What Is the Nature of Free Will?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 9:08am
QUESTION: Many (usually Arminians) argue that without free will in a significant (libertarian) sense, i.e., the ability to choose between good and evil, human actions would not be worthy of praise or blame. Thus in order to preserve moral responsibility, human beings must have free will in the libertarian sense—the freedom of opposite moral choice. But is this consistent with the freedom of God Himself, whom we assume to be the ultimate model for freedom? The following are said to be true of God:
1. God is surely the freest being in the universe. He is free to do whatever he pleases (Psalm 115:3), and all his choices are surely praiseworthy.
2. Yet, God must necessarily do only what is good; he cannot do anything that is morally wrong. Why? Because his nature is perfectly and infinitely holy, and God cannot act contrary to his nature. (This latter point is an implication of his righteousness.)
3. This means that God’s choices are BOTH determined (necessary) AND free (thus worthy of praise).
The conclusion usually drawn from these considerations—usually by Calvinists—is this: true freedom cannot be defined in the libertarian sense. This allows Calvinists to say that human choices (decisions, actions) are both sovereignly determined by God AND free. What are your thoughts on this?
ANSWER: My first thought is that the Bible nowhere specifically discusses and defines “free will.” Our conclusions on this subject are inferences and implications from related biblical teachings. My second thought is that there is no biblical reason to think that God’s freedom, however it is defined, can be used as a model or analogy for human free will as we possess it during this earthly lifetime. My third thought is that “free will” actually must be defined in two different ways, both of which are libertarian and both of which are valid.
Let me explain the two different forms of free will. One is the “power of opposite choice”; the other is the “power of different choice.” The former is usually equated with the libertarian concept of free will. The “opposite choice” in this case is actually the power of opposite MORAL choice, or the ability to choose between right and wrong, the ability to choose to sin or not to sin. The latter is simply the ability to choose among various options without any accompanying moral implications. It is the freedom to select one course of action from a list of many possible choices. This kind of freedom is usually overlooked.
In both senses the choice is FREE if it involves the ability to choose among options (not necessarily opposites) without that choice’s being fixed or determined by some power outside the person’s own will. This latter aspect is what causes both kinds of free will to be called libertarian.
How does this apply to God? In my judgment, God’s freedom (free will) is a true freedom even though his nature does not allow him to choose to do evil. God is not free in the sense of being able to choose between moral opposites, but he is free in the significant sense of being able to choose among an infinite number of possibilities in regard to what he decides to do. In this sense we usually define God’s work of creation as a “free act,” a free choice that he did not HAVE to make: “For You created all things, and because of YOUR WILL they existed, and were created” (Rev 4:11). See my book, “God the Creator,” pp. 117-128. Also, God’s decision to create a universe with free will beings was his free choice. This ability of God to choose among various options is related to the fact that TIME is a part of his nature (he exists on an eternal timeline), which means that God can “think new thoughts” in the sense of making new decisions concerning his own future actions. (See my essay on “God and Time,” in “Evangelicalism and the Stone-Campbell Movement,” ed. W. R. Baker, especially p. 78.) The idea that God’s decisions are determined or necessary is a complete fiction. His nature LIMITS what choices he can make, but does not DETERMINE the choices he does make.
How does the two-fold nature of free will apply to us as human beings? In my judgment, we are designed to experience BOTH kinds of freedom. In this lifetime we possess both the ability to choose between moral opposites and the ability to choose among different options. Both are true freedoms, with the former being what most people call “libertarian” freedom. This power of opposite choice is necessary during this lifetime, because this period of our existence is a kind of “trial period,” a time of probation, as it were, which will determine our eternal status. This aspect of our freedom has no parallel in God’s nature, but was probably also the condition of angels in their initially-created existence (also probably a probation period, ending after 2 Peter 2:4). The fact that this kind of freedom is not patterned after God’s freedom is no reason to deny its reality. To think otherwise is a serious fallacy.
Once we die, this freedom of opposite moral choice will be removed from our nature, and from that point on we will possess only the ability to choose among different options, exactly after the pattern of God’s freedom (except our choices will always be finite). We will no longer be able to sin, having been perfected in our sanctification and having been truly made holy as God is holy (Heb. 12:23; 1 Peter 1:16). (Those who believe in “once saved, always saved” assume that this change begins partly as soon as one becomes saved in this life, but good biblical exegesis shows that this is not true.)
Two main sources of confusion on this issue are (1) the assumption that free will can be libertarian in only one sense, and (2) the assumption that God’s freedom must be the pattern for human freedom in every sense. There is no biblical basis for either assumption. God’s own freedom is a true libertarian freedom, and so is ours, both now and forever.