Friday, November 4, 2011

On Free Will

I have been asked many times whether I think the Bible teaches that God is completely sovereign or if it teaches that people have free will. I usually respond that the Bible teaches both. That answer usually frustrates people. Most people recognize that if the Bible is truly God’s word it cannot contain real contradictions and they therefore conclude that it has to teach either one or the other. How, they ask, could God be just in holding people accountable for actions that He ultimately planned or determined?

Many assume that God being in control of all things and people being truly free are incompatible. As Christians, however, we believe that the Bible is true and it is the Bible that is our ultimate authority. The Bible clearly teaches that God is completely sovereign and in control. It also teaches that people are responsible for their actions and that God will hold them accountable for what they do. The logical compatibility of those truths is therefore a necessity for a rationally coherent Biblical theology.

The Bible simply asserts and assumes these truths as facts and does not explain the details of how they can be logically reconciled so various theologians have offered potential solutions. The best attempt I have read is Jonathan Edwards work The Freedom of the Will. Edwards explained that all choices were both determined and free. His observations and insights into the nature of willing allows for a logically consistent compatibilism between divine sovereignty and moral accountability. Since this issue has come up a couple of times in recent conversation and since Edwards’ writing is fairly dense philosophical and theological argument I thought it might be helpful to summarize some of the key points that he makes.

Most people think of free will as the ability to make alternative choices in such a way that the will is neutral and can make a choice either for or against any particular alternative. Edwards, however, shows that the will never has this kind of freedom. He points out that “will” is not so much a noun as it is a verb. The will is not a thing but it is rather the mind choosing. He then examines the basis upon which the mind makes choices. He demonstrates that a mind will choose (or will) that which is the greatest desire acting upon it at the time of the choice. This is very important because it implies that the will is never neutral. There is always a reason why a choice is made. A particular mind cannot choose against its own desires. A mind cannot want to not do what it most wants to do at the same time.

Someone may object and point out that people often do things they do not want to do. The reality is, however, that what people choose to do is in fact what it is they wanted to do at the moment they made the choice. For example, I have met many alcoholics who hate their addiction. They genuinely do not want to continue with that lifestyle. The fact is, however, that at the moment that they decide to pick up the bottle their desire for that short term pleasure is greater than their desire to refrain from drinking. They may seriously regret it later but in that moment the thing they most wanted to do was to take a drink. Although those desires may be so strong that one could say they were not free the fact is that they were choosing according to their own desire. Another example is if your boss asked you to do something that you absolutely did not want to do but you ended up doing it anyway. Even though everything in you might have been resistant to doing what you were asked, if you do it, it is still true that your greatest desire at that moment was to comply. At that moment your desire to keep your job or not have a problem with your boss was greater than your desire to resist. Even though it may not be a choice you would have made in other circumstances, all things being considered, it is what you wanted to do.

The will is therefore always determined by the greatest desires acting upon it at the moment of the choice. This means that every choice is determined by our nature and character. Edwards, however, also argues that our wills are indeed free. They are not free with regard to the power of contrary choice as so many people assume but they are truly free in that they do what it is they wish to do. His point is that so long as a person is not forced to do something against their will or is not restrained from doing something they willed to do then their actions freely proceed from them and so they are justly held responsible for them. Edwards argues that if you do what you want to do then your choices are free even if what you did was what God planned for you to do and you are still justly responsible because they were choices that came unimpeded from your own desires. 

By demonstrating that choices can be both free and also determined Edwards lays a logical philosophical foundation for understanding how to reconcile the Bible’s assertion that God is sovereign and also its assertion that He also holds people accountable for their actions. This view of freedom does not require that people have an equal ability to actualize multiple future realities in order to be free. If God works through beings according to their natures He can determine what will happen without overruling the ability of creatures to choose that which they wish to do. If the actions of those creatures are expressions of their own desires then they are justly held morally accountable for them even if they could not have done otherwise.

The objections to divine sovereignty tend to flow not from Biblical passages that teach that people possess the power of contrary choice (there aren’t any) but rather from a question about God’s justice in holding people accountable for choices that they were certain to make. Edwards’ argument provides a logically consistent explanation that fits with the two plain assertions of the scripture (God’s sovereignty & man’s responsibility). Much ink has been spilled on this subject but Edwards’ argument remains the most compelling work on the subject that I have read. Obviously the summary above barely scratches the surface of the overall argument. If you are interested in reading the entire thing you can get a free copy HERE


  1. Funny, I recently had a conversation with a friend who is a professed Roman Catholic. The first time I responded to an article he sent me I wasn't too kind. I apologize then I read another he sent. I was able to control myself a little better the second time around.

    The way I see it the will is never free, which I think is what J. Edwards was getting at according to your article. And it is the term free that's at the heart of the argument.

    Thanks for the article Pastor K.G. I'll be posting this one to my site for my friend to read.

  2. Although the Catholic Church has rejected the kind of logic that Edwards uses you can find similar arguments in some of the teachers within the Catholic tradition. Although the Bible is always the best reference sometimes Catholics are interested to read some of the work of Augustine or even Aquinas on these subjects. My experience is that they are usually quite amazed at what those teachers have to say if they take the time to look into it.