Beliefbusters: Free Will
Welcome to the latest installment of Beliefbusters! In this feature, we will examine popular beliefs, traditions, and “Christian myths” to see if there is any Scriptural warrant for us to believe them. Many of us have grown up with such beliefs, traditions, and myths that we held unquestioningly, never checking to see if the Bible actually taught these things. As a result, much of what the average Christian believes is actually un-Scriptural, and therefore un-Christian.
In this installment, we will take on the sacred cow of evangelicalism; namely, the myth of human “free will.”
What is “free will?”
Basically put, “free will” is the idea that our choices are freely made. That is, we are free to choose whatever we want to choose. The argument goes something like this: given two (or more) options, we are free to choose either (or any) of those options. This is called “libertarian free will,” or the power of contrary choice. I am free to choose an apple. In the same instance, I am also free to choose an orange instead. Bruce Ware, a professor at SBTS, states it this way: “In the same circumstances, I could choose otherwise than I did.”
Now, the more learned among my readers will no doubt want to nitpick this extremely rough and basic description of free will. Let me remind you this description is what is popularly heard in both the pews and in the populace, so let us use it as our starting point. In fact, let me take it a little bit further and get into the church part of the issue.
Often you will hear people and preachers say things like, “We all have free will. It is your decision to accept or reject Christ. You can decide to let Jesus save you, or to reject Him.”
Now, I’m going to stop short of saying this is a “lie from the pit of hell” — as astute readers will understand the first part of that last sentence truly is — so that we can focus on the second sentence, which is the core of the myth. The core issue is that fallen humanity has the ability to freely accept or freely reject the free gift of salvation in Christ. Where does this belief come from?
A General Origin of “Free Will”
It stems, primarily, from the Fall. As it is said, Adam and Eve had the power of free choice, and used that power unwisely. Even though they and their descendants were forever tainted by sin, they retained this power, as evidenced by texts such as Joshua 24:15 (“Choose this day whom you will serve…As for me and my house…etc.”), Proverbs 1:29 (“they…did not choose the fear of the Lord”), and Isaiah 7:15-16 (a young child learning to reject evil and choose good). The most compelling text is the text where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (pay attention to the underlined part):
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37)
So, the proponents of this myth say, we have the ability (that is, of our own power and mind) to accept or reject Christ. But is such a view biblical? Let us look at what Scripture actually has to say about our status as moral agents.
The Biblical View
First of all, Adam and Eve were not free to do as they wanted. To say otherwise is at best naive and at worst a falsehood. Adam and Eve were, if you’ll remember, under a command from God not to eat from the forbidden tree. In no way does this make them “free” in the sense most people mean by “free will.” If you are under the authority of another, the only freedom you have is that which is given to you. In fact, this is blatantly stated as such in Genesis 2:16-17 and 3:2-3. Adam and Eve were free only to the degree that God allowed, and as such were not free to do as they pleased. In transgressing that boundary, severe consequences resulted.
Let’s try this from a different angle. Do children have the freedom to do whatever they want? Of course not! Children are only free to the degree their parents allow them to be. Crossing parental boundaries are (or ought to be, anyway) met with retribution.
Second, the Fall did something to us that we cannot undo. In my post on original sin, I looked at exactly what happened to humanity when Adam and Eve sinned. When they fell, everyone since has been born with a tendency to sin. The New Testament makes very clear that this tendency is nothing more than enslavement. Indeed, in John 8:34 Jesus himself said it clearly: “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
Paul picks up on Christ’s line of thought and expands on it:
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Romans 6:15-22)
And again in 1 Corinthians 7:21-23:
Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.
Each of these three passages illustrate our fundamental state after the Fall – we are slaves to sin. If there ever was a time when humanity was “free to choose” (and I argue there never was such a time), that freedom has been forever lost. Remember, we are fallen. As such, we are most certainly not free to choose. Think for a moment about slaves. Do slaves have the ability to do otherwise than their bonds dictate? Certainly not! They must operate within the confines of their bondage, or face severe consequences.
A slave is not free to disobey his master, nor is a slave free to change masters whenever he wants. The popular view of free will (and even the more sophisticated one of “libertarian free will”) would have us believe that a slave can freely change masters! This is an absurdity. Instead, a slave is only free insofar as the choices made are consistent with his bondage, and insofar as the choices made do not require the slave to step outside of that bondage.
Sin will not allow us to choose righteousness. This is why Scripture says our works are as filthy rags before God – any works of righteousness done apart from Christ are, quite simply, self-serving; and self-serving actions are sinful! This is why we can never choose Christ on our own – it would be tantamount to becoming a runaway slave. We would still belong to to sin, which means we are still damned to hell! Instead, as slaves we must live in obedience to our master, be set free by our master, or bought by a new master.
As you can see in this brief look, on the “lost” side of salvation there is no Scriptural possibility of us having the freedom in and of ourselves to accept or reject Christ. In and of itself, this basic evidence alone should be enough to bust the myth of human free will, but we need to look at this from all angles before it can be declared busted.
Let’s stop here for the evening so that we can digest what we’ve read. Next time we’ll finish our examination of this myth by looking at the other angle, slavery to Christ.