Theological Primer: Freedom of the Will

From time to time I make new entries into this continuing series called “Theological Primer.” The idea is to present big theological concepts in around 500 words. Today we look at the human will and whether it is free or bound (or in some sense both).


Since at least the time of Augustine (354-430), Christian theologians argued about the nature of the fallen human will: is it free or is it bound? In order to make sense of this question, medieval scholastics like Peter Lombard (ca 1096-1160) and Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) made distinctions among different types of necessity, distinctions John Calvin (1509-1564) would later use to explain how man could be enslaved to sin and at the same time responsible for his sin.

Our sin, which the fallen will chooses by necessity, is also voluntary because the choice is owing to our own corruption. There is no external coercion, no outside compulsion which makes us sin. The will, though bound to wickedness on this side of Eden, is still self determined.

Francis Turretin (1623-1687) argued to the same effect, postulating six different types of necessity. The will can be said to be free even if it is bound by a moral necessity (along with the necessity of dependence upon God, rational necessity, and necessity of event) so long as it is free from physical necessity and the necessity of coaction. That is to say, if the intellect has the power of choice (freedom from physical necessity) and the will can be exercised without external compulsion (freedom from the necessity of coaction) then our sins can be called voluntary, and we can be held responsible for them.

Arminian critics sometimes accuse Calvinists of believing that when people are raped, maimed, murdered, and tortured that it is ultimately God who performs these heinous acts. What this criticism misses, however, is the distinction between remote and primary causes. No thoughtful Calvinists would say God abuses innocent people. God is never the doer of evil. Reformed theologians have always made clear there is a difference between the role of God in ordaining what comes to pass and the role of human agency in actually and voluntarily performing the ordained action. Herod and Pontius Pilate conspired against Jesus in accordance with divine predestination, but their conspiracy was still wicked and culpable (Acts 4:25-28; Gen. 50:20).

It is sometimes suggested that the human will in Reformed theology is only an illusion. The picture painted is of a God who forces people do what he wants, whether they will to do so or not. This is not the view of the Reformed confessions or the Bible. According to Jesus, only those enabled by the Father can come to him, but they still must come (John 6:37, 44).

Reformed theology denies that our choices can be other than God has decreed and that our will is free to choose what is good, but it does not deny human choice and human willing altogether. The Canons of Dort make clear that divine sovereignty “does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force” (III/IV.16).

In short, there is a divine will prior to all human willing, and the will of the unregenerate man is enslaved by sin. At the same time, our wicked choices are really our choices, and they do have real world consequences.