Some—maybe most—of the dear people in a class at church today were startled when I said, “I don’t believe in a free will.” Yet many readers, especially former students, may smile or yawn: “Not again!”
Why? Because each year in Patristic Theology I would explain Augustine’s view of the will in his debate with Pelagius. Then in my Reformation course we reviewed the claims in Luther’s Bondage of the Will—where he drew on Augustine’s claims—over against Erasmus who promoted the primacy of the will. In teaching Ethics my denial of a free will set up “faith ethics”—the approach to the spiritual life and morality I see offered in the Bible. It was a common theme for me then and it remains a drumbeat now.
That’s not to say I ever expect that making the case will be easy or the claim quickly received by first time listeners. It always calls for long discussions while they read and reread the Bible, along with some doses of church history; and even then many are still unpersuaded.
Resistance is natural, after all, when free will seems obvious in our daily experience: on any given day we make decisions about what to eat, who to meet, when to travel, and what to say. Each of these activities is perceived to be a spontaneous and perfectly free—non-coerced—decision. This experience makes the reality of a free will so obvious that any counterclaims seem bizarre. And what’s more, the will of God is often cited in the Bible, so our own will is the proper yet human counterpart to God’s will.
And today the autonomous free will is treated as a bedrock reality wherever we turn: I think of the court judgments in favor of the “freedom to choose” in cases of abortion, gay marriage, and more. It was embedded in the United States by Deist forefathers such as Thomas Jefferson who set out the aspirations of personal autonomy (another label for free will) by affirming life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as our greatest and most noble aspirations. Free will, it seems, is seen today to be the lynchpin of human identity. God forbid that anyone should deny it!
Yet God himself denies it. Again and again the Bible makes it clear that we’re shaped by sin as it rules our hearts—a vulnerability rooted in our actual identity as those made to love God but who have loved our world and ourselves instead. Our heart—the affective and response-based center of the soul—always directs us. Thus Proverbs 4:23, “Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life”; Mark 7:21, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts . . .”; Ephesians 4:18, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”
God made us to be heart-based responders because God’s own Triune eternal union and communion exists in mutual initiative and delight. Turning away from our proper love—as rooted in the relational image of God—makes us vulnerable to other loves. And even in repentance our release from slavery to sin only comes about by our becoming slaves to righteousness in Christ (see Romans 6 on this).
Paul couldn’t have stated our enslavement to death and sin more sharply than in texts like Romans 3:9-18 and Ephesians 2:1-3. And even Satan, in tempting Jesus, gloated about his control over all the nations—a claim Jesus didn’t deny. So, in sum, the Bible treats us not as people who have free wills, but as slaves to sin. Only salvation changes this. And even after salvation we still struggle until the day we get to be at home at last (see Romans 5-8).
Maybe we should take this up in more positive terms. I’ll be brief and invite readers to bring their own reflections to the conversation.
I believe in real freedom. That is, in a heart-based freedom to either respond to God’s love or to resist it. This is apparent throughout the Bible. God so loved the world that he gave his beloved Son to save as many as would respond to him in trusting faith; but most people have ignored that offer because they love darkness rather than light because their choices are evil. The battle is always one of affection versus affection—of an inward sampling of what we “want” the most.
When we turn to Christ we love him because he first loved us and drew us to himself—so it was not by the will of the flesh nor by the will of man, but by God that we gain an affection for him that breaks the power of old affections. So only God can overcome our self-love, and that only in some: it isn’t guaranteed to all. How, then, is the selection made. It seems that most often he woos the poor, the weak, the despised, and other sorts of social nonentities who find his love attractive. The proud, the strong-willed, and the mighty, on the other hand, are given over to what they love the most: their freedom to ignore God.