Free will is a topic of perpetual conversation in Christian circles. How should we think about it? Five points:
1. A cultural love affair with human autonomy
The first thing to be said about free will is that our culture (even the small subset called Christian culture) celebrates with undeniable joy the idea of human autonomy. Look at the primary argument from abortion’s pro-choice side: It is the woman’s right to choose what she will do with her own body. In other words, a woman is free to do as she sees fit, and no one can tell her otherwise because she is her own final authority in these matters. Human autonomy, literally “self-law,” is the supreme idol of our culture.
From a popular Christian point of view, autonomous human freedom is central because: 1) without free will we are robots and can’t be held responsible for our actions; 2) God gave us freedom because He wanted to be in relationship with us, so we must be free because love itself is something that must be freely chosen. In other words, love is not genuine unless it comes as a result of free choice.
But are these notions true? Does the Bible support this particular idea of free will?
I ask these questions to make sure that we are aware of our biases. If it’s true that we are prone to idolize human freedom, then clearly we must take great care when we talk about it. We cannot simply assume it is true because we like it or because our culture is so infatuated with it or even because the church we grew up in always taught it. No; we must consider the Scriptures for what God has to say. While it is impossible to completely remove our biases altogether, awareness of them will help us as we search the Scriptures.
2. A word about “starting points”
Speaking of the Scriptures, let’s talk about what has priority in our discussion. What should be the first thing we look to when we talk or think about the idea of free will? My answer is that we should start with the Word of God, the Bible. As Creator of the universe, God has every right tell us how He made us, his creatures. And since He has seen fit to speak to us about these matters, his Word functions as the starting point for our conversation. Starting with Scripture over against our experience will have a profound impact on this discussion.
3. The freedom of indifference?
As a preface, talk about free will is usually made more difficult because seldom does anyone define what is meant by “free will.” Here’s a definition of the kind of freedom that most people think about in this discussion: Libertarian freedom is defined as the ability, all things considered given a set of circumstances, to choose either A or not-A, apart from any sufficient power, either external or internal, to compel the will in either direction. This idea is often called “contrary choice” or the “freedom of indifference.”
The most obvious place this definition of freedom is found is in conversion: Upon hearing the gospel, a person is free to either choose A (accept Christ) or not-A (reject Christ). The person has equal power to choose to accept or reject Christ.
While this view may be appealing to most, it is riddled with problems. First, it presupposes that a person who hears the gospel is morally neutral. The person is a blank slate and has equal power to choose one option over the other. But passages like John 6:44, 65; John 8:34; Romans 1:30; Romans 3:10, 12; Romans 8:7-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 4:4, and Ephesians 2:1-3 each give a unique insight into the human situation in its natural state after the Fall: we are “unable to come to God,” “slaves of sin,” “haters of God,” not good or righteous, “hostile to God” and “unable to submit to his law,” “unable to comprehend the things of the Spirit of God,” “blinded by Satan to the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” and “dead in trespasses and sins.” Given the biblical data, we are not morally neutral from the start; rather, we rebel against God because, like David, we were “conceived in sin” (Psalm 51:5) and “go astray from the womb” (Psalm 58:3).
Second, this view presupposes a power of choice which has no connection with desire. In any given circumstance the set of reasons for each choice must have identical explanatory power, which means there is no choice-specific reason or set of reasons to explain why the subject made choice A rather than choice not-A, or vice versa. Thus, the popular view of human freedom implies that there is no sufficient reason anyone chooses anything they choose. Every choice is merely arbitrary, nothing more than sophisticated indifference.
Every choice is reduced to indifference because the set of reasons for any choice has the exact same explanatory power as the others. Let me illustrate it this way: A man has libertarian freedom. This man robs you and holds you at gun point. Does he decide to pull the trigger? At the moment of choosing, the man can do two things: A (pull the trigger) or not-A (not pull the trigger). According to libertarian freedom, all things considered just as they are, the man must have equal power to choose either A or not-A. This means that the set of reasons for choosing A must be equally as powerful as choosing not-A. So if he decides to pull the trigger and kill you, he must have had the exact same ability to have not pulled the trigger, sparing your life. This means that the man had no reason to choose A over not-A; the choices and their reasons were equally appealing and powerful to him, and therefore his choice to pull the trigger is nothing more than a whim. Sophisticated indifference with a murder weapon.
4. The freedom of inclination
It seems the popular version of freedom held by many Christians falls short biblically and philosophically. Given that, how should we think about human freedom? Let me give a definition of a different, more biblical, kind of creaturely freedom: Compatibilistic freedom is defined as the ability to choose according to what we most desire to do. This is often called the “freedom of inclination” because of the connection between will and desire.
What this means for our discussion is this: It is our will that moves us, but our desires determine which direction we move in. Jesus put it this way: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of his heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). So, for Jesus, the will is the servant of the heart; whatever is the heart’s supreme desire at the moment of choice is what the will chooses to do.
This idea is very different than libertarian freedom which asserts no connection whatsoever between the will and desire. For the libertarian view, there cannot, by definition, be anything which sufficiently compels a choice, not even the internal desires of the moral agent. To illustrate, this means that when someone chooses to accept Christ, under the libertarian idea of freedom, their own desire did not compel them to choose Christ; indeed, it could not. They chose to accept Christ not because it was their heart’s desire, nor out of a genuine love for Christ, but simply because it’s what their will just happened to choose in that moment. Desire in itself did not compel them to choose Christ, because if it did it would have violated their libertarian freedom.
5. Freedom and responsibility
If that sounds strange or even repugnant to you, know that you are in good company. I close by adding one more block of wood to the fire. One major objection in this discussion is that creatures cannot be held responsible for their actions unless they have libertarian freedom. But given what we’ve seen, the opposite is actually the case.
Under the libertarian view, there is no sufficient reason that one choice is made over another. So if you ask someone why they chose the way they did in any given circumstance, they cannot appeal to their desires or to any external constraints. For the libertarian, their choice is one of mere indifference.
How are we to hold anyone morally responsible for their actions if there is no reason they do what they do? It makes more sense that we hold people accountable for their actions because actions are manifestations of desires. People do what they do because they want to do it. That is why we hold people responsible in the first place. The compatibilistic view of freedom not only upholds genuine human freedom and responsibility, but also the sovereignty of God. (See “Five Points on the Sovereignty of God”)
Thanks for reading. Have any additional thoughts? Leave a comment below if you feel so inclined.