Do Human Beings Have Free Will?

The question as to whether humans exercise free-will concerns not only those of us with an interest in theology, but has long intrigued the greatest philosophers. More recently, with the development of quantum theory, this question has also begun to interest many scientists.  Of course, most ordinary people, who don’t move in the rarefied stratosphere of theology, philosophy and science would assume as a matter of fact that they do have free-will.  This does seem, on the face of it, to be a common-sense attitude; but a little thought soon reveals that it’s not that simple.

For a start, our so-called freedom to do as we please is constrained by natural laws (such as gravity, time, etc.).  We are constrained, too, in a lesser way, by the laws of the land.  For example, we are not free to drive at 100mph in a 30mph limit.  Moreover, some of us will be constrained by physical disability, illness, lack of finance or any number of other reasons. 

Those of us with faith in the God of the Bible are also constrained by God’s prescriptive laws which we find for example in Exodus 20. Of course, we can break these laws, just as surely as we can break the speed limit or any man-made law, but if we do, we shall have to face the consequences of our actions. In God’s decretive laws (that is his eternal decrees) such as those governing time etc, we have no freedom whatsoever (so far!).  So are we free or not, and if so, in what sense?

In Martin Luther’s book The Bondage of the Will he replies to various propositions by Erasmus, who believed that human beings clearly do have free will.  Erasmus based his belief on what he saw as ‘common-sense’, and on classic ‘free-will’ texts which can be found in scripture, such as Gen 2:17; Ezek 33:11; Matt 7:7. (And there are many more).  Why would God ask, command or expect people to do certain things or behave in certain ways if they were incapable of responding? 

Luther said there were alternative ways to interpret such texts and pointed to the many scriptures which suggest our lack of free-will, such as Matt 11:27b ‘No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ (1). Luther therefore believed that we are incapable of choosing God, otherwise, a text like Romans 9:16; ‘It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy’ wouldn’t make much sense.

We are like stones, said Luther.  If we hold a stone out at arm’s length and let go, it can go either up or down, but left to itself, it will always go down.  If it’s to go up, it’ll need outside help. We are the same. Left to our own devices, we are not completely free; we are only free to move away from God.  If we are to move towards Him, we too need the outside help which only God can provide. Erasmus responded by claiming that this was unfair. And even Luther himself admits that at times in his life, he too disliked the idea that he didn’t have complete freedom of choice and that his salvation was entirely according to God’s will.

Nevertheless, Luther was, I believe, correct in the main thrust of his argument (2). We are not free to choose God.  We cannot save ourselves or cause ourselves to become ‘born again’ (John 3:3), and if this were possible, Christ would have lived, died and risen for nothing (Gal 2:21). Ephesians 2:8 says ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.’ 

Of course, these arguments can go on ad-infinitum and, for most students of theology, often do just this! I don’t have space for that luxury here, so will simply leave you with the following observations.

The answer to our initial question is that people appear to exercise a kind of free-will but it doesn’t operate freely in all directions and tends to move away from God. If we set all other constraints aside (e.g., laws etc, as discussed earlier), a human being’s will is still not totally free. For a person to be able to move towards God, they need to be called by God; given the desire by God to seek him and be enabled to halt their downward fall (like the stone) which is taking them away from him. To be born again (John 3:3) is to have that ‘outside help’ which works against our natural ‘stone-like’ nature, so that we can truly repent – turn around (‘full speed astern’ as C.S Lewis so aptly put it) – and begin to move towards God.  However, Christians are not completely free from sin or the temptation to sin (their stone-like nature still trying to drag them away from God).  We only need to read Romans 7 to confirm this.

At the end of the matter, we are left with three basic premises: 1) God is sovereign. He is above, beyond, behind and within all things and sees the end from the beginning.  In some way, he ‘controls’ all things – usually keeping within the laws of the nature he has created – towards his desired end for this world and the universe, but despite this, is never responsible for sin.  2) Within this framework (which, because of our finite, human nature remains a mystery to us) Christians have a certain amount of free-will. They are freed from the tyranny of the Law, for example, and there is now ‘no condemnation’ for them (Rom 8:1). In the eyes of God, they are freed from the guilt of sin and are seen as beloved children. However, even their will is still not completely free; it is still a ‘fallen’ will, just like the rest of their human nature. Christians, unless they deceive themselves, still fall into sin (1 John 1:8) and need to be forgiven regularly. 3). Non-Christians have essentially the same kind of freedom, but no ‘string’ is tied to these ‘stones’. Their perceived freedom, which they often see as preferable and superior to those whom they see as being in subservience or bondage to ‘religion’ is largely an illusion.  They are constrained by all of the things we’ve discussed but they are otherwise ‘free’ to move as far away from God as they desire.

As we grow closer to God; as our desire becomes more and more to please him and to do his will, then God’s will works through us, and his will gradually becomes our will. Therefore, in a state of perfection (i.e., if we could, in this life, reach the perfection of the Lord Jesus Christ) we would be free, period, and we could say we were completely free, both from sin, and free to do as we pleased, because everything we willed to do would be in accordance with the will of God. As Christians, this is surely the goal towards which we strive, to let that mind be in us which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5).
 

(1) There are various other texts which go into some detail as to how everything we do is seemingly foreordained (e.g. Psalm 139). Many non-Christian philosophers and scientists also believe in the possibility that we may not have free-will and that everything we do is inevitable and governed by our DNA, the inexorable plodding of cause and effect, the possible nature of time (for example, so-called ‘block-time’ theory, in which our past, present and future all exist eternally) and so on. Whatever we believe, it could appear from our human perspective that we are actually free when this is not the case. However, for theists at any rate, if everything is ‘set in stone’ from the beginning of creation, this would seem to suggest that God is (at least in some way) responsible for evil.

Many theologians who subscribe to the complete foreordination of everything from the quantum level upwards have tried to answer this problem, not always very convincingly. In our own time, this has led some theologians to return to a more open view of the nature of God’s sovereignty and human will.  Clark H. Pinnock (in his more recent writings) is probably the name most readily associated with this ‘new’ movement (though people with similar ideas have always existed) and some of his books are well worth a look.  Whether we agree with his conclusions or not, Pinnock gives us much food for thought and brings us fresh ways of viewing these complex issues.

(2) However, I must admit to having much in common with Erasmus’s views too. I agree with him that Luther went too far (for example, in claiming that everything we do, good or bad, is done by God through us, and that God rewards us or punishes us for the works he has caused us to do). Erasmus – very sensibly in my view – said that ‘there are some secret places in Holy Scripture into which God didn’t intend us to penetrate very far, and if we attempt to do so, the further in we go the less clearly we see.’ (Taken from A Discussion of Free Will published in 1524 and quoted here in a translation from the book My Dear Erasmus by David Bentley – Taylor, published by Christian Focus © 2002).

  1. Interesting article, Chris. For me, it will be worth several readings. It was not long after I got into it that this came to mind. Perhaps not entirely relevant, but marvelous anyway.

    O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries, through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

    Peter

  2. Have a look at the three verses bellow, and tell me do you think that Enoch, Noah, and Job were demonstrating free will, or not?

    Gen 5:24 And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him
    Gen 6:9 This is the genealogy of Noah. Noah was a just man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked with God.
    Job 1:8 Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?”

    And what about the following seven verses. Why do you think that the word, “choose”, is used if man is incapable of making a choice which is acceptable to the Lord, if as some say, man does not have a free will?

    Deu 30:19 I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, [that] I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live;
    Jos 24:15 And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that [were] on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
    Pro 1:29 Because they hated knowledge And did not choose the fear of the LORD,
    Pro 3:31 Do not envy the oppressor, And choose none of his ways;
    Pro 12:26 The righteous should choose his friends carefully, For the way of the wicked leads them astray.
    Isa 7:15 Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good.
    Isa 56:4 For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant,

    Oh, and by the way, why does our Lord Jesus say.

    Mat 11:28 “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

    If as some say, man does not have a free will?

    pabrain.

    Free will, yes, but now the other side of the coin. Our Lord Jesus who said.

    Mat 11:28 “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

    Jhn 3:36 “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

    Jhn 3:14 “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
    Jhn 3:15 “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but[fn2] have eternal life. 3:15 NU-Text omits not perish but.

    Also said.

    Jhn 6:44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him;

    Jhn 6:65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”

    Mat 16:16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
    Mat 16:17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

    Mat 19:25 When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
    Mat 19:26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

    Jhn 3:27 John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.

    Comments please.

    pabrain.

    Allow me to suggest a possible solution to the problem of reconciling, “Free will, with Predestination”.

    I believe Scripture shows, as I have attempted to indicate in my first post above, that man not only has a free will, but is also able to exercise it in a correct way from a divine point of view, and that the Lord our God knows that such persons would, if exposed to the Gospel respond positively. For his reason therefore, He predestines them to hear the good news, and thereby get saved.

    May the Lord bless you, and keep you safe.

    pabrain.

  3. Pabrain
    Thanks for your extensive comments on my blog article.

    Your conclusion summarises the view of Arminianism, i.e., that predestination operates because God can see in advance who will respond positively to the Gospel.

    There are many problems with this view; indeed, there are many problems with all views which try to reconcile the biblical data and the theology which has developed since. The main problem with the Arminian view is that it seems to makes faith into a ‘work’. Why have I chosen to respond and not my sister? Am I somehow ‘better’ than her, because I’ve responded to God’s call. If it’s been my choice, and I get the reward, it would seem to imply that I’ve somehow earned a great big ‘brownie point’.

    Not at all, says St. Paul, because even my faith is a gift of God, so that any kind of boasting is completely ruled out.

    I’m glad the article set you thinking, and I thank you again for your carefully thought out response. Most of my own articles are written precisely for this purpose; to make people think.

    Personally, in this whole debate, I don’t know whether there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ view. I’ve come to simply accept the biblical data as it stands. I accept by faith that the bible is the Word of God. Where there seems to be paradox, as is the case with free will and the sovereignty of God, I also accept by faith that there is something going on here which is beyond human understanding.

    To reach such decisions is no bad thing. When we come to conclusions where we have to say ‘I don’t fully understand’ we are thrown back even more onto our faith and brought to realise afresh that we are just fallible human beings, and God is God.

    With every blessing

    Chris Lazenby

  4. Hi Chris.

    Thankyou for your post.

    You said,

    “Your conclusion summarises the view of Arminianism”.

    True but did I not also quote,

    Jhn 6:44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him;
    Jhn 6:65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”

    Which I think you will agree is Calvinistic.

    “Not at all, says St. Paul, because even my faith is a gift of God”.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that, “faith is a gift of God”, I am unable to locate any part of my post that says otherwise.

    Perhaps my Testimony which follows will be of help you to seeing where I am coming from.

    I was nearly 30 years old when the Lord saved me. For most of that time I was either agnostic, atheist, or indifferent. For as long as I can remember I have always had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. How does this work?. How does that work?. What makes people what they are?. When my schoolboy friends were out playing games like cricket, football, or chasing girls, I would be found in the local library reading room finding out as much as I could about my latest interest. With a name like Brain, and my interests it is no wonder I got the nickname, “The professor”, or, “Mr know it all”. I didn’t really care what they called me, I was a loner. I would do my own thing in my own way. I particularly enjoyed a battle of wits with anyone, as I always won, or at least I thought so. I especially looked out for people of a Religious disposition, as I really enjoyed exercising my superior knowledge, and shooting them down in flames as it were, but then one day in the late summer of 1961 when looking out of the office window where I worked, I saw in our car park a Bedford mini bus with the words, “Even Christ pleased not himself”, written on its side in letters of gold 3″ high. I enquired whose this was, and the owner was pointed out to me. I made my mind up there and then that he would be my next victim. In due course I spoke to this man, and to cut a long story short he invited me to his home, to which I went for 8 successive Friday evenings, I was very much impressed with him, he is very well educated, and also very sincere. He wanted me to become a Christian like him, and kept on asking me if I was yet ready to receive Jesus as my saviour. I told him I could say the words he wanted me to say, but I knew that I would not mean them, not that I did not want to, I did, but I knew that it would not work if I didn’t mean what I said. The problem was the enormity of my sin, which I considered to great for God to forgive. It was near to midnight, and his wife and his 5 children were all in bed. At this point the Lord caused his youngest child a girl about 18 months old, to cry out, he excused himself and left the room, saying I don’t want my wife to be disturbed, I will go and see what is the matter. This left me alone as it were, I said to myself this man wants me to become a Christian like him, well maybe someday I will. but if I ever do then I will have to do what they do, they pray, and I don’t know how to pray. I wondered what to do next, I had opened the bible a number of times whilst visiting my friend, and often found the verses that I read spoke to me powerfully, often dealing with the very problem that I had in my mind at that moment. Now I opened it once again at random, and found myself reading Luke Ch 11 from v 1. “Teach me how to pray”. The Lord spoke to me in His still small voice, and said “Why am I doing this, why am I as it were taking time off from running this vast universe to come down into this room to be with you to cause you to open my book just where I want you to open it, to read the very verse that I want you to read that tells you that I know just what your problem is, if as you say your sin is too great for me to forgive?. I had no answer for this, and with tears streaming down my face I looked up and said “Because you love me”..

    That is how I became a Christian.

    May the Lord bless you, and keep you safe.

    Edwin Brain.

  5. Thanks for that Edwin; I was interested to read your testimony. I too had a ‘Damascus Road’ experience when I was truly born again at a time and date I can clearly remember.

    I don’t have any argument with what you’re saying or the scriptures you’re quoting. We have no real argument, other than the mystery of how people come to faith, and, like Christians through the ages, I’m sure we can respect different Christian views and live with the differences. After all, some mysteries are just beyond us. The important thing is not perhaps how people come to salvation, but simply that they do. My point was simply this: if people have it within themselves to simply decide for Christ when hearing the Gospel, we would imagine that there would be far more Christians about around us. I’ve personally witnessed to the Gospel many times, but very few have responded, and some who haven’t are members of my own family, which of course, saddens me continually.

    I have no answer to this mystery, other than to say that in my view, based on scriptures which you yourself quote above, that faith and salvation come from God and that we can play no part in our own salvation. I’m still left with this one question which I asked before; why should some people respond positively and others not? If it is because God puts it into certain people’s hearts to respond, then the work is entirely of God. I believe that God chose you, like he chose me. Sheer unmerited grace, for which I daily thank God with all humility.

  6. Hi Chris.

    Thank you for yours above, it put me in mind of the following verses,

    Eze 18:20 “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
    Eze 18:21 “But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
    Eze 18:22 “None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live.
    Eze 18:23 “Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord GOD, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?
    Eze 18:24 “But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die.
    Eze 18:25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair?
    Eze 18:26 “When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies.
    Eze 18:27 “Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive.
    Eze 18:28 “Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

    Eze 18:32 “For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord GOD. “Therefore turn and live!”

    Eze 33:11 “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’

    2Pe 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us,[fn2] not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

    Every blessing.

    Edwin.

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