Jonathan Edwards is perhaps the greatest theologian to ever grace the United States of America. His work Freedom of the Will stands near the pinnacle of theological and philosophical thought produced by the Christian church in its entire history. A work of magisterial quality and penetrating depth, Freedom of the Will provides a devastating critique of Arminianism’s view of human freedom and posits a more philosophically, theologically, and biblically consistent view of human freedom. This paper seeks to analyze and assess the major arguments of Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will. To that end, this work begins by providing definitions for several important terms and will then move forward by way of an extensive discussion of Edwards’s thought on such concepts as moral inability, human freedom, and moral agency. The paper concludes by exploring a number of theological implications.
Theological and Philosophical Context
Jonathan Edwards did not write Freedom of the Will in a theological or philosophical vacuum, and therefore it is both necessary and helpful to understand something of the theological and philosophical context in which the treatise was produced. Originally published in 1754, the work has as its primary target the theological system known as Arminianism, focusing especially on its view of human freedom. For the classical Arminian, the human will is free in the libertarian sense. That is, in Edwards’s own words, human freedom or liberty “consists in a self-determining power in the will, or a certain sovereignty the will has over itself, and its own acts, whereby it determines its own volitions; so as not to be dependent in its determinations, on any cause without itself, nor determined by anything prior to its own acts.” To put it another way, the human will, for the classical Arminian, is not constrained or determined by any power outside itself whatsoever; it is self-determining. As two contemporary Arminian scholars argue, “the essence of this view is that a free action is one that does not have a sufficient condition or cause prior to its occurrence.” In sum, nothing outside of the human will, not God or nature, not even the human intellect or affections, can constrain or determine the will sufficiently such that it necessarily acts in a certain way. This view of human free will is also referred to as the “liberty of indifference” since the will is completely disconnected from the affections. That is, not even the human affections have the power to sufficiently induce the will one way or another. Edwards considers and answers this particular view in Part II of Freedom of the Will.
Furthermore, classical Arminians argue that the idea of moral responsibility depends upon a libertarian view of human freedom. If humans are to be held morally responsible for their actions, the argument goes, they must be free in the libertarian sense. Those who hold to this position assert that “praise for the goodness and blame for the badness of an action are appropriate only if the will be free with a freedom of indifference.” In this way, classical Arminians seek to respect both the genuine freedom and integrity of human persons and the character of God. Oftentimes the argument is put this way: If humans are not free in the libertarian sense or if they are coerced to necessarily act in any way by any power outside of their own will, they should not be held morally responsible for that action. Further, it would be unfair of God to impinge upon this human freedom and integrity and to hold people responsible for their consequent actions. Edwards considers and answers this particular view in Part III of Freedom of the Will.
What motivated Edwards to write on the Freedom of the Will? In his own words,
The subject is of such importance, as to demand attention, and the most thorough consideration. Of all kinds of knowledge that we can ever obtain, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are the most important….The knowledge of ourselves consists chiefly in right apprehensions concerning those two chief faculties of our nature, the understanding and will. Both are very important: yet the science of the latter must be confessed to be of greatest moment; inasmuch as all virtue and religion have their seat more immediately in the will….And the grand question about the Freedom of the Will, is the main point that belongs to the science of the Will. Therefore, I say, the importance of the subject greatly demands the attention of Christians.
As one author helpfully summarizes: a right understanding of the freedom of “the will is at the very center of a proper knowledge of humanity, God, and religion, or humanity’s relationship to God. Consequently [Edwards] engaged the Arminian controversy…because he thought these issues to be central ‘to the great business for which we were created.’” After coming to a sufficient understanding of the theological context in which Edwards wrote as well as his own primary motivation for writing, one can now explore the substantive arguments which Edwards makes in his treatise.
Definitions and Key Terms
Edwards begins Part I of Freedom of the Will by defining important terms for the ensuing discussion. He first defines the will simply as “that by which the mind chooses anything.” Yet the will is best conceived of as more of a process than a faculty, since “an act of the will is the same as an act of choosing or choice.” This means that the will, for Edwards, is not an autonomously functioning element of a human person; rather, the will is that process by which a human person chooses to do one thing rather than another. Any act of volition or choice is an exercise of the will. But an important concept to be noted here is that Edwards posits an intimate relationship between the will and the desires, which he elsewhere calls inclinations. The will does not operate separately or apart from the desires, nor can it be said that a human person ever wills what is contrary to what he or she desires. The will and the desires, for Edwards, are not quite the same thing, but they cannot be sharply distinguished and never run counter to one another. For him, the connection is this: the chief human desire, in the precise moment of choice, determines the human will. That is to say, “the will always is as the greatest apparent good, or as what appears most agreeable…the will is determined by the greatest apparent good, or by what seems most agreeable.”
This view of human freedom depends upon an important constituent in Edwards’s overall theological program: necessitarian dispositionalism. The idea is that “the essence of all being—even that of God—[consists] in disposition or habit.” In a profound sense, “human beings are guided and shaped above all by their affections….Our loves or affections are the truest indicators of who we are.” Fundamentally, the disposition of a person, which is made up of a person’s inclinations and desires, demonstrates the moral essence of that person. The connection between this and the human will is that a human person always follows “their own tastes or inclinations,” their own disposition.
Edwards moves the discussion along by defining necessity in this way: “a thing is…said to be necessary, when it must be, and cannot be otherwise.” When this definition of necessity is applied to the preceding discussion, one can see that the resulting conclusion is as follows: the human will necessarily follows the disposition of the human person. That is, the will must always choose the highest apparent good and cannot do anything but choose the highest apparent good as it appears in the moment of each choice. The highest perceived desire determines what the human will does.
This concept lays the groundwork for the distinction between natural and moral necessity. As Edwards argues, natural necessity is “such necessity as men are under through the force of natural causes; as distinguished from what are called moral causes, such as habits and dispositions of the heart, and moral motives and inducements.” Edwards lists a few examples to help the reader understand his point: “[humans] feel pain when their bodies are wounded; they see objects presented before them in a clear light, when their eyes are opened….[Their] bodies move downwards, when there is nothing to support them.” These examples demonstrate natural necessity in that natural forces are the cause of the effect and in the fact that human persons have no choice, in the proper sense, over what takes place in nature. Heat from nature when applied outwardly to the human body necessarily produces the effect of pain on the human body. And this occurs with no reference at all to human willing or desire. Thus, it is natural necessity.
But there is another kind of necessity which bears much import for this discussion. Moral necessity is “that necessity of connection and consequence, which arises from such moral causes, as the strength of inclination, or motives, and the connection which there is in many cases between these, and such certain volitions and actions.” For Edwards, the highest apparent good necessarily determines all acts of the will, which consequently means that all acts of the will are morally necessary. That is, to put it in Edwards’s own words, “there may be such a thing as a sure and perfect connection between moral causes and effects.” This sure and perfect connection between moral causes and effects renders certain actions necessary in that it could not have been otherwise than for a moral agent to have acted in that way. In sum, moral necessity is the concept that a moral agent necessarily acts according to his or her strongest inclination in the moment of choice.
This discussion leads into perhaps the most profound insight Edwards offers on this topic, that of moral inability. Since a moral agent is bound to choose what appears as the highest good in the moment of choice, it follows logically that the moral agent could not have chosen any other, lesser good. Edwards says it this way: moral inability consists in “either the want of inclination; or the strength of a contrary inclination.” That is, a moral agent has no ability to will to do what they do not most desire. They either lack the inclination to will a certain thing and therefore cannot do that thing; or some stronger desire overwhelms weaker desires and therefore the moral agent has no moral ability to choose the weaker desires. This complicated concept is demonstrated by the following example: “a child of great love and duty to his parents, may be unable to be willing to kill his father.” The child perhaps has the natural or physical ability to kill his father, but since he does not desire to kill his father, he cannot will to kill his father. This is what Edwards has in mind when he refers to moral inability.
To summarize everything that has been said so far, the human will is that by which the mind chooses one action rather than another. The will does not function autonomously but necessarily chooses the highest apparent good. Moral necessity refers to a moral action willed by a moral agent which is necessarily determined by the strongest inclination at the time of choice. And moral inability denotes the incapacity to perform a certain moral action due to either the lack of inclination to perform that moral action or the presence of a stronger inclination to perform a different moral action. With this summary in mind, an examination of the nature of human freedom can proceed.
The Freedom of Humanity
What, then, is the nature of true freedom? For the Arminians, recall that true freedom consists in the liberty of indifference. That is, to be genuinely free means to have equal power, without sufficient cause, to choose one action rather than another. But for Edwards, true freedom is the ability to act in accordance with one’s own nature, to be able to choose the highest apparent good in the moment of choice. In Edwards’s mind, freedom has nothing at all to do with a self-determining will or choice; rather, true freedom consists in the ability of a moral agent to choose to act in concert with his or her disposition, inclinations, desires, and nature. To speak of such a thing as free will is perhaps misleading because freedom is a property which belongs to agents, not to the properties of agents such as the will or intellect. Thus, for Edwards, it is more accurate to refer to humankind as free moral agents, as long as “free” is considered in the proper sense of the word, rather than moral agents who have free will. A human person is free insofar as he or she can act in accordance with his or her own desires and inclinations. This understanding of freedom shows that Edwards preserves the genuine integrity of human freedom while at the same time laying a foundation for maintaining the reality of the biblical testimony of the drastic effects which sin has upon the entirety of the human nature, including the will.
Two further points might be helpful here to illustrate Edwards’s argument. One objection to his point is that humans are not truly free unless they have the equal ability or power to choose one action rather than another. To answer that objection, Edwards asks this question: “when will humans be most free?” The answer, of course, is that humans will be most free in the glorified state. As one author helpfully points out, final “salvation restores us to our intended role and enables us to do what we were created to do and to be what we were created to be. In heaven, in our glorified state and entirely without our sinful nature, we will be fully who we were intended to be, even though we will not be able to choose to sin or not sin.” Not only will glorified humans be free to enjoy and glorify God forever, thereby fulfilling their intended purpose in creation, they will also be free from the effects and power of sin. In the glorified state, humans will not have the ability to sin, yet all would agree that they will be genuinely free. From this, Edwards deduced that genuine human freedom does not consist in a self-determining will or in the ability to choose between certain actions regardless of disposition. True freedom does not mean the ability to choose between different actions; rather, it consists in the ability to act in accordance with one’s own nature. Since the saints in heaven are completely purified and holy, they are morally incapable of willing to sin, yet they are still completely and genuinely free to do as they please.
A second objection to Edwards’s argument by Arminians is that if an action is morally necessary, that is, if it is required or determined by the disposition or inclinations of the moral agent, that action is incapable of being deemed either praiseworthy or blameworthy. Simply put, if humans are not free in the libertarian sense, they are not morally responsible for their actions, either good or evil, and therefore should be neither praised nor blamed for their actions. To answer, Edwards asks, “what being has the most freedom?” His answer to this question is God. His point in asking and answering this question is to demonstrate that moral necessity is not inconsistent with genuine freedom. Put another way, simply because a moral agent must act in a specific way does not mean that the actions of the agent are neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. God is necessarily holy and cannot be anything other than holy, yet He is still infinitely worthy of all praise and adoration and glory. Thus, it seems that moral necessity is totally consistent with genuine freedom. Edwards powerfully makes his point:
The infinitely holy God, who always used to be esteemed by God’s people, not only virtuous, but a being in whom is all possible virtue, and every virtue in the most absolute purity and perfection, and in infinitely greater brightness and amiableness than in any creature; the most perfect pattern of virtue, and the fountain from whom all others’ virtue is but as beams from the sun; and who has been supposed to be, on account of his virtue and holiness, infinitely more worthy to be esteemed, loved, honored, admired, commended, extolled and praised, than any creature; and he who is thus everywhere represented in Scripture; I say, this being, according to this notion of…[the] Arminians, has no virtue at all; virtue, when ascribed to him, is but an ‘empty name’; and he is deserving of no commendation or praise, because he is under necessity, he can’t avoid being holy and good as he is; therefore no thanks to him for it.
If it is true that moral necessity renders moral agents incapable of being deemed praiseworthy or blameworthy, then, says Edwards, God cannot be praised for the glory of his manifold perfections since these perfections are morally necessary. By arguing in this way, Edwards demonstrates that genuine freedom and moral necessity, for both God and humans, are not at odds. Moral agents are genuinely free and constrained to act in certain ways by moral necessity.
To conclude this section, genuine freedom has nothing to do with choice in the sense of self-determining power, and it is equally consistent to affirm genuine freedom and moral necessity. The glorified saints in heaven demonstrate that true freedom consists not in the ability to do anything, but in the ability to act according to one’s nature. Furthermore, all of God’s works are necessarily holy and perfect, yet this is completely consistent with his existing as the supremely free being. Therefore, for Edwards, genuine freedom consists in the ability of a moral agent to act according to his or her nature. Even so, moral agents are constrained by their own dispositions and inclinations to act in morally necessary ways, but, as has been shown, this does not contradict or impugn the genuine integrity of human freedom.
To this point, Edwards has been primarily concerned with the philosophical foundation of his critique of the Arminian view of human freedom. But he does not seek to prove his point by use of reason alone; he also marshals the biblical text to demonstrate the truthfulness of his position. There are three primary lines of biblical testimony which Edwards uses to this end: first, he considers the texts in which certain persons are given up by God to sin; second, he considers the moral excellence of Jesus; and third, he considers God’s certain foreknowledge of future events. Each of these lines of testimony will be treated in turn.
In the first place, Edwards examines the biblical testimony of those who have been given over to sin such that they cannot do anything but sin, yet God still holds them morally responsible for their actions. The objection from the Arminians is that these “things seem plainly necessary to make an action or omission culpable….That it be in our power to perform or forbear it…no man is blameworthy for not doing what he could not do…that when any do evil of necessity, what they do is no vice, that they are guilty of no fault, are worthy of no blame, dispraise, or dishonor, but are unblameable.” Essentially, the objection is that if a moral agent is bound by some necessity to perform a moral action, he or she cannot be held responsible in any way for that action. For, so the argument goes, he or she could not have done otherwise.
To answer this objection, Edwards, quoting from Psalm 81:12 (“So I gave them up to their own hearts’ lust, and they walked in their own counsels.”), Acts 7:42 (“Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven.”), Romans 1:24 (“Wherefore, God also gave them up to uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves.”), Romans 1:26 (“For this cause God gave them up to vile affections.”), and Romans 1:28 (“And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things that are not convenient.”), says
‘Tis needless to stand particularly to inquire, what God’s “giving men up to their own hearts’ lusts” signifies: it is sufficient to observe, that hereby is certainly meant God’s so ordering or disposing things, in some respect or other, either by doing or forebearing to do, as that the consequence should be men’s continuing in their sins. So much as men are given up to, so much is the consequence of their being given up; whether that be less or more. If God [doesn’t] order things so, by action or permission, that sin will be the consequence, then the event proves that they are not given up to that consequence.
His basic point here is to show that those who have been given over to sin must necessarily continue to do nothing but sin, otherwise it would be pointless to say that God has given them over to sin. Even so, God still holds them responsible for their sin. Edwards points out that the Arminians are inconsistent on this point; speaking of the Arminian objection, he says, “if these things are true, in [the Arminian] sense of necessity, they will prove all such to be blameless, who are given up of God to sin in what they commit after they are thus given up.” Finally, Edwards wields one further example to prove his argument. If the Arminian objection is true, such that humans cannot be held responsible for their morally necessary actions, Edwards argues, “then Judas was blameless, after Christ had given him over, and had already declared his certain damnation, and that he should verily betray him. He was guilty of no sin in betraying his master, on [the Arminian] supposition; though his so doing is spoken of by Christ as the most aggravated sin, more heinous than the sin of Pilate in crucifying him.” To say that humans cannot be held responsible for their morally necessary actions is to deny the biblical testimony that God certainly gives people over to sin, and it is to deny that Judas is guilty of any sin whatsoever once he had been given over.
The second line of biblical testimony Edwards considers is the moral excellence of Jesus. There are two basic pillars to Edwards’s biblical argument regarding the necessary moral excellency of Jesus Christ. First, “it was impossible, that the acts of the will of the human soul of Christ should, in any instance, degree or circumstance, be otherwise than holy, and agreeable to God’s nature.” Edwards then argues eleven different reasons this is true, including
- God had promised so effectually to preserve and uphold him by his Spirit, under all his temptations, that he should not fail of reaching the end for which he came into the world.
- The same thing is evident from all the promises which God made to the Messiah, of his future glory, kingdom and success, in his office and character of a mediator.
- It was often promised to the church of God of old, for their comfort, that God would give them a righteous, sinless Savior.
- That the Messiah should perfect the work of redemption; and this implies, that he should persevere in the work which the Father had appointed him, being in all things conformed to his will.
- That it should have been possible for Christ’s holiness to fail, is not consistent with what God promised to his Son before all ages. For, that salvation should be offered to men through Christ, and bestowed on all his faithful followers, is what is at least implied in that certain and infallible promise spoken of by the Apostle (Titus 1:2), “In hope of eternal life; which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.”
- If it was possible for Christ to have failed of doing the will of his Father, and so to have failed of effectually working out redemption for sinners, then the salvation of all the saints, who were saved from the beginning of the world, to the death of Christ, was not built on a firm foundation.
- The man Christ Jesus, before he had finished his course of obedience, and while in the midst of temptations and trials, was abundant in positively predicting his own future glory in his kingdom, and the enlargement of his church, the salvation of the Gentiles through him, etc.
Edwards provides all of these arguments in order to demonstrate the fact that it is perfectly consistent to say that a moral agent must perform certain moral acts of necessity and that these acts are either praiseworthy or blameworthy. That is, Jesus Christ is a genuine moral agent and his actions were praiseworthy even though he was required of his nature and disposition to perform only praiseworthy actions. This, that Jesus Christ is a genuine moral agent who was subject to the commands and promises of God, is Edwards’s second line of argumentation.
Finally, the third line of biblical testimony which Edwards considers is that of God’s certain foreknowledge. Edwards argues that the Arminian notion of the liberty of indifference is inconsistent with God’s certain knowledge of future events. If God has infallible knowledge of what will come to pass, the freedom of human beings is restricted such that humans can only do what God knows they will do. Moral agents do not have the freedom to do literally anything; rather, they can only do what God knows they will do. Recall here that Edwards’s view of the will preserves the integrity of genuine human freedom since it is human desire which ultimately determines the will. This means that human beings are not unwilling actors who are enslaved to the foreknown plan of God. On the contrary, God’s certain foreknowledge is consistent with Edwards’s view of human freedom since humans are bound by their nature, disposition, inclinations, and affections to do what they most want to do. God knows precisely what moral agents will do, and the moral agents willingly do what they desire to do.
Edwards goes further to demonstrate that the Arminian notion of the liberty of indifference is utterly inconsistent with God’s certain knowledge of future events. He says, “if there be any future event, whose existence is contingent, without all necessity,” which is precisely what the Arminians hold to regarding all moral actions whatsoever, then “the future existence of that event is absolutely without evidence.” And if moral actions are without evidence, not even God can know whether a moral agent will choose one way or another. In the end, for Edwards, the only consistent kind of Arminianism must necessarily lead to open theism. For if human beings are free in the libertarian sense, such that their moral actions are not at all necessary and can arise with literally no evidence, God cannot know in advance of any of the choices moral agents will make.
The preceding will suffice as a brief overview and statement of Jonathan Edwards’s view of human freedom and his consequent critique of Arminian theology. In order to more fully understand Edwards’s view, an examination of the theological implications of his doctrine can now occur. The first implication of note has not to do with Edwards’s view per se but rather with Arminianism. For the classical Arminian, the liberty of indifference means that all of the choices that human moral agents make are ultimately completely arbitrary. Recall that the liberty of indifference means that no power outside of the will can be a sufficient cause to influence the will one way or another. What this means is that there is no sufficient reason for the will to choose one thing over another; it is completely arbitrary. But Edwards’s view of moral necessity and human freedom not only preserves the genuine integrity of human persons and their freedom, but it provides a meaningful foundation for reasonable action. That is to say, Edwards’s view of human freedom supports the idea that moral agents do what they do for reasons which can ultimately be found in the desires. Moral agents do not act randomly or arbitrarily; rather, they act in accordance with their own ultimate desires. There are real reasons for why moral agents do what they do, and this provides the necessary foundation for holding moral agents responsible for their moral choices.
Secondly, the biblical doctrine of total depravity is only maintained if one subscribes to Edwards’s view of the human will. For the Arminian, the will is disconnected from the desires and perhaps even the nature of the human being such that it is its own sovereign; the will is self-determined which means it cannot be sufficiently induced by either desires or affections to act in one way and not another. But this does not take into account the biblical testimony of the connection between the will and the desires. Jesus himself argues, “for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:19-20). Thus, the heart, or in Edwards’s words, the desires or affections or inclinations, are what defile a person. A moral agent’s actions, according to the biblical testimony, flow from their disposition. But the Arminian must deny this testimony in order to preserve their view of the liberty of indifference. For them, actions do not come from the desires or disposition, but from the self-determining will. But as both Edwards and Scripture point out, the will is determined by the desires, not by itself. Ultimately, it is an evil disposition of the heart, not a collection of morally arbitrary actions, which helps one to see his or her need of Christ.
One final, two-sided point of theological implication is necessary for this discussion. Recall that Edwards engaged in this work in order to assist persons to rightly understand and know God and themselves. To this end, it is necessary to understand the nature of true faith. One author is helpful here: “The nature of true faith implies a disposition to give all the glory of our salvation to God and Christ….The conversion of a sinner [is] not owing to a man’s self-determination, but to God’s determination, and eternal election, which is absolute, and depending on the sovereign will of God, and not on the free will of man.” A right understanding of God and humanity should be at the center of human concern in this life. And a right understanding of the human will is of paramount importance to a correct knowledge of God and humanity. Edwards is quick to point out that his view of human freedom not only upholds the genuine integrity of the human person, but it reserves all the glory to God alone. It is God, that being who is infinitely worthy of all adoration, praise, honor, and worship, to whom belongs all the glory, both in nature and in grace. A right understanding of human freedom, presented in Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards, gives to God the glory He truly deserves.
Jonathan Edwards’s work on the Freedom of the Will cannot be adequately analyzed in a paper of this size. Even so, it is hoped that the reader has come away with a deeper knowledge of the nature of the will and of human freedom. That by which the mind chooses the highest apparent good in the time of choice is the only view of the human will which is philosophically, theologically, and biblically sound. Edwards’s critique of Arminianism is devastating, and in its place he presents a better view, a more biblical view, of human freedom. Edwards upholds the genuine freedom of human moral agents while simultaneously demonstrating their complete dependence upon God for their salvation. With this in mind, let the reader give thanks to the only God and Savior, and to the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory forever. Amen.
 Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957), 164.
 Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 103.
 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 20.
 Stephen J. Nichols, Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001), 177.
 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 137.
 Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2012), 341.
 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 137.
 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 144.
 McClymond and McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 5.
 Ibid., 6.
 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 149.
 Ibid., 156-157.
 Ibid., 157.
 Ibid., 156.
 Ibid., 157.
 Ibid., 159.
 Ibid., 160.
 Nichols, Jonathan Edwards, 181.
 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 278.
 Ibid., 295.
 Ibid., 296.
 Ibid., 281.
 The following quotes are taken from Ibid., 281-289.
 Ibid., 259.
 Nichols, Jonathan Edwards, 186.
Thanks for reading. Have a comment or question? Leave it below.