The Meaning of Man’s Will (pt. 2)

from Jun 18, 2009 Category: Articles

(Continued from The Meaning of Man’s Will, Part 1)

The Bible teaches, some will say, that we do not always do what we want to do. The apostle Paul laments in Romans 7 that the good he would do he does not do, and the thing he does not want to do is the very thing he does. Paul’s frustration over the wretchedness of his condition would seem totally to refute Edwards’s thesis of the relationship of choice to desire. Paul, however, is not giving expression to an analysis of the causal relationship between desire and choice. He is expressing a profound frustration that centers on the complex of desires that assault the human will.

We are creatures with a multitude of desires, many of which are in violent conflict with each other. Again consider the “all things being equal” dimension of our moral choices. As a Christian I have a profound desire to please Christ with my life and to attain righteousness. That good desire for obedience to God is neither perfect nor pure as it struggles daily with other desires in my sinful personality. If I had no conflicting desires, I would, of course, never be disobedient. If the only desire I had, or if the strongest desire I had, were continuously the desire to obey God, I would never willfully sin against him. But there are times when my desire to sin is greater than my desire to obey; when that happens, I sin. When my desire to obey is greater than my desire to sin, then at that moment, I refrain from sinning. My choices reveal more clearly and more certainly than anything else the level of my desire.

Desire, like appetite, is not constant. Our levels of desire fluctuate from day to day, from hour to hour, and from minute to minute. Desire moves in an ebb-and-flow pattern like the waves of the sea. The person who goes on a diet experiences intensifying pangs of hunger at various times of the day. It is easy to make a resolution to diet when one is satiated; it is easy to swear off alcohol in the middle of a hangover. It is easy to resolve to be righteous in the middle of a moving spiritual experience of prayer. But we are creatures of changing moods and fleeting desires who have not yet achieved a constancy of will based upon a consistency of godly desires. As long as conflict of desire exists and an appetite for sin remains in the heart, then man is not totally free in the moral sense of which Edwards spoke, nor does man experience the fullness of liberty described by Augustine.

Over against the Augustinian view of free will is the classical notion that describes the action or activity of choice in purely spontaneous terms. In this concept the will chooses and is free from not only external forces of coercion, but also any internal rule of disposition, or desire. The choice of the moment proceeds freely in the sense that no inclination or prior disposition controls, directs, or affects the choice that is made. It is safe to say that this view of the will is the dominant view of free will in Western culture and is the view Calvin had in mind when he stated, “Free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to man.” At bottom it implies that man can make choices that are effects without any causes. Here it is suggested that the power of man to produce an effect without a cause exceeds even the creative power of God Almighty. Moreover, the cardinal rule of causality—ex nihilo, nihil fit (out of nothing, nothing comes)—is broken. Such a view of freedom is repugnant not only to Scripture, but to reason as well.

To understand freedom as purely spontaneous choice with no prior disposition controlling it is to rob freedom of any moral significance. That is, if I act with no prior motive or no previous inclination toward or away from righteousness, then how can it be said that my act is moral at all? Such activity would be without reason or motive behind it; it would be a purely random action, with no moral virtue attached to it.

But a deeper question remains: Is such a spontaneous action possible at all? If the will is inclined neither to the right nor to the left, how could it choose at all? If there is no disposition toward, or away from, the action, then the will suffers from complete paralysis. It is like the donkey who had set before him a bale of hay and a bucket of oats. The donkey’s inclination with respect to the hay and the oats was exactly equal with not the slightest degree of preference toward one or the other. The story is told that the donkey in such circumstances starves to death with a banquet feast in front of him because he has no way to choose between the two.

The practical problem that remains with the classical view of freedom is one raised by behavioristic psychology. If man is indeed self-determined or free, does that not imply that if his desires were completely known, man’s action in every given circumstance would be completely predictable? There is a sense in which we must agree that such a predictability would be implied. However, there is no way that we or a collection of mankind or any genius short of God and his omniscience could possibly know all the complex factors present in the human mind weighing a choice.

We recognize with psychologists that preferences and inclinations are shaped in many respects by past experience and environment, but we cannot predict with certainty what any human being will do. Hidden variables within the complex of human personality make for this unpredictability. It nevertheless remains a fact that there is always a reason for our actions, a cause for our choices. That cause stems partly from ourselves and partly from the forces operating around and over against us.

The safest course to steer is to define freedom as the church fathers, such as Augustine, did: “the ability to choose what we want.” God’s sovereignty does not extinguish that dimension of human personality, but certainly rules over it.

Out of rigid forms of determinism comes the cry of despair: “If the complex factors that make up personality completely determine my choices, then what value is self-improvement or the search for righteousness? If my will is enslaved by my dispositions and desires, what hope do I have of ever breaking out of the patterns of sin that are so destructive to my present mode of behavior?”

In a real sense the process of sanctification involves a radical reprogramming of the inner self. We are not the victims of blind mechanical forces that control our destiny. As intelligent beings, we can do something to change the disposition of our heart and the inclination of our mind.

It is important to remember that desire is not a fixed and constant power that beats within our souls. Our desires change and fluctuate from moment to moment. When the Bible calls us to feed the new man and starve the old man, we can apply this injunction by taking advantage of the ebb and flow of moods to strengthen the new man when our desire for Christ is inflamed and to kill the old man’s desires by starving him in times of satiation. The simplest way to state the mechanism of sin is to understand that at the moment I sin, I desire the sin more than I desire to please God. Stated another way, my love for the sin is greater at the moment of its intense desire than is my love for obedience to God. Therefore, the simple conclusion is that to overcome the power of sin within us, we need either to decrease our desire for the sin or to increase our desire to obey God.

What can we do to effect such changes? We can submit ourselves to the discipline of a class or a teacher and devote ourselves to a rigorous study of the law of God. Such disciplined study can help renew our mind, equipping us with a new understanding of what pleases and displeases God. Having a renewed mind is the biblical definition of spiritual transformation.

The mind and the will are linked, as Edwards noted. By understanding more deeply how abhorrent our sin is to God, we can have our own attitudes toward sin changed or reprogrammed. We are to follow the biblical injunction to concentrate on whatever things are pure and good. It may be too much to expect that a man in the midst of an attack of profound lust will switch to pure thoughts. It would be difficult for him to push a button and change the inclination of his desire at that moment. But in a more sober mood, he may have the opportunity to reprogram his mind by filling it with high and holy thoughts of the things of God. The end result is that he may well strengthen the disposition of his heart toward God and weaken the disposition of his fallen nature toward sin.

We need not surrender to a superficial form of rigid determinism or behaviorism that would cause us to despair of any hope of change. Scripture encourages us to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling,” knowing that not only are we applying the means of grace by our own effort, but we are also confident that God himself is working within us to bring about the necessary changes to conform us to the image of his Son.

*****

This is part eight 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.