Free Will Revisited

Fresh Perspective on an Ancient Debate

By Robert E. Picirilli

A biblical concept of free will is important for many reasons. It does not exalt humanity too highly; no more highly than God Himself lifted them in creating them to bear His own image. Nor does it demean humankind too much; no more than humanity demeaned itself in wicked disobedience against God, thus bearing the consequences of that rebellion in a wholly corrupted and sinful nature that leaves them dead and deaf to spiritual truth, blind and bound in sin. Is it possible that such beings truly have a will free to make choices between alternative courses of action?

To answer that question, I must begin by explaining what I mean by freedom of the will. Free will is not a thing, not a distinct substance or essence that makes up part of a human being. To say a person has free will is not the same as saying a person has a body, spirit, or soul. It is clear, however, that every person has a will. I assume the reader—any Christian reader, at least—agrees. The noun willis closely associated with, and its meaning involved with, other words like desire, purpose, intention, determination, and decision. To say a person has a will is to say he experiences purpose, intends things, and makes decisions.

Machines do not do that sort of thing, regardless how sophisticated they are. It is only a figure of speech when we say something such as, “My computer thinks I want the next word after a period to be capitalized.” Computers, as marvelous as they are, do not “think” at all; they only do what they are programmed to do by people who do think. Machines do not make decisions; they experience no purposes achieved or thwarted. Only human beings, only essences conscious of themselves as selves, function in such ways. Only such an essence can will. (And yes, will works as well as a verb as a noun.)

To describe the human will as free is to say something about the way it functions. In one sense, to speak of the will as free is to say something redundant. Be careful how you deny free will; you may very well deny the will itself. To be sure, when we use the term free will,we intend to convey the notion that choices are involved. But that notion is already inherent in the unmodified word. The dictionary defines willas “the power of making a reasoned choice or decision.” To say persons exercise their wills is little more than saying they choose.

Any such choice or decision is volitional, an act or exercise of the will. Jonathan Edwards defines the will—not free will, as such—as “that by which the mind chooses anything,” a “faculty or power or principle of mind by which it is capable of choosing,” “an act of the will is the same as an act of choosing.” He goes on to say a will can choose without being free. I am more inclined to think that without freedom there is no choosing, so a will, by definition, is free.

I am not pretending this matter of free will is that simple, but this ought to be the starting point for exploring the issue. Before we argue about depravity, about whether fallen human beings still possess free wills—or wills at all—we had better say clearly what we mean to affirm or deny in the discussion of free will. And I offer, now, a basic definition of free will I think can be used as a starting point for further discussion: free willis a way of saying a person is capable of making decisions, that a person can choose between two (or more) alternatives when he or she has obtained (by whatever means) the degree of understanding of those alternatives required to choose between them.

I intend for this definition to involve what has been traditionally stated as, “the power of alternative choice,” also sometimes called “libertarian freedom.” This means the choice or decision is one that really could go either way; that a person is neither compelled by some force outside nor shut up from within by previous condition or experience, so that only one alternative can actually be chosen. In other words, possessing a free will—or a will, for that matter, as I would contend—rules out determinism and compatibilism.

Both are forms of determinism, given that compatibilism by definition includes the idea that determinism and freedom are compatible. Another name for compatibilism is “soft determinism,” after all. My definition, then, is intentionally set against all forms of determinism and in support of self-determinism. It is the very nature of a self to exercise will.

I also intend my definition to allow that making choices requires some level of understanding as to what the choices are. This means more than one thing. One is that the choices we call free are not merely random but are rational or reasoned. There is no will apart from the mind of a self. The will is perhaps an aspect or attribute of a mind—but I do not intend, here, a technical description of personhood, nor do I intend to qualify a real choice as requiring understanding of everything involved in the choice, like all the reasons for and against it, or all the consequences. But the one who chooses between two (or more) alternatives must at least perceive what those choices are, and that he can choose between them.

I also make a distinction between the capacity of the will and the circumstances within which the will is able to operate freely. First, we define free will, and then we can talk about how depravity affects it and where grace must intervene. Each of those issues can be defined in its own right, and confusion can be avoided.

When I say this, I am reflecting on the fact that the Calvinistic wing of Reformed theology denies that fallen humanity possesses free will, at least if free will means the ability to choose between alternatives. I would suggest that many people—to some degree with justification—take this to mean the same thing as a naturalistic mechanism or fatalism. It matters little to people whether determinism is a result of the blind cause-effect laws of a purposeless cosmos, or of the deliberate intention of an all-controlling God. Determinism from either source makes no allowance for human freedom, since human choices determine nothing.

I regard it as obvious that the ability of a person to will is part of what it means to bear the image of God, and that fallen humanity still bears that image, as 1 Corinthians 11:7 indicates. I offer, then, that the freedom of the human will is constitutional. One’s will is always present as an aspect of human nature, a way a person functions. Depravity does not change the fact that a person has a will, or that it is constitutionally free to make choices. To be sure, the circumstances in which the will functions bear on whether the person can choose this or that alternative, and that is where depravity gets involved. A person in prison, for example, has not lost the capacity to walk the streets unchained, but his circumstances curtail his ability to exercise that capacity at the time.

Just so, depravity limits our choices without removing the constitutional capacity to choose. How, then, can a fallen person ever be free to choose for God? This requires a deeper study of free will, depravity, and grace. For now, it is enough to say—and this is the point of the latter part of my definition, above—such a person must obtain a level of understanding of the choices available.

To believe in the freedom of the will as I have defined it, then, applies to choices of any sort. These choices include everyday decisions that seem entirely innocent and unimportant, like which socks to wear today (almost, but not quite, inconsequential), or the restaurant to which you will take your wife for your anniversary celebration (very consequential). They also include much more important moral choices: whether to lie to avoid a predicament, or whether to retaliate when wronged. And they include the ultimate choice that leads to eternal life: putting faith in Jesus Christ. But in all of these, there must at least be some understanding of the available choices to be free to choose in the circumstances.

About the Writer: Dr. Robert E. Picirilli is professor emeritus of New Testament and Philosophy at Welch College. He is author of Discipleship: The Expression of Saving Faith; Grace, Faith, Free Will; and numerous other works and journal articles. He also serves as editor of the Randall House Bible Commentary series.