What About Free Will? (Part 3)

I am writing a book on the ever thorny, controversial, misunderstood topic of free will.  Over the course of several weeks, I am blogging about the issue.  I invite your feedback, as this will help me fine tune the contents of my book.


In this third post, I present the most common reasons libertarians give in support of their position and show why these reasons are flawed.

Libertarianism Establishes a Meaningful Relationship with God

According to libertarians, only if we are free to accept or reject God can we have a meaningful relationship with Him.  If our love for God is determined it must mean it is either mechanistically programmed or coerced against our will.  If either notion is true then love would be stripped of its value.  Greg Boyd says, “If love is the goal” of God’s creation of us then love “must be freely chosen. It cannot be coerced. Agents must possess the capacity and opportunity to reject love if they are to possess the genuine capacity and ability to engage in love.”

The argument seeks to counter a caricature of what a determinist God would have to do in order to get His creatures to love Him.  Thaddeus Williams in his excellent book Love, Freedom, and Free Will has answered this charge.  Suppose someone is necessarily compelled to say “I love you” to God.  Williams indicates this can only be the result of three possible conditions.  In each condition, the subject says “I love you” because they can do no other.

The first condition is the result of mechanistic programming. If God determines our love, then we are like the old Chatty Cathy dolls that say “I love you!” when God pulls the string. Such a person is no more than a computer-like entity programmed to perform automatic functions.  The Second condition posits that saying “I love you” is the result of sheer divine coercion.  In this case a person is forced to mouth the words against their will.  This is tantamount to theistic totalitarianism.  The third condition indicates the expression of love is the result of a powerful heart desire.  Here the person says “I love you” because they have such strong internal desires and affections for God that they cannot fathom acting any other way.

Libertarians and compatibilists agree that the first two scenarios are illegitimate responses for a truly loving and meaningful relationship with God.  To suggest either is the view of Calvinists is a straw man.  However, that is not true of the third scenario.  Such a person loves voluntarily and without coercion and yet does so as a necessary result of deterministic causes.  Libertarianism rejects this because it says we must be free from the compelling force all desires, motives, inclinations, passions, etc.  Thus, as Williams argues, libertarianism entails freedom from our own hearts.

Libertarianism would have us believe that such indeterminate choices are the basis for meaningful relationships.  But true love does not act with indifference to options but with headlong devotion in a single direction.  In fact, all meaningful choices spring from such singular zeal to pursue the one choice that is clearly better than any other.  In the doctrine of regeneration God changes our hearts producing a compelling desire to love God.  To love Him is a necessary result of God’s determination but in no way can it be construed as a mindlessly indifferent or a forced response against one’s will.  In fact, the powerful voluntary nature of the response is what makes love meaningful not that one could act otherwise.

Libertarianism Provides the Foundation for Moral Responsibility

Libertarianism teaches only free will can explain moral responsibility.  When a person acts with moral good he is deserving of praise.  When he acts with moral evil he is deserving of blame.  Libertarianism believes that praise or blame is only meaningful when a person is able to act in a contrary way.  If someone breaks the law they bear responsibility only because they could have acted otherwise.

This argument is not persuasive.  People bear responsibility for breaking the law because they do so intentionally not because they had a choice to act otherwise.  In this regard, libertarians confuse necessity with coercion.  People always act according to their most compelling motive.  But acting necessarily as a result of compelling motives is not in most cases coercive.

The problem is, in the libertarian scheme motives don’t determine choices.  Every act is free only to the degree that it is free from motives, intentions, etc.  But that is not how the law works.  If a person commits a crime with no discernible motive or reason, but it appears to be an arbitrary act, then it is hard to assess liability for the crime.  In a court of law, usually such individuals make an insanity plea.  Guilt and culpability are only applied when a motive is uncovered.  Unfortunately, in the libertarian perspective of free will everybody would be insane.

In libertarianism, to be free is to be wholly indifferent about the choices one makes.  You can choose one action or its opposite with equal ease and neither action carries any particular preference.  If this is true then no action carries any consequence worthy of notice either.  Bad choices could not be justly blamed and good choices could not be justly praised because neither is preceded by a causal relationship to the nature, motives or intentions of the person making the choice.  The fact is, we praise a man’s good actions because they proceed from a good intentioned heart.  Likewise we blame him for his wicked actions because his heart harbored wicked intentions.

God holds sinners liable because of their intentions not due to their freedom to choose otherwise.  The global flood was divinely orchestrated to destroy mankind because “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).  Consider David’s counsel to his son: “As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts” (1 Chron. 28:9).  Solomon is held responsible for the intentions of his heart and the degree of his willingness to serve God.  God is not interested in mere obedience.  He wants our hearts.  True Christianity is exercised via the affections of the heart not mere conformance to a standard of ethics.

Ought Implies Can

Norman Geisler writes, “Moral obligations imply that we have self-determining moral free choice.  For ought implies can.  That is, what we ought to do implies that we can do it. Otherwise, we have to assume that the Moral Lawgiver is prescribing the irrational, commanding that we do what is literally impossible for us to do.”  But suppose a person borrowed $500 from a friend and was unable to pay her back; that certainly doesn’t excuse him from his obligation.  Likewise, God is not obligated to dismiss our debt to Him simply because we cannot repay it. Humans are in rebellion against God not just because we are under a curse (Rom. 5:17) and can do no other but also because we heartily approve of our rebellious actions (Psa. 2:2-3; Rom. 1:32).  One’s inability to act contrary to his sinful nature does not abrogate his culpability since he also acts voluntarily (intentionally).

Libertarianism Rescues God from Culpability for Evil

Libertarianism charges that if God is the ultimate determiner of human action then He must be culpable for sin and evil, thus making God evil.  The problem is illustrated this way.  Imagine the senseless beating of a homeless man to death on the streets of the city.  In this case, the Calvinist God is likened to a Mafioso styled mayor who calls for this sort of evil.  Even though the mayor didn’t directly conduct the beating, he is responsible because he called for one of his thugs to do it.

Conversely, Roger Olson seeks to show how libertarianism rescues God from evil: “Because he values the liberty he gave his human creatures, and he will not abrogate it even though it means sin and evil enter creation.  God permits, but does not will or cause, sin and evil.”  In other words, evil was a risk God had to allow in order to preserve human freedom and responsibility.  But Olson’s account doesn’t solve the dilemma.  If God merely “permits” evil and knows it will take place, then the Arminian God is like a police officer who stands by idly while the homeless man in our illustration is being beaten to death.  He didn’t order the killing, but neither does He stop it.

It is important here to understand that Arminianism doesn’t deny God’s omnipotence.  Olson says, “God is sufficiently powerful to stop anything from happening, but he does not always exercise that power, because to do so would be to rob his free and rational creatures, created in his image, of their distinct reality and liberty.” Thus, libertarian freedom is a greater virtue for God to maintain than to prevent evil from happening.  If the police officer is asked why he doesn’t stop the beating, he would have to say, “I am sorry, I can’t do that, otherwise I would violate the perpetrator’s free will and that would be a greater crime than stopping his senseless violence.”

Libertarianism doesn’t exonerate God from liability for evil.  To permit evil is equivalent to not preventing it and therefore to concur with it happening.  The point is inescapable for both Arminians and Calvinists: if God permits evil then at some level He concurs with its existence.  Now maybe God is powerless to prevent evil.  But then evil or the source of evil would be more powerful than God.  If evil prevails unabated and God is powerless against it then we are a race to be pitied.  Thus, if God doesn’t prevent evil then He must have some purpose for its existence.

So how can God be exonerated from culpability for evil?  First, since God is absolutely and perfectly benevolent we can know He cannot think or act in any evil manner.  Subsequently, the best way to respond to the question of who is culpable for evil is to return to what has already been stated.  Evil proceeds from the motives and intentions of one’s heart (James 1:14-15; cf. Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9).  God never has evil motives or intentions therefore He cannot think or act with evil (1 John 1:5).  Note carefully this is not the same thing as saying God can ordain evil to take place. God can ordain evil without having evil intentions.

This is expressed in Joseph’s iconic statement to his slave selling brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).  Joseph’s brothers acted with evil intention (“you meant evil”).  However, God brought about the same result but with a different intention.  His motive was good – “God meant it for good.”  Culpability can be attributed to Joseph’s brothers because they intentionally purposed evil.  God sovereignly purposed the same event, but his intention was good and therefore has no culpability for the evil that occurred.

The mechanics of how this can be remains a mystery Scripture doesn’t explain.  D. A. Carson says God’s causal relationship to good and evil is not identical or symmetrical as though He was amoral (i.e. neither good nor evil).  Since God’s fundamental nature is good not evil, His relationship to good and evil must be asymmetrical.  God stands behind what is good in such a way that it is always directly attributed to Him.  He stands behind evil only in a distant secondary way so that it cannot be directly attributed to Him, only to secondary agents or causes.

We must be content in knowing God doesn’t always provide answers for every instance of evil.  This is difficult because prideful creatures demand answers. The message of the book of Job is very sobering on this count.  When Job cries out “why?” in the midst of his intense suffering, the essence of the divine response takes our breath away – I am God and you are not.


What About Free Will? (Part 2)

I am writing a book on the ever thorny, controversial, misunderstood topic of free will.  Over the course of the next few weeks, I plan to blog about the issue.  I invite your feedback, as this will help me fine tune the contents of my book.


In this second post, I present the position on free will known as libertarianism. Libertarians are generally associated with Arminians and Open Theists.  However, most people, Christian or not, generally have some notion of free will that is akin to libertarianism although few could articulate what they mean by free will.  The libertarian concept of free will teaches two fundamental ideas.

Contrary Choice

First of all, libertarianism teaches that humans are fully capable of making choices contrary to the choices they actually make.  This is called the power of contrary choice.  Arminian theologian Roger Olson states, “Free agency is the ability to do other than what one in fact does.” A person can choose to do what they want to do, but they can equally choose to do what they don’t want to do.

This doesn’t mean a person can do whatever they want.  The laws of nature and other conditions constrain us.  Nobody can lift a two ton truck above their head.  Standing in the open prairie won’t stop a tornado from putting you into the next county.  If your bank goes belly up, you may not get your money back.  Your limited understanding may prevent you from grasping a difficult Bible passage.  And so on.

Self-determining Choice

Secondly, libertarianism teaches that the ability to make alternative choices is not determined by anything outside the person making the choice.  Walls and Dongell say, “The essence of this view is that a free action is one that does not have a sufficient condition or cause prior to its occurrence.” Olson states that free will is the power of self-determining choice and that “it is incompatible with determination of any kind.”  In other words, a self-determining choice is not caused by anything prior to the human will itself making its choice.

These so-called causes include all external forces such as circumstances, culture, upbringing, rules and laws governing behavior, what other people do to influence our choices and of course God Himself.  But it also includes internal desires, beliefs, preferences, motivations and expectations.  The will exercises an unequaled power over all one’s inner dispositions.  If any compelling thought or affection for something should control us then we are not free.  Libertarians believe God endows His creatures with this freedom and He steadfastly refuses to interfere with it.

Further Clarifications

Several related ideas that derive from these two basic points.  In the libertarian conception of free will, if choices are caused by anything other than the will itself then those choices are coerced which hinders freedom and responsibility.  Hindrances would be the various the internal and external influences that might otherwise direct the will towards a particular choice.  To be sure, influences can exert swaying power but cannot be regarded as actual causes for one’s choices otherwise they would be acts of coercion undermining freedom.  Libertarians don’t deny the importance of these influences, especially those coming from God.  Rather, they deny these have any causal bearing on the choices one makes.

Libertarians believe our liberated wills have the ability to control or ward off all such influences or neutralize them.  The human will is invested with the power of arbitration.  It has the ability to transcend all possible alternative choices like an unbiased judge.  Thus in order to be free, the will must have the ability to exercise a palpable indifference to possible alternative choices.  In order to maintain responsibility for one’s decisions a person cannot say that mom, dad, the devil or God made me do it.  But neither in the end can one say that his own desires or motives made him do it.  Subsequently, the will is considered the sole cause of its own actions (i.e. it is self-determining).

None of this is to say that libertarians despise reasons for choices that are made.  In most cases, compelling reasons might appeal to a person and they may choose to follow its leading.  What cannot happen is a set of reasons that become strong enough to compel a person to make one choice over another. Even if a person agrees with reasons for a particular choice, you must have the power to resist those reasons and choose contrary to it. Free will means we always have alternative choices at our disposal.

Christians who espouse libertarianism especially want to make it clear that God doesn’t determine our choices although He can influence them.  In turn, we respond with the freedom either to act in accordance with God’s influence or to resist it. No matter how strong the influence of the Holy Spirit may be, a person can always resist His efforts to persuade us.  To be free is to have the power to go in alternative directions with equal ease.  Subsequently, choices must be completely disconnected to any prior reasons or causes. The will is both the cause and the effect of its own actions.

In other words, given the same exact set of circumstances no particular outcome is guaranteed.  The same choice might be made, but not by necessity.  One day a person could hear a gospel message and believe, but the next day that same person under the same exact circumstances may not believe.  Subsequently, choices are unpredictable and thus unknowable before they occur. This may help explain why classic Arminianism believes in the loss of salvation.  A person can act in faith and perseverance one day and completely abandon them the next.  To be fair, Arminians would deny that people act capriciously in their decisions, yet this is the logical conclusion of choices that are free from prior causes.

In my next post I will demonstrate the problems with the libertarian conception of free will.

What About Free Will? (Part 1)

I am writing a book on the ever thorny, controversial, misunderstood topic of free will.  Beginning today and over the course of the next few weeks, I plan to blog about the issue.  I invite your feedback, as this will help me fine tune the contents of my book.


In this first post, I am simply introducing the topic.

Biblical Christians embrace two foundational affirmations.  First, God is in control of all that transpires in time, space and history including the course of individual human lives.  Secondly, human beings are responsible moral agents who freely choose the direction their lives take.  On the surface, these two truths appear to be in conflict with one another.  How can God direct the course of human history and yet humans remain free to choose their own course of action?

Since free will and divine sovereignty seem irreconcilable, one or the other is usually denied or limited in some degree.  Historically, some Christians have limited God’s sovereignty in order to uphold what seems so obvious, that man has a free will.  This is most often associated with Arminianism.  Other Christians have emphasized God’s sovereign determination of what transpires while either limiting human freedom or denying it altogether.  This is generally associated with Calvinism. Either man has a free will which limits God’s sovereignty or God is absolutely sovereign and man is not really so free.  But is it possible to somehow reconcile God’s sovereignty with human freedom?

My book is a quest to answer that question in the affirmative.  Most Christians have no problem accepting the over-arching sovereignty of God in the big picture of history.  However, when it comes to God’s sovereignly decreeing our actual choices we often entertain a different perspective.  Many assume God’s actions have little bearing on our personal choices.  We like to reserve a certain degree of autonomy for ourselves.

For many, to deny free will is anathema.  This is understandable.  It seems intuitively obvious we make our own choices and appear to do so independently.  Our choices are usually made unhindered and seemingly apart from any outside causes other than our own freedom to choose.  Many readily accept that God chooses us for salvation and directs our lives for His purposes, but don’t we also freely choose what we want as well?  How can both notions be true?

Why is this subject so important?  Having a Biblical view of divine sovereignty and human freedom helps us with a host of important matters in the Christian life, such as:

  • God’s role and our role in matters of salvation.
  • How regeneration, conversion and sanctification work.
  • How we should develop methods of evangelism and discipleship.
  • Building greater confidence in God’s providential purposes for both history and our lives.
  • Making sense of the existence of evil and whether God or man or even Satan is responsible for it.

The questions can be quite personal.

  • If God determines the course of events in my life how can I be responsible for my actions?
  • Isn’t determinism – another way of speaking of God’s absolute sovereignty – really fatalism so that it doesn’t matter what choices I make? Shall I resign myself to “what will be will be” and there is nothing I can do about it?
  • How can I have a meaningful relationship with God?
  • Doesn’t God’s sovereignty undermine my choice to freely love Him?
  • Does it really matter what choices I make if God has already determined them?
  • Why should God’s commands matter if He has already determined whether I am to be in or out of line with His moral precepts?
  • Am I nothing more than an automaton, a programmed robot or a computer?
  • How can I know if my choices are out of the will of God?

Sorting through all the thorny questions and confusing ideas surrounding this topic is daunting.  But the rewards are worth the effort.  When we enhance our understanding of God’s role and our own roles in the unfolding of His plan for history and for our personal lives, it gives us confidence and hope that God is good and wise and powerful and that our choices have meaning and purpose. We are a vital part of what He is doing in the world.  Our choices matter and what makes this true has everything to do with the manner in which His sovereignty manifests itself in our lives.

In my next post I will introduce the first of two major positions Christians take on the nature of human choosing and what freedom and responsibility look like.  This first position is known as libertarianism and the other is called compatibilism.  Stay tuned.