Free Will

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Sin warps our will so that, by nature, we do not will to do what is pleasing to God. Because of our relationship to Adam, we freely will to sin … Everyone who believes in Jesus does so because God predestined us, called us by the Holy Spirit, gave us a new life, mind and heart (i.e., we were born again) and caused us to believe in Jesus.

Excerpted from “How Did We Come to Faith?” by R. Scott Clark

That Adam had a free will, the ability to sin or not, is widely accepted. The idea however, that human beings have a free will has a long history in Western theology and continues to strongly influence many Bible interpreters and theologians. Many evangelicals simply assume that the doctrine of free will is a biblical one. It will be helpful, therefore, to understand the background of this idea in the Western intellectual tradition.

Reacting to Augustine’s strong doctrine of human depravity (inability) and divine sovereignty, the British monk Pelagius (c.400) and his followers challenged the doctrine that all humans are federally (legally) united to Adam and thus fell with him. By breaking the legal/moral link between Adam and us, the Pelagians almost eliminated the effect of sin upon us.

Though the Councils of Carthage (411) and Orange (529) sided with Augustine, afterwards the majority of the medieval church moved in a steadily semi-Pelagian direction, attempting to synthesize Pelagius with Augustine. The synthesis said that sinners are able to cooperate with grace toward justification. In the high middle ages the semi-Pelagian banner was carried by Gabriel Biel (c.1420-95) and the greatest humanist of all, Desiderius Erasmus (c.1469-1536), against whom Martin Luther reacted during the Reformation. 1 In the late 16th century, Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) renewed the semi-Pelagian struggle against the Pauline doctrine of the will. Later, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) defined free will to mean something like “the power of contrary choice.” Kant said that a choice is truly moral choice only if the one making the decision has the power to will the contrary.

Though the doctrine that (fallen) human beings retain a free will is widely held, it is not is certainly not Pauline. He argues from God’s electing wisdom that God has the right to choose Jacob and reject Esau. 2 We are not in any position, being sinners and finite humans, to question His mysterious, eternal, decisions. God’s Word nowhere provides any defense whatsoever for the position that man has the ability to will the contrary to God’s will. Rather, God’s Word, as we have already seen, provides extended passages defending God’s righteousness in His sovereign eternal gracious decrees. I doubt that is possible to find a single passage in God’s Word which clearly teaches that created, sinful, human beings have a free will relative to God’s. If Pelagius, Erasmus and Kant are correct, then one must say that Pharaoh is not morally culpable for his hardness because he did not have the power to will the contrary to God’s decree. One would be forced to conclude that God is an evil tyrant who uses people as puppets.

Qualifications of Free Will
A word of clarification about the meaning of the term “free will” is in order. One may use the term free will. If, with Jonathan Edwards, we define a free will as that will which acts according to its nature, then the will, in this restricted sense may be said to be free. Sin warps our will so that, by nature, we do not will to do what is pleasing to God. Because of our relationship to Adam, we freely will to sin. 3 The fallen will may said to be free in an existential, or experiential sense. No one visibly compels any human being to do anything they do not will to do. After all, we experience ourselves choosing daily or moment by moment. One always has a choice, even if one of the choices is unpleasant. 4

Nevertheless, ultimately, the human will must be said to be limited by God’s decisions. Any other position is suicidal to the Christian faith. If one assumes that believers or unbelievers have the power of absolute contrary choice relative to God’s decrees, then all of the biblical language describing God’s eternal decrees becomes meaningless and mythological.

Second, if we have the power of contrary choice relative to God, then we must find some foundation in the Word of God to show that God has voluntarily limited Himself in some way so as to give us this almost divine prerogative. In the light of passages studied (and the ones forthcoming) this will be extremely hard to do.

Third, if we have the power of contrary choice, what does the Bible mean when it says that we are dead? Is this language also mythological? Why does the Bible consistently use death as the analogy for our spiritual state outside of Christ if God really means to say that we are only sick or ill? Why doesn’t God’s Word ever once describe us as “sick” or “ill” or only in a weakened condition?

The Non-Existent Hypothetical
It is sometimes asked: what if someone wanted to be saved but couldn’t be saved because they weren’t predestined? This might be an interesting question except that there have never been any such people. According to Scripture, everyone who wants to be saved will be saved because anyone who desires salvation, does so because God has effectively called them to faith by the work of His Holy Spirit. 5 The premise of the question is flawed. It assumes that sinners, if given the chance, will believe in Jesus on their own. This isn’t true. We saw above that we are all dead in sin. Apart from the prevenient work of God’s Spirit dead men don’t love Jesus. The Scriptures make it clear that no one even wanted to be saved, until God gave them a desire to be saved. Everyone who believes in Jesus does so because God predestined us, called us by the Holy Spirit, gave us a new life, mind and heart (i.e., we were born again) and caused us to believe in Jesus.

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Notes:

  1. 38 See Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Cambridge, 1957).
  2. Romans 9:13-14.
  3. Jonathan Edwards, “A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards 2 vol. (Edinburgh, 1976), 1.12, 21-3, 51-3.
  4. Edwards, notes that even an allegedly free will is limited by the fact that it cannot choose to stop choosing, lest it cease to be a will at all (ibid., 1.12).
  5. John 1:12,13; John 17:3; 20:31.

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