(image courtesy ChristArt)
By Spencer D Gear
It is not unusual to get questions from Christians like, ‘What, exactly, do you mean by free will?’ This can become an especially animated discussion between Arminians and Calvinists in theological discussions.
When we ask, ‘What is the nature of free will or free choice?’ we may be asking: How long is a piece of string in theological terms? If we are going to answer this question with biblical accuracy, we will need to ask further questions about:
- Free will / free choice and the power of God (see Isa 45:11-13; 46:4; Jer 32:16-44; Acts 4:24-31);
- Free choice and the decrees of God (Rom 8:28; Eph 1:9, 11; 3:11);
- Free choice and the salvation of human beings (Tit 2:11; Prov 1:23; Isa 31:6; Ezek 14:6; Matt 18:3; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 16:31; 17:30; Phil 1:39; 1 Jn 3:23);
- Free choice as it is related to God’s providence (Jas 4:2);
- Free choice and God’s foreknowledge (Rom 8:29-30; 2 Cor 6:1-2; 1 Pt 1:1-2);
- Free choice and a human being’s moral nature (Jn 1:12-13; 7:17; Rom 3:26; Heb 3:7-8, 15; 4);
- Free choice and Adam’s original sin (the origin of the sin of the human race) [Gen 3:1-8; Rom 5:12-19; 1 Cor 15:21-22; 1 Tim 2:13-14];
- Free choice and human depravity (Deut 6:4-5; Matt 22:35-38; Rom 2:14; 7:18; 8:14; 2 Tim 3:4);
- Free choice and eternal security/perseverance of the saints (Jer 3:12, 14, 22; Hos 14:4; Mt 24:13; Mk 4:16-17; 7:21-23; Jn 6:66-67; 13:10-11; Heb 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 2 Pt 2:20-22; 1 Jn 2:19)[listed in Thiessen 1949:524].
I’ll make a brief attempt at an understanding of human free choice, but this will not be an adequate understanding without biblical knowledge of the above 9 points, with some biblical references provided.
From a human point of view, we understand God’s knowledge of the future is foreknowledge. But from God’s point of view, He knows all things ‘by one simultaneous intuition’ (Thiessen 1949:125).
Simply stated, the nature of human free will or of human free choice is, according to Norman Geisler, ‘the power of contrary choice’ (Geisler 2003:444). This is a basic and simple definition: ‘Free will or free choice is the power of contrary choice’ and it is not taken away from human beings by God’s sovereignty.
In my understanding, God gave to Satan (Lucifer) and to Adam the power of free choice before the Fall. However, to discuss free choice, God’s sovereignty and human depravity will take a lot of space that I have not attempted here.
This view of free will, the power of contrary choice, is not incompatible with God’s complete sovereignty over human choice as God’s omniscient attribute knows absolutely what every free choice will be. God cannot be the one who decrees sinful actions. Why?
We know God cannot sin. We know that he cannot lie (Heb 6:18; Titus 1:2) and he cannot be tempted by evil and he cannot tempt people with evil (James 1:13). This is the nature of our Lord God Almighty:
The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he’ (Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV)
That is not the way Jonathan Edwards saw it:
That we should say, that God has decreed every action of men, yea, every action that they do that is sinful, and every circumstance of those actions . . . and yet that God does not decree the actions that are sinful as sinful, but decrees [them] as good, is really consistent.
We do not mean by decreeing an action as sinful, the same as decreeing an action so that it shall be sinful; but by decreeing an action as sinful, I mean decreeing [it] for the sake of the sinfulness of the action. God decrees that it shall be sinful for the sake of the good that he causes to arise from the sinfulness thereof, whereas man decrees it for the sake of the evil that is in it (The Miscellanies of Jonathan Edwards #85).
1. Free will and the power of God
(image courtesy ChristArt)
God’s omnipotence means that God ‘is able to do whatever He wills; but since His will is limited by His nature, this means that God can do everything in harmony with His perfections’ (Thiessen 1949:126). So this means that God cannot do whatever is contrary to his perfect nature. The implications are:
God is ‘pure and cannot stand the sight of evil’ (Habakkuk 1:13 NLT).
God cannot deny who he is (2 Tim 2:13 NLT);
It is impossible for God to lie (Heb 6:18 NLT);
God never tempts anyone and God himself is not tempted to do wrong (James 1:13 NLT).
It should be self evident that the God who created logic could not do that which is a self-contradiction. Since the spirit is immaterial, it is contradictory to speak of a material spirit – and a square circle. God can do what he wills with his power, but
God has limited Himself to some extent by the free will of His rational creatures. That is why He did not keep sin out of the universe by a display of His power; that is also why he does not save anyone by force (Thiessen 1949:126).
These Scriptures teach the all-powerful nature (omnipotence) of God: Genesis 17:1; Job 42:2; Jeremiah 32:17; Matthew 19:26; Luke 1:37 and Revelation 19:6.
2. Free choice and God’s foreknowledge
(image courtesy ChristArt)
What is the meaning of God’s knowing everything? This is called God’s omniscience.
‘By the omniscience of God we mean that He knows Himself and all other things, whether they be actual or merely possible, whether they be past, present, or future, and that He knows them perfectly and from all eternity. He knows things immediately, simultaneously, exhaustively and truly. He also knows the best ways to attain His desired ends’ (Thiessen 1949:124)
How does this apply to God’s knowing the future and His foreknowledge? Henry Thiessen again: ‘From man’s standpoint God’s knowledge of the future is foreknowledge, but not from God’s since He knows all things by one simultaneous intuition’ (Thiessen 1949:125). This means that God’s foreknowledge includes:
Knowledge of the past, present and future (Isa 46:9; Daniel 2 and 7; Matthew 24 and 25; Acts 15:18);
Knowing that Israel would become prosperous and then practice idolatry, despise God and the intentions of these people – their wickedness (Deut 31:20-21);
The future work of Cyrus (Isa 44:26-45:7);
The Messiah would come (Micah 5:2);
What would happen to Jesus at his crucifixion and what wicked people would do to him in fulfillment of Scripture (Acts 2:23; 3:18);
Thiessen emphasised that foreknowledge did not mean cause: ‘We must not confuse foreknowledge with the predetermining will of God. Free actions do not take place because they are foreseen, but they are foreseen because they will take place’ (1949:126).
Thiessen (1949:126) cites Charles Hodge, a Calvinist, in support of this position: ‘That free acts may be absolutely certain, is plain, because they have in a multitude of cases been predicted. It was certain that the acts of Christ would be holy, yet they were free’ (Hodge 1979:401).
So, in God’s economy, God’s foreknowledge involves free acts but God’s foreknowledge does not cause a free action to happen in human beings. It knows a free action will lead to a certain effect.
Free will is defined as the power of contrary choice that has been given by God to all human beings. This operates within the sovereignty of God. God has put parameters around his power by allowing the free will of His rational creatures – human beings.
God’s attribute of omniscience means that He knows Himself and all other things, whether they be actual or merely possible, whether they be past, present, or future, and that He knows them perfectly and from all eternity.
From a human perspective, we can say that God knows the future through his attribute of foreknowledge (a dimension of omniscience). However, from God’s viewpoint, he knows all things ‘by one simultaneous intuition’ (Thiessen 1949:125).
‘Free actions do not take place because they are foreseen, but they are foreseen because they will take place’ (Thiessen 1949:126). God’s foreknowledge does not cause a free action to happen in human beings. It knows a free action will lead to a certain effect.
We can praise the Lord that he did not make robots or lemmings when he created human beings. He created them with genuine free will and that was not cancelled by the fall into sin and the depravity of the human race. How that can be, is contained in the infinite wisdom of God. Human beings find it difficult to grasp this concept of free will being still available to human beings although they are in bondage to sin before conversion to Christ.
4. See also my articles:
‘Calvinists, free will and a better alternative’;
‘How a Calvinist can distort the meaning of 2 Peter 3:9’;
Geisler, N 2003. Systematic theology: God, creation, vol 2. Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse.
Hodge, C 1979 reprint. Systematic theology, vol 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Christian Forums, General Theology, Soteriology, ‘The “free will” dilemma’, nobdysfool #325, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7746203-33/#post63269032 (Accessed 29 July 2013).
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 13 August 2018.