The Limitations of Free Will

“Mankind has a free will; but it is free to milk cows and to build houses, nothing more.” ~Martin Luther

Contrary to Luther, I believe in free will. I always have. It’s possible, I guess, that I was designed to believe in free will, but I don’t think so. When Peter says, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness (2 Peter 1:3),” I believe him. I believe this means that God has given us what we need to make good choices, and the free will to make really stupid choices. For the most part, the quality of our lives are dependent upon our choices (and, of course, the choices of others).

Obviously, there are those who God has chosen for specific purposes, like Abraham, Jacob, John the Baptist, Paul, and so on. Oh, and the Jews. And, for that matter, us. But, within that destiny, we have a certain amount of choice (not that it did Jonah any good). While I believe (perhaps in vain) in free will, it is clear that the Bible also teaches that we are predestined. This tension has never bothered me; it merely indicates that either I don’t know enough, or that I actually do know enough [to recognize the tension].

Saved by what?

The question of free will becomes more important as we discuss salvation. Are we predestined to be saved, or does our salvation completely depend upon the rhetorical skills of an evangelist (with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course) and our decision to believe or not to believe?

Our reaction to this question often seems to come down to our inability to acknowledge that God might not have to ask us whether to save us or not—it’s not so much a theological issue so much as an emotional one. The mere concept of not having free will is offensive to our modern Western sensibilities.

Face it—no one asked you.

Last week I started thinking about this and realized something very key: no one ever asked me if I wanted to be born in the first place. This is my birth I’m talking about, and I had no input into it whatsoever. Nada. Not just where I’d be born or into what conditions I’d be born, but just being born. I didn’t even have a say about whether I was a boy or a girl. So, considering how little I had to say about my existence so far, how can I build any sort of argument at all that God should ask for my opinion concerning what happens next? (As Paul said, “what right does the clay have to talk back to the potter?”)

The Bible—Jesus himself, for that matter—says a lot of things about those who believe being saved. But then we also have Jesus statement in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” Our belief, it seems, is at best a response to what God is already doing; our free will—when it comes to salvation—may merely be “going along for the ride.”

I guess the logical conclusion is that when all is said and done, it doesn’t really matter whether I believe in free will or not; so far, God hasn’t asked my opinions about too many things.

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11 Responses to The Limitations of Free Will

  1. Ed Smith says:

    Imperative and indicative confusion has always been the enemy of synergists along with good theological training, logic, and rationality. Also, for the naturalists and Atheists as well. Do your homework don’t just spout nonsensical opinions. Start here,,, and and then you can speak.

  2. Everything has a cause, and free will is an illusion. We can make choices, but the choices are not spontaneous. Our decisions are a result of an amalgam of sources, and neurologists are finding more and more evidence to support the philosophical dispensation of Free Will. Like, Steve, I believed in free will until I understood what the philosophers are saying about it.

    Good link, Alden.

  3. I will restrain myself.

    Sin is a non-starter for me, but you provide no context of this verse to interpret your meaning.

    I can only say….what?

  4. Pingback: Alden Swan dot com - Turns out I might agree with Karl Barth, kind of

  5. Steve Martin says:

    We do have free will when it comes to making decisions…EXCEPT where God is concerned.

    There, are wills are bound. Bound to sin.

    John 1:13
    …who were born, not of blood, nor of the flesh, NOR OF THE WILL OF MAN, but of God.”

    Thanks, Alden!

  6. If you presuppose God, then your late friend’s atheism could not be held against him.

    Tom W. Clark has a saying that he modified for naturalists: There but for circumstance, go I.

    I think that you may presuppose God because of your background, your circumstances and the courses of your study which reinforces your belief in the power of faith. Considering your influences, we can forgive you for remaining a Christian despite all rational entreaties I have thrown your way.


  7. me says:

    While my discussion obviously presupposes a Christian worldview, you do raise an interesting point that has been made within Christian discussions of free will: Can our will ever be truly free, when we are obviously shaped by our environment and, yes, genetic factors?

    I am reminded of a late friend who became an atheist while literally losing his mind, in part due to a strange brain tumor. Does his loss of faith even count, considering he was largely irrational? Not, perhaps, when you consider John 10:29. (and yes, I do presuppose God)

  8. I don’t believe in Contra-Causal Free Will; because the will is the product of all that we have learned, studied, associated and our genetic predispositions. The choices we make are influenced by a cause that may be difficult to show but they are still caused.

    That’s the naturalist understanding on Free Will.

    I certainly don’t believe in predestination, which most people associate as the opposite of Free Will, and the sort of Free Will that Neil Peart was writing about.

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