Free Will, Free Choice

Back in March and April the soteriology diablog was hot and heavy, but eventually died down. (I continue to post links to any further responses the participants have.)

Recently, at the invite of a commenter on this blog, I registered over at Grace Centered Message Forums (a largely churches of Christ venue). As a result of participation in one message thread I am still involved in, I decided to actually make the case for human free will/free choice/freedom to choose. Note that the case is made from a Christian standpoint and not from a strictly a-religious philosophical one. My arguments would be much different for that sort of audience.

If you’re interested in the discussion, begin here. But if you just want to read my initial posts sans responses, click on the “continue reading” link below.

First Post:

I’ve been critical of the responses from a few members on this board that deny humans have any free will (or freedom to choose) when it comes to cooperation with the grace of God prior to regeneration. I’ve decided that it’s probably time for me to put up or shut up: I should advance my own arguments for free will/free choice. I can hardly do so in a single post, so what I will attempt to do is give the broad outline of the argument(s), and allow any ensuing discussion/criticism to bring out more specific details. (I should note, by the way, that I am building here on the extensive conversation that went on in March and April via my own blog; links to which discussion can be found here.) But that will have to wait for my next post, since I need to articulate some basic “ground rules” orienting the discussion.

First of all, before we can begin, we must realize that what we say about human nature is bound up with our understanding of Christ, since he was fully God and fully human. Thus, if we go wrong on our understanding of human nature, we will go wrong on our understanding of Christ’s Person. Furthermore, our understanding of the Person of Christ is bound up with our understanding of the Holy Trinity. If we get wrong our understanding of Christ’s Person, we will go wrong on our understanding of the Godhead, since Christ is fully God and fully human. That is to say, the essential connections between what we say of humanity, Christ and the Trinity are critical to a proper articulation of free will (or freedom to choose). This must be our common starting point. If we don’t agree on this, no conversation can continue.

In light of this, we can start our discussion either with human nature, or with the nature of the Holy Trinity, or with the Person of Christ. But our conversation will always be guided by the touchstone of the Holy Trinity who is the source and cause of all existence.

Secondly, though what we say cannot contradict Scripture, our discussion will necessarily go beyond an exegesis of Scripture. This is so because not all exegesis of Scripture is correct, and all exegesis of Scripture necessarily entails presuppositions (philosophical and theological) that precede our engagement with Scripture (for example: that humans can even understand Scripture). Thus, all our arguments will not only have to be consonant with the whole of Scripture, but they will also have to conform to logical norms including truth and falsity and validity. (Some conclusions of arguments can be true, even if the argument itself is invalid, of course, but this does not negate the necessity for rational explication of an argument.) This is not to say that human reason trumps Scripture, I hasten to say. Rather it is to affirm that our God is the God who created reason and he is a God who does not contradict himself. Thus, if an argument fails logical validity, the failures of the argument must be examined. God is beyond reason, but God is not against it.

Finally, not every single point of an argument can be (nor need be) tied directly to a Scriptural referent. For example, I am going to assume that nearly everyone on this board believes in the dogma of the Holy Trinity (i. e., that God is both one God and three Persons). However, no single referent or body of referents from Scripture unambiguously proclaim this dogma. Rather, we must approach these verses with certain presuppositions (God is one, Scripture is entirely consistent and does not contradict itself, etc.) and using our presuppositions argue for the doctrine of the Trinity. That argument is, of course, fully consistent with the explicit testimony of Scripture and does not contradict any Scripture in any way. But my point is that we do not have any clear and unambiguous texts which describe God as one God who is three Persons. This is important because many of the arguments that are made for and against human free will/freedom to choose do this very thing: they use Scriptural referents to argue for their position, but those referents to not explicitly or unambiguously state what it is the person is arguing. They may support it (which is what the argument is about), but they may not explicitly state it. Thus it is illegitimate for any partner in this discussion to attempt to “trump” his opponent with “Book, chapter and verse me on that, bucko!” Either the argument is consonant with Scripture or it is not. Failure to provide a single Scriptural referent or body of referents that explicitly or unambiguously state the person’s point is not necessarily a failure to substantiate that point. (It might be, but not necessarily.)

I see that already my basic ground rules have made this post quite long. So I’ll end it here and engage in any dialogue that comes up, before I go on to post the outline of my argument for free will.

Second Post:

Despite my previous intent to begin my argument for free will/freedom to choose with this post, upon further reflection I decided it was fundamental to the discussion to set out a list of terms and their definitions so that it won’t be necessary to divert the argument once it’s underway. So here are a handful of important terms that will play a part in the debate.

Free Will/Free Choice/Freedom to Choose:

Here I mean not that the will is absolutely free, but that humans are free to direct the will to whatever end they choose. That is to say, given fallen human nature, our wills will be influenced by our natures toward certain ends (sexual immorality, gluttony, lying, stealing), but that as human persons or agents, we can direct that will toward other ends (chastity, moderation, truth-telling, etc.).

In other words, though our wills are not absolutely free of our natures, they are not absolutely determined by our natures. It is fundamental to the human person to have the capacity to direct our wills toward ends that we choose. We may not be able to accomplish the ends we choose (flying to the moon with our own arms flapping), but we can so direct our wills that we will this end.

Soft determinism; Compatibilism:

In our context this is the belief that God ultimately determines all human actions and all human fates. Humans do not have free will in the libertarian/indeterminist sense. Human will is only free to do that which God determines. This almost always include a view of postlapsarian (i. e., “after the Fall”) human nature that understands the human will to be entirely bound and determined by sin. Not infrequently this view also understands original sin as guilt; that is, all humans inherit not merely mortality and corruption from Adam and Eve’s sin, but also their guilt as well.

It should be noted that not all compatibilists are soft determinists, but in our context the terms are interchangeable. That is to say soft determinists believe that human free will is compatible with God’s determining it. But of course by free will compatibilists and soft determinists only mean that humans are free only to will what God and their sinful nature have already determined them to will.


Is the belief that there is only one agent in human regeneration: God. All humans are passive objects of God’s inscrutable decision to either regenerate or damn particular human beings. “Monergism” comes from monos + ergon, or “one-work..” Most monergists admit that after regeneration the human agent becomes an active subject/agent cooperating with God in his own sanctification (and overall salvation). However, this acceptance of post-regeneration synergism is fatal to the entire monergist position.


Is the belief that man can, by his own act of faith, accomplish his own regeneration and sanctification. Pelagianism holds that human nature is inherently uncorrupted, and that the human act of repentance cleanses the human soul of the stain of sin. Pelagianism does believe that the act of God in Christ is the means by which regeneration and salvation is obtained, but the obtaining of such is entirely within the ability of humans to do.


Augustinianism (which it must be stressed is not the same thing as what St. Augustine believed and taught) is the belief that humans are entirely corrupt and unable to exercise faith or do any act pleasing to God apart from God’s own direct act on the human agent. Most soft-determinists and compatibilists (in our discussion here) are Augustinians.

Semi-Augustinianism, then, is the belief that humans are, indeed, corrupt, but that that corruption does not so bind their will that they cannot choose to believe or to place their faith and trust in God to accomplish his salvific work in them. Semi-Augustinianism, for my purposes, can be synonymous with synergism.


Is the belief that the human nature is not inherently corrupt, but that each one must be cleansed and forgiven of his own personal sins. Semi-Pelagianism holds that the human will is free and can choose to accept God’s grace on its own. Once the human agent has made an act of faith, then God acts to regenerate and save the human agent.


Is the belief that God is the primary and ultimate agent of human regeneration and salvation, but that humans also actively cooperate with God by exercising faith and by obeying his commands. All this human activity is empowered by the Holy Spirit and grace, but it is also fully the activity of the human agent as well.

In other words, Pelagianism believes that humans enact their own regeneration by faith (and God puts his seal of approval on the act of faith); monergism believes that God enacts human salvation apart from any activity from the human agent; and semi-Pelagianism believes that humans and God meet halfway in the act of regeneration, man choosing to believe which calls forth God’s action of regeneration. All three of these positions believe that there must be a strict separation of the acts of the human agent and the act of God; they believe in some version of “either/or.” Synergism, on the other hand, does not subscribe to that dichotomy. Synergism contends that God is the primary and ultimate agent of human regeneration and salvation and that the human agent can freely cooperate with God’s gracious act.

Regeneration; Justification; Sanctificaton; Salvation:

Although most soft determinists want to divvy up salvation into specific logical categories (regneration, justification and sanctification), this is an entirely new innovation which is neither supported in Scripture nor has the historic Church ever held such categories. Salvation is all one work. It can be seen from the standpoint of regeneration or justification or sanctification, but none of these three categories can in reality be separated from another. Regeneration is not only new birth/recreation it is also fully justification and sanctification. Similarly for justification and sanctification. All of them necessarily imply and contain the others.

This matters because soft determinists and monergists want to maintain a strict logical separation of these terms. But they have no Scriptural support for such a logical separation, nor can their argument sustain this contention.


I’ve saved the most contentious for last, and expect to spend some time discussing this before I begin my argument. The reasons for this is that different people mean different things when they use the terms “work” or “works” and thus are essentially arguing different positions from one another under the assumption that everyone means the same thing. I want to forestall this so that it is clear both what I mean and about what the argument is contending.

Works, at least in the context of human salvation, are almost always described in the New Testament as “works of the law” (throughout Romans and Galatians), “works of righteousness” (Titus 3:5) or “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19); occasionally “works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11). Note especially the characterization of the Old Testament sacrifices as “dead works” in Hebrews 9:14. Very rarely is “work(s)” (in the context of salvation/justification) without any qualifier; notably 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 and Ephesians 2:8-10. In fact, if Ephesians 2:8-9 “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” is paralleled with Romans 3:27-28 “Where then is the boasting? It is excluded. Through what law? Of works? No, but through the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” we see the tenor of St. Paul’s thought on what it means to not be saved by works. Interestingly, Jesus himself calls belief or faith a work (John 6:29).

Clearly then, when it comes to “work” or “works” in the context of salvation, a “work” is not just any act in which a human engages. Rather the New Testament definition of a “work” is something like this: any human act or acts which one does and in which one trusts as a basis for one’s salvation or justification. After all, if Jesus himself defines faith and belief as a work, and if no work at all can be the basis for our salvation, then we cannot be saved even by faith.

So, once again, the definition of “work” or “works” that will guide my argument is as follows:

Any human act or acts which one does and in which one trusts as a basis for one’s salvation or justification.

So, with the ground rules of my original post and the clarification of terminology in this post, I am ready to begin my argument. However, recognizing that some of my definitions here might be disputed, I’ll allow for some time for criticism and response.

Third Post:

In this post, I will outline my argument in a brief summary. As will be seen from my argument, it revolves around three key terms that I did not include in my list of definitions. This is because each of these terms themselves play a fundamental role in my argument and those definitions themselves must be argued as part of the overall argument. This will be clear as I proceed. And as I proceed, I will add more to the points summarized here. The purpose of this post is to give an idea of the argument I’m presenting, and to allow comments on it. More detailed support and explanation will be given as the discussion ensues as I respond to criticisms.

Argument Summary:
The Holy Trinity, angels (fallen and unfallen), and all humans have their appropriate nature (divine, angelic and human), the willing which operates from that nature, and personhood, which is the individual instance of the person’s (divine, angelic, and human) nature and willing. For all beings that have a nature, that nature is fundamentally the same for all those beings who share that nature (i. e., God’s nature is absolutely the same among all the Persons of the Trinity; all angelic beings, fallen and unfallen, have the same angelic nature, and all human beings from Adam to Christ share the same human nature). The same is true for willing. All the Persons of the Godhead share the same willing, as do all angels share angelic willing and all humans share human willing. Thus, all natures and willings are identical for the beings that partake of those natures and willings.

When we come to personhood, however, we come to the differences between persons. Each person exercises, or puts to use, the nature and the willing that they have respectively. God the Father wills in the way that is unique to His Person, God the Son wills in the way unique to His Person, and God the Holy Spirit wills in the way unique to His Person; and all three Persons will with the same willing. The divine willing is absolutely one, and each divine Person’s will is unique to that Person. So Christ could say that His will was to do the will of the Father. Theirs was one willing, but two different Persons willing in ways unique to their Person. This is true of angelic beings as well. The difference between fallen and unfallen angels is not the angelic nature they necessarily share (else they wouldn’t be angels, but two different classes of created beings), but the personal manner in which they exercise the willing that is joined to angelic nature. Some angels will to follow Satan, some will to follow God. Similarly, this is true of human beings as well.

Here, however, we must begin to make important distinctions. For the purposes of our discussion, angelic nature, willing and personhood will be pretty much ignored as not essential to the discussion (though it may creep in from time to time in an illustrative manner). Also, one of the fundamental and essential distinctions we must make is that between the uncreated nature of the Holy Trinity and the created natures of humans and angels. That difference notwithstanding however, precisely because God is the creator of all angels and humans, and especially since humans are made in God’s image, it follows that if God has a nature, willing and personhood, then angels and humans do, as well.

A further distinction needs to be made between created human nature and fallen human nature, and the relation of willing to the nature. Adam was created corruptible (able to be corrupted) but sinless. His created human nature was untainted by any evil or sin. A holy God cannot create anything sinful. Indeed, his willing was united to his created nature so as to be oriented toward what his nature desired. That is to say, there were no evil inclinations in Adam’s nature that would orient his nature to sin, for God would not have created Adam with any evil inclinations. So when Adam sinned, he did so apart from anything in his nature or willing that would influence him to sin. How did he sin? He did so by, as a person, so choosing to make use of his will such that he disobeyed God. In so doing, the human nature that could have remained incorrupt was corrupted. And because all human persons share the same human nature, and since Adam (and Eve who shared the same nature as Adam) corrupted that nature through his sin, all humans since Adam have a corrupted nature. Our nature is now such as to experience death, or separation from God (physical and spiritual).

But notice something important: Adam’s nature did not become sinful, because it was not Adam’s nature that sinned, but Adam the person. In other words, human nature, though subject to death, is not sinful. For if human nature were inherently sinful, then Christ could not have taken on human nature without fundamentally altering it (in which case it wouldn’t be human nature anymore), or ceasing to be entirely holy. Human nature has been corrupted, which is to say, it has been defaced or damaged from its original state. This is fundamental: natures do not sin, persons do.

This is the time to address the inexcusable mistranslation that the NIV has foisted on English speaking Christians. There are, on my count, thirteen verses in which the NIV (mis)translates the Greek word “flesh” as “sinful nature,” or some variant thereof: Romans 7:5, 18; 8:3; 13:14; 1 Corinthians 5:5; Galatians 5:13; 6:8; Ephesians 2:3; Colossians 2:11, 13; 2 Peter 2:10; Romans 8:6 (“the mind of sinful man”; lit. “mind of the flesh”); and Romans 8:7 (“sinful mind”; lit. “the mind that is set on the flesh”). This is a question-begging translation that assumes what it seeks to prove; i. e., that these verses are talking about a human nature that is inherently sinful.

It is not, however, human nature that is sinful, but the energy in a person (the flesh) which inclines us to sin. (Cf. Romans 7:5.) This principle of the flesh entered humanity with the death that resulted from Adam’s sin. And it is through sin that the principle of death works in each person. Take a look at Romans 7:13-23. St. Paul notes that in his inner being he actually delights in the law. But the sin in him (the principle of the flesh) carries out evil. Note especially verse eighteen in this regard. St. Paul does not say that no good lies in his person, but that no good resides in his flesh. For he finds the will (to do good), but the doing of the good he does not find. (Note: The ESV is just wrong here on its translation of this verse and also betrays a pernicious circularity.) But this is as one would expect: If a nature is not sinful, but still retains God’s image, it would still naturally incline to God, the nature’s willing would incline to do good. In other words, humans still retain the inclination of the human nature to do good and desire God, but through their own personal sins, they have allowed the sinful principle of the flesh to work in them such that they find themselves doing the evil their natures are not willing to do.

This simply illustrates that human acts are not bound to human nature; i.e., we can act against our natural inclinations. In other words, the locus of human freedom is in the personhood that humans have. We have natures which will, but unlike animals that do not have personhood, we are free to act against our own natural inclinations. Persons act, not natures. And if Scripture points out that we can, in fact, act against the inclinations of our nature, fallen or unfallen, then we have the freedom to choose to act in whatever ways we so choose. If I choose to pray, fast, or give alms, I do so freely, and insofar as nothing impedes my action, I will be able to accomplish that which I choose. (However, since doing good is not the basis for God’s saving us, our doing good works will not save us.)

This is the fundamental synergist account of how humans can freely choose to act in whatever ways the so choose. Humans are not determined, either by God or by their natures, to act in certain ways. This is how God has created us, and it is his will that we have this kind of freedom.

3 thoughts on “Free Will, Free Choice

  1. Wow! Publicity for GCM. Maybe this can be used as a catalyst for unity between the Orthodox Church and the Churches of Christ. 😉

  2. Clifton, this post is not directly on topic, but I would like to comment on our mutual heritage in the “Churches of Christ.” I will forever be grateful to those good folks for a good introduction to the Bible. That said, I remain puzzled at how the American Restoration Movement failed to demonstrate any awareness of Christian Orthodoxy. I am particulary struck by how a timeless church, as they claim to be, has managed to evolve so much in the last sixty years. There are good people who love Jesus whose whole theology is consumed by trying to understand where “to draw the line” on one topic after another. As one who came out of the ARM, I found the Orthodox Church be as natural as going to my father’s home, which of course it is. The one thread which I find woven in all Church of Christ disputes is that of rank individualism. I just don’t understand why their scholars have not found their way to the Orthodox Church.

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