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.
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.
But what about man’s will with respect to the sovereignty of God? Perhaps the oldest dilemma of the Christian faith is the apparent contradiction between the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man. If we define human freedom as autonomy (meaning that man is free to do whatever he pleases, without constraint, without accountability to the will of God), then of course we must say that free will is contradictory to divine sovereignty. We cannot soft-pedal this dilemma by calling it a mystery; we must face up to the full import of the concept. If free will means autonomy, then God cannot be sovereign. If man is utterly and completely free to do as he pleases, there can be no sovereign God. And if God is utterly sovereign to do as he pleases, no creature can be autonomous.
It is possible to have a multitude of beings, all of whom are free to various degrees but none is sovereign. The degree of freedom is determined by the level of power, authority, and responsibility held by that being. But we do not live in this type of universe. There is a God who is sovereign--which is to say, he is absolutely free. My freedom is always within limits. My freedom is always constrained by the sovereignty of God. I have freedom to do things as I please, but if my freedom conflicts with the decretive will of God, there is no question as to the outcome--God’s decree will prevail over my choice.
It is stated so often that it has become almost an uncritically accepted axiom within Christian circles that the sovereignty of God may never violate human freedom in the sense that God’s sovereign will may never overrule human freedom. The thought verges on, if not trespasses, the border of blasphemy because it contains the idea that God’s sovereignty is constrained by human freedom. If that were true, then man, not God, would be sovereign, and God would be restrained and constrained by the power of human freedom. As I say, the implication here is blasphemous because it raises the creature to the stature of the Creator. God’s glory, majesty, and honor are denigrated since he is being reduced to the status of a secondary, impotent creature. Biblically speaking, man is free, but his freedom can never violate or overrule God’s sovereignty.
Within the authority structure of my own family, for example, I and my son are free moral agents; he has a will and I have a will. His will, however, is more often constrained by my will than is my will constrained by his. I carry more authority and more power in the relationship and hence have a wider expanse of freedom than he has. So it is with our relationship to God; God’s power and authority are infinite, and his freedom is never hindered by human volition.
There is no contradiction between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. Those who see a contradiction, or even point to the problem as an unsolvable mystery, have misunderstood the mystery. The real mystery regarding free will is how it was exercised by Adam before the Fall.
If Augustine was correct that pre-Fall Adam possessed an ability to sin and an ability not to sin and was created with no prior disposition or inclination toward sin, then the question we face is, How was it possible for such a creature with no prior disposition toward evil actually to take the step into evil? As we grapple with this mystery, let me present several options that have served as explanations in the past.
We can hypothesize that Adam fell because he was duped by the craftiness of Satan and simply did not know what he was doing. The inspiration for this hypothesis is the biblical emphasis on the craftiness of Satan. Satan, in his guile, was able to seduce Adam and Eve by confusing their thought patterns. Thus, the weakness of our primordial parents was not moral in nature, but intellectual, inasmuch as they failed to perceive the chicanery of the serpent. What complicates the picture is the fact that the Scriptures in this instance do not describe Adam and Eve as having been completely duped by their adversary; rather they had full knowledge of what God allowed them and did not allow them to do. They could not plead ignorance of the command of God as an excuse for their transgression.
There are times when ignorance is excusable, namely when such ignorance cannot possibly be helped or overcome. Such ignorance is properly described by the Roman Catholic church as “invincible ignorance”--ignorance that we lack the power to conquer. But invincible ignorance excuses and gives one reprieve from any accusation of moral wrongdoing. The biblical record gainsays this option, for God pronounces judgment upon Adam and Eve; and unless that judgment were arbitrary or immoral on the part of God himself, we can only conclude that Adam and Eve were inexcusable. A just God does not punish excusable transgressions. Indeed, excusable transgressions are not transgressions.
A second option is that Adam and Eve were coerced by Satan to disobey God. Here we see the original instance of the statement “The devil made me do it.” If, however, Satan, in fact, fully and forcibly coerced Adam and Eve to transgress the law of God, then once again we would find an excuse for their actions. We would have to conclude that they did not act with a reasonable measure of freedom, a measure which would at least have delivered them from moral culpability. Such a theory, however, violates the clear teaching of the biblical text, which hints at no coercive manipulation on the part of Satan.
Consistently, the Scriptures place the responsibility, the blame, and the full culpability upon Adam and Eve themselves. They committed evil. Their choice was an evil one.
By what means did Adam and Eve make an evil choice? If we apply the analysis of choice common to Augustine and Edwards to pre-Fall Adam, we face an insoluble dilemma. If Adam had been created with a purely neutral disposition (with no inclination toward either righteousness or evil), we would still face the same rational impasse that Edwards notes for those who would impose it for post-Fall man. A will with no predisposition would have no motivation to choose. Without motivation, there could actually be no choice. Even if such a choice were possible, it would have no moral import to it.
We must examine the other two alternatives--that Adam was created either with a predisposition toward evil or with a singular predisposition toward good. Both of these options end at the stone wall of intellectual difficulty. If we assume that Adam was created with a predisposition toward evil, we cast a horrible shadow over the character of God, for this would mean that God had created man with a predisposition toward evil and then had punished man for exercising that disposition that God himself had planted within his soul. This would, in a real sense, make God the author of, and the one ultimately responsible for, human wickedness. Every page of Holy Scripture recoils from such a thesis, as it would transfer the blame from man to God himself, who is altogether good. Many take this option, following in the footsteps of the implied criticism of the first man, Adam, who excused himself before the Creator by saying, “The woman you put here with me--she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Men from Adam onward have, as a manifestation of their fallenness, tried to transfer the blame for that fallenness to the Creator.
A third option is that God created man with a disposition toward only righteousness. If this were the case, then we have an effect without a sufficient cause. How is it possible for a creature created with the disposition toward only righteousness to have chosen a wicked act?
I have a built-in antipathy to dialectical theology--theology that proclaims the beauty of contradictions and nonsense statements. Thus, I must swallow hard to agree with one neoorthodox theologian about the origin of Adam’s sin: Karl Barth calls the sin of Adam the “impossible possibility.” Barth, of course, is calling attention to the utterly inexplicable mystery of Adam’s transgressions--what was rationally impossible and inconceivable happened and remains a bona fide and impenetrable mystery to us so far.
Other attempts have been made to seek a complex and sophisticated answer to the mystery of iniquity. One suggestion is that the sin of Adam was like all sin, namely a privation, a corruption, or a negation of something that was inherently and intrinsically good. In other words, Adam was created with a good moral disposition. His appetites and desires were continuously good, and as a result, one would expect his activities to have been equally good. However, it is suggested that in the complexity of moral choices, sometimes a good will (which has a desire that in itself is good) can be misused and abused toward an evil end. The supreme example of such a twisting occurred at the temptation of Jesus, the second and new Adam.
In Jesus’ temptation experience in the wilderness, Satan came to him in the midst of a prolonged fast. It is probably safe to assume that at that point Jesus had a consuming passion for food. That natural human desire to eat in and of itself carried no immoral overtones. One expects a hungry man to have a disposition to eat. However, in the context of a fast, Jesus wanted to obey God through this act of self-deprivation. When Satan came to Jesus and suggested that he turn stones into bread, Satan was appealing to a perfectly normal appetite and desire within Jesus. However, Jesus’ desire to obey the Father was deeper than his desire to partake of food. Thus, filled with an altogether righteous desire, he was able to overcome the temptation of Satan.
Now the theory goes like this: Perhaps it was something good that caused Adam to fall--something that in and of itself was good, but which could have been misused and abused by the seductive influences of Satan. Such an explanation certainly helps make the Fall more understandable, but it goes only so far before it fails. At its most vital point, the explanation does not account for how this good desire could have become distorted, overruling the prior obligation to obey God. At some point before the act of transgression took place, Adam must have had to desire disobedience to God more than obedience to God; therein the Fall had already taken place because the very desire to act against God in disobedience is itself sinful.
I leave the question of explaining the Fall of Adam by virtue of the exercise of his free will to the hands of more competent and insightful theologians. To blame it on man’s finite limitations is really putting blame on the God who made man finite. Biblically, the issue has been, and always will be, a moral one. Man was commanded by the Creator not to sin, but man chose to sin, not because God or anyone else forced him to. Man chose out of his own heart.
Consequently, to probe the answer to the how of man’s sin is to enter the realm of deepest mystery. Perhaps all we can do in the final analysis is to recognize the reality of our sin and our responsibility for it. Though we cannot explain it, certainly we know enough to confess it.
We must never attribute the cause of our sin to God, neither must we adopt any position that would excuse us from the moral responsibilities that Scripture clearly assigns to us.
Some have criticized the Christian faith for its inability to give a satisfying answer to the question of sin. The fact is that other religions must come to terms with this same question. Some respond simply by denying the reality of evil--a convenient but absurd way out. Christianity alone deals head-on with the reality of sin by providing an escape from its consequences.
The Christian solution to the problem of sin is a radical departure from what other religions provide, for it is centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Through his perfect sacrifice, which has the efficacy of blotting out believers’ sins, we have become righteous in God’s eyes. However, that righteousness does not give us the license to do as we please. We must still seek to do God’s preceptive will, especially as we swim through the perilous waters of the moral, ethical, and social dilemmas of our age.
While we have discussed the more theological aspects of man’s will and God’s will, two other topics now beckon us: God’s will for our job and for our marital status. These two practical concerns take center stage in the drama of our personal lives. What can we learn about God’s will and man’s will in relation to these vital aspects of living? The next chapter offers guidelines to facilitate our decision making in these all-important areas.