Thursday, April 18, 2013

What Is Free Will According to the Bible?

The issue of free will is a common topic of thought that influences so much of how we perceive the world. In Christian circles, it delineates how we understand God’s sovereignty. The relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s will may not be immediately evident if you’ve never thought about it, but when the different views are investigated, it’s not man’s will that is primarily at stake, but God’s sovereignty.

The two general views I will be discussing loosely be referred to as “synergism” held by “synergists” and “monergism” held by “monergists”. Other terms are often used for either view, but these more closely describe their differences.

  1. Synergists hold that God created man with a free will that God has no control at all over. This doesn’t speak to how God has no control over man’s will. Synergists vary widely on their explanations here and I won’t discuss those here. Essentially, for man to be saved, God does his part and man does his part.
  2. Monergists hold that God created man with a free will that is limited by God’s will. For man to be saved, God does all of it including giving faith to the man. With the faith that God has given, man therefore freely chooses God.

Systems of Categories

To properly understand the issue, we need to clarify the differences in categories. Because of cultural sensibilities in the West, most people categorize willful actions into two mutually exclusive categories:

a. Things God controls.

b. Things man controls.
This is the basic understanding of synergists.

The question then arises whether this categorical system is understood and employed by the Biblical authors. Paul, writing to Jews and Greeks alike in his letter to the Romans, understands that some may use this system. In chapter 9 he anticipates the question, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But his answer is to imply a different system of categorization: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

Paul had already discussed this other system of categorization in Romans 6. There he indicates that we are either in bondage to sin or in bondage to righteousness. There is no middle of the road. He indicates that we will either desire sin or desire God’s will when he says in verse 17 that “you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” Even still, he recognizes that cultural philosophies will make it difficult for many to understand when he says in verse 19, “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.”

He also teaches this to the Corinthians in the second letter we have to them. In chapter 4 Paul writes in verse 7 that “the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” The verses that follow spell out the nature of what this means. But the previous verse tells us something else about how the will of man and God’s will differ:

‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shown in our hearts to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’

Some synergists contend that this means that God brings us up to the point where we can choose freely, indicating that we could choose to deny God at this point. I would disagree saying that this is a description of what Paul indicates in Rom 12:3. However, I want to point out something else that both side should agree with in this verse: God’s will is creative and man’s will is reactive. In other words God’s will creates what God desires by the sheer power of God. Man can create nothing. Rather, we make choices that are before us based on factors that are entirely within God’s creative order. God’s will creates. Our will reacts to creation. There is nothing above God that hinders him in any way.

But perhaps our best example is Jesus Christ. Both God and man, he has a will that is both creative and reactive. This is why he told the disciples in John 6 that he came “not to do my own will, but of the will of [the father].” Therefore, we are to use a different system of categorization than the one above:
a. God’s will

b. Man’s will

This is the basic understanding of monergists.

On the surface, this looks like a different way of writing the same categories. However, they indeed are different. In the first set, man controls things that God does not. The set of things that man controls are subject to his decisions. Following God is not in the set of things that God controls. In the second set of categorizations, man can either choose to do God’s will or to do his own will. If it is God’s will that he chooses to do God’s will, then even that is God’s will. Man’s will is anything that does not agree with God’s will. So if we do Man’s will, we are in bondage to sin. If we do God’s will, we are in bondage to righteousness and free from sin.

The mistake in most debates is to conflate these two systems. You can’t impose one system on the other and expect to have a reasonable debate. The reason is because the method of God’s influence is confused. Synergists will incorrectly interpret monergism as indicating that God manipulates his people like puppets. This is an incorrect understanding of the second system. Monergists may incorrectly interpret the first system as indicating that synergists don’t truly believe that God is sovereign. 

The Fundamental Difference

However, Monergists aren’t far off base. What synergists do in order to claim God as sovereign is to modify their definition of sovereignty. Many of them hold definitions that are within the pale of Christian orthodoxy, so they should be well accepted as brothers and sisters in Christ.

What I do note is that synergists actually hold to some limitations on the free will of man. For example, who would say, if asked, that men can make decisions that are not before them to make. Can I decide to buy a blue car if only a green one or a red one is available? No. That decision is not before me. Can I decide to create a new universe that does not exist? No. I don’t have that power. I can perhaps imagine another universe to some small degree, but actually creating one is outside of my will. Can I make a decision that belongs to someone else? To be sure, people try to do this. They influence public opinion with propaganda or try to manipulate the factors that influence a person’s decision. However, none of us has the power to directly make a decision for someone else. We have limits on our will.

So, synergists should agree that man’s will is limited. Monergists already hold this openly. The difference is merely one of degree.

What is truly different is that monergists place no limit whatsoever on the sovereignty of God. Synergists must. If man is to have things that he controls that God does not, then God must not have control over those things. That’s a limitation on his sovereignty. So the question of free will is really no so much about the will of man, although it is to a degree; it’s really about the sovereignty of God. 

Monergistic Method of Free Will

For the Synergists out there who might chance to read this, you may be wondering how it is that monergists believe that God gives free will, limited as it is, and yet remains completely sovereign over all things. I will explain what it is that monergists generally believe.

There are two areas of influence that God takes with people. Everyone is influenced by his created order. No one makes any decision or choice that isn’t contingent on God’s created order. God doesn’t directly influence decisions, but the free will of man flows out of what is to us an extremely complex set of physical and spiritual factors. Remember that I said that God’s will is creative and man’s will is reactive.

But there’s another factor that only some people have. God himself indwells some people. That doesn’t mean that God is directly making the decisions for the people he indwells. Rather, he guides, like a father, those he indwells. He holds back information until his people are mature enough to handle that information. They can use the information they obtain as they grow in their understanding of God to make decisions. What God creates in them is not a compulsory faith, but a faith of life. Indwelling his children has made them alive so that they are no longer in bondage to sin, but free from sin and in bondage to righteousness. That means that they have a desire for God. What God gives his children in the regenerating life of the Holy Spirit is a desire for God that they absolutely did not have before.

That’s how God influences his children. As such, I will testify that my will is not my own, but my desire, like Christ, is to do the will of my Father in heaven.

To God be the Glory!


  1. Hi JIM,

    I wrote a response about your concern addressed to Mike Leake, and since my comments on SBCVoices often get lost in the machine, I thought to bring it here. you can read it and delete it, hope you don't mind me doing this:

    "“I just don’t seem to have enough information to proceed intelligently.”

    if truth be known, most Christian people come to a place where they sit down and ask God for direction . . . it is not uncommon to have a time of prayer and patient waiting to be ‘shown the way forward’ . . .

    in the 1300′s, Birgitta of Sweden recorded this prayer:

    “O Lord, make haste and illumine the night.
    Say to my soul
    that nothing happens without Your permitting it,
    and that nothing of what You permit is without comfort.
    O Jesus, Son of God,
    You Who were silent in the presence of Your accusers,
    restrain my tongue
    until I find what should say and how to say it.
    Show me the way and make me ready to follow it.
    It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward.
    Answer my petition and show me the way.
    I come to You as the wounded go to the physician in search of aid.
    Give peace, O Lord, to my heart. ”

    For that element of ‘anxiety’ that comes from not knowing . . . here is some insight from Tolkien . . . reading it, I am reassured about our perspective will change when our eyes refocus on the light of the Risen Christ:

    ” There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. ” (JRR Tolkien, The Return of the King)"

    1. Thanks, Christiane. In this case, I've been praying this kind of prayer and awaiting a response for a very long time.

      On the one hand I hear various ministers who claim to know that their path has been made very clear from the beginning.

      On the other hand many ministers observe that there is no silver-bullet personal revelation but that we proceed reasonably according to the gifts we have been given and apply them to the opportunities we have available.

      In the latter vein, some people seem to have no end of opportunities. Other people go about creating their own opportunities. I'm not gifted in creating my own opportunities.

      Therefore, I either need a personal revelation, a clear opportunity, a special gifting for creating an opportunity, or someone to come alongside whose gift is creating opportunities. So those things I pray for.

  2. I suspect that now, since you have made your trial known to others on Voices, that many will come alongside you in prayer . . . you will never be alone in your trouble within the Body of Christ . . . be encouraged. God is good to us in ways that we cannot understand in this life.

    In the meantime, spend time immersed in sacred Scripture in a quiet place. When the fog begins to clear, you will be guided to go forward.