Christianity describes a God who sovereignly calls believers to repentance. Does this mean humans are mere puppets under the direction of an all-powerful Being who controls all decisions and dictates the final outcome? Does the Christian God allow humans any freedom to choose for themselves? The relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will has been a topic of hot debate for two millennia; I doubt that I’ll be able to solve it in a blog post. But I do think the definition of free will lies at the root of the confusion and apparent dilemma.
Most of us would like to think that we are free to make any choice possible in any given situation, but if you think about it, that’s really not the case. Even the choices you thought you were free to make were limited by your pre-existing nature (your inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes). Have you ever cleaned out your closet and discarded an ugly shirt, tie or dress that was given to you as a gift? Why did you throw it away? You discarded it because it was taking up space. Every day, as you decided what to wear, you were free to choose that article of clothing, but you never did. Your nature (in this case, your taste in clothing) restrained your choice. In order to understand what the Bible teaches about “free will”, we need to distinguish between two concepts of freedom:
“Libertarian” Free Will:
This view of free will maintains that humans have the ability to choose anything, even when this choice might be contrary to our nature (our inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes). We might call this “Unfettered Free Will”.
“Compatibilist” Free Will:
This view of free will maintains that humans have the ability to choose something, but this ability is restrained by our pre-existing nature (our inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes). We might call this “Self-Fettered Free Will”.
Our practical experience tells us that we don’t make choices that are completely unfettered (unrestrained) by our nature. There is a local Volkswagen dealership in our area that specializes in manufacturing pink Beetle convertibles. That’s right: Pink. They make them one at a time and sell dozens each year, all to young women, according to the sales manager. I can honestly say that I would never purchase that car, and if I was given one, I would sell it. While I clearly have the freedom to purchase it, my nature (my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes) prevents me from doing so. While I consistently choose what I want freely, I would never freely chose the pink Beetle. My will is “self-fettered”. I bet you’re just like me. Many of us would never choose to order an anchovy pizza. Many of us would never choose to cut our hair in a “mullet” hairstyle. Our natures (our inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes) restrain us.
The Bible recognizes God’s sovereignty and man’s “fallen” nature (our inclination toward rebellion and the denial of God’s existence). We see descriptions of this reality in Jeremiah 13:23, Mark 7:21-22, Romans 3:9-12, and Romans 8:6-8. The Bible also teaches, however, that humans have the freedom and ability to choose the things of God, including the salvation offered through Jesus Christ. This ability to choose is described in passages like Joshua 24:15, John 7:17, and John 7:37-39. So, how do we, as fallen humans inclined to deny God, have the ability to choose God? Well it appears that God (in His sovereignty) works at the level of our nature rather than at the level of our choices. God changes our hearts first, so we have the freedom to choose something we would never have chosen before (because our nature prevented us from doing so). You and I then have the freedom to choose within our new nature, and we are, of course, responsible for those choices.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.