A Beginner’s Guide to ‘Free Will’

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Before the fall of Adam, man was sinless and able not to sin. For God “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). But he was also able to sin. For God had said, “In the day that you eat of it [the tree] you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

As soon as Adam fell into sin, human nature was profoundly altered. Now man was not able not to sin. In the fall, human nature lost its freedom not to sin.

Why is man not able not to sin? Because on this side of the fall “that which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6), and “the mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7–8, my translation). Or, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

Notice the word cannot twice in Romans 8:7–8, and the words “is not able” in 1 Corinthians 2:14. This is the nature of all human beings when we are born — what Paul calls the “natural person,” and what Jesus calls “born of the flesh.”

Too Rebellious to Submit to God

This means, Paul says, that in this condition we “cannot please God,” or, to put it another way, “we are not able not to sin.” The basic reason is that the natural person prefers his own autonomy and his own glory above the sovereignty and glory of God. This is what Paul means when he says, “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit . . . ”

“Believing is not just affirming the truth of Jesus, but is also seeing the beauty and worth of Jesus.”

Glad submission to God’s authority, and to God’s superior value and beauty, is something we are not able to do. This is not because we are kept from doing what we prefer to do. It is because we prefer our own authority, and treasure our own value, above God’s. We cannot prefer God as supremely valuable while preferring ourselves supremely.

The reason for this idolatrous preference is that we are morally blind to the glory of Christ, so that we cannot treasure his glory as superior to our own. Satan is committed to confirming us in this blinding preference. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). So when the natural person looks at the glory of God, whether in nature or in the gospel, he does not see supreme beauty and worth.

To Believe We Must See Beauty

This is the basic reason that the natural person cannot believe in Christ. Believing is not just affirming the truth of Jesus, but is also seeing the beauty and worth of Jesus, in such a way that we receive him as our supreme treasure. The way Jesus expressed this was to say, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). There is no saving relationship with Jesus where faith does not consist in treasuring Jesus above your dearest earthly treasures.

Where this wakening to the supreme glory and value of Jesus (called “new birth”) has not happened, the fallen human heart cannot believe in Jesus. That’s why Jesus said to those who opposed him, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). In other words, you cannot believe in Jesus while you treasure human glory over his. For believing is just the opposite. Believing in Jesus means receiving him as supremely glorious and valuable (John 1:12).

This is why the natural person cannot please God. For he cannot believe God in this way. He cannot receive him and his Son as supremely valuable. But the Bible says, “Without faith it is impossible to please him [God]” (Hebrews 11:6). Or, as Paul says, even more dramatically, in Romans 14:23, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

The Great Renovation Through Christ

The stark reality, therefore, is that human beings, as we are born — with an ordinary, fallen human nature — are not able not to sin. We are, as Paul and Jesus both affirm, “slaves of sin” (John 8:34; Romans 6:20). The remedy for this condition is the free and sovereign grace of God bringing about a root change in our fallen nature.

This miraculous, blood-bought, Spirit-wrought change in what we perceive and prefer is described in several ways in the New Testament. For example:

  • God’s creation of light in our hearts: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

  • God’s causing us to be born again: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 1:3)

  • God’s raising us from the dead: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:4–5)

  • God’s gift of repentance: “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:25–26)

  • God’s gift of faith: “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” (Philippians 1:29)

The effect of this miraculous, Spirit-wrought change is that we are no longer blind to the supreme beauty and glory of Christ; we no longer prefer our own autonomy over God’s sovereign rule; we no longer love God’s creation more than the Creator; we embrace Christ as supremely valuable; we trust his promises; we are set free from our bondage to unbelief and sin, and are finally able not to sin. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).

A Definition of ‘Free Will’

Now, where does “free will” fit into this biblical picture of our condition in the world?

To answer that question we need a clear definition of “free will.” It may be helpful to offer three definitions — one from popular usage, one from common biblical usage, and one from the more technical discussion.

Popularly, what do most people mean when they wonder about free will? I think most people mean something like this: Our will is free if our preferences and our choices are really our own in such a way that we can justly be held responsible for whether they are good or bad. The opposite would be that our preferences and choices are not our own, but that we are robots or puppets with no meaningful acts of preferring or choosing.

On that definition, free will exists both in fallen and redeemed human beings. For what the fall brought about was not that we cease to be authentic preferring and choosing persons, but that our rebelliousness inclines us to prefer and choose badly. Everyone prefers and chooses in accord with his nature. If the nature is rebellious and insubordinate, as Paul describes in Romans 8:7–8, we prefer and choose accordingly. If our nature is being set free from its rebellion, it begins to prefer and choose what is truly beautiful. In either case, our preferring and choosing are “our own,” and we are “held responsible” for whether they are good or bad.

A Biblical Definition

A second definition of free will reflected in the language of Jesus and Paul is this: The human will is free when it is not in bondage to prefer and choose irrationally. It is free when it is liberated from preferring what is infinitely less preferable than God, and from choosing what will lead to destruction. The opposite of this view would be that such irrational preferences and suicidal choices should be called “freedom.”

Based on this definition, only those who are born again have free will. This is the way Jesus saw the idea of freedom in John 8:32: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And this is the way Paul talks about freedom in Romans 6: “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” (Romans 6:17–18).

A Technical Definition

The more technical definition of free will that some people use is this: We have free will if we are ultimately or decisively self-determining, and the only preferences and choices that we can be held accountable for are ones that are ultimately or decisively self-determined. The key word here is ultimate, or decisive. The point is not just that choices are self-determined, but that the self is the ultimate or decisive determiner. The opposite of this definition would be that God is the only being who is ultimately self-determining, and is himself ultimately the disposer of all things, including all choices — however many or diverse other intervening causes are.

“Let the Bible speak fully and deeply. Trust that someday we will no longer see in a mirror dimly, but face to face.”

On this definition, no human being has free will, at any time. Neither before or after the fall, or in heaven, are creatures ultimately self-determining. There are great measures of self-determination, as the Bible often shows, but never is man the ultimate or decisive cause of his preferences and choices. When man’s agency and God’s agency are compared, both are real, but God’s is decisive. Yet — and here’s the mystery that causes so many to stumble — God is always decisive in such a way that man’s agency is real, and his responsibility remains.

But Isn’t This Inconceivable?

I say that many stumble at this because they regard it as inconceivable. My own view is that the Bible does teach this — the compatibility of God’s decisive sovereignty and man’s responsibility. If this seems inconceivable to you, I would plead that you not let that keep you from believing what the Bible teaches.

But it might be helpful to draw in one attempt to help make sense of this. Can a person’s acts be justly regarded as praiseworthy or blameworthy if those acts flow from a good or evil nature that inclines him in only one way?

Here is part of John Calvin’s answer to this objection:

The goodness of God is so connected with his Godhead that it is not more necessary to be God than to be good; whereas the devil, by his fall, was so estranged from goodness that he can do nothing but evil.

Should anyone give utterance to the profane jeer that little praise is due to God for a goodness to which he is forced, is it not obvious to every man to reply, “It is owing not to violent impulse, but to his boundless goodness, that he cannot do evil”?

Therefore, if the free will of God in doing good is not impeded, because he necessarily must do good; if the devil, who can do nothing but evil, nevertheless sins voluntarily; can it be said that man sins less voluntarily because he is under a necessity of sinning? (Institutes, II.3.5)

So much more can be said. Questions abound. My plea is that you focus on the actual teaching of the Scriptures. Try not to bring philosophical presuppositions to the text (presuppositions like: human accountability cannot coexist with God’s decisively working “all things according to the counsel of his will,” Ephesians 1:11). Let the Bible speak fully and deeply. Trust that someday we will no longer see in a mirror dimly, but face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).