Free Will
The Human Will, Free and Bound

God has given human beings free will, the ability to make authentic choices without coercion.  But this does not mean that the human will has not been radically impacted by evil.

First, I believe that it is very basic to a Christian understanding of human nature that we affirm that humankind is not absolutely, biologically determined.

Back in the sixties I took a course called Physiological Psychology and Neurology; much of the focus of our texts was to the effect that human behavior is mechanistically determined. If that is the case, if our universe is some kind of glorified Skinner Box, then humankind has no free will and cannot make authentic choices. That being the case, the push must be toward chemical and biological intervention with the human species: psychotropic drugs, not psychoanalysis; DNA manipulation, rather than moral suasion; brain washing, instead of education. That being the case, the solutions to problems such as crime and violence, lie in a comprehensive reshaping of our environment. If human behavior is biologically determined, then the answer lies in a global government that exercises totalitarian control over every aspect of life.

Curiously, the most basic quest of atheism, human autonomy, must be lost. The greater ones belief in materialism, the greater control some human authority must exercise over the mass of humanity. Perversely, the eschatological hope of atheism does not lie in the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21), but in the most minuscule control of the individual by the most absolute and all encompassing decree of the State, a state not limited by nationalistic boundaries, but truly global.

Man at his most human produces not a “kinder and gentler” “New World Order,” but a ferocious Beast. This is the true meaning of 666: “This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six.” (Revelation 13:18) The thirteenth chapter of the Apocalypse is full of irony. The meaning of the mysterious number, 666, is not some obscure thing, such as calculating the numeric value of the Hebrew letters “Neron Qasar” (Nero Caesar), or Roman Kingdom, Lateinos, in Greek letters. As with the rest of the book, the key is found in the passage itself: “It is the number of Man.” The irony is that when Man, as the measure of all things, creates an order without God, what arises from the sea is a “beast that” is “like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.” So powerful and totalitarian is his crushing might that humankind cries: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Revelation 13:1-4)

I know that I have gone off on a tangent from free will, but I think that it helps underscore the importance of maintaining the doctrine. I believe that humankind is endowed with free will as over against biological, materialistic, determinism. I think that is essential to people’s making authentic choices and to our being responsible for our actions.

I also believe that it is important to assert free will vis-à-vis the Sovereignty of God and predestination: God’s will is done in history, yet people act as free moral agents, doing what they choose, without God’s forcing his will on them.

“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, § III, i)

I find the above paragraph thoroughly biblical; it asserts God’s absolute sovereignty, while affirming that certain seemingly incongruous doctrines are also true: 1. God is not the author of sin; 2. God does not force his will on his creatures; 3. God’s foreordination includes not only the end result, but also all of the means to that end. Biblical predestination is never fatalistic.

Let me expand on those ideas. First, God never sins, nor is he the author of it. The events surrounding the death of the Lord Jesus illustrate not only that God is not the author of sin, but also that God’s will is done in history without his violating people’s free will.

“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” (Acts 4:27, 28)

Herod, Pilate, the Jews and the Gentiles acted against the Lord Jesus. Each acted according to his own nature, each freely chose his course of action. They did what they wanted to do. God did not violate their wills nor force them to do what they did. What they did was the ultimate act of evil in history: Man killed him who is God and man, in his human nature, on the cross, theocide.

Yet, mysteriously, they did exactly what God ordained to happen before the foundation of the world: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) The Lord Jesus is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8) “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son . . .” (John 3:16) This same action, the execution of the Lord Jesus, is God’s greatest act of goodness, kindness and righteousness. He is the author of it. It is the fulfillment of his plan.

So God is the author of the historical incident; it is the carrying out of his eternal decree. As a divine act, it is the supremely good act. At the same time human beings are involved; it is their act, and they sinned. I do not profess to know how such things can be, only to know that such things can be. I will state the mystery; I cannot explain it away. Man is not a puppet on a divine string, an automaton without free will. Yet man fulfills the divine purpose in history, a purpose that extends to the most minute things: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” (Matthew 10:29)

Finally, God’s sovereignty does not rule out second causes. Muslim predestination, as I have studied it, is fatalistic; biblical predestination is not. If I do not pray, God’s will will not be done on earth as it is in heaven. If I do not share the gospel with others, God’s elect will not be saved: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” (2 Timothy 2:10).

From the divine perspective, both are secured in God’s eternal decree. From the human perspective, it seems so different. There is this popular caricature of a Calvinist as a person who doesn’t really pray and who doesn’t burden himself with evangelism. But a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty will never lead a person to such inaction.

While God is absolutely sovereign, and history is simply the unfolding of his eternal decree, God nevertheless presents himself as changing his mind in response to the intercession of his people. ‘“Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “O LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? . . . Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.’ (Exodus 32:10-14) “So the LORD changed His mind (from the root, NCHM, “be sorry, repent”) about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” (NASB)

Ernest prayer is demanded because spiritual warfare is real. Consider Paul’s words: “For we wanted to come to you -- certainly I, Paul, did, again and again -- but Satan stopped us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:18) “For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.” (1 Thessalonians 3:5)
Daniel’s experience is similar; God hears and answers Daniel’s prayer on the very day that he prayed. Yet because of demonic opposition, it takes three weeks for the answer to come to Daniel: ‘Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.’ (Daniel 10:12, 13) But what would have happened had Daniel not persevered in prayer?

There were times when the power of the Lord was present (Luke 5:17) and times when that was not the case. In Nazareth, for example, Jesus “could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” (Mark 6:5)

Within the sphere of his absolute sovereignty and freedom, consistent with his own holy character, God has often chosen to limit himself by human beings’ lack of faith, even though that very faith itself is God’s own work.

If Jesus was unable to do any significant healing miracles in Nazareth because of human unbelief (Matthew 13:58 and Mark 6:6), how much more necessary is it for us to pray with faith and expectation?

Yet all of this human drama is the unfolding of an eternal, immutable decree. Consider the book of Job. At a certain level, everything that happens can be explained by natural phenomena: there were robbers, lightning, mercenaries and a windstorm in chapter one; in chapter two, there was this terrible disease. However, at another level of explanation, everything that happens is the result of the cosmic war between God and Satan, the insight of which is found only in the prologue and epilogue of the book. Yet, at another level of explanation, ultimately, all is simply the unfolding of the divine plan: “They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the LORD had brought upon him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring.” (Job 42:11)

How is the human will not free? All Christians accept some version of the doctrine of original sin. We all believe that Adam’s act of disobedience affected more than simply himself.

I believe that the Bible teaches that humankind was radically affected by the fall and that every facet of human nature has been impacted by sin. I affirm total depravity. By that I do not mean that I believe that a person is as bad as he can be, simply that no aspect of human existence is unaffected by the fall. All of us are contaminated by sin, not only morally, but volitionally, emotionally and intellectually as well. That is that to which the word “total” refers in “total depravity.”

In the fall, humankind did not simply lose a gift of original righteousness or super-added grace (donum superadditum), rather the image of God (imago Dei) was radically marred. Christian and non-Christian alike are created in the image of God, but, like a mirror that has been broken, we distort that image as a result of the fall.

The fall has affected all of our drives: “This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” (Ecclesiastes 7:29)

Consider the pattern of work and rest that was part of the original order at creation. Those good drives have become twisted into either sloth or sinful obsession with work. God created us with a desire and need for food, but we distort that into gluttony or anorexia. Or, take human sexuality as another example: God created the male different than the female, but we have distorted that difference into everything from adultery to homosexual acts. The original pattern of a male being perceptive to female openness, has been gnarled into the male’s “having eyes full of adultery” and being polygamous.

As an interesting aside, having counseled many homosexuals, I would submit that rather than their being a blend of the two genders, they are at the extreme ends. Homosexuals are notoriously promiscuous; this is the fallen, male sexual drive in its most masculine form. Whereas, every lesbian to whom I have ever ministered was pathologically connected to her partner by a “you and me against the world” attitude; that is a neurotic exaggeration of the female approach to sex which is not genitally centered, but relationship centered.

Intellectually, our species is not neutral and objective, we “suppress the truth by” our “wickedness.” (Romans 1:18) That is why we cannot “prove” the existence of God; people already have all the proof they need and repress the data.

Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (17:9)

The Apostle Paul’s words in the last part of Romans five are most instructive: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned (5:12) . . . the many died by the trespass of the one man, (5:15) . . . The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, (5:16) . . . by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, (5:17) . . . the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, (5:18) . . . through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners,” (5:19)

This means that even my good deeds are colored by the presence of sin that is in me. Isaiah put it this way, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” (64:6) The word translated in the NIV as “filthy rags” refers to cloth that has been contaminated by organic, human waste, something odious and repulsive, something that under the ceremonial code of the Old Testament was defiling. That does not mean that people cannot do morally correct deeds; it means that we never act without the contaminating influence of sin affecting what we do. The implications of Isaiah’s words are obvious: not only my sins, but my “righteous acts” as well have no saving merit before God. I need the blood and righteousness of the Lord Jesus, not only for my sins, but so that my good deeds might truly be good in the sight of God. So an aspect of total depravity is the concept of total inability, meaning that we are unable to please God by our unaided human efforts and that we are unable to come to God apart from his grace drawing us.

When it comes to our response to the gospel invitation, all Christians affirm that grace must precede our response. That is the Roman Catholic position, as well as that of the Orthodox, Lutherans, Arminians and Calvinists.

Saint Paul said, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions -- it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:1-5)

Our Lord said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:44)

In the biblical understanding of that prevenient grace is the affirmation that with regard to the elect there is a grace that always accomplishes its purpose: “All that the Father gives me will come to me . . . ..” (John 6:37)

Bob Vincent