I think it’s funny how people talk about “free will” sometimes. Not that the discussion isn’t an important one, because it is, but I think the discussion is often flawed before it starts. Now here I am speaking generally, of course, and there are those who go to great pains to carefully define their terms when they speak on this matter. Still, most people seem to speak of “free will” in a way that I think is nonsensical. Let us first consider why the issue of freedom, as it relates to the will, is important at all and then we will address the matter of how we ought to properly think of freedom of the will.
The reason the issue is important is not difficult to discern. If all of the decisions a person makes are determined in such a way that they could not make different decisions than the ones they do then that person can hardly be considered morally culpable for their actions. It is for this reason that any kind of holistic determinism must be considered outright foreign to the Christian worldview. Moral responsibility must rest upon the shoulders of individual persons if those persons are to be justly condemned for their immoral (sinful) behavior. If all of a person’s decisions are controlled by forces which they themselves have no control over then they can be neither praised nor reprimanded for any act or moral consequence whatsoever.
This being the case, and with Christianity being a religion which unashamedly speaks of God’s goodness, his absolute justice, and the wickedness of sinful mankind, the freedom of the will is a crucial matter. It’s no small wonder, then, why so many people speak about it with passion and force as they do. To strip man of his free exercise of will is to free him from culpability for his actions and if God then punishes creatures who are not morally culpable it, in turn, impugns the goodness and justice of God. All of this said, as one who is Reformed in my theology, I understand the reason why many people rabidly defend the issue of free will. They are not primarily defending free will, they are defending the goodness and justice of God and for that they are to be commended.
It is my contention, however, that many speak of free will in a way that simply cannot be the truth about how human will is exerted. Many times when I listen to someone talk about free will I hear them speak as though free will means “a person can make any choice they desire to.” Not only can they exercise their will and make an inward mental choice, but many proponents of free will seem to suggest that such a mental state as “choice” (which is an internal reality) must not be hindered in physical action or follow through (which is external). Allow me to demonstrate what I mean.
A person with free will can decide he does not want to be handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car. That same person may not, however, be able to do anything but be handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car. But the person’s freedom of will is not thereby annulled because he cannot do what he wants to do. The fact of the matter is that there are always external (and sometimes internal) factors which constrain our ability to do what we might desire to do.
Even in the state of absolute freedom, the Edenic state prior to the fall, where man was surely as free as ever he has been, Adam, presumably, could not burst into the sky like Superman. It was not in his nature, as God designed him, to be able to fly in the sky even if Adam willed to do so. The freedom of the will simply does not mean, nor has it ever meant, that a person can do anything that they want to whenever they want to do it.
To be sure, there are situations where actions are forced or coerced in which it might be fair to say “they were not acting of their own free will” such as when a man is put into the back of a police car although he wills to do otherwise. But it does not follow that because of this the man, as a being, ceases to have control of his will. He remains able to make decisions and to will things internally regardless of his outward ability. Outward ability and inward will are two different issues that really ought to never be confused.
Often when there are discussions about “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” the debate is coined in terms of “determinism” vs. “free will.” But here, again, I think many who have these heated debates aren’t careful about their terms. To be sure there are some Calvinists who believe in a holistic determinism in that they would say every single decision of mankind (and everything that occurs in the natural world) is predetermined by God’s decree. Not merely that God knows what will occur (and could change it if he desired), or that he is actively engaged in the salvation of the elect and bringing certain things about, but that the reason that all things occur the way they do is because God causally-determined them to occur before the foundation of the world (including actions like rape or even basic choices like what kind of toothbrush you pick at Wal-Mart). On the flip side there are extreme Arminian positions which exalt the freedom of human choices to the extent that they deny God’s ability to definitely know what will occur in the future. They reason that if God knows man’s choices beforehand then those choices are not free.
But I believe both of those extremes are flat out denied and refuted by Scripture. Indeed I think Christians can affirm the genuine exercise of freedom of human will and the total sovereignty of God without falling into either of these extremes. We may disagree on how God works within the hearts of men and women to draw them to himself by his grace but we need not suggest that the Calvinism/Arminian debate is merely about determinism versus free will. We must all, as Christians, affirm that freedom of choice is essential for moral culpability and therefore necessary to maintain the goodness and justice of God in condemning the wicked. But we must also all realize, as Christians, that the will is not free in this fantastic sense which says “there are no factors which can narrow your range of desire or ability.” Our very nature as human beings narrows our field of ability we can make (again, we cannot fly in the sky like Superman). The fall of mankind into sin (unless we affirm Pelagianism) further funnels our range of ability due to our inherited sinful nature. Indeed man’s fall was something like being put into the back of the police car, the will is still in tact but my range of ability has been significantly limited.
What freedom of the will must mean is that when given a choice between A or B, all thing otherwise being equal, I can choose either one. And we most certainly do have free will in that sense. I’m convinced that when you walk into the toothbrush aisle at Wal-Mart and are trying to decide between a blue Oral-B or a red Reach toothbrush that the decision is really and truly yours. God knows what you will pick, but he didn’t predetermine it. God could intervene if he wanted to, but in many such cases he really just leaves that to us. But all things are not always equal. We must admit there are other constraining factors that limit our ability to carry out desires, or even their are constraints that sometimes limit our very desires themselves.
But if we can ever say about a man that he has the above kind of free will, and option A was to do something morally praiseworthy and option B was to do something morally reprehensible and he chose B, then we have someone who is morally culpable who is a sinner and deserves God’s judgment. Just because their are constraining factors that limit mankinds range of of choices or that change their desires thereby affecting their range of choices does not thereby invalidate the genuineness of the decisions before them or the culpability they bear for the decisions that are theirs to make.