Is Free Will Biblical?

Every now and then the question will appear: "Where in the Bible do you see the teaching of 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 your thoughts, desires and actions, as Calvinists insist as being biblical?" Yes, I realize that this is a staple in Calvinistic philosophical-theology,1 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 the base concept of Free Will is very naturally assumed?

What we can first establish, however, is that the concept of meticulous determinism is an unbiblical theory 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 worldview of the ancient philosophers. 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 TV. 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 and  manipulated and brought to pass by the gods themselves for mortals.

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, wicked, or sinful 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 the instrument to point north. Calvinists such as John Piper, gleaning from John Calvin, disagree.

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 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, beyond any doubt, 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.

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."2 Even Calvinist R.C. Sproul, who himself thinks of all non-Calvinists and Arminians as "barely saved ... by what we call a felicitous inconsistency,"3 who also argues, along with J.I. Packer, that all non-Calvinistic and Arminian theology "'in effect' makes faith a meritorious work,"4 admits that the "language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius"5 with regard to his doctrine of the bondage of the will. We adhere, to the surprise of many, to Total Depravity and Total Inability.

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. God did not predetermine their thoughts, decisions, actions. 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. 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 freely rendered by the individual, relegating philosophical determinism as a 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 or necessary decree 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? Arminians believe so.

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) Even in God's command against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil we discover Free Will, for God 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 events we 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 argue that "free will" is not in the Bible. We beg to differ. God assumed for the Jewish people to offer what is referred to as a "freewill" offering (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 -- not determined, nor predetermined, but willingly from Free Will (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, or a great measure of, Free Will, and that determinism is false teaching, because this is what God Himself has declared (all emphases added):
"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)
Read this carefully: the wicked Israelites burned their sons and their daughters as a sacrifice 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 determinism is a farce and 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]." (Hos. 8:3, 4) 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."6 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 (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 (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 (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, brought the same about, and then complained and judged them for acting wickedly. This notion betrays the attributes of God, 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 biblically assumed, and explicitly stated in certain passages, throughout the 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,"7 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, as some imagine the scenario regarding the work of the Spirit. 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 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 elements: "(1) acceptance of redemptive truth, and (2) trust"8 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 believes (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 Holy Spirit is His enablement9 to trust in Christ. God has not unconditionally elected who will love Him. He desires that love and trust to 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 and determinism shown as error. 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 grace. Out of His love for His fallen creatures, He has seen fit to offer that grace.

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1 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.

2 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.

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

4 Ibid., 26.

5 Ibid., 126.

6 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.

7 Ibid., 287.

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

9 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)

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.