Do We Really Have "Free Will?"
Lorraine Day, M.D.
Most Christians - and non-Christians - believe that human beings have "free will." They reason that if we don't have free will then we must embrace the doctrine of fatalism, meaning, there's nothing we can do about anything anyway because it's all worked out ahead of time - as in the doctrine of predestination. Because this issue has an important bearing on the character of God, we must find out what the Bible teaches.
God's word does not support the doctrine of "free will", nor does it support the concept of fatalism. The Bible does speak of "free will" offerings, but on the other hand, God says He is operating ALL in accord with the counsel of His own will." (Eph 1:11, Rom 8:28) But these two doctrines, though seemingly opposites, can be harmonized. One doctrine happens to be the divine viewpoint and the other, the human viewpoint.
If God "is operating ALL in accord with the counsel of His OWN WILL," then everything must be pre-arranged. "If everything is pre-arranged, then what is the use of doing anything?" you may ask. How can God be running EVERYTHING, and yet human beings also have "free will"?
We must understand that man does not have "free will" even when he thinks he does. Why do corporations pay a million dollars per minute to advertise during the Super Bowl game? Because it works! Why does it work? Because if you repeat something often enough, people will respond to it and do what you want them to do -- buy your product. They will be influenced consciously or subconsciously, to change their mind and do something they hadn't intended to do. Their "free will" has been manipulated by someone else!
Sophisticated research has been carried out for many decades to develop methods to change peoples minds about a product or an issue, political or religious. We make our decisions based on a combination of what we see and experience as well as what is in our subconscious. Yet we have very little control over what is in our subconscious. Many circumstances in our lives are not under our control, yet these same circumstances, in conjunction with our subconscious mind, are a large part of our ultimate decision-making.
Many persons imagine that they are carrying out their own free will when, in fact, they are really carrying out the will of another who has a subtler intellect than their own.
Here's an illustration. Americans think we live in a free country. However, you are "free" only as long as you remain politically correct, you pay your income taxes, you don't speak about a bomb as you go through airport security, and many other restrictions of "freedom" we have learned to accept. We have accepted these restrictions, and the loss of many rights, yet we still consider ourselves "free."
Man's will is a product of heredity and environment. We were all born sinners. None of us has the freedom "not to sin." Therefore, we are NOT truly free! The Bible says, "ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23)
When a man makes up his mind, his will, he subconsciously considers his own ego, the contacts he has made in the world about him, the psychology of the moment, including at times, the state of his stomach, and the condition of his finances. If you are wise enough, you could probably make up his mind for him.
In fact, wise men have always acted on this principle. They do not attempt to capture the will of others by a frontal attack. They know that "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." So they execute a flank movement around the side. They seek to change or modify one or more of the factors which compose man's will. If a child will not eat healthful food, then let it go hungry for a while. If a child refuses to give up a sharp knife with which it might cut itself, then you offer it a more desirable plaything.
Few men and women ever attain maturity in such matters as these, and all people may be made to change their mind by the very factors which have formed it in the first place.
God is in control of everything that takes place in the universe. If He were not in control, the universe would be a madhouse. Throughout the Word of God, man's will is always subordinated to the will of God. Temporarily man's will appears to oppose God and is contrary to God's revelation in the Bible, but ultimately man's will works God's way. The Bible says that God "hardened" Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 9:12) to do exactly the opposite of what God appeared to want done. This is the way God works. God provides opposition to His Word in order to manifest Himself.
In order for God to reveal Himself to His creatures, it is God's will that His revealed will be opposed. In other words, God gave us the 10 Commandments, knowing that we would not be able to keep them, knowing that our carnal nature would be in opposition to this revealed will of His.
Have you ever wondered why God, Himself, put the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil right in the middle of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve couldn't possibly avoid it? Where they would be repeatedly enticed into eating from it? Where their temptation would be overwhelming?
If we don't want a little child to handle, and possibly break, fragile glass objects, we don't place those objects in easy reach of the child. We put them in a closet or on a high shelf where they will not be tempting to the little child. Yet God did exactly the opposite with Adam and Eve. He placed the forbidden tree right in the middle of the Garden, where they couldn't possibly avoid it. Then He told them "Don't eat of it." What was God's motive?
Think about this. We are told the Lamb (Jesus) was "slain from the foundation of the world," (Rev. 13:8) meaning that the Plan of Salvation, including Jesus' death for sinners, was planned BEFORE man was ever created. The Plan of Salvation REQUIRED that Jesus die on the cross. Therefore, Jesus had to come in the form of being that had the "ability" to die. Before Adam and Eve sinned, they were incapable of dying. They did not become subject to death until after they had sinned. If Adam and Eve, or their offspring had not sinned, neither they, nor Jesus would have been subject to death. Jesus could not have died and no one would have needed a Saviour anyway.
Therefore, sin and death had to have been an integral part of the Plan of Salvation.
God plants impulses in the human heart and surrounds men with influences that impel men to oppose God's revelation, just like God did with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is imperative that God should clash with His creatures. It is essential that their wills withstand His will. Men imagine that they are in control of their own will and that no one can break their resolution, not even God. But this is foolishness. Men have no greater control over their will than the captain of a sailing vessel has over the set of the sails. If the captain is not demented, he will set his sails to suit his course, and that is determined by the wind.
To suggest that God has created a world of little gods, with absolute wills, is to dethrone God. However, God does give mankind the consciousness that he has self-determination. It is essential to God's purpose that His creatures should be oblivious of the power which impels them, for their response must be without conscious constraint.
God, is the only Being in the universe who is unhampered by the chains of circumstance. God CREATES the circumstances in the lives of all of us. It is by this method that we walk in the steps which He has created for us before we were born. (Eph. 2:10) The highest and most powerful of earth's leaders play the part that God assigns them, though they don't know it.
Proverbs 21:1 says, "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will."
There is only one independent "free" will in the universe, and that is the will of God. In order to bring about His purpose, men must not be aware that they "live and move and have their being" in Him. The false "free will" that men believe they have, is the result of man being oblivious to God's ways. God provides opposition to His truth in order to make Himself known. Men imagine that their will is independent of God's will. Since they are unable to understand the intricacies that make up their own decisions, they delude themselves into thinking that their will is independent.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is a perfect example of God's way of working in our lives. Joseph's brothers were opposing the "will of God" by selling Joseph into slavery. They broke several of the Commandments, including "Thou shalt not kill" as Jesus said hating your brother in your heart is the same as murder. In addition, they lied to their father about what had happened to Joseph. But by resisting "God's will" they actually fulfilled God's ultimate INTENTION! For by selling their brother Joseph into slavery, they eventually produced their own earthly "saviour", who saved them from death by famine and who protected and nurtured the very origin of God's fledgling nation, Israel. Joseph, after he became the leader of Egypt under Pharaoh, was able to sustain his entire family by providing food for them and by providing a fertile area for them to live in, to multiply and begin the entire nation of Israel.
When the whole episode was over and their father Jacob had died, the brothers then thought Joseph would take revenge, and they pleaded for their lives. They went before him and fell before his face, terrified that he would now have them killed. But we are told in Genesis 50:19,20 that Joseph said unto them, "Fear not, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive."
There's the answer. That's the way God works. He sets us up against Him, and our sin ultimately leads to our salvation. God always brings good out of bad. The more we resist Him and the farther down we go, the more we will realize our ultimate need to depend entirely on Him.
Throughout this story of Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery, we can see that their own evil against Joseph ultimately led to their own conversion, repentance and salvation. It was a hard struggle and a lifetime of grief and guilt, but the entire family was saved and God had worked out His ultimate intention.
To summarize, we CAN resist God's will as revealed in the Bible (The 10 Commandments), but we CANNOT resist His ultimate intention, which is to save us all.
One way to understand this whole issue is to study the WORD of God -- The WORDS of God! The specific words in the original Greek and Hebrew scriptures are very meaningful and have, in many places, been mistranslated in the King James Version of the Bible, and in many other versions as well. In Paul's letter to Timothy (2 Tim 1:13) he tells Timothy "to have a pattern of SOUND words."
For instance, God's "will" is often watered down to a mere "wish" or changed to only a "desire." These mistranslations assure us that God does NOT "WILL" that all mankind be saved (1 Tim 2:4) but that He merely "desires" it. And since man WILLS otherwise, God is apparently powerless and impotent in the face of this "superior force" of man's human determination. How absurd!
Yet Philippians 2:13 says that "it is God who is operating in us to WILL and to DO HIS good pleasure."
Let us look at the original Greek words.
Will is thelo or thelema
Wish is euchomai
Desire is epithumia, and has to do with feelings, rather than with determination.
To be disposed is phroneo, and expresses the bent or bias.
Intend or intention is boulomai.
Each word has a specific meaning, yet the Bible translators have translated these words as they chose, rather than as to their true meaning. The exact meaning of each word can be understood by studying EVERY place in the Bible that the specific word is used, then making sure that the same English translation is used in EVERY instance that the specific Greek word is used.
But mistranslations abound. For instance, The word will is mistranslated into counsel, opinion, wish, about, eagerness, delight, accord and voluntary.
The word "wish" is euchomai, which lacks entirely the sense of determination that is essential to the word "will", as is shown by this word's occurrences in the following texts:
Acts 27:29 (KJV): When Paul was on the ship, right before it was going to be shipwrecked, we read the following: "Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished (euchomai) for the day (daybreak)."
Romans 9:3 (KJV): "For I would wish (euchomai) that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh."
3 John 2 (KJV): "Beloved, I wish (euchomai) above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth."
We can see that when the Bible wants to say wish, it has a special word for wish, and that is euchomai. The word will, which is the Greek word thelo or the derivative thelema is a totally different word from the word wish, which is euchomai. Thelo or thelema means will - it does NOT mean "wish", although the Bible translators take improper literary license to make it so.
The words intend and intention (from the Greek word boulomai) have a more far-reaching significance. They come from the verb "to plan", which means to look beyond the immediate action to the ultimate result. This is very important in the passages where it occurs, such as in the following texts:
Acts 27:42,43 (KJV): " And the soldiers' plan (counsel or intention = boule, from boulomai) was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim out, and escape." "But the centurion, willing (bouloma, which means intending - yet the margin actually reduces the word to "wanting") to save Paul, kept them from their purpose (boulomai = intention)."
In the literal translation from the Greek, the word is actually boulomai, which means intention or intending. It shows the ultimate result and the determination. And this is how verse 43 actually reads: "Yet the centurion intending to bring Paul safely through, prevents them from their intention."
Romans 9:19 (KJV): "Thou wilt say then unto me, why does He (God) yet find fault? For who has resisted His will?"
A direct translation from the Greek reads as follows: "Why then is He (God) still blaming? For who hath withstood His intention?"
As we can see, the word for will is thelo or thelema, the word for intention, is boulomai. These are both very different from the word for "wish", which is euchomai! Again, it is no wonder Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 1:13 that we should "have a pattern of sound words" when we are dealing with Scriptures.
It is obviously impossible to understand God's mind through man's mistranslations. Confusion with these terms has arisen on all sides. As a result, each one interprets to suit his own system of theology.
Translators tend to define the word thelo as will when it is used to describe man, and then to define the same word, thelo, as wish when it is used to describe God. Men are determined to have their own "will" and they deny that God is entitled to anything more than a "desire"! This is a direct result of man's inclination to exalt himself and to degrade God.
Do We Really Have "Free Will?" cont'd
If you study all of the occurrences of the Greek word thelema, or will, you will find that out of about 60 occurrences, at least 50 of them speak of the will of God! Man's will is not very important, according to the Scriptures.
Christ's whole mission is found in the text. "For He came to do the WILL of God." (Heb 10:7,9). In John 5:30 He says, "I am NOT seeking My will, but the will of Him who sends Me." It is NEVER found in the Bible that Jesus exercised His own will, except when it was in complete accord with His Father's will. Jesus did NOT do His own will, He did His Father's will. We do not need vigorous determination in the crisis of our lives, but we need strength to acquiesce to God's will for us.
If we want to see where OUR "free will" leads us, look to the crucifixion. Whenever you hear human determination exalted, let your ears hear that cry of 2000 years ago, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him." This was the "will" of God's supposed church of the time, those who had God's revelation, the religious nation of the Jews, who had been trained by the law and knew the "will" (Romans 2:18).
We have NO will of our own. If we haven't acquiesced to the will of God, we are controlled by the will of Satan. There is NOTHING in between! Most human beings are controlled by their wants and senses, and find their wills powerless to resist their carnal desires. The main purpose of this "earth walk" journey of ours is to allow us, with God's help, to understand and overcome our fleshly nature. It's called the process of sanctification. If we don't overcome our fleshly nature and learn to live like Jesus, we are not fit to live forever with the Lord.
In Romans 9:9-18, Paul informs us that "It is NOT of him who is WILLING, nor of him who is RACING (running), BUT OF GOD THE MERCIFUL." "It is a sad sign of the times that the perversity of mankind persists in injecting passages on other subjects in order to nullify this very decisive declaration of God. In Revelation 22:17 it says 'Whosoever will' are invited to take the Water of Life freely. The use of this phrase in preaching the Gospel is a most flagrant perversion. Also, to reason that because some will not come to Christ (John 5:40), therefore only those who WILL are saved, is only one more instance of the depravity of the human intellect. In truth ALL men will NOT come to Christ. There "WILL" prevents them. Only the superior power of God's will actually brings men to Him. Remember Jesus said "No one can come to Me unless the Father draws him." (John 6:44) Philippians 2:13 says, "It is GOD Who is operating in you TO WILL as well as to work for the sake of His delight." By means of God's Spirit and God's Word, our own "will" is superseded by God's determination." (1)
"But there are those who cry out greatly against making puppets, or mere automatons, out of men. At all hazards, we are told, we must maintain human individuality and the godlike attribute of "free will." What is the meaning of this? It is nothing less than a revolt of the creature against the Creator, the desire to be as God, even though it is always presented under the guise of religion. This doctrine of "free will" is found nowhere in the Scriptures, but it is the basis of most interpretations of the Bible...In their proud repudiation of the position of puppets, men are acting merely as phonographs, for they repeat a well worn record made by the spirit that is operating in the 'sons of stubbornness' before man imagined he had a 'free will' in the Garden of Eden, "You shall be as God." Satan provides the record - and Satan turns the handle - and man speaks! What a wonderful little god he is!" (2)
Few of us understand what it is to be a creature, a created being. If we have so much "free will" why weren't we consulted when we were born, regarding our place of birth, our nationality, who our parents would be, our face, our body build. All of these were forced on us. Even our body functions are involuntary. They are not controlled by our "will." We eat our food, and it is digested and the nutrients sent to the proper place in the body without us being able to exert any influence over the digestive and assimilation process. We breathe in the air, almost unconsciously. We may want to be tall, but we are small. No one can "add a cubit to his height."
But just because the Scriptures clearly teach us that a man has no free will does not prove that man cannot be judged by God for his actions. Rom 3:9-19 says that ALL are subject to His just verdict. We are not discussing man's relation to God's judgement, but God's absolute will to save all of His lost creatures. Because of God's WILL, no creature has any jurisdiction over his own destiny, in order to be lost eternally. Look at the story of the Potter and the clay in Romans 9:16-21:
"So then it is NOT of him that willeth, NOR of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. (Comment: It is NOT our will that is in charge, but it is of ALL of God!)
"For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, "Even for this same purpose have I raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth." (Comment: God raised Pharaoh up precisely for God to show His own power.)
"Therefore He has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardens. (Comment: God decides on whom He will have mercy and whose heart He will harden.)
"You will say then to me, 'Why does He (God) find fault? (Comment: The question asked here is "How can God hold US responsible, if He is the one doing it?") For who has resisted His will?
"But who are you to reply against God? Shall the thing that is formed say to Him that formed it, 'Why have you made me so?
"Has not the potter power over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?"
God says He makes one vessel for honor and one for dishonor and no one has a right to tell Him what to do because He is the Creator. God, and ONLY God, is in charge!
The theory of man's "free will" actually elevates man ABOVE God!
There is NO question about God. He WILLS that ALL men be saved (1 Tim 2:4), but, according to Christian theology, He is impotent to carry out His will. Yet, on the other hand, when man wills NOT to be saved, he apparently is omnipotent, and God Himself can do nothing! This is deification of man and dethronement of God!
God can manage even the greatest of men with ease as seen in Revelation 17:17. Everyone today knows how difficult it is to get the rulers of various nations to agree. Yet the ten kings are led by God Himself in their opposition to His will! "God imparts to their hearts to form His opinion," and to be unanimous in it. If God can do that with ten world powers at the zenith of their might, it will be nothing at all for Him to turn human hearts toward Himself. Undoubtedly, the ten kings will pride themselves on carrying out their own "free will." No man is conscious of what is put in his heart. It is God Who "locks all up together in stubbornness" (Romans 11:32). He Who locks, can also unlock.
"The case of Pharaoh is the classic example of the gulf between God's will and God's intention. God's revealed will was very plain. He said, "Let My people go!" Eventually, Israel was liberated. But the account clearly shows that God's intention included more than His revealed will, and that it also involved opposition to His will. God's revealed will, what Israel understood, was limited to the release of Israel. But His intention was to display His own power and glorify His Name in all the earth through the process. This is given to us as an example of God's complete purpose - and of the process by which He will attain it. God uses both ignorance of, and opposition to, His will, to bring about His final object.
"But it is obvious that God could not have revealed His intention. He could not tell Pharaoh that while He asked him to let the people go, he really did not want him to comply, but desired to use him as a foil for the revelation of God's power. This would actually make a mere machine out of Pharaoh. Instead, it was the ignorance of God's ultimate object, which made the whole procedure real to the actors in it. They did not by any means feel or act as mere puppets. Notwithstanding that each and every one was doing precisely what was needed to accomplish God's final goal." (3)
The highest expression of God's wisdom lies in His ability to transform every effort against Him into that which is not only favorable to His plan, but absolutely essential to His purpose. Truth needs opposition for its development and dissemination.
God always brings something good out of something bad. When all is over, there will be a perfected universe. We will not be worrying about our past sins, but we will be overwhelmed with God's wisdom and love in their vindication. He will bring good out of every sinful act. In absolute reality, every sin will be justified by God turning it into something good. This is true "Justification."
This teaching gives us stability, and a calm confidence in the face of chaotic conditions that surround us. But we are not worried as we once were by the awful opposition to God's will. We know that God will fulfill His purpose. The deluge of evil and sin, however contrary it may be to His will, is essential and indispensable to His ultimate intention.
God is a Deity infinite in power, matchless in wisdom, limitless in His affections, Who is "operating ALL in accord with the counsel of His OWN WILL." (Eph 1:11)
In Old Testament times, "God hardened Pharaoh's heart (Ex 10:20). So also today, "whom He is willing, He is hardening." (Rom 9:17,18)
God's ultimate intention is to become ALL in His creatures. (1 Cor 15:28) Will He accomplish this by giving each person an independent "will" so that they may be His rivals in the regulation of the universe? Is total chaos the end that God has in view? Of course not. That's why every creature in creation now "lives and moves and has their being in God!" (Acts 17:28)
God created every one of us. He is responsible for us, just as parents are responsible for the children they bring into the world. We had no choice to be anything but a sinner. God's plan is to reconcile ALL to Him (Col 1:20)
When parents give birth to children, it is their obligation to take care of them. By the same reasoning, God created us and He knew we would all be sinners, surrounded by darkness. He too, has an obligation to care for us, just as we have an obligation to care for our children.
It would be cruel for God to give us total free will, to allow us to be completely on our own when He knows we are incapable of running our lives. We don't know what's going to happen in the next year, in the next day, nor even in the next hour. But God does. To leave us on our own would be the same as taking our 7 year old child to the center of New York City, leaving him there and saying, "You're on your own!" No responsible parent would do that. Neither would God leave us in a similar situation.
How comforting to know that God cares so much for us that He is not willing to let us drift through life with our own "free will." Instead He is in control. He is operating ALL in accord with the counsel of HIS OWN WILL" (Eph 1:11) and His WILL is that NONE should perish, but ALL should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
God will eventually lead EVERY ONE He has created, back to Him.
There is room for ONLY ONE "WILL" in this world. God WILL be ALL in ALL (1 Cor 15:28). His WILL alone, is irresistible. His will is the ONLY will that will prevail. Jesus said, "If I be lifted up, I WILL DRAW ALL unto Me." (John 12:32).
(1)(2)(3) Knoch, A.E. The Problem of Evil...the Judgments of God. Concordant Publishing Concern
For more information see the studies on "Predestination" and "What Happens at the Judgement?