Six Practical Reasons ‘Free Will’ Matters
In “A Beginner’s Guide to Free Will,” I tried to explain the various meanings of free will and what the Bible has to say about it. Depending on which definition you refer to, we either do or don’t have “free will.” Here again are the three definitions:
Definition 1: 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. On that definition, free will exists both in fallen and redeemed human beings.
Definition 2: 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. Based on this definition, only those who are born again through Jesus Christ have free will.
Definition 3: 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. On this definition, no human being has free will, at any time. Only God does.
In this article, I simply want to draw out some of the practical implications of believing that the human will is in bondage to preferring other things above God. We are freed from this bondage only when God’s sovereign grace opens the eyes of our hearts in such a way that we find Jesus Christ to be the most beautiful and desirable reality in the world. This is what happens when we are born again.
What difference does it make if you really believe this? It is a great mistake to think that the issues of free will are merely academic, with little practical effect. Here are six effects of seeing and feeling the reality of our bondage and the miracle of divine liberation.
1. Knowledge of God’s “Great Love”
To know your spiritual deadness and the miracle that rescued you is to know, as never before, the greatness of God’s particular love for you personally. Ponder Ephesians 2:4–5, the only place where Paul refers to the “great love” of God: “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.”
One of the things that makes this love great is that it is not God’s general love for everyone, but his special love for you personally. We know this because it raises you from the dead and gives you spiritual life and faith. If you don’t know your former deadness and his special gift of resurrection, you don’t know the greatness of the love of God.
If you really see and feel your helplessness and God’s deliverance, you will be amazed that you are a Christian. You will be amazed that your heart inclines to the beauty of Christ. You will be amazed at every good resolve, and every impulse to praise, and every good deed.
You will be inclined to talk like David in 1 Chronicles 29:14: “Who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly?” Every use of your will to act for God’s glory is amazing. And it is a wonderful thing to live a life of regular amazement.
When David said, “Who am I to be so willing to do good?” he was not only expressing amazement, but also humility. Who am I that such a grace should be mine? I did nothing to deserve this. If there is anything praiseworthy in my generosity, it is a gift. Even when I am acting in a virtuous way, God remains the decisive giver in all my virtue. “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
When we are rewarded in the end for our imperfect righteousness, the glory will finally belong to God, because all our giving is at root a receiving: “Who has given a gift to God that he might be repaid?” Answer: No one. Therefore, to God be the glory (Romans 11:35–36). Knowing and loving this truth is the essence of humility. We were made for this.
When amazement and humility happen in the conscious presence of God, the emotion we feel is thankfulness. When Paul was explaining the divine liberation of the enslaved will, he overflowed with thanks to God: “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart” (Romans 6:17).
How much more do we feel this when we are aware, not just of liberation from bondage in general, but of our own particular hopelessness, and God’s unfathomable kindness to us?
Knowing that we were dead and could not raise ourselves — and feeling it with humility and amazement — makes us patient with those who have not yet seen the glory of Christ in the gospel. It is right to summon people to see and believe. But it is also right for this summons to be made more tender and patient by the awareness that our own seeing and believing was owing to a divine miracle. We have a trembling sense that we cannot save sinners, and they cannot save themselves. Patience is the reflex of humble amazement that we ourselves are saved.
If we know, in the very marrow of our bones, that the conversion of the hardest sinner is not impossible with God, we will bear witness with boldness — no matter how weak and helpless we feel. When the rich young ruler turned away, Jesus said, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” His disciples were baffled and said, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus responded, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23–27).
In other words, no one is beyond the power of God to save. And our witness to his saving gospel should be tireless and bold. Only God can open the eyes of the heart, but God ordains to do it through our witness. He calls us to do what only he can do. For he is the decisive doer in our doing. Hence Jesus sent Paul “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).
What you believe about the freedom of the will is no mere academic matter. These effects, and many more, flow from the deep conviction that sings,
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.