Do all people have free will?
(image courtesy Breaking the Free Will Illusion)
By Spencer D Gear PhD
This brief article was prompted by an email from Christian friends. They wrote:
With regard to the [church we attend], the doctrinal issue we are sad about is that they teach “free will” as entrance to salvation. We strongly disagree as we believe that the unregenerate man/woman is incapable of choosing God, as our wills are enslaved to sin and death through the first fall. We believe it is only by God’s Grace alone, through Faith, and believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and this Faith is only by revelation of the Holy Ghost. (Ephesians 2:8-9, emphasis added)
We believe there are two types of religion in this world – religion of human achievement, and the true religion of Grace alone and Faith alone by God the Father alone through His Son Jesus Christ alone, and His Spirit alone..
1. People are incapable of choosing God
Is it a biblical teaching that an unregenerate person, dead in sin, is incapable of choosing to serve God?
As to the issue of free will in relation to salvation, how do you define free will?
I define it as the ability to decide between alternatives. Adam and Eve had this free will ability given by God at the beginning of the world. Adam is our representative, ‘Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned’ (Rom 5:12).
This definition is not original with me. Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks explained:
There are several points on which there is confusion about what is meant by free will. Some have said that it refers to the ability to desire. But a better definition is that it is the ability to decide between alternatives. Desire is a passion, an emotion; but will is a choice between two or more desires. Also, some think that to be free means that there can be no limitation of alternatives—one must be able to do whatever he wants. But the opposite of freedom is not fewer alternatives, it is being forced to choose one thing and not another. Freedom is not in unlimited options, but in unfettered choice between whatever options there are. As long as the choosing comes from the individual rather than an outside force, the decision is made freely. Free will means the ability to make an unforced decision between two or more alternatives (Geisler & Brooks 1990:63).
1.1 Adam and Eve had free will before and after sin entered the world.
God gave Adam and Eve the capability to choose between two alternatives:
‘In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil….
The LORD God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. But the LORD God warned him, “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—except the tree of he knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die”’ (Gen 2:9, 15-17 NLT).
So from the beginning of time, Adam was given the choice between alternatives (free will). What happened when Eve came along?
‘2 “Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied [to the serpent [Satan]. 3 “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”
4 “You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. 5 “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”
6 The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. 7 At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness (Gen 3:2-7 NLT).
Both Adam and Eve had free will that God gave to them. Eve was deceived and was joined by Adam, the ‘sucker’.
2. Free will after sin entered the world
What about free will after this sin entered the world? Do all human beings, dead in sin (Col 2:13), have the ability to choose among alternatives, including evil over good?
2.1 Meaning of ‘dead in sin’
Here are four translations of the phrase (Eph 2:1; Col 2:13) that should shed some insight on Col 2:13.
GNT: ‘spiritually dead because of your sins’;
NLT: ‘were dead because of your sins’;
ERV: ‘you were spiritually dead because of your sins’;
NIRV: ‘You were living in your sins and lawless ways. But in fact you were dead’.
Regarding Eph 2:1 and ‘dead in sin’:
The word for dead in Greek is nekros, which literally means a corpse or dead body. Since we know Paul is talking about a spiritual state (not a physical state), we must understand this deadness refers to our spiritual life. The Ephesians were alive physically but dead spiritually. Paul chose this comparison because it accurately describes not only the nature of an unbeliever but also the impossibility of an unbeliever recognizing and correcting his own condition. Just as a corpse cannot revive itself to life, neither can an unbeliever revive his own spirit into new life (Verse by Verse Ministry international 2018).
2.2 Biblical examples of free will from the Old Testament
3 Then Moses climbed the mountain to appear before God. The Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “Give these instructions to the family of Jacob; announce it to the descendants of Israel: 4 ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. 6 And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.”
7 So Moses returned from the mountain and called together the elders of the people and told them everything the Lord had commanded him. 8 And all the people responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” So Moses brought the people’s answer back to the Lord.
The Lord, through Moses, gave the ‘family of Jacob’ this choice: ‘obey me and keep my covenant‘ and you will receive ‘special treasure’. However, he reminded ‘the descendants of Israel of what God ‘did to the Egyptians’. They had the choice to be like the Egyptians or to obey God’s covenant. What was the free will choice: ‘We will do everything the Lord has commanded’.
That was an example of the group free will of the 12 tribes of Israel to make a choice.
This is the chapter where the Ten Commandments are repeated. These 3 verses provide a solid foundation built on the free will they could choose to be idolaters or serve God:
8 ‘You must not make any idols. Don’t make any statues or pictures of anything up in the sky or of anything on the earth or of anything down in the water. 9 Don’t worship or serve idols of any kind, because I am the Lord your God. I hate for my people to worship other gods. People who sin against me become my enemies. And I will punish them, and their children, their grandchildren, and even their great-grandchildren. 10 But I will be very kind to people who love me and obey my commands. I will be kind to their families for thousands of generations! (Deut 5:8-10 ERV)
This chapter has many commands to obey God’s laws, but also has warnings about disobeying:
In vv 8-9, the command was against idolatry ‘because I am the Lord your God’. That’s the positive command.
However, if the Israelites chose to serve other gods (they are able to sin against God), they then become His enemies and He punishes them, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
God will be very kind to the obedient people and their families for thousands of generations (v. 10).
If it was impossible for the Israelites to choose to disobey God, there would be no point in issuing this warning. The teaching here is that the Israelites had the power of alternative choices – idols or the one true God. This defines free will.
27 You will be blessed if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today. 28 But you will be cursed if you reject the commands of the Lord your God and turn away from him and worship gods you have not known before.
The Israelites could choose between 2 alternatives: (1) obey the Lord’s commands and be blessed, or (2) Reject the Lord’s commands, worship other gods, and they will be cursed. This is free will in action in God’s old covenant.
‘11 “When you crossed the Jordan River and came to Jericho, the men of Jericho fought against you, as did the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. But I gave you victory over them. 12 And I sent terror[c] ahead of you to drive out the two kings of the Amorites. It was not your swords or bows that brought you victory. 13 I gave you land you had not worked on, and I gave you towns you did not build—the towns where you are now living. I gave you vineyards and olive groves for food, though you did not plant them.
14 “So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. 15 But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord”.
It is clear what Joshua laid before the Israelites who were sinners: Choose whom you will serve – the gods of your ancestors and the Amorites – OR serve the Lord. God’s chosen people had a free will choice between 2 alternatives.
For further exposition on Josh 24:15, see: Choose does not mean choice! Joshua 24:15.
3. Free will and salvation
What do we find in the NT when the Gospel of salvation is offered to all people? Can they accept or reject it? Or are they unconditionally elected and are irresistibly drawn to Jesus because He died only for the elect?
I have taken these points from my article, What is the nature of human free will?
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:
(image courtesy ChristArt)
- 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].
In relation to salvation, I consider that the Bible teaches …
All salvation is provided by God himself. It is a gift from God. As Eph 2:8-9 (NLT) puts it,
8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
God elects / predestines people to salvation:
According to Arminianism, election is that act of God whereby he foreordains to eternal life those whom he foresees will respond in faith to the gospel. According to Calvinism, election is that act of God whereby he foreordains to eternal life those who, because of sin, cannot and will not respond in faith to the gospel. Which of these two views is the one the Bible teaches? Or is there a third, mediating option? (Storms 2018).
This is supported by verses such as 1 Peter 1:1 (NIV),
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To God’s elect, exiles, scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, 2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
God in his foreknowledge, elected people to salvation. Was this an unconditional election (Calvinism), or was it conditional election (Arminianism) or based on some other factor. That other element is:
People choose (because of their free will) between alternatives: to respond in faith and repentance to the Gospel OR to reject the Gospel. An example is found with the Philippian jailer and Paul and Silas when released from prison:
(image of Philippian jailer courtesy Garden of Praise)
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, ‘Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!’
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’
31 They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.’ 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house (Acts 16:25-31 NIV).
This jailer, dead in trespasses and sin, responded to the proclamation made by Paul and Silas in prison, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ Paul and Silas did not say, ‘Do nothing. God has done it all for you. You are unconditionally elected and are in the Kingdom’.
Instead, Paul & Silas commanded: ‘[You] believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household’.
There cannot be a Gospel response to receive salvation without human responsibility of the choice between Yes or No to the Gospel. Otherwise it is God’s authoritarian dictatorship that does away with certain biblical emphases.
How can this be? It’s because God’s grace has been extended to everyone and they respond in faith or reject the Gospel. We have this partially explained in Titus 2:11 (NIV), ‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people’.
Salvation is offered to all but not all respond in faith. That’s not because of irresistible grace because ‘the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people’.
For further explanations, see my articles:
There may be many questions that come from my response. In my understanding of free will, I’m a leaky, Reformed Arminian. To his dying day, Jacob Arminius was a Dutch Reformed minister who taught in the Reformed University of Leiden. I’m a ‘leaky’ one because I do not believe in Arminian infant baptism. Baptism is for believers in my biblical understanding. (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 8:36, 38).
See my article, Believer’s baptism or infant baptism?
From the beginning of time (with Adam and Eve) right through to salvation, God’s view is that human beings have free-will choice to accept or reject him. All people can choose to follow other gods or God Himself (Joshua 24:14-15).
They can choose to accept or reject evidence for the existence of God (Romans 1:18-22) or choose to believe in Jesus (Acts 16:31) or reject his offer of salvation (John 3:19-21).
In this article, I use ‘choose’ and ‘free will’ to mean the ability to decide between alternatives. Yes, people are drawn to salvation by God the Father (John 6:44) but Scripture assures us that all people are drawn since Jesus’ death and resurrection when he was ‘lifted up (John 12:32).
5. Works consulted
Geisler, N L & Brooks, R M 1990. When skeptics ask. Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books.
Storms, S 2018. The Arminian concept of election. Sam Storms: Enjoying God (online). Available at: http://www.samstorms.com/all-articles/post/the-arminian-concept-of-election (Accessed 16 August 2018).
Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Verse by Verse Ministry international 2018. Could you explain the connection between our spiritual “deadness” and God’s grace, as presented in Ephesians 2:1-10? (online). Available at: https://www.versebyverseministry.org/bible-answers/could-you-explain-ephesians-21-10 (Accessed 16 August 2018).
 I received this email on 1 May 2018.
 The ERV is the Easy-to-Read Version. This version also is for a lower literacy level.
 The NIRV is the New International Reader’s Version. This is for a lower literacy level than the NIV.
Copyright © 2019 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 06 March 2019