Sunday, October 12, 2008

Free Will

“And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” Rev 22:17

Walk into nearly any evangelical Sunday School class on a given Sunday morning and before too long, some well-intentioned lady will answer a question with the phrase “because we are created with a free will to choose.” (Incidentally, that answer has just surpassed “because He loves us” and “I know in the Bible it says...” topping the “Most Common Sunday School Answer” charts at #1 of all time). At that point, most everyone else will nod in agreement with their arms folded in a satisfied and even somewhat smug look on their faces. If the argument were articulated from their side, it would go something like this: “God is Sovereign; yet, in His Sovereignty he has allowed for a small window that belongs to the creature exclusive of the Creator called man’s free will; in this small window, man can either choose God or reject Him; God has done this so that men are not human robots controlled at all times by the will of God.”

The teacher, although he might have skimmed through enough of Luther’s Bondage of the Will to disagree, doesn’t really have a good answer as to why this isn’t true. So, rather than confront what he knows deep down to be shaky reasoning and risk being thrown to the ravenous wolves of the free will majority for the remainder of the class time, he quickly moves on to the next topic. You get the picture...

The idea of free will is perhaps the most misunderstood and misused idea in the contemporary church today.

The purpose of this essay is not to provide a comprehensive discussion on the subject, nor a biblical exposition (although verses can be provided if queried). Rather, the purpose is to address the subject practically and simply; hopefully, some of the content will provide a way to more effectively love those who claim a wrongful notion of free will into a deeper consideration of truth.

The Human Will

In order to understand the freedom of the human will, we must first establish terms that will enable us to know what is meant by will and then what is meant by free.

By will we mean man’s disposition to act according to principles or ends. Simply stated, will is the power of choice.

For a moment, we should consider the place of will within man.

According to scripture, man is a created, dichotomous being of body and soul. He was created from the dust of the earth and was given life by the breath of his Creator. As dirt is to the body, the breath of God is to the soul.

While the substance of the human body is flesh, the substance of the human soul is spirit. In fact, according to the Bible the characteristics (what it is) that describe the soul are:
  • spirit (substance),
  • life (effect),
  • heart (position-center of man), and
  • self (person-the personality).
It is important when considering the abilities of man to always consider what man is and how man works, since man, just as any other created being, will never exceed the limits of what he was created to be.

As the characteristics (what it is) of the soul are spirit, life, heart and self, the faculties (how it works) of the soul are:
  • understanding,
  • affections,
  • will and
  • conscience.
As the explanation of these terms will hopefully attest, the order of the terms is very significant. It is the progression of how the soul governs the body. Ultimately, when your body takes action, the understanding, affections, will and conscience have already been at work in sequence to determine the action that will transpire. You cannot and will not act unless the sequential process of the faculties of the soul has first run its course. In other words, you must understand (whether fully or partially, truly or falsely) in order to desire; you must desire in order to will; you must will in order to act; and the conscience must either excuse or accuse an idea into action.

Understanding is the power to distinguish between truth and falsehood; it is the power of comprehending. To know is to understand. How someone comes to understand principally occurs through 5 ways.
  • Thinking is the mental concentration of ideas.
  • Reasoning is logical thinking resulting in a conclusion.
  • Perception means to take notice of, observe or detect. Our ability to discern comes from this ability to perceive.
  • Purposing is intending to do something; it is determining to act in a certain way. In order to eventually act, one must initially purpose, intend, devise and plan.
  • Imagining is the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses. To imagine is to think of an idea never before wholly received in reality.
Affections are feelings or emotions. The power or ability to love, hate, joy, sorrow, etc. comes from our affections. Desire is based on affections. You will not want until you desire. You will not desire until you like. Desire is the conscious impulse towards something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment.

Will has already been defined.

Conscience is the sense of moral goodness or blameworthiness of ones own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good. It is the judge within you, reviewing your intended or actual actions, and will condemn or condone accordingly either accusing or excusing.

What Does Free Mean?

In our context, free means might + right.

Might = Ability. Right = Permission.

In order for a moral being to freely do something, it must always have the ability and permission to do so.

For example, are you free to jump to the moon? There is no moral law that prohibits you to jump to the moon; however, the physical law of gravity obviously prohibits you from jumping much higher than your table, much less out of the atmosphere. Thus, you are no more free to jump to the moon than you are to fly, since you have no ability to do so.

Are you free to take a gun into another’s house and commit murder? As long as you are able to break in and have the appropriate means, there is no physical law prohibiting you; however, the moral (and in this case, federal or state) law prohibits you from breaking and entering and taking another life. You are not free to murder, since you have no permission to do so.

Is the Human Will Free?

Worded another way: To what extent is man capable of exercising the power of choice freely? Answer: To the extent that he has both the ability and permission to do so.

Is it possible for man to exercise the power of choice successfully and not be free to do so? Yes.

Consider sin. Is any man free to sin? Answer: the wages of sin is death, and if you are dead then you are not free. Man may be able to exercise the power of choice in sinning, but he is not free to do so since the consequence of death awaits him both spiritually and physically. Too often, paraphrasing Luther, men mistake freedom for familiarity.

Consider man in creation. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. Was man created as a moral agent with an ability to exercise power of choice? In an absolute sense, no; man was never free to do absolutely whatever he pleased. But as long as he was responsible to obey the law set before him, he was free to eat of any tree in the garden. When man sinned, he lost that ability or free power of choice without losing the subsequent responsibility to obey perfectly the law set before him or the consequential punishment (death) for not being able to do so.

And this is why the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation--Man is responsible for that which he has no ability to do.

But this is also why Jesus became incarnate, lived perfectly, put sin and its wages to death, as One whose will was free--that his people might also live as ones whose wills have been set free.

Consider the words of the Savior:

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
They answered him, We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?
Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.
And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: [but] the Son abideth ever.
If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
John 8:32-36.

The human will is only free when Jesus makes it so, and whosoever will may freely come only when the Son has freed his will indeed.

As many today are confounded by a mistaken idea of free will, most of Jesus’ Jewish audience did not understand what free will meant as well. They failed to see that only the Son could set them free from the wrath of God, free from the curse of sin, free from being a slave to the law. Instead, they mistakenly thought their will gave them an ability to be justified through their own obedience to the law.

They also failed to know that freedom from is always freedom to, that being free from sin is also always being free to walk in the Spirit; these freedoms cannot be separated. As such, they nullified the grace of God causing Christ’s death to have no purpose (Gal 2:21).

Dear reader, if you will be free there is only one way. Come to Jesus--the way, the truth and the life.

For the only men who will be fit to stand before the Father are free men and men only fitly made free by the Son.


Hal Brunson said...


Thanks for the hard work on this excellent post.

Shane said...

That was awesome! I greatly enjoyed that post. I think you ought to explore the issue of what it means for the will to be freed in Christ at more length, and if you do, I'd love to read it.

For instance, when you say Jesus makes our will "free," I think that goes against your above-definition of freedom, which includes "permission." Obviously, the Christian lacks permission to sin, and therefore, in a sense still lacks free will.

What he has gained is ability to accept Christ. Perhaps, stated negatively, he has lost the ability to fully and finally reject Christ? If that's the case, then the will is still not free, but fettered by a different rope. I'm shooting off the cuff here, just providing fodder, fyi.

All that to say, again, I'd love to read more of your thoughts on this.

Hippie Fringe said...

Popular christianity seems to envision a tree of life on every street corner; low hanging fruit there for the taking if you don’t slip on the rotted fermenting pile to get a ripe one. I guess Adam and Eve could have settled this whole mess if they had just eaten of the tree way back when. They were "free" to do so. Of course this would require 1) that they knew about the tree; 2) that they had an inclination to eat thereof; 3) that they knew the way to the tree; 4) that they knew the tree when the saw it and 5) that they could get past the angels with flaming swords God put there to block their path.

Beau Morgan said...


Thanks for the comment.

I think Paul addresses your point best when he writes to the Galatians, "for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

One of the main points for this essay is that the reader consider that "free" is not what most people think it is. (Just like when Jesus addressed the Jews in John 8). True freedom for a created being must include "permission." On your statement about the Christian "lacking a free will" since it "lacks permission to sin" consider Paul's comment above with "submitting again to a yoke of slavery."

I submit that you can never associate "free" with "sin." Thus, Luther's point about men thinking they are free when they sin when they are actually just so familiar with it that they mistake it for a "freedom." But it is a fool's "freedom," the world's "freedom."

As Christians, we sin because we are still burdened by the flesh (see Paul's struggle in Romans), but this does not mean that we are not "free" to be "more than conquerors." Committing sin is not the same thing as living in a state of sin. A true Christian exercises his freedom in Christ through sanctification, and should be sinning less and less and "freer" from sin more and more, ie. "for freedom Christ has set us free," not for bondage, not for sin.

Your point about being "fettered by a different rope" is akin to my point that "freedom from is always freedom to" for a created being. You cannot be set free from one thing without being "fettered" to another. But for the Christian being "fettered" to Christ is quite freeing, isn't it? Only in "looking unto Jesus" can we escape the vain idolatry and gods that this world has to offer (self-worship, hero-worship, child-worship, political-worship, and on and on). (Just go to a Barnes and Noble and look at the magazine'll find our gods there aplenty)

Lastly, and this needs be more fully developed, but I think the ideas of "living under the law" and "living by faith" have much to do with what Christ means by "if I shall make you free, you will be free indeed."

In light of your comment, consider "free" in Christ when reading what Paul writes here to the Romans:

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the spirit."

Shane said...


I really enjoy your writing. And I hope you don't think I was disagreeing with you in my post----I'm totally on board with all you wrote; I just wanted to read you fleshing it out at little.

BTW, just out of curiousity, does anybody ever say to you, "Are you THE Beau Morgan?" I think that would be a cool experience. Nobody ever asks me, "Are you THE Shane McGuire," rather, they ask, "Are you thuh lawyer?"