Is free will biblical? This question sparks a lot of debate among theologians and sharply divides many believers because it’s answer is the foundation upon which most all other doctrine is built. To begin to answer this question we’ll have to clearly define what is meant by the term “free will.” How this term is defined depends on which one of two belief systems one subscribes to; secular, a universe without God or spiritual, a universe with Him. Both systems begin by posing two similar but very different questions respectively, “What is free will?” and “What is free will in light of God’s sovereignty?” It follows then that each answer and their resulting definitions should likewise be different and they are. The problem I see with the conflicting viewpoints and their arguments on the scriptural support of free will is that they both appear to base their defenses on the same secular definition rather than a spiritual one. Thus, in my opinion, the term in it’s common theological usage, is something of a misnomer.
The secular view of free will excludes God, making man’s will sovereign. Under this definition man decides his own morality and standards of conduct and thus justice becomes a perverted variable scale instead of an immutable consistent rule against which to contrast right and wrong. The bible emphatically testifies God alone is sovereign, therefore, you cannot use the term free will with a secular understanding in regards to biblical truth and maintain exegetical accuracy.
As Christians, we believe in God and therefore our definition of free will must be made within this context and as such I will propose free will is very much biblical. So then let’s define what free will is with God as it’s Author, shall we? We’ll need to start with some foundational understanding of God’s sovereignty beforehand to paint the proper context.
First, God is all encompassing. The framework of all creation must work within the bounds of His sovereign will. Nothing can be outside it or fail to perform it or God would not be God. Second, no matter how free an agent is within that framework, God’s purpose will be fulfilled because He is sovereign. Third, based on the first two points, whatever decisions are made by creatures within this paradigm are, by nature of God’s sovereignty, limited, therefore the word “free” in the term free will is relative not universal. Fourth, God’s sovereign will cannot conflict with His character, such as love, justice, and truth, His will flows out from it. For instance, God won’t force someone to choose Him because that would not be loving or just. Nor would He offer salvation to all but then enable only a few to accept it because that would not be just or honest. (Note this latter example leads into a whole other debated topic which I will not get into here.)
The next thing we have to understand is that the ability to make choices is inherent in being made in the image of God. It is an intrinsic characteristic of our makeup. Now a choice at its core is an investment of self in a person, thing or idea. However, free will is not just about the ability to invest but also about what currency we choose to invest with. Because we have inherited Adam’s spiritually bankrupt account all we have to invest with, in and of ourselves, is infinitely more debt. Thank God though that in His infinite wisdom and boundless mercy before the foundation of the world He gave each one an allotment of faith, or spiritual currency, to invest with (Romans 12:3). This gracious gift is why every person since Adam is able to rightly be held accountable for their investments. God gave each one of us a “trust” fund as it were and we are responsible for how and in what or whom we invest it.
On this foundation I propose free will from a biblical perspective is the freedom to invest God’s gift of grace, our individual measure of faith, where we will. Since our faith is a gift of God and not of ourselves (Ephesians 2:8), this freedom then gives us no right to boast in our own sovereignty. This “measure of faith” spoken of in Romans is a preeminent work of grace upon all men’s hearts and therefore our choice in whether to accept or reject God is wholly personal and well within the bounds of the freedom His sovereign will allows. The merit of this definition is that it harmonizes God’s sovereignty with our free will while justifying the personal accountability we are held to and this biblical concept of free will is supported throughout scripture.
Hebrews 11:1 – 12:2 is the most apt summary of God’s gracious gift of faith as it applies to those who invest it in God. As for those who invest in any other, the vivid picture Jesus painted with the imagery of outer darkness and the “wailing and gnashing of teeth” stands in stark contrast. Thank the Creator though that His love was such that before there was an inability to choose God, He gave us the ability through the gift of faith and before there was a fractured relationship He ordained its reparation through the gift of Jesus Christ.
“For from his fullness we have all received, grace for grace.”
I believe this verse is phrased this way because we have all received the grace of faith FOR the grace of redemption. If free will is the freedom to invest God’s gift of grace, our individual measure of faith, where we will, then Christ’s gracious redemptive work is where we are meant to invest it. By faith we come to the Father through Jesus both of which are gifts of God and not of ourselves so that no one may boast. Though I will boast of Him whose love, justice and truth has made a way for a man like me to know, love and serve a most holy and merciful God. All praise, honor and glory to the King of the Universe!
“Sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised… “
1 Chronicles 16:23-25