What does it mean to have free will?

Stephen Nichols & W. Robert Godfrey
2 Min Read

NICHOLS: There are several places we can look to answer this question. For example, we could go to John 6. We could also look at Jesus calling the disciples. By all accounts, it seems like Matthew just stood up, put down his accounting ledger, and followed after Jesus. However, as Jesus said to the disciples, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).

At the end of The City of God, Augustine said that freedom of the will is not about choice but being. Who is the being with the most freedom? It is God. Then he asked, “When do you have the most freedom?” The answer is, ”When we are in heaven,” but we cannot choose to sin in heaven. So, freedom is more about being than it is about choice. A sinner has freedom, but they are only free to be a sinner. They cannot choose God. Their wills are bound. As Augustine said, they are not able not to sin. To restate that positively, they are bound to sin.

It takes a work of God alone (we call it monergism) to regenerate a dead person, and that work of regeneration precedes faith. On top of that, the faith that the dead person professes is a gift. We need to see that. However, it is difficult for us to see that as Americans because we like choice.

I remember seeing an old Billy Sunday gospel tract that looked like a voting ballot. It had two boxes: “For” and “Against.” This tract was about you. There was a column for God with a checkmark by “For,” which meant God had voted for you. Then, it had a column for the devil with a checkmark by “Against,” which meant Satan had voted against you. Guess who gets to cast the deciding vote? You. The final column is “You” with a question mark by it. Are you going to choose God or not? This is problematic—either Jesus’ work on the cross is finished, or it is not.

Those are some of the issues that we need to think about as we perennially bump into this freedom of the will question. We can think better about it, and there are some biblical texts that help us do that. I previously mentioned John 6, which I consider exhibit A. There are others such as Romans 9–11 as well.

GODFREY: I agree with everything you said. Early in his career, Augustine wrote a treatise on the freedom of the will, and he argued that human beings have wills of their own and they make choices. Psychologically, it’s important to recognize that reality so people feel free to choose. If I remember correctly, Augustine went on to explain how one freely exercises his will in accordance with his nature. The will is not self-determining. Instead, it acts and makes choices following its nature. As long as our nature is dead in trespasses and sin, all our choices will follow that nature.

Sometimes, Calvinists are accused of teaching that human beings are just automatons or “stocks and blocks,” as they said in the Canons of Dort, but that is not true. We have wills, and we make choices. We are responsible for our wills and the choices we make, but they flow out of our fallen nature. Until our nature is renewed, we will never have real freedom.

This is a transcript of Stephen Nichols’ and W. Robert Godfrey’s answers given during our Blessed in Christ: Detroit 2021 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.