Human freedom, or “free will” is a subject that we need to discuss with clarity and precision. In these discussions it is important to determine the nature and extent of human freedom. When most people talk about “free will” they have in mind the idea of uninfluenced, absolutely unaffected choices. No one has this type of freedom, no one.

For an absurd example, if I decided I wanted to fly, I could not. Flying is not part of my essential nature. A moral example, God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). God is always perfectly true and cannot be less than God, and therefore cannot lie.

The idea of “absolute freedom” is a myth and absolutely impossible.

“Free Will”- Philosophical and Theological Considerations

Philosophically speaking, if humans had the absolute power to the contrary, we could thwart the plans of God, and we cannot (Job 42:2). Therefore, we need to be precise when we talk about human “freedom.”

“Free will” is a philosophical term (not a biblical term), and affirming the idea of absolute “free will” in humanity is very difficult to defend. The term “free will” is often unnecessarily confusing and requires too many qualifications.  Human freedom, in the absolute sense, must entail that human choices are entirely free from divine constraint or influence. This is problematic on many levels.

We are free, in a certain sense, but not absolutely. Any notion of freedom that we adopt must include the idea that our decisions are based on underlying reasons, and I think most of us would affirm that they are.

We are, as Wayne Grudem states, free to “make willing choices, choices that have real effects.” But this should not be confused with absolute freedom. As Christians we affirm that God ordains all things- everything. See Isaiah 46, “I will accomplish all my purpose.”

John Frame provides some good discussion boundaries in his article “Determinism, Chance, and Freedom.”

Basic human intuition reveals that we choose among various alternatives, but it never reveals to us that any of our choices are absolutely uncaused. In fact, Scripture contradicts this notion of “absolute freedom”, by ascribing divine backing to human decisions (Exod. 34:24, Is. 44:28, Dan. 1:9, John 19:24, Acts 13:48, 16:14), even when humans make sinful choices, God is not surprised (Gen. 45:5-8, Ps. 105:24, Luke 22:22, Acts 2:23-24, 3:18, 4:27-28, Rom. 9:17). But, this does not eliminate human responsibility.

Also, Scripture also contradicts “absolute freedom” by teaching that human decisions come from ones inner desires (Luke 6:45), and by teaching that the human heart is not free from God’s influence (Ps. 33:15, Prov. 21:1).

Finally, In Scripture, the basis of human responsibility is not absolute freedom, but God’s sovereign right to evaluate the conduct of his creatures (Rom. 9:19-21), and the knowledge (Luke 12:47-48, Rom. 1:18-32) and resources (Matt. 25:14-29) God has given to each person shows that in Scripture there is an important relation between responsibility and ability, but the abilities in view here do not include the absolute ability to choose opposite courses of action.

I agree with Martin Luther here; “I wish the word “free will” had never been invented. It is not in the Scriptures, and it were better to call it “self-will” [In my opinion, human volition, or human responsibility, anything other than free will].

“Freedom”- Towards Clarity

I think Don Carson makes some important points to affirm when talking about human freedom.

First, “human freedom cannot involve absolute power to the contrary; that is, it cannot include such liberal power that God himself becomes contingent.” To affirm absolute freedom one must also agree that God is always reacting to the actions of humans in order to fulfill his purposes. Even more so, it means that God cannot know in advance what free choices human beings would make. This is heretical.

Secondly, human freedom must be discussed in relation to the fall of mankind. Our wills are not truly free because they are enslaved by sin (John 8:34). Therefore, true freedom is only found in perfect obedience to God. Perfect obedience is not possible by sinful humanity, yet was accomplished by Christ. This is why we believe true freedom is found in Christ, and in Christ alone. Anthony Hoekema put it like this;

“Man’s true freedom, which he lost in the Fall, is restored in the process of redemption. [I take this to mean that total freedom, to be obedient to God, will ultimately be restored in the resurrection body] When the Holy Spirit regenerates a person, renews the image of God in him or her, and begins in him or her the work of sanctification, that person is enabled to turn to God in repentance and faith, and to do what is truly pleasing in God’s sight…Redemption therefore means deliverance from the bondage of the will; the regenerated person is no longer a slave to sin.”

For more, here is an excellent post on “Free Will” by John Piper.

7 thoughts on “Thoughts and Cautions on using the term “Free Will”.

  1. I must say that scripture is clear that God chooses man as indicated in Romans chapter 9 and Ephesians chapter 1; however, I differ with the view that is made at the end, “the regenerated person is no longer a slave to sin.” I feel that we, as Christians, are slaves to sin until that time when we leave this earth. Speaking for myself, time and time again, I have been enslaved by sin. How do you explain someone that has a focus on God/wants to do God’s will, but continually fails to conquer certain sins? Do you believe that people can lose their faith? If so, how can anyone really know they are saved?

  2. Brian,

    Good question. I want you to go study Romans 6 to get your answer.

    Let me say one thing. As Christians we are still sinners, and we still sin. Our salvation is not based on our ability to conquer sin; our salvation is based on Christ’s perfect righteousness. When we repent of sin and place our faith in Him, his righteousness is imputed to us. We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone.

    If you are basing your salvation on how obedient you are, you will never feel secure in your salvation (again, our salvation is not based on our obedience).

    In fact, the more you grow in your understanding of the gospel; to more sinful you realize you are. When you begin to grasp God’s grace in forgiving you, it is then that you desire to please him. It’s not the other way around- “I please God, He shows me grace.” Never. It’s “God has shown me grace, therefore I desire to please him.” And this is only accomplished through Christ, and through the power of His Spirit.

    Again, go study Romans 6.

  3. Matt,

    When “free will” people talk about free will, I don’t think they are talking about something that makes God contingent on human action and unable to know all things perfectly. I’m pretty sure they would bring up God’s knowledge of all possible choices that a person is free to make and his knowledge of which that person will actually make. I don’t know that much about Molinism but I think that’s the gist of it.

    Even outside of Molinism, when people talk about free will don’t they just mean the freedom to choose the contrary? I never understood it to mean a totally uninfluenced choice. Non-reformed people still believe in the sin nature and know that it affects how we choose, but even in sin we have the freedom to choose Burger King or Taco Bell, rob a store or not, kill or don’t. That I cannot fly even if I want to does not mean that I do not have free will; freedom to choose only applies to logical possibilities… so that God cannot make square circles doesn’t mean he isn’t free.

    I read How Long, O Lord for Dr. Little (I guess that’s when you did too?) and I wasn’t a huge fan. To affirm human freedom does not mean God is necessarily contingent; if you make that claim you assume that God did not intend for humans to make free choices. It seems that from the beginning the plan was for humans to make free choices (not free from any influences, but free in that Adam really could have eaten OR not eaten). I don’t see how we can get around that from the Scripture…

    1. Ryan,
      The problem that I think you are overlooking is when someone suggests that we sinners possess the ability to not sin apart from God’s grace. Sinners are enslaved to sin so that they are not able, apart from God’s grace, to do the contrary: obey God, love God, submit to God, or delight in God.
      We sinners are not like Adam. He was able not to sin. He possessed a freedom that has been lost since the fall. We are not able not to sin.
      This means we always sin, even when we do good, unless God shows us grace. Here is the difference between Reformed and Arminian thinkers. Many Arminians argue that God has given grace to all people to return them to the state that Adam was in whereby we are again able not to sin. Thus, Arminians are able to deny the effects of original sin by standing on universal or prevenient grace. The problem I have with the position is that nowhere in Scripture do we see any mention or assumption that God gives grace to all people in this way. Thus, we must accept the clear teaching of Scripture that we do not possess the power to do good, which is why we need to be born again.
      That is the real issue when it comes to freedom, is it not?

  4. Ryan,

    Good thoughts. That’s why I used the term ‘absolute free will’ in the post. It seems to me that most people assume we need to be absolutely free in order to have “choice”, so I was attempting to bring clarity to the conversation.

  5. PS, what do you think about Akin/Mohler on infant salvation?

    An article was just re-posted on Between the Times outlining their position…

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