One of the great dilemmas in the history of Christianity has been the role of man’s free will in his eternal relationship with God. Some hold that to even admit the existence of man’s free will in some way detract from the providence or omnipotence
of God. This thinking about free will is not just an exercise in academic theology, the results have critical implications in our daily lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Our understanding of free will frames how we view the purpose of our lives, helps us to understand the existence of evil and even lets us appreciate the justice of Hell.
With that as the lead in, I thought I’d start a series of blog posts that address the idea of our free will including some of the controversies, conclusions and consequences. I really don’t know how many posts there might be or what the exact content will involve. I will follow the Holy Spirit wherever he leads. For now, however, the intent will be to simply ask questions and explore. With a little luck, or should I say, with the grace of God, we will learn a little about ourselves, our Father and our Savior.
What is Free Will?
From a purely dictionary point of view “free will” means the opportunity and ability to make choices from within a set of available options without hindrances from outside forces or individuals. Typical of most definitions, this one is rather sterile so a few comments seem necessary.
First, a person must have the opportunity and ability to choose. If a bank employee didn’t have the keys to the vault, or couldn’t open the timed vault for another 45 minutes,
then opening or not opening the vault would not qualify as an act of free will. Either choice is simply beyond his or her ability at that time as driven by external elements.
Second, the options from which to choose must be possible. This is similar to the first one above but now relates to the person’s internal situation. Free will does not mean that a person can do anything he wishes. The choices of free will are limited to what is in keeping with our nature, that is what a person can do. Even if I wanted to, I could not have a baby, or flap my wings and fly, or create something from nothing. I could not walk through the walls of the bank vault and retrieve money for the robber because it is not within my nature to do so. Free will must select between choices that are within the capability of our given nature.
Third, the choice must not be made under a situation of compulsion and coercion.
For example, if a bank employee was told: “open the vault and fill this bag with money or I’ll kill you”, it would be ludicrous to suggest that employee freely gave the money to the robbers.
What does Free Will have to do with God?
Ok, so how does all this relate to God and our relationship with Him and our eternal destiny?
When we think about the above definition of free will, we are immediately drawn to a discussion of our nature. It should be clear that, as part of our created nature we have the ability to make choices that affect our destiny. We can choose to be hunters or gatherers. We can stay here or move there. We can fight or we can flee. Many of these choices are shared with animals, but the nature of man is so much more – the nature of man is unique within creation. In our modern society, there is incredible pressure to ignore the uniqueness of man but we know it’s true no matter what many say. If man kills and eats beast, he survives. If man kills and eats man, he is evil. We are so very different and it is so obvious.
In Genesis 1:26, God reveals why we are different:
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Right here in the first book of the Bible, God tells us that we were created in His image and likeness. Now, of course this does not mean that we look like God. God is pure spirit and as such He has no physical appearance.
What this does mean, however, is that we share in some characteristic of God’s nature, specifically, that we have a free will.
Without getting too far off track in this short post, we know that God’s free will and ours relate to His essence of perfect love. As beings created by perfect Love, we are created to Love like our Creator. To love, so we must also have a free will. Without free will, there can be no Love.
Unfortunately, with this free will comes the opportunity to choose poorly. Adam and Eve choose poorly. As a result, we suffer the consequences of death – a death conquered by Jesus Christ on the cross once and for all. However, as I mentioned in the opening remarks, the relationship of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross and our innate free will has been a center of controversy for a couple of thousand years. Since that day on Calvary, many have struggled to understand this dilemma, putting forward theories that ranged from partial truth to heresy. We must find an explanation that embraces fact of the Cross without denying the nature of man. Once again, it must be a “both” instead of and “either/or”.
In my next post, I’ll take a look at what some of the early church fathers such as St. Augustine and St. Justine Martyr had to say about free will and what theories resulted. In addition, I’ll look at some other theologians such as John Calvin and Martin Luther for their perspective. I think all of these great men were well intended in their search for truth but as we shall see even the brilliant masters of the past can get a little off track.
Sorting this out won’t be easy; I can only begin to thank God for the Church that preserves the Truth.
More to come…