Free Will

by J. C. Wenger

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One of the most knotty problems in theology is the question of human free will. Theological writers of the most varied complexions agree fairly well in their definitions of free will but argue about the significance of it. Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), the great Congregational clergyman and theologian, defines free will thus: "The plain and obvious meaning of the words freedom and liberty, in common speech, is the power, opportunity, or advantage, that any one has to do as he pleases (Samuel Wakefield, A Complete System of Christian Theology (Cincinnati: Cranston and Stowe, 1869). P. 313). Samuel Wakefield (1799-1895), the Methodist theologian, says: "A free moral agent is one who is the real author of his own moral actions, without being determined to will or to act by any extrinsic cause" (Ibid., p. 314.). The Lutheran Cyclopedia defines freedom of the will as applying only to the natural life, but not to spiritual matters, man "being in thought and will helpless and in contradiction with divine salvation" (P. 186). In 1525 Martin Luther wrote his severe critique of human freedom entitled De Servo Arbitrio. The Augsburg Confession of Faith defines free will in Article XVIII by saying, "that man's will hath some liberty to work a civil righteousness, and to choose such things as reason can reach unto, but it hath no power to work the righteousness of God, or spiritual righteousness, without the spirit of God" (Ibid., P. 187). The Formula of Concord of 1577, Art. II, represents that in the natural man there is not even a spark of saving knowledge and power because in reference to grace man is as dead as a stone, even worse, for he neglects, if not even opposes, the coming of the grace of God into his life (Ibid. P. 187). The Catholic Dictionary defines liberty as, "The power of choice," and distinguishes between internal liberty which means "freedom from all necessity," and external liberty which refers to any compulsion or force which would restrain an individual from doing what he wishes (P. 309).

How then may we define free will today? By free will we mean the capacity which human beings have to make moral decisions with out their being determined by any external agent. Free will involves the ability to contemplate ends. It also involves what is called the power of contrary choice; that is, the individual may choose either one of two moral opposites. Free will involves the capacity to be self-determining, to make a life plan. It rests at least in part upon human intelligence, because a normal human being is able to contemplate the consequences of his anticipated deeds and to choose accordingly. Free will means that a man is able to subordinate a present passion to an ideal or to a life goal. Free will becomes, therefore, one of the most distinguishing characteristics of men, for animals are not able to make moral choices, to formulate life plans, or to subordinate physical desires in the interest of morality or ideals, or of eternity.

The Bible continually assumes the truth of two propositions which to human reason are paradoxical: (1) that men are responsible for their moral choices, for their character, and for everything they do including their sinful acts; (2) that men are depraved and hopelessly lost in sin, totally unable to deliver themselves. What is the solution, if any, to this paradox? P. J. Twisck (1565-1636), bishop in the Frisian Mennonite Church of Holland, asserted in 1617:

That God almighty in the beginning created the man Adam and his wife in His image and likeness, endowing them above all creatures with virtues, knowledge, speech, reason, and a free will or power; so that they could know, love, fear, and obediently serve their Creator; or could voluntarily and disobediently forsake their God; as appeared in the first transgression when Adam and his wife through subtlety of the devil, who appeared in the form of a deceitful serpent, departed from the commandment of God; hence they did not sin through the foreordination or will of God; but as they had been created with a free will, and to do as they would, they sinned through their own voluntary desire and transgressed the command of God contrary to His will.

The man Adam and his wife having thus through their own sin fallen under the wrath and disfavor of God, whereby they became sinful and mortal, were again received into favor by God their Creator; so that they were not utterly divested of their former wisdom, speech, and knowledge, above all other creatures, nor of their previous free will or power, as may be seen from their voluntarily accepting God's gracious promises unto life, and obeying the voice of the Lord; and as also clearly appears from the fact that God the Lord very strictly appointed an angel with a flaming sword to keep the tree of life from Adam lest through his free will or power he should eat of the tree of life and live forever; which would have been in Adam's power. And this free will or power has been transmitted to all their descendants, who proceed from them as branches from their stem; so that even as men are endowed of God with knowledge, reason, and voluntary power, by which they can perform manifold works, and seek and desire from God the health of their diseased and infirmed bodies, and are not without action, as the irrational creatures, blocks and stones, so likewise, man, through the grace of God, and the moving of the Spirit, by which men live, and are moved, may open the door of the heart to the salutary grace of God--which through the Gospel is offered to all men, and through which death and life are set before man--and seek the health of his wounded soul; or he may voluntarily resist, reject, and neglect this offered grace and moving of the Spirit. Thus also, as men have eyes and ears, to see and to hear, yet not of themselves, but only from God the Giver, so they also, through the grace of God, have a free will or power to do the good and to leave the evil.

But men, considered in themselves, seeing they are without the grace of God, are of themselves incapable of thinking anything that is good, much less are they able to do it. But it is almighty God, who through His Spirit of grace works in man both to will and to do, moves, draws, and chooses them, and accepts them as His children, so that men are only recipients of God's saving grace. Hence, all Christians are in duty bound, to ascribe the beginning, middle, and end of their faith, with all their good fruits thereof, not to themselves, but only to the unmerited grace of God in Christ Jesus. (Martyr's Mirror, p. 379.)

This means that a truly Biblical theology will acknowledge: (1) that fallen man is depraved, a slave to sin; (2) that the sinner can usually reject any particular evil or choose any particular good, but he cannot of himself renounce sin as such and choose Christ apart from the enablement of the Holy Spirit; hence salvation is wholly of grace; (3) that men are not mere creatures of heredity or environment, but are also responsible for themselves; their destinies are in their own hands, for they are able to accept or reject the grace of God when convicted by the Holy Spirit.

All through the Bible God appeals to men to recognize sin, and to reject it. Before Cain murdered Abel, God told him that sin was couching at the door, desiring Cain, but he was to master it (Gen. 4:7). Paul tells his readers to consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:11). In another letter he writes: "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry" (Col. 3:5). Many times the Bible commands men to choose righteousness and to overcome sin.

The Scripture also confronts men with moral choices and appeals to them to choose well. In one of his farewell addresses Moses exclaimed: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; there fore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them" (Deut. 30:19-20). In his farewell address Joshua also commanded Israel to fear the Lord, to serve Him in sincerity and faithfulness, to put away all idols, etc., and concluded with the ringing declaration, "As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD" (Josh. 24:15). The prophet Ezekiel cried to Israel: "Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezek. 18:31). And in a similar manner, "Turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezek. 33:11). Through the prophet Jeremiah God promised: "If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it" (Jer. 18:7, 8). Jesus Himself said: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt. 11:28, 29). One of the last messages of the Bible is: "The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.' And let him who hears say, 'Come.' And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price" (Rev. 22:17).

The Scripture is also clear that all men will be judged for the decisions they have made and for the life they have lived. Jesus declared, "For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done" (Matt. 16:27). Paul also says that God "will render to every man according to his works" (Rom. 2:6). To the Corinthian church Paul wrote: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body." (II Cor. 5:10) And John in picturing the last judgment says: "And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done." (Rev. 20:15) I Samuel 23 provides an excellent illustration of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. David asked God whether the men of Keilah would deliver him over to Saul if he remained where he was, and the Lord said they would. Whereupon David departed and escaped (I Sam. 23:8-14). But if David had remained he would have certainly been taken prisoner. According to the Word of God men are not lost for having depravity, a situation for which they are not responsible, but they are guilty for choosing to follow their sinful nature rather than to surrender to a good and merciful God who calls them. When men do sin they are acting according to their inner nature but they are responsible for this. When men are saved, however, it is only because of the goodness of God. Jesus declared that no one could come to Him except the Father draw him, except it be given him of the Father (John 6:44, 65). Scripture also speaks, however, of the Pharisees and lawyers frustrating God's purpose by refusing to be baptized (Luke 7:30). The awful fact is that finite men, because of the mystery of free will, are able to frustrate the will of a good and holy God whose will it is to save them. Free will is, therefore, both the hope of man and the despair of the wicked. _________________

From Introduction to Theology, pages 102-106. Copyright 1954, renewal 1980 by Herald Press. This book was reprinted by Leland M. Haines. For information how to order this book visit or email .

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November 9, 2001