(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on the Free Will from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
You are not sitting in this class (or reading these notes) of your own free will. You, in fact, must be here in this class (or sitting in front of a computer, reading these notes.)
You are no doubt saying to yourself that such an assertion is nonsense. You are, no doubt, absolutely certain that you chose to come and could just as easily have decided to stay in bed. But actually, that was quite impossible.
Perhaps it was something like this. The alarm clock went of, and you said to your spouse, “I don’t want to go listen to that blowhard Heddle talk about nonsense.” But your spouse said, “We have to go, because it’s our church and are called to unity.” You still considered going back to sleep but at that moment avoiding an argument was preferred to getting more sleep. So you go up, but you still didn’t want to come. You thought about saying you felt that you had a cold coming on, but the desire to sin (by lying) to reap the temporary benefit (avoiding this boring class) was not as strong as the desire not to sin—but not by much. You then said to your spouse, we could go to the Maple Barn for pancakes and still make the regular service, but once again your spouse prepared ready to defend the faith and so your unwillingness to spend valuable marital capital overcame your reluctance to come. And so you are here.
Or, perhaps you got up and said, I really like the topic of predestination and free will so I am going to go listen to the class.
In either case, you were not really free, but a slave to your desires.
What do we mean by free will?Normally we define free will as something like this:
Free will: The ability to choose whatever we want, at any particular time, for any particular reason, or for no reason at all.
Critics claim that the Calvinist’s blend of predestination and sovereignty makes robots of us all. If you make it past the first two responses to predestination, viz.,
(1) I might as well do whatever I want.
(2) Hey, that’s not fair!
you then run headfirst into
(3) It makes us into unwitting actors that are following a predetermined script.
Interestingly, this third complaint is exactly the opposite from the first.
Predestination, it is often said, negates the human free will. As I hope to show, it only negates the version of free will wherein a person can make a choice for no reason at all.
R. C. Sproul calls this type of choice, made for no reason at all, a neutral choice because it implies “no prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition.” Furthermore, Sproul goes on to make a case that such neutral choices are a logical impossibility.
Sproul gives this example from Alice in Wonderland:
It [a neutral choice] is something like Alice in Wonderland when she came to a fork in the road. She did not know which way to turn. She saw the grinning Cheshire Cat in the tree. She asked the cat “Which way should I turn?” The cat replied, “Where are you going?” Alice answered, “I don’t know.” “Then,” replied the Cheshire cat, “it doesn’t matter.”
Sproul tells us to consider Alice’s dilemma. If Alice truly has no prior inclination to turn right or left, or to turn back—if she truly has no reason, however subtle, to use as a basis for her decision, she would be frozen in place by her indecision.
A neutral decision, if it existed, would have to be truly spontaneous. Like Alice, there would be nothing making us lean this way or that. The choice just pops out of thin air. There is no way that a just God could hold man responsible for such choices, if they did exist. They would be no different from accidents. If a quantum fluctuation inside my brain made me sin, then God Himself would sin by punishing me for it. No, the Bible is clear that we are punished for what is in our heart, which speaks of our motivations, inclinations, and desires. We are held accountable because we desire to sin, not because some uncontrollable process made us sin. We are not punished for spontaneous reasonless choices but for willful decisions based on our desires.
We must modify our definition of free will. One cannot actually make a choice for “no reason at all”. And if you could, such choices would be morally inconsequential background noise.
Free but Determined
So we have a slightly reduced definition of free will. Excising the logically impossible “no reason at all” leaves us with
Free will: The ability to choose whatever we want at any particular time, for any particular reason.
This also turns out to be too flexible. Applying this to Alice, she could turn left because there are trees on the left and she likes trees for the shade they provide. Or she could turn right because beautiful flowers line that path. How will she choose? If she liked shade trees exactly as much as she liked flowers she would still be frozen in her indecision. She would now have a reason to go left and a reason to go right but in this case, since the choices are judged to be of exactly the same value, she could not make a choice “for any particular reason”.
If Alice does make a choice, she will in fact choose the path for which she is more inclined at that moment, however subtle the difference. All other things being equal, if she chooses the left it is because she prefers shade trees. If she chooses the right, it is because she prefers flowers.
Her choice was determined not by God steering her left or right, but by her own desires and inclinations.
Jonathan Edwards postulated that the only way to make a choice, to avoid the fate of frozen indecision, it to choose according to one’s strongest inclination at the moment. It may be in the form of self-denial, but even in such a case one chooses self-denial because the inclination to obey God’s law is stronger than the inclination to sin at that particular instant. When Joseph ran from the seduction of the wife of his master, his inclination to avoid sin, or maybe to avoid death at the hands of his master, was stronger than his inclination to commit adultery.
So what is left of the vaunted free will? It is free but determined. It is free because it depends on you and you alone; God is not forcing you to do anything. God is not pulling your strings or whispering in your ear. However, it is determined none-the-less, not by God the puppet master but by your own desires and inclinations. It is actually self-determined.
Your choices are free because no one makes them for you; nobody steers you left when you really want to go right. You are free to choose according to your heart's desire. There is no external coercion. Yet they are self-determined because you will choose on the basis of your desires. You are not only free to choose according to your hearts desire, you must choose according to your heart's desire. You are a slave to your own heart.
It goes without saying that just because we choose according to our desires doesn’t mean we like our choices. We may know instinctively that “we will pay for this choice”, and “we don’t really want to do this”, yet we make the choice just the same, even though we don’t “want to”, because the inclination to do it (whatever “it” is) wins out over the inclination to avoid the consequences. This is what Paul was talking about in Romans when he wrote:
For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. (Rom. 7:19)Paul is saying that his sinful desires overcome the part of him that holds righteous desire, the very part he, as a Christian, is trying to nurture and grow.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse
If you have ever taken a physics class you have probably seen a video of the Tacoma Narrows (suspension) Bridge collapse of 1940.
The bridge, innovative in its design, was a short-lived source of civic pride. After the collapse, the Governor of Washington told the citizens in a radio address not to despair— he said: the state would build the exact same bridge in the exact same way in the exact same place. An engineering professor from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon, my alma mater) sent him a telegram that read: If you build the exact same bridge in the exact same way in the exact same place it will fall down exactly like the other one.
Likewise the aphorism “If I had a chance to do it all over again, I would choose differently.” We all think that about some awful choice we made in the past and how we would be wiser if only we had another chance. If you really mean, given the person you are now, if placed in the same situation you would choose differently, then that is plausible. But if you simply roll tape back to the point of decision with everything unchanged, you’ll make the same choice each and every time. Your choices are self-determined by the state of your desires and inclinations at that particular moment, i.e., what is on your heart.
Your heart’s desire
Before you are regenerated, you have no desire to choose righteousness. Rom. 3:10-12 makes that painfully clear. After you are regenerated the Holy Spirit goes to work on you. He doesn’t make you choose one thing over another, but over time through the process of sanctification your desires and inclinations change; your heart changes. More and more you make the right choice—you make the right choice. God is helping you by working on your heart—this then manifests itself in your choices, better choices, but still the choices of your free will.
Our desires “determine” whether we are able to sin or able to choose not to sin. Sproul, following Augustine, lays this out in table form according to a person’s current standing with God.
- Pre-fall man (Adam and Eve before the fall)
• Able to sin
• Able to not sin
- Post Fall Man (Any person before being saved)
• Able to sin
• Unable not to sin
- Reborn Man (Any person who is saved)
• Able to sin
• Able to not sin
- Glorified Man (Any person in heaven)
• Able to not sin
• Unable to sin