Thursday, January 21, 2021

What is Human Free Will?

"Children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God" (John 1:13).

What does it mean to have a free will? The great American theologian Jonathan Edwards said that free will is the mind choosing. While there is a distinction between mind and will, he said, the two are inseparable in action. We do not make a choice without our mind’s approving that choice.

Edwards provides the following rule: Free moral agents always act according to the strongest inclination they have at the moment of choice. To say it another way, we always choose according to our inclinations and according to our strongest inclination at a given moment. We do what we want to do. When we commit a sin, it means that at that moment our desire to sin is greater than our desire to obey Christ.

Even when we seem to choose something for no apparent reason, in fact we do have some kind of inclination. You come into an auditorium and take a seat. Why that particular seat? Maybe because you like to sit in the front or in the back or along the aisle. Maybe you take the nearest empty seat because you prefer not to wander around looking. Whatever the reason, there is some inclination behind your decision.

What about coercion? Well, if a man points a gun at me and says, “Your money or your life,” I still have a choice. I may not like either one, but I will make my choice in terms of my inclination—which will be my inclination to live and lose my money, rather than die and lose my money anyway.

John Calvin wrote that if we mean by free will that fallen man has the ability to choose what he wants, then, of course, fallen man has free will. If we mean that man in his fallen state has the moral power and ability to choose righteousness, then, said Calvin, free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to fallen man. Man’s will is free to follow his inclinations, but fallen man’s inclinations are always and invariably away from God.

We are free to make decisions, but because of our sinful nature, there is one decision we will never want to make: the decision to bow the knee to our Creator. God must intervene to change our nature before we will do that.

God lets us exercise our wills and make free choices. The problem is that, left to ourselves, we always choose the wrong thing when it comes to holiness. Ask yourself these questions: “Before conversion, on my own, could I have willed to love God?” “Who or what inclined my will toward God?”