Whenever the question ‘Do you believe in free will?’ comes up, I want to stop the conversation and step back about thirty yards. Too often that question is presented as if there are only two answers:
- Yes, I believe in free will (and therefore, righteously and obviously affirm the moral responsibility of humanity).
- No, I don’t believe in free will (and therefore deny the moral responsibility of humanity and foolishly make humanity to be a set of fated robots).
The trouble with this subject is the binary nature of the question. What if instead of asking, “Do you believe in free will? Yes or no?” We ask, what does the Bible say about humanity and our freedom? Though any answer that follows is still to be tainted by our own philosophical (and geo-political) prejudices, it might just get us a bit closer to a good set of questions and a more biblical answer.
But if we take time to consider this subject biblically, what kind of questions should we ask? And if Scripture doesn’t give us a philosphical treatise on the matter, what kind of passages can we find? The answer is that Scripture is filled with passages that address the inner psychology of the soul; the Bible regularly describes the mind, will, emotions, and heart—not to mention the image of God. And, in fact, it does so with regard to four different states of existence.
Or, as Thomas Boston (1676–1732) put it: The Bible describes humanity in its “fourfold state.” In his classic work on the subject, Humanity in its Fourfold State, Boston lays out four ‘states’ of humanity that are essential to understanding this question. He outlines the four states of mankind like this,
- Primitive Integrity – Adam and Eve
- Entire Depravity – Every man and woman born in Adam
- Begun Recovery – Every man and woman born again in Christ
- Consummate Happiness or Misery – Every man and woman raised to glory
To follow this outline, I contend, will lead the conversation about free will to a far more biblical conclusion. And the reason is that Boston’s outline is not just a clever way around the question. Rather, it is a synthesis of Scripture. Instead of creating an untenable binary concerning freedom granted or denied—is humanity human or robot?— Boston follows the four stages of redemption— Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation—to posit a plausible explanation of how men and women made in God’s image experience freedom according to their nature.
For me, this is the way to answer the question. In redemptive history there are four states of humanity, just like Boston outlined. Two of them are out of bounds today—(1) the state of innocence and (4) the state of glory. Two of them are in play today—(2) the man or woman dead in sin and (3) the man or woman alive in Christ. To ask the question about free will indiscriminately of these factors is to miss all Scripture says about the condition of mankind and the place sin and regeneration play in the answer.
Thus, if you are wrestling with the subject, I encourage you to pick up Boston’s book. Or if you are looking for something more recent (and something a bit shorter), Robert Peterson’s Election and Free Will is equally biblical. More compact still, I have put together this chart to help identify some of the main texts which get to the heart of the matter.
Remember, the goal of this question is not win a debate, but to bring our minds in conformity to God’s Word (Romans 12:1–2). And thus, if we are willing to hear what Scripture says, we soon learn that the free will depends on the nature of the person—In Adam (before sin), In Adam (in sin), In Christ (by grace), In Christ (in glory).
|Redeemed Humanity||Glorified Humanity|
|Mind||Creation & personal relations with God would mature innocent humanity; Heavens declare God’s glory
Gen 2:15-17; Ps 19:1
|Natural revelation is insufficient to know God; minds blinded; fallen man has suppressed truth in unrighteousness
Rom 1:18-20; 1 Cor 2:14-15; 2 Cor 4:4
|Redeemed humanity has the mind of Christ; the Spirit gives understanding; Word renews our minds
Jn 16:13; Rom 12:2;
1 Cor 2:16; 1 Jn 2:27
|Our knowledge will be personal and experiential; faith will turn to sight. Finite minds will grow in knowledge forever
1 Jn 3:2; Rev 21:1
|God gives Adam the freedom not to sin; maturity would occur by choosing good
Gen 3:6-8; Ecc 7:29
able not to sin
|Fallen humanity is enslaved to sin and cannot choose God without Spiritual help
Jn 6:44; 8:34, 36; Rom 6:19; Eph 2:1
Not able not to sin
|Spiritual men have the power to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and yes to righteousness
Rom 7:18; 8:13;
1 Thess 1:5
Able not to sin
|Our freedom will be absolute and we won’t be able to sin
1 Cor 15:54-57;
1 Jn 3:2
Justified & Glorified,
Not able to sin
|As children of God, we were created to love & trust God. Vestiges of this seen in ‘moral law’
|Every act is polluted by an idolatrous and unbelieving heart
Mark 7:21-23; Rom 14:23
|As new creations, we are able to do good works in Christ, still emotions are divided
Eph 2:10; Tit 2:14; Rom 7:18; Ps 86:11
|We will share in Triune Love; Spirit bears living fruit; we love the law
John 17:24-25; Gal 5:22-23; Ps 119
|God made mankind in his own image
Gen 1:26-28; Ps 8;
1 Cor 11:7
|The Imago Dei is twisted but remains
Gen 5:1, 3; 9:6;
|God is restoring his image in believers
Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 5:17
|We will one day perfectly reflect God
1 Cor 15:49-53
|Offices||Adam and Eve are the royal priests in the Garden who relate to God, rule over the earth, represent God’s presence
|Mankind is cast out of the garden. Their relationship with God and one another is broken. Their rule is opposed. Their representation is twisted.
|In redemptive history, God creates offices that harken back to creation. Kings exercise dominon. Priest represent God. Prophets restore relationships. But none are able to bring new creation.||Christ is the perfect image of God. Through his perfect work as prophet, priest, and king, he begins a new society. A new race of humanity.|
In the end, my hope is not found and my theodicy (i.e. my solution to the problem of evil) is not resolved by free will. Rather, my hope hangs on the gospel promise of a freed will that comes by grace through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. In that promise, I rest. And because of God’s work I believe. Is that faith freely offered? Absolutely! I believed. But only because dead in my sin, I was freed by the sovereign grace of God.
To say it more completely, God transferred me from the dominion of darkness and death into the kingdom of his beloved Son. That’s how the dead in Adam believe. They do not, in their state of covenantal rebellion and spiritual death, pick themselves up and turn around. This is a freedom, according to their nature, they don’t possess (see Romans 3:10–20) Rather, as God’s freely and sovereignly chooses (Romans 9:18), they are graciously liberated from sins clutches, empowered to see the beauty of Christ, and raised to life so that they might believe in the God who sent his Son to die for them.
In this, a freed will is a far better gift than free will, and again this can only be appreciated as we let all of Scripture speak. To that end let us consider this important question and have our minds renewed by God’s gracious will. Let it move us to weep for those who enslaved to sin (instead of demanding them to change themselves). And let us walk in the newfound freedom Christ freely gives, as we enslave ourselves to the service of others (Galatians 5:13–14).
Soli Deo Gloria, ds