What is the biblical basis for “free will”?
Question: Much of your theology depends on a supposed ability humans have to thwart God’s will by our free choices. But what is the biblical basis for your conclusion that people have “freedom”—at least “freedom” in the sense that we can decide to go along with or thwart God’s will for our lives?
Answer: 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. Creating creatures with wills of their own is risky, even for God (For more on this theme see John Sanders’ The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence).
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. In contrast to the traditional blueprint view, in other words, it is not generally assumed that there is, above and beyond this, a supreme divine plan that the deciding agent was secretly following.
There are exceptions to this in Scripture, to be sure, and we shall consider them below. But the exceptions prove the rule. Free agents do not follow a prescripted story line. While God oversees the overall flow of world history, the story line of biblical history is in varying degrees authored by each of the participating characters.
Self-determination and the heart
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?
The God who doesn’t always get his way
The Bible assumes that people made in the image of the free Creator are capable of freely creating on their own. This is at least part of what Scripture means when it says that humans are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). We reflect God’s self-determination. We think, act and determine our destinies out of our “heart.” The Lord sets before us the possibilities of our lives, including the possibility of life or death. But we freely actualize whatever possibilities our “heart” desires.
That Scripture is not depicting a “soft determinist,” “compatibilistic,” understanding of freedom is clear from the fact that humans often use their freedom in ways that directly contradict the Lord’s will. People are not puppets that God secretly controls, but free agents who possess significant control of their own lives, and can either cooperate with, or resist, the will of their sovereign Creator.
This contradicts the classical notion that everything in history reflects God’s sovereign will. History rather frequently reflects the will of creatures who oppose the sovereign will of the Creator. The Bible clearly teaches that God unequivocally does not will sin. But obviously sin still occurs. Similarly, the Bible explicitly states that it is not God’s will that any person would perish (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9). But many nevertheless do perish. Hence, it is clear that God’s will is not always accomplished, and God’s heart is frequently grieved.
Only in this light does Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem make any sense:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matt. 23:37)
The heart of God, clearly, is a heart which grants freedom, and which sometimes suffers profoundly because of it. In the case of Matthew 23:37, what the Son of God longed for the Son of God didn’t get! The fact that most theologians in the classical tradition found it necessary to attribute this lament not to the heart of the eternal God but only to the humanity of Christ simply testifies to the strength with which a non-biblical philosophical concept of God (viz. God’s impassability) has held biblical exegesis hostage.
The cosmos as a society of free wills
In any event, it is clear that the worldview of Scripture, unlike the Hellenistic philosophical blueprint worldview, does not permit the assumption that the present contingent reality (including sin and evil) can ultimately be explained by referring to a single divine will or mind. While the world as a whole has been created by God, the world as it is at any given moment is the result not only of God’s will, but also the willing of many other creatures who possess the God-given ability to freely determine themselves, and thus to some extent determine the flow of world history. The final explanation for “the way things are” does not rest in one omni-controlling dictatorial will, but in the myriad of wills of this society of free creatures.