Free Will

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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

FREE WILL. —It is not easy to give a definition of Free Will that is not tautological,—indeed, strictly speaking, it cannot be defined. It may, however, be described as the ability to determine within oneself as to one’s acts or courses of action. We have not anywhere in the Gospels or, indeed, in the NT mention made in specific terms of Free Will, or any statement made in so many words that either the Divine will or the will of man is free. We have little, in fact, of philosophical or philosophico-theological discussion of any kind in the NT. The nearest approach to such a thing is in  Romans 9:18-24, where the question of human freedom is approached, and even there such discussion is rather deprecated, as verging on impiety, than entered upon. But while the question of the freedom of the will, whether the will of God or the will of man, is not formally dealt with in the NT, it is quite plain that God is regarded as acting freely, and that man is recognized as a free agent.

1. That God is not bound by any necessity external to Himself, that He acts according to the counsel of His will, is rather to be gathered from the general spirit of Scripture teaching than to be deduced from particular passages. The freedom of the Divine will is, indeed, plainly implied, although not explicitly mentioned, in such words as ( Romans 11:34-36), ‘For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.’ But Scripture simply accepts the freedom of the Divine will rather than formally states it. We cannot, however, think of God as acting other than freely, if we are to accept Him as a living God at all. Did we suppose that there was any necessity outside of Himself constraining Him to act in a certain way, we should be making an impersonal force the true Deity. We are constrained to believe that God acts freely. Yet to say that the Most High acts freely does not mean that He acts capriciously. He acts in accordance with His own nature. We can conceive that He might have made the material universe other than He has made it, but we cannot conceive Him as acting otherwise than in love and holiness and justice. Still, the necessity by which, in a sense, He may be said to act where His moral government is concerned is simply the necessity of being true to His own nature.

2. That man is a free agent is not stated in so many words in the NT, but is assumed everywhere. Surely when our Lord said ( Matthew 11:28) ‘Come unto me all ye that labour,’ and ( John 5:40) ‘Ye will not come to me that ye might have life,’ He accepted the freedom of man as a reality. No doubt He also said ( John 6:44), ‘No man can come unto me except the Father which hath sent me draw him.’ But in saying so He did not mean that men were mere passive instruments, but simply that all that appealed to the heart in favour of spiritual living was from on high, whence also all spiritual aids came. Those who hold that the will is not free, or, as we should rather put it, that men are not free to will, do not as a rule argue so much from Scripture, although they may do that in part, as from philosophical grounds, and what they regard as experience. No doubt those who regard liberty as incompatible with predestination may argue that predestination is the plain doctrine of Scripture, but the conclusion that because predestination is the doctrine of Scripture man cannot be free is their own, and is not taught in Scripture. Whether man is free or not is to a large extent a question of merely academic interest, although not wholly so. We all act upon the hypothesis that we are free. Certainly the conclusion that men are not free operates against contrition for sin and repentance,—hinders one from feeling that he is guilty before God,—and perhaps it is partly with the desire to get rid of the sense of sin that some men argue against our possession of freedom. But in a general way we proceed on the assumption that men are free agents, hence the discussion of freedom is mainly one, as we have said, of academic interest. Scripture, as before remarked, accepts man’s freedom as a fact, and we all have the consciousness of being free. It is argued, however, on various grounds that the sense of freedom which we have is illusive. In his Outline of Christian Theology Dr. W. N. Clarke mentions four grounds on which the doctrine of human freedom is challenged: viz. ( a ) Fatalism, ( b ) Predestinarianism, ( c ) Necessitarianism, ( d ) Determinism.

( a ) There is perhaps no need of seriously discussing Fatalism , which seems to be a mere philosophy of despair. We all at times feel the strange inevitableness of things, but fatalism cannot commend itself to us as a reasoned philosophy.

( b ) Predestinarianism in some form or other we can hardly avoid accepting, if we believe in an ordered universe; and to resolve predestination, in so far as rational and moral beings are concerned, into simple foreknowledge, does not materially, or at least very materially, help us. Of course it may be argued that the knowledge that a thing is to occur does not necessarily imply that the doer of it must do it. From the antecedents of a man we may judge tolerably well what his course of action in given circumstances will be, but our knowledge as to how he is likely to act does not affect his freedom,—does not compel him to act in the way foreseen. And so, it may be argued, the Divine foreknowledge of an action does not make the action inevitable, does not make it one that must be done. And this is perhaps formally true, but it is only formally so. What God foresees will be done has a material inevitableness about it, and will just as surely he done as if it had been predestinated. And if an action is predestinated, or even Divinely foreseen as being sure to occur, how can it be said that a man does it freely? Freedom seems incompatible with foreordination,—even with Divine foreknowledge. Yet no reasoning, however logical it may appear, can I ever make us lose the sense of freedom. We may try to persuade ourselves that we are not free, but the sense of freedom will remain with us notwithstanding, and we shall go on acting as if we were free.

( c ) We may say about Necessitarianism , or the doctrine that every volition is caused by its antecedents, that it is in a way true, but that, as urged against the freedom of the will, it neglects consideration of the fact that we ourselves are contributing all along to the antecedents which so far determine every volition.

( d ) And with regard to Determinism , or the doctrine that all volitions are determined by motives acting on the will, it may be said that it also is true, but that motives acting on the will are not like forces acting on a body and producing a resultant which may be mathematically calculated. Our motives are our own feelings and desires, however these may be affected by objects without us, and our decisions to act depend upon what we are, though that is not simply what, as we might say, nature has made us, but what to a large extent we have made ourselves. To suppose that we can act without motive of some kind would be to suppose what is contrary to all experience, for we are always more or less conscious of being influenced by motives, but the action of motives is no mere mechanical action. Our freedom, indeed, as Martensen ( Christian Ethics , § 31, pp. 109, 110) well points out, is conditioned, not absolute. We are not free save within certain limits, and many things—our native tendency to sin, heredity, environment, above all the force of habit—operate against our acting freely in accordance with our consciousness of what is best. But the sense of freedom which we possess is not illusive. We need, doubtless, the Divine aid in order to true religious living. But we are bound by no iron chain of necessity. We are, save in so far as we may have ourselves enslaved our wills, bound by no outward or inward constraint to will other than the good. And even the enslaved will can be made free by Divine grace.

3. The notion of moral freedom which is presented in the NT differs from all merely philosophical ideas on the subject. Here freedom means the being set free from the bondage of sin, and thus enabled to realize the ideal of human nature as created in the image of God ( Romans 6:20 ff.). The freedom of the Christian will lies not in the power to do whatsoever we please, but in the power to choose and follow that for which God made us. God Himself is absolutely free, precisely because He is the absolutely perfect moral Being; and Christ’s power to make others free springs from His own Divine freedom—that moral oneness with the Father in the strength of which He did always the things that were pleasing to Him ( John 8:29). In Christ’s gospel a freedom after His own pattern is offered to all. The Son can make us free so that we shall be free indeed ( John 8:36). This freedom comes from union with Christ, for apart from Him we can do nothing ( John 15:5). The doctrine of the indwelling of Christ through the Holy Spirit, and the consequent endowment of His disciples with freedom and power, was taught, according to the Fourth Gospel, by Jesus Himself (see esp. 14–17). It is constantly enforced by St. Paul as the testimony of his own experience. Apart from the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, the will is powerless to realize its own ideals ( Romans 7:19 ff;  Romans 8:2 ff.). But in accepting Christ as our Master, and yielding to His law as supreme, we pass into ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ See, further, Liberty.

Literature.—Art. ‘Will’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible; Martensen, Christian Ethics  ; T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics  ; Sir W. Hamilton, Discussions (appendix, Philosophical); A. M. Fairbairn, The Philosophy of the Christian Religion  ; Albrecht Ritschl, Justification and Reconciliation  ; J. R. Illingworth, Reason and Revelation  ; W. N. Clarke, Outline of Christian Theology  ; R. Anchor Thompson, Christian Theism  ; and Philosophical and Theological works in general.

George C. Watt and J. C. Lambert.

Webster's Dictionary [2]

(1): The power asserted of moral beings of willing or choosing without the restraints of physical or absolute necessity.

(2): A will free from improper coercion or restraint.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology [3]

See Will