The Meaning of Man’s Will (pt. 1)

from Jun 17, 2009 Category: Articles

(Continued from The Meaning of God’s Will, Part 5)

The term free will as applied to man is often glibly declared with little or no understanding of its meaning. There is actually no unified theory of man’s free will, but a variety of competing, and often conflicting, views about it.

The question of man’s free will is made more complicated by the fact that we must examine it in man, in terms of how the will functioned before and after the fall of Adam. Most important for us today is how the Fall affected man’s moral choices.

It was St. Augustine who gave the church a close analysis of the state of freedom that Adam enjoyed before the Fall. Augustine’s classic concept of freedom distinguished four possibilities. In Latin, they are:

1. posse pecarre—referring to the ability to sin.
2. posse non-pecarre—referring to the ability not to sin, or to remain free from sin.
3. non-posse pecarre—referring to the inability to sin.
4. non-posse, non-pecarre—referring to the inability not to sin.

Considering Adam before the Fall, Augustine argued that Adam had possessed both the ability to sin (posse pecarre) and the ability not to sin (posse non-pecarre). Adam lacked the exalted state of the inability to sin that God enjoys (non-posse pecarre). God’s inability to sin is based not on an inner powerlessness of God to do what he wants, but rather on the fact that God has no inner desire to sin. Since the desire for sin is utterly absent from God, there is no reason for God to choose sin.

Before the Fall Adam did not have the moral perfection of God; neither did Adam have the inability to refrain from sin (non-posse, non-pecarre). During his time of “probation” in the garden, he had the ability to sin and the ability not to sin. He chose to exercise the ability to sin and thus plunged the race into ruin.

As a result, Adam’s first sin was passed on to all his descendants. Original sin refers not to the first sin but to God’s punishment of that first transgression. Because of the first sin human nature fell into a morally corrupt state, itself partially a judgment of God. When we speak of original sin, we refer to the fallen human condition which reflects the judgment of God upon the race.

Christians differ in their views concerning the extent and seriousness of the Fall. It is, however, almost universally conceded that in dealing with mankind, we are dealing with a fallen race. Augustine located the depths of man’s fallenness in his loss of original powers of righteousness. No longer does man have the posse non-pecarre. In his fallen state the plight of man is found in his inability to keep from sinning (non-posse, non-pecarre). In the Fall, something profoundly vital to moral freedom was lost.

Augustine declared that in his prefallen state man enjoyed both a free will (liberium arbitrium) and moral liberty (libertas). Since the Fall, man has continued to have a free will, but has lost the moral liberty he once enjoyed.

Perhaps the most insightful study of the question of fallen man’s free will was produced in the epic work of Jonathan Edwards, On the Freedom of the Will. Edwards and Augustine differ in terminology, but their meaning is essentially the same. Edwards distinguished between the natural ability of freedom and the moral ability of freedom. Natural ability deals with the powers of action and choice that we possess by nature. Man’s natural abilities include the power to think, to walk, to speak, to eat, and so on. Man lacks the natural ability to fly, to live beneath the sea as a fish, or to hibernate for months without food. We may desire to fly, but lack the natural equipment necessary to live out our desire. Our freedom has a certain built-in restriction relegated to the limitations of our natural faculties.

With respect to the making of choices, fallen man still has the natural ability and the natural faculties necessary to make moral choices. Man can still think, feel, desire. All of the equipment necessary for the making of choices remains. What fallen man lacks is the moral disposition, the desire, or the inclination of righteousness.

Stated simply, man still has the ability to choose what he wants, but lacks the desire for true righteousness. He is naturally free, but morally enslaved to his own corrupt and wicked desires. For both Edwards and Augustine, man is still free to choose; but if left to himself, man will never choose righteousness, precisely because he does not desire it.

Edwards took the question a step further. Man still has not only the ability, but also the built-in necessity, to choose according to his desires. Not only can we choose what we want, but we must choose what we want. It is at this point that the protest is sounded: Is free choice an illusion? If we must choose what we choose, how can such a choice be called free? If we are free to choose what we want but want only what is evil, how can we still speak of free will? This is precisely why Augustine distinguished between free will and liberty, saying that fallen man still has free will but has lost his liberty. It is why Edwards said that we still have natural freedom but have lost moral freedom.

Why talk of freedom at all, if we can choose only sin? The crux of the matter lies in the relationship between choice and desire, or disposition. Edwards’s thesis is that we always choose according to the strongest inclination, or disposition, of the moment. Again, not only can we choose according to our strongest desires, but we must choose according to our strongest desires of the moment. Such is the essence of freedom—that I am able to choose what I want when I want it.

If I must do something, then in a sense my actions are determined. If my actions are determined, then how can I be free? The classic answer to this difficult question is that the determination of my choices comes from within myself. The essence of freedom is self-determination. It is when my choices are forced upon me by external coercion that my freedom is lost. To be able to choose what I want by virtue of self-determination does not destroy free will but establishes it.

To choose according to the strongest desire, or inclination, of the moment means simply that there is a reason for the choices I make. At one point Edwards defined the will as “the mind choosing.” The actual choice is an effect, or result, which requires an antecedent cause. The cause is located in the disposition, or desire. If all effects have causes, then all choices likewise have causes. If the cause is apart from me, then I am a victim of coercion. If the cause is from within me, then my choices are self-determined or free.

Think about Edwards’s thesis that we always choose according to the strongest inclination, or desire, of the moment. Think, if you will, of the most harmless choice that you might make in the course of a day. Perhaps you attend a meeting of a group and choose to sit on the left side in the third seat from the end of the fourth row at the front of the room. Why did you choose to sit there? In all probability, when you entered the room, you did not engage in a thorough analysis of your seating preferences. You probably did not make a chart to determine which was the best seat. Your decision was probably made quickly, with little or no conscious evaluation and with a sense of apparent spontaneity. Does that mean, however, that there was no reason for your choice? Perhaps you sat where you did because you are comfortable sitting on the left side of the room in such meetings. Perhaps you were attracted to that seat because of its proximity to a friend or its access to the exit. In situations like this, the mind weighs a host of contributing factors so quickly that we tend to think our responses are spontaneous. The truth is that something in you triggered a desire to sit in a certain seat or else your choice was an effect without a cause.

Perhaps your seat selection was governed by forces outside of your control. Perhaps the seat you chose was the only seat left in the room so that you had no choice in the matter at all. Is that completely true? The option to stand at the back of the room was still there. Or the option to leave the meeting altogether was still there. You chose to sit in the only seat available because your desire to sit was stronger than your desire to stand; your desire to stay was stronger than your desire to leave.

Consider a more bizarre illustration. Suppose on the way home from the meeting you encounter a robber who points a gun to your head and says, “Your money or your life.” What do you do? If you accede to his demand and turn over your wallet, you will become a victim of coercion, and yet in some measure you will have exercised free choice. Coercion enters by virtue of the fact that the gunman is severely restricting your options to two. The element of freedom that is preserved stems from the fact that you still have two options and that you choose the one for which you have the strongest desire at the moment.

All things being equal, you have no desire to donate your money to an unworthy thief. You have even less desire, however, to have your brains poured out on the sidewalk by the gunman’s bullet. Given the small number of options, you still choose according to the strongest inclination at the moment. We always do what we really want to do.

*****

This is part seven of R.C. Sproul’s book How Can I Know God’s Will?. If you would like to study this topic further, here are a couple of products that may interest you: Knowing God’s Will CD Collection or Knowing God’s Will MP3 Collection.