Serving Christians Seeking to Live a Holy Life

FREE WILL

Leon L. Combs, Ph.D.
June 5, 2000

Free will was defined by Augustine as the ability to make voluntary decisions (choices) free from external constraint or coercion. Our choices are then based upon who we are at the moments of the decisions. We will make the decision toward one choice or another based upon the dominant internal desire at that moment. These desires are cultivated by the development of our senses of choice, and such development is dependent upon our innate desires and the influence of our society upon those desires. The societal punishment for some choices (robbery, murder, bribery, etc.) will make those low probability choices for many people in our society. Thus most people tend to choose among choices which are among various acceptable communal morality options.

Now we need to distinguish between morality and ethics. Morality is whatever is acceptable by the current society whereas ethics is based upon some code external to the society. Morality tends to change with each advancing generation and from culture to culture, whereas ethics should stay the same since the external code does not change. Thus what is not an acceptable moral choice today may be an acceptable moral choice in a few years (or months). Certainly we in the U.S. have witnessed quite a shift in moral standards in the last twenty years, and an even greater change in the last few years. However what was ethical yesterday should still be ethical today. I do not think that the U.S. has an external code for ethical behavior anymore, unless it is the Darwinian code.

However to the Christian the external code of ethical behavior is the Bible. Therefore to the Christian there has not been any change in acceptable ethical behavior because the Bible has not changed. We Christians would, of course, prefer that the moral behavior of our society were the same as an ethical behavior based upon the Word of God.

Now what about the topic of free will regarding Biblically based choices? Is a person "free" to choose God's way or Satan's way at any time? The Bible tells us that people are first born as a people who are slaves to sin: Rom 6:20 "For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness." "Free in regard to righteousness" means that righteousness had no place in our lives regarding our choices. The non-Christian has the free will to choose among many choices, some moral and some non-moral and he/she made choices depending upon whatever inclination was the strongest at the time of the choice. However he/she lacks the liberty to choose righteousness - before regeneration there was no inclination within us toward choosing righteousness. Liberty of choice refers to the choices that are available among which to freely choose. If we are locked in a jail cell we don't have the liberty to take a walk in the park whenever we wish - the choice is not available. We have the liberty to only choose among the choices that we have available. The non-Christian has free will to make many choices but will not freely choose the ethical standards of the Bible. He/she has free will but not the inclination to choose God's choices for he/she is free in regard to righteousness as a consequence of the fall.

However once a person becomes a Christian, he/she is now righteous and thus now has the liberty to freely choose righteousness or sinfulness. Our liberty has been restored to that originally possessed by Adam and Eve. God has to work in us initially and continually for us to will and to work for His good pleasure:

Phil 2:12-13 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

The underlining in the quotation is added for emphasis in this discussion. Before the work of God in my life, I did not have the inclination or the ability to will or to work for His good pleasure.

There is only one Scriptural reference to "free will" and this is in a letter addressed to Christians who thus possess the righteousness of Jesus Christ:

Philemon 1:14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will.

From the above Scripture and our definition of free will, we see that Paul wanted them to have progressed to such a state that by their free will they would choose God's will for their actions rather than obeying God because of a command from Paul. Paul wanted their motivation to solely be their love for God and their desire to please Him.

When I was about 15, my mom wanted me to want to take out the garbage rather than just doing it because she told me to do it. Her desire for me to have a change in my desire was very good and Biblical. However, I have to confess that I mainly took it out because I knew that I had to do it. My free will choice would be to read a book or go for a ride rather than taking out the garbage. We should honor our parents; and we certainly honor them when we obey them, but we honor them much more when we love them so much that we spend much time seeking to understand them so that we can do those things that we know that they would want us to do before they ask us to do them.

But now let's take the scene to an entirely different level as we understand that the above text says that our goodness should be by our free will, for the goodness here is God's definition of goodness. Our free will should then guide us to learn as much about God as possible so that we can anticipate His desire for us and that our actions should then all be guided by a free will choice of God's will in all areas of our lives. Before regeneration that aspect of our free will is just not present and I think most people would freely admit such.

So what is free will? It is the ability to make voluntary decisions (choices) free from external constraint or coercion. The free will of the unregenerate person will allow for many different decisions, but none of them will include the driving desire to choose God's will as the basis for his/her actions in all areas of his/her life. To properly understand free will, we have to understand that our wills are always a slave to one area or another. Our wills are never really free, meaning totally free from an internal constraint for we are either serving sin or serving righteousness:

Rom 6:16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?

The only hope for any of us is the hope based upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ so that:

Rom 6:6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin;

It is only through regeneration that we can have the liberty to choose either His way or the sinful way. After conversion we will then always want to choose God's way, but we will not always make that choice. It is only after we are totally sanctified that our choices will always be God's way. Until that day there will be conflict between our sin nature and our regenerated nature.

This topic has been, and will probably continue to be, discussed by many theologians and lay people. Many books and articles have been published about it, and below I recommend a few for your edification. As in any Christian concept the only way to approach the issue is to first set our mind "free" of prejudicial concepts relating to the topic and let God tell us the answer.

Suggested Books:
  1. "The Freedom of the Will", Jonathan Edwards, Soli Deo Gloria publishers, 1996 (book first published by Thomas Nelson in 1845)
  2. "The Bondage of the Will", Martin Luther, Baker Book House Company, 1976.
  3. "Willing to Believe", R. C. Sproul, Baker Books, 1997.


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