I do not believe the concept of Libertarian Free Will has any philosophical or theological coherence. My purpose in this article is to lay out the contrast between Libertarian Free Will and the Biblical view often referred to as Compatibilist Free Will.
I want to ensure, especially when discussing this particular topic, that the terms I use are well defined up front. This will hopefully prevent the reader from falling into the danger of assuming his own definitions and therefore miss the impact of what is being said or develop a misconception of what is being communicated. Human beings, due to their fallen state (1 Corinthians 2:14, Romans 8:7-8), will invariably bring their own assumptions of their own abilities to a discussion of the will and therefore already have preconceived notions of what it means to “will” something. Clearly defining these terms as used in this article will hopefully allow me to more quickly get to the root of the issues addressed and the reader gains more benefit.
When I am using the term “will” as a noun I mean “the power of choice” when I use “will” as a verb as “to will something” my definition is “to make a choice“. The term Libertarian Free Will used here is sometimes also referred to as contra-causal freedom, or an autonomous free will. I will be addressing this concept with the acronym LFW and the Compatibilist view as CFW through the remainder of the article.
Now that may not be enough yet for all of the audience to understand what is being addressed so I will further define the LFW position. The LFW position is that the “will of man” is self-determined, the will is indifferent to any presented choices, not predisposed in any particular direction and determines it’s own choices. The the will is not determined by anything external to it. The LFW proponent presupposes that if the will is determined by anything outside of itself it is no longer “free”. Anyone that holds to LFW, will say that if any choices are necessary by either the nature of a person or God’s determination (i.e. anything external to the will) then the individual is not actually “free” and therefore not responsible for their choices. They presuppose that if any choice is necessary outside of the self determination of the will then it is not worthy of praise or condemnation. I will attempt to show that the LFW position is not tenable from a Biblical perspective or a logical one.
To ensure everyone understands the CFW perspective that I hold to, I will briefly outline my position. My position is that the will is free to make choices without external coercion or force. In this sense the will is free. The will makes choices determined by the greatest motivation or desire at the moment of choosing. Our greatest desire is determined by our nature and our nature as fallen sons or daughters of Adam is determined by God (Psalm 33:15). We are free to choose according to our desires.
From a Biblical perspective, the Scripture is clear on two counts. The first is that God is Sovereign, He declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), accomplishes all His purposes and frustrates the plans of the people (Psalm 33:9-15). Scripture tells us that God turns the heart of the King wherever He wills (Proverbs 21:1) and that God establishes the steps of man (Proverbs 16:9). David declares that all his days have been written and ordained by God (Psalm 139:16). God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28) and He works all things after the council of his will (Ephesians 1:11).
Another Biblical position is that man has a fallen nature. The Scripture is replete with references to man’s inability, things man “cannot” do by his very nature. Those in the flesh cannot please God, they are not able to do so (Romans 8:7-8). No one can come to Jesus unless drawn by the Father (John 6:44). The wicked hate the light and do not come to the light (John 3:20), the flesh is no help at all in salvation (John 6:63), those accustomed to doing evil cannot do good any more than a leopard can change his spots (Jeremiah 13:23), the natural man cannot accept the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14) and cannot do good (Romans 3:10-12). Scripture says we are all by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1). John 8:34-36 says that man is a slave to sin and to be free the Son must set us free. If a man is a slave to sin then his will is not free.
Scripture is clear that God is not the author of evil (James 1:13, 1 Corinthians 14:33). Evil is the intention in the heart of the one performing the action. Two different acting agents can have different intentions for the same action. A undercover federal agent can work with a terrorist to perform the same action, say set up a bomb, the agent’s intention is good, to bring justice, and the terrorist’s intention is evil, to murder and bring mayhem. The Scripture gives repeated examples where God intends the same action for good as the human agent intends for evil, Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 50:20), Assyrian King (Isaiah 10:5-7), crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23). If the omnisapient (all wise) and omnipotent (all powerful) God of the Bible can use the evil intentions and desires of man in these particular circumstances to bring about His good purposes then He most assuredly has the power and wisdom to bring about His good purposes with the evil desires of man in all circumstances (Ephesians 1:11).
God’s permission of sin is not ethical or moral it is simply His physical permission of it’s occurrence due to His sovereign governing of the Universe. In His permission of the sin to occur he does not approve of it as lawful or just. He is allowing and permitting a free will creature what he would do by his nature in a particular circumstance. This permission of sin is active not passive, in other words he wills not to hinder the sin instead of not willing to hinder the sin. In another way God is not simply passively observing the sin and determining not to do something, no instead he determines to not hinder what the sinner by nature will desire to do in a particular circumstance.
Now let’s address LFW. LFW proponents assume that if anything is done by any necessity outside of the will itself it is not worthy of praise or condemnation nor is it actually “free”. For anyone that has any high view of the inspiration of Scripture this will collapse quickly if a moment is taken to ponder on this implication. Was the self giving and sacrificing of Jesus prophesied in the Old Testament? Is God’s Word sure, true and anything that it prophesies necessarily going to come to pass? If the answer to this is “yes”, then was the will of Christ free and is the work of Christ worthy of praise even though it was entirely necessary that the choices Christ made be in fact made?
Were the writers of Scripture free in a LFW sense in their act of writing Scripture? Are they worthy of our praise even though their actions of writing Scripture and prophesying were determined by God the Holy Spirit outside of their own will?
The LFW proponent assumes a disconnect between the nature and will, however every Christian believes that God cannot lie, that He cannot sin by His very nature. Is God free in His choices, does He have a LFW since his very nature necessitates the choices He can make? Is God worthy of our praise and adoration for the good choices he has made on our behalf as His children even though these choices are necessary by His very nature?
Will the saints of God who are sealed in righteousness for eternity in the new heaven and earth have the capacity or ability to sin? Will believers no longer have a “free will” if we assume a libertarian view of the will?
We also must distinguish between our Creator’s will and our will, a creaturely will. While God’s will is bound to His nature in the same way that our will is bound to our nature, God’s willing or choosing is not determined or hindered by anything outside of His nature. God in this sense is autonomous however we as creatures whether Adam (man in his innocence) or fallen man are not nor ever have been nor ever will be autonomous in that sense. Our will as God’s is linked to our nature, but even those choices we can make consistent with our nature can be limited by the will of God, the will of others and natural barriers. While I have the natural capacity to walk, and I have a nature that allows me to choose to walk, I cannot walk through a wall. I may have the natural ability to choose to walk out of the National Museum of Natural History with the Hope Diamond however I would be hindered by the wills of some very determined security guards. God has none of these limitations to His power of willing (Isaiah 43:13).
If the LFW position is that the will of fallen man is completely indifferent between choices that are pleasing to God (good) and not pleasing to God (evil) (in other words… man has the equal capacity to choose good as well as evil) then he has in effect completely denied the Christian doctrine of original sin and has fully embraced the heretical Pelagian view. If he admits that man has any inclination at all toward sin (evil) instead of good, and man was born with this inclination, without his own consent or choice, and because of this unchosen inclination he by necessity makes sinful choices, how is he culpable for these choices if we accept the LFW presuppositions that we cannot be held responsible for choices that are necessary?
All of us as humans understand and expect the law of causality. If we see any object in motion, order or design, we assume a cause. This is the law of identity applied to actions. Cause and effect. When we see a rock flying through the air we assume something caused it, we do not conclude it is it’s own cause. When the Christian LFW proponent objects to atheists asserting that the universe created itself because an effect cannot be its own cause, he has in effect refuted his own position on the will. If a LFW proponent is asked to explain what determines a particular choice he will have to say the will, but if the will is the power of choosing and to will is to choose, then he is saying a choice determines a choice. If he asserts that a prior choice determines every choice then the prior choice to the choice requires a choice and we have an infinite regress. When he asserts that there is a cause outside of the will that determines the first choice in the train of choices then the will is not free in a libertarian sense as it’s first choice was determined and all successive choices follow from that first determination. If he attempts to escape these two implications by stating that a particular choice determines itself he falls into a violation of the law of causality by having an effect be it’s own cause.
To assert that the will is entirely self-determined and has the ability of first cause choice is to attribute to the will of man an incommunicable attribute of God. God alone has aseity. Aseity means that God is not contingent or dependant upon anything outside of himself for his existence. Man however is entirely dependant upon God for his existence. Man does not have aseity, but if one asserts that the will of man is entirely self-determined and it’s choosing is in no way dependent or contingent on God then he is asserting that man’s will has aseity which is frankly absurd and idolatrous.
Scripture also clearly asserts that salvation itself is not caused by the will of man. This eliminates LFW in respect to salvation. John 1:12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. Romans 9:16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 1 Peter 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (Emphasis added)
When it comes to the omniscience of God the only consistent position for the Christian LFW proponent, is to deny it and collapse to the heresy of Open Theism (The belief God does not know the future). Here is the argument, if God perfectly knows what a person will do before he does it, than that person is not free to do other than what God knows. This invalidates the concept of LFW before it even gets off of the ground. The LFW proponent will usually respond that God simply observed what people would do because He is timeless. This concludes however that God learned something, if God learned something at some point then he is not omniscient or at least “was” not omniscient at some point. They will usually reject that God learned but when asked how does God know they will by necessity have to beg the question. The only response is “well God knows because He is omniscient”, however this response is to say God knows because He knows all things. This is obviously circular and begging the question.
As a Christian who holds to CFW when I am faced with the question of God’s omniscience, I conclude that we do not have the capacity as creatures to choose other than what God knows we will choose but just because we are not free in this sense does not mean we are not free in any other sense. It is the fallacy of hasty generalization to say that just because something cannot be done in one sense that it is impossible in all other senses. For example in one sense a man could not make it from the east to the west coast of the United States in 24 hours with just his legs however if the other sense is him getting on a jet and flying to the other coast then yes he could. We cannot choose differently than God’s knowledge but we could have chosen differently had our desires been different at the moment of our choice. In this sense we could do otherwise. This places the responsibility of our choice in our own person and nature. This is also why the Scriptures repeatedly states that we require the Grace of God to change our nature and person so that we will have the desires to do that which is pleasing to God (John 3:3, Ezekiel 36:26-27, 1 John 3:9, 1 John 5:1).
Some make the assertion that the Biblical view of CFW is the same as atheistic naturalistic determinism. This is a major category error. Naturalistic determinism means that what will happen is determined by natural random unguided processes and we have no freedom in any sense in the matter. That is fatalism. In this system there are no guided means to any end because there is no person guiding anything. Biblical determinism is that a personal God supernaturally and according to his purposes ordains the ends as well as the means to those ends. When God ordains the salvation of His elect, he also ordains the means to bring about that salvation, the prayers of Christians, the preaching or sharing of the Gospel, the transmission of the text of Scripture, etc. The sovereign decree of God does not eliminate our responsibilities, in fact it establishes them. God does not save someone who has not heard the Gospel and does not believe. He ordains that person to hear the Gospel and believe it so we preach the Gospel and believe it.
As Christians, God has caused us to be born again (1 Peter 1:3) and because of this new birth we have a new nature. God has not left us in the flesh without the desires to overcome any temptation but has given us a new nature that can now have desires to overcome any temptation that is common to man (1 Corinthians 10:13). God is faithful and always provides a way of escape with any temptation and if we have a righteous desire of our new nature at the moment of temptation then we will take the way of escape. We are free in the sense that we do choose according to our desires. God has given to each a measure of grace and faith (Romans 12:3), He is at work conforming us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29-30) and working in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). This is the process of sanctification.
When man was created in the garden he was “able to sin and able to not sin” (Latin: posse peccare et posse non peccare). After the fall man’s nature was such that he was “not able to not sin” (Latin: non posse non peccare). Once a person has been born again by the power of God (Ephesians 2:1-10) he now has a new ability, he is “able to not sin” (Latin: posse non peccare). Once the believer has been glorified (Romans 8:30) and sealed in righteousness in heaven (Revelation 21:4, Revelation 22:3) then he will be “not able to sin” (Latin: non posse peccare). These are the states of the nature of man from Creation to Consummation.
Christian’s who hold to the concept of LFW end up with very defective views of depravity, regeneration and sanctification. In this system fallen man has the capacity of LFW choice before regeneration therefore he has the capacity to be pleasing to God before he has been given a new nature. This results in his new nature not giving him a capacity to be pleasing to God that he did not have prior to regeneration. Now the LFW proponent may simply argue that it is different in degree after regeneration as compared to prior but this collapses as well, since our choices are not determined by the desires of our nature then the new nature has no real impact on our choices. We are just as “free” before regeneration as afterwards. This leads to the view of carnal Christianity where a person who has been “regenerated” does not need to exhibit the fruits of his regeneration (Matthew 7:16). A person can have their salvation ticket punched at some point because they said some prayer and even though they show no fruit of regeneration they are still saved.
In conclusion, I do not believe that the concept of LFW is Biblically or philosophically coherent. Christians who embrace it are in danger of falling into the heresies of Open Theism, Pelagianism and carnal Christianity.