If I was asked to make a list of the 10 most loaded questions to ask in church, this one would be on that list. It might even be near the top! I encourage you to read this entire article to see my answer to the question of man’s free will. I’ll refrain from giving my short answer to the question until the end.
When seeking to answer a question, especially this one concerning man’s free will, one should be clear concerning the meaning of the words. The will of man is the faculty of the mind by which choices or decisions concerning a course of action are made. The word free means unencumbered, not enslaved, or not controlled by obligation.
So, substituting the meaning of the words, the question can be rephrased in this way, “Do we have an unencumbered mental faculty by which we are able to make choices?” Still every person that answers this question will give a response based upon their own opinion.
Therefore, since everyone has an opinion, we ought to seek the one opinion that matters. In other words, what has God said, if anything, concerning the issue of man’s will?
Let’s begin at the beginning regarding man’s will. After God made Adam, he said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
We know what happened. Adam and the woman, later named Eve, ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. At the end of Chapter three of Genesis, we read that God “placed the cherubim (mighty angels) and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:22-24) God ensured that no man would be able to eat of the tree of life and live forever.
We next look at God’s destruction of the earth by the universal flood. He surveyed all mankind and declared “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) Further, the prophet Jeremiah spoke God’s words. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) The New Testament has continuity with the Old Testament. Men have not changed. The Apostle Paul wrote, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10-11)
God said that man’s will is in bondage; it is not unencumbered. Yes, we will do whatever we desire. One of the greatest, possibly the greatest American Theologian, Jonathan Edwards, wrote a book entitled, “The Freedom of the Will.” The basic premise of his book is that men do whatever they want to do. The problem is that before God regenerates a man or woman, the only thing that they desire and thereby do is sin.
The reality revealed by the word of God is, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us ... While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son ...” (Romans 5:8, 10) Man’s will is in bondage to sin! Jesus said that “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
All this may strike you as just some philosophical rambling, but this truth is much more. Understanding our human nature is essential if we are ever to know the depth of God’s grace.
So, what are we to make of the question? Do we have free will? Even in a purely physical sense, we are limited. No one can honestly claim that he can do whatever he wants without consequences. We all live with restrictions. For example, if you’re pulled over for driving above the speed limit, try telling the officer that you are free to do whatever you want.
Applying similar prideful logic in opposition to what God has said, tell Him that you’re free to choose him or not. Tell him that you did not inherit Adam’s sin. Tell him that your will is not in bondage to sin; that you are able to take and eat of the tree of life and live forever!
We are free to do whatever we desire. Yet, God must give us a new heart for us to desire him.
The Rev. Lou Tiscione is the pastor of Weatherford Presbyterian Church.