Do we really have free will — the ability to make our own decisions? Many answers have been offered by philosophers and theologians, but each answer generates more questions. I would not claim to answer this question once and for all. Instead, let me take us on a journey of discovery by exploring how this question is relevant to a Christian’s understanding of salvation.
FREE WILL, GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY, AND HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY
The question of free will is hotly debated by Christians who connect it to two particular biblical ideas. First, they contrast human free will with God’s sovereignty — His ultimate control over all things since He is the all-knowing and all-powerful God (Ps 33:10–11; Rom 8:28). We can understand this contrast as a question: If God is sovereign, then do humans have free will to make decisions about what He already knows or has even determined ahead of time?
This leads us to free will’s connection to a second biblical idea — human responsibility for sin. We can also frame this as a question: How can people be responsible for their sin if God already knows they will sin? In a sense, this question shifts the responsibility of human sin to God, because His sovereignty seems to cancel or override human free will!
However, the Bible denies that God is responsible for human sin, even whilst affirming that God is sovereign (Jas 1:13–18; cf. Rom 1:18–32). So, as Christians, we need to hold in tension God’s sovereignty with human responsibility when it comes to the issue of sin. We are each responsible for our own choice to sin and cannot blame God for it.
GOD’S KNOWLEDGE AND HUMAN SIN
One way to resolve the riddle of God’s sovereignty versus human responsibility is to understand that God’s knowledge of the future does not mean that He controls our actions. So, we separate knowing (God’s foreknowledge of us) and doing (our own choice to sin, whether from carelessness, giving in to weakness, or direct intention). However, this solution generates other questions, such as: Why doesn’t God stop us from sinning if He already knows we will sin? If God already knows we will choose to sin, does that leave us with any other alternatives to choose otherwise?
Questions like these are difficult to answer because they venture into the realm of hypothetical possibilities. Some theologians have attempted to provide answers to these types of questions, but others have critiqued them as guesses without biblical basis. Personally, I would say that we just don’t know, and perhaps can’t know, since there are limits to human understanding.
IF OUR ANSWERS TAKE US BEYOND WHAT THE BIBLE EXPLICITLY TEACHES, THEN IT IS UNWISE TO HOLD DEFINITIVELY TO SUCH ASSERTIONS.
Here’s a good rule to follow: If our answers take us beyond what the Bible explicitly teaches, then it is unwise to hold definitively to such assertions. I understand, though, this can also sound like a cop-out! It is difficult to find an answer to a hypothetical question that can satisfy everyone.
CAN WE SAVE OURSELVES?
If people — in having free will — are responsible for their sin, then they are also in need of salvation from sin. The need for salvation takes us to another set of questions regarding free will: If we are responsible for our sin, are we also responsible for saving ourselves? Or put another way, do humans have free will when it comes to saving ourselves?
THE BIBLICAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE HUMAN WILL IS THAT IT IS LIMITED BY SIN...
The answers to these questions are also complex. At the most basic level, we know that without Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross on our behalf, there would be no forgiveness for us and salvation from our sin. In fact, the overpowering influence of sin in our lives is what prevents us from saving ourselves (Rom 3:10–26). The biblical understanding of the human will is that it is limited by sin and so we are not completely independent in our choices. So, God’s intervention in carrying out a plan for salvation is necessary.
DO WE CHOOSE GOD OR DOES GOD CHOOSE US?
The debate on free will then turns to this question: How much does God’s sovereignty operate at the individual level in our choice to accept His offer for salvation (Eph 1:11–12)? This is a concern not so much when we think about those who are saved, but those who are not saved. And if we assert that our sinfulness means that we need God to save us, there remains this question: Why doesn’t God save everyone?
The fact that there are those who are not saved seem to indicate that God is either too stingy to save everyone — which is clearly not biblical (John 3:16) — or that human will is also an important factor in choosing salvation (Luke 13:23–24; Rom 10:9–10). If human will is actually the greater factor, then the responsibility in rejecting salvation lies more with us than with God.
On this note, there are some theologians who assert that God’s sovereignty means that His offer of salvation cannot be rejected by individuals whom He has chosen. However, this position can lead to this question: Is God ultimately responsible for their rejection of Him since He didn’t choose them?
One possible way to resolve this is by connecting God’s foreknowledge of people’s choice with His own choice of them for salvation. In essence, God chooses those whom He foreknew will choose Him. However, this logic is vulnerable to the charge that cause and effect have become confused with each other.
OUR FREE BUT LIMITED WILL
I hope our journey of discovery has helped you realise how complex these questions are. The main thing to keep in mind is that both God’s sovereignty and our will — free but limited — are in operation both in our salvation and in our lives. Keeping a balanced perspective is the key. The Bible teaches that we are neither the masters of our destiny nor puppets in the hands of a puppeteer.