Human “free will” is a misleading premise—a common sense axiom of the post-Genesis 3 world. Adam embraced it when he accepted the promise that he could “be like God.” It offered him and his offspring a relative independence from God, and with that the freedom to redefine good and evil.
The Bible regularly dismisses these claims of pride or independence. Jesus said as much and Paul restated his teachings. And the Bible guided Augustine’s belief in Original Sin. It was also central to Martin Luther’s efforts in the Reformation and was later affirmed by John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards and many others.
Yet as a pastor whenever I dismiss free will rebuttals are sure to follow—whether directly or indirectly. It might be, “I’m more of an Arminian.” Or, “free will is necessary to our being human!” Or, for moral effect, “Free will is crucial to being responsible beings.” These all display a belief that free will can lead to both salvation and spiritual growth.
But it’s not true. The focus is wrong. When we embrace the premise of free will we’re left looking in the mirror of self-effort rather than at Jesus who meets us with free grace.
So let’s revisit the question one more time, but with humility also in view—and with humility defined as our rejection of any ambition to be like God.
By making this link to humility it should be clear that this post isn’t meant to persuade those who presume they can navigate good and evil on their own. That’s Adam’s turf. Instead it’s meant to call humbled sinners to stay focused on Christ. It’s for all of us who know that choosing to become righteous is as realistic as telling a brick to become holy.
Let’s switch the language. The humbled person recognizes sin as a slavery; so that unless Christ sets us free, we’re lost. We are the woman-at-the-well in John 4. We are today’s tax collectors of society. We are the weak, the foolish, the needy, the blind—the sinners.
Over against this humility we learn that the key premise of the will-focused proponents of human freedom is the function of decision-making. As they might put it, “When we have a choice to make, we make it!” But the simple function of choosing isn’t what constitutes a free will. It goes deeper than that. It goes back to the motives behind the choosing.
So let’s agree that there is an appearance of decision-making in play. But that doesn’t address the nature of sin—the problem that first occurred in Eden. Adam made choices both before and after the fall, but after the fall he made his choices on the basis of living as if he was God.
Sin, then, is located in the “what I want” of the chooser—in the desires. This is a heart-condition that “wants” the role of choosing good and evil as an independent exercise of selfhood. As such, our intellect serves the heart. Jesus made this clear in Mark 7 when he traced evil thoughts and deeds—functions of the mind—back to the heart.
And the heart—our motive center—is not to be confused with the processing work of the mind; or with our application faculty, the will. Our heart defines our thinking by the values and desires it prescribes. So the biblical language of heart is all about God having created us as responders—and, with that, as dependent creatures. As the motivation-center of our soul the heart is where God’s Spirit desires to reside and commune with us: where he offers his love, and we then are captured as we respond to that love.
The “mind,” then, is our processing instrument—our conscious reflections—that looks within to learn what our hearts find appealing or appalling. It processes these responses as our guiding information: as in “What do I really want?” It’s how we rationalize buying something we can’t afford; or eating something we shouldn’t eat; or saying something that we shouldn’t say.
Jesus made this case most directly in his exchange in John 8:30-59 with a group of apparent believers. This group quickly rejected what Jesus had to say when he defined authentic faith over against professed faith: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The last phrase was the tripwire. The pseudo-disciples immediately declared themselves to be freedom advocates: “We . . . have never been enslaved to anyone.”
What tripped them up? It was that Jesus linked freedom from sin to a heartfelt response to his word, and vice versa—“everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin”—so he was exposing the essential nature of faith as a response, and not a self-determined moral effort: responsibility.
Jesus cemented this in the dialog that followed: “my word finds no place in you.” Why not? “If God were your Father, you would love me . . . . Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father, the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” Notice the underlying conflict of motives between the “love me” and the counterpoint, “[you] do your father’s desires.”
Now back to the role of humility in all this. Humility is our heartfelt agreement with what Jesus tells us, including his epic statement later in chapter 15 of John’s gospel, “for apart from me you can do nothing.” And, “Abide in my love.” If my focus is on myself and on my responsibilities to be more and more righteous, I’m missing the point that our only hope for spiritual transformation is to set our heart’s gaze on Jesus. His mercy is what makes it all work.
And this was the basis for life before Adam’s fall. Let’s return—now humbled by the certainty that God alone is God—and enjoy the love Adam left behind!