Do We Have Free Will?: Opening Clarifications

What type of freedom are we considering? Mac or PC? Chick-Fil-A or Which Wich? Mocha Frappucino or White Chocolate Mocha? When speaking of free will, one is not typically referring to the freedom to make mundane daily decisions. There is instead a more nuanced realm in which theological free will is discussed. Theologians call this area soteriology, the study of salvation. In this discussion, I want to limit our focus to this realm.

Topics: Salvation

What type of freedom are we considering?

Mac or PC?

Chick-Fil-A or Which Wich?

Mocha Frappucino or White Chocolate Mocha?

When speaking of free will, one is not typically referring to the freedom to make mundane daily decisions. There is instead a more nuanced realm in which theological free will is discussed. Theologians call this area soteriology, the study of salvation. In this discussion, I want to limit our focus to this realm.

I am explicitly asking about the role of the human will in coming to Christ. Will an unregenerate person 1 trust Jesus without any external compulsion or must there be a prior work done in us to allow us to come? Furthermore, if there is this prior work, is it granted by God to all or only to some persons?

Therefore, we should bear in mind that this discussion of “free will” is not concerned with mundane daily choice or decisions believers make. It is concerned with the choice of an unbeliever to believe in Christ.

Unless we specify the conversation within these parameters, we could easily be distracted by peripheral discussions of personal tastes and styles rather than the central issue of salvation. We are essentially asking in what sense unregenerate humans are or are not free to come to Christ.

What is the will?

In order to understand “free will,” we must first understand the will. What is the will? Most simply, the will is the mechanism by which humans make choices.

Human choices are made on the basis of preferences, pleasures, loves, affections, delights and desires. Choices may be (and often are) made with respect to a combination of various desires (some of which might even be in competition), but all choices ultimately boil down to preference.2

We choose what we find more valuable, enjoyable, pleasurable, etc. We choose what we most desire, what we want, what we “will.”

If one wants to know what will be chosen, one simply needs to consider what he or she most prefers or loves. The concept of “free will” ultimately boils down to a question of desires. What does the human will most desire?

Four eras of freedom

A final clarification before we can answer the question, “Do we have free will?” is to define who “we” refers to. Man is not as he once was, nor is he as he will always be. The Bible speaks of the nature of man in four distinct ways, corresponding to four movements of redemptive history: man as created, fallen, regenerate and glorified.3

We must be careful lest we confuse the freedom of the fallen state with the freedoms of the created, regenerate or glorified states. Each era is distinct, and the freedom possessed within each is subsequently distinct as well.

  • There is man as created. Man was originally created in a state of goodness and innocence. Though we do not know how long this condition lasted, it covers only two chapters of the biblical text.
  • Since Genesis 3, we see man as fallen. Fallen man is fundamentally different from man as he was originally created. He was no longer innocent or good.
  • Though the condition of the Fall is universal in its effect upon all men, it is not permanent for all. There is a third way of understanding man, man as regenerate. Regeneration refers to the work of God to transfer a man or woman out of darkness and into light, out of death and into life. John 3 calls this reality being “born again.” The regenerate state is also a temporary condition awaiting the consummation of God’s work in eternity.
  • Man as glorified describes the final state in which God’s work of redemption will be complete.

Given that our discussion of free will is restricted to the question of an unregenerate (fallen) human’s response to his Creator’s work of redemption, we will narrow our focus to the state in which man has found himself since the Fall.

What is the fallen human will like? Because the will chooses on the basis of desires, we must therefore consider what a fallen, unregenerate person loves, desires, values and esteems.


Footnotes

1 Although regeneration is not a common term in many churches today, it is an essential biblical concept. Regeneration refers to the act of God whereby one is “born again.” Those who are “regenerate” are those who have been “born again,” while those who are “unregenerate” have not been “born again.” Consider John Piper’s “Finally Alive” for a comprehensive theology of this concept.

2 For instance, the child who takes out the trash may not “want” to take out the trash, but he or she does not “want” a spanking and, thus, does so on the basis of that greater desire.

3 This is the progression for those who believe. The unbeliever never moves beyond a state of fallen rebellion.