The Free Will Straw Man Corrected

Calvinist John Frame states: "Scripture contradicts libertarianism, by ascribing divine causes to human decisions (Exod. 34:24, Is. 44:28, Dan. 1:9, John 19:24, Acts 13:48, 16:14), even sinful ones (Gen. 45:5-8, Ps. 105:24, Luke 22:22, Acts 2:23-24, 3:18, 4:27-28, Rom. 9:17)." (link) He adds: "In none of these (or many other) cases does divine causation eliminate human responsibility." (link) So, then, all events are ultimately a reality due to divine causation, if not primarily then certainly secondarily, and God holds all people responsible for the events to which they contribute even though such were decreed and rendered certain by the Calvinist God. In a crude manner of illustration, God creates the earth in such a fashion so that there exists a north pole; He then constructs an instrument that can gauge the location of the north pole; and then He blames the arrow of the compass for pointing north. This is the God of Calvinism.

Frame defines libertarianism as "freedom from all causation." (link) (emphasis added) He qualifies the definition: "I have freedom in the libertarian sense when, no matter what I choose to do, I might equally have chosen the opposite. So my choices are not only free from natural causes ... but also from divine causation." (link) This overly-simplistic definition neglects to consider a distinction that Daniel D. Whedon, who answers Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will in his work, Freedom of the Will, makes between cause and condition. He grants the death of Caesar by way of example: the sword is considered, from one view, the cause of his death; while all other antecedents are considered as conditions of his death.1 Hence there are conditions and limitations on the freedom of the will. To consider libertarian free will as being "the freest of all notions of free will" is erroneous. Moreover, the will is not free from what God causes by His own act.

We must not allow Frame, or any other Calvinist, to list a string of Bible verses in support of Calvinism without investigating those passages. I challenge every reader to check my list of references as well. Let us consider the passages of Scripture offered by Frame, within their contexts, which is key, to the effect that God has predetermined all human decisions:

  • Ex. 34:24: God acts on behalf of Israel, enlarging her borders, and the Jewish people will be able to keep their land. This verse has nothing to do with God decreeing human decisions.
  • Isaiah 44:28 notes that Cyrus will carry out the good that the LORD plans for Israel. The author does not mention how God would go about such through Cyrus. What if God foreknew Cyrus' good will toward the Jewish people? This verse does not prove Frame's presupposition.
  • Daniel 1:9 informs us that God allows Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. That God works in the hearts of people is affirmed in libertarianism. That God uses divine mind control on all people, as in Calvinism, is denied by the authors of Scripture and Arminians and other non-Calvinists.
  • John 19:24 teaches that the casting of lots is used for the dividing of the garments of Christ. Even if God determines who wins the lot (Prov. 16:33), this does not grant warrant toward the notion of human decisions decreed by God. In the strictest sense, the lot was predetermined, not a human decision.
  • Acts 13:48 grants us absolutely no indication as to the method used by God to the determining of the salvation of anyone. This is especially so regarding τεταγμένοι and its use as a self-determining action in other passages (cf. 1 Cor. 16:15). Frame assumes his presupposition decides the case here.
  • Acts 16:14 is affirmed by all Arminians -- that God opens the heart of helpless sinners so that they may freely choose to receive the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no mention at all of God determining the desires of Lydia. Such is presumed by the Calvinist, not according to proper hermeneutics, but according to a priori ideas.

Frame also believes that God has predetermined even sinful desires and decisions of people:

  • Gen. 45:5-8 merely teaches that God is at work in His people for His people and in no sense whatsoever suggests that God causes people, like robots, to obey His commands -- a truth which should be obvious from God's many complaints to Israel of her disobedience.
  • Ps. 105:24 informs us that the LORD makes His people fruitful and stronger than their foes. Again, there is no mention that God is using divine mind control in the process of making His people fruitful and strong. This much should be obvious from such passages as Isaiah 5:1-5.
  • Luke 22:22, if we use Frame's strict interpretation, has Jesus, God the Son, being divinely manipulated by God the Father -- a logical and necessary impossibility. But such is the extent a Calvinist is willing to tread in order to support one's presuppositions.
  • Acts 2:23-24 corresponds with Acts 3:18, Acts 4:27-28, and Ephesians 1:11: God has always had a redemptive plan and He will carry out that plan. From this the Calvinist presumes that God has predetermined what we shall think and say and do? Yet none of these passages actually confesses such a notion. Acts 2:23 even explicitly notes that God's (exhaustive) foreknowledge is used in the redemptive plan. How, then, can a Calvinist assume that these verses contribute to the theory of determinism?
  • Rom. 9:17 teaches that God raises Pharaoh up for displaying His own divine power and glorious Name in all the earth. But what of it? So much is assumed here by the Calvinist that is not actually taught. Regarding Pharaoh, we are not considering a neutral individual, teetering on faith and non-belief. He was a pagan hell-bent on defying the God of Israel. That God raises up a pagan king to prominence in order to display His own goodness and sovereignty in no sense suggests that God uses divine mind control on all people in all cases universally and has predetermined by decree from eternity past all that shall happen in the earth. The fault of Calvinistic interpretation is preeminently in the power of presumptive thinking.

In actuality, then, Frame does not offer us even one verse that hints in the slightest that God has predetermined our thoughts, words, and actions. Therefore determinism is not a biblical teaching. Every now and then the question is raised: "Where in the Bible do you see free will?" I admit to being fascinated by this question. My immediate thought is: "Where in the Bible do you see any concept whatsoever of God decreeing and exhaustively and meticulously bringing to fruition our thoughts, desires, and actions?" Yes, I realize that this is a staple in Calvinistic philosophical-theology,2 but one must interpret Scripture through a particular hermeneutical grid in order to "see" that concept in the pages of the Bible. Where is free will taught in the Bible? How about from Genesis to Revelation!

What must first be established is that the concept of meticulous determinism is an unbiblical concept belonging to the philosophy of the pagan stoics, Romans, and Greeks. The concept of Fate, as well as the will of the gods, is a predominant theme running through the weltanschauung of the ancient world. By way of example, the History Channel series Vikings maintains a very strict deterministic worldview, and is, currently, one of the most religious programs on the tele. Every few paragraphs of dialogue there is a reference to the activity and predetermination of the gods in their everyday lives -- even of seemingly mundane events. The Norse people are merely the actors on the stage of life that has been pre-scripted by the gods themselves.

Yes, the notion of a God or god(s) rendering certain our thoughts, desires, and intentions is counter-intuitive to any viable concept of free will, but the reason should be quite obvious. If we are determined by another entity to think, feel and behave in any particular manner, and especially in an evil manner, then we cannot be responsible for the evil consequences that ensue any more than a puppet can be blamed for what its master determines the object to perform. Or, to offer another perspective, we cannot blame a compass for pointing north when the compass maker designed and predetermined the instrument to point north. How, then, can the Calvinist God hold people accountable for their allegedly predetermined actions?

For example, if God determined, i.e., predetermined and rendered certain, that Eve realize that the forbidden tree is "good for food, and that it [is] a delight to make one wise," and so "she [takes] of its fruit and [eats]" (Gen. 3:6), then how can she be blamed for the performance of what God rendered certain and decreed for her to do? She only thought, desired, and acted because God determined her -- predetermined her -- to contemplate that the tree is good for food (thoughts), aspires to attain wisdom (desires), and then takes of its fruit (behavior). The tragedy of deterministic Calvinism (including compatibilistic Calvinism) is the view that God determined (actually, predetermined) these aspects of Eve's circumstances and then holds her accountable for doing what He predetermined she should do. These arguments against the errors of determinism have been repeated ad nauseam throughout the history of Christian theism since St Augustine invented the notions in the early fifth century. But I care much more about the point of view of the authors of God's word than I do about philosophical wrangling. Once the theory of determinism is dismantled by Scripture itself, even by God's own confessions, then a proper perspective of free will is not only clearly viewed but entirely assumed throughout the tenor of the Bible. But there are necessary caveats which cannot be ignored.

Typically, when someone is asking about free will, the actual question concerns choosing to believe in Jesus Christ "of one's own free will." This is not what Arminians mean by use of the term. We agree with Arminius that, in our fallen state, "our will is not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to [the performance of spiritual] good [such as trusting in Christ], unless it be made free by the Son through His Spirit."3 Even Calvinist R.C. Sproul, who himself thinks of all non-Calvinists and Arminians as "barely saved ... by what we call a felicitous inconsistency,"4 who also argues, along with J.I. Packer, that all non-Calvinistic and Arminian theology "'in effect' makes faith a meritorious work,"5 admits that the "language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius"6 with regard to his doctrine of the bondage of the will. I fail to see how Arminius could have possibly been any stronger.

MEDIEVAL PUPPETRY

In its simplest form, the biblical doctrine of free will merely holds that people could have chosen contrary to their decisions made, as they exist within the reality of relative freedom regarding their will. This does not indicate that one could have made a contrary choice apart from the exhaustive knowledge and foreknowledge of God -- only that said choice was not necessarily rendered certain by the eternal and predetermined decree of God for us. We frame this as "relative freedom," since no one has complete and utter freedom of the will, and especially so subsequent to the fall. (See "The FACTS of Salvation: A Summary of Arminian Theology: The Biblical Doctrines of Grace.") We can neither confuse nor conflate choices, or options, with decisions. We render decisions based on choices or options on conditions.

When we think of free will in this context, we insist that the existence and perceptibility of a choice(s), or an option(s), necessitates that an accompanying decision be rendered, and relegates determinism as a mere farce. In other words, if someone has been predetermined to decide one course of action over another, then the other choice(s), or other option(s), is only an illusion. Regardless of God's foreknowledge of one's free decision to choose or opt for one course of action over another, the decision-making process belongs to the individual, who exists without any necessary power that renders his or her ultimate decision in the direction already made for the individual. (Remember that this biblical concept concerns everyday matters and not an inherent ability to trust in Christ.) Is this what we find in the Bible?

We began in the Garden and we need to return there. God commands Adam: "You may freely eat ['akal 'akal] of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." (Gen. 2:16-17, emphasis added) Even in God's command against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil we discover free will, for God Himself informs Adam that he may "freely eat" of every tree he wishes. After this instruction, God creates animals and then brings them before Adam, to see what he -- not God, but Adam -- would name them (Gen. 2:19-20). God did not determine what fruit Adam would eat; he ate freely. God did not determine what Adam would call the animals; he named them freely. Already in these two Garden events we clearly see the exercise of free will.

When God creates the first couple He grants them free dominion, or rulership, over the animals (Gen. 1:26) and over the earth (Gen. 1:28, 29). Determinism does not exist in this narrative. Therefore, when we encounter Adam and Eve in the Garden disobeying God's command, concerning eating from the forbidden tree, we are forced to view the event in the framework of free will and not determinism. But does free will exist after the fall?

Often, determinists will recklessly argue that "free will" is not in the Bible. We beg to differ. God assumes for the Jewish people to offer what is referred to as a "freewill" offering as a sacrifice (Ex. 35:29; 36:3; Lev. 7:16; 22:18, 21, 23, 38; Num. 15:3; 29:39; Deut. 12:6, 17; 16:10; 1 Chron. 29:6, 14; 2 Chron. 31:14; 2:68; 3:5; 7:16; 8:28; Ps. 54:6; Ezek. 46:12; Amos 4:5; Judith 4:14; 16:18). This, God says, must be given out of the willingness of one's heart (Lev. 22:18). There are also other actions noted as being "freely" wrought (Gen. 2:16; Deut. 23:23; 1 Chron. 29:9, 17; Ezra 1:6; 7:13, 15; Ps. 112:9; Prov. 11:24; 1 Esdras 8:10). But, ultimately, we know that we have relative free will, and that determinism is false teaching, because this is what God Himself declares:
"And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire -- which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind." (Jer. 7:31) God repeats the latter statement elsewhere: "which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind." (Jer. 19:5) God then qualifies the latter statement in another place: "though I did not command them, nor did it enter my mind that they should do this abomination." (Jer. 32:35) (emphases added)
Read this carefully: the wicked Israelites sacrifice their sons and their daughters by burning to a false god, and the God of Israel Himself admits that He neither commanded nor decreed that they do so. If God did not decree this action, then the Israelites acted wickedly of their own free will. God attests to this very notion elsewhere: "Israel has spurned the good; the enemy shall pursue him. They made kings, but not through me; they set up princes, but without my knowledge [or instruction, counsel, consent]." (Hos. 8:3, 4) (emphases added) The concept of determinism simply cannot coincide with these statements uttered by God Himself. Exhaustive determinism is a pagan myth. What is almost comical is a statement written by Calvinist James White: "If anyone knew that the idea of 'free will' was a myth, it was Paul."7 We have here explicit passages of the Hebrew scriptures -- St Paul's Bible -- which contradict in no uncertain terms the false philosophy of determinism, promoting instead the biblical doctrine of free will, and yet Calvinists like James White reject the latter and argue the former. The irony is almost unbearable.

From the prophets Isaiah (click to read the post) (cf. Isa. 1:2, 4, 12-15, 16, 17, 18, 19-20, 27-28, 29; 3:8, 9, 10, 11; 5:4; 9:13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20, 24, 25; 10:1, 5, 6, 7, 12; 13:3, 5, 11, 12, 13; 14:4, 5, 24, 26; 15:5, 16:9, 11; 17:10; 22:11; 23:9; 24:5, 6; 26:8, 9; 30:1, 2, 3, 9, 12, 13, 15, 18; 31:6; 32:6, 7, 8; 33:15, 16; 35:8, 9, 10; 37:28, 29; 41:24; 42:17, 18, 19, 20; 43:22, 23, 24, 27, 28; 44:18, 19, 20; 45:7, 19; 48:9; 50:1; 53:6; 57:8, 9, 10, 17; 59:2, 6, 7, 8; 63:9; 65:2; 66:3), Jeremiah (click to read the post) (cf. Jer. 2:5-9, 13-17; 2:20, 29, 30; 3:21-22; 4:3-4, 14; 5:19, 23, 28-29; 6:16; 7:3-7, 23, 30, 31; 13:11; 19:5) and Ezekiel (click to read the post) (cf. Ezek. 1:1-28; 2:3, 4, 5, 7, 8; 3:7, 18, 19,, 20, 26, 27; 4:21; 5:5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11; 6:9; 7:3, 4, 8, 9, 27; 8:6, 17; 9:9-10; 11:5; 13:2-3, 8, 9, 10, 17, 22, 23; 14:23; 16:23-29; 16:30, 31-52, 58; 18:1-23, 31-32; 33:10-16; 20:32; 23:1-49), we find a plethora of examples of God complaining that His people have drifted from their relationship with Him and committed sin and evil. The only possible way for the determinist to consistently argue his or her case is to admit that God decreed the Israelites to act wickedly and then God complains and judges them for acting wickedly. This notion betrays the attributes of God, namely, His holiness, justice and righteousness.

So, you will forgive my bewilderment at the question, "Where is free will taught in the Bible?" Free will is merely and biblically assumed throughout the entire tenor of the Bible. Because our will is not free from the first fall, as Arminius frames the discussion, we cannot will to believe in Christ. God, of course, knows this; and He, as well as His risen Son, has sent the Holy Spirit into the world to "prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment." (John 16:8) The Spirit of God does not convict the already-regenerate, as Calvinists erroneously comprehend the matter of the Gospel and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, confusing the subject with the error that regeneration precedes faith. God's grace is "meant to lead you to repentance." (Rom. 2:4)

Nor do we imagine, as James White wants others to believe, that the Arminian "says the natural man is capable of true, saving faith,"8 as this most obvious misrepresentation has already been soundly and decisively confuted above by Arminius himself; nor that the Spirit somehow brings the depraved individual to a "neutral state" in order for the person to freely trust in Christ. While in a totally depraved state, the Holy Spirit performs His work (John 16:8), through the necessary means of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16, 17), granting to the individual a freeing of all that would hinder a person to freely believe in Christ (cf. John 6:44, 65; Phil. 1:29). What is needed for one to believe in Jesus Christ is not regeneration, properly taken, but sufficient grace.

The condition of salvation is faith in Christ. This is a Gospel imperative (Acts 2:21; 4:12; 11:14; 15:11; 16:31; Rom. 5:9; 10:9, 10, 13; Eph. 2:8; Titus 3:5, 6; Heb. 10:39). Faith maintains two significant elements: "(1) acceptance of redemptive truth, and (2) trust"9 in Christ. Faith, by its very definition as a response to the grace of God, is not a work or merit (Rom. 4:4, 5). Since God has claimed Himself as having elected to save the one who, by the grace of God, believes in Jesus Christ (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20), then what we require of the Spirit is His enablement10 to trust in Christ. God has not unconditionally elected who will love Him. He desires that love and trust be expressed freely.

Where is free will taught in the Bible? In every place where people are making decisions from choices or options, there is where free will is taught in the Bible. Does God ever intervene? Yes, He reserves the sovereign right to intervene, attempting to direct people on the right path. Does He do so exhaustively and in every case imaginable? No, for He allows people to make wrong and sinful and evil decisions. At times, He even renders those evil desires as certain (cf. Rev. 17:17). God has sovereignly seen fit to grant His fallen creatures a measure of freedom to make their own decisions. Regarding the most significant decision to make -- that of trusting in Christ for salvation -- we desperately need His ever-active enabling grace. Out of His love for His fallen creatures, He has seen fit to offer that grace.

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1 Daniel D. Whedon, Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 49-50. Jonathan Edwards' full title is: An Inquiry Into the Modern Prevailing Notions Respecting That Freedom of the Will Which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Rewards and Punishment, Praise and Blame.

2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.18.1; see also Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.

3 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:194.

4 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 25.

5 Ibid., 26.

6 Ibid., 126.

7 James R. White, The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free (Amityville: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 290.

8 Ibid., 287.

9 F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2011), 255.

10 Dr. Forlines writes: "The influence of the Holy Spirit working in the heart of the person who hears the gospel brings about a framework of possibilities in which a person can say yes or no to the gospel. If he says yes, it is his choice. If he says no, it is his choice. The work of the Holy Spirit in this case is solely a work of God and would thus be monergistic. It is not regeneration. It can be resisted." (260-61)