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).