Libertarian Free Will: It’s Not Biblical – Part 3

Well, I am back now to finish up this series, which I had planned to do two months ago; however, the Lord had different plans, which included back surgery. And I praise God his plans included it because I wasn’t able to tie my own shoes for the last 9 months. I am truly grateful—Amen!

In part 2 of this series, I provided Scriptures demonstrating that God brings about human free actions that we are responsible for. As stated, this view of free will is referred to as compatibilism. This means that Human free will is compatible with God’s sovereign will by which he determines what will come to pass according to his divine decree and ultimate plan.[1] Our freedom is not constrained; rather, it is unconstrained within God’s decree, and our choices and actions are part of what he has ordained to take place.

Before going further, I want to again define what Libertarian free will is:

“An agent is free with respect to a given action at a given time if at that given time it is within the agent’s power to perform the action and also in the agent’s power to refrain from the action.”[i] Ultimately, a person has the ability within his own power to make any decision, and any decision contrary to it, in any given situation. “The will is free from any necessary causation . . . [I]t is autonomous from outside determination.”[ii]

My perspective, and that of the Reformed community, is that this view is unbiblical. Nowhere in Scripture do we see that humans have this kind of freewill; rather, our wills are enslaved to sin and can only do the freewill-actions within an enslaved state (John 8:34; Romans 6:6, 16-17, 19-20; 7:14; 2 Peter 2:19; Titus 3:3; Galatians 4:8-9). Fallen man’s desire is to only do wicked actions, regardless of any good action he might do (Matthew 7:11; Luke 11:13). We cannot do anything righteous; Christ was the one who did the righteous act on our behalf (I refer you to my post examining Romans 5:12-19).

Further Understanding Compatibilism

God decrees all things; therefore, he knows all things that ever occur. His knowledge is in advance to the future events that are to come about in his plan of redemption. His knowledge of future events “in no way causes anything to happen; it merely guarantees that what [he] knows will in fact happen.”[2] But the certainty of the actual events that ensue for everyone does not mean that people are then mere robots. Rather, in God making people as “non-glorified human beings,”[3] they are given a nature that is inclined to make choices that are common to all humans. Just as various animals have natures that are different than humans, though common to each animal within its species, predetermined actions can be known due to the environment and situation they are put in.

Mankind’s understanding of the animal kingdom is ascertained by the observation of an animal’s actions and habits based on its nature and how it interacts within the environment it lives in. In knowing the nature of animals and how they respond (make choices) in their environment, scientists can create an environment and setting for an animal that, with most certainty, they can get a desired result (choice) based on the use of the nature of that animal in that environment (example: lab rats in a maze).

Likewise, as it pertains to human nature, and God’s exponentially greater understanding of human nature, God gives humans a nature and puts them in an environment that he knows he can use to bring about choices (that conform to his will) made by humans. But just as the animal that is placed in an artificial, man-made environment makes choices that are made freely in accordance with its own nature, humans also, based on their nature in the environment that God has placed them in, are free to act in “accordance with their desires, dispositions, inclinations, knowledge, and character.”[4]

In Matthew 7:15-20, Christ told his disciples that they would know those who are of God by their fruits. A good tree only bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit; thus, you will know them by their fruits. A tree can only give a certain fruit based upon its nature. “The tree is not free to produce good or bad fruit at random, but is governed by its nature.”[5]

Scripturally speaking, this perspective makes the most sense (again, look at the Scriptures discussed in the first post). God is sovereign over all, and he is the primary cause of all things to take place. The Scriptures bear witness to the fact that nothing in creation can act independently of God’s sovereignty (: Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17; Acts 17:28; Nehemiah 9:6; 2 Peter 3:7; Job 12:23; Job 34:14-15; Job 38:32; Matthew 5:45; Matthew 6:26; Numbers 23:19; 2 Samuel 7:28; Psalms 33:14-15; Psalms 104:14; Psalms 104:29; Psalms 135:6; Psalms 139:16; Psalms 141:6; Psalms 148:8; Proverbs 16:1; Proverbs 16:33; Proverbs 20:24; Proverbs 21:1; Proverbs 30:5; John 17:17; Ephesians 1:11; Galatians 1:15; Jeremiah 1:5; 1 Corinthians 4:7).

God has exhaustive knowledge and knows what humans will do based upon the nature he gave them. He has the ability to persuade and compel people to make choices, which they willing make, to conform to his will. Likewise, people make decisions in accordance with their will that do bring about actions that cause harm or evil to others. God too permits these situations. In these instances, God permits these and uses these actions to conform to his will; for God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).

Genesis 50:20 is a clear example of this. Prior to this verse, Joseph’s brothers were fearful because when Joseph revealed his identity to them, they were afraid of what he might do to them. In an act of evil, they sold him into slavery. And now Joseph is second-in-command over Egypt and has the power to return evil to them. In Genesis 45:5, Joseph says, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph understands that he is in the position that he is because God is sovereign. It was God’s plan for the events and circumstances to happen to Joseph in the manner they did. Joseph recognizes this. A severe famine was coming to Egypt, God’s doing, and it was God’s plan for Joseph to be there prior to this event and to be used by God to save the people.

After the famine, Joseph’s brothers come to him again and were in fear for their lives. But Joseph says to them, “‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:19-20). God had two different designs within his plan. This verse “did not say that God used their evil for good after they meant it for evil. It says that in the very act of evil, there were two different designs: In the sinful act, they were designing evil, and in the same sinful act, God was designing good.”[6] The brothers acted in accordance to their own wills and desire to commit evil. But that act of evil was in accordance with the will of God. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Joseph was called for a purpose, and God worked out all things for good for Joseph because he loved God.

There is a tension between man’s freewill and God’s sovereignty, and while we cannot fully reconcile this tension due to our puny, finite minds, what we can do is seek to be consistent in our theology. We have to take what Scripture teaches, regardless of what we think it should teach. Scripture does not portray a God who is like that of the pagan, Greek gods, who are only supported and empowered by the creatures that worship them. Rather, the God of the Bible is sovereign over everything in all of creation, for he is the one who supports, sustains, and empowers it (Acts 4:24; Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:15-16). Furthermore, the Bible does not portray mankind as a robot or puppet. Man makes choices and is held accountable for them (Genesis 2:16-17; Exodus 20; John 3:36; Acts 2:23; 4:27; Romans 1-3; 6:23; 1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 3:10; Titus 3:3; 1 John 3:4).

Conclusion

In looking at the biblical and theological evidences put forth in these last 3 posts, I believe the biblical understanding of freedom is the ability to choose according to our greatest desires in the moment of that choice. Man always chooses to sin, which is why he needs God to change his nature of desiring to do so. If ought implies can, then everyone has the ability to be morally perfect because we ought to live a sinless life. If we had a truly free will in the libertarian sense, then we would have the freedom to save ourselves by never sinning.

While this subject is truly a weighty one, we must be ok with seeing that the sidewalk ends at some point. Speculation can lead to unnecessary frustration, and even dissension among believers, and more time wasted trying to understand the mind of God, instead of glorifying God for his perfect, omnipotent mind. He has it figured out, so rest in that.

 

—Romans 11:36

For further reading:

The Sovereignty of God, Arthur Pink
Freedom of the Will, Jonathan Edwards
Election and Free Will, Robert A. Peterson
The Doctrine of God, John Frame
Still Sovereign, Tom Schreiner and Bruce Ware
No One Like Him, John S. Feinberg
Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther
Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin

 

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[1] When speaking of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination of events, sometimes there is a confusion of terms, which leads to a misunderstanding of God’s eternal decree. We need to avoid the error of fatalism. From creation to glorification, God has foreordained (i.e., planned from eternity past) all human actions and events of nature and history. However, God’s foreknowledge (i.e., his perfect knowledge beforehand of all actions and events from eternity past; and of the elect, it’s an intimate, personal knowing of them) of all events and human actions that occur in history does not infer they must happen or that one can’t refrain from doing so because God foresees them. Rather, God foreknows certain actions or choices take place because the one doing the action does not refrain from doing otherwise.

God has foreordained all that shall come to pass and foreknows all things because of his foreordination of them, and these events may come to pass through the free will actions of humans or through God’s causative actions in accordance with his eternal decree. However, no one makes a choice that is against one’s will; rather, all choices are made because one most desires to make that choice because it is most desirable to that person.

[2] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: Doctrine of God, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), p. 741.

[3] Feinberg, No One Like Him, p. 788.

[4] Loraine Boettner, Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1991), p. 219.

[5] Ibid., p. 220.

[6] John Piper, Spectacular Sins: And Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 81.

Libertarian Free Will: It’s Not Biblical – Part 2

In last week’s post I ended on the fact that our wills are enslaved to sin, which can only be set free through the power of the Holy Spirit. The biblical data shows that natural man is enslaved to his nature, which is a fallen, sinful one.

When Paul says, “no one does good . . . no one seeks for God,” what does that mean?

Uh, what it says it means—We are not good; We don’t seek for God.

That is why God had to come save us.

Getting back to libertarian free will.

One of the problems with the Western world is this mantra that we can do whatever we want. “I can accomplish and do what I desire, and no one can tell me that I can’t.” The liberals are truly the ones who have adopted this mantra and have promulgated a narcissistic view of human entitlement. Unfortunately, this ideology has bled into the Christian faith, affecting many churches’ biblical anthropology. Again: We are to look at the Scriptures to properly understand the metaphysical framework of humanity.

Seminary professor Bruce Ware footnoted in his book God’s Lesser Glory a comprehensive study done by a doctoral student regarding divine foreknowledge documenting (divine foreknowledge is the open theist’s kryptonite) “1893 texts state predictively that God will do something or other in or through human beings; 1474 texts state predictively what human beings will do something or other, apart from God directly acting through them; 622 texts state predictively what unbelievers will do or have happen to them; 143 texts affirm God’s sovereign control of human choices; 105 texts of apparent counter-evidence” (n2., p. 100).

The open theist maintains that we must have libertarian free will in order to be rightly held accountable for our actions. There are no explicit verses in Scripture that demonstrate our wills are independent of God’s will. Libertarian free will is more of a philosophical assumption, failing to take into account one’s will and desires in choosing or not choosing, failing to recognize the role of causality in events that take place. So what they have done to ensure the Bible teaches that we have libertarian free will is they have removed God’s divine foreknowledge.

Those findings listed above are staggering and devastating to one who holds to libertarian free will. Now, obviously we cannot go through all of the verses demonstrating that God brings about human free actions that we are responsible for, so we will examine a few where we see this clearly, and I will list more Scriptures at the end.

Exodus 7:2-3; 11:9 – “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. . . . Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.’” (God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to not listen to Moses, so that God’s wonders would be multiplied)

Deuteronomy 2:30 – “But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day.” (King Sihon did not let messengers pass by him—his choice—for the Lord hardened his heart, so that the Lord might give Sihon into the hands of Israel.)

1 Samuel 2:25 – “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.” (Eli’ sons would not listen to their Father; it was their will to not listen and though it was God’s will for them not to, he held them accountable for it.)

2 Samuel 17:14 – “And Absalom and all the men of Israel said, “The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel.” For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom.” (Either the counsel of Hushai was thought to be better by Absalom, according to God’s will, or God in fact made Hushai’s counsel better so as to bring harm to Absalom in his choosing to follow Hushai.)

1 Kings 12:15 – “So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word, which the Lord spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat” (Rehoboam did not listen to the people, and his failure to do so was God’s work in fulfilling his Word).

2 Chronicles 25:16, 20 – “But as he was speaking, the king said to him, “Have we made you a royal counselor? Stop! Why should you be struck down?” So the prophet stopped, but said, ‘I know that God has determined to destroy you, because you have done this and have not listened to my counsel.’ . . . But Amaziah would not listen, for it was of God, in order that he might give them into the hand of their enemies, because they had sought the gods of Edom.” (Amaziah’s failure to listen was of God, yet he received judgment for his actions.)

Ezra 6:22 – “And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.” (the king was against this, but he changed his mind, but we see the Lord turned his heart—will—to give them aid.)

Daniel 11:36 – “And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods. He shall prosper till the indignation is accomplished; for what is decreed shall be done.” (Here the King does as he wills, as it was decreed that he should.)

1 Chronicles 14:8-11 – “When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over all Israel, all the Philistines went up to search for David. But David heard of it and went out against them. Now the Philistines had come and made a raid in the Valley of Rephaim. And David inquired of God, ‘Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will you give them into my hand?’ And the LORD said to him, ‘Go up, and I will give them into your hand.’ And he went up to Baal-perazim, and David struck them down there. And David said, ‘God has broken through my enemies by my hand, like a bursting flood.’ Therefore the name of that place is called Baal-perazim.” (This one is a bit different than the others, but quite telling of God’s involvement in human actions. Here David is inquiring of the Lord if he should fight the Philistines and to see if God will give them over to him in defeat. The Lord confirms he will, so David (carries out the action) strikes them down, then he attributes the defeating of them to God but then recognizes God carried it out by his hand.)

See further: Gen. 50:20; 1 Kings 8:58-61; Prov. 16:4-5; Isa. 10:5-15; Jer. 29:10-14; Luke 22:22; John 1:12-13; 6:37; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; 13:48-14:1; Rom. 9-10; Phil. 2:12-13; Col. 3:1-3.

Here is a term that expresses the type of free will the Bible does teach: Compatibilism. Human free will is compatible with God’s sovereign will by which he determines what will come to pass according to his divine decree and ultimate plan. Our freedom is not constrained; rather, it is unconstrained within God’s decree, and our choices and actions are part of what he has ordained to take place.

We will get more into that next week

Oh, and I leave you with this interesting point to think about:

When it comes to a court of law, the pivotal piece of information needed in a murder case is to establish the motive behind it. If a person truly has libertarian free will, meaning no causes affect his will to do something, then his action to kill is ultimately without motive, and he would most likely be found insane because if there is no cause, no motive, then the prosecution cannot demonstrate he was ultimately responsible for his actions. His actions were really just an accident; he did not make a purposeful choice to commit the crime. If he murdered for no reason, he must be crazy! Just think about that for a second; our justice system would be chaotic if it held to a truly libertarian view of free will. (John Frame’s point here was so illuminating in his critique of libertarian free will; No Other God: A Response to Open Theism, p. 126)

—Romans 11:36

Libertarian Free Will: It’s Not Biblical – Part 1

[word count = 1480; 7 minutes to read]

A few months ago, I began the research phase for my PhD program. In its current phase of development, my topic is centered on a theological perspective known as openness theology or open theism.

In a nutshell, open theists understand God to be open in his divine foreknowledge—though he knows the past and present exhaustively, having omniscience of those periods of time and history, the future is unsettled; it is open. Since the future has not actually occurred, God cannot truly know it. God cannot truly know what human creatures will do because they have free will, in the libertarian sense (we will define this later). God can only guess based on what he knows currently and react when things deviate from his plan. God is surprised by what his human agents do and has to act accordingly, some how using our free-willed actions to work out his ultimate plan. Understanding God in this way demonstrates God to be more involved and intimate with his creation, than that of the God in the traditional view. There is a more dynamic, give-and-take relationship with God. Our prayers affect God’s decisions, and God even repents and regrets, doing opposite of what prophecy might foretell because man has influenced God as such.

Being relatively new, open theism made its big break into evangelicalism in a multi-authored work published in 1994 titled, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. This volume purposed to push back against the traditional view of God as held in orthodoxy since the early church fathers, attempting to demonstrate that the Christian church’s interpretation of the Scriptures, as it pertains to its doctrine of God, was misguided due to the heavy influence of Greek philosophy.

Now, my purpose here is not flesh that thesis out, for my dissertation will focus on that aspect; rather, I wanted to spend a little time examining one of the central differences, and firmly held presupposition, espoused by those who hold to the open theistic perspective: libertarian free will.

If this is new to you, you might be thinking, “Well, don’t we all have free will?” The short answer is yes and no. The adjective libertarian changes things a bit. Furthermore, when discussing free will in a room of philosophers and theologians, one cannot just use the term free will; it needs to be accessorized properly so everyone is clear on what one is trying to convey. We will look at the other terms as we work through this examination.

Libertarian free will is understood to mean, “An agent is free with respect to a given action at a given time if at that given time it is within the agent’s power to perform the action and also in the agent’s power to refrain from the action.”[1] Ultimately, a person has the ability within his own power to make any decision, and any decision contrary to it, in any given situation. “The will is free from any necessary causation . . . [I]t is autonomous from outside determination.”[2] I think for most, without spending too much time on it, this sounds about right. However, while the definition stands, its actuality rests on shaky ground. What I propose to demonstrate is that the Bible does not teach that we have free will in the libertarian sense as open theists claim we do.[3]

As I have studied the primary works of those pioneering open theism, I have also spent equal time reading those who have written against it—those who are of the Reformed persuasion, also referred to as Calvinists.

What is clear for us to understand in this discussion, which I appreciate John Frame for stressing in his work, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism, is that because Scripture is our grid of understanding and interpreting what we see or don’t see in reality, its imperative that our theological and philosophical assumptions are under-girded in God’s Word.[4] Whatever view we come to on free will, we should do so because it’s clearly taught in Scripture.

Before getting to free will, we need to understand what the will is and why we make the choices that we do.

Jonathan Edwards, in his treatise, On the Freedom of the Will, says “the will is, that by which the mind chooses any thing. . . . [A]n act of the will is the same as an act of choosing or choice. . . . [I]n every act of Will whatsoever, the mind chooses one thing rather than another.”[5] And ultimately, “A man never, in any instance, wills anything contrary to his desires, or desires anything contrary to his will.”[6]

Edwards’ work has been regarded as the definitive treatment on this subject from a Reformed perspective; however, do the Scriptures support this? Does biblical anthropology comport with Edwards’ understanding of man’s will?

Well, our first example of this took place in the Garden of Eden. Eve does what she so desires, though her Maker told her not to. She did so by her own will, for she desired what she saw:

“The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6).

Adam too followed what he desired most and ate.

Now, we live in a Genesis 3 world. All of man is under the curse of sin, enslaved to it in his will and nature. Moses says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Shortly after this, the Lord, disgusted with man’s wickedness, distinguished all but a handful of it with a flood.

Though God re-populated the earth, the wicked nature of man did not change, for the rest of Scripture reveals to us that man’s heart and evil desires truly fulfilling what Genesis 6:5 says is of him: “the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Others in Scripture as well speak of man’s evil nature:

Ecclesiastes 9:3, “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live.”

Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

While there are plenty of other Scriptures demonstrating the depravity of man,[7] the few quoted here shows us that man’s will desires to do evil, always. The author of Judges says on a few occasions, after looking at the depraved way of life Israel was living, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25).

And ultimately, because man is evil, “no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11).

The will’s determining what to choose can’t be relegated only to times of what is pleasurably better (i.e., ice cream flavors); rather, in those grave situations where a person makes a choice because he had no other option, even then his will chose what was most pleasing to him. Your wallet or your life? You find life most desirable, so you give up your wallet. There were two equal choices on the table, not one. But we are determined to choose one based on what we find most desirable to us in that moment. Whatever motive is the strongest in the mind determines the will.[8]

I am getting too wordy and need to pause here.

What I have shown so far is that man’s will chooses what he most desires. The biblical data given supports that thesis; furthermore, it also shows that man desires to only do evil. Are you starting to see the direction that our wills naturally go?

In John 8:34, Jesus says, “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” The Bible shows that man prefers the dark to the light (John 3:19), sin over life.

Paul, speaking to those who were once walking in darkness, says, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18).

Prior to conversion, we are all naturally slaves to sin. Christ, however, has set us free from sin to become slaves of righteousness. Through the Holy Spirit, our wills are now free to turn from sin and unto righteousness.

Praise be to God for saving a wretch like me.

 

I will continue on in our examination of free will next week. God bless!

 

—Romans 11:36

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[1] William Hasker, “A Philosophical Perspective,” in Pinnock, Rice, and Sanders, The Openness of God, 136–37.

[2] Wright, No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism, 44.

[3] Now, I am not going to claim to be able to answer every philosophical objection to what I am attempting to propose, nor have I spent time engaging in high-levels of philosophical discussion on this subject; rather, I have focused most of my engagement on the Scriptures, filtering through it what libertarianism espouses to see if it is what makes the most sense with Scripture. This subject has a wide following not just in religious and theological circles but secular as well. There are many more philosophically and theologically astute figures out there who have spent more time thinking through this than I have.

[4] At the moment I cannot remember the exact page I came across this in; however, Frame’s continual appeal to the infallible Scriptures is evident all throughout his book.

[5] Edwards, “Freedom of the Will,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, 4.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] Proverbs 21:10; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 1:28-31; Galatians 4:8-9; Ephesians 2:3; Titus 1:15-16; 3:3; 2 Peter 2:19;

[8] Ibid.