What does Free Will do?

calvin-and-hobbes-on-predestinationI have posted a lot on Free Will since I find it both an interesting topic of study as well as one of the most misunderstood areas of theology. The way I see it, a libertarian definition of free will is necessary to rationally and Biblically solve such theological problems as God’s relationship to evil, ethics and personal responsibility, and reconciling how a sovereign God could want none to perish and desire all to be saved when not all people receive eternal life.

Liberty necessitated, or over-ruled, is really no liberty at all. It is a contradiction in terms … downright nonsense. – John Wesley

In Disputation #11, Arminius attributed “complete freedom of action” to God alone, and listed the following characteristic of free will as it applied to man.

  • a freedom from necessity, whether this proceeds from an external cause compelling, or from a nature inwardly determining absolutely to one thing.

In regards to man, Arminius also explained what free will is not. Man’s will is not free from the control of jurisdiction of one who commands, nor free from an obligation to obey a superior, nor free from the inspection, care, and government of a superior.

In a nutshell, God is sovereign over all things including our free will even if He does not predetermine and necessitate all that we do.

Then, Arminius asked the question…

What does Free Will do?


Photo by Alan Levine

The answer that he and others arrive at is that it makes people people. It is what separates us from machines.

he will at once be transformed from a human being into an organ-stop or something of that sort; for what is a man without desires, without freewill and without choice, if not a stop in an organ? – Fyodor Dostoevsky

John Wesley in Sermon 67, affirms God’s Providence over all creation but goes on to compare a man without free will to a stone.

For he created man in his own image: A spirit like himself; a spirit endued with understanding, with will or affections, and liberty; without which, neither his understanding nor his affections could have been of any use, neither would he have been capable either of vice or virtue. He could not be a moral agent, any more than a tree or a stone. … Were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones.

Photo by Jonathan Zander

Photo by Jonathan Zander


Wesley than goes on to explain what it would be like if God removed man’s liberty:

But were it to be done, it would imply no wisdom at all; but barely a stroke of omnipotence. Whereas all the manifold wisdom of God (as well as all his power and goodness) is displayed in governing man as man; not as a stock or stone, but as an intelligent and free spirit, capable of choosing either good or evil.

God is active in His creation, but for Wesley He providentially works so that man still has liberty and can contingently choose the path he will walk.Terminator1984movieposter

An attentive inquirer may easily discern, the whole frame of divine providence is so constituted as to afford man every possible help, in order to his doing good and eschewing evil, which can be done without turning man into a machine; without making him incapable of virtue or vice, reward or punishment.

Giving man the gift of a free will and the ability to use it was a risk God was willing to make when He created people. To have done otherwise would have left God with only machines to govern as C.S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity.

Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water.

And for that they’ve got to be free.

Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. … If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will – that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings – then we may take it it is worth paying.

If man does not have free will then Arminius, asks us to wrestle with the question – what is it that God is actually saving?

What then, you ask, does free will do? I reply with brevity, it saves. Take away FREE WILL, and nothing will be left to be saved. Take away GRACE, and nothing will be left as the source of salvation. … God is the author of salvation. Free will is only capable of being saved. No one, except God, is able to bestow salvation; and nothing, except free will, is capable of receiving it.

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