Does The Bible Teach Free Will?
By: Clark Gallagher
Does the Bible teach free will? The importance of asking this question lies in the fact that the doctrine of free will is so widely taught by Pastors and ascribed to by their congregations. Because of this fact we are bound by Scripture to test this teaching (1 Th 5:21; 1 Cor 4:6; 2 Cor 10:5) by Scripture. We must not readily accept any teaching (regardless of who teaches it or what sense it makes to us), until it is demonstrated that it agrees with what the Bible teaches.
Several times in the Pastoral Epistles the Apostle Paul makes mention of sound doctrine. The Greek word most commonly translated as sound in the Pastoral Epistles is u`giainw (hugiaino). Sound doctrine is teaching that is free from error and that produces spiritual health and godliness. Therefore, using the Bible as our sole authoritative guide on doctrinal and moral issues, any teaching which is found in conflict with the Scriptures is in error and will lead to spiritual sickness, ungodliness, and possibly even damnable heresy.
How we answer the question of whether or not the Bible teaches free will significantly affects our view of the inspiration of Scripture, our understanding of God, man, evangelism, and salvation. This issue is not a dry academic discussion which is important only to theologians and philosophers. Rather, it is instead a vitally relevant issue which must be engaged by all who name the name of Christ. Those who neglect discussing and deciding the issue of free will (in the name that it is divisive or unspiritual), are anything but spiritual or mature, and need to get on track with what Scripture teaches.
Defining Our Terms
Much of the difficulty in examining and discussing free will lies in the fact that it is very rarely, if ever, defined by those who teach it. This leads to a great deal of confusion because if one does not have a meaning for free will, how can one ever examine it?
So we see that because words can have varied meanings, depending upon the context in which they are used, we must from the outset establish exactly what it is we are discussing.
The Power of Contrary Choice
What most Bible teachers who teach free will mean by free will is the power of contrary choice. The power of contrary choice means, “the freedom of alternate choice which consists in the supposed ability of the agent to choose among the alternative possibilities of action.”2 In simple terms, free will means that a person is not determined by God or anything else and is equally free to make a choice between two or more options presented to them. This is also called libertarian free will or human autonomy (self law).
Norman Geisler, who is a prolific free will defender, documents our definition of free will in his book, When Skeptics Ask:
Where the discussion of free will most frequently comes into play in churches today is in regard to a person’s ability to accept or reject the gospel. It is this area where we will focus our discussion.
The Supposed Necessity of Free Will
Those who hold to the idea that man has a free will do so for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons are:
What Do The Scriptures Teach?
The final rule for answering the question of whether or not the Bible teaches libertarian free will is the Bible itself, and not human reason, nor the Greek philosophers, nor the humanist theologians and apologists of our time. As the Apostle Peter commands us to set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts (1 Pet 3:15) so should the answering of the question of free will be an exercise in the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things. The word of God, not the finite sin corrupted reason of men, nor our own emotions, is to be the judge of free will.
Does man have a will?
The Scriptures do not teach that man has a will that is some kind of separate entity in and of itself such as the arm is one part of our body and our leg is another. Rather the Bible teaches that we are the ones who make decisions and who desire things. Jesus Himself illustrates this point in the Gospel of John 21:22.
The Greek word John uses in this passage is qelw (thelo) which simply means to desire something and is commonly used in the New Testament in a similar manner.
These passages illustrate the use of the word heart to mean the inner person or in other words, who the “I” in “I am” really is. In the passage from Matthew’s gospel the Greek word is kardia (kardia). This is also the Greek word used in the Septuagint version of the Proverbs passages. The meaning of the word heart intended by the authors in these verses is the very core of who we are. The heart was viewed in this sense as the inner self or the seat of all we are. It is important to note that the Biblical authors did not view the heart as some separate entity, but rather as a metaphor for our immaterial self. Thus it is we who do the thinking and willing and not some separate part of us that we use as a tool.
This is also significant as many Christians make the distinction between the “head” and the “heart”. The Biblical authors did not make this distinction but rather viewed the heart as synonymous with the mind and the intellect. Our thoughts, emotions, and desires spring forth from the very essence of our being. (Gen. 8:21, 17:17, 20:6; Ex. 4:21, 35:5; Deut. 4:9; 1 Sam. 2:1,35; 2 Sam. 7:3; Psalm 4:4, 7:10, 12:2; Isa. 6:10,10:7, 44:18-19; Mat. 5:8,28,6:21, 9:4; Acts 4:32, 5:3-4; Rom. 1:21,2:5,15; 1 Cor. 2:9,4:5,7:37)4
Man’s Bondage to Sin
The radical nature of man’s bondage to sin is repeatedly mentioned throughout the Scriptures. The relevance of this to the question of free will is seen in that the issue of free will is directly related to the doctrine of man. If man is so in bondage to sin that there is no aspect of his nature that is unaffected, then how can he possibly be free to make choices that are not sin-based or influenced?
We see from these passages that we are altogether evil by nature and in bondage to sin. We are born as sinners; therefore we sin as a function of who and what we are. If mankind has a free will in the libertarian sense (and therefore the ability to do the opposite of evil – which is good), then why is it that the Scriptures testify that all have sinned and are now continuingly falling short of the glory of God? Why has sin held a universal reign over all mankind save for Christ alone? One might think that it is at least plausible that someone could have come along and willed to do that which is good all their lives. But no, the authoritative, inspired, inerrant Word of God has testified to us that we, through the fall of Adam, are sinners through and through, and are the willful slaves of sin.
The Effects of Sin
In this passage Jesus is informing Nicodemus of mankind’s serious need to be raised to spiritual life from their natural state of spiritual death. The word that is translated “see” in this verse is used not in the physical sense but in the sense of understanding or intellectual perception. Jesus is literally saying unless a person is born from above by the regenerating grace of God he simply does not have the ability to perceive or understand the kingdom of God. William Hendriksen’s commentary on this verse is worth noting:
This verse explicitly denies that man has a free will ability to equally accept or reject the gospel. The Greek text of this passage denies, in no uncertain terms, any inherent ability to either chose Christ or reject Him. Because of our bondage to sin and natural tendency to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, we simply will not submit to the gospel. When unregenerate man hears the gospel he will always turn from it.
The Greek text says ouvdeis dunatai evlqei/n prosj me (oudeis dunatai elthein pros me). This verse literally says that no one has the ability, in and of themselves, to cause themselves to believe in Christ. This one verse denies free will in the libertarian sense and is sufficient grounds for all to reject this idea.
The great reformer, John Calvin, had this to say about this verse:
The clear words of this passage are obvious in their meaning. However, because it is so often the case that our sinful minds would suppress God’s truth, the interpretation of Kenneth Wuest is here added to further drive home their point:
This verse is so clear it hardly seems needful to comment. However, the sinful and prideful mind being what it is, it may be necessary to spell out this verse’s meaning letter by letter so to speak.
The natural man in this passage refers to unregenerate, unbelieving people; in other words, man in his natural fallen state apart from the regenerating grace of God. Paul is saying in this passage that what God has revealed to His people is beyond the comprehension of unbelievers. They simply do not have the ability to grasp the truth of God’s plan of salvation. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit to save, man will only see the gospel as foolishness. Gordon Clark’s commentary on this verse states:
These few verses alone state that:
Because of man’s bondage to sin, his natural hatred of God, and tendency to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, it is not possible for man to make decisions that are free from his enslavement to sin. Just as it is impossible for God to lie, because God by nature cannot lie, (Heb 6:18) so it is impossible for man to choose to do things which are contrary to his own sinful nature such as love God, obey God, or believe the gospel. Man’s will simply is not free from sin but is instead a slave to it. Slaves (by definition) are not free.
Yeah But….Answering Common Objections
Earlier we listed some of the common reasons given for man having a free will. We will now attempt to answer them and further refute the unbiblical notion that human beings have a free will. (Objections shown in bold.)
1. The most common objection to man not having a free will is that without it man cannot be held responsible for what he had no ability to do. We will again quote Norman Geisler who, yet once more, clearly describes the thinking behind this objection.
Notice that Dr. Geisler does not quote Scripture but appeals to “logic” and “reason” which seem, to him at least, to insist that what he is claiming is true. (We might ask, “who’s reason and who’s logic?”) This kind of language is common among writers who have no real proof of what they are stating but are merely sharing with us their basic presuppositions. Geisler (an avid Arminian) is merely assuming that what does not conform to his own notions of rationality is false.
The notion that “ought implies can” immediately runs into problems with the Bible. Throughout the Bible we are commanded by God to do what is holy and just and we are held accountable for doing do so (Matt 5:48). Yet nowhere in the Scriptures are we ever given the idea that our moral responsibility to God is based upon an inherent ability within ourselves. To take this notion to its logical conclusion would mean that because we are commanded to be perfect, and will be held accountable to God’s standards, we must have the ability to do so. Such an idea is obviously ridiculous and contradicts the teaching of Scripture as we have demonstrated. John Calvin is again worth quoting:
A thorough examination of the Biblical basis for responsibility can be found in Dr. R.K. McGregor Wright’s book, No Place for Sovereignty. Wright explains that our responsibility is not based on some theory of free will but rather upon the fact that we are God’s creatures. The potter has a right over the clay to call it into question for anything. God is His own and our standard for morality – and not some free will theory that God and man must adhere to.
The first chapter of Romans also informs us that responsibility is linked to knowledge rather than free will.
2. The idea that God had to create man with free will because it is a part of the image of God is also used as an objection to divine predestination. This idea is absurd. First of all, God does not have to do anything. There is no law higher than God Himself which He must adhere to. Secondly, God can do what He wants according to His own nature. He cannot ever choose to lie or to not be God; He simply is not “free” to do those things. Thirdly, God created Adam with the ability to sin or not to sin, if this is an inherent aspect of the image of God then God too must have this ability which clearly He does not. Lastly, when the last sinner is saved and all the saints are in glory with new immortal bodies they will be unable to sin (I John 3:2). Will we suddenly stop being human and no longer reflect the image of God? Of course not, to assert such a thing would be sheer lunacy.
3. Another extremely common objection to man not having a free will is that without it God is the author of sin. Free will is seen as a necessity to deliver God from being the author of sin. Arminians (and those who deny being Arminians but in fact still are because of the beliefs they hold), cannot get past the idea that if God predetermines everything He is directly responsible for everything that happens.
Scripture is clear in asserting that God is not the author of sin and there is no darkness in Him at all (1 John 1:5). Scripture is also equally clear that God works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph 1:11). Since all things would include evil, and given the fact that God does not Himself do evil, there must be a non-contradictory relationship between these two truths of Scripture because the Word of God can never contradict itself.
Those who hold this view need to remember the answers raised by point 2 which state that God is not obligated to do anything. They also need to come to grips with the fact that evil is a part of God’s eternal plan as so many scriptures illustrate (Gen 50:20; Acts 4:28; Eph 1:11). Free will is not needed as an answer to deliver God from the charge of evil because evil is not a problem for God, but for man, and man is in no position to question God about its existence (Rom 9:20).
For the sake of argument let’s suppose that the omniscient God of the Bible did give man libertarian free will as the Arminians teach. In that case, evil came about not as a part of the predetermined plan of God, but by the intrusion of man’s sinful use of free will into the universe God created. However, the problem with that line of thinking is: because God is omniscient, He knew that evil would eventually come into existence – along with all the death, suffering, and destruction that followed. Therefore, if God had chosen not to create, then evil would never have existed. Thus we see that the Arminian answer is no answer at all, but rather a shallow shelving of the problem of evil. (For a thorough discussion of the relationship between the totally sovereign God and evil see chapter five of Gordon Clark’s “Religion, Reason, and Revelation.”)
Below are several points from Scripture that show God’s relation to evil as being non-contradictory as well as revealing that while God is the ultimate cause of all things, He is in no way responsible for sin, or sinful for having determined evil’s existence.
4. Love demands a choice. This is yet another unproven assumption that free will defenders have come up with as an appeal to the emotions. It is often stated by men like Dave Hunt and Chuck Smith that love cannot be forced but rather it must be a free will decision in order to have any meaning. This “answer” fails to recognize man’s bondage to sin. God must give life to a person through regeneration so that a person becomes able to love God and desire to follow Him (John 3:3-5). God does not ask those whom He regenerates for permission! Rather, He does it according to His sovereign will and grace. Thus He Himself (not a free will decision by man), sovereignly brings about the new life whereby believers are inclined to love and please God.
This objection is often couched in terms of a marital relationship. It is argued that a husband cannot demand that he be loved by his wife. However this analogy fails to adhere to Scripture. Love is a moral obligation and an explicit command of Scripture (Deut 6:5; John 15:12) not a free will choice. The value of love lies in the character of God. Love’s inherent value and meaning are found in God who is holy, true, and righteous, and not in the idea that we could have done otherwise.
5. Without free will we would be robots. No, without free will we are lumps of clay in the Potter’s hands that are made either as vessels of wrath or honor. We exist to glorify God and therein lies our purpose. (Those who make such an objection should carefully study Romans 9.)
God’s Sovereignty Over Human Decisions
The following is a list of passages that clearly illuminate the truth that God is Sovereign over human actions and that we are not free from His dominion:
This article is copyright 2003 by Clark C. Gallagher. This article may be quoted, in part or in whole, without permission.
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