When considering the Biblical doctrine of election, attention is immediately turned to the subject of free will. What is meant by free will? There are two extreme positions. One is that man is capable of doing whatever he wants. “What the mind of man can conceive, the will of man can achieve.” The other extreme position is that man has no free will. He is a product of matter, plus time, plus chance, and is ruled by fate.
A Biblical position to take is that man is not the product of chance, but made in the image of God, with will, emotion, and intellect. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Gen. 1:27) Adam and Eve were created with freedom within certain boundaries, but they were not omnipotent, omnipresent, and did not possess omniscience.
The original creation. Man was created with restricted free will. That freedom of the will became more restricted with the Fall. Adam consciously and deliberately traded his freedom, and the freedom of his posterity, for bondage to sin and death. The Fall. Because of the Fall, the free will of man needs to be carefully considered for there are different views as to what is meant by those two words, free will.
The Humanist View
The most widely prevalent view of free will is the Humanist View. Free will is defined as the ability to make choices spontaneously. These choices are not determined by any prior conditions, prejudices, inclination, or disposition. For a Christian, there are serious problems with this popular understanding of free will.
The Moral Problem
Christian theology teaches that while man was originally created in the image of God, something terrible happened to that image in the Fall. Sin entered into the world, and brought death. Sin has marred man’s will, his emotions, and his intellect. Furthermore, if there is no prior inclination for something, such as obeying the known will of God, a desire for holiness, or personal integrity, then there is no reason for the choice. There is no motivation for the choice. If our choices just happen spontaneously, then how can our actions have any moral significance? They are neither right, nor wrong.
Liberal Progressives are happy with this conclusion for they want to live an existential existence whereby one moment does not have any relevance to the last. If a lie will serve their purpose in one moment, and the truth will better serve their self interest in the next moment, so be it. All is well and good. But the Christian is not of that persuasion. Christian theology teaches that our choices have a moral dimension. What we choose to do has an effect on our own souls, our relationship with God, and our relationship with others. We ought to make certain choices, and we ought not to make other choices. We ought to honor God, be honest. We ought not to lie, cheat, covet, murder, or steal. Freedom of choice is united with responsibility and morality.
Because of this, God is interested in our intentions as well as our final choices. When Joseph was sold into slavery, his brothers intended to do him harm. His brothers wanted to do evil. They wanted to hurt him, but God intended their choices to be for good. “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” (Gen. 50:20) God made a choice in the matter. God allowed the evil to proceed. The brothers made a choice. They intended to sell Joseph into slavery, pocket the money, and lie to their father about what happened to Joseph.
The Rational Problem
One of the greatest books written on the subject under discussion is Freedom of the Will, written by Jonathan Edwards. Another important work is Martin Luther’s, Bondage of the Will. Edwards defined free will as the mind choosing. Though he distinguished between the mind and the will, Edwards argued that the two are inseparately related. We do not make moral choices without the mind approving the direction of our choice. The Bible calls this the conscience. The conscience either accuses or condemns a choice. (Rom. 2:14-15) An individual becomes aware of various options, prefers one over the others, and makes a conscious choice for which responsibility must be taken.
In order to make that choice, the mind must be aware of what those options are. The will is not something that acts independently of the mind. The will acts in conjunction with the mind. What determines the choice the will makes, is the mind. What influences the mind is self-interest, and pleasure. So the final determining factor on the will, is the mind. The will is not neutral. The will is not arbitrary.
In the matter of salvation, what influences the will of the natural man is the law of sin and death. The mind of the natural man is in darkness, and therefore influences the mind to consistently choose to do that which is contrary to the known will of God. It can do no other. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14)
What the mind deems desirable is what the will is inclined to do. In the natural man, the mind of man desires to walk “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience. 3 Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.” (Eph. 2:2-3) Because of this desire the will chooses to do so because the will responds to the greatest influence upon it produced by the mind.
In summary, Edwards Law of Free Will declares that free moral agents always act according to the strongest inclination they have at the moment of choice. To restate the Law, Edwards is saying that we always choose according to our inclinations. We always choose according to our strongest inclination at the moment. Our inclinations are influenced by the thoughts we think.
Any time a person sins, the desire to commit a sin is greater, in that moment, than a desire to obey Christ. When a person allows illicit lust free reign in the heart, they desire the sinful pleasure of that moment more than they desire holiness, self-restraint, and obedience to Christ. When a person hates someone, they desire to vent the passion of their heart more than they desire to bring that thought into captivity for Christ.
If the desire to obey Christ was greater than the desire to commit sin, then Christ would be obeyed. The Devil would be resisted, and he would flee. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) At the moment of choice, a person will always follow their strongest inclination, disposition, or desire. When a person changes their mind, they change their inclination, which change the choice they make, which changes their will. The Bible calls this change of mind, repentance.
When confronted with the temptation to sin, the Christian must be constantly, and consciously repenting, which is another way of saying that a Christian must be changing their mind about the sinful influence, or inclination, of the moment to pray to the Lord, and say, “Let me not into temptation but deliver me from evil.” (Matt. 6:13) Ironically, it does seem in the matter of choosing that we make a choice for no apparent reason whatsoever. When a person is asked, “Why did you do that?”, it is not uncommon to hear the answer, “I don’t know.”
What a person is really saying by this response is, “I am not self-aware.” They are also saying, “I am not conscious of thinking anything prior to making this choice.” While a person may honestly be uninformed about themselves, and while a person may not be fully conscious of their own thoughts, no choice is made in a vacuum. There is always a determining inclination, disposition, or desire upon the mind, so that the will chooses to do what it does, or believes what it does.
When a person goes into a new room full of people to find a seat, the final choice of a seat from the various options may not have consciously been thought through. Nevertheless, there was a reason for the final choice of where to sit. That final choice was based on the strongest inclination on the mind. Maybe it was the only seat left, and the mind thought it would be better to take a seat than to stand. Maybe a seat was chosen on the end for leg room, or a desire to not be surrounded by people due to fear of claustrophobia. There was a reason why the place of sitting was chosen. All the choices we make in life are the result of the mind being influenced by the strongest inclination, disposition, or desire upon it.
The freedom of the will to choose one option over another is dependent on the mind. The mind is dependent on thought. Thought is dependent upon an influence, desire, or disposition. In the Garden of Eden, Eve had a thought about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil when she engaged in a conversation with the serpent. She “saw that the tree was good for food.” Her thought was influenced by a desire, or inclination to eat the forbidden fruit for it was “a tree to be desired to make one wise.” Eve made a conscious choice to take “of the fruit therefore”.
Eve desired the fruit more than she desired to obey the Lord. That desire influenced her mind, which selected an option which her will exercised. This pattern is repeated with every choice made, for good or evil. Thought. Desire, disposition, or inclination. Choice, based upon the principle of self-interest. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness He was presented with a thought, which appealed to a disposition in Him. Jesus had to make a choice. Jesus chose to obey God, and not succumb to the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, or the pride of life.
In the end, a person always does what they think is in their own best interest. Some may object to that, and ask about coercion, or outside forces compelling a person to do something against their will. Logically, that is impossible to do. No one can be compelled to do something against their will. Immediately, the idea of someone putting a gun to a person’s head and instructing them to do something comes to mind. However, the truth remains. There is still freedom of the will. A person chooses to do what is done because the mind determines it is better to comply than to be shot. This freedom of choice is confirmed when stories are told about people who found a way to overcome the attempt at coercion. Many bank tellers refused to turn over money despite a gun being pointed at them. Store clerks have fought back robbers with a gun or knife.
The principle remains intact. Free moral agents always act according to the strongest inclination they have at the moment of choice. Individuals always choose according to their inclinations. Often the choices that have to be made are complicated by rival emotions in the soul. Paul experienced this internal conflict when he wrote, “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. 20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 21 I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:19-24)
It seems that Paul is saying that it is possible for a person to choose against his wishes. However, in this passage, Paul is not delineating the process among the faculties of choosing. Rather, Paul is expressing something which all Christians experience, and that is the inward struggle with sin in the soul. Every sensitive Christian can say, “I have within me a desire to please Christ, but that desire does not always prevail because there is another desire I have in my heart which is contrary to the known will of God. In all honesty, I chose to let that ungodly desire prevail.”
If a Christian were to be asked, “Would you like to be free from sin?” The answer would be, “Of course!” However, in the moment of truth, when the will to sin is exercised, there is surrender to that which one should not do. Freely this surrender is made.
When John Calvin thought about free will, he made this observation. If by free will we mean that fallen man has the ability to choose what he wants, then of course, fallen man has free will. If we mean by that term that man in his fallen state has the moral power and ability to choose righteousness, then free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to fallen man.
Dr. R. C. Sproul offered his own observation about free will by teaching that every choice which a person makes is free. And, every choice that is made is determined. Every choice is free, and every choice is determined. Some may argue that something which is free cannot be determined, and something that is determined cannot be free. There is an apparent contradiction in this position. If something is determined by something else, then it is caused by something else, which indicates it could not possibly be free. However, what is being spoken of is not determinism. Determinism means that something happens based strictly on external forces.
What is being argued is that in addition to external factors that affect our choices, there are internal factors as well. What is being said is that if my choices flow out of my disposition, and out of my desires, and if my actions are an effect that have causes and reasons behind them, then my personal desire, in a very real sense, determines my personal choice.
Now, if my desires determine my choice, how can I be free? Remember, we have said that In every choice we make, our choice is both free, and determined. But what determine my choice, is me. This is called self-determination. Self-determination is not the denial of freedom, but is the essence of freedom. Self, being able to determine its own choices, is what free will is all about.
Not only may we choose according to our own desires, we do choose, indeed we must choose according to the strongest inclination at the moment on our will. That is the essence of free will, to be able to choose what you want. The problem with the sinner, with the natural man, is not that the sinner in his fall is without a will to freely choose. The natural man still has a mind with which to think, desires or emotions to express, and a will to make choices. The will is still free to act according to its nature to do what the sinner wants it to do. But here is the problem.
The problem is in the root of the desires of the heart. Because of the fall there is a confirmed evil inclination to desire sin. Therefore the sinner sins. He cannot do anything else. He does not want to do anything else. The sinner wants to act according to his nature. Therefore they sin freely. An unbeliever rejects Christ because they want to reject Christ. They are not forced to reject Christ. They reject him freely.
Before a natural man can respond positively to Christ, and to the things of God, and choose Christ, and choose life, there must be a desire. Does fallen man retain any desire in his heart for God? The Biblical answer is that fallen man does not have any desire for God in his heart. The prophet Isaiah explains. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 51:6)
One other point needs to be noted. Jonathan Edwards made a distinction between man’s moral ability, and man’s natural ability. Natural ability refers to the abilities individuals have by nature. As a human being a person has the natural ability to think, to speak, to make choices. A person can walk upright, or run. A person does not have the natural ability to fly in the air as a bird has such natural ability. Fish can live in water, naturally. Man cannot. There are limitations to man’s natural abilities.
Moral ability refers to the ability to be righteous. Man was created with the ability to be righteous. For a period of time he was righteous. He obeyed the Lord. He did not eat of the forbidden fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. He walked with the Lord each evening in the cool of the day. Man was created with the ability to be righteous, or sinful. He had freedom to disobey the Lord. One day, man freely chose to exercise his will to sin. The moment that free choice was made, man fell. Something dreadful happened to his soul. Man lost his ability to be morally perfect and wholly righteous. The law of sin and death reached forth to capture man’s body and soul, and that of his posterity. “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) Theologians call this original sin referring to a sin nature, which makes it impossible for a person, by nature, to achieve perfection in this world. Fallen man still has a mind, desires, and a will to make choices. What he lacks is the inclination toward God.
When Jonathan Edwards made a distinction between man’s natural ability, and his moral ability, he reflected a distinction Augustine had made centuries ago. Augustine said that man had a free will, but what man lost in the fall was liberty. The Bible speaks of man being in bondage to sin. Those who are in bondage to sin have lost some facet of their moral liberty to the point that their will is now freely inclined to evil, and disinclined to righteousness. There is none who does good, there is none who is righteous, there is none who seek after God. No, not one. Multitudes seek after a god of their own imagination, but none seek after the God of revelation.
Jesus taught that the fruit of a tree comes from the nature of the tree. The fruit of man comes from his nature, and his nature is in bondage to sin. Righteous fruit does not come from a corrupt tree. There is something wrong inside the heart of man where our inclinations, our desires reside.
The conclusion is that while man’s fallenness does not eliminate man’s choosing it does eliminate the full scope of his ability to choose God. God must come and free the soul that is in bondage to sin so that at the point of gospel hearing the heart can once more believe God, believe in Christ, and live. Every person must be born again in order to be set free from the law of sin and death. The Holy Spirit must give a person the power to become a child of God. “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.” (1 John 3:1)