How Free Is Your Will?
Do human beings actually possess free will? Does God make your choices or do you? Part of the answer depends on how you define “freedom” and “free will.”
There’s a difficult dilemma that may have crossed your mind if you’ve ever read passages like these in the writings of then apostle Paul:
Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. … When Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac — even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling) — it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger,’ just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’ … So then, it does not depend on human desire or exertion, but on God who shows mercy (Romans 8:29–30; 9:10–16).
After hearing texts like these, some Christians become concerned about the issue of human freedom. Occasionally, people express their concern in statements that run something like this: “I just can’t believe that God would drag people into heaven against their will, kicking and screaming!”
Such reactions reveal a clear misunderstanding of how God works in people’s lives. And yet, when Christians in the Calvinist and Reformed traditions use terms like “irresistible grace” and “overcoming grace,” it’s easy to see how miscues of this sort might emerge in people’s minds. The concern that many people have at this point is whether God forces people to love him — which wouldn’t be love at all! — or if we freely choose to love God.
Faced with the possibility that irresistible grace might reduce someone to a choiceless robot, some start searching for their Rush LPs so they can sing along with Geddy Lee:
“There are those who think that life is nothing left to chance/a host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance/ … I will choose a path that’s clear/I will choose free will.”
A few hair-metal fans from the 1980s may even dust off their vintage Stryper cassettes and caterwaul in sync with this song from Michael Sweet while launching into some sweet air guitar moves and spraying their bangs with AquaNet hairspray:
“Free to turn away — say goodbye/Free to walk away — and deny. … “You’re free, free to do what you want to/Choose your own destiny/Free to do what you want to.”
But does the doctrine of predestination really eliminate all human freedom?
Does predestination require that God directs every detail of our lives to the point that our deeds are an “aimless dance”?
And, if he doesn’t, where in God’s overcoming grace is there space for human choices?
So What If God Did Violate Our Free Wills?
First off, let’s suppose for a moment that God does turn sin-infected rebels into his children despite their kicking and screaming. My children have spent plenty of time kicking and screaming in the pediatrician’s office, quite convinced that getting a shot is the worst idea since finishing a serving of Brussels sprouts. And yet, I choose to violate their wills for the sake of their life and health.
And what about instances when someone adopts an infant from an abusive home or rescues an unconscious person from a burning building?
Should adoptive parents leave a child to be abandoned and abused until she can make her own choices about her family situation? Should we wait until the person in the burning building wakes up and expresses an explicit desire for life before pulling him from the structure engulfed with flames?
Even we, with our limited wisdom, sometimes ignore people’s capacity to choose for the sake of saving their lives.
So what if an infinitely-wise God did bypass the free wills of hell-bound rebels and cause them to become his beloved children because he knows what they need better than they do? There are worse fates, after all, than being dragged kicking and screaming into a life of infinite love and light.
As it turns out, however, the New Testament never declares that God saves people against their will. There is plenty of space in his grace for human freedom and divine sovereignty, and we don’t have to choose one over the other.
Did God Push You Down the Stairs?
Did you hear the one about the Calvinist who fell down five flights of stairs? He got up and said, “Well, I’m glad that’s over with.” It’s an overtold joke and not particularly humorous in the first place. It does, however, highlight a common misperception that Calvinists believe in a God who predetermines everything to the point that no space remains for human freedom. Yet that’s not at all what Calvinists have historically confessed. (And, by the way, there are a lots of Calvinist jokes that are less cliched than the Calvinist falling down the stairs, like the one about the Calvinist who built a baseball scoreboard. They had to remove the scoreboard from the ballpark because it kept posting the final score before the game began.)
So what do historical Calvinist confessions of faith have to say about human freedom?
According to the Calvinist pastors at the Synod of Dort who articulated five points about human salvation and God’s sovereignty, God does not deal with “people as if they were blocks and stones,” nor does the Spirit’s work “coerce a reluctant will by force” (3/4:15). In another confession of faith written later in the same century, it’s stated that God has given every human being the gift of “natural liberty.” And here’s what the Abstract of Principles, penned by nineteenth-century Calvinistic Baptists, has to say about how God governs the world:
God, from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs, and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any wise to be author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.
“Free will and responsibility”?
A calling that refuses to “coerce a reluctant will”?
So much for the caricature that Calvinists believe in a God who drags people into heaven kicking and screaming! What happens in salvation is not a coercion of anyone’s will but a transformation of the will so that individuals freely turn in faith and repentance to Jesus Christ.
Who Chose Your House, Your Spouse, and Your Striped Socks?
But let’s take this charge as seriously as possible and admit that, sometimes, it does seem like the sixteenth-century Reformers in particular denied free will. Martin Luther, for example, penned a work entitled On the Bondage of the Will — a writing that, according to Luther, was intended to dismantle the very notion of free will.
Here’s the key point that’s easy to miss, though, when we read works from theologians in the later Middle Ages and the Reformation: What Christian theologians meant by “free will” in those centuries was far removed from what this phrase means to most people today. Among the sixteenth-century Reformers as well as their heirs and opponents, “free will” described a human capacity to make choices in our own strength that result in progress toward salvation — and that’s what the Reformers so strongly rejected.
Luther’s point in On the Bondage of the Will was that, since our wills are enslaved to sin, none of us will ever choose to pursue God’s way of righteousness apart from God’s work of grace (John 6:65; 8:34). The pastors at the Synod of Dort put it this way:
If the marvelous Maker of every good thing were not dealing with us, we would have no hope of getting up from our fall by our own free choice, by which we plunged ourselves into ruin when still standing upright.
And so, the sixteenth-century debates about free will weren’t about whether God fated your fall down five flights of stairs or if you possess the liberty to choose your spouse, your house, or the striped socks you pulled out of the dryer this morning.
Luther clearly affirmed that human beings enjoy a measure of liberty in the things “beneath us” — in the ordinary, day-by-day choices we make. And, in the words of Richard Muller, when John Calvin “indicates that we are deprived of free choice, … he certainly does not mean … that a person is not free to choose between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Legitimate questions remain regarding the precise relationship between God’s sovereignty and humanity’s choices — about whether there is a compatibilist relationship between human choices and divine sovereignty, or if there is space in the sovereignty of God for libertarian human choices. These questions fall, however, more in the realm of God’s providence and sovereignty than under the question of whether human beings can choose what is good in their own power.