Friday, October 12, 2007

Free Will—A Common Misconception

While reading Anthony Hoekema’s immensely helpful work on soteriology, Saved By Grace, his articulation of the paradoxical tension between “God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility; both God’s sovereign grace and our active participation in the process of salvation” reminded me of the importance of terminology. The tension is between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, not between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.

Why is it important to couch the discussion in terms of man’s responsibility instead of free will? First, because these are two coexistent truths that must be allowed to stand in a biblical understanding of truth, with the concurrent reality that we accept them by faith not by logic. Second (the reason for this reflection), juxtaposing God’s sovereignty and man’s free will is fraught with danger simply because of what most mean by the term free will. For most who use this term the clear intent is that free will means I can do whatever I wish. The confusion/error is in the equating of the freedom to choose to do what I want with the ability to do whatever I wish. Freedom does not constitute ability.

Example 1: I may choose to be President of the United States but reality is that I seriously lack the ability to do that. Example 2: I may choose to be a better golfer than Tiger Woods but those who have seen me play know the dearth of my abilities and the dearth of my potential abilities in that arena. The problem is not simply a lack of practice. The short-coming has to do with innate ability.

Prior to knowing Christ my condition of being dead in my trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) rendered me helpless in the matter of salvation. I may choose or wish to be saved but the desire and the ability are not qualities I inherently possess. Both must come from God (Philippians 2:12-13). My responsibility is to respond rightly to God through the power He gives—not to somehow manufacture salvation on my own. When it comes to salvation, I am told to “work it out” not to “work it up.”


Keith said...

It is odd to me how strangely cyclical this is: I struggled over this for a couple of years in college and I have found that it is coming up again in my life, but this time it is seeing others wrestle with the idea of God electing some for salvation that He might show His great Love, while letting others fall to the repercussions of their sin, that He might show His Judgment and Sovereignty.

I have heard this explained before -- perhaps by you, even -- in Chris Morgan's Sin and Salvation class a few years back. A dichotomy was given between having "free will" and "perfect free will;" in the former, we have a limited amount of free will, based on the laws of this world (gravity, etc.) and our innate ability (being the best, etc.), while "perfect free will" translates into you being able to save yourself, fly, all of that; it translates into you being God.

You say, I may choose or wish to be saved but the desire and the ability are not qualities I inherently possess. I am under the impression that there is no way I can desire God, even to wish to be saved -- not going to heaven, I think that is a different idea entirely -- unless He first brings about a change to my spirit, that I might be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. What do you think about this?

Finally, thank you for blogging. I always appreciate reading your works.

walter price said...

You are exactly correct. Keep reading to the next sentence after the one you quoted: "Both must come from God (Philippians 2:12-13)." That is, I have neither the desire nor the ability so both must come from God.


Don Pucik said...

hey Walter -- not being difficult, but...

Your approach to free will in this blog posting seems to me to focus on ability, neglecting a more profound problem of access.

I agree that choosing does not = ability to attain what I choose (the heart of your two examples), hence our need for a divine rescue from the enemies of our soul. But, ability to respond (or choose) must be genuine and real or I cannot be responsible.

Nowhere in Scripture is responsibility to obey separated from ability to obey, is it? Hundreds of examples come to mind where God sets options before people and expects them to choose, and then He holds them responsible when they choose not to obey.

I am accountable to God precisely because I can obey His command, but choose not to. Otherwise, there is no foundation for judgement.

An alternative approach to reconciling sovereignty and free will highlight the problem of my access to the truth, not my ability to respond to the truth.

Ephesians 2:1 indicates my deadness to God and my need of a rescue. But blindness to the truth does not render me unable to obey truth -- my penultimate problem is that I have no access to the truth -- hence, no opportunity to respond one way or the other!

Also, I think your use of Phil. 2:12-13 is out of context. It applies to the redeemed, not to those bound in a kingdom of darkness.

Wasn't going to say anything old friend... and didn't for weeks. Just thought I would throw out some contrary thoughts for an idle moment of reflection.

I really do not have all the answers and will be lost in any kind of sustained debate, but I am finding myself increasingly content to hold apparently contradictory truths in tension. Sovereignty and free will are just such a pair.


walter price said...


Don't worry about contrary opinion. That's what true friends are for.

I'll give your comment some thought though I thought I answered the very things you bring up in my initial simplistic blog. My primary point was that free will does not include ability. The examples used from non-spiritual venues illustrated that. I'm going to have a difficult time thinking that anyone,lost or redeemed, has the inherent, innate ability to please God without God giving them the ability to do so.

I've always liked Amy Carmichael's statement: "God's commands are His enablements."

Sooooo, let me think about it for a while (which is a longer word than it was when I was younger).

Mark said...

I hope you don't mind me jumping in.

I think this discussion would be helped by an important distinction that Jonathan Edwards and Andrew Fuller made. The Bible presents us as creatures who are naturally able to make free choices, but morally unable to choose God. Natural ability means that we do what we desire to do, we choose what we want to choose. Our choices are based on our desires, and are never constrained against our will. The fall into sin did not change this natural freedom. We still choose what we most desire.

This is where I make a different distinction than you Pastor Walter. You say, "The confusion/error is in the equating of the freedom to choose to do what I want with the ability to do whatever I wish. Freedom does not constitute ability." I think freedom does mean that we do what we wish. Our problem is that we do not wish the right thing, and will never wish/will to do right apart from the divine call.

The distinction is between natural and moral ability. While we still have natural ability/freedom, we now have moral inability brought about by our fall into sin. So I am free to do what I want (natural ability), meaning nothing outside of myself will restrain me from turning to God if that is what I want to do. But now, because of sin, the natural man is morally unable to turn to God. He is naturally able to turn if he desires to, but does not desire to do so.

So we are responsible for our choices because they are our choices, based on our desires. That is freedom and responsiblity. But sinful man is dead in trespasses, meaning that his desires are sinful ones. So his free choices will always lead him in one direction--away from God. That is until God steps in, regenerates the heart, enabling the sinner to see the glory of GOd in the gospel of Christ, thereby changing his desires so that he irresistibly, yet freely (not compelled against his desire), chooses to follow God.

What do you think?

walter price said...


What do I think? Well, right now I'm thinking I wish blogs didn't allow comments. 8-) Just kidding. This is good for me. It sort of creates a mini-seminar setting which I don't have access to often.

I stand corrected on my use of "whatever I wish" in the statement "The confusion/error is in the equating of the freedom to choose to do what I want with the ability to do whatever I wish. Freedom does not constitute ability." Actually,I am in full agreement with you, Edwards, Fuller, et al, on the issue of desire. (See later in the post: "I may choose or wish to be saved but the desire and the ability are not qualities I inherently possess. Both must come from God (Philippians 2:12-13)."

However, I do not think that "deadness in trespasses and sins" is limited to lack of desire only. Moral inability is still inability. Also, I do not think the use of Phil. 2:13 here is innappropiate (as Don suggested). I think Phil. 2:13 is true of the regenerate person which is what must happen before we have either the desire or ability to respond to God.

No, God doesn't ever compel us against our desire, as you said. No one ever got saved who didn't want to do so. And, I believe, all who truly desire to be saved are saved.

But that does not take away the fact that God not only gives the desire to do His will He also gives the ability to work "His good pleasure."

Again, I'd like to restate my main point in the original blog. The dichotomy is not God's sovereignty vs. man's free will. This suggests that man's free will is an inviolable line that even God cannot cross. I am not aware of anywhere in Scripture where that is remotely hinted at. I do know many folks who make the statement "God is sovereign but He never violates our free will." That "might" be true (I'm not sure); it's just not stated in Scripture. Rather, I think, it's the product of proud, sinful hearts.

The responsibility of man is a clear principle and very comfortably (though not for all) rests alongside God's sovereignty.

So, to sum up, I agree that the "quickening" of God gives us the desire to respond to Him and it also gives us the ability to respond to Him. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift.

Careful, I'm preaching now! 8-)

Mark said...

Pastor Walter,
Thanks for your further clarification and distinction. I definitely agree with your point that free will, as it is usually described by many Christians is not taught in the Bible. God's sovereignty and human responsibility are both taught clearly in the Bible.

I also agree that moral inability is true inability. The most vital kind of ability. My point is that moral inability is not the same as natural inability, which would involve a loss of the ability to choose. So humans still have the capacity, or natural ability, to choose freely (free-choice). But as your original illustrations express, while humans may have freedom to choose, they are unable to choose God without His quickening and enlightening work.

Justin Taylor has put up a good outline of part of Robert Peterson's new book on Election and Free Will. Although he uses a bit different terminology, I agree with Peterson's definitions and distinctions. In fact I think they are better terms:

"1. Human beings as created had true freedom and freedom of choice.
2. Human being as fallen lost true freedom and retained freedom of choice.
3. Human beings as redeemed have regained a measure of true freedom and retained freedom of choice.
4. Human beings as glorified will be perfected in true freedom and will retain freedom of choice.

True freedom = "the ability to love and serve God unhindered by sin" (p. 131)
Freedom of choice or spontaneity = "the ability of human beings to do as they wish" (p. 126)"

What Peterson call "true freedom" is what I have been calling "moral ability," and what he calls "freedom of choice" I have been calling "natural ability."

Making these distinctions that we've been talking about helps clarify the debate and is important to evangelism, preaching, etc. I think it helps alleviate some of the false images some people have of what calvinists believe, and it helps build a foundation for the free offer of the gospel.

Oh, and I'm glad you are "preaching now," as you said at the end of your last comment. Theology that doesn't preach isn't worth talking about.

walter price said...


Good points!

walter price said...

Two things have occurred to cause me to add another comment here.
1. Being challenged on one's point causes one to continue to revisit and rethink, hopefully to clarify or correct (if needed).
2. In listening to David Dockery's history of Calvinism on the Lifeway website from the Ridgecrest conference on Calvinism, I noticed that he also makes the clear distinction historically that was the point of my original post. The juxtaposition is between God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, not man's free will.

Back to point #1. After more reflection I would add one other supportive biblical illustration to my contention that lost humans possess neither the desire or ability to choose God. I am not alone in thinking of Christ's raising of Lazarus from the dead as a clear metaphor for what happens in salvation. Clearly, Lazarus in his "deadness" had neither the desire nor the ability to respond to Christ's command to come forth. God had to "quicken" him first, thereby giving him both desire and ability to do what Jesus said. I hope that's not too simplistic but, as the title of my blog says, it's just that simple.

Mark said...

I agree with you that people do not have the desire or the ability to choose God. I think it is absolutely clear from Ephesians 2, Romans 1 and 3, the new covenant passages in the Prophets, etc. So we are in agreement on that. Like I said above, moral inability is real inability. I was not trying to say humans are in any way able to choose God.

I guess my additional point was just that people do have the ability to choose what they want, which I think you agree with. We need God to fix our "want to." The choices people make are based on their own desires--they are their choices. Therefore people are responsible for those choices. I think we agree on this. Am I wrong?

Also, this explains why people feel like they are free. They are doing what they want to do (desire). But they don't realize they are spiritually dead (like Lazarus was physically) in sin and enslaved by sin so that they are unable to see or desire the reality of the beauty and goodness of Christ without God's effectual and enlightening call. I think we are on the same page. Let me know if I am mistaken.