A Beginner’s Guide to Free Will

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Free Will regards the ability to make choices — choices that were not necessitated and brought into reality by a proactive and eternal decree of God — choices that lead to belief systems resulting in actions or behavioral patterns. Every component of our being (opinions, feelings, behavior) begins in the mind corresponding with the soul. Free Will relates as much to the mind and the soul as it does to our respective worldviews and actions or reactions. Wesleyan Daniel D. Whedon comments: “The Intellect is that by which all things, material or immaterial, external or internal, moral or unethical, are cognized by the soul.”1 John Piper postpones the very basics regarding Free Will in his introduction to “A Beginner’s Guide to ‘Free Will’.” He relates Free Will to the fall and to sin without considering the nature of Free Will until half the article is written. I think this is strategic as he controls the narrative to promote a particular idea. In his follow-up article he grants us “Six Practical Reasons ‘Free Will’ Matters.”

Piper states, in his introduction, “As soon as Adam fell into sin, human nature was profoundly altered. Now man was not able not to sin. In the fall, human nature lost its freedom not to sin.” Fine, and we agree, but how can he commence an article regarding a Beginner’s Guide to Free Will and not inform his readers concerning the very nature of Free Will? I remain unconvinced, though, that the nature of Free Will is his main concern. He frames the matter in the truth that the Will, through sin, renders one unable to please God, and to believe in Christ, in order to promote the theory that regeneration must precede faith. That concept is, initially, what this article is defending. He notes our inability and writes:

This is the basic reason that the natural person cannot believe in Christ. Believing is not just affirming the truth of Jesus, but is also seeing the beauty and worth of Jesus, in such a way that we receive him as our supreme treasure . . . Where this wakening to the supreme glory and value of Jesus (called “new birth”) has not happened, the fallen human heart cannot believe in Jesus. That’s why Jesus said to those who opposed him, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44) In other words, you cannot believe in Jesus while you treasure human glory over his. For believing is just the opposite. Believing in Jesus means receiving him as supremely glorious and valuable (John 1:12).

There are so many glorious truths to which Piper speaks in this article. Arminians wholeheartedly sing his praises for defending the biblical truth of our inability to believe in Christ apart from an inner work of the Holy Spirit. All of his proffered proof-texts regarding our inability are zealously shared by the Arminian. Jacob Arminius himself insists that our fallen human nature renders Free Will not only “wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and . . . weakened; but it is also . . . imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.”2 Arminius also concedes that our fallen nature renders our mind and heart “dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God.”3 Piper agrees with Arminius.

We must, as Piper clearly writes, be enabled to see the beauty of Jesus Christ prior to believing in Christ for salvation because, according to Arminius, the affections of the heart have been negatively affected by the fall; so that the heart “hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil.”4 The end result is the “utter weakness of all the powers [of Free Will] to perform that which is truly good,”5 such as is trusting in Christ Jesus. Piper names this grace-action “a wakening” (also named the new birth, being born again, regeneration). Arminius also names this inward work of the Holy Spirit a necessary and sufficient enabling, illuminating, and awakening grace:

But far different from this [the inability of Free Will to trust in Christ] is . . . the consideration of the Free Will of man as constituted in the Third State of Renewed Righteousness [corresponding with faith in Christ by the grace of the Spirit]. For when a new light and knowledge of God and Christ, and of the Divine Will, have been kindled in his mind; and when new affections, inclinations and motions agreeing with the law of God, have been excited in his heart, and new powers have been . . . produced in him; it comes to pass, that, being liberated from the kingdom of darkness, and being now made “light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8), he understands the true and saving Good; that, after the hardness of his stony heart has been changed into the softness of flesh, and the law of God according to the covenant of grace has been inscribed on it (Jer. 31:32-35), he loves and embraces that which is good, just, and holy — and that, being made . . . capable in Christ, co-operating now with [the intent of] God he prosecutes the Good which he knows and loves, and he begins himself to perform it in deed: But this, whatever it may be of knowledge, holiness and power, is all begotten within him by the Holy Spirit.6

This work of the Spirit, as outlined by Arminius, is named Prevenient Grace by Arminians and Wesleyans. The above-quoted material regarding the gracious inner-working of the Holy Spirit is not regeneration proper, whereby the new birth is effected and the individual then believes in Christ, but an inner work of enabling grace by the Holy Spirit that occurs prior to our grace-induced faith in Christ. Arminius notes that this awakening and illuminating work is “not completed in one moment; but that it is advanced and promoted, from . . . time to time, by daily increase.”7 He also explicitly states elsewhere: “Besides, even true and living faith in Christ precedes regeneration strictly taken, and consisting of the mortification or death of the old man, and the vivification [regeneration proper] of the new man; as Calvin has, in the same passage of his Institutes, openly declared, and in a manner which agrees with the Scriptures and the nature of faith.”8 No, Calvin did not teach that regeneration must precede faith, as do neo-Calvinists.

Arminius, Wesley, and Arminians are a mere hair’s breadth from complete agreement with the Calvinistic doctrine of Total Depravity and Total Inability — the difference being the solution to the truths of depravity and inability and that an individual may, for whatever reason(s), resist the gracious inner working of the Holy Spirit. After all, the Spirit of God is working with human beings, and not inanimate objects like machines. God the Father concedes that the Holy Spirit will not always strive with mankind (Gen. 6:3) as He convicts men and women regarding sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11).

What is most significant concerning Piper’s article is that he admits that a popular definition of Free Will, the one I outlined above, actually exists “both in fallen and redeemed human beings. For what the fall brought about was not that we cease to be authentic preferring and choosing persons, but that our rebelliousness inclines us to prefer and choose badly.” Again, we agree with Piper, and argue that what an individual needs, in order to believe in Christ, is not regeneration but an enabling grace. After all, as even R.C. Sproul himself confesses, faith is “something we do. God does not do the believing for us.”9 Neither can we believe on our powers of Free Will — a charge erroneously leveled against Arminians.

Piper then proffers a “biblical” definition of Free Will: “The human will is free when it is not in bondage to prefer and choose irrationally. It is free when it is liberated from preferring what is infinitely less preferable than God, and from choosing what will lead to destruction. The opposite of this view would be that such irrational preferences and suicidal choices should be called ‘freedom.'” He offers John 8:32 and Romans 6:17-18 as proof-texts for this “biblical” definition. However, I fail to see a stark difference between the so-called popular view, and that of the so-called biblical view. Even our bad choices are our own — we freely choose to render a bad choice when we were not necessitated to said choice by any external mode, such as a decree of God, or an influence of Satan or of sinners.

But Piper has backed us into a corner. He has already noted that, due to our fallen nature, we are not able not to sin. He then deems “biblical” a notion that Free Will is contextualized as freedom from “bondage to prefer and choose irrationally.” What of our choices, then? He concedes that we make choices. How do we make choices? Freely? Rationally or Irrationally? Did not God command Isaiah to reason with Him (Isa. 1:18)? Piper, from my perspective, seems to imply that every notion conceivable in which we exist, even in a renewed state, is sinful. But that is directly contrary to Jesus’ teaching (Matt. 7:11). Though people are depraved and sinful and wicked; though even regenerate believers can, through remaining sin, think irrationally; all people know how to do good, and actually often do good, to others. Free Will, then, need not be strictly framed as “freedom from bondage to prefer and choose irrationally” in order to be truly free in the sense that a person renders his own decisions. Piper’s view, then, is deemed hyper rather than biblical. After all, Arminians and Calvinists hold to Total Depravity, not Utter Depravity.

He then offers a technical definition: “We have free will if we are ultimately or decisively self-determining, and the only preferences and choices that we can be held accountable for are ones that are ultimately or decisively self-determined.” Arminians tenaciously defend this understanding but with one two-fold caveat: with regard to faith in Christ, or realities of a spiritual nature, the Spirit of God must incite within us every motion toward the spiritual. We can, in and of ourselves, accomplish no spiritual good, including faith in Christ, and pleasing God in an ultimate sense. Moreover, this also includes the notion of self-determination: since God is the one who sustains our very being (Acts 17:28; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3), whatever is thought or said or done by us is accomplished within the framework of His sovereignty, and God’s concurrence. We are not automatons. But Piper, here, destroys Free Will.

Upon his understanding, God is the only one in the universe who has ultimate Free Will, since He is the determiner of all reality. He writes: “On this definition, no human being has free will, at any time. Neither before or after the fall, or in heaven, are creatures ultimately self-determining.” Again, we can agree as far as self-determining is concerned, but who determines what we think, say, and do? In the Arminian view, God sovereignly permits or allows us a relative degree of Free Will, to determine what we think and say and do. In Piper’s view, as in the Calvinistic view, the culmination on this matter of Free Will, and why Piper wrote this Beginner’s Guide, is to promote, as biblical, the philosophical and unbiblical notion that God determined from eternity past what we think and say and do but that we are ultimately responsible for what God determined from eternity past that we think and say and do.

That is the crux of his message — that is what he wanted to convey — that only God, ultimately, has Free Will, that we do not have Free Will, and that whatever happens in and among mankind manifests due to God’s eternally-decreed and necessitated determination. Is this view biblical? We think not, and we believe that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Hosea betray Piper’s understanding of both Free Will and God’s sovereignty. In the Calvinistic view, we wonder why God would demand that people choose whom they would serve (Joshua 24:14, 15), if God has ultimately predetermined whom they would “choose” to serve. Moreover, we wonder how we can maintain any semblance of genuine meaning in word-choice (no pun intended), when God foreordained and necessitated what a person will, by strict decree, choose to choose. In such a case, the person did not choose for himself, but chose the choice already predetermined for him by God. This is not biblical exegesis but philosophical madness.

We believe, with Scripture and with Arminius, that God “enjoys His own perfection, that [the perfection of God] is fully known by His understanding and [is] supremely loved by His will, with … a delightful satisfaction in it.”10 (cf. Ps. 16:11; Eph. 1:11) We believe that “whatever God does or says, He does or says it according to His own eternal decree,”11 and we believe whatever God decrees is good, just, and holy. This is not a denial of the fact that God has decreed the future in some sense, though. “God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do.”12 According to His exhaustive knowledge of future events, including the people living during future events, God is able to ordain or decree such events as the cross of Christ without the suggestion that God decreed and strong-armed for people to betray Christ, and hand Him over to be crucified, by the controlling, decretal hand of God (Acts 2:23; 4:27; cf. Rev. 17:17). Wicked people with wicked intentions freely acted according to the foreknowledge of God, which event was planned by God, and led to the crucifixion of our Savior.

So we see that God is completely sovereign over the Free Will of His fallen creatures to the degree of genuinely allowing someone to act contrary to His wishes, commands, or will. (cf. Isa. 1:2; 30:1, 2, 3, 9, 12, 13; Jer. 2:5-9; Ezek. 2:3-5; 16:59) God really hates sin (cf. Ps. 97:10; Prov. 6:16-19), even the sins of the elect disciples of Christ,13 and has in no sense rendered certain beforehand that anyone commit a specific sin. Yet, no one commits any act, even sin, without the sovereign, concurrent hand of God. He is intimately familiar with every minutiae of our lives without having either decreed our responses to life-events or controlling us to respond in any given fashion. His justice and our depravity properly frame the problem of sin and evil. He is blameless and we are guilty. He is gracious and we are in desperate need of that grace. God is as involved in our lives as He need be without suggesting that He has rendered certain what we think, say, and do. This, we believe, is the biblical way to live and to think about Free Will.

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1 Daniel D. Whedon, Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 3.

2 Jacob Arminius, “Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:192.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 2:193.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 2:194-95.

7 Ibid., 2:195.

8 Ibid., 2:498.

9 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 25.

10 Arminius, 2:354.

11 Ibid., 2:350.

12 Ibid., 2:235.

13 Ibid. 2:725. “God truly hates the sins of the regenerate and of the elect of God, and indeed so much the more as those who thus sin have received more benefits from God and a greater power of resisting sin.”