Challies on Free Will

A brilliant post this morning from Tim Challies, which sums up I think what I have long suspected – free will is not necessary for genuine love.

It was Augustine of Hippo who first described the four states of man. They are most easily understood when put into the form of a table like this one:


It is this final part of the grid that causes me to wonder if our love truly had to be entirely free for it to be genuine. After all, as Christians we look with great anticipation to the day when our sin will be taken away and we will no longer even be able to sin. At this time will our love for God be more genuine or less genuine? Will we love God more or less than we love him now? When we read Scripture and, with great anticipation look to the passages that describe heaven, we can only conclude that our love for God today is only a shadow of the love we will have for him in that day. And yet it will be a love that is restricted by our sinless natures—a love that will not allow us to ever sin or even consider sin.

As I understand it, Augustine would agree with me here. He would say that the ability to sin is not essential to free will. After all, God is free but without the ability to sin. The angels are free but without any ability to sin. And, as we’ve established, we will be free in heaven, but not free to sin.

All of this to say that I simply do not find that we need to believe that the only love worth having is a love that can choose not to love.

I think Tim is spot on. I have always understood (since coming to an electionist view of salvation) that those who argue in favour of "free will" misunderstand what choice is about. The Biblical position is that while we are independent agents, our fallen state means that we are simply as incapable of choosing not to sin as a stick insect is capable of writing a sonnet. One can argue very clearly that the stick insect has choice in his life and can choose what to do and what to eat, but he is simply not able to rival Shakespeare. We are the same – we have freedom of action, but the act of "not sinning" is not a possibility. We then, upon recognition of salvation and the regenerating work of the Spirit move to a position where we can choose not to sin, and finally we move, in Glory, to a position where we simply will not want to sin, yet remain creatures who can love and can love with integrity.

Your thoughts?

6 Comments on “Challies on Free Will

  1. Hi Peter,

    I enjoy popping in from time to time to see what you are up to.

    I’m not so sure Luther would let you get away with your (or Tim’s) Reborn man category – check out Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation theses, #25-28.

    “able to not sin” can never be left standing by itself. As Luther points out in his proof to #27, good works are the work of Christ who dwells in the believer through faith. Any good works that you or I might do are the works that Christ is pleased to do through us and not otherwise. (I know you know this, the problem is pithy statements can mislead)



  2. Thanks David for that clarification. It seems to me that Luther drives us more and more (on closer reading) to the enormity of the sovereignty of God. More power to that!!!

  3. I think a lot depends on what you mean by “unable to sin” – put like that it sounds as if some capacity which we have now will be removed from us, and/or some force external to ourselves will prevent us. I think your comment at the end of the post makes it reasonably clear that the situation is not quite like that: rather once the process of our sanctification has been completed there will simply be no reason for us to sin – the hold that sin now has over us will be broken, we will understand (at all levels, not just the intellectual) that sin is not in fact desirable, and we will suffer no compulsion to do it that overrides such understanding. I don’t think this would count as absence of free will, rather it is the removal of corruption from our free will so that it can be exercised fully. I think the point is quite important: otherwise it would be inexplicable why God gave us free will in the first place (at enormous to cost to himself as well as to us) if he was only going to take it away again eventually …
    As for the angels: some of them sinned, so sin must be within the capacity of angels somehow, surely?

  4. I think the Biblical position is that the desire to sin (which is to act in rebellion to God) will no longer be in us. So yes, it’s not that we become mechanistic robots, its that our range of willing choices simply won’t encompass the notion of acting without reference to God’s holiness and love.

    I’ve always thought we get the notion of free will entirely incorrect. When those from a Reformed position argue that man has no free will in his fallen state, they’re not saying that he is a robot. Rather, they are arguing that the choice “obey God in all things and recognise his sovereignty” simply isn’t possible for him. Fallen man therefore doesn’t have free will because he is simply not capable of choosing particular actions. Only after regeneration by the Spirit is such a choice (to worship God and place him at the centre of your life) possible.

    As for the angels, you ask a very good question. Do you have any answers?

  5. I’m afraid I don’t have any answers to that one! I don’t know about the internal constitution of angels and I rather doubt that anyone really does (and I dare say the knowledge is not “necessary for salvation” as the articles might put it). In the middle ages it was the sort of thing that the theologians liked to speculate about, and we laugh at them for it (e.g. for arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin). I think they decided that the angels could choose once for all whether they were going to be entirely good or entirely bad, and the choice was then irreversible, but I have no idea why they thought that should be so.

  6. The idea of free will is problematic, but is an intuition derived (I’m guessing) from the idea of moral responsibility — at least the two are closely related. To affirm the one is to affirm the other.

    So, if there is such a thing as “right” and “wrong” actions, and such a thing as Judgment by God, then some measure of “free will” is assumed (even if that is not stated). Even in a court of law (at least here in the USA, I can’t speak for elsewhere), insanity — the inability to make a rational choice — would be considered a mitigating factor in evaluating a person’s guilt. If a person had no choice but to do wrong (all the time? is that what you mean?) then such a person could not be held to be responsible for those actions.

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