What does it mean to have a free will? Do we as humans possess it? Or are we simply determined by an unseen force acting upon our will? What position does the Bible take on whether we have a free will? Questions like these regarding the extent of the freedom of our will have plagued the minds of philosophers, theologians, and laymen alike. There is one main problem that people throughout the ages have often had with the idea of a limited will. The logic (or illogic) usually goes something like this: “God cannot be just in sending people to hell if He has not given everyone the same ability or desire to be saved. How can God be just if we could not have chosen otherwise?” There are many false assumptions associated with these statements, but before we consider them, we may need an attitude adjustment.
Paul, in addressing the question of God’s goodness and justice in the doctrine of election, says “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?’” (Romans 9:19-21). Here Paul simply does away with all false pretenses of moral authority that we as sinful humans are prone to fall into, and shows us that we have no standing or ultimate authority to challenge the goodness of God. He is the creator, and we are the created. From dust, our bodies were made, and to dust, we return. We would do well to keep this in mind as we ponder the state we are in.
A Philosophical Argument
In his book, The Freedom of the Will, Jonathan Edwards defines the will as “that by which the mind chooses.” From this simple definition, there has generally been two ways of viewing the will. The first is called libertarian free will, and the second is called compatibilism. Libertarian free will is a complete autonomy within our sphere of possible choices. In other words, there is nothing hindering or influencing our will when given two or more different paths to go down. We are completely free in our ability to choose as it is unaffected by our natural desires. But there is a problem, how do you come to a decision? If there is no reason or desire influencing our will, we simply cannot make a choice. What we desire most, at the moment of decision, is what we will always choose.
This brings us to the second position where we see that our will is not completely free. There lies within us a natural bent towards sin that we were born with. Our desire flows from our sinful disposition and taints every aspect of our life. When making a decision, we cannot choose against our strongest desire any more than a river can turn around and flow the other way. You may object and say you have chosen against your strongest desires many times. Maybe you were tempted to do something you knew was wrong, but by sheer willpower you were able to say no. Was that not an act of your will overcoming a strong desire? Yes, but only because a stronger motivation presented itself. The will never acts alone in deciding, but rather is dependent on our reason, emotion, or desire to initiate any act of the will.
A Biblical Argument
In Ephesians 2 Paul says,
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” (Eph. 2:1-5)
As we know from experience, dead men cannot desire to be raised to life, and certainly cannot grant themselves life. The will is just as in bondage to sin as the rest of man prior to the work of regeneration, a work done in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Those who comes to faith in Christ do so because they desire to, and they desire to because God, through the Holy Spirit, has given us a new spirit that desires the things of God. Furthermore, as Christians, we still possess a sinful nature. But as we grow in maturity through the working of the Spirit in the work of sanctification, we will grow in the fruit of the Spirit and be less inclined to follow our fleshly desires.
Free will, it turns out, may be an unhelpful description in defining our faculty of choosing. Our will, like every other aspect of our being, is in bondage to sin. As R.C. Sproul put it, “We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners.” As sinners, we are held accountable for our sins because they are just that, ours. We are the ones that have desired, willed, and determined our own acts of sin.
There may be questions and doubts concerning God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, but we can be sure that what has been revealed in Scripture does, in fact, correspond to reality. Just as the universe is unable, in its entirety, to be comprehended by man, so too is the mystery of the triune God and His ways, not fully ascertained. As Romans 11:33 says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways”!