Most who reject the Doctrines of Grace (a.k.a. Calvinism or reformed theology), do so because of an insistence that everyone has ‘free will’ to either choose or reject God on their own. Because reformed theology says that no one freely chooses God in and of themselves, some Christians balk and argue that everyone has the ability to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God.
If you’re one of these believers, I’d like you to consider a few things on this subject beginning with the fact that every choice you make is made freely . . . and that every decision you make is also absolutely determined. A contradiction? Not at all.
Moreover, when you understand this idea of choices being both free and determined, I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that, when you grasp these concepts Biblically, reformed theology becomes very easy to embrace.
Why Do You Make The Choices That You Do?
People make choices every day regarding what school they will attend, who they will marry, what job they will take, and much more. When we use the term “free will” where choices are concerned, we normally mean the ability to choose between alternative options with equal ease. But regarding those choices – why do you choose what you do?
I think everyone would agree that we don’t make choices for no reason. The idea of decisions being made without a cause is called indeterminism, and again, is not something most anyone holds to.
The idea that every decision is made because of external facing causes alone is called determinism, and is something taught by various evolutionists and naturalists (e.g. William Provine) who emphatically state that there is no such thing as free will. Some (incorrectly) state that this is what reformed theology teaches.
But there is a third option – that our choices are self-determined. We determine what decisions we’ll make; they come from within us. This concept doesn’t deny that outside forces can influence or severely limit the choices we make, but in the end, we still make a choice.
But let’s dig a little deeper beneath that surface and ask: what’s the actual cause of the choices we make? Simply put, it’s our own desire. We choose what we desire; we choose according to our strongest inclination at the moment of choice.
This fact doesn’t mean that we don’t have conflicting choices. For example, I hate the taste of broccoli with a passion and agree with the character Newman on the Seinfeld sitcom who called broccoli a ‘vile weed’. However, I eat it most every night at dinner because broccoli is one of the healthiest foods on the planet. My desire for good health trumps my desire for good tasting food.
It also doesn’t mean our choices can’t be severely restricted. Someone can threaten our life and demand our valuables, forcing us into a very narrow set of choices. But we still decide and choose a single option over other alternatives.
Lastly, the idea of desire driving our choices doesn’t mean we don’t regret the initial choices that we make. In Romans 7, the Apostle Paul lamented the fact that he sinned and was deeply upset because he struggled with doing what was wrong vs. what was right. However, the sinful choices that he made were still driven by a desire that won out in the end over other competing internal desires that he had. As James notes: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14).
Why Every Choice is Both Free and Determined
When we understand that our choices are fully determined by our desire, it becomes clear how our choices are both free and determined. We indeed are self-determined beings who freely choose what we want, and yet, those choices are completely determined by our internal desires. We freely make decisions, but at the same time, we must choose what we most strongly desire at the moment to be able to make any choice at all.
In this sense, we come to the realization that we are completely limited by our desire in regard to the choices we make. This shouldn’t come as any shock as we have limits to our supposed ‘freedom’ in all areas of life. For example, I have the freedom to jump, but on my own, I can’t jump 10 feet into the air.
In other words, you aren’t as ‘free’ as you might think you are.
So how does the fact that our free will choices are, in reality, completely controlled by our desires affect our relationship with God?
The Bible on Free Will
The Bible has a lot to say on the subject of free will. And the Bible has absolutely nothing to say on the subject of free will.
Scripture clearly lays out how every human being is morally handicapped from birth and unable to choose God on their own. On this matter, the Bible says:
- No one seeks God: “no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11).
- Every mind and heart originally rejects God and is unable to accept the gospel: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Rom. 8:6–7).
- Every person initially sees the gospel as stupid and foolish: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . .But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:18, 14).
- No one has the ability to come to Christ on their own apart from the Father drawing them: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. . . .For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:44, 65).
In other words, the Bible says everyone does make seemingly free choices where God is concerned, but those choices are limited by a sinful desire that is morally unable and unwilling to come to God, accept the gospel message, and be saved. Instead, people choose to freely sin, freely reject God, and freely rebel against Him.
Simply put, we all have free will in that we choose according to our character and nature. However, our original nature is sinful and bad so the choice that we make where God is concerned is bad.
In this respect, the Bible has a lot to say on ‘free’ will.
But the ‘free’ will that says anyone can choose to receive or reject Christ on their own? There is not one explicit statement in Scripture that supports this position. Not one. So, in this sense, the Bible is silent on the subject of free will.
But, But, But…!
On this assertion, some Christians will push back and say the Bible does say we have the free will and ability to choose God on our own. But what they typically reference are not explicit statements in Scripture, but rather implicit ones (i.e. ones that require inference vs. a clear declaration) such as the following:
- “Choose this day whom you will serve . . . as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15).
- “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” (Jer. 29:13).
- “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
The argument is, why would God tell people to choose and seek Him if He knows they will not and, in fact, are morally unable to do so in the first place? It may surprise you to know this happens quite a bit in Scripture.
Isaiah was told to preach to rebellious Israel for decades and was informed they wouldn’t respond (Is. 6:8-10). Ditto for Ezekiel (Ezk. 3:4-11). Jesus came and offered Himself as Messiah and the kingdom of God to Israel knowing they would reject His offer and that He would go to the cross. In fact, the rejection of Christ’s offer was God’s plan from the beginning (Acts 2:23).
However, in each case, there was a small remnant of people who did, in fact, believe. Did that small fraction of people use their ‘free’ will to believe the message of God while all others weren’t smart enough to see it?
No, instead what you have showcased is the difference in what is oftentimes called the external and internal call of God. The external call of God goes out to all people so that all hear the truth of God. But the internal call is something unique where God Himself morally awakens the dead sinner to respond positively to the gospel message.
Paul highlights this truth when he says: “But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). In these verses, you have the same two groups of people (Jews/non-Jews). All hear the external call, but those that God does not draw to His Son see the gospel as foolish while the others are given the ability via the internal call to see it as the saving power of God. The same call is referenced in Romans 8:29-30.
The preaching of the gospel message, in a real way, serves to distinguish the people of God from the world. As Jesus told disbelievers on one occasion: “You do not believe because you are not of My sheep” (John 10:26). Notice He didn’t say “because you don’t believe you aren’t my sheep”, but rather it is the other way around. Those whom God calls to the side of truth listen to Jesus (John 18:37), while all others do not.
In the end, we see that the idea of a truly ‘free’ will is both philosophically and Biblically unsound. Our desires and our nature/character determine our choices, but we are never forced to act contrary to that nature/character so in that respect, we freely express ourselves through the choices we make. But where God is concerned, our sinful desire freely rejects God until He chooses to regenerate the dead, sinful nature in us and draw us to Himself.
Once that happens, and we are set free from sin’s control, we are truly free indeed!