Do we really have a “free will”?
“You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears
And kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will”
From the song “Free Will” by the Canadian rock band Rush,
from their album “Permanent Waves”
(Copyright 1980 Mercury Records, Copyright 1980 Anthem Entertainment)
Do we really possess a “free will”? Certainly we possess a volition — a “will” — and certainly we make choices. But are our choices genuinely “free”? Or are the choices we make at least in some sense, and to some degree, constrained by either external factors (such as our family background, education, religious upbringing, socio-economic class, ethnic identity, national context, etc.) or internal factors (such as our inner desires, inclinations and dispositions), or perhaps by a combination of both? And is the ability to make “free will” decisions inherent to our human dignity? Or, on the contrary, does the idea that we have the power to make “free will” decisions unconstrained by any external or internal factors in reality end up denigrating our human dignity as God’s image bearers and render our decisions ultimately meaningless?
In order to answer questions like these it is important to define our terms and to understand what issues are at stake.
So, do we have a “free will”? If by “free will” one means “the ability to make choices according to our desires” or (to put it even more simply) “the ability to choose what I want when what I want is available to me”, then, yes, the Bible certainly affirms such “free will.” But if by “free will” one means “the ability to make choices without any desire or inclination for the thing chosen, or even to choose contrary to one’s strongest desires” (i.e., autonomous free will), then, no, the Bible denies that we possess a “free will” in this sense. We will always choose that which we desire most at the time of making any given choice. Our wills are always governed (and thus constrained) by our desires; and our desires are always governed (and thus constrained) by our hearts. And here is our problem from the Bible’s perspective: Since humanity’s fall in Adam our hearts are under the dominion of sin and hostile to the true God revealed in the Bible (Romans 3:9-18; 8:7-8; Ephesians 2:1-3; etc.). This means that our natural desires and inner dispositions are governed by our sin nature inherited from Adam. Which in turn means that, while we are “free” to choose according to our desires, our desires are in willing bondage to our fallen sin nature. In short, in our fallen condition we are only “free” to choose sin and rebellion against our Creator God, for that is what our fallen hearts naturally desire.
Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin affirmed the Bible’s emphasis on humanity’s radical moral depravity due to sin, and therefore they denied the sinner’s ability to convert himself or to make a “free will decision for Christ.” In fact, in response to the Roman Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus’ defense of free will, the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther penned his famous response to Erasmus, entitled The Bondage of the Will(1). Contrary to the many preachers today who confuse the preaching of the gospel with the preaching of human free will, the Reformers and their heirs stressed the bondage of the human will in sin, and therefore our absolute dependence upon God’s grace alone in Jesus Christ alone to free us from the guilt and bondage of our sin. Only God’s sovereign grace in Christ can convert a sinner and bestow the gift of saving faith and repentance unto life. Only grace can release our wills from the bondage of sin and renew our wills so that we desire Christ as He is offered freely to us in the gospel. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Romans 9:16, ESV)
So, yes, the rock band Rush, quoted above, is correct insofar as they state that we make choices, and that even the choice not to choose is itself a choice. But they are dead wrong that the clearest path is “free will.” When it comes to choosing spiritual things — things like repentance from sin, faith in Jesus Christ, and holiness of life in obedience to God’s laws — none of us can or will choose these things unless God by His Holy Spirit renews our wills. The good news is that Christ’s death on the cross for our sins and His resurrection from the dead free us believers not only from the guilt and penalty of sin. They also free us from the slavish dominion of sin — including the bondage of our wills to our sin. Because of God’s sovereign grace through Christ’s accomplished redemption and the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, we who were once in bondage to sin now find ourselves freed from the old desires of our sin nature even as we discover new desires — holy desires — arising within our souls: A desire to repent and do the right thing; a desire to know Christ more as He is revealed in the Word; a hatred for remaining sin and a desire to obey and live a holy life.(2) While we still continue to experience desires for sin, and while we still often struggle with sin this side of heaven, God has implanted new desires into our souls, which war against those old desires (Galatians 5:17). Dear reader, may God in His sovereign grace renew your will so that you no longer resist the Savior, but instead may He draw you with the cords of love to embrace Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins that He freely offers you in the gospel.
(1) The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther; Translated by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, copyright 1957 by James Clarke & Co. Ltd.). The evangelical Anglican theologian Dr. J.I. Packer describes this work as “the greatest piece of writing that came from Luther’s pen.”
(2) The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by his grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.” (Chapter 9, Section 4)