The Doctrine of Free Will
by Dr. Leighton Flowers
After defending the Traditionalist view of free will I was accused of “worshipping the idol of human autonomy” in a recent conversation with a Calvinistic believer. He went on to assert that there is absolutely no support for the concept of free will in the Bible. This particular Calvinist is an admirer of Matt Slick, of CARM ministries, who defines the point of our contention on his web site. I will go through each of Matt’s points here:
Free will is the ability to make choices without external coersion. There are debates as to what extent this free will is to be understood as it relates to people. There are two main views: compatibilism and libertarianism.
The compatibilist view is the position that a person’s freedom is restricted by his nature as is described in Scripture. In other words, he can only choose what his nature (sinful or regenerate) will allow him to choose. Therefore, such verses as 1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 3:10-12; Rom. 6:14-20 are used to demonstrate that, for example, the unbeliever is incapable of choosing God of his own free will since they say that the unbeliever cannot receive spiritual things, does no good, and is a slave to sin. …
The biblical position is compatibilism. Since the Bible clearly teaches us that the unbeliever is restricted to making sinful choices (1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 3:10-12; Rom. 6:14-20), then we must conclude that anyone who believes in God (John 3:16; 3:36) does so because God has granted that he believe (Phil. 1:29), has caused him to be born again (1 Pet. 1:3), and chosen him for salvation (2 Thess. 2:13).
Let’s look at Matt’s errors point by point in light of the scriptures:
- Matt wrote, “a person’s freedom is restricted by his nature as is described in Scripture. In other words, he can only choose what his nature (sinful or regenerate) will allow him to choose.”
While we would agree that mankind’s freedom to choose is restricted to confines of his nature, we disagree as to what those confines are in relation to sinful humanity. For instance, a man is not free to flap his arms and fly around the world no matter how much he may will to do so. He is confined by his physical abilities. So too, there are moral confines on the abilities of sinful man’s will.
We would agree that mankind is born incapable of willingly keeping the demands of the law so as to merit salvation. And we would also agree that mankind is in bondage to sin. We would NOT AGREE that a man is born incapable of willingly admitting that he is in bondage and in need of help — especially in light of God’s gracious, Holy Spirit inspired, clear revelation — by means of the law (a tutor) and the gospel (a powerful appeal to be reconciled).
Suppose a man were born in a prison cell and never told that he was in a cell. He was simply unaware of any thing outside the walls of his world. We would all agree that the man is born in bondage and incapable of even recognizing his position. But, suppose someone came into his cell and told him of the world outside the walls. Is the fact that he was born in bondage prove that he is incapable of hearing the messenger and believing his message? Of course not. You can acknowledge the bondage of the man from birth without assuming he is also born incapable of believing the testimony of the messengers sent for the purpose of helping him to be set free.
Belief that a man is born in a prison cell is distinct from the belief that the man is incapable of acknowledging that he is in a prison cell and accepting help to escape when it is clearly offered. Calvinists have pointed to passages that prove mankind is born in the cell while assuming mankind is incapable of humbly admitting they are in a cell and trusting in Christ to set them free.
No passage in all of scripture ever suggests that fallen men are incapable of willingly responding to God’s own appeal to be reconciled from their fallen condition.
- Matt wrote, “such verses as 1 Cor. 2:14; 3:10-12; Rom. 6:14-20 are used to demonstrate that, for example, the unbeliever is incapable of choosing God of his own free will since they say that the unbeliever cannot receive spiritual things, does no good, and is a slave to sin. … the Bible clearly teaches us that the unbeliever is restricted to making sinful choices (1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 3:10-12; Rom. 6:14-20)
The passages cited simply do not say what Matt asserts. Let’s look at each one and see exactly what they teach:
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.”
So, the lost man needs someone to spiritually discern the “deep things of God” (vs. 10), right? What are the means God uses to discern spiritual truths to mankind? Is not the very epistle that Paul is writing to the carnal believers in Corinth a means of “spiritual discernment?” And since the “brethren” in the Corinthian church are “not able to receive” these same “deep things of God” (1 Cor. 3:1-3) one would be hard pressed to suggest that Paul was intending to teach that no one is able to understand the simple gospel appeal to be reconciled unless they are first reconciled.
Again, this text never suggests that mankind is born unable to respond to God’s clearly discerned gospel appeal. It only affirms that the mystery of the gospel must be discerned for us, which it has been. As Paul states, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Eph. 3:4
Neither side is suggesting that lost men can understand the deep spiritual truths of God apart from the means God has chosen to discern these mysteries. So, the question is whether God’s means of discernment through the apostles is a sufficient work of discernment that enables those who hear it to respond? More HERE.
Romans 3:10-18 — “As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
No one is righteous according to the works of the law. No one is able to attain righteousness by law through works. But how does that prove no one is able to attain righteousness by grace through faith? In verse 21 of this same chapter Paul introduces the means for man to attain righteousness, which is separate from the law. Calvinists seem to think that proof of our inability to earn righteousness through our own works likewise proves our inability to trust in the imputed righteousness of Christ.
Proving that the lost cannot seek God does not prove that they are unable to respond to a God who is actively seeking to save the lost. Proving that I cannot call the President on the phone does not prove I cannot answer the phone if the President chose to call me.
Romans 6:14-20 – “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.”
While Paul certainly affirms that “you used to be slaves to sin,” he never remotely suggests that you used to be incapable of admitting that fact in light of God’s revelation through the law (a tutor sent to reveal our need) and the powerful gospel appeal (God’s offer to meet that need through faith). How does Paul describe the way in which one comes out of his enslavement in the passage above? He writes, “you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” He speaks of your obedience to the teaching that he and the other apostles had brought to you. Moreover, Paul speaks of your choice to “offer yourselves as slaves,” as if you are responsible for that choice. Nothing is said about some effectual or irresistible internal working presupposed by the Calvinist.
Nothing in the three passages listed even come close to suggesting that mankind is incapable of admitting they need help when God Himself offers it. Matt goes on to describe libertarian free will (LFW) in this manner:
Libertarian free will says that the person’s will is not restricted by his sinful nature, and that he is still able to choose or accept God freely. Verses used to support this view are John 3:16 and 3:36.
This is an over-simplified and very shallow explanation of LFW. LFW (or contra-causal freedom) is “the categorical ability of the will to refrain or not refrain from a given moral action.” So, in relation to soteriology, LFW is mankind’s ability to accept or reject God’s appeal to be reconciled through faith in Christ. Given that mankind is held responsible for how they respond to Christ and His words (John 12:48), there is no biblical or theological reason to suggest that mankind is born unable to respond to His powerful, life-giving words (Heb. 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:15-16; Rm. 10:17; John 6:63; 20:31*). It makes no practical sense to hold mankind responsible (response-able) to Christ’s words, if indeed they are unable-to-respond to those words, nor is it ever explicitly taught in Scripture.
*HERE is a great resource to support this interpretation of John 20:31 from the original language. (From Thomas “Willie” Adams, PhD)
In fact, many text suggest mankind is able to reason with God and freely respond to His revelation:
All the cults and false religious systems teach the libertarian view of free will…
This is factually inaccurate. Islam, naturalistic Atheism, and ancient Gnosticism, to name a few, all held to forms of determinism.
…that salvation and spiritual understanding are completely within the grasp of sinners (in spite of their enslavement to and deadness in sin). For them, salvation would be totally up to the ability of the individual to make such a choice.
This is a common error made by Calvinistic believers. They wrongly assert that non-Calvinists believe salvation itself is “within the grasp of sinners” because we teach that mankind is responsible to believe and repent of sin. Being capable of repenting in faith is not equal to saving oneself. Matt is conflating two separate choices as if they are one in the same.
- Man’s responsibility to believe and repent.
- God’s gracious choice to save whoever believes and repents.
By conflating these two very distinct actions, the Calvinist causes much unneeded confusion. It would be tantamount to suggesting that because the Prodigal son chose to return home that the father was obligated to accept and restore him BECAUSE of his choice to return. The son alone was responsible for his choice to return. Likewise, the father alone was responsible for his choice to accept and restore him. The only obligation on the father is one he puts on himself on the basis of his own goodness and grace. Nothing is owed to the son on the basis of his choice to return. When the Calvinist conflates these two choices as if they are one in the same it confounds an otherwise very simple gospel message.
Below are the passages Matt listed in support of his perspective. Let’s go through each of them:
Man Apart from God
- 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”
Does proof that a leopard cannot change his own spots also prove that a leopard cannot recognize that his spots need changing by the help of another? Once again Calvinists have assumed that mankind’s inability to save himself is equal to his supposed inability to admit that fact in light of God’s clear revelation.
For instance, a doctor may clearly reveal your need for a heart transplant. Your ability to submit to his recommendation and allow him to perform the transplant is not equal to performing the transplant all by yourself, which is exactly what the Calvinist is presuming onto our perspective when they say things like, “you believe that you can save yourself”…or “change your own spots.”
- 5:10, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”
Matt will have to spell out why he feels this passage specifically supports his position. According to 2 Corinthians 5:20, Christ is making his appeal through us to be reconciled to God by faith. The Calvinist seems to think that one must be reconciled in order to willingly respond to Christ’s appeal to be reconciled, which clearly has the cart before the horse.
- 8:7, “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.”
Does proof that mankind cannot fulfill the laws demands also prove that mankind cannot humbly admit this fact in light of God’s gracious appeals? Just because mankind cannot merit his own salvation by works of the law does not mean he cannot trust in the One who did fulfill the law.
Verses related to free will choices of sinners
- John 1:13, “who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Clearly John is referencing the natural born Israelites who wrongly believe that their Israelite lineage (blood), and works of the law (willing/running) are the means of their salvation. This is made clear by looking at the context of this passage. In verses 11-12, the apostle writes, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
Who are “his own” who “did not receive him?” Clearly he is speaking of Israel. Which is contrasted with those who did receive him and believed in his name. One is not even given the right to become a child until they “believe and receive” according to this passage. Yet, the Calvinist seem to suggest that one must be born as a child in order to believe and receive. Again, the Calvinists have the cart before the horse.
- 9:16, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” — “the man” is singular
- 9:18, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”
For the sake of time and space, I’ll refer you to my own commentary over Romans 9 to respond to this point of contention.
- 1:29, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”
God does grant us the ability to believe and suffer for His sake. But “granting” or “enabling” faith is not the same as effectually causing it. Faith comes by hearing the powerful gospel appeal (Rom. 10:11-14), which is granted first to the Jew and then the Gentile (Rom. 1:16). In other words, God is enabling faith through revelation, which is sent first to the Jew and then the Gentiles. During the time of Paul, the Jews had grown calloused to God’s revelation, otherwise they might have seen, heard, understood and turned to God, so the apostles took the message of repentance to the Gentiles, who listened (Acts 28:27-28).
Free Will as “Human Autonomy” (the “separateness” of God)
Websters defines “autonomous” simply as “undertaken or carried on without outside control.” Autonomous describes things that function separately or independently. For instance, once you move out of your parents’ house, and get your own job, you will be an autonomous member of the family. This adjective autonomous is often used of countries, regions, or groups that have the right to govern themselves. Autonomous is from Greek autonomos “independent,” from autos “self” plus nomos “law.”
Some wrongly assume that the Traditionalist’s use of this term is meant to suggest that mankind’s existence, sustenance and natural abilities are independent of God altogether. This is absurd, of course. Paul asked his readers, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), which strongly implies that all our abilities, including the ability to make choices, is given to us by a gracious God.
We can affirm that “God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him,” (Ps. 115:3) while still holding on to the equally valid truth that, “the highest heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth he has given to mankind” (Ps. 115:16). This means it pleases God to give man a certain level of “autonomy” or “separateness.” This is a biblical view of divine sovereignty and human autonomy. As A.W. Tozer rightly explains:
“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.” – A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God
Some Calvinists have wrongly concluded that the Traditionalist seeks to downplay the sovereignty of God and highlight the autonomy of man, when in reality we seek to maintain the right biblical understanding of man’s autonomy so as to better highlight the Sovereignty, Love and Holiness of God.
I have already unpacked the attribute of God’s Sovereignty HERE and God’s Love HERE, so I would now like to turn our attention to the attribute of God’s Holiness. If you notice that the Tozer quote above is from his book, “The Knowledge of the Holy.” Tozer’s intentions, like that of the Traditionalist, is in defense of God’s Holiness, not an attempt to undermine other equally important attributes of our good God.
I suspect that Tozer, like myself, would wholeheartedly agree with John Piper’s teaching on God’s Holiness here:
“Every effort to define the holiness of God ultimately winds up by saying: God is holy means God is God. Let me illustrate. The root meaning of holy is probably to cut or separate. A holy thing is cut off from and separated from common (we would say secular) use. Earthly things and persons are holy as they are distinct from the world and devoted to God. So the Bible speaks of holy ground (Exodus 3:5), holy assemblies (Exodus 12:16), holy sabbaths (Exodus 16:23), a holy nation (Exodus 19:6); holy garments (Exodus 28:2), a holy city (Nehemiah 11:1), holy promises (Psalm 105:42), holy men (2 Peter 1:21) and women (1 Peter 3:5), holy scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15), holy hands (1 Timothy 2:8), a holy kiss (Romans 16:16), and a holy faith (Jude 20). Almost anything can become holy if it is separated from the common and devoted to God.
But notice what happens when this definition is applied to God himself. From what can you separate God to make him holy? The very god-ness of God means that he is separate from all that is not God. There is an infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature. God is one of a kind. Sui generis. In a class by himself. In that sense he is utterly holy. But then you have said no more than that he is God.” – John Piper (emphasis added)
Notice the common term used to describe God’s Holiness and man’s autonomy? The word “separate” is referenced in both definitions. This is significant.
Some Calvinists fail to see that the Traditionalists defense of man’s separateness (autonomy) is actually in defense of God’s Holiness, or as Piper put it, God’s separateness “from all that is not God.” But, in a world of divine meticulous control of all things, what is left to be considered “separate” in any meaningful sense of the word?
One would think that sinful intentions would be included in “all that is not God,” yet many Calvinistic scholars affirm that man’s sinful intentions are unchangeably predetermined or brought about by God so as to glorify Himself (see HERE).
We must understand that John Piper, while holding to the same definition of Holiness as Tozer (or Traditionalists), comes to a very different conclusion about the nature of our thrice Holy God.
Continuing with the quote above, Piper concludes:
“If the holiness of a man derives from being separated from the world and devoted to God, to whom is God devoted so as to derive his holiness? To no one but himself.”
Piper fails to relate his understanding of God’s Holiness (separateness) to the nature of morally accountable creatures (as autonomously separate), but instead uses this attribute to emphasize his Calvinistic view of God’s self-seeking nature. Piper is arguing that God is all about Himself because there is no “higher reality than God to which He must conform in order to be holy.” In other words, God is all about God because there is nothing more Holy than God. But, what does this even mean unless you establish that which God has separated Himself from in the meticulously determined world of Piper’s Calvinism? How can one celebrate God being about God unless you separate that which is not about God from that which is about God? What exactly can be deemed as “separated” in a worldview where absolutely everything is brought about by God for God? Holiness loses its meaning in a deterministic worldview because nothing can be described in any significant way as being “separate” from God and His will.
It is senseless to speak of God’s Holiness (as separateness) unless there is something outside of God from which to separate. God cannot be separated from Himself or His own choices. And if you insist on the one hand that God is unchangeably determining all creature’s sinful inclinations so as to glorify Himself, then how can you on the other hand claim that God is wholly separate from those same sinful, yet self-glorifying means? You might as well be claiming A is not A (God is separate but not separate).
Listen, either God is implicated in moral evil or He is not. He is either Holy or He is not. He is either separate (an affirmation of both Divine Holiness and human autonomy) or He is not (a denial of both Divine Holiness and human autonomy). Do not allow the Calvinists to have their cake and eat it too on this point.
John Piper takes the attribute of Holiness to teach that “God is all about Himself.” Whereas, Tozer takes the attribute of Holiness to teach that while God would be perfectly just to be all about Himself and His own glorification, He graciously chooses to glorify undeserving creatures who have separated themselves from Him through autonomously sinful choices.
Traditionalists, like myself, simply believe that Tozer is right and Piper is wrong.