Do Christians exercise free will?
The nature of free will is “the most contentious question of metaphysics” (Hume, 2007). Without free will—Kreeft (2012) argues—all moral language would become meaningless, and justice with it. Meaningless justice would frustrate mercy, grace and love, and ultimately render human life itself meaningless (p. 113-114).
The matter does indeed have repercussions on how adequately we are able to address issues such as God’s goodness (Flowers, 2019), moral responsibility (Moreland, 1988), the problem of evil (Scott, 2015), the origin of sin (Crisp, 2017), the tension between foreknowledge and free will (Swartz, 2020)and between God’s sovereignty and free will (Lemke, 2013), the function of evangelism (Packer, 1961), the roles of man and God in salvation, sanctification, and works (Hankins, 2012; Harwood, 2012; Horn, 2013; Reynolds, 2012; Rogers, 2012).
The topic is vast, thus we shall focus on the question “do Christians exercise free will?” by looking at the most controversial issue: are all men free to believe the gospel? and are believers free to forfeit eternal life? We shall select relevant texts for exegesis, with a more detailed focus on the first of the two questions.
Free will: a definition
Views on free will stem from the answer to the question: if determinism were true, could we still have free will (Timpe, 2020)? Incompatibilism answers in the negative, compatibilism in the affirmative.
We shall define “free will” as an individual’s ability to make self-determined choices that select one option out of genuine alternatives. This is a form of libertarianism that stands in contrast to all forms of determinism.
Are all men free to believe the gospel?
The question relates to the doctrines of unconditional election (Boettner, 2017) and total inability (Nichols, 2005). We shall focus primarily on the latter, inevitably touching on the former; we shall then turn to some key passages in support of free volition towards God.
John 1:13. The new birth is God’s will, not man’s will, it is said (Luther, 1823). Verse twelve, however, presents faith preceding regeneration, both logically and temporally (Allen, 2014); the same ordo salutis is supported by John 20:31; Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:13; Romans 10:14-17; 1 Peter 1:23, amongst others. Therefore, God’s will is to give birth spiritually to all those who believe.
John 6:44-45. Without the Father’s drawing, no one could believe, it is said. Arminians try to respond with John 12:32, creating more problems than it solves: (1) it is Jesus doing the drawing; (2) it would lead to universalism. In reality, the reason for unbelief is in John 5:46-47, which Jesus expounds on when He quotes Isaiah 54:13 (v45): those who had not hardened themselves would have heard and learnt from God. The Father is essentially handing existing believers over to the Son (v37) (Flowers, 2017).
John 8:34-47. Jesus reiterates the same point: if they had believed the truth like Abraham did, they would believe Him. Those who refuse to acknowledge a former testimony of God as true, be it Scriptures or natural revelation (cf. Ro 1:16-32), would harden themselves even in the face of the resurrection (Lk 16:31).
John 10. Those who are not Christ’s sheep cannot believe (v26), it is said. But the verse says, “do not”, not “cannot”. The sheep are present believers, the others present unbelievers (the passage is silent about their future). The other fold (v16) are likely to be God-fearing Gentiles (e.g. Acts 13:14-43).
John 15:4-5. This passage cannot be used to prove or disprove total inability, as it deals with the fruitfulness of believers, not with unbelievers (Meisinger, 2005).
John 17:6. This is used similarly to passages in chapter 6 and 10. Verse twenty easily refutes the idea of an elect group: others will believe through the preaching of the alleged elect, which would result in saved non-elect, reducing to absurdity.
Acts 9, 22, 26. Paul’s election was to apostleship (Wilkin, 2012a), not to life. Moreover, Acts 26:14 shows that persecuting Christ had become increasingly harder for him (Meisinger, 2005).
Acts 13:45-48. The majority of translations render tetagmenoi as “appointed” or similar (Wilkin, 2012a), which determinists understand as “elected”. Moreover, the other eight occurrences of the word are translated similarly (Martin, 2005). However, usage depends on context, and tradition could be tainting translations. An alternative rendering is disposed (Clarke, 1844). BDAG (p. 991) allows for it in this context; and there is extra-biblical usage of the word as disposition (Whitby, 1816, p. 71-72).
Noteworthy: (1) God is not shown as doing the alleged appointing; (2) “disposed” constrats better with the attitude of the Jews (v45-46): they became embittered with jealousy, and rejected the gospel the Gentiles were drawn to; (3) these were God-fearing Gentiles, their disposition (cf. v42-43) was likely brought about by pre-existing belief in the Father’s revelation. Under this light, the passage naturally parallels John 6:44-45; 10.
Romans 1:18-32. Paul’s use of natural theology implies that although God did things so that people might turn to Him (cf. Acts 17:26-27), they chose not to, hence His wrath. To infer inability to believe from man’s choice to sin (like Luther (1823) does) is a non-sequitur.
Romans 3:10-12. Determinists emphasise that “none seeks God” (v11), Arminians respond with prevenient grace. Yet, this cannot be an absolute “none” (see Acts 17:26-27). Indeed, the passage is Pauline midrash (Stern, 1999), used to magnify a specific point: Jews and Gentiles are equally sinners (v9) and cannot be justified by the Law (v20), but need the righteousness available to all who believe (v22) (Dunn, 1988). Furthermore, to imply that non-seekers could not respond when confronted with the gospel is a non-sequitur.
Romans 6:14-20. Slavery to sin implies total inability, it is said. Another non-sequitur. Furthermore, in Paul’s language “being slave” means “to serve”. He is inviting believers to serve the Lord just as they once served lawlessness.
Romans 7:18,24; Galatians 5:17. Without the Spirit one would only do the things of the flesh, it is said (Meisinger, 2005). This conclusion fails to ponder that old covenant believers were not indwelt by the Spirit; and also fails to reflect on Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:11: evil man can still do good things.
Romans 8:7. The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God. This speaks of something that can be true of believers, too, thus total inability cannot be in view (Meisinger, 2005).
Romans 9:16. It is impossible to dissect this properly here. Suffice it to say that a careful assessment of election in Romans 9-11 shows Paul consistently referring to the vocational election of Israel throughout history; soteriology is not in view (Hankins, 2018).
1 Corinthians 2:14-16. The Spirit-less man cannot understand and believe the gospel, Calvin (2013) says. In reality, Paul’s problem is that the majority of Corinthians is immature and behaves likeunregenerate, thus he can give advanced teachings only to some (2:6), whilst the rest remains on basic teachings (3:2-3), which could be given to unbelievers just the same.
2 Corinthians 3:5. Once again, service is in view, not soteriology (Meisinger, 2005).
2 Thessalonians 2:13. The issue with the deterministic interpretation of this passage is the word salvation: the majority of the occurrences of the Greek word refers to salvation from temporal things (Wilkin, 2012b), not unto eternal life. The Thessalonians feared that “the day of the Lord”had arrived. Paul reminds them that, like the rest of the Church, they were chosen to be saved from that terrible time.
Ephesians 2:1-9. It is argued that “dead in our transgressions” (v1,5) implies inability. The cultural context is ignored; clearly “dead” is not meant to be taken literally, as these same “dead people” can hear the Son’s voice (Jn 5:25). Verses 2:8-9 are used to say, “faith is a gift of God”. Yet, grammar demands the gift to be eternal life, not faith (Meisinger, 2005). Calvin (1996) agrees.
Philippians 1:29. Faith is divinely granted, not of man’s will, it is said. First, similar language is used in Acts 5:31 of the Jews, yet not all of Israel believed, against the will of God (Mt 23:37). Second, we must note the larger theme of God’s plan for saving Gentiles as well as Jews (Acts 11:18). In this context, Paul warns the Philippians against unbelieving Jews (3:2), and reminds them that they, as Gentiles, were granted access to Christ just like the Jews: through the gospel.
Hebrews 11:6. Though the passage says that no one can please God without faith, nowhere does it say that man cannot freely believe.
Luke 8:4-15 (Mt 13:1-23; Mk 4:1-20). The work of the devil in 8:12 seems inexplicably superfluous under determinism, since the elect are irresistibly regenerated, and the non-elect left in their total inability. However, it agrees naturally with the view that it is the gospel that begets faith (Jn 17:20; Ro 10:17; 1 Pt 1:23), and proves that man has genuine ability to either believe or reject the gospel.
John 6:28-29. Jesus’ questioners show willingness to do the works of God. Jesus’ answer would simply be deceiving if man does not have genuine ability to believe.
John 7:17. This reveals both Christ’s genuine offer and man’s ability: whoever wants to do God’s will shall recognise a God-sent doctrine and believe it (Meisinger, 2005).
2 Corinthians 4:3-6. This verse actually undermines total inability: the devil blinds unbelievers to the gospel, because they might believe it.
We agree with Nichols (2005): the doctrine of inability, bedrock of theistic determinism (and shared also by Arminians (Schaff, 2007)), does not stand scrutiny and is built on non-sequiturs (Meisinger, 2005).
Are believers free to forfeit eternal life?
Some deem it is inconsistent to assert that salvation is conditional upon the free choice of man to believe, and not follow through with insistence that it remains conditional after regeneration (Picirilli, 2002, p. 203). Southern Baptist traditionalists usually respond that true believers will never desire to turn away from God (Horn, 2013), a defence we disagree with.
To think that free will implies the ability to will oneself out of eternal life is to be guilty of the conflation fallacy, by failing to distinguish between free will and freedom of action (Timpe, 2020): a person with free will is still constrained by external powers (not wills). Can anyone do the impossible, just because they will it? Those who received the free gift of eternal life made an irreversible choice, and are constrained by the eternality of their new nature (2 Co 5:17). Since eternal life is received by grace through faith alone (Jn 6:29,40; 11:25-26); is indeed eternal (Jn 3:16; 4:10-14; 5:24; 6:35; 10:28-29); begins with initial faith (Jn 5:24; Ro 5:9; Eph 2:4-9); and is a present reality (1 Jn 5:13); then it can never end, be lost or forfeited. Barclay’s (2015) shows that although in the ancient world the recipient of a gift was supposed to honour the giver, failing to do so actually jeopardises future benefactions and fellowship; the gift is never revoked or given back, as that is as dishonouring as not showing gratitude.
Let us look at the Parable of the Sower (e.g. Lk 8:4-15), traditionally understood in a soteriological context. Largely, only the last soil has been historically seen as someone ultimately saved. Arminians would say that free will demands that the second and third soil are believers who apostasies, forfeiting eternal life. However, only in the first case (8:12) the devil takes away the word so that people will not believe and be saved. The other three instances (8:13-15) show people who believe (thus, per Jesus’ words, are saved); the seed springs to life (8:6-8) and they are differentiated by fruitfulness: aborted, abandoned, and abundant fruits (Hornok, 2015). Christian rebellion seems better understood as leading to temporal judgement (Anderson, Chay, Dillow, Tanner, & Wilson, 2017)and loss of rewards (Hodges, 2016), not to the forfeiting of eternal life.
We believe our exegesis undermines total inability and the necessity of prevenient grace, whether resistible or not. It also establishes that man has genuine free will, which however endangers not the doctrine of eternal security.
The ideas of an enslaved will totally incapable of faith, and of an elected group unilaterally predestined to eternal life, are a pagan inheritance (Wilson, 2012) with which the church attempted to counter the charges that faith is a meritorious work (Jennings, 2017); such ideas led to views where God cannot satisfactorily be acquitted of sin (Hunter, 2013).
Tertullian speaks for the church fathers up to 430 CE (Wilson, 2012) when he says:
“It is not the part of good and solid faith to refer all things to the will of God[, e]lse every sin will be excused […] to the destruction of [our] whole discipline, [nay], even of God Himself;” (Tertullian, 1870, p. 2-3).
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 Hard determinism (e.g. hypercalvinism (Wingard, 2017), naturalism (Feinberg, 1980)), libertarianism (e.g. provisionalism (Hunter, 2013; Flowers, 2017), Arminianism (Smith, 2011), Free Grace (Hodges, 2014)), and concurrency/soft-libertarianism (e.g. Molinism (Graham, 2009)).
 Soft determinism (e.g. mainstream Calvinism (Wingard, 2017), Islam (Legenhausen, 2013), Leibniz (Borst, 1992)).
 Elsewhere, Paul ascribes Jews’ rejection of the gospel to their own self-hardening (e.g. Acts 28:27).
 The Great Tribulation (Fruchtenbaum, 2003).
 Although there is evidence of a wider application (Hornok, 2015).
 An idea easily refuted with Scripture (Ro 4:4-5), ironically.