Free Will

By Tom M. Roberts

Some issues are so taken for granted that common acceptance belies their intrinsic value and native importance. Such an issue is the subject of free will. Among brethren, until fairly recent dates, free will has been an accepted doctrine, figuring unobtrusively in conclusions drawn from biblical principles. Events a corrupted nature have led to the recognition that we may have taken too much for granted, in fact. Theologians have debated God’s sovereignty and man’s free will for centuries, churning out volumes of commentaries from Augustine onward. Since most of us do not pretend to be theologians, we have allowed simple Bible exegesis to determine our approach to the subject more than philosophical reasoning. I have personally done little preaching on free will as a separate topic, choosing rather to include it by reference in related matters. With this discussion, I hope to stimulate others to further writing and preaching on what I believe to be a vital subject. Free will has far reaching implications relating to human nature, ethics, moral responsibility, social issues, and theology, including the question as to whether or not man is able to respond to his Creator’s will so as to exercise choice among moral contingencies. The particular view one espouses will determine attitudes and actions in “every issue of life” (Prov. 4:23).

Does man have genuine moral freedom, true choice among alternatives, the ability to make decisions without coercion of a genetically inherited disposition beyond individual control? Are there contingencies facing man which he will confront without determinism (the antithesis of moral freedom) or antecedent causes? Is man ultimately responsible for his actions? Can he “do” anything by free choice in response to God’s grace? Is punishment and reward fixed by God independent of any action on the part of man and by divine fiat before the worlds were formed? The very scope of these questions suggests their importance. The question that David pondered, “What is man. (Psa. 8:4), is still very much with us today.

The Nature of Creation

God made robots of many orders: animate (fish, fowl, beasts of the field) and inanimate (planets, trees, grass). An animal is no less a robot than a star, being programmed by instinct to act only according to its species, even as a star wanders according to the laws of the universe. A spawning salmon returns unerringly to the place of its birth, not because it chooses to do so, but because it is driven by instinct,: it cannot not return. A blade of grass or a flower springs forth, withers and dies, having no choice as to its existence, to bloom or not to bloom. Such creatures never weigh alternatives and choose a direction based on free, moral action. “Free” in this context is “absence of external compulsion,” action that spontaneously erupts from its subject. “Moral” denotes the “ability to know right from wrong.” Man is a free, moral creature and unique in that he is the only such creature on earth! It is this awesome uniqueness that sets man apart from all other beings and faces him with responsibilities that have eternal consequences. If man is moral, he can know right from wrong and will be held accountable for his actions. If man is but another robot, a living machine without morality, he has no more responsibility or accountability than the animate and inanimate robots of creation. An evil man would be no more guilty than a shooting star or raging torrent; a good man would be no more worthy of praise than a blooming flower. But, in the light of the Scriptures, who can accept such a position? Let us trace the biblical answers and learn the purpose of man’s creation.

Jehovah Created Us For His Own Glory

Basic to our study is the fact that Jehovah has the inherent right of the Creator to create as it pleases him. “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why didst thou make me thus?” (Rom. 9:20) Consequently, when God created, he did so to his own praise and glory. “Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power: for thou didst create all things, and because of thy will they were, and were created” (Rev. 4:11). But should we not consider that the highest order of praise and glory to God is that which is freely given? While it is true that the “heavens declare the glory of God” (Psa. 19:1), they do so by constraint (as robots) and not by choice. How, or in what fashion could the Lord bring into existence a creature that offered its Creator praise and glory not of constraint but by free choice? Is it not in the creation of a freewill being, something that could recognize the righteous nature of the Creator and, while able to act of his own will, willingly submit to God’s will? Is not man, therefore, the expression of God’s grand design to have a free-will creature, a higher order than anything on earth, to be able to choose to serve and glorify God with a free heart?

“Why did God make free-will creatures? The Bible does not give an explicit answer to this question. We infer from other teaching in the Scripture that God’s chief purpose and desire were to have creatures who would love, serve, and glorify him of their free choice and not by coercion or manipulation. We infer this, for example, from the fact that the first and greatest commandment is that we should love God with all our hearts and minds (Matt. 22:37). The fact that this is the most important thing that we can do suggests that it is what God desires from his creation more than anything else. Giving his creatures free will was a necessary means to this end.”(1)

We may also infer the truthfulness of this proposition from the projected destiny of those who choose to serve God: heaven. John sees the “holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of the throne saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:2-3). Though sin interrupted the grand plan of creation, it is yet achieved through Christ. Paul wrote “to fulfill the word of God, even the mystery which hath been hid for ages and generations: but now hath it been manifested to his saints, to whom God was pleased to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:25-27). We conclude, therefore, that God made man “a little lower than the angels, crowned him with glory and honor” (Heb. 2:7), instilled within him free will and the ability to choose righteousness, all to his own praise and glory. Man reaches no higher goal than when he serves God. “The whole (duty) of man” is to “fear God, and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13). “Unto thee, O Jehovah, do I lift up my soul” (Psa. 25:1). “1 will give thanks unto Jehovah with my whole heart; I will show forth all thy marvelous works” (Psa. 9:1). With these beautiful verses, I can add my own choice of praise, freely given, that “in me, Lord, thy purpose of creation is vindicated. I freely choose to serve thee.”

The Risk of Free Will

“A command makes sense only if the recipient is capable of doing either what is required or forbidden, in other words, only if he is a responsible being. So the divine prohibition implies that man is morally free. Adam and Eve were free to render or refuse obedience to God. Since, as we noted earlier, freedom involves the presence of genuine alternatives, God could not give man the freedom to obey and at the same time withhold the power to disobey. ‘Freedom to obey’ is nothing if it is not also the freedom to disobey. Consequently, had man been incapable of disobedience, his fulfillment of God’s requirements would not have been voluntary. And the word moral could not apply.

“The affirmation of moral freedom requires an open view of reality. When God gave man moral freedom, He was leaving undecided whether or not man would obey. In other words, He left open man’s response to God’s expectations of him. God might, presumably, have constructed man to respond to Him in only one way. But in that case moral experience would have been impossible, because man would not have been responsible for his behavior. Man is a morally free being, and the content of his decision to obey and disobey must have been indefinite until man himself made the decision.”(2)

“The fact that human beings (and angels before them) were created with free will, though, means that there was the possibility of or potential for evil. For if man is to have the ability freely to choose to love God, he must also be given the capacity to choose to hate and reject God. Thus in a sense the creation of free-will beings entailed a risk. But God was willing to risk the free choice of evil in order to have freely-chosen love and worship.”(3)

With these quotations, we introduce the thorniest of the problems of free will: sin. Why did God make man with the ability to sin? Why did God not make man with only the ability to do good? Did the Lord, as the creeds affirm, in contradictory fashion, “by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; (and here is the contradictory part, tr) yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 111:1)? Such statements beg the question before us and raise others. Is God responsible for man’s sin as the First Cause, thereby responsible for man’s eternal damnation since all creation was done unchangeable and by foreordination of “whatsoever comes to pass”? Or is man accountable for his actions precisely because God made him a free-will creature?

Since God is sovereign, he has the absolute right to do as he pleases. Yet we must conclude that he will not act in discord with is nature, even in creation. As James says, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempteth no man” (Jas. 1: 12). John adds, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5). We can safely conclude, therefore, that God could not, because of his righteous nature, create immutably and unchangeably a man who must sin and cannot help himself except to do as created, then hold that man accountable for that sin. The alternative, presented in the Bible, is that God, as a sovereign, created man as a free, moral being so that man might choose to serve God, yet, by the nature of free will, provide the potential (risk) that man would choose evil. In the moral sense, therefore, man himself is sovereign, in time (not eternity). Does not Ecclesiastes address the fact that man may act as he wills “under the sun” but that he should remember that “for all these things, God will bring thee into judgment” (11:10)? Will we do that for which we have been created, or will we go astray? As the Psalmist said, “Jehovah looked down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek after God” (14:2). Only man, of all the creatures of God, can say “no” to God. This rebelliousness is the risk of free will.

I believe that the story of Job is an illustration of this very principle: “Will man willingly serve his Creator as God intended?” If you recall, Satan accused Job of serving God only because it was convenient (God made Job wealthy). God..had stated that Job was a “perfect and upright man, one that feareth God” (1:8). The Devil’s accusation was: “Does Job fear God for nought?” (1:9) What Satan was charging against Job (and, consequently, against all men) is that man does not choose to serve God because it is right and good, but that he serves God only for what he can get. God then permits Satan to test Job’s free will (and he is testing ours today) to see if he will serve God out of a moral sense that it is right to do so even when suffering in the world that God created. In Job’s case, God’s purpose in creation was vindicated: the creature chose to serve the Creator, glorifying the work of his hands. Our case is still pending today. Will I serve God because I am able to do so with a free will that recognizes right and wrong and chooses the right?

The Origin of Sin

What is the origin of sin; where did it come from? If God is infinite in righteousness, how could sin originate in His universe? One of the arguments of the atheist against the existence of God is the reality of evil. The creeds have not adequately dealt with this issue of sin’s origin, as we have seen, falsely accusing God of unchangeably ordaining whatsoever comes to pass, yet ignoring the consequential result that such charges God with creating sin. I believe the answer to the questions about sin lie in a proper understanding of the free will nature of man as a moral creature of God. Putting what we have found in numerical sequence for clarification, we find:

1. God is a sovereign Creator.

2. He has made many creatures that me not free or moral. These creatures glorify God by their existence (Psa. 19:1).

3. God chose to create yet another creature that would be both free and moral, man. But to be truly free, man must be able to obey or disobey, possessing the capability of, and the potential for, sin.

4. Man did disobey and, as an accountable being, is responsible for sin. He did not have to sin, but chose to do so (Rom. 5:12), with the attendant consequences.

After affirming that God cannot be tempted with evil and that he tempts no man, James supports the above conclusions when he concludes, “but each man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. Then the lust, when it hath conceived, beareth sin: and the sin, when it is full grown, bringeth forth death” (Jas. 1:13-15). Herein lies the origin of sin: within the human heart that has the highest potential of praise to God or the blackest depth of sin’s degradation. Which shall it be? That is the work of choice, will, determination. All too often, we have chosen to do wrong and are in the bondage of sin (Rom. 7:24). But let there be no mistake as to the origin of sin or of man’s accountability for it. Recognizing the potential damnation of my soul through the choice to do evil, let me rather rejoice that I have the parallel potential to achieve a “greater weight of eternal glory” (2 Cor. 4:17), working God’s will in my life. Heaven will surely be worth it all.


1. What The Bible Says About God The Ruler, by John Cottrell (College Press), p. 398.

2. God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will, by Richard Rich (Bethany Press), Chap. 3, p. 38.

3. Op. Cit.

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 17, pp. 525-527
September 3, 1987