I want to hike a 28-mile route from my home to a nearby mountain and back in one day, but I’m out of shape and lack the inclination to faithfully train for it. Although my will is free to choose the attempt, I lack the ability. If I cannot do what I choose, do I really have free will?
My neighbor became psychologically and physically addicted to pain medication. Without intervention and medical treatment, he was unable to overcome his addiction. With respect to turning his back on opioids, my neighbor had no free will. His will was limited by his addiction.
Free Will = Ability to Choose + Ability to Perform
People who ask about free will usually envision only the extremes: Either we have completely free will, or we have predestination instead of free will. That is a false choice. A middle ground exists in which our abilities, inclinations, environments, and third parties limit “free will.” The philosophers probably have a name for it, but I’m going to call it bounded will.
Free Will Has Limits
Freedom is never absolute.
The Bible teaches throughout that we deviate from God’s standard. It documents sins of even the greatest characters. As a young man, Moses murdered a slave driver and had to flee Egypt. Later, he disobeyed God's instructions on how to strike a rock, and lost his privilege of entering the Promised Land. As Romans 3:10 says, There is none righteous, no, not one.
Our universal addiction to deviating from God's standard of perfection limits our freedom. As Jesus said, Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin (John 3:34). The Old Testament "Law" starts with the Ten Commandments and expands into hundreds of subpoints. As with fractals, the closer you look, the more details you see.
For example, when you view a person’s life as a whole, the law against adultery becomes a law against sex before marriage. When you extend the law beyond the physical dimensions, the law prohibits lust. Jesus said that if you so much as look at someone lustfully, you have already committed adultery in your heart (Matthew 5:28). And as people like to point out, God looks on the heart (Proverbs 21:2).
When you examine the Thou shalts and Thou shalt nots, in the larger context, you discover that they’re not about helping us establish our own righteousness, but about teaching a humility that turns us toward receiving redemption.
The apostle Paul wrote that God gave the Law to prevent self-righteous attitudes. The Law does not tell us how to earn heaven. Rather, it tells us that we have fallen short of that goal.
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)Some might answer, "If God judges my heart, and I sincerely want to do what's right, then it does not matter that in I don't have the ability." That sounds nice, but it has flaws.
- If only intention matters, then God cannot address evil done for the "right" reasons.
- We all think our reasons are "right."
- Who does everything for the right reason?
Even good, loving deeds can have impure motives. For example, we might perform an act of love not because we love the other person, but to enjoy the sensation of "loving" or to enjoy feeling like good people. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)
My intent is not to throw thunderbolts at anybody, but merely to explain that the material person’s will is not free. It is limited not only physically, but also morally. Even when we intend to do the right thing, we still mess it up.
We do not have unlimited free will.
Poetically, the cost of our errors is going to “that other place.” The question of free will usually focuses on the ability to accept or reject the Gospel, but it misses the larger picture. Without Divine interference, our end is are already predestined.
Jesus came to establish a way to free the will from its enslavement to immorality. Only by recognizing that enslavement and then relinquishing self righteousness can one begin to grasp that path to freedom.
Destination versus Predestination
When my action makes a result inevitable, it destines me to the result. When an event (such as God's choice) made a result inevitable, it predestined me to the result. The only difference is when the event occurred.
Within the bounds of our free will, then, our nature destines us to commit sin, and sin destines us to condemnation. From the perspective of Judgment day, our sin predestined us to condemnation. So the only difference between destined and predestined is the time at which you view the event.
- At some point in time, sin destined me for condemnation.
- At some point in time, God destined me for heaven.
- If you are mature enough to read this, your sin predestined you for condemnation (although God may have planned and performed otherwise).
As an adult believer, I can say that through sin, I predestined myself for hell, but God predestined me for heaven. That is, God predestined His own actions, namely, arranging for me to hear the gospel, giving me understanding, and giving me a gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8–9).
So, lay this out on a timeline: For the saved, God planned (predestined) to give some people great gifts. Later, their actions predestined them to condemnation. Then God carried out his plan and changed their destinies.
Would it really be that horrible if God predestined the changing of our destinations?
God's Choice and Free Will
The claim of omnipresence implies the ability to observe what happens throughout space, to know all information such as our thoughts, and and to know what happens throughout time.
In the Bible, God claims omnipresence.
Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:24)
This verse claims ability to observe every physical condition and event everywhere. In addition, many timess, God claims and demonstrates an ability to observe thought. For example,
I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:10)
On a tangent: Knowing men’s thoughts is one of the proofs of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus is the only person described in the Bible to know men’s thoughts. For example, Matthew 12:25, Luke 5:22, and Luke 6:8.
Just as no condition, event, or thought is hidden from God, neither is anything that will happen.
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done…. (Isaiah 46:9–10)
Others have indicated that God foreknows because He can figure out what will happen. Although God has that magnitude of intelligence, that is not the only possible basis of foreknowledge.
If God created the material universe, then according to our understanding of physics and cosmology, He also has creative power over time and space. That implies that He exists outside of time and space, although the doctrine of the Triune God shows that He can enter into creation from any or every perspective. That is, God’s creative power makes it possible to exist as a Unity outside of time while existing as a Trinity inside of time. And existing outside of time, He can observe all that happens within time.
I find it likely, therefore, that God’s omniscience is based not on logic, but on observation.
Some things are planned and brought to pass by God. Isaiah 46:10 continues, My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose…. For example, Jeremiah 1:5 demonstrates both foreknowledge and predestination:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
And of God’s chosen, Romans 8:28 says, And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Although God observes all things at all times, the Bible does not say that he predestines all things. It clear states, however, that He does predestine some things and then interferes in history and our lives to bring them to pass.
God’s interference means that, without His action, His will will not happen. If some things will or will not happen without interference, then those things could not be predestined (that is, by God). The Bible gives many example of God permitting events in order to achieve a greater good.
Therefore, God's foreknowledge is based on observation, modified by execution of His plan, and confirmed by observation.
So there is no such thing as unconditionally free will. Our wills our bounded by our nature, and our actions predestine us to condemnation. Through the Cross, God creates a path to eventual freedom from our nature. Then He intervenes in the lives of some to change their predestination from a negative outcome to a positive one.
Copyright 2017 Richard Wheeler