Free Will in the Bible
Scripture portrays humans as having minds and wills of their own. They are, in a real (though limited) sense, creators of their own behavior and determiners of their own destinies—whether this behavior and destiny is in line with God’s will or not. This fundamental assumption is demonstrated in a variety of ways throughout Scripture. It is clearly expressed in Deuteronomy when Yahweh tells the children of Israel:
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away…See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…. (Deut. 30:11–19)
Whether the children of Israel are blessed or cursed depends on what they choose to do. God set before them the possibilities of life and death, but they decide which possibilities they shall actualize.
Beginning in the Garden of Eden in which God creates Adam and Eve with the ability to obey or disobey him, and continuing on throughout the Bible through the New Testament where life and death are portrayed as depending on peoples’ acceptance or rejection of the Savior, the Bible portrays people as generating their own activity and creating their own destinies by the decisions they make. God’s will is unequivocally for all to choose to obey him: to choose life and not death. But, sadly, many freely reject God to their own destruction.
Scripture generally portrays free creatures as the final explanations of their own behavior, and thus as morally responsible for their own behavior. When it describes any given person making this or that decision or performing this or that action, Scripture assumes that the decision or behavior has thereby been wholly accounted for.
The Bible often expresses this free center of the human self by referring to the “heart.” Jesus says the heart is like a tree: it brings forth good or evil fruit according to its nature (Luke 6:43–44). Thus, he continues, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart” (Luke 6:45). No further explanation for the fruit is necessary. Jesus teaches that “out of the heart” all “evil thoughts,” as well as “murder, adultery, [and] sexual immorality” come (Matt. 15:19). The final explanation for human behavior is to be found in this self-determining center of the human self.
Along the same lines, Solomon is said to have done “evil in the eyes of the Lord” because “his heart had turned away from the Lord…” (1 Kings 11:6, 9). So too, King Rehoboam “did evil because he had not set his heart on seeking the Lord” (2 Chron. 12:14). Similarly, the ultimate reason Zedekiah “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” and “did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet” was because he became “stiff-necked and hardened his heart and would not turn to the Lord…” (2 Chron. 36:12–13). And the reason Jerusalem had degenerated to such a low moral point during the time of Jeremiah, according to the Bible, was because God’s people had “stubborn and rebellious hearts” and had “turned aside and gone away” from the Lord (Jer. 5:23). Hence the Lord asks them, “How long shall your evil schemes lodge within you?” and beckons them to “[W]ash the evil from your heart and be saved” (Jer. 4:14).
The Bible is as clear as it could be in teaching that humans have the capacity to thwart God’s will, at least to some degree. Luke reports that, “by refusing to be baptized by [John], the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (Luke 7:30, emphasis added). How could Scripture be more explicit than that? So too, in Isaiah the Lord says, “Oh, rebellious children…who carry out a plan, but not mine; who make an alliance, but against my will, adding sin to sin” (Is. 30:1). Again, how could Scripture get any clearer than that?
Image by Tony Webster via Flickr.