Free Will: What It Is and Is Not
James R. Aist
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who has sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and has learned of the Father comes to Me.” – John 6:44-45
Unfortunately, “free will” is commonly misunderstood and inadvertently misrepresented in Christian circles today. So, I will discuss in this article the true nature and limitations of “free will”, primarily as they pertain to our relationships with God, including the mechanics of salvation. I do not believe that one can rightly understand the mechanics of salvation, as correctly represented in the Bible, without a clear understanding of what “free will” is and is not and what it can and cannot do.
What Free Will Is
There are four components of “free will” that must be present for it to be exercised. These same four components of “free will” are also present and operative in the numerous choices we make every day, whether or not they have any moral implications or ramifications. First, there must be an ability to choose. In mankind, this ability resides mainly in the soul, or mind. God gave Adam and Eve the ability to choose which trees to eat from. Second, there must be a license to choose. God gave Adam and Eve permission to choose which trees to eat from. Third, there must be two or more options from which to choose. God gave Adam and Eve the option to either obey or disobey His instructions concerning which trees to eat from. And, fourth, in order for “free will” to be exercised, there must be a desire to make a choice. Satan gave Adam and Eve the desire to disobey God, and they did; Satan’s influence outweighed God’s influence in this case. We may conclude, therefore, that “free will”, much like language, is nothing more than a God-given ability that we possess, with the God-given permission to use it.
What Free Will Is Not
Free will is not an inalienable right. I can illustrate this fact very easily: 1) none of the people who have lived and died without any opportunity to even hear of the God of the Bible or of His Son, Jesus Christ, were given the right to believe or not believe the Gospel; and 2) in the end times, “…every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God” (Romans 14:11), and yet all of those who have not already accepted the Gospel will not have the right to do so at that time, but will be permanently assigned to hell no matter how strenuously they may object.
Free will is not a guarantee of options. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, “…at the east of the Garden of Eden He placed the cherubim and a flaming sword which turned in every direction, to guard the way to the tree of life.” Although they we capable of choosing to return to the garden, God forced them to live elsewhere; they had no option.
Free will is not irrevocable. When Adam and Eve sinned, their God-given right to eat freely of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was rescinded. Although they were still capable of eating of that tree, their license to do so was revoked.
Free will is not sovereign. Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” When we “deny ourselves” and “follow Jesus”, we freely and willfully forfeit our right to make choices that are not in accordance with “…the good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2); we substitute God’s will for our “free will.” Otherwise, we do not really become His disciples. According to John 6:44-45 (see above), the Father himself has so influenced our will that we have become eager to hear and to accept His invitation to be saved. And so, we are born again. Moreover, in Ezekiel 36:27, God says that after we are born again, God will cause us to walk in obedience to His will, not ours: “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”
Free will is not an explanation. A man can invoke “free will” to assert that he can, in fact, make a choice to either accept or reject the Gospel. But, to claim that “free will” is all there is to it is to “beg the question”, because “free will” only asserts that you can choose, not why you chose “this” option over “that” option. The question of “why”, therefore, remains unanswered. The primary ramification of this failure of “free will” to actually explain why one makes the particular choice they make in response to the Gospel is that it compels us to search the Scriptures for the identity and source of the influences that do, in fact, cause us to accept or reject the Gospel. And, the Bible is far from silent on this point, as we will see in the following section.
Why Most People Reject the Gospel
Now, I believe there can be no reasonable doubt that God created mankind with the authority and the capacity to make certain decisions by exercising what is commonly referred to as “free will.” This fact can be verified adequately from the creation account in Genesis 1:26-3:24. From this same passage of Scripture we can conclude also that God holds mankind accountable for the decisions made using “free will.” But, just how free is this “free will” in practice? In Genesis 3:1-7, we see that the will of Adam and Eve was originally aligned with the will of God to be obedient to Him until the serpent (Satan) sufficiently influenced their original will to obey God as to misalign it into a will to disobey God. So, we see that, while they were still free to choose, the choice they made was so greatly modified by an outside influence (i.e., lies of the devil) as to turn it 180 degrees.
And so it is today concerning our exercise of “free will” in making the myriad of choices we make on a daily basis: we are still free (allowed) to make choices, but the choices we make are largely determined by outside influences, rather than by innate characteristics of our will. This modification of our will that determines the choices we make is eminently obvious in the making of moral choices today, just as it was with Adam and Eve “in the beginning.” The mere fact that we are allowed to make choices does not mean that the choices we make are “free” of outside influences. In fact, quite the contrary is true; every choice we make is heavily influenced by outside factors of one kind or another. In other words, there’s a reason why we make every decision we make, but that reason is never “free will.” As I pointed out above, “free will” refers only to our God-given authority and capacity to make decisions, but it says nothing about what it is that has led us to choose one alternative over another. So, it is critical to recognize and understand this important distinction before attempting to discover the role of “free will” in the mechanics of salvation.
In the spiritual world – of which, we are all a part – the influences of God (the lover of our souls) and of Satan (the enemy of our souls) are constantly at war, with our minds as the battlefields. And our eternal destiny is the spoils of this great battle, the outcome of which will be determined largely by who is able to exert the greatest, and final, influence on our will to either accept or reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Adam and Eve chose, of their own “free” will, to believe Satan instead of God, they took on a “sin nature” (Colossians 3:8-10), or a predisposition to sin, that has been passed down to all subsequent generations, including ours. We have inherited, so to speak, from Adam a “sin nature”, an inborn desire to reject God’s provision and follow our own path in life. This sin nature can also be aptly described as an ever present readiness to do evil (i.e., disobey God).
This predisposition to sin is so pervasive as to render us, in our “natural-born” state, in rebellion against, and at enmity with, God. Paul described our natural-born, fallen, spiritual condition like this, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the age of this world and according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among them we all also once lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and we were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Ephesians 2:1-3), and “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). In fact, our natural-born, spiritual condition is so depraved that Paul declared “…there is no one who seeks after God” (Romans 3:11) and “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18). Moreover, the Bible clearly says that men reject the Gospel because God hardens them (Isaiah 63:17; John 12:40; Romans 9:18), and because Satan blinds their minds (2 Corinthians 4:4) and takes away the word from their hearts (Luke 8:12). And when God said, “I was found by those who did not seek Me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for Me” (Isaiah 65:1; quoted by Paul in Romans 10:20), He was making a statement about the mechanics of salvation, saying in effect, that because men do not seek Me or ask for Me, I will take the initiative and reveal Myself to them. That’s why Jesus declared, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who has sent Me draws him.” (John 6:44). In other words, in his natural-born, fallen, spiritual condition, a man is so spiritually depraved that he cannot, of his own volition, believe and accept the Gospel. He must have God’s help (i.e., intervention) to be able to make that choice.
Thus, according to the Bible, we start out in life with a will that is already misaligned and predisposed to obey Satan and disobey God (Acts 26:17-19); there is something terribly wrong with our “heart.” And this is why, without the supernatural intervention of God in our lives, we are “without hope” in the world. Somehow, our natural-born, misaligned will has to be realigned to be obedient to God and disobedient to Satan, if we are to be transformed from “children of wrath” into children of God, and if we are to remain transformed. But, how does the Bible say that God intervenes to save us and keep us? I have addressed this question elsewhere and invite you to check it out for yourself (click HERE).
Where our relationships with God are concerned, “free will” certainly seems to play a vital role in enabling Christians to please God by choosing to obey His will instead of their own. But, “free will”, while almost always present, can also be limited, conditional, mutable and even revocable when it conflicts with God’s sovereign will. Moreover, one cannot invoke “free will” to explain why some do and some do not accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To explain that, one must invoke the manner and extent of the Father’s influence on the one who accepts the Gospel, because, as Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who has sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and has learned of the Father comes to Me.” (John 6:44-45). One simply cannot come to Jesus of one’s own volition. The ones who are not so drawn by the Father will simply, and sadly, continue to be “…strangers to the covenants of promise, without God and without hope in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). And they will perish because all have sinned, and because the wages of sin is death. Finally, God not only causes us to want to be saved, but He also causes us to live in obedience to His will after we are saved (Ezekiel 36:27). So, our salvation and our subsequent life of obedience to God’s will are both the result of God’s will, not ours, being asserted.
(To read more of my articles on biblical teachings, click HERE)