Ask Pastor Alex, Ep. 38
This is the Ask Pastor Alex podcast with your host, Pastor Alex. All right, welcome back to the podcast, everyone. We’re here with another episode and another question. And sorry for the delay. We got pretty busy here at the church. We had, unfortunately, a number of deaths in our church family, and so we had a number of funerals to do, as well as a wedding and just all the other things that go into pastoral ministry. So I do apologize for having to miss a week, but we’re back and we have a new question this week. And that question is, do humans have free will?
And that’s a really good question. It’s actually a very fun topic to discuss with people because there are a lot of ideas about free will today. And people can mean different things when they refer to free will. I think when most people think about and refer to free will, they’re referring to our freedom to choose. By free will, they mean humans have the ability to make real, meaningful choices. And when they apply this idea to the conversation about God, they’ll say people have the ability to accept or reject Jesus. That people can choose Jesus or they can not choose Jesus. And that’s typically their idea of free will in this discussion about God.And at the beginning of this discussion, we need to understand that there are different understandings of the will and moral responsibility.
For instance, the first and most common view is called libertarian free will. In simple terms, this view believes that humans have complete and total control over their choices. In other words, libertarian free will is the ability to choose otherwise. So, for instance, a person might have chosen to eat cake for dessert, but they could have chosen otherwise. They could have chosen a different dessert or chosen no dessert at all. And so within this view, humans are completely responsible for all the decisions they make because their decisions were theirs and theirs alone. But then there’s another view. And another view of the will and moral responsibility is something called compatibilism. And within compatibilism, this view states that while it’s true that humans make choices, outside factors often influence those choices. However, even though outside factors might influence our decisions, we are still completely responsible for the decisions that we make because we are the ones who made those decisions. And so compatibilism says that our choices have been influenced, but that we’re still responsible for making the choices that we ultimately make. One final view within this conversation is known as determinism. This view suggests that our choices are determined by factors beyond our control. This view is the complete opposite of libertarian free will. This view says that people don’t actually have the ability to choose otherwise. They do what they do because they have to, and there’s nothing they can do about it. And it’s hard to make a case for human responsibility within this view, since humans are essentially robots who have no control over the choices they make.
And so here’s what we need to do. We need to address these differing views of the will and assess them, especially biblically. And as we do this, I know we’re not going to go in the exact order that we just covered them in, but first and most obvious, we can say with confidence that determinism is unbiblical. The Bible never portrays humans as robots acting in ways that they have no control over and only making predetermined decisions. That’s not what we see in Scripture at all. So it’s pretty easy to dismiss determinism as being unbiblical. But second, and this is the one that people don’t like to admit or have to talk about or deal with, is we also need to admit that ibertarian free will is unbiblical as well. Since this view teaches that people can literally do anything they will to do, it should be obvious that reality does not align with that view at all. You know, I may want to fly, but I can’t will myself to fly. Also, none of the choices that we make are completely without influence. We all grew up in certain environments. We all have been exposed to various things throughout our lives. We all have influences that affect the decisions that we make every time we make a decision. So we should understand that libertarian free will doesn’t necessarily align with reality.
But finally, the Bible makes it clear that there are some choices, some decisions that human beings cannot make on their own apart from outside influence and help. And we’re going to get into that in just a little bit, but I just want to let you know just right here at the start that libertarian free will is also entirely unbiblical. That yes, we do make real choices and we make choices every single day, but the Bible is going to go on to say that there are certain decisions and choices and things that we literally cannot do apart from God intervening n our lives first. You see, I don’t think people really understand what they really mean when they talk about the will and free will. I don’t know that most people have given it the thought that it deserves because it’s just a phrase that we throw around. We talk about free will, but what does that even mean? What are you referring to when you use that phrase? What I want people to understand is basically the biggest thing that we need to understand as we have this conversation is that people are going to act in accordance with their nature. I think that’s a better understanding of the will and how to understand free will versus compatibilism versus determinism, all that kind of stuff, is to just simply understand that our wills are nothing more than our natures at work. And so let’s dive into the Bible and see what it has to say on this topic.
And as we have often done on this podcast, we have to go all the way back to the beginning, back to Genesis. In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve. And listen, Adam and Eve, they had a very unique nature. Since they were created before sin had affected all of humanity and contaminated literally every part of us, Adam and Eve did have something pretty close to libertarian free will. In other words, Adam and Eve, since they did not have a corrupted will or a corrupted nature, they could literally choose good or evil, and that choice was a free choice. The Bible says in Genesis 2, 16 through 17, and the Lord God commanded the man saying, you may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it, you shall surely die. Now, that was the decision, the choice that God put before Adam and Eve, and it wasn’t arbitrary or false. The choice really was theirs, and they really could have chosen either option. They could have chosen to eat of the tree or they could have chosen to not eat of the tree. Their wills were free wills in that sense. They had a real legitimate choice and could have chosen otherwise. And then we see that they choose of their own free will to ebel and sin against God. I mean, yes, the serpent did tempt them, but the choice was entirely theirs. And something really interesting happens after they sin against God. Writing of Adam’s sin, Paul explains in Romans 5, 18, that one trespass led to condemnation for all men. I think we’ve explained this on the podcast before, but this idea is that Adam was our federal head, meaning that Adam represented all of humanity. And so, when Adam rebelled and sinned against God, it was as though we all had sinned and rebelled against God. So, this means that Adam’s guilt was passed down to all men, and this is why his trespass led to condemnation for all men, because as Paul explains in Romans 5, 12, just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all sinned. In other words, when Adam and Eve sinned against God, not only was their guilt passed down to all people, but also a sin nature was passed down to all people.
The nature of man literally changed when sin came into the world. No longer did we have this innocent nature, but rather we had a nature that had been totally corrupted by sin. And the effects of sin are apparent all throughout Scripture. I mean, just a few chapters later in Genesis chapter 6, we read this. 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. So, you read that and you realize gone is the innocent man God created, and now in his place is the fallen man, the man whose nature and will has been corrupted by sin in such a way that every intention of his heart is evil. In fact, later in Scripture in Jeremiah, the Bible says, the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. In other words, the Bible is saying there that the heart has been so corrupted by sin that it’s no longer trustworthy. And our wills, I want you to understand this folks, our wills are greatly affected by sin too. After humanity becomes corrupted by sin, we see that unlike Adam and Eve, we are no longer able to choose good because our sin nature won’t allow us to. So remember, Adam and Eve, they had the real ability to either choose good or choose evil, and that was a real choice that they were able to make.
But once sin has entered into the world and our wills have been corrupted by sin, the Bible literally says we can’t choose good anymore because our wills won’t allow us to, our natures won’t allow us to. In fact, it’s even worse. The Bible portrays humanity as not only no longer having the ability to choose good, but not even having the desire to choose good. Paul says in Romans chapter three, none is righteous. No, not one. No one seeks for God. All have turned aside. Together they have become worthless. No one does good, not even one. This applies to all of humanity. There are no truly good people in the eyes of God. All of humanity has turned aside. No one does good or chooses to do good. We only choose evil all the time. And Paul further makes that point in Romans six, where he explains that all people who have not yet trusted in Christ, all those who are still dead in their sins, he says they are slaves to sin. It means that they don’t really get to choose anything for themselves, just like a slave. What does a slave do? Does a slave get to make free decisions? No, he doesn’t. Slaves have to do the bidding of their master. And according to the Bible, if you are dead in your sins, if you haven’t trusted in Christ, your master is sin and you must do the bidding of your master. And so they will only ever listen to and obey sin as long as they are slaves to sin. In fact, you want to make this even worse. The Bible says that while a person is dead in their sins, it’s actually impossible for them to do good in the eyes of God or obey God.
I want you to listen to me on that, folks, and I want you to understand that because I’m going to back it up with scripture. I’m about to read it, but please understand what I’m saying here because a lot of people have a huge misunderstanding about this. Too many people in our world today just tend to think of people in our world as being mostly good. Anybody can please God. Anybody can do something that’s going to make God happy and please Him. And anybody can submit to God and obey God just because they choose to do so on their own. And that is literally not what the Bible says at all. So here’s what the Bible says, Romans 8, 7, and 8, for the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God. So the mind that’s set on the flesh, that’s a person who hasn’t yet trusted in Christ for salvation, who hasn’t repented of their sins. The mind that’s set on the flesh is hostile to God for it does not submit to God’s law. All right, notice that there. That speaks of what they do or do not do. They choose not to, so they do not submit to God’s law. But the verse continues, indeed, they cannot. So it’s not just that they don’t want to, they lack the ability. And then the verse even continues, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. And so the Bible makes very clear, if you are dead in your sins, if you have not repented of your sins and trusted in Christ for salvation, you will never please God until you are freed from your sins, until the Holy Spirit has brought conviction upon you and removed that heart of stone and replaced it with a heart of flesh, until the Holy Spirit comes and breaks the bonds of sin that have enchained you and enslaved you and freed you and your will to finally be able to do what God requires you to do. I want you to understand what the Bible is saying. The Bible is saying there are literally some things that humans cannot do apart from God intervening in their lives and giving them the ability to do. We need to pay attention to what the Bible is actually saying here. It’s not only speaking of a desire, but also of an ability. Those who are dead in their sins cannot please God. They have no ability to please God. They cannot choose anything that will please God. They cannot submit to God’s law. Their wills are limited, enslaved to sin, and therefore not truly free. Their wills are in bondage to sin. And listen, if you want more scripture to back this up, 1 Corinthians chapter 2 verse 14, this is what it says, the natural man, again remember that means referring to those who are still dead in their sins, does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. So again, notice how that also echoes Romans chapter 8 there. Those who are still dead in their sins, they don’t accept anything from the Spirit of God for two reasons. One, because they’re folly to him, meaning he thinks they’re stupid, and two, because he’s not able to. Now that speaks of ability, doesn’t folks? We always want to talk about free will this, free will that, people can do this and people can do that. The Bible literally says here, they do not have the ability. It’s not just that they don’t have the desire, they don’t have the ability. They cannot do it. They literally cannot will themselves to accept the things of God because they lack the ability.
You put all this together and you realize that though God created man with an untainted free will, that will was corrupted after the fall. After the fall happened and sin came to the world, the Bible says that our wills were enslaved to sin. And so, our wills are not free anymore in the technical sense. If you are a person who has not repented of your sins and trusted in Christ, if you’re not a Christian, the Bible says that your will is literally not free. It is enslaved to sin and you must do the bidding of your master. You will only ever choose what is wrong and not pleasing in the eyes of God because the Bible says that those who are dead in their sins, they literally cannot please God. They cannot choose the good. They cannot do any of these things. You see, this is what we have to understand here. The will has to act in accordance with a person’s nature. And all of humanity’s nature after the fall is that of a fallen sinful man. And so, man’s will is in bondage to sin. It has to do sins bidding. Fallen men will never choose God because he can’t choose God. For some reason, I know that sounds controversial today, even though it’s literally just what the Bible says. And we’ve been reading verses. I could have given you even more verses to back that up, but it’s literally what the Bible says. Fallen man will never choose God because he can’t choose God. Sin will not allow him to choose God. He will never choose what’s good in God’s eyes. He will never do anything that pleases God because he can’t. His will is corrupted. And so, he will only ever choose evil all the time. He will only choose sin. He is making the choice, and it’s a real choice. No one’s denying that he’s actually choosing something, but he is choosing something and making his decisions in accordance with his nature, which is fallen and sinful. And if this sounds depressing, it is. This is the problem with humanity in the Bible is that we’ve been so corrupted by sin that we literally can’t even do anything for ourselves.
What humanity needs is for someone to come along and truly free our wills. We need someone to come and break the bonds our wills are in. Someone to restore our wills to their original design. And listen to me, folks, this is why the good news of Jesus is such good news, because that’s exactly what Jesus does. The Bible says that the Father draws us to Jesus. He’s wooing us with his love and his grace and his mercy and his kindness. When we hear the gospel, the Holy Spirit convicts us. He breaks the old heart. He causes us to be born again. He gets rid of the old heart. He gives us a new heart. He releases us from the bondage of sin. He literally frees our wills. The Bible says in Romans 6 22, but now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification in its end, eternal life. And so thanks to God, we are no longer slaves to sin. Our wills are no longer in bondage to sin, but now we have been set free and we are slaves to God and righteousness. Our wills have been restored. While we were dead in our sin, we didn’t have the desire or the ability to choose good. We couldn’t do it, but now once the Holy Spirit frees us, we now can. We can choose good or we could choose bad. We could choose good or we could choose evil. Unfortunately, even Christians aren’t sinless and we still have some indwelling sin left to mortify, which means we’re not always going to choose good like we should. We still mess up. We still sin. We still choose that which displeases God, but at least now, thanks to God, we do actually have the desire and the ability to choose good and that which pleases God.
So you wrap all this up and you ask the question again, do humans have free will? It just depends on what you mean by that. If you mean, do humans make real choices that come from their heart, I would say yeah, absolutely. Or if you’re asking, can humans o anything they want to that is within their ability, I would say yes to that as well. But the problem that the Bible portrays is that if you apply this conversation to God, we don’t have the desire. So yeah, we can do whatever we want to within our ability, but number one, we don’t want to choose God and number two, we don’t have the ability to choose God. So we don’t have free wills in the sense that we can choose absolutely anything. We need to understand from this whole conversation that wills always act in accordance with a person’s nature. And the Bible says that those who are dead in their sins, who have yet to repent and trust in Christ, have a fallen sinful nature. The Bible says that their wills are in bondage to sin and must do sins bidding. So their wills act in accordance with their nature and in obedience to their master. Therefore, those who are still in their sins do not have the desire or the ability to choose good or do good or submit to God’s law or choose God or please God at all. They do make choices, they do make decisions, but all of their choices and decisions are sinful. They still need Jesus to break sins bonds and set them free. Those who have repented and trusted in Jesus have been set free from sins bondage and have become slaves of God and righteousness. They have a new nature. And so their wills act in accordance with their nature and in obedience to their master. They don’t always choose what is right and good, unfortunately, but at least they finally have the desire and the ability to do so. They make choices and decisions aiming for that which pleases God while also still battling the influence of sin that surrounds them.
So what you need to remember most is that a person’s nature determines their will. And in order to have a truly free will, a person must be set free by Jesus. So I hope that that answer has helped and brought some clarity to your question. And I really appreciate the question and look forward to answering more in the future.