Is “Free Will” Really THAT Mysterious?

The question of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, in all fairness, is the one mysterious reconciliation in the discipline of theology. Both Calvinists and Classical/Reformed Arminians (a specific sect of Arminians who hold to the teachings of Jacobus Arminius) affirm the doctrine of total depravity. Yet, there are large disagreements regarding this issue of sovereignty and responsibility. Thus, the mysterious nature of sovereignty and responsibility holds both sides of the theological spectrum in conundrum, I believe.

Conundrum?

What do I mean by conundrum?

You see, theology is not always black and white. In fact, many times theology is more about clarity than “absolute certainty.” Let me explain.

There are always exceptions to this rule. For instance, I am 100% certain that God is Trinitarian and exists as one Being in three Persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. I am 100% certain that Jesus Christ was “God in flesh” (John 1:14), and was 100% God and 100% man in one person. I am 100% certain that the only way to receive salvation from an eternal Hell is to repent of your sins and place your faith in Jesus Christ as your substitute and the bearer of your punishment on the cross.

However, there is not 100% certainty in every single doctrine and belief we have. For example, I believe that the millennial reign of Christ is happening right now between the first and second advent of Christ. But, I could be wrong. I acknowledge that I could be wrong about what it means to come into a state of grace. Though I am convinced of the logic and consistency of my beliefs, I am not too proud to admit that I could be wrong.

So, when we speak of things that are certain, we must do so with a cautious heart and mind. Some beliefs simply cannot be certain in this life, for we are beings with limited knowledge and finite minds. Paul shows us this in his first letter to the Corinthians saying we “see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Paul shows us the eschatological nature of the discipline of theology. It is not until the glorification of our person will we “know fully,” or as other translations portray it, we will “see clearly.”

If some doctrines are not as clear as others, then there must be some sort of a mysterious nature within the discipline of theology. For instance, there are some mysteries about the Trinity that not even the most astute theologians can understand because of our human limitations.

So it is with the question of sovereignty and responsibility. However, I do not believe there is as much mystery with sovereignty and responsibility as many Calvinists accredit the issue. Yet, all of us, as students of Holy Scripture, wonder: How can man be totally depraved (dead in trespasses and sins [Eph. 2:1]) and yet respond to the drawing power of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 6:44)?

God’s Sovereignty

First, we must mention God’s sovereign reign and rule in and over the world from eternity past to eternity future. I am thoroughly convinced God has been sovereignly reigning over all things (created and uncreated) from eternity past, and, thus, will continue to reign for the rest of eternity future. The apostle John wrote to explain the Trinitarian Godhead existing from before time was ever existent in John 1 (John 1:1; 13,14), proving to his readers that the Triune God was, is, and always will be. So, the sovereignty of God is not a doctrine which can be compromised within Christian circles – God is either sovereign or He is not.

Yet, an important concept to remember is that God’s sovereignty can be disagreed upon in the ways in which He enacts it. For example, it would have been altogether justifiable for God to wipe out Adam and Eve after they disregarded His command in the Garden of Eden to never eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, in grace, He did not do such a thing. In accordance with His sovereignty, God could have punished Adam and Eve by death and not compromised His God-ness. Thus, God’s sovereignty is more than just a balance act.

Second, God’s sovereignty does not mean we are mechanically operated beings. Suffice it to say, God’s sovereignty is not contingent upon every single action taken by human beings. No, God has left these choices up to us in accordance with our wills. In his work, Free Will Revisited, Robert Picirilli asserts that saying we have a will is not the same as saying we have a body. This, of course, means that we should not be concerned with whether or not we have a will. Instead, we should understand that all human beings have wills and describing them as “free” says something about how it functions.[1]

You see, machines do not operate by demonstrating what they intend to do or by making their own decisions. It is impossible for a machine to make its own decisions. All machines have operators of some sort. So, a human being must be different. Relating this to God’s sovereignty simply means that God’s sovereignty is not the determining factor of every choice made by every human being. Instead, God’s sovereignty is made manifest in the outcome of what actually happens. This is Picirilli’s intent when he writes, “The future, however certain, is not closed until it occurs.”[2]

Third, God’s sovereignty is foreknowing and not (necessarily) determinative. That God knows all future happenings does not mean human beings are restricted to make only the decisions which God determines. Instead, God’s omniscience facilitates His foreknowledge of all future events before they happen. Forlines calls this influence and response rather than cause and effect. In other words, Forlines says that the way a hammer causes a nail to be driven into a piece of wood is not the same as a person being influenced by the Spirit of God.[3] The nail had no choice in the matter. However, human beings are not inanimate objects – we are thinking, feeling, and acting beings – we have wills.

Freedom

So, because God’s sovereignty is eternal but is not manifested through machine-like creatures, and because God’s sovereignty is foreknowing rather than determinative, we can conclude that having a free will deals with how one’s will is expressed rather than the simple reality of having a will altogether. Human freedom means one chooses how they will act. Picirilli asserts that there is no freedom without choices.[4] In other words, God’s omniscience demands His knowledge of the future, yet, it does not demand that He determine the choices of those whom He created.

Conclusion

Therefore, I believe it is necessary to understand human freedom through the lens of the choices we make. Of course, this does not manifest itself saying God knows not the future, nor does it mean that our wills are not bent toward sin (another issue altogether). Instead, this simply means that our choices, though foreknown by God, are just that – our choices. They are not programmed into our person, but instead are given to our minds, hearts, and wills – the totality of our personhood.

The mystery is not whether humanity has been given a will free to make choices. The mystery is the why. Why would God give grace and allow us to choose him over ourselves?

Thanks be to God for grace!


[1] Robert E. Picirilli. Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017), 3.

[2] Robert E. Picirilli. Grace, Faith, and Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 62.

[3] F. Leroy Forlines. The Quest for Truth: Theology for Postmodern Times (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 15.

[4] Picirilli, Free Will Revisited, 4.

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