Index by Subject

Associate Editorial: Free Will

Some issues are so taken for granted that common acceptance belies their intrinsic value and native importance. Such an issue is the subject of free will. Among brethren, until fairly recent dates, free will has been an accepted doctrine, figuring unobtrusively in conclusions drawn from Biblical principles. Events of recent date in which some have taught that man has a corrupted nature have led to the recognition that we may have taken too much for granted, in fact. Theologians have debated God’s sovereignty and man’s free will for centuries, churning out volumes of commentaries from Augustine onward. Since most of us do not pretend to be theologians, we have allowed simple Bible exegesis to determine our approach to the subject more than philosophical reasoning. Most have done little preaching on free will as a separate topic, choosing rather to include it by reference in related matters. But free will has far-reaching implications relating to human nature, ethics, moral responsibility, social issues and theology, including the question of man’s ability to respond to his Creator’s will so as to exercise choice among moral contingencies. The particular view one espouses will determine attitudes and actions in “every issue of life” (Prov. 4:23).

Does man have genuine moral freedom, true choice among alternatives, the ability to make decisions without coercion of a genetically inherited disposition beyond individual control? Are there contingencies facing man which he will confront with determinism (the antithesis of moral freedom) or antecedent causes? Is man ultimately responsible for his actions? Can he “do” anything by free choice in response to God’s grace? Is punishment and reward fixed by God independent of any action on the part of man and by divine fiat before the worlds were formed? The very scope of these questions suggest their importance. The question that David pondered, “What is man…” (Ps. 8:4), is still very much with us today.


The Nature of Creation
God made robots of many orders: animate (fish, fowl, beasts of the field) and inanimate (planets, trees, grass). An animal is no less a robot than a star, being programmed by instinct to act only according to its species, even as a star wanders according to the laws of the universe. A spawning salmon returns unerringly to the place of its birth, not because it chooses to do so, but because it cannot choose to do otherwise, driven by instinct. A blade of grass or a flower springs forth, withers and dies, having no choice as to its existence, to bloom or not to bloom. Such creatures never weigh alternatives and choose a direction based on free, moral choice. “Free” in this context is “absence of external compulsion,” action that spontaneously erupts from its subject. “Moral” denotes the “ability to know right from wrong.” Man is a free, moral creature and unique in that he is the only such creature on earth! It is this awesome uniqueness that sets man apart from all other beings and faces him with responsibilities that have eternal consequences. If man is moral, he can know right from wrong and will be held accountable for his actions. If man is but another robot, a living machine without morality (a “naked ape”), he has no more responsibility and accountability than the animate and inanimate robots of creation. An evil man would be no more guilty than a shooting star or raging torrent; a good man would be no more worthy of praise than a blooming flower. But, in the light of the scriptures, who can accept such a position? Let us trace the Biblical answers and learn the purpose of man’s creation.


Jehovah Created Us For His Own Glory
Basic to our study is the fact that Jehovah has the inherent right of the Creator to create as it pleases Him. “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why didst thou make me thus” (Rom. 9:20)? Consequently, when God created, he did so to His own praise and glory. “Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power: for thou didst create all things, and because of thy will they were, and were created” (Rev. 4:11). But should we not consider that the highest order of praise and glory to God is that which is freely given? While it is true that the “heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1), they do so by constraint (as robots) and not by choice. How, or in what fashion could the Lord bring into existence a creature that offered its Creator praise and glory not of constraint but by free choice? Is it not in the creation of a free-will being, something that could recognize the righteous nature of the Creator and, while able to act of his own will, willingly submit to God’s will? Is not man, therefore, the expression of God’s grand design to have a free-will creature, a higher order than anything else on earth, to be able to choose to serve and glorify God with a free heart?

“Why did God make free-will creatures? The Bible does not give an explicit answer to the question. We infer from other scriptural teaching that God’s chief purpose and desire were to have creatures who would love, serve, and glorify him of their free choice and not coercion or manipulation. We infer this, for example, from the fact that the first and greatest commandment is that we love God with all our hearts and minds (Matt. 22:37). The fact that this is the most important things that we can do suggests that it is what God desires from His creation more than anything else. Giving His creatures free will was a necessary means to that end” (What the Bible Says About God The Ruler, by John Cottrell, College Press, p. 398).

We may also infer the truthfulness of this proposition from the projected destiny of those who choose to serve God: heaven. John saw the “holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of the throne saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:2-3). Though sin separated the grand plan of creation, it is yet achieved through Christ. Paul wrote “to fulfill the word of God, even the mystery which hath been hid for ages and generations: but now hath it been manifested to his saints, to whom God was pleased to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:25-27). We conclude, therefore, that God made man “a little lower than the angels, crowned him with glory and honor” (Heb. 2:7), instilled within him the free will and the ability to choose righteousness, all to His own praise and glory. Man reaches no higher goal than when he serves God. “The whole (duty) of man” is to “fear God, and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13). “Unto thee, O Jehovah, do I lift up my soul” (Ps. 25:1). “I will give thanks unto Jehovah with my whole heart; I will show forth all thy marvelous works”(Ps. 9:1). With these beautiful verses, each of us can add our own choice of praise, freely given, that “in me, Lord, thy purpose of creation is vindicated. I freely choose to serve thee.”


The Risk of Free Will

    “A command makes sense only if the recipient is capable of doing either what is required or forbidden, in others words, only if he is a responsible being. So the divine prohibition implies that man is morally free. Adam and Eve were free to render or refuse obedience to God. Since, as we noted earlier, freedom involves the presence of genuine alternatives, God could not give man the freedom to obey and at the same time withhold the power to disobey. ‘Freedom to obey’ is nothing if it is not also the freedom to disobey. Consequently, had man been incapable of disobedience, his fulfillment of God’s requirements would not have been voluntary. And the word moral could not apply. “The affirmation of moral freedom requires an open view of reality. When God gave man moral freedom, He was leaving undecided whether or not man would obey. In other words, He left open man’s response to God’s expectations of him. God might, presumably, have constructed man to respond to Him in only one way. But in that case moral experience would have been impossible, because man would not have been responsible for his behavior. Man is a morally free being, and the content of his decision to obey or disobey must have been indefinite until man himself made the decision” (God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will, Richard Rich, Bethany Press, Chap. 3, p. 38).

    “The fact that human beings (and angels before them) were created with free will, though, means that there was the possibility of or potential for evil. For if man is to have the ability freely to choose to love God, he must also be given the capacity to choose to hate and reject God. Thus in a sense the creation of free-will beings entailed a risk. But God was willing to risk the free choice of evil in order to have freely-chosen love and worship” (Op. Cit).


Sin: A Thorny Problem
With these quotations, we introduce the thorniest of the problems of free will: sin. Why did God make man with the ability to sin? Why did God not make man with only the ability to do good? Did the Lord, as the creeds affirm, in contradictory fashion, “by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; (and here is the contradictory part, tr) yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (Westminister Confession of Faith, III:1)? Such statements beg the question before us and raise others. Is God responsible for man’s sin as the First Cause, thereby responsible for man’s eternal damnation since all creation was done unchangeable and by foreordination of “whatsoever comes to pass”? Or is man accountable for his actions precisely because God made him a free-will creature?

Since God is sovereign, He has the absolute right to do as He pleases. Yet we must conclude that He will not act in discord with His nature, even in creation. As James said, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempeth no man” (James 1:12). John added: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We can safely conclude, therefore, that God could not, because of His righteous nature, immutably and unchangeably create a man who must sin and cannot help himself except to do as created, then hold that man accountable for that sin. The alternative, presented in the bible, is that God, as a sovereign, created man as a free, moral being so that man might choose to serve God, yet, by the nature of free will, provide the potential (risk) that man would choose evil. In the moral sense, man himself is sovereign (in time, not eternity). Does not Ecclesiastes address the fact that man may acts as he wills “under the sun” but that he should remember that “for all these things, God will bring thee into judgment” (11:10)? Will we do that for which we have been created, or will we go astray? As the Psalmist said, “Jehovah looked down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek after God” (14:2) Only man, of all the creatures of God, can say “no” to God. This rebelliousness is the risk of free will.


Job Illustrates Free Will
The story of Job is an illustration of this very principle: “Will man willingly serve his Creators as intended?” If you recall, Satan accused Job of serving God only because it was convenient (God made Job wealthy). God had stated that Job was a “perfect and upright man, one that feareth God” (1:8). The Devil’s accusation was: “Does Job fear God for nought” (1:9)? What Satan was charging against Job (and, consequently, against all men) is that man does not choose to serve God because it is right and good, but that he serves God only for what he can get. In the face this accusation, God permitted Satan to test Job’s free will (and he is testing ours today) to see if he will serve God out of a moral sense that it is right to do so even when suffering in the world that God created. In Job’s case, God’s purpose in creation was vindicated: the creature chose to serve the Creator, glorifying the works of His hands. Our case is still pending today. Will I serve God because I am able to do so with a free will that recognizes right and wrong and freely chooses the right?


The Origin of Sin
What is the origin of sin; where did it come from? If God is infinite in righteousness, how could sin originate in His universe? One of the arguments of the atheist against the existence of God is the reality of evil. The creeds have not adequately dealt with this issue of sin’s origin, as we have seen, false accusing God of unchangeably ordaining whatsoever comes to pass, yet ignoring the consequential result that such accuses God with creating sin. I believe the answer to the questions about sin lies in a proper understanding of the free will nature of man as a moral creature of God. Putting what we have found in numerical sequence for clarification, we find:

  1. God is a sovereign Creator.
  2. He has made many creatures that are not free or moral. These creatures glorify God by their existence (Ps. 19:1).
  3. God chose to create yet another creature that would be both free and moral: man. But to be truly free, man must be able to obey or disobey, possessing the capability of,and potential for, sin.
  4. Man did disobey and, as an accountable being, is responsible for sin. He did not have to sin, but chose to do so (Rom. 5:12), with the attendant consequence of bringing sin into existence.

After affirming that God cannot be tempted with evil and that He tempts no man, James supported the above conclusions when he taught that “each man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. Then the lust, when it hath conceived, beareth sin; and the sin, when it is fullgrown, bringeth forth death” (James 1:13-15). Herein lies the origin of sin: within the human heart is the highest potential of praise to God or the blackest depth of sin’s degradation. Which shall it be? That is the work of choice, will, determination. All too often, we have chosen to do wrong and are in the bondage of sin (Rom. 7:24), but in every case it is due to our own decision without coercion by God. Recognizing the potential damnation of my soul through the choice to do evil, let me rather rejoice that I have the parallel potential to achieve “a greater weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17), working God’s will in my life. Heaven will surely be worth it all.