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.

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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.

 

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6 thoughts on “What About Free Will? (Part 1)

  1. Overview seems to handle all the “biggies” related to the issue. I especially like the mention of determinism … seems that is often confused with God and the issue of sovereignty. I think tackling the issue is somewhat like John’s description of Jesus (No one has seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side.) Our finite minds just can’t grasp the fullness of the truth.

  2. Many assume if you are discussing divine sovereignty that it must equivalent to determinism, but that is not true. Classic Arminians hold that God is sovereign without determining events that transpire. IOW, He manages to get what He wants done without determining what people choose. Calvinists hold that divine determinism is the only way to make sense of the vast number of passages that indicate God as the ultimate source of all that transpires. I think the evidence for the latter is unassailable. This is why we need to understand the nature of freedom and responsibility and thus the burden of my book.

  3. I think I disagree with your statement: “First, God is in control of all that transpires in time, space and history including the course of individual human lives.”

    My understanding from what I was taught in church is that God is capable of control, but does not exercise it, in order that we may free choose our actions. The Bible shows explicit instances of God’s intervention, as in the plagues to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. But it also shows God stepping back and allowing nature to run its course, as when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden.

    The classic “determinism versus free will” paradox is an illusion, as both appear to be objectively true, simultaneously, in the empirical world.

    The God problem is a little more complex. If He is omniscient and omnipotent, then He is the responsible cause of all of the evil and good in the world, including our disposition to choose one or the other.

  4. Marvin,
    Thanks for your comment. The meticulous nature of God’s deterministic sovereignty is indicated by several passages. Consider for example Eph. 1:11 that indicates God “works all things after the counsel of His will.” Or Psa. 103:19: “The LORD has established His throne in the heavens; and His sovereignty rules over all.” The meticulous nature of his determined acts is especially expressed in Jesus’ words: “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29).

    Isaiah is particularly forceful: “Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.” (Isa. 46:9-11).

    Of course I could multiple verses. The other issues you raise I will treat in subsequent posts, so please stay tuned.

    • You have two thoughts in those verses. In the first set, God has sovereignty, but may or may not choose to interfered. In the second set, God is the responsible cause of every event, including every choice of every lesser creature to do good or to do evil, such that only God is reasonably subject to judgment.

      Which way are you leaning?

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