How Free is Free Will?


Over the last week I have been in a discussion over soteriology, which started with the request to define free will. Free will can be a hard concept to define because there are very different ideas of what it means and how it works.

This discussion was not with Michael Patton. However, he has written an excellent post entitled “A Calvinist’s Understanding of Free Will”, explaining free will from the Determinist/Reformed point of view. The points raised in this post are representative of the problems often cited against libertarian free will .

In this post libertarian freedom is defined as the ability to choose against who you are.

If you ask whether a person can choose against their nature (i.e. libertarian freedom) the answer, I believe, must be “no.” A person’s nature makes up who they are. Who they are determines their choice.

This definition may be how Reformers define and understand libertarian freedom, but this is not how proponents of libertarian free will (Arminians) would define it (noted later in the post). That aside, most proponents would agree with the idea that who a person is determines the choices that they make. Most would also accept the notion that a person can not choose against who they are.

Free will is the inherent ability of a person to make a contrary choice

Another contention that is brought up by those who reject libertarian free will is the fact that there are numerous factors that we did not choose. In the same post Michael Patton lists several factors that we do not choose including: when and where we are born, our parents, our genetics, etc. He goes on to explain:

All of these factors play an influencing role in who you are at the time of any given decision.

Most proponents of libertarian free will would concur with the assertion that there are factors that are outside of our control and that there are factors that influence who we are. Libertarian free will does not require the absence of influencing factors in the decision.

I would also add that free will also does not mean that because we get to make contrary choices that the outcomes of our choices are not under God’s control. We would agree that God is in control over all things (just not determining all things). A farmer may plant a field with the hope of harvesting its fruit, yet storms may destroy the crop. And a person may choose to work hard with the intention of prospering, yet still not make any money (James 4:13-15).

So with these points of agreement established, here is how proponents of libertarian free will would define this concept. Free will would mean that a person inherently has the power of making a contrary choice (aka choosing “otherwise”). This does not require the person to be able to choose anything, nor does it require the absence of other influencing factors. It only requires the ability for a person confronted with a decision to be able to choose from among one or more possible options.

An example might be choosing what to eat from a menu. When a person walks into a restaurant they may have many different desires – they do not want to spend a lot of money, they enjoy steak, they are in the mood for lobster etc. They are influenced by many factors including how big a lmycousinvinnyunch they ate, the pictures on the menu, the costs of the items, and the amazing smell of steak that fills the air. Even if the menu is as limited as the diner from My Cousin Vinny, the person can still choose. They person wrestles with competing desires and influences as they make their choice.

Most theological discussions are concerned with what part free will plays in salvation. The sin nature in man (aka total depravity) describes the inability for a person to choose, regardless of how one views free will, to have faith in God. God must intervene and enable them to respond. This intervention by God is called prevenient grace. In the Reformed view this is an irresistible act that regenerates the individual and always leads to accepting the gift of salvation. For the Arminian, this intervention by God overcomes total depravity so that a person can make a free will decision in the libertarian sense. A person has the power of contrary choice – either accepting or rejecting salvation.

How does prevenient grace, in the Arminian view, enable a person?

Reformers assume that since the person is not regenerated, prevenient grace (in the Arminian view) must neutralize the will of a person.

Arminians, however, differ from Calvinists in that they believe in the doctrine of prevenient grace, which essentially neutralizes the will

That leads them to conclude that the person does not actually make the choice.

Does it erase all of the you behind the choice? If you are neutralized and liberated from you, then who is making the choice?

Based on this line of reasoning it might be fair to ask the Reformer the same question – if you are regenerated and liberated from who you are (a sinner by nature), then who is making the choice?

The Reformers add to the neutralized will their notion that libertarian free will requires an absence of influencing choices and assume a choice can’t be made:

It is like a balanced scale, it will never tilt to the right or the left unless the weights (influence) on one side is greater than the other

And if the choice is actually made then it would be arbitrary since the scale is perfectly balanced. These conclusions are rooted in the idea that a person will always (deterministically) choose according to the strongest desire. Assuming this is how free will works, then what the Reformer or Determinist fails to see is that the choice over which desire to make strongest is the choice of the individual. You get to choose the desire that is strongest and thus choose the desire upon which you will act.

Scientists, like theologians, argue over this as well. The Reformer’s appeal to a neutral will is similar to one made by physicists who hold to determinism. They argue that quantum mechanics can’t explain libertarian free will because it introduces randomness (or chance) and thus there is still no real choice.

In a nutshell this video offers a possible solution to how free will works based on quantum mechanics: agent causation.

~ things are determined not by prior event or random events but the choices of agents … who introduce new information into the system for a result to happen.

The important point is that contrary to Reformed assertions, libertarian free will does not require the absence of influences and prevenient grace does not require a neutralized will. Grace need only give a person the ability to make a contrary choice regarding salvation.

Again, how exactly does it do this is a good question.

If total depravity is the inability to choose God, maybe prevenient grace removes that  inability. However, it more likely adds new information and desires (to please God and be saved by faith) to the already existing desires. What ever it does I imagine this enablement helps us so that we are in a position similar to Adam prior to the Fall, when he could have obeyed or disobeyed in the garden.

Why does one person accept the gospel and another reject it? Another good question. Maybe these questions are mysteries for the Arminian side. Not so much in the paradoxical sense but simply because the Scriptures do not tell us how free will works. It does say that we have choices to make:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live … Deut 30:19

After all, what would be the point of Jesus telling a servant “Well Done”, if they could not make choices in how well they served? Why would we be warned that we will be called to account for the choices we make (1 Cor 5:10) unless we actually make contrary choices?

After prevenient grace has worked in us, it gives us competing desires that we must wrestle with. Much like choosing from a menu, but with much more serious consequences.

6 thoughts on “How Free is Free Will?

  1. Mike,

    As you know, I don’t have a great deal more time to devote to this question at present, but I was “irresistibly drawn” to comment on your post.

    If the Scriptures made a single mention of “prevenient grace” as used by those who believe in “free will.” another term [and concept] about the which the Scriptures are silent, I would agree that how it works would be a mystery. The mystery to me is why you would believe it.

    I agree with you that God has granted common grace to his creatures, which, though not granted equally to all, leaves all equally without excuse since all without exception an a state of fallen nature have freely chosen to suppress it or hold it down (Rom. 1:18). God has flooded sinners with light (revelation) about himself and set a choice before them, but sinners without exception in a state of nature “loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. for EVERYONE who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” It does not matter whether the revelation comes in creation, conscience, commandments, Christ’s gospel, or conviction by the Spirit, the reaction is always the same until the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

  2. Randy,

    Thanks for “choosing” to stop by despite the competing desire to stay on your writing schedule. 😉

    If the Scriptures made a single mention of “prevenient grace” as used by those who believe in “free will.” another term [and concept] about the which the Scriptures are silent, I would agree that how it works would be a mystery.

    There are lots of theological words that we use to convey ideas. The word may not be in the Bible, but the idea is. Consider a few: Trinity, Hypostatic Union, and Total Depravity.

    Prevenient Grace just means grace applied before hand. In this case the grace applied before one comes to faith. All who accept total depravity hold to the idea that grace is applied before one can come to faith. Where we differ is in how it works. How does it enable? And is the enablement resistible or not?

    Prevenient Grace is the term generally applied to the Arminian idea that the grace offered, while enabling a person, is resistible. Efficacious Grace (a term I don’t remember seeing in the Scriptures) is the term applied to the Reformed idea of prevenient grace. It regenerates a person and irresistibly causes them to choose to respond in faith.

    Free will may be another term that is not in the Bible, but the idea that man can choose is certainly captured throughout the pages.

    … until the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

    I agree. God must provide the needed grace to overcome total depravity.

    The mystery to me is why you would believe it.
    Many posts on this blog attempt to answer that.

    Reprobation
    Besides being something that Scripture affirms – man must make choices. Free will is what logically separates God (in whom there is no darkness and from whom all good gifts come) from creating some people for the express purpose of perishing without any genuine ability to respond to the Gospel.

    This idea was captured by Austin Fisher in the recent debate sponsored by Zondervan “Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism”. One I am sure you will not like but one that seems to logically follow from the tenets of Calvinism. The essence of Calvinism is that God planned to burn the building down, then planned to run in and rescue some, while purposely leaving the rest inside to perish.

    I know most Calvinists reject the idea of reprobation (God planned for some to be saved and planned for some to perish) and appeal to mystery or prefer the idea that God passed over them rather than unconditionally chose to let them perish (deserved or not).

    God wants all to be saved & wants none to perish
    Reprobation and the expressed will of God seem to be at odds. Free will resolves this contradiction and answers the question – why does God desire all to be saved when all are not saved. He offers salvation to all, yet some still resist the Spirit.

    History of Interpretation
    The interpretations of many passages offered by Calvinists are not found prior to Augustine. That means that for nearly 400 years these passages were interpreted differently. If OT prophets, Paul, John and the rest all meant to convey unconditional election and efficacious grace then why didn’t the early church interpret them this way? Could the churches planted by these apostles have failed to capture this idea?

  3. Mike – Do you think that Paul is expressing LFW in these verses?

    Philippians 1 – 21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

    To me it seems that Paul is acting against his strongest desire (to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far). He is choosing contrary.

    • Dr. Wayman:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Good question and observation. It does seem that Paul is wrestling between two competing desires. It certainly is supportive of the idea of LFW. One interesting dynamic here is that Paul is a prisoner so I would wonder how much of a choice he has over whether he will be martyred, remain a prisoner, or be released.

      Great verses that express LFW are those dealing with temptation. It would seem that we have competing desires that we must choose between. Will we choose according to the flesh/worldly desire or according to the Spirit (1 Cor 10:13; Gal 5:16-17; Matt 26:41; James 1:12-15;). And it would seem that there is a path that is provided so that we do not have to cave into what tempts us (1 Cor 10:13).

  4. This article, even the comments/responses are a Godsend. Very, very helpful in helping me to grasp the competing notions re: free will.

    One question: How would you respond to one who say that John 8:24 does not affirm free will because it does not say how a person does or does not believe?

    Thanks!

    • Nelson
      Glad you found it helpful. If you are interested in FW I recommend checking out the Series page as there are several other posts you might enjoy,

      Regarding John 8:24, I think you are going to have to flush out what that argument looks like before I can answer.

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