While there are many definitions of free will, the Humanist view is the most common understanding of free will in society, and within the church. Free will is defined as the ability of an individual to make choices spontaneously. The choices that are made are not conditioned, or determined, by any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition.
A Biblical Christian faces two problems with this definition of free will.
First, there is a theological, or moral problem. If choices are made spontaneously, then how can there be any moral significance to a choice? In the Bible concern is given for what choice is made, and also for the intention of that choice. When Joseph was sold into slavery, the intention of his brothers was to do evil, but God meant it for good. (Gen. 50:20) The choice of the brothers was for selfish purposes. The choice of God, in this matter, was for a good cause and therefore it was altogether holy. When God considers a good deed, He examines not only the outward action, but in the inward motive. However, if there are no inward motivations, if there are no intents involved in the making of a choice, then there is no virtue. There is no moral significance.
Second, there is a rational problem. “Can a spontaneous choice even be made?” “Can a creature without any prior inclinations, or predisposition, even make a choice?” “Is the will neutral?” “Is the will inclined neither towards righteousness, nor towards evil?” In the story of Alice in Wonderland, she comes to a fork in the road. Not knowing which road to take she looks up, sees a Cheshire cat, and asks for counsel. The cat replies, “That depends. Where are you going?” Alice responds by saying, “I don’t know.” The cat responds, “Then it doesn’t matter.” If there is no plan, no intent, and no desire, then it does not matter what road is taken. Alice had four choices. She could go to the left. She could go to the right. She could stay where she was. Or, she could turn around and go back from where she came from. Why would she make any of the four choices if she had no reason, or inclination, to make a choice at all? Without a choice, she would be paralyzed.
The problem with the humanistic definition of free will is that it postulates an effect without a cause. That is not possible. Every choice made is proven to have a cause, a motive, an inclination, a disposition behind it. A spontaneous choice is a rational impassivity. It would have to be, an effect without a cause.
From a Christian perspective, if our choices are made spontaneously, without any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition, then the Biblical doctrine of the Fall of man is without foundation, or meaning. But the Bible places great emphasis on the Fall as the driving force for why individuals do what they do.
The nature of man is inclined to sin. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:” (Rom. 5:12) Jesus said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:” (Matt. 15:19)
The choices that are made are not spontaneous, free, and without inclination, or predisposition. The choices we make are rooted in the bend of the soul towards self-interest. “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, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Gen. 3:6)
Because the Humanist definition of free will is weak, and unbiblical, it must be rejected. Because the heart realizes the effect of sin on the fallen will, a new nature with a new will must be sought for in Christ. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17)
In contrast to the Humanist View is a Christian view of free will. One of the greatest books on this subject was written by Jonathan Edwards, with the title, Freedom of the Will (1754). Edwards wrote this book while serving in Massachusetts as a missionary to a native tribe of Housatonic Indians. Martin Luther’s book, The Bondage of the Will (1525), is also important to read.
Edwards defined free will as the mind choosing. While he made a distinction between the mind and the will, he said they are united to make a choice. We do not make a moral choice without the mind approving the decision. The mind might know that a particular action is contrary to the expressed will of God, but the will approves the violation of God’s known will. When inquiry is made as to why the will would approve choosing to go against God’s known will, the answer is twofold.
First, there is a will to power. “I will be like the Most High”, said Lucifer. And the sons of Lucifer say the same.
Second, there is the principle of pleasure. An object, or an emotion, is desired above God as an expression of self-interest. Self-will, self-interest, and pleasure influence every moral choice that is made.
It does not matter that a person chooses foolishly. It does not matter that there are unintended, and unwanted consequences for the wrong choices made. What matters is that the mind chooses. There is an awareness of what the options are.
The will does not act contrary to the mind. The will acts in conjunction with the mind. The will is the final determining factor, but not without having been influenced by the thoughts bearing down upon it.
The will can say, “No”, to the suggestive thoughts bearing down upon it. And, then, when the thoughts are changed, the influences on the will change as well.
Edwards said that free moral agents always act according to the strongest inclination they have at the moment of choice.
We always choose according to our inclinations, and we always choose according to the strongest inclination bearing upon the will. Any time a person sins, what that action indicates, is that at the moment of sin, one’s desire to commit that sin was greater than a desire to be good, or do right in the sight of God.
If the desire to obey Christ was greater than the desie to commit sin, then a different choice would be made. At the moment of choice, we always follow our strongest inclination, disposition, or desire.
What is ironic, is that it seems that we choose a course of action for no apparent reason what so ever. But that is only an illusion, and an expression of self-deception, or at least a lack of self-awareness.
For example, if you go into a room, and choose a seat, it might appear to be a random act where you sit, but some thought went into the decision. Some people like to sit on an aisle seat. Others avoid sitting in the middle, lest they become claustrophobic. Etc. There was a reason why a specific chair was chosen, after all. Some decisions are quick, to be sure. But none are random. There is always a reason.
Some may object to Edwards Law of Free Will. It might be said, “I have done many things in life that I did not want to do.” But again, that is not true. In the end, a decision was made to do whatever was done, regardless of coercion, because it was decided it was the best of all the options available, and even if there are only two options, life or death.
Sometimes Paul found himself in this state. “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (Rom. 7:19)
What Paul is simply saying here, is that he, like so many Christians, has a desire to please Christ, but there is also a desire to sin. In other words, human desires fluctuate. There are many instances where our human desires take extreme forms in different directions, which cause the mind to think that it has no real option in a matter.
John Calvin spoke on free will. He noted, that if fallen man has the ability to choose what he wants, then man has free will. However, if fallen man chooses to be different than his nature allows, he has no free will. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” (Jer. 13:23) Such a person must be born again.
Here is the conclusion.
Every choice that we make is free. And every choice we make is determined. While that sounds contradictory, it is not. This is not determinism, which means that things happen due to external forces alone. No, there are external factors, to be sure, but there are internal factors as well. Combined, they determine the choices that are made.
If my choices flow out of my disposition, and my desires, and if my choices have causes and reasons behind them, then my personal desires determines my personal choice.
If my desires determine my choices, how can I be free? By self-determination! I make the decision, and so I am responsible. Self-determination is not the denial of freedom, but the essence of freedom. For self to determine its own choices, is what free will is all about.
Not only may we choose according to our own desires, but in fact, we do choose according to our own desires. We must choose always according to the strongest determination on the will, and that is the essence of free choice. To be able to choose what you want.
The problem with the sinner, is that while there is a mind with which to think, a will with which to choose, and emotions with which to desire, the problem is in the root of the heart. The root of fallen nature has been enslaved by sin, first by the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity, and then by personal choice. There is a natural evil inclination. Sinners sin because they want to sin. There is an appetite for sin. They sin freely. Sinners reject Christ because they want to reject Christ. They reject Him freely. Before a person can respond positively to God, before a person can choose life, he must have a new nature, and thereby a new inclination to freely choose the LORD.
Does fallen man retain any desire in his heart for God? The Biblical view of the radical nature of man is, “No.” He does not have any natural ability to please God for those who are in the flesh cannot please the Lord.
Yes, there is a moral ability in man. Moral ability is the ability to be righteous, as well as the ability to be sinful. Adam was created with ability to be righteous, or to be sinful. He chose to sin, and so lost his natural ability to be good and upright in the sight of God, apart from regeneration. Such is the effect of sin on the soul. Man can make choices, but he lacks the disposition towards godliness. In the Fall, man lost his moral liberty. He is in bondage to sin. There is none which doeth good. There is none righteous, no not one. Righteousness does not come from a corrupted heart. So man has free will, but no liberty. He must be born again.
Come to Christ. Confess your sinful weakness. Ask for the new birth. May the Lord give you the spiritual ability needed to believe, for it is lacking in the natural man.