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