“But what about free will?”
“What about it, I said”
“Doesn’t free will provide the answer to the problems in the world?”
“Can I ask you a question?” “When you finish college and get a job, will you have to show up to work?”
“I suppose if I want to get paid, then I will have to show up.”
“Yes, so is your will free? We are always subject to something.”
“Oh, look what time it is, I’ve got to go, or I’ll be late for class…”
I’ve had this sort of a conversation dozens of times. The question revolves around making choices and making choices without consequences, from my experiences, in discussing free will with people, especially on a college campus. Some of them are genuine inquiries, and some are hoping to deliver the death-blow to the conversation.
What is it about man’s free will, and how does God factor into the ability for us to make real choices. How can God be sovereign over all things? It’s not an easy topic. I’m writing some articles that defend the Christian faith, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do so—being forced to defend what you believe is an essential aspect of the Christian faith.
Christianity requires faith but not blind faith.
Free will, Defined:
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary provides this:
- : voluntary choice or decision
- : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention
Webster’s 1828 dictionary says this:
- The power of directing our own actions without restraint by necessity or fate.
- Voluntariness; spontaneousness.
It seems to me both of these are similar and accurate. The newer definition says there is no divine intervention, and the 1828 version says without restraint by necessity or fate. The difference in thought is quite different it seems. In 1828 Noah Webster knew that God was involved in everything. I’ll get to that point later on.
I want to firmly say that we make “free will” decisions every day that have consequences. God is not forcing our hand, nor is He influencing these decisions so that we are puppets on a string. I will argue God’s Divine control, but not in the way Determinism posits.
The brilliant men that wrote the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith have nicely summarized the argument, and I would commend anyone interested in further study to investigate the 2nd London Baptist Confession in Modern English.
Chapter 9 – Free Will – paragraph 1.
1. God has endowed human will with natural liberty and power to act on choices so that it is neither forced nor inherently bound by nature to do good or evil.1
1Matthew 17:12; James 1:14; Deuteronomy 30:19.
It is also critical to recognize how God factors into the created world and His creation’s management. God has decreed all things from the beginning to the end but provides us (the creature) decision making power.
Chapter 3 – God’s Decree – paragraph 1.
1. From all eternity God decreed everything that occurs, without reference to anything outside himself.1 He did this by the perfectly wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably. Yet God did this in such a way that he is neither the author of sin nor has fellowship with any in their sin.2 This decree does not violate the will of the creature or take away the free working or contingency of second causes. On the contrary, these are established by God’s decree.3 In this decree God’s wisdom is displayed in directing all things, and his power and faithfulness are demonstrated in accomplishing his decree.4
1Isaiah 46:10; Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 6:17; Romans 9:15, 18. 2James 1:13; 1 John 1:5. 3Acts 4:27, 28; John 19:11. 4Numbers 23:19; Ephesians 1:3–5.
The Confession provides a critical understanding of how God works in His creation and how humanity can function consistently with clear and legitimate choices. If we reconsider our dictionary definitions, the modern Merriam-Webster definition seems to be more aligned with the Confession than one might give at first blush; however, we know that if God has decreed all things that will come to pass, at the bottom of it all, God has a purpose.
The most important conclusion we can draw is that the universe is purposeless without the Divine influence. In the article I wrote on God and Evil, I outlined that God can control all things and even allow or decree evil and still not be the author of evil. I’m sure this is distasteful to many, and I’ll admit sometimes causes me grief. I don’t believe we are truly human if we don’t recoil at the trouble with evil. Similarly, God controls all things (ultimately) but allows and even decrees specific actions and so-called “Free Will” decisions that bring Him glory. For example, how can we not rejoice at Corey ten Boom’s faith and courage without there being a Holocaust? How could Arthur Schindler’s “list” not inspire us to help others? How can we even know goodness without badness, or light without dark?
God’s ways and thoughts are far higher than ours, and while to some, it may sound too simple, it is far from simple.
Man’s Decision-making Ability
If I have correctly defined free will, my task next is to show that man has the rational ability to decide on matters, and they are, in effect, “real.” I believe the real decision and God’s providence are inextricably linked, so I want to use a well-known Bible narrative to illustrate my point.
So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits (Genesis 37:17b-20).
Joseph was the favored son of Jacob was despised and hated by his brothers. When Joseph finds his brothers, the brothers seize the opportunity to throw Joseph in a pit, sell him as a slave to be sent to Egypt, and lie to their father that wild animals have killed Joseph. The decisions these brothers made were their own. They freely made them, and they had severe consequences. Joseph, Jacob, and many others were affected by these wicked and evil choices. God had a good reason for this to happen, and it plays out in the Redemption story, but it is a long and grueling journey that eventually lands Joseph in the number two spot in all of Egypt. God had a plan to use it for good and His glory.
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Genesis 50:19-20).
We see that ultimately God had decreed that the brothers would commit evil acts against Joseph for good. The decisions these brothers made were real, they had consequences, and God allowed it to happen, and we can even say, caused it to happen, but yet was not the author of sin. How does that work?
Joseph’s brothers perfectly illustrate an agent of second cause. God didn’t come down to Dothan and make the brothers conspire to kill Joseph. Why did the brothers do this? Once again, I believe the Bible can answer our question, and it begins back at the beginning. Adam and Eve are serving God in the garden. They are naming the animals, Adam is tending the garden, and Eve is preparing a delicious meal of…. Oops.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3:6-11).
It is “simple” from this point forward. The ground is cursed, man is cursed, the woman is cursed, and all humanity has been plunged into sin. Adam served as a representative of all of us. Man’s free will is now corrupt.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— (Romans 5:12).
We have inherited sin from Adam, and we are born into sin through the curse, which is the explanation of it all. The world we inhabit is full of sinners. I don’t think I would need to convince most people this is true, but the issue is not convincing you others are sinners. The problem is convincing you that you are a sinner.
Most will say, yes, I know that I sin. I’ve told lies, I’ve stolen things, I’ve blasphemed the Name of God, but in comparison to those around me, I’m pretty good. I give money to the poor, and I provide for my family. I might send money to an organization that helps people. On the scales of justice, I’m better than the average Joe.
And you know what? You’ve got me convinced. I’m, however, not the one that matters. God’s requirement for justice and holiness is perfection, and the way we judge ourselves is by comparing it to the law of God.
The Free Will Argument Summarized
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:15-18).
The Protestant Reformation began with a Catholic Munk, Martin Luther, nailing 95 theses to the Whittenberg castle door in Whittenberg, Germany. Luther saw many contradictions between the church of Rome and what the Bible taught. To reform the church of Rome, he started a revolution. Luther wrote a brilliant article with 19 arguments against the concept of Free Will called The Bondage of the Will. You can obtain a free download here from our friends at Chapel Library.
In Argument 2, Luther says this:
“This universal slavery to sin includes those who appear to be the best and most upright. No matter how much goodness men may naturally achieve, this is not the same thing as the knowledge of God. The most excellent thing about men is their reason and their will, but it has to be acknowledged that this noblest part is corrupt.“
Paul argues the same thing in Romans 6 and throughout much of Romans. Man is corrupt, and while we are all capable of good and decent things, they cannot put us in a right relationship with God.
The ability to get right with God, to have our will conformed to God’s and the image of Christ comes via the new birth (John 3:3). We must believe that Jesus is the Christ and that He came to earth and lived the life we can’t, being a substitute for us on the cross and paying for our sins through His life, death, burial, and resurrection.
Jesus is the ultimate reality. Anyone who desires knowledge of God and man’s ability to have a free will pleasing to God must reconcile with God through Christ. One day we all must stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and dealing with Him in the here and now is a necessity to dealing with Him in the judgment.
Jesus says this about Himself: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36).
If you want ultimate free will, the Son provides that in Him, and this leads to a bigger question, the ultimate question. Who is Jesus, and why did He come to earth? Was He just a good man, a moral teacher, or some obscure Jew living in ancient Palestine? All history flows through this man, and He makes many claims about Himself that, if not true, made Him the ultimate con-man in all history.
Perhaps, we will deal with this next time.