FREE WILL AS A CHRISTIAN
Christians and Non-Christians often answer difficult questions like this: why did God allow sin in the first place? Why does God save some people and not others? Why is God sending people to hell? Why is it so frustrating to live like a Christian? The immediate response that is often suggested is simple: “free will.” It’s a convenient answer for many people. I want to suggest that we reconsider this crucial issue.
The question everyone is curious about is: “Do We Have a Free Will?” This question might be disturbing to you because it asks if something exists that most people believe exists. The simple response to that question is that it depends on what you mean by “free.” The answer is in the rest of the article.
We should research “free will” because it is theologically important and because many people assume that a particular definition of “free will” is wrong. Studying “free will” is a challenge because it is not talked about in Scripture. It is also dynamic because it interacts with many other wider theological issues; it intersects with religion, historical theology, and systemic theology.
WHAT IS “FREE WILL”?
We should begin by learning the standard terminology associated with the debate on ‘free will.’
1. “Will” is the function of choosing.
2. Constraining causes a lot of people to act against their will. For example, in this sense, a person being robbed at gunpoint is constrained. Non-constraining triggers do not compel people to act against their will but are necessary to induce action. For example, if you’re afraid of heights, you probably won’t want to walk on the edge of a tall building; that fear is not a constraining cause.
3. Indeterminism is a belief that genuinely free acts are not causally determined. Determinism assumes that everything is causally determined (i.e., that prior events and circumstances cause each event).
4. Incompatibilism believes that determinism and human freedom are incompatible; it condemns determinism and affirms human rights. Compatibilism believes that determinism and individual rights are compatible.
5. Libertarian free will is the freedom to do something or not. Free agency is the ability to do whatever a person wants (apart from constraining causes) to do. It’s not a small difference. For example, do non-Christians have the inherent ability to either choose to trust Christ or not? In the end, is such a decision based on their will?
6. The General sovereignty of God holds that God is in charge of everything without controlling everything. God’s specific sovereignty holds that God governs everything and that he manages everything to accomplish his intent.
THE BIBLICAL AND THEOLOGICAL REASONS FOR COMPATIBILITY AND INCOMPATIBILITY
1. The Bible never says that humans are free in the sense that they are autonomously capable of making decisions that are not caused by anything. Libertarian free will is often assumed solely based on common-sense experience but has not been proven.
2. God is completely sovereign. He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). He does what he wants, and no one can stop him (Psalm 115:3; Daniel 4:34-35).
3. Humans are morally responsible, which means that they can differentiate between right and wrong. There is no biblical justification for why God cannot make real human choices. The Bible bases human responsibility on God’s authority as our creator and judge, not on libertarian free will.
4. Both God’s complete sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility are at the same time, true. Here are only some of the several passages in which the two elements are present without any hint of inconsistency.
“A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.” (Proverbs 16:33).
“Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23).
“For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.” (Acts 4:27-28).
5. The Bible condemns certain individuals for actions that are not done with a libertarian free will. For instance, Judas Iscariot was destined to betray Jesus, which means that he didn’t have the ability either to do it or not.
6. God is omniscient (for example, he predicts future events). John Feinberg notes, “If indeterminism is correct, I do not see how God can be said to foreknow the future. If God really knows what (not just what) is going to happen in the future, the future must be set, and a sense of determinism must be applied. God’s foreknowledge isn’t the cause of the future, but it guarantees that what God knows must happen, regardless of how it is done.”
7. God breathed out the Scriptures through human beings without violating their personalities. The way the Bible was inspired by God needs compatibilism.
8. God allows Christians to persevere: Christians work because God works (Phil 2:12-13). Indeterminism would mean that Christians may deny Christ and forfeit their salvation, but the Bible teaches that all true Christians are eternally safe and will persevere with God’s grace.
9. God himself has no free will in the libertarian sense. Is God allowed to sin? If not, he doesn’t have a libertarian free will, and therefore a libertarian free will isn’t necessary for a person to be truly free.
10. The men of God have no free will in the libertarian sense in heaven. Will the people of God be able to sin in heaven? If not, they do not have a libertarian free will, and thus a libertarian free will isn’t sufficient for people to be truly free.
IS LIBERTARIAN FREE WILL THE CAUSE OF THE ORIGIN OF SIN?
The answer is No.
When addressing this extremely difficult question, it is important to consider the following:
1. God isn’t the author or agent of evil, nor is he guilty of evil.
2. Satan is not the equal opposite of God (i.e., God versus Satan dualism).
3. God, who performs all things according to His will and counsel, has ordained that sin will enter His universe. God sovereignly acts that humans to be not guilty of evil, but of secondary causes.
4. Satan, Adam and Eve sinned because they wanted to sin, and they were morally responsible to God for it. (The ability of human beings to sin comprises of four historical stages. First, Adam and Eve were originally able to sin. Second, after their fall, all unregenerate human beings [i.e., those who are spiritually dead] can sin. Third, regenerate human beings [i.e., those whom God has given spiritual life] cannot sin. Fourth, glorified regenerate human beings are unable to sin.)
5. Tension remains because the compatibilists cannot explain exactly how God can order all things without being the agent or author of evil. In situations like this, the head will start spinning if you try to understand the mystery. Rather than denying explicit Scripture statements that support compatibility, a far better option is to recognize that this is a mystery that we fallen and finite humans cannot fully understand.
6. There is no simple way to explain why God first proclaimed the root of sin. Why doesn’t God wipe Satan out? The ultimate response is that “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him (Colossians 1:16). God foresaw everything that Satan would do if he created Satan and allowed him to rebel. In choosing to create him, he chose to bring all the evil into his purpose of creation. The purpose of his creation was the glory of his Son.
IS FREE WILL LIBERTARIAN THE PRIME JUSTIFICATION FOR CONVERSION?
Conversion consists of turning away from sin (i.e., repentance) and to God (i.e., faith). Why do people turn from being non-Christians to becoming Christians? In the end, is it because of their libertarian free will? Or is that simply because of God?
We choose to do whatever we do because we want to do something (as long as we’re not constrained), but we’re not always able to do something or not (i.e., we don’t always have the intrinsic freedom to choose between options). Non-Christians do whatever they want to do, and they will never want to come to Jesus Christ as their master except God first changes them. Here is an analogy: If a person is locked in a room but does not want to get out, then even if he can’t get out, he’s not against his will.
1. TOTAL DEPRAVITY: Unbelievers are completely depraved in the sense that depravity affects their whole being (Genesis 6:5; Ecclesiastes 7:20; 9:3; Isaiah 1:6; 64:6; Romans 1:18-3:20,23; James 3:2; 1 John 1:8, 10) including the mind (Romans 8:5-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Titus 1:15), body (Romans 8:10; Ephesians 4:17-19), and will (John 8:34).
2. TOTAL INABILITY: Total depravity is the human condition, and total inability results from that condition (John 1:13; Ephesians 4:18; Ezekiel 36:26; 2 Timothy 2:26; Romans 6:17,20; 2 Corinthians 4:4). Unregenerate people are incapable of following the gospel (Matthew 7:18; John 8:43-44; 14:17; Romans 8:7-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14).
Conversion is entirely the work of God (John 6:37, 44, 65; James 1:18). Regeneration transforms the will of a human being and enables a person to come to Christ willingly. Regeneration is the process by which God, through the Holy Spirit, immediately imparts spiritual life to those who are spiritually dead (John 1:13; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18). It is the spiritual resurrection (Ephesians 2:1-6; Colossians 2:13), the birth (John 3:3-8), and the re-creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).
4. HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY:
This doesn’t mean, however, that human beings are not responsible for obedience to the Gospel because God may command human beings to do what they cannot do on their own. Human inability and responsibility are mysteriously compatible with each other.
5. PRAYER AND EVANGELISM: The God who ordains the ends is the one that also ordains the means, and prayer and evangelism are God-ordained means of God-ordained purposes.
CONCLUDING APPLICATIONS ON THE FREE-WILL DEBATE
1. Praise God for the sovereign planning of the universe and the perfect execution of his plan. As a Christian, thank God for giving you a spiritual life when you were spiritually dead and giving you gifts of repentance and faith. Praise God that the day is coming when God will consummate his plan and transform us so that we will never want to question God again, but instead will always want to rejoice in the glorious God.
2. Recognize that other Orthodox Christians who are not in agreement with you on this issue are not enemies! However, some Christian leaders have embraced what I think are errant views of free will; several of them have been godly individuals worthy of emulation. Therefore, to disagree with them on this particular issue does not, in any way, doubt their commitment to God.
3. Since it is unlikely that every living Christian will agree on the issue of free will, promote unity on this argument as much as possible. This does not mean ignoring important differences, but it does involve preserving these differences in perspective.
4. As in all areas of contentious doctrine, express your opinion with modesty. We are fallen and finite beings who know such a small fraction of what they know (and often we can’t even remember the little bit we used to know!). And when you discuss this with those who disagree with you (and even when you speak about it with those who agree with you), ask God for grace to demonstrate modesty in your speech and actions, since “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).