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What Is Free Will?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
March 3, 2023 12:01 am

What Is Free Will?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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March 3, 2023 12:01 am

People have many ideas about what "free will" means. What does God's Word teach? Today, R.C. Sproul helps us rightly understand the way that God's sovereignty relates to human choices.

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Let me put it in simple terms. Anytime that you sin, what that action indicates is that at the moment of your sin, your desire to commit the sin is greater than your desire is to obey Christ. If your desire to obey Christ were greater than your desire to commit the sin, you would not sin. But at the moment of choice, we always follow our strongest inclination, our strongest disposition, or our strongest desires. All week we have been considering the topic of God's sovereignty in salvation, how it relates to human free will and who will be redeemed and who won't.

Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham and I'm glad you're joining us today for Renewing Your Mind. I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to accepting the absolute sovereignty of God, especially over salvation, is the idea of human free will. Didn't you freely choose to come to Christ? How is it then that the Bible teaches that God elects who will be saved and who won't? Well, today Dr. Sproul is going to answer those questions in a message titled, What is Free Will? Any time that we examine the question of predestination, I think the question that is raised more often than any other is the question of the relationship between God's sovereignty and our free will as human beings. And so in this session, I want to direct our attention to an examination of what we mean by those words, free will. What does it mean to have a free will? What does it mean to be a free moral agent, a volitional creature under the sovereignty of God? First of all, let me say that there are different views of what free will comprises that are bandied about in our culture, and I think it's important that we recognize these various views. The first view I'm going to call the humanist view of free will, which I would say is the most widely prevalent view of human freedom that we find in our culture.

And I'm sad to say, in my opinion, it's the most widely held view within the church as well as outside of the church. In this scheme, free will is defined as our ability to make choices spontaneously. That is, that the choices that we make are in no wise conditioned or determined by any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. We say that again, that we make our choices spontaneously.

Nothing previous to the choice determines the choice, no prejudice, no prior disposition, or prior inclination, but the choice comes literally on its own as a spontaneous action by the person. I see at the outset two serious problems that we face as Christians with this definition of free will. The first is a theological or moral problem. The second one is a rational problem.

And I should really say that there are three problems because the whole lecture will focus on the third one, but at the outset we immediately see two problems. The first is, as I said, a theological moral problem. If our choices are made purely spontaneously without any prior inclination, any prior disposition, in a sense what we're saying is that there is no reason for the choice. There is no motivation or motive for the choice.

It just happens spontaneously. And if that is the way our choices operate, then we immediately face this problem. How could such an action have any moral significance to it at all? Because one of the things, for example, that the Bible is concerned about in the choices we make is not only what we choose, but what our intention was in the making of that choice. We recall, for example, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, and when he has this reunion with his brothers many, many years later, and they repent of that former sin, what does Joseph say to his brothers?

And when he accepts them and forgives them, he says, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. So that God made a choice in the matter. God had chosen at least to allow this thing to happen and to befall Joseph.

His brothers made a choice about what to do with Joseph. Their inclination in the making of that choice was wicked. God also made a choice in allowing it to take place, but God's reason, God's intention in this activity was altogether righteous and holy. And so God, in considering a good deed, for example, not only examines the outward deed itself, the action, but He also considers what? The inner motivation, the intent behind the deed. But if there are no inner motivations, if there are no intents, there's no real intentionality to use the philosophical term, then how could the action be of any moral significance?

It just happens. But even deeper than that problem, we face immediately the question of whether or not such a choice could actually be made. Not simply whether it would be moral if it were made, but could a creature without any prior disposition, inclination, bent, or reason even make a choice?

Let's look at this by way of a couple of examples. If I have no prior inclination or disposition, what is attractive about that idea is that that would mean that my will is neutral. It's inclined neither to the left nor to the right. It's neither inclined toward righteousness nor towards evil, but is simply neutral.

There is no previous bent or inclination to it. I think of the story of Alice in Wonderland when she in her travels comes to the fork in the road, and she can't decide whether to take the left fork or the right fork. And she looks up, and there is the Cheshire Cat in the tree grinning at her, and she asks of the Cheshire Cat, which road should I take? And the Cheshire Cat replies by saying, that depends.

Where are you going? And she says, I don't know. Then what does he say?

Then I guess it doesn't matter. If you have no intent, no plan, no desire to get anywhere, what difference does it make whether you take the left or to the right? Well, in that situation we look at it, and we think, well, Alice now has two choices. She can go to the left or she can go to the right, when in fact she has four choices. She can go to the left, she can go to the right, or she can turn back and go back where she came from, or she can stand there and do nothing, which is also a choice, and stand there until she perishes from her inactivity. So she has four choices, and the question we're going to ask is, why would she make any of those four choices? If she has no reason or inclination behind the choice, if her will were utterly neutral, what would in fact happen to her? There's no reason to prefer the left to the right, or standing there as far as going back, what choice would she make? She wouldn't make a choice.

She'd be paralyzed because a choice without a motive is like an effect without a cause. One more illustration, the story of the neutral willed mule who had no particular disposition to the left or to the right. His desires inwardly were all equal, and the farmer came in one day to feed him, and on the right side of the mule the farmer placed a bucket of oats, and on the left side the farmer placed, what else do mules eat? Hay, a bunch of hay, equidistant from the mule. Now the mule has no preference for hay over oats, and no preference for oats over hay.

His inclination is utterly neutral in either direction. What happens to the mule? He starves to death because he has no reason or inclination or desire for the one over the other. And so the problem we have with the humanist notion of freedom is that it's the old problem of the rabbit out of the hat, without a hat, and without a magician. It's something coming out of nothing, an effect without a cause. A spontaneous choice in other words is a rational impossibility.

It would have to be an effect without a cause. Now just in passing I may add that from a Christian view, man in his fallenness is not seen as being in a state of neutrality with respect to the things of God. He does have a prejudice. He does have a bias.

He does have an inclination, and his inclination is toward wickedness and away from the things of God. But just let me say that in passing as we look at various Christian views of freedom of the will. I personally think that the greatest book that has ever been written on this subject is entitled simply The Freedom of the Will by America's greatest scholar Jonathan Edwards and incidentally that designation as America's greatest scholar is not my own. That comes from the Encyclopedia Britannica that has voted Jonathan Edwards the greatest scholarly mind that the United States ever produced. And his work Freedom of the Will I think is the closest examination and analysis of this thorny question I've ever read.

Of course Martin Luther's famous work on the bondage of the will is also one that's very important that Christians I think need to read. But let's look for a moment at Edwards' definition of the freedom of the will. Edwards says that freedom or free will is the mind choosing.

What he's saying there is that though he distinguishes between the mind and the will, he is saying that the two are inseparably related. We do not make moral choices without the mind approving the direction of our choice. That is one of the dimensions that is closely related to the biblical concept of conscience, that the mind is involved in moral choices. I become aware of certain options and if I prefer one over the other to have a preference before I can make the choice, I have to have some awareness of what those options are for it to be a moral decision. So that the will is not something that acts independent from the mind but acts in conjunction with the mind. Whatever the mind deems as being desirable is what the will is inclined to choose. Now in addition to definitions, Edwards gives us sort of an iron rule that I call Edwards' law of free will.

I think this is perhaps his most important contribution to the discussion of human freedom. Edwards declares this, that free moral agents always act according to the strongest inclination they have at the moment of choice. To say it another way, we always choose according to our inclinations and we always choose according to our strongest inclination at a given moment.

Let me put it in simple terms. Any time that you sin, what that action indicates is that at the moment of your sin, your desire to commit the sin is greater in that moment than your desire is to obey Christ. If your desire to obey Christ were greater than your desire to commit the sin, what would you do?

You would not sin. But at the moment of choice, we always follow our strongest inclination, our strongest disposition, or our strongest desires. It seems to us, however, in this business of choosing, that there are lots of times we choose things for no apparent reason whatsoever. For example, if I were to ask you, why are you sitting in the chair that you are sitting in right now? Could you analyze your own internal thought processes and responses to the options that were before you when you came into this room and say with clarity, the reason why I'm sitting on the end here is because I always like to sit on the end chair or because I wanted to sit next to Gene or I wanted to be in the front row so I could be on the video camera or this was the only chair left open and I didn't want to stand and I'd rather sit than stand and so my desire for sitting was stronger than my desire for standing and so I sat down. What I'm saying to you is that there's a reason why you are sitting where you are sitting.

And it may have been a very quick decision. It may be simply that you're lazy and you don't like to walk and that the chair that you saw vacant was the closest one available to you. Chances are the reasons go deeper than that. There are some people if you walk them into a park where there is a park bench that is vacant and room for three people and they sit down on the bench a hundred times out of a hundred they'll sit on the end of the bench rather than the middle of the bench. In fact, usually it will be on the left end or the right end where other people will always choose the middle.

Why? Some people enjoy crowds. They like to be in the middle of the action.

They have a gregarious personality. Other people like to stay where they can have a safe exit and will stay on the end of the bench. And as I say, we're not always sitting there analyzing very carefully why we make the choices we make. But there is a reason for every choice that we make.

And we always act according to the strongest inclination of the moment. Now, there are two things that we may raise immediately to object to Edwards' law of choosing. The first one is, well, I can tell you lots of occasions where I have done things that I really didn't want to do and I have experienced coercion. Well, what coercion involves is external forces coming into our lives that seek to force us to do things that all things being equal we would not choose to do. But in most instances, the power of coercion can usually just reduce our options to two.

They can severely reduce our options. The gunman comes up to me in the sidewalk and he puts a gun to my head and he says, your money or your life. He has just reduced my options to two, okay, by external force and coercion, hasn't he? Now, all things being equal, I was not looking for somebody to give my wallet away to that night, so I had no great desire to give this man my money. But when the gun's at my head and my options are my brains on the sidewalk or my billfold in his pocket, suddenly I have a stronger desire to live and lose my money than to die and still lose my money. And so, at that moment, my desire level to live may be stronger than my desire level to resist this man, and so I give him my wallet. Now, there may be people in that same situation who says, I would rather die than give in to coercion, even though I know if I refuse to give him this wallet, he's going to kill me anyway and take my money. Still, I'm not going to help him at all, so they say, shoot me. But even then, their desire to resist is greater than their desire not to resist, and so they resist.

Is that clear? So even when our options are severely reduced and external forces change our desire levels, because this is the other point we have to be aware of, is that human desires fluctuate, and they are many. In our situations where we're making choices, it's rare that we're only choosing between two options, or even just between a good option and a bad option. One of the toughest moral choices for a Christian to make is between rival goods.

We have two opportunities, but I'm not sure which is the one in which I can most serve Christ, and that becomes very difficult. We know that our desire levels change and fluctuate, but the second objection that I can hear coming is a statement from the Apostle Paul when he says, the good that I would, I do not, and that which I would not is the very thing I do. And it seems to suggest right there that the Apostle Paul, by apostolic authority, is telling us that it is indeed possible for a person to choose against his wishes, to choose against his desires. I can only say in response to that that I do not believe that it was the Apostle's intention there to give us a technical treatment of the intricacies of the working out of the faculty of choosing, but what he is expressing is something that we all experience that I have within me a desire to please Christ.

But that desire that is present does not always win out when the moment of truth comes. All things being equal, as a Christian, if you say to me, R.C., would you like to be free from sin? I would say, of course I would like to be free from sin. However, I say that now until the temptation of sin presses in upon me and my desire for that sin intensifies, and then I surrender to it freely.

Because when I work and act according to my desires, I am working and acting freely. Calvin, in examining the question of free will, says that if we mean by free will that fallen man has the ability to choose what he wants, then of course fallen man has free will. If we mean by that term that man in his fallen state has the moral power and ability to choose righteousness, then, said Calvin, free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to fallen man.

And with that sentiment, I would agree. Now we've seen Edwards' view. We've seen Calvin's view. Now we'll go into the Sprolean view of free will by appealing to irony or to a form of paradox. I would like to make this statement that in my opinion every choice that we make is free, and every choice that we make is determined. Every choice that we make is free, and every choice that we make is determined.

Now that sounds flatly contradictory because we normally see the categories of determine and free as being mutually exclusive categories, saying that if something is determined by something else, which to say it's caused by something else would seem to indicate that it couldn't possibly be free. But what I'm speaking here is not determinism. Determinism means that things happen to me strictly by virtue of external forces. I'm walking down the street and somebody throws something out of an airplane 15,000 feet in the air, and I'm walking down the street minding my business, and this suitcase comes down and lands on my head. That has affected the course of my life in a very serious way, but not because I chose to have this suitcase drop on my head at that moment in time.

Something has happened to me over which I had no control. It has been determined by external forces. But in addition to external forces that are determining factors in what happens to us, there are also internal forces that are determining factors. What we're saying along with Edwards and Calvin is that if my choices flow out of my disposition and out of my desires, and if my actions are an effect that have causes and reasons behind them, then my personal desire in a very real sense determines my personal choice. Now if my desires determine my choice, how then can I be free? Remember I said that in every choice our choice is both free and determined. But what determines it is me, and this we call self, you fill it in, determination.

Self-determination, which is not the denial of freedom, but is the essence of freedom. For the self to be able to determine its own choices is what free will is all about. Now the simple point I'm trying to make is that not only may we choose according to our own desires, but in fact we do always choose according to our desires.

And I'll take it even to the superlative degree and say in fact we must choose always according to the strongest inclination at the moment. That is the essence of free choice, to be able to choose what you want. Now the problem with the sinner obviously is not that the sinner in his fall has lost the faculty of choice. Sinners still have minds. Sinners can still think. Sinners still have desires. Sinners still have wills. And the will is still free insofar as it is able to do what the sinner wants it to do.

Where is the problem? The problem is in the root of the desires of the heart in fallen man, that because he has an evil inclination, a desire for sin, he sins. Sinners sin because they want to sin. Therefore they sin freely. Sinners reject Christ because they want to reject Christ. Therefore they reject Him freely. And before a person can ever respond positively to the things of God and choose Christ and choose life, he must have a desire to do that. Now the question is, does fallen man retain any desire in his heart for God, for the things of God? Quickly, I will introduce really our next subject, which will be the biblical view of the radical character of man's fallenness with respect to his desire for the things of God.

But before we get to that lecture, let's just tie this one up by speaking of another distinction that Jonathan Edwards has made famous. He makes a distinction between moral ability and natural ability. Natural ability has to do with the abilities that we have by nature. As a human being, I have the natural ability to think. I have the ability to speak. I can walk upright.

I do not have the natural ability to fly through the air unaided by machines. Fish have the ability to live underwater for great periods of time without tanks of oxygen and so on and diving equipment because God has given them fins and gills. He's giving them the natural equipment necessary to make them able to live in that environment. Hence they have a natural ability that I do not have.

God has given natural abilities to birds that I do not have. When we're talking about moral ability, we're talking about the ability to be righteous as well as to be sinful. Man was created with the ability to be righteous or to be sinful, but man has fallen. And what Edwards is saying is that in his fallen state, he no longer has the ability in and of himself morally to be perfect because he is born in sin, in original sin. He has a fallen nature, a sin nature which makes it utterly impossible for him to achieve perfection in this world.

He still has the faculty of thinking. He still has the ability to make choices, but what he lacks is the inclination or disposition toward godliness. Now we're going to see whether or not that's consistent with what the Bible teaches about man's fallen condition, but I'm just giving it to you now by way of preview. At this point Edwards is merely echoing what Augustine had taught centuries earlier with a similar distinction. Augustine said that man had a liberium arbitrium or a free will, but what man lost in the fall was libertas or liberty, what the Bible calls moral liberty.

The Bible speaks of fallen men as being in bondage to sin, and those who are in bondage have lost some dimension of moral liberty, still make choices, still have a free will, but that will is now inclined towards evil and disinclined toward righteousness. There is none who does good. There's none righteous. There's none who seeks after God.

No, not one that indicates that something has happened to us inside. Jesus speaks about the fruit of the tree comes from the nature of the tree. The fig trees don't produce oranges. You don't get a corrupt fruit from a righteous tree. There is something wrong inside of us in where our desires, our inclinations reside. It is that that is in bondage, but even that fallenness does not eliminate the faculty of choosing. So there's really no difference here between what Augustine is calling when he says we still have free will but not liberty is the same distinction that Edwards is making between moral ability and natural ability. So the human will is free.

We're not robots, and God doesn't drag us kicking and screaming into the kingdom of heaven. This was the most difficult topic for me to understand as I was coming to terms with the absolute sovereignty of God. It was Dr. Sproul's teaching that the Lord used to really clarify my thinking and to help me understand this topic biblically, and that's why I'm glad we're making the complete series, Chosen by God, available to you for a donation of any amount. It is six messages on two DVDs, and when you give your gift at, we'll send you this DVD set and give you digital access to the messages and the digital study guide so you can go deeper in your study of the sovereignty of God. So give your gift today at or by calling us at 800 435 4343. So next week we'll be featuring messages from Dr. Sproul's series, Defending Your Faith, to help you give a better defense for the hope that is within you. So I look forward to you joining us Monday here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-03 03:44:05 / 2023-03-03 03:54:27 / 10

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