“Free Will” IS in the Bible

Q – I’m taking an English 102 class right now in college and we are going over “Paradise Lost” right now. I don’t know how familiar you are with the book, but the basic gist of it is the story of Satan’s rebellion against God and the loss of Paradise for Adam and Eve. The writer, John Milton, is apparently a staunch Arminian and brings up the subject of free will quite often i.e. Satan had the free will to get kicked out of heaven, Eve had the free will to eat the apple, Adam had the free will to sin with his wife.

Anyway, last night during our class we got to the part of the book where God is talking to Jesus and talking about how man has now ruined himself because he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God looks around heaven and sees if there is someone around who is willing to take the place of the sinners and Jesus voluntarily says He’ll take their place. This ultimately led to a group discussion of free will and it’s “beauty” (quoth my teacher).

There are about 9 people in my class; 2 of us are “reformed” or Calvinist, 3 of them are free will proponents, and the other 4 don’t really know/care what we are talking about. During the said discussion, my teacher started spouting off about how God allows us to choose whether or not to accept Him or reject Him and that it has to be a choice because otherwise we would be robots and it wouldn’t be real love and devotion. I argued with him for a while, quoting Ephesians and Romans and talking about how we are dead in sin, but then he answered “but Adam was not born dead into sin, he had the free ability to choose. How do you explain that?” And I couldn’t.

Jim – Wow, was your teacher Dave Hunt? Those are all the same arguments he uses in his book “What Love Is This?” But, there are answers to all of those claims. We’ll take them in order.

1) If God is completely sovereign, we’re just robots.

It is common to hear opponents of God’s sovereignty in salvation say that lack of free will produces robots or puppets. The underlying assumption in such thinking is that there are two basic choices: human freedom or God’s intervention. But, that’s a false assumption. The Bible is quite plain that all of mankind falls into one of two camps: sons of God or sons of the devil. In other words, if God does not pull your strings, you are not simply “morally neutral,” implementing your own plans and designs for your life. If God is not in charge of your life, then Satan is. Someone’s pulling your strings, either way.

When you read the language of Scripture you see the consistent contrast between those Jesus chose and those who constitute “the world,” whom Jesus would not pray for (John 17:9). Or, Jesus speaks of “the believing,” who have everlasting life, versus the unbelieving, who are “condemned already” (John 3:16-18). You find Paul’s contrasts between the children of the free and the children of bondage (Gal. 4:30-31). In Col. 1:12-13, Paul contrasts the “saints in light” who were delivered from “the power of darkness.” And, in fact, those are the very words Jesus used to describe Paul’s predestined ministry, as a “chosen vessel.”

“And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” (Acts 26:14-18)

And, of course, Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees was not that they were simply following their God-given free will as they rejected Him. He said that they were incapable of understanding His words because they were not His sheep and they were indeed “of your father the devil.” There is no such thing as moral neutrality; there is only light or dark, good or evil, free or bond, God’s or Satan’s.

That contrast is consistent. God’s interference in the lives of some people is not an assault against their freedom. It is deliverance from a darkness that they themselves do not even recognize. Satan has so blinded the eyes of sinful men that they are incapable of recognizing the things of God. Only when God intrudes on a person’s heart/mind/soul/will can that person recognize both their sinfulness and the grace that delivered them. Everyone’s a puppet. It’s just a question of who’s pulling your strings.

2) Love that is not freely given (with the free option to be withheld) is not genuine love or devotion.
Given that the above assessment of man’s natural state is true; and if it is Biblically accurate that all mankind is “dead in trespasses in sins” (Eph. 2:1), then man has no natural ability to love God.

“Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom. 8:7-8)

The notion of love freely chosen and freely given as an act of the libertarian, unencumbered free will is a nice sounding idea — it’s just an impossibility. Our natural wills are only free to do evil. While we may choose from myriad wicked options, we are utterly incapable of choosing that which is right and good; and that would especially include unfeigned love toward God. Where our love for God is concerned, the Bible is clear:

“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

We are incapable of generating positive love toward God unless He first moves on our hearts, removes that stone of indifference and rebellion, and revives us to “newness of life,” forming the capability to love God within us. God must first grant us the ability to do what we simply cannot. And the only people to whom He grants such ability are those whom He has chosen as recipients of His gracious love. We love Him in reaction to His love.

The argument that the only true love is love generated by free will ignores man’s incapability and places the responsibility to love on the very creatures that are described as dead in their own sinfulness, always at enmity with God, incapable of pleasing Him, and defiantly in love with their own sinful flesh. If we’re going to look at this matter Biblically, the only real love that God will accept is that love which He Himself generates. That is the only love pure and good enough to be offered a truly Holy God. Human emotional love is of no value to a God who defines love according to His own character and nature. Thus, He must generate and sustain any love worthy of Himself.

3) “… but Adam was not born dead into sin, he had the free ability to choose. how do you explain that?”

Your teacher is ignoring a little something called “the fall.” We were not born after Adam’s initial innocence. We were born into Adam’s sin. Paul argued that the proof that all men are guilty of Adam’s sin is the fact that all men die. The wages of sin is death. So, the fact that Adam had an ability to choose proves nothing at all concerning the supposed free will of men after the fall and the expulsion from Eden.

Granted, Adam had the “free-est” will of any man who ever lived (save Jesus). But, what did that freedom accomplish? Did it make him more Godly? More obedient? More righteous? Nope. It caused him to rebel.

Now, by the way, I would argue that Adam’s fall was perfectly in line with God’s eternal plan. Inasmuch as Christ is called “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), it is obvious that God ordained the necessity of a Savior. Had God wanted man to persist in his innocence, all He had to do was keep from placing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden. I mean, remove the temptation and there’s no possibility of rebellion. Likewise, had God simply kept Satan, the tempter, away from Eve (which I certainly assume He was capable of doing), there would have been no fall. In other words, God set the stage and fully anticipated the acts of Adam and Eve and the resultant introduction of sin into the world.

So, in the largest picture, Adam did not truly have the free ability to choose. What He did was predetermined by God, who works all things after the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11). Sin was a necessity in order for God to demonstrate His grace. And God fashioned a scenario through which sin entered, while He was not the direct cause. He used secondary causes —- Satan, the Tree, Eve’s pride and influence over Adam, etc. — to do the very thing He had determined to be done, all of which will result in His own glory and the preeminence of His Son in all things.

Q – So I guess my question is, how did sin enter the world if Adam was created sinless? It seems like a logical conclusion that if someone is born without sin, he will continue on without sin. If he sins, there is something inside of him/her that makes them sin, which in turn would make that something a sin in itself. So I guess I don’t understand how sin actually came to be if Adam and Eve had supposed “free will.”

Jim – Admittedly, these are tough issues; but only because the Bible does not explain it all. It simply tells us about the events without expounding the theology or mind of God behind the events.

Nevertheless, you make a couple of assumptions here that are worth investigating. For instance, what does it mean to say that Adam was created without sin? Since he was a brand new creature, having no history and no activity, he was axiomatically sinless. But, that fact does not equate to moral perfection. Just as he had no bad acts, he equally had no good acts. His state was determined by what he did. And he, like us, was capable of reacting to stimuli both within himself and outside himself. In other words, we often react to ideas that come from someone else; producing thoughts and concepts we had never realized or entertained prior to becoming aware of those ideas. Adam was unaware of sin or rebellion. That is why Satan was introduced into the scenario. Someone or something outside of Adam had to introduce the idea of rebellion. And that’s precisely what Satan did in his temptation of Eve. He questioned what God said and enticed Eve to look at the tree in a whole new way. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:5) Eve had never considered such a thing prior to that.

And that’s how sin entered. God set the stage and allowed things to progress, as every one of the players followed their own inclinations. Yet, they all did exactly as God had ordained (rather like what we read in Acts 2:23).

Okay, here’s the big theological construct. God is goodness and light. Therefore, wherever God is, goodness and light prevail. However, wherever God is NOT, darkness prevails. That’s the natural state of the universe. It takes no energy to produce darkness. Darkness is the natural state produced by absence of light. God does not have to actively produce darkness; all He has to do is withhold His light. Likewise, all God had to do in order for Satan to rebel was to withhold His protecting presence. Consequently, Satan rebelled and took a third of Heaven with him. Those who did not join Satan’s rebellion were “kept” by God, so Paul calls them “elect angels” (1 Tim. 5:21).

Likewise, when God withholds His goodness from people, they become dark and they gravitate toward their natural, fleshly desires. Only when God sheds light in a person do they recognize and respond to the things of God. In the same way, all God had to do to bring about the fall of Adam was to allow Satan to follow his pernicious, subtle ways and stand back. The lack of God’s intervention and protection resulted in the very thing God intended and decreed — the fall of mankind.

As for Adam and Eve’s “free will,” it was free to the extent that it was not yet corrupted by sin. But, it was not free to utterly resist sin. Adam’s sin came not from within himself, but from outside influences — Satan and Eve. And Adam’s sinlessness was the axiomatic state of someone who had done nothing at all. It was not a state of moral perfection. Only God is morally perfect. Any creature is subject to God’s will where their morality is concerned.

Q – On a side note, in your “Before the foundation of the world” Q&A topic, you say that nowhere in the New Testament does it say the words “free will.” Well, I actually found an instance in my Bible the other day. In the book of Philemon, in the New American Standard, it says “but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.” (1:14). So, I don’t know how to respond to that, but hopefully you can shed some light on this for me, because I was taken aback when I saw it.

Jim – Yes, it’s true. That’s a regrettable choice of wording on the part of the NAS translators. The Greek combination of words they have translated “free will” is “kata hekousion.” “Kata” is a primary particle that has an assortment of uses in Greek grammar. Usually, it is used to denote a level of intensity or has the sense “according to.” The other word, “hekousion,” is a neuter derivative of “hekon,” meaning “voluntary.” So, it essentially means, “voluntarily.” And that meaning is obvious from the context.

Paul is sending Onesimus, a slave, back to his owner, Philemon. But, inasmuch as Onesimus is a believer in Christ, Paul adjures Philemon to take him back not as a slave, but as a brother. Paul admits that he loves Onesimus and would prefer to keep him to himself as a helper in the gospel. But, he did not want to do anything without Philemon’s consent. At that point, Paul gives Philemon the opportunity to the right thing, but adds that he did not want Philemon’s goodness to be done by compulsion, but voluntarily.

With the exception of the English Standard Version, every other respected translation recognizes the contrast between Paul’s use of “kata anangkeen” (by compulsion or necessity) and “kata hekousion.” It is that contrast that determines the meaning and proper translation.

The NIV reads: “But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.”

The NKJV reads: “But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.”

The KVJ reads: “But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.”

The NET reads: “However, without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your good deed would not be out of compulsion, but from your own willingness.”

The ALT reads: “But I wanted to do nothing without your consent, so that your good [deed] shall not be as by necessity but by a voluntary [action].”

The BBE reads: “But without your approval I would do nothing; so that your good works might not be forced, but done freely from your heart.”

The CEV reads: “But I won’t do anything unless you agree to it first. I want your act of kindness to come from your heart, and not be something you feel forced to do.”

The EMTV reads: “But I wished to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good might not be by necessity, but by being voluntary.”

The ISV reads: “Yet I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be something forced, but voluntary.”

The Literal Translation (LITV) reads: “But I was willing to do nothing without your consent, that your good might not be by way of necessity, but by way of willingness.”

And the 1912 Weymouth New Testament reads: “Only I wished to do nothing without your consent, so that his kind action of yours might not be done under pressure, but might be a voluntary one.”

There are others, but they follow this basic line. The majority opinion is that the phrase denotes voluntary willingness as contrasted with compulsion or necessity.

That being said, I can only assume that this was a conscious decision on the part of the ASV translators to impose the phrase “free will” on the text and this was the most attractive opportunity. This is nothing new. The KJV translators inexplicably translated “pascha,” the Passover, as “Easter” in Acts 12:4, in an attempt to legitimize a holiday that was already entrenched in Christian tradition. This is what happens when people lead with their traditions; and even translators are not above that influence.

Now, giving them the benefit of the doubt, it may be that the ASV translators were influenced by the use of the word “freewill” in the Old Testament. After a person had given all the mandated sacrifices, first fruits, tithes and offerings, they were allowed to give a gift above and beyond all that was required. That offering is called “a freewill offering.” (For instance, Lev. 22:21, 23, 23:28, etc.) However, that context has nothing to do with salvation. These offerings were accepted by God because they were coming from Israel, God’s elect and chosen people (Isa. 45:4). In other words, they were already chosen by God prior to Him telling them how to approach, worship, and sacrifice to Him. So, it cannot be argued that Israel’s “free will” led to God’s choice of them.

All in all, this odd bit of biased translating does no harm to our initial statement. The reality is that “free will” is not anywhere in the original New Testament text. But, since people may be reading from the ASV while not being aware of the various translations and Greek text, I have begun modifying my statement to make it more explicit.

Here are the facts: The phrase “free will” is not only missing from the original New Testament text, it is conspicuously absent from any passage addressing salvation. While the words “foreknowledge,” “predestination,” and “according to His will” are all firmly embedded in the language and context of salvation, “free will” is glaring in its absence.

If anyone wants to argue that free will is the agency of salvation, they must demonstrate that Paul’s language clearly states such a premise (which they cannot do) and they must give us meaningful exegesis of the terminology Paul did choose to use and show us how it cumulatively means “we choose.” Unfortunately for them, it’s a losing proposition. So, they will ignore the language and insist on their tradition.

Q – Thanks in advance Pastor Jim! I really hope I’m not bothering you with all these questions. If I am, seriously, just tell me to stop. I know you are a pretty busy guy, but I just really appreciate your insight on these things. God bless!

Jim – No bother at all. I enjoy answering questions and helping young skulls full of mush learn to think Biblically. 🙂

Yours for His sake,

Jim Mc.