The question so often debated among Christians, especially those who call themselves Calvinists and those who identify as Arminians, is this: Does a man have free will or is a man’s free will submerged under the flood waters of God’s sovereignty? God woos us, he pursues us and he draws us to himself, but does he override our ability to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15)
Norman Geisler, author of Chosen But Free, reminds us that “With the exception of the later writings of Augustine, virtually all the great thinkers up to the reformation affirmed that human beings possess the power of free choice, even in a fallen state.” John Calvin had a voracious appetite for all things Augustinian and is credited with creating the great emphasis on predestination. Though Calvin was certainly a proponent of this doctrine, he didn’t emphasize it nearly as much as his successors. Calvin quotes Augustine more than any other in his Institutes of Christian Religion along with Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther.
Among the early church fathers, Augustine’s opinions seem to have been in the minority. Calvin was strongly drawn to Augustine while ignoring majority opinions. Whereas Calvin and Augustine would argue that man is so utterly depraved that he cannot possibly make a choice for anything good, other church fathers argued that because man was created in the very image of God, he retained limited freedom of will as a result of God’s image within his nature. Man’s will was certainly corrupted by the invasion of evil within his heart, but the image of God within man prevented the complete obliteration of his will. In other words, a corrupt man is still capable of willing to do some good.
Among those early church fathers proposing the freedom of man’s will:
- Iraneous, (130-200, Against Heresies), “God made man a free agent from the beginning, possessing his own soul to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God.”
- Tertullian, (155-225, Against Marcion), “I find, then, that man was by God constituted free ,master of his own will and power; indicating the presence of God’s image and likeness in him.”
- Gregory of Nyssa, (335-395, On Virginity), “Being in the image and the likeness of the Power which rules all things, man kept also in the matter of a free will this likeness to Him whose will is over all.”
What most Christians believe about free will can be traced to the teachings and interpretations of three men; Pelagius, Jacob Arminius and John Calvin. Pelagius denied that men had need of any assistance from God when seeking salvation. Jacob Arminius believed that God freed the will of man so he could choose to obey and be saved. John Calvin believed that man is so totally depraved that he cannot possibly make a decision to follow Christ and God must decide for him (predestination).
A summary of these positions follows:
- Palagian. We are free to choose God or not. The fall of mankind into sin had no adverse affect on his ability to make a choice. God makes his offer and we simply say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
- Semi-Palagian. This is a softening of Palagian’s limitations on God’s part in the salvation of man. Men can make a decision for God but only with the help of God. Sin has had devastating effects on the will of man and God must bring healing to the will before the will can respond to his call.
- Arminian. God is not willing that any should perish so he extends his invitation to all men. Man, in is depraved state, cannot seek God, therefore, God extends to all men a pre-emptive grace, a prevenient grace, that affectively prepares the heart for the indwelling of God. Men may will to receive this grace or reject it.
- Calvinism (Augustinianism). Man is so entirely depraved (dead) in his state of sin that it is impossible for him to make a choice for God. Therefore, God must make the choice for him. Man’s salvation is monergistic, meaning that God’s will works independently and alone for the salvation of man. God may decide to save someone or he may very well walk on by, in that case, he declares the person one of the unelected.
The first three preserve man’s free will in some form and fashion. Only the last, Calvinism, eliminates man’s freedom to choose.
Moses came off the mountain and presented his people with the Ten Commandments from God. The assumption is that if God formulated these ten rules and identified them as ‘commandments’ then he fully expected them to obey and live by them. When Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, was He setting a standard too high for his followers? Would it not be a cruel thing to expect the impossible? Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) This sounds like an impossible command but Jesus is not calling us to absolute perfection, he is calling us to completion. Much of our ‘perfection’ is measured by our motive, not a flawless performance. Our completion is finalized when we leave this life and enter a glorified state with Christ.
The elimination of man’s free will makes a pure and holy God responsible for the sin in the world. Norman Geisler points out in chapter four of his book, Chosen But Free, a chapter he entitled “Why Blame Me?” that the common statement ‘The devil made me do it’ leads to another question, “Who made the devil do it?” The answer must be God. When we make attempts to eliminate our own free will we eventually cast the blame for sin on a pure and holy God incapable of authoring sin.
What are God’s expectations of those who call themselves ‘followers’? Geisler teaches that ‘ought implies can’. If God gives us Ten Commandments and expects that we ought to keep them then he will provide us with the necessary grace and power to do just that. “..God never prescribes anything without providing the way to accomplish it. If we are morally bound, then we must be morally free.” Geisler says.
Free will is a gift of God to mankind. We messed up when we began to make poor choices. Therefore, the responsibility for sin and suffering in this world rests squarely on our shoulders and God has no accountability for the evil we created with our own choice to resist God and refuse his favor.
Calvin and Augustine would refute Arminius’ idea that the image of God in us has profound meaning and provides us with the ability to practice freedom of our will. Therefore, we can ‘choose this day whom we will serve’. If ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, then the verse found in Deuteronomy 30:19 is not meaningless when it clearly states that we ‘ought’ to “choose life”.
How might we answer the question ‘does God choose us or do we choose God?’ God first chooses us. “For God so love the world that he sent his only begotten son,” and then he enables us to choose him “that whosoever believes in him”. This cooperative (synergistic) effort does not in any way limit the sovereignty of God. It preserves his sovereignty and accentuates his love and the result is a voluntary, non coercive eternal relationship… “shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)