Lecture 3, What Is Free Will?:

If God predestines people to salvation, then what about free will? Doesn’t the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination override human free will? What about choice? Considering the doctrine of divine election in this message, Dr. Sproul discusses some of the fundamentally wrong assumptions people have when they think of free will.

Message Transcript

I want to direct our attention to an examination of what we mean by the words free will. What does it mean to have a free will? What does it mean to be a free moral agent, a volitional creature under the sovereignty of God?

First of all, let me say that there are different views of what free will comprises that are bandied about in our culture. I think it’s important that we recognize these various views.

Spontaneous Choice

The first view is what I’m going to call the “humanist” view of free will, which I would say is the most widely prevalent view of human freedom that we find in our culture. I’m sad to say that, in my opinion, it’s the most widely held view within the church as well as outside the church.

In this scheme, free will is defined as our ability to make choices spontaneously. That is, the choices we make are in no wise conditioned or determined by any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Let me say that again: this view says that we make our choices spontaneously. Nothing previous to the choice determines the choice—no prejudice, prior disposition, or prior inclination—the choice comes literally on its own as a spontaneous action by the person.

I see at the outset two serious problems that we face as Christians with this definition of free will. The first is a theological, moral problem and the second is a rational problem. I should really say that there are three problems because the whole lecture will focus on the third one, but, at the outset, we immediately see two problems.

No Moral Significance

The first is, as I said, a theological, moral problem. If our choices are made purely spontaneously, without any prior inclination or disposition, then in a sense we’re saying that there is no reason for the choice. There is no motive for the choice; it just happens spontaneously.

If that is the way our choices operate, then we immediately face this problem: how could such an action have any moral significance at all? This is because one of the things the Bible is concerned about in the choices we make is not only what we choose, but also what our intention is in the making of that choice.

We recall, for example, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. When he has this reunion with his brothers many years later, and they repent of that former sin, what does Joseph say to his brothers? When he accepts them and forgives them, he says, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). God made a choice in the matter. God had chosen, at least, to allow this to happen and to befall Joseph. His brothers made a choice about what to do with Joseph. Their inclination in the making of that choice was wicked. God also made a choice in allowing it to take place, but God’s intention in this activity was altogether righteous and holy.

So God, in considering a good deed, not only examines the outward deed itself (the action), but He also considers the inner motivation (the intent behind the deed). But if there are no inner motivations, if there is no real intentionality (to use the philosophical term), then how could the action be of any moral significance? It just happens.

A Rational Impossibility

Even deeper than that problem, the humanist view immediately faces the question of whether or not such a choice could actually be made. That is, the question is not simply whether it would be moral if it were made, but whether a creature without any prior disposition, inclination, bent, or reason could even make a choice.

Let’s look at this by way of a couple of examples. What is attractive about the idea that I have no prior inclination or disposition is that my will would be neutral. It is inclined neither to the left nor to the right. It is neither inclined toward righteousness nor toward evil but is simply neutral. There is no previous bent or inclination to it.

I think of the story of Alice in Wonderland when Alice, in her travels, comes to the fork in the road, and she can’t decide whether to take the left fork or the right fork. She looks up, and there is the Cheshire Cat in the tree, grinning at her. She asks of the Cheshire Cat, “Which road should I take?” And the Cheshire Cat replies by saying: “That depends. Where are you going?” Alice says, “I don’t know.” Then what does he say? “Then I guess it doesn’t matter.”

If you have no intent, no plan, no desire to get anywhere, what difference does it make whether you take the left or the right? In that situation, we look at it and think, “Alice now has two choices: she can go to the left, or she can go to the right.” But really she has four choices: she can go to the left, she can go to the right, she can turn and go back where she came from, or she can stand there and do nothing until she perishes from her inactivity, which is also a choice.

So, she has four choices, and the question we’re going to ask is: Why would she make any of those four choices? If she has no reason or inclination behind the choice, if her will is utterly neutral, what would happen to her? If there is no reason to prefer the left to the right, nor to prefer standing there to going back, what choice would she make? She wouldn’t make a choice. She would be paralyzed.

The problem we have with the humanist notion of freedom is the old problem of the rabbit out of the hat, but without a hat and without a magician. It is something coming out of nothing, an effect without a cause. A spontaneous choice, in other words, is a rational impossibility. It would have to be an effect without a cause.

I would add that, from a biblical perspective, man in his fallenness is not seen as being in a state of neutrality with respect to the things of God. He does have a prejudice. He does have a bias. He does have an inclination, and his inclination is toward wickedness and away from the things of God. I just say that in passing as we look at various Christian views of the freedom of the will.

The Mind Choosing

I personally think that the greatest book ever written on this subject is simply titled The Freedom of the Will by America’s greatest scholar, Jonathan Edwards.

Incidentally, that designation of “America’s greatest scholar” is not my own. That comes from the Encyclopedia Britannica, which voted Jonathon Edwards the greatest scholarly mind the United States ever produced. His work, The Freedom of the Will, is the closest examination and analysis of this thorny question that I’ve ever read. Martin Luther’s famous work, On the Bondage of the Will, is also one that’s very important and that Christians need to read. But let’s look for a moment at Edwards’ definition of the freedom of the will.

Edwards says that free will is “the mind choosing.” What he is saying is that, though he distinguishes between the mind and the will, the two are inseparably related. We do not make moral choices without the mind approving the direction of our choice.

It is closely related to the biblical concept of conscience that the mind is involved in moral choices. When I become aware of certain options, if I prefer one over the other, I have to have some awareness of what those options are for it to be a moral decision.

So, the will is not something that acts independently from the mind, but rather it acts in conjunction with the mind. Whatever the mind deems as being desirable is what the will is inclined to choose.

The Strongest Desire

In addition to definitions, Edwards gives us sort of an iron rule that I call “Edwards’ Law of Free Will.” I think this is perhaps his most important contribution to the discussion of human freedom.

Edwards declares that free moral agents always act according to the strongest inclination they have at the moment of choice. To say it another way, we always choose according to our inclinations, and we always choose according to our strongest inclination at a given moment.

Let me put it in simple terms: any time you sin, this action indicates that, at the moment of your sin, your desire to commit the sin is greater than your desire is to obey Christ. If your desire to obey Christ were greater than your desire to commit the sin, you would not sin. But at the moment of choice, we always follow our strongest inclination, our strongest disposition, our strongest desires.

It seems to us, however, that there are lots of times we choose things for no apparent reason whatsoever. For example, if I were to ask you, “Why are you sitting in the chair that you are sitting in right now?”, could you analyze your own internal thought processes and responses to the options that were before you when you came into this room? Could you say with clarity, “The reason why I’m sitting on the end here is because I always like to sit on the end chair,” or, “because I wanted to sit next to Jean,” or, “I wanted to be in the front row so I could be on the video camera,” or, “this was the only chair left open, and I didn’t want to stand. I’d rather sit than stand. My desire for sitting was stronger than my desire for standing, so I sat down.”

What I’m saying is that there is a reason you are sitting where you are sitting, and it may have been a very quick decision. It may have been simply that you’re lazy, you don’t like to walk, and the chair you saw vacant was the closest one available to you. Chances are the reasons go deeper than that.

There are some people that, if you walk them into a park where there is a vacant park bench with room for three people, one hundred times out of one hundred they’ll sit on the end of the bench rather than in the middle of the bench, and usually on either the left end or the right end. Other people, however, will always choose the middle. Why? Some people enjoy crowds. They like to be in the middle of the action. They have a gregarious personality. Other people like to stay where they can have a safe exit, so they will stay on the end of the bench.

As I was saying, we’re not always analyzing very carefully why we make the choices we make. But there is a reason for every choice that we make, and we always act according to our strongest inclination at the moment.

Your Money or Your Life

There are two issues we may raise immediately to object to Edwards’ law of choosing. The first one is: “I can tell you lots of occasions where I have done things I really didn’t want to do. I have experienced coercion.”

Coercion involves external forces coming into our lives that seek to force us to do things, that, all things being equal, we would not choose to do. But in most instances, the power of coercion can severely reduce our options, even to just two.

For example, if a gunman comes up to me on the sidewalk, puts a gun to my head, and says, “Your money or your life,” he has just reduced my options to two by external force and coercion. All things being equal, I was not looking for somebody to give my wallet away to that night, so I had no great desire to give this man my money. But when the gun is at my head and my options are my brains on the sidewalk or my billfold in his pocket, suddenly I have a stronger desire to live and lose my money than to die and still lose my money. At that moment, my desire level to live might be stronger than my desire level to resist this man, so I give him my wallet.

Now there may be people in that same situation who would say: “I would rather die than to give in to coercion, even though I know that if I refuse to give him this wallet, he’s going to kill me anyway and take my money. Still, I’m not going to help him at all.” So they say, “Shoot me.” But even then, their desire to resist is greater than their desire not to resist, and so they resist.

Even when our options are severely reduced and external forces change our desire levels, human desires fluctuate, and they are many. In situations where we are making choices, it’s rare that we’re only choosing between two options—or even just between a good option and a bad option. One of the toughest moral choices for a Christian to make is between rival goods. That is, sometimes we have two opportunities but are not always sure which one will enable us to most serve Christ. That becomes very difficult. We know that our desire levels change and fluctuate.

“What I Want, I Do Not Do”

The second objection that I can hear coming is the statement from the Apostle Paul when he says, “The good that I would do, I do not, and that which I would not do is the very thing I do” (Rom. 7:15–19). This seems to suggest that the Apostle Paul, by apostolic authority, is telling us that it is indeed possible for a person to choose against his desires.

I can only say in response that I do not believe it was the Apostle’s intention to give us a technical treatment of the intricacies involved in working out the faculty of choosing. Rather, what he is expressing is something we all experience: we have within us a desire to please Christ, but that desire does not always win out when the moment of truth comes.

All things being equal as a Christian, if you were to say to me, “R.C., would you like to be free from sin?” I would say, “Of course I’d like to be free from sin.” However, I say that now, until the temptation of sin presses in upon me and my desire for that sin intensifies. Then I surrender to it freely—because when I work and act according to my desires, I am working and acting freely.

Calvin, in examining the question of free will, says that if we mean by free will that fallen man has the ability to choose what he wants, then of course fallen man has free will. But if we mean by that term that man in his fallen state has the moral power and ability to choose righteousness, then, said Calvin, “free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to fallen man.” And with that sentiment I would agree.

Free and Determined

We have seen Edwards’ view and Calvin’s view, so now we’ll go into the Sproulian view of free will by appealing to irony, or to a form of paradox.

I would like to make this statement: in my opinion, every choice that we make is free, and every choice that we make is determined. Again, every choice that we make is free, and every choice that we make is determined.

Now that sounds flatly contradictory because we normally see the categories of “determined” and “free” as mutually exclusive categories. To say that something is determined by something else, which is to say that it’s caused by something else, would seem to indicate that it couldn’t possibly be free.

But what I’m speaking about is not determinism. Determinism means that things happen to me strictly by virtue of external forces. But, in addition to external forces that are determining factors in what happens to us, there are also internal forces that are determining factors.

What I’m saying, along with Edwards and Calvin, is that if my choices flow out of my disposition and out of my desires, and if my actions are effects that have causes and reasons behind them, then my personal desire in a very real sense determines my personal choice.

If my desires determine my choice, how then can I be free? Remember I said that, in every choice, our choice is both free and determined. But what determines it is me, and this we call self-determination. Self-determination is not the denial of freedom, but the essence of freedom. For the self to be able to determine its own choices is what free will is all about.

The simple point I’m trying to make is that not only may we choose according to our own desires but, in fact, we always choose according to our desires. I’ll take it even to the superlative degree and say that we must always choose according to the strongest inclination at the moment. That is the essence of free choice—to be able to choose what you want.

Sinners Want to Sin

The problem with the sinner is not that the sinner has lost the faculty of choice in his fall. Sinners still have minds, sinners can still think, sinners still have desires, sinners still have wills, and the will is still free insofar as it is able to do what the sinner wants it to do. The problem is in the root of the desires of the heart in fallen man: because he has an evil inclination, a desire for sin, he sins.

Sinners sin because they want to sin. Therefore, they sin freely. Sinners reject Christ because they want to reject Christ. Therefore, they reject Him freely. And before a person can ever respond positively to the things of God, choose Christ, and choose life, he must have a desire to do so. The question is: Does fallen man retain any desire in his heart for God and for the things of God?

In Bondage to Sin

Quickly, I will introduce our next subject, which will be the biblical view of the radical character of man’s fallenness with respect to his desire for the things of God. But before we get to that lecture, let’s tie this one up by speaking of another distinction Jonathan Edwards made famous. He made a distinction between moral ability and natural ability.

Natural ability has to do with the abilities we have by nature. As a human being, I have the natural ability to think. I have the ability to speak. I can walk upright. I do not have the natural ability to fly through the air unaided by machines. Fish have the ability to live underwater for great periods of time without tanks of oxygen and diving equipment because God has given them fins and gills. He has given them the natural equipment necessary to make them able to live in that environment. Hence, they have a natural ability that I do not have. God has given natural abilities to birds that I do not have.

When we’re talking about moral ability, we’re talking about the ability to be righteous, as well as to be sinful. Man was created with the ability to be righteous or to be sinful, but man has fallen. Edwards is saying that, in his fallen state, man no longer has the ability in and of himself to be morally perfect because he is born in sin. Because of original sin, He has a fallen nature, a sin nature, which makes it utterly impossible for him to achieve perfection in this world. He still has the faculty of thinking. He still has the ability to make choices. But what he lacks is the inclination or disposition toward godliness.

Now, we’re going to see whether or not that is consistent with what the Bible teaches about man’s fallen condition, but I’m just giving it to you now by way of preview.

At this point, Edwards is merely echoing what Augustine had taught centuries earlier with a similar distinction. Augustine said that man had a liberum arbitrium, or a free will, but what man lost in the fall was libertas, or liberty—what the Bible calls “moral liberty.”

The Bible speaks of fallen men as being in bondage to sin. Those who are in bondage have lost some dimension of moral liberty. They still make choices and they still have a free will, but that will is now inclined toward evil and disinclined toward righteousness. There is none who does good. There is none righteous. There is none who seeks after God, no not one (Rom. 3:10–12). That indicates something has happened to us on the inside.

Jesus says that the fruit of the tree comes from the nature of the tree (Matt. 7:17–20). Fig trees don’t produce oranges. You don’t get a corrupt fruit from a righteous tree. There is something wrong inside of us where our desires and our inclinations reside—it is in bondage. But even that fallenness does not eliminate the faculty of choosing.

There is really no difference between Augustine and Edwards on this. What Augustine is saying when he says, “We still have free will, but not liberty,” is the same distinction that Edwards is making between moral ability and natural ability.

I need to stop because my time is running out and simply say that, in our next lecture, we will look at this from a biblical perspective to see what the Bible says about man’s moral ability, or lack of it, with respect to the things of God.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.