The Bondage of Free Will: Part Three

Having considered these two radically different definitions of the term “free will” in parts one and two, we now have to decide what to do with them.  Which definition has a better right to the term?  And more importantly, which definition, if either, describe an actual state of affairs?

Before we jump into the discussion, let’s recap the definitions for you.

Definition number one: Free will is the ability of a rational being to act upon his circumstances in accordance with his own character, without direct alien interference between his character and will.

Definition number two: Free will is the self-determining character of the will whereby without regard to motives, emotions, and previous character a rational being can under any given circumstances act in either of two mutually exclusive ways.

Obviously, the question as to which definition better fits the term free will is a little subjective; and there’s no denying that if your idea of freedom is uncontrolled randomness, then the second definition has the strongest claims.  But uncontrolled “freedom” is really the worst kind of slavery, and for this reason I believe that the right way to define free will is the first way – a will that is free to do what it is supposed to do, but not free to break all boundaries and whirl its unfortunate possessors into deeds that neither their situations nor their characters are responsible for.

 

Which theory of free will is an accurate definition of the human faculty for choice?  To me the answer is intuitive – but experience has taught me that what is intuitive to me is frequently unintuitive to others; so we’ll be pedantic if we can’t help it and thorough if we can.

The concept of free will, of course, doesn’t stand in a vacuum.  On the contrary, it is intimately related to topics such as our view of God, of man, of the world, and of the Bible.  Naturally our conclusions as to free will depend on and interact with our opinions on these other subjects.  Therefore for the purposes of this article we will assume that the Bible is what it claims to be, the infallible, inerrant word of God, and that what it says about mankind and our ability to choose is accurate.

There are three facts that the Bible makes abundantly clear.  Not everyone, of course, will agree with these three facts.  But the straightforward thing to do in that case is to reject the Bible, not to try to pretend that they aren’t there.

Fact #1: God has planned all things. He “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” (Ephesians 1:11)  “The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all.” (Psalm 103:19)  “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” (Matthew 10:29)  “Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all.  Both riches and honour come of thee, and thou reignest over all; and in thine hand is power and might; and in thine hand it is to make great, and to give strength unto all.  Now therefore, our God, we thank thee, and praise thy glorious name.” (1 Chronicles 29:11-13)

Fact #2: Sinful man cannot do good.  “The Lord looked down from heaven… they are all gone aside… there is none that doeth good, no not one.” (Psalm 14:2-3, cf. Psalm 53:2-3)  All the world is “guilty before God,” and “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight.” (Romans 3:19-20)  “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)  “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.  A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” (Mathew 7:17-18)  (This does not, of course, mean that no one since the fall of Adam can do an externally good action; but for an action to be good in God’s sight, it must proceed from the right motives, and a primary right motive is love to God and a desire for His glory, which is manifestly something lacking in any action performed by men in an unsaved state.)

Fact #3: Man is responsible for his actions.  “As for them whose heart walketh after the heart of their detestable things and their abominations, I will recompense their way upon their own heads, saith the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 11:22)  “For God shall bring every work into judgement, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:14)  “Thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:14)  “For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth to me, I will recompense, saith the Lord.  And again, The Lord shall judge his people.” (Hebrews 10:30)  “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” (II Corinthians 5:10)

 

The first definition is clearly consistent with fact #1.  If actions are a product of character and circumstances, then God, who knows all things, knows what the actions will be ahead of time, and God, who created all things, planned what the actions would be ahead of time.

The second definition, however, is inconsistent with the fact that God planned all things, because it represents choices as being unknowable and, of course, unplannable.

At this point a serious difficulty arises.  If God planned all things, and if people do bad things, then didn’t God plan for people to do bad things?  Doesn’t that make God responsible for the bad things?

But there is a difference – a big difference – between planning something and doing it yourself or forcing someone else to do it.  Take the scenario of a game of chess.  I’m a pretty bad chess player.  Odds are my brother could easily trap me into some really silly moves.  He sets things up and plans for me to fall right into the trap; but is he responsible for my silly move?

You’re probably hemming and hawing a bit right now.  Somehow, that’s not quite satisfactory.  Well, that’s because there’s another very similar question that sticks to the back of the problem of evil like a barnacle.  Maybe my brother isn’t exactly responsible for my silly move, even though he planned it.  And maybe God isn’t exactly responsible for a person’s evil choice, even though He planned it.  But in that case, how can God legitimately punish the evildoer?  After all, he just did what God planned.  Why does God find fault?  Who has resisted His plan?

I can’t give a better answer than the Apostle Paul gave.  “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?  Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why has thou made me thus?  Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonor?  What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:19-24)

 

Looking at fact #2, we again see that the first definition is perfectly consistent with the Biblical truth.  If free will only means that man is free to act according to his character, and if his character is sinful as a result of the fall, then it makes perfect sense that man cannot do good.

On the other hand, the second definition, with its concept of power to the contrary, is a flat denial of fact #2.

 

And, lastly, fact #3 – that man is responsible for his actions – is also consistent with the first definition of free will, because each person is responsible for his character, which is the active ingredient, so to speak, in determining how he will react to his circumstances.

But if the second definition of free will is the correct one, then man’s will is free in the broadest of sense – free even from the control of the man himself.  And how can he be held responsible for a will that is not under his control?

 

And here we close our look at the subject of free will.  There’s so much more that could be said, but I hope the issue has been clarified rather than muddied by this brief summary!  One of the biggest obstacles to clearly discussing the topic is a lack of precision that stems from two very different concepts of free will that are not usually clearly defined.  Once we see what the options really are, then, whichever one we take, we can see the consequences of our opinions much more clearly.  More importantly, we can see what the Biblical position really is, and, measuring our understanding by that eternal guide to truth, can come to a deeper knowledge of who God is, who we are, and what our purpose ought to be.

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