I was involved in an online discussion with another Christian on the topic of ‘free will’. Free will was very important to him and while God could ‘persuade’ the will this persuasion could not be at a level that overcame personal autonomy. The discussion raised issues I have not thought about for years. The following comments are by no means exhaustive but hopefully they will be helpful.
Firstly, I wish to think of ‘free will’ less as an abstract philosophical concept and ask how it features in the Bible. Although ‘free will’ is an expression often used by Christians it is not a biblical term and more importantly does not particularly express a biblical way of thinking certainly in the sense it is generally understood.
‘Free will’ is a slippery term to define. John Frame says the following:
The term freedom has been taken in various senses. In our current discussion, two of these are particularly relevant: (1) compatibilism,which is the freedom to do what you want to do, and (2) libertarianism, which is the freedom to do the opposite of everything you choose to do. Compatibilism indicates that freedom is compatible with causation. Someone may force me to eat broccoli; but if that is something I want to do anyway, I do it freely in the compatibilist sense. Alternatively, if you have libertarian freedom, your choices are in no sense caused or constrained, either by your nature, your experience, your history, your own desires, or God. Libertarianism is sometimes called “incompatibilism,” because it is inconsistent with necessity or determination. If someone forces me to eat broccoli, I am not free, in the libertarian sense, to eat it or not eat it. On a libertarian account, any kind of “forcing” removes freedom.
It is this libertarian sense of ‘free will’ that most mean when they speak of free will; human beings are autonomous and self-determining and this freedom must be respected, even by God.
Yet, as I say, in this sense, free will is not particularly biblical. Did God create Adam intending that he should be an autonomous person? Was not Adam’s duty simply to obey the Creator? The Creator was the ‘Lord God’. As ‘Lord’ implies, only he was sovereign and only he had the right to be self-determining; everything in creation, including Adam was subject to him. Adam clearly had the capacity to rebel and disobey but in God’s universe he was not granted the ‘freedom’ or ‘right’ to so do; to rebel against God’s will carried with it the sentence of death. Autonomous freedom is not a human right in God’s world.
In fact, it was the desire to be self-determining that led to the catastrophe we call the Fall. In an act of rebellious self-determining Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Indeed, part of the forbidden fruit’s attraction was its promise of moral autonomy (it promised wisdom and the knowledge of good and evil independent of God) but the freedom promised proved delusional for the act of eating was sinful and corrupting; humanity gained independence at the price of a relationship with God. Adam’s quest for autonomy led to depravity. ‘Free will’ in a fallen humanity is no more than the freedom to sin. Arising immediately from this rebellious choice were divine judgements making the sphere of life where each of the human couple functioned hostile. For Eve, the homemaker, sin meant pain in child-bearing and a husband who would rule in a way that distorted his headship. Adam, the provider, would discover the ground he tilled would resist him and make work difficult. Already human ‘autonomy’ was being thwarted by divine judgements.
Life in a fallen world would bring to bear all kinds of things that curtailed human freedom and frustrated the human will. Autonomy was an illusion. Freedom to do as willed was an myth. A world of sinful truly autonomous human wills could only mean conflict and chaos. Restricting rules were required to which all must be subject if society were to flourish. Human beings must surrender their autonomy if they were to negotiate life. And this is to say nothing of innumerable other ways that life confined so-called freedom. Human self-determining was curtailed by the realities of living in a fallen world. These pressures may come from without but they are no less enslaving. ‘Free will’ in the libertarian sense is largely notional.
It is however, when we look at Scripture we see just how profoundly chained the human will actually is. Far from the will being free it is in bondage. It is in bondage to sin for we are a sinful race. We have inherited a sinful nature (Ps 51:5, 58:3; Job 14:14, 15:14). Sin is a controlling power burrowed deep in our hears. To sin is our instinctive impulse; and he that sins is a slave of sin (Jn 8:34). If we are are given a law we want to break it. Tell me not to covet and I will covet in every conceivable way (Roms 7:7). Tell me to love and serve God and I will do the opposite. In fact, because of indwelling sin, I am a hater of God (Roms 1:30). I love darkness rather than light and will not come to the light (Jn. 3:20). My freedom can only take me further and further away from God. Such is free humanity East of Eden.
But the truth is, indwelling sin is not a foreign body; it is who I am. The truth is my will is free only to respond to my nature and my nature, who I really am, as a son of Adam, is ‘flesh’. My ‘flesh’ is opposed to God. It will not submit to God and indeed cannot (Roms 8:7; Ps 58:3). Paul describes my condition as ‘dead in trespasses and sins’. Not only is my nature oppose God but, as in the garden, I am beguiled by forbidden fruits (the world) and manipulated by the Serpent (Satan). Paul puts it like this,
Eph 2: 1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Humanity, outside of Christ, is dominated by the world, the flesh, and the devil. It follows the bidding of the world and Satan for it is in harmony with them. Human nature, Satan and the world are kinsmen. The passions which drive fallen humanity are both fuelled and fulfilled by Satan and the world. Humanity is driven from within and without by sin. It is helpless and powerless before it. It is utterly under its thrall. Humanity dominated by sin is invincibly separated from God. It wants nothing to do with him. This is what it means to be dead.
This is the libertarian ‘free will’ that is championed. If it is freedom then it is freedom to be blind… freedom to be deaf… freedom to be hateful. It is freedom to be enslaved to disfiguring, dehumanising sin ; to be pathetic Gollum-like figures before our ‘precious’. It is freedom that constitutes us ’sons of disobedience’ and ‘children of wrath’.
Given this spiritual slavery in which humanity is hopelessly mired, it will come as no surprise that what we need above all is to be freed from this slavery. And freedom is what God in love bestows. He knows the freedom we cherish will destroy us not least because the rebellion at its heart will incur his wrath. And so he resolves to give us freedom. He resolves to operate in us and renew our hearts.
Real freedom comes from Christ (Jn 8:36) and embracing the truth (Jn 8:32). Through the truth of the Christian gospel concerning Christ, God, by his Spirit, works a miracle of deliverance in our hearts. In some profound way our ears deafened by sin and our eyes blinded by Satan are opened. God performs spiritual surgery in our rebellious hearts and renews them; hearts of stone become hearts of flesh. The impossible takes place and God brings a clean thing out of an unclean (Job 14:14). The Bible calls it – the new birth (Jn 3). God effectively re-creates us so that we become in Christ a new creation. As the metaphors of new creation and both imply, this is a work entirely of God. He renews us (circumcises our hearts) so that we are completely transformed, utterly renewed. How he does this is shrouded in mystery but we simply praise him that he does.
God overrides so-called libertarian freedom (freedom to choose without any interference) and employs combatilist freedom (God works in our hearts yet the choices are all ours). On the surface of things it appears that all the moves towards faith come from us. There is no sense in us that we are being manipulated against our will and nor are we. We respond to God because he has been active in our hearts giving us the ability to see what is true. All that becoming a Christian involves internally is supplied by God; he who gave us his son will give us all things (Roms 8; 2 Pet 1:3; Phil 4:19). When God intends his word to convict and save he sends it with special spiritual power (1 Thess 1:4,5). If we need enlightenment to understand the gospel (and we do) then God gives this enlightenment – he opens the eyes of our understanding (Eph 1:18; Lk 24:45; 2 Cor 4:6). It is he who opens the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf (Isa 29:18, 32:3, 35:5; Ps 146:8). When we repent of our rebellion and seek forgiveness this capacity to repent is a gift of God as is faith (Eph 2:8,9 1:3; Phil 1:29; Acts 13:48;2 Tim 2:25). God must open our hearts to believe (Acts 16:14). Indeed he must give us a new heart (Ezek 36:26; Jer 31:33; Ps 51:10). When we become Christians we discover that all these responses towards God that we have made have been created within us by God; it has been God working within to will and do for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13). We are God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10). We are his new creation (2 Cor 5:17)
Salvation is the only freedom that the Bible considers true freedom; he that the Son sets free is free indeed (Jn 8:36). True freedom is to be as God made us to be. It is freedom to live, by the Spirit, under the Lordship of Christ (Roms 6:22; 2 Cor 3:17). When we think of freedom in these terms we are thinking about freedom as God does. In the age to come we will have only the new nature of new creation and our will shall be finally free in the way God intended; free to gladly serve him in the delight that is new creation.