Is Free Will Truly Free?

By Jon Pratt

Robots play a fascinating role in our technologically advanced world. A diverse group of proponents including astronauts, treasure hunters, and manufacturers would all agree that robots enable people to achieve far more than they could alone. But there are some things robots will never be asked to do because they are incapable of rational thought and do not possess a will of their own. This is where humans and robots are so different. Unlike robots, humans have free will, the power to choose to perform an action or not to perform an action. Or so it would seem.

Greg Boyd describes free will this way: “[Humans] originate their own actions,” and “they are the final explanation for what they choose to do.” (Greg Boyd, Is God to Blame? [IVP, 2003], 70). In this way of thinking the ultimate explanation for someone’s choosing as they do is their own free will. While some might not phrase their understanding of free will in quite the same way, they still would assert that human beings freely make their own choices. To take away this basic fact of human nature would presume that humans are robots, that they are fatalistically bound to do the things that God has pre-programmed them to do.

The type of freedom described by Boyd is known as libertarian freedom, and it is the kind of freedom most people (believers and unbelievers alike) refer to when they speak of free will. In contrast, compatibilist freedom perceives the predestinating work of God in combination with the voluntary free acts of humans so that people freely choose to do actions that God ultimately ordained to occur. In this alternate conception of freedom, humans are morally responsible for their freely-chosen actions that God in His wisdom has predestined (Acts 2:23 – notice that wicked people put Jesus to death but that God purposed the event to take place).

Which of these two conceptions of freedom is the most biblical? Perhaps it would be helpful to answer this question by offering several observations about human existence which illustrate the limitations of our free will (many of these come from Geoffrey Bromiley, “Only God is Free,” Christianity Today [4 February 2002]: 72–75).

1) We had no choice in deciding whether or not we would enter this world; our parents clearly made that determination for us.

2) The nature of the world we invaded was not given to us as an option. We might have preferred a nonmaterial world or a world of pure mind or spirit, but we are stuck with a life that is at least partially physical.

3) We had no say in our ethnic makeup.

4) The economic status of our family was out of our control.

5) Others chose the country of our birth for us.

6) Those people who influenced our lives––parents, teachers, relatives, friends, colleagues––have shaped us into the person we have become.

7) We have entered a society full of laws and customs that are not our choosing.

8) Even something like artistic creativity is limited.

Artists can only work with tools that already exist in the universe or by human manufacture. God created out of nothing by the word of his mouth. We lack the freedom, omniscience, omnipotence, and wisdom to come close to his handiwork. Here again, we are not entirely free to create anything we might conceive in our minds. Geoffrey Bromiley exclaims: “Cocreators? No. At very best subcreators!”

Many other examples could be given, but these suffice to show that human beings are not nearly as free as many would like to think. And I have yet to mention the greatest detriment to human freedom: human depravity. The Bible proclaims that sin has affected the entire human race (Rom 3:9–12, 23); that sin has corrupted every part of man’s being (Jer 17:9; 1 Cor 2:14; Titus 1:15); and that no one is capable of doing any spiritual good before God (Isa 64:6; John 8:34; Eph 2:1–3; Col 2:13a). The biblical meaning of depravity has huge implications in the discussion about free will because the sinner has no ability to choose righteousness. Paul describes the sinner’s situation as one of enslavement to sin (Rom 6:17, 20) and of being under the control of the flesh (Rom 7:5). The ramification of this reality in regard to the most important decision in life (What will you do with Jesus?) spells doom for every member of the human race. Humans have no freedom to choose Christ (Rom 3:11), and, in fact, they will always choose against Christ unless God graciously draws the sinner to himself (John 6:44, 65; Eph 2:4–9; Col 2:13b).

John Wesley recognized this problem with depravity and free will, and he espoused the doctrine of “preventing [prevenient] grace” which suggests that God counters the effects of depravity by giving everyone the ability to choose Christ. Wesley argued that “everyone has, sooner or later, good desires” that enable them to accept Christ (see John Wesley, “Working Out Our Own Salvation,” sermon in The Works of Wesley, vol. 6 [Baker reprint edition, 1978], 512). We can see this belief clearly stated in his sermon entitled “The General Spread of the Gospel”: “I am persuaded every [human being] has had, at some time, ‘life and death set before him,’ eternal life and eternal death; and has in himself the casting vote.” (Wesley, “The General Spread of the Gospel,” Works of Wesley, vol. 6, 281). Wesley’s argument is very logical, but he fails to garner any biblical evidence for this doctrine. Indeed, there is no verse in the Bible that supports the concept of prevenient grace.

In light of these observations we must deny the concept of libertarian freedom. And in regard to the most important decision people must make (i.e., the destiny of their souls), there is only one choice available for the sinner apart from the saving grace of God: eternal separation from God.

Humans do possess free will, but it is a compatible freedom. It is a freedom that makes willing choices which have real effects (the people who put Christ to death were evil and freely chose to execute him – Acts 2:23; 4:27), but it is always under the ultimate control of God’s providential directing (“God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” [Acts 2:23]; “they did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” [Acts 4:28]). In regard to the free choices of humans, compatibilist freedom suggests two realities. For the unbeliever, righteous actions approved by God will never be possible; those in this group face a damning limitation to their freedom. On the other hand, Christians experience the blessing of liberty from sin’s domination (Rom 6:6, 7, 18, 22), and they understand what “free will” truly entails. No longer are Christians bound to the enslaving effects of their depravity; they can (and will) choose to obey God. This is the type of freedom Jesus describes in John 8:36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

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