedom, or free will, is the mind choosing. That is it. Free will is the mind choosing. What this means, is that while a distinction can be made between the mind and the will, the two are inseparably related. A moral choice cannot be made without the mind being engaged, and approving the direction of one’s choice.
The thoughts might be conflicted. The body might be in emotional turmoil. The mind is aware of what the options are. The conscience might be disturbed. However, the mind approves the final choice that is made, and inclines it to make whatever choice is decided upon.
The primary influence of the mind on the will, is that the mind decides the choice made is in one’s best self-interest. Other thoughts might seem to be contesting that idea, but once a choice is made, it is because of the strongest inclination on the will, and the strongest inclination is rooted in the belief that what is decided is in the best interest of the individual.
When Adam ate of the fruit offered to him by his wife, he might have had some arresting thoughts, for he was not deceived as to what was about to happen, but he decided that it was in his best interest to join Eve in an act of disobedience to God. Such is the freedom of the will.
The will is not independent of the mind. The will acts in conjunction with the mind. What the mind deems desirable, is what the will is inclined to do.
Edwards’ Law of Free Will declares that “Free moral agents always act according to the strongest inclination they have at the moment of choice.”
To put it another way, a person will always choose according to their inclination. A person will always choose according to the strongest inclination when a choice is made.
When a Christian commits a sin, their desire, their inclination, in that moment, is greater to sin than it is to obey Christ.
Conversely, when a Christian does not sin, though given a choice, it is because their inclination, in that moment, is greater to obey Christ than to enjoy the pleasures of sin.
The larger truth, is that at the moment of choice, we always follow our strongest inclination. Our strongest inclination is influenced by our thoughts that stir up passions or feelings of desire.
A Practical Problem
One practical problem when discussing the subject of free will, and trying to understand it, is that we often make a choice that, apart from reflection, makes no sense. They seem to be spontaneous and arbitrary. It is only upon closer examination of the choices made that we see the motive, the influence, the inclination that determined our will to choose one result over another.
But there is always a reason for doing what is done. There is always a reason for the action of the will.
It is at this point that an objection is raised against Edwards’ Law of Free Will. The main objection is that individuals believe they have experienced coercion to the point that they act against their will. Actually, that is not true. No one acts contrary to their will. Even if a person holds a gun to the heard and demands that something be done, there is still a choice. It might not be a good choice, but there is a choice. No one acts contrary to what they believe is in their best interest. No one acts contrary to their own will.
It is only by kindness and generosity that we concede that people can be externally coerced by forces coming into their lives, but that is the language of accommodation. Such alliance is many times reasonable and justifiable. However, Edwards’ Law of Free Will remains intact. “Free moral agents always act according to the strongest inclination they have at the moment of choice.”
Choosing What One Wants
It was John Calvin who said, that, if we mean that fallen man has the ability to choose what he wants, then it is true, we have free will. However, that is not the end of the discussion, because what fallen man always wants is to continue to sin. That is his nature. Fallen man will be consistent with his nature. God knows that every imagination of the thoughts of fallen man’s heart is only evil continually (Gen. 6:5).
How then does fallen man, with his free will, choose God and righteousness? He cannot make such a choice apart from a new birth. Why? Because fallen man’s free will, fallen man’s ability to choose what he wants, has enslaved him to the law of sin and death. Fallen man will never freely choose to love God, and to do right. Why? Because it is against his nature to make such a choice. He is not so inclined. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:23).
In their fallen state, no person has the moral power, inclination, or desire to do right. The term free will becomes too grand of a term, for those who are dead in tresspasses and sin.
A Paradox: Free But Determined
Dr. R. C. Sproul taught that every choice a person makes is free, and every choice that we make is determined.
This is not a contradiction, but it is a paradox. Both thoughts are true. Every choice a person makes is freely made within the confines of the definition provided. However, every choice freely made is known to God, which means it has been determined by God. “The LORD knoweth the thoughts of man” (Psalm 94:11).
To hear this, causes not a few Christians to have an emotional negative reaction. The unbeliever naturally hates the idea of a sovereign God, who is omnipotent and omniscient. But Christians must be careful not to unite with the world against Biblical revelation.
For something to be determined, and free does not mean these are exclusive categories. Dr. Sproul is not teaching Determinism. Determinism means that things happen strictly by virtue of eternal forces.
The Biblical teaching, is that while there are external forces at work on us, there are internal forces at work as well. Hear the language of Scripture “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
If my choices flow out of my disposition, and desires, is that not self-determination? It is! Self-determination is not the denial of freedom, but the essence of freedom. For self to be able to determine its own choices is what free will is all about.
However, if my desires determine my choices, how can I be free? I cannot be totally free.
Here is the point that many people stumble over. God never intended for His creation to be totally free of Him, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28).
The reality, is that we do choose, indeed we must choose, according to our own strongest desires. No one will go to heaven who does not willingly choose to go there. That is the human response. The Divine reality, is that God makes His people willing in the day of salvation (Psalm 110:3).
The reality, is that no one will go to hell who does not choose to go there. Jesus said to some, “And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life” (John 5:40).
The faculties of the soul were not totally lost in the Fall. Sinners still have choice. Sinners have mind, emotions, and will. The will is free, and able to do what the sinner wants it to do. But here is the most important inquiry. “What does the sinner want the will to do?” Answer. “The sinner wants to sin!” The sinner wants to sin freely and without any restraint. The sinner wants to be the captain of his own ship, his own soul. The sinner wants to be the master of his own fate. And so he is! What is the problem?
The problem is in the reach of the desires of the heart. Because the sinner has an evil desire to do wrong, he sins. Does he have a desire to please God? No. Nor does he want to. Nor can he. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:8). Why? Because man has no moral ability to be righteous. That was lost in the Fall. Because of the Fall, sinners sin because they want to sin. Therefore, they sin freely. Sinners reject Christ because they want to reject Christ. They reject him freely.
Before a person can respond positively to God, and choose Christ, and choose life, then something must happen to their soul. The sinner must have a desire to make a different choice. Where does that desire come from? God must work a work of grace. God must change the heart. The soul must be born from above so that when a new heart is given, there will be new desires, which will lead to new decisions freely made.
One Reply to “How Should “Free Will” be Defined?”
Superb article! So grateful. Now, do you think that in spite of the opposing viewpoints, can Calvinists and Armenians practice the discipline of evangelism together?