“Free Will” and Meaningful Choice

We are now in chapter 23 of Randy Alcorn’s book If God Is Good. This chapter focuses on “free will” and meaningful choice that accounts for evil and suffering. As in past posts, I will be sharing the author’s thoughts and various excerpts.

As a reminder, you can find posts of previous chapters under the heading Bible Studies in the menu above. I would be most honored if you would leave your respectful thoughts, comments, or prayer needs below. Unless otherwise noted, the Scriptures used are from the NKJV.

Professor Liviu Librescu

This chapter opens with a glimpse of a 76-year-old professor of aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech by the name of Liviu Librescue. On April 16, 2007, when a murderous gunman tried to enter the professor’s classroom, Liviu managed to barricade the door, blocking the shooter’s entrance. He held his ground long enough to give all but one of his twenty students time to escape out the window. The killer shot Librescue five times. The final shot to the head killed him.

As a Holocaust survivor, Librescue made his choice to stand between a mass murderer and his students, and give his life for them, doing so on all the days, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

God’s Image

God gave free will to the original humans, perhaps as part of their being made in his likeness. Scholars debate the meaning of “God’s image.” But what might creating men and women in his own image and in his likeness mean? (see Genesis 1:27; 5:1).

God is intelligent, creative, commutative, and free to choose. To be made in his likeness likely includes having these attributes, though on a finite level.

God sovereignly created angels and human beings and gave them the freedom to choose. He knew what choices angels and humans would make under what circumstances. While he could have intervened to stop them from sinning, he wanted them to choose freely, not under constraint. Furthermore, he planned to use the evil and suffering he foresaw to reveal himself in Christ and his redemptive plan.

Adam and Eve Freely Chose to Sin

Genesis 2:16-17 tells us, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

We should take God’s words at face value: “you are free to eat from any tree.” Perhaps hundreds of trees filled Eden, but God forbade eating from only one of them. If Adam could not help but eat from the forbidden tree, then would God tell him he “must not” do so?

Nothing in the biblical account suggests that outside influences or God-given internal desires required Adam and Eve to make a sinful choice. Satan influence them but did not control them. They weighed God’s words and could have obeyed them, but chose evil instead.

God permitted Satan’s influence and knew exactly the choice humanity would make under those circumstances. We should not think of angels and human beings as pawns on a chessboard. God is not the author of evil. He was, however, the author of his creature’s capacity to choose between good and evil.

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.”James 1:13

God said to Eve:

  • “What is this you have done?” (Genesis 3:13), not,
  • “What is this that Satan has made you do?” or
  • “What is this I have caused you to do?”

Likewise, God declared that Adam had chosen to disobey him, and so God held him fully responsible for his choice.

Adam, Eve, and Satan all made real choices and God judged them accordingly.

The Free Will Debate

The term “free will” misleads when applied to slaves of sin.

Our free will is limited first because we are finite. Even when morally perfect, Adam and Eve were not free to choose to do whatever that came into their mind such as flying, visiting the moon, or swimming underwater for two hours. There are a lot of things they weren’t smart enough or strong enough to do.

God alone is finite, and therefore God alone has completely free will that permits him to do whatever he wants (and which will always be in keeping with his flawless character).

What may be less obvious to us is that our free will is far more limited due to our sinful natures. We are not just finite, we are fallen.

Jesus said, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). In Romans chapters 6 and 7 we see repeatedly that human beings, without the transforming power of God’s indwelling Holy Spirit, are “slaves to sin” (Ro 6:16, 17, 18; 7:14, 25). Slaves, by definition, have seriously restricted freedom.

A slave to sin cannot be righteous:

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness” – (Ro 6:20)

True, God can change this condition within us. Paul says:

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” – (Ro 6:22 NIV)

Sinners do not have the freedom to choose in exactly the same way as Adam and Eve did. Freedom still exists, but our fallenness greatly limits our capacity to obey God.

Only three human beings have enjoyed moral innocence: Adam, Eve, and Jesus. Adam and Eve lost theirs in the Fall, making slavery to sin the natural human condition. Liberation from that slavery requires supernatural intervention.

Paul wrestles with the reality that even the regenerated person feels inclined toward evil:

When I want to do good, evil is right there with me…What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin”. (Ro 7:21, 24-25).

Free Will – A Timeless Debate

Luther and Erasmus engaged in a timeless debate about free will that still frames our modern discussions. The exchange between Luther and Erasmus remains lively and current because although culture has changed, the issues have not.


  • claimed that fallen people have a genuine ability to choose to obey God.
  • believed God wouldn’t command us to do anything unless we could obey.
  • while affirming God’s grace, Erasmus believed that repenting and turning from sin to God was within the power of human wisdom and free choice.
  • Because God repeatedly commands us to obey him, Erasmus argued we must have the capacity or “free will” to do so.

Erasmus’s argument appears to make sense after all I would not command my dog to read a book and I wouldn’t even command him not to eat a plate of raw meat if I said it in front of him.

  • Erasmus believed God gives the unbeliever free choice that does not require further divine empowerment.

 Luther on the other hand:

  • argued that sin incapacitates us and that we are on our own, incapable of choosing obedience.
  • believed that sinful nature, sometimes exploited by demons, dominates unredeemed human beings. Only when God brings new birth to an individual does man receive the power to love God and serve him instead of sin.
  • clarified that he did believe in free will in matters that didn’t accompany salvation.
    • “Free choice is allowed to man only with respect to what is beneath him and not what is above him. In relation to God or in matters pertaining to salvation or damnation a man has no free choice, what is a captive.” [1]
  • viewed God’s commands as a measuring standard to show us our inability to choose righteously.
    • Grace alone saves us, Luther maintained and God’s empowerment to choose righteously comes to us only with his saving grace.
  • Luther stated that God had a higher purpose in giving us his law.
    • The second half of Romans 3:20 says we are not righteous enough to obey the law, “rather through the law we become conscious of sin.”
  • Luther wrote, “The commandments are not given inappropriately or pointlessly; but in order that through them the proud, blind man may learn the plague of his impotence, should he try to do as he is commanded.”
    • He argued that even schoolboys know that commands indicate “what ought to be done and ought for sinners, does not mean able.”[2]   
  • emphasized the human need for God’s grace and empowerment to obey.

Luther believed that Erasmus’s view of “free will” made much of man’s power and little of God’s. He wrote,

“All the passages in the Holy Scriptures that mention assistance are they that do away with ‘free will’, and these are countless…. For grace is needed, and the help of grace is given, because ‘free will’ can do nothing.”[3]

Thanks to God’s commandments that repeatedly call us to a life we cannot live without him, we can realize our bondage to sin. In desperation, we should call on God’s grace to do what we cannot do for ourselves.

This calling upon God requires God’s work in us since in our own bondage to sin we can’t escape from our self-made prison.

According to Luther, whenever a sinner repents, free will didn’t make it possible. Sinners are not only slaves, they’re also dead in sin (see Ephesians 2:1).

How responsive are dead people? How capable are they of getting up out of the coffin and making the right choices? Salvation is God’s free will at work, to draw, convict and rescue sinners, miraculously liberating them.

Jesus said: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” – John 6:44

When the sinner comes to Christ, he takes on Christ’s righteousness and the indwelling Holy Spirit empowers him. He’s now free and capable of choosing to obey God. Without being redeemed, we have no freedom to do anything that makes us holy and acceptable to God.

On the other hand, by God’s common grace, unsaved people, whether secular or religious, remain free to do acts of kindness. However, they may do them without consciousness of God or gratitude to God, and are inclined to do good things with poor motivations (see Matthew 6:1-5).

Free Will, Reasonable Self-Determination, or Meaningful Choice

Given the biblical teaching about bondage to sin, free will may be a less helpful term than reasonable self-determination or meaningful choice.

Augustine wrote that God has given us “reasonable self-determination.” Wayne Grudem explains this:

“We think about what to do, consciously decide what we will do, and then we follow the course of action we have chosen… Our choices really do determine what will happen. It is not as if events occur regardless of what we decide or do, but rather that they occur because of what we decide and do.” [4] 

In light of the debate between Luther and Erasmus, we should consider what different people mean by free will.

Usually, it refers to the capacity of rational beings to choose a course of action from among various alternatives. It can be defined as the “freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention[5]

It can also be seen as “the deliberative choosing on the basis of desires and values.” [6]

Jonathan Edwards defined free will as “the ability to choose as one pleases.” He explained: “A man never in any instance wills anything contrary to his desires, or desires anything contrary to his will.” [7]

Therefore, in that sense, a sinner has free will, but given his sinful nature, he is not free to desire righteousness or live righteously without God’s empowerment.

Alcorn said that he believes in “free will” if it means the ability to make voluntary choices that have real effects. However, he does not believe in “free will” if it means what Charles Finney said:

“Free will implies the power of originating and deciding our own choices, and of exercising our own sovereignty, in every instance of choice upon moral questions of deciding or choosing in conformity with duty or otherwise in all cases of moral obligations.” [8]

Alcorn writes: “This gives more credit to the human condition than Scripture does, and since I‘ve engaged in discussions and read books where these and other definitions of free will are assumed without being stated, I’ve seen how confusing it can get. Therefore, before the argument starts, we should be sure to define the terms.”

Meaningful and Consequential Human Choice

Scripture calls human beings to choose and continuously describes them as making choices. Therefore, having addressed the limits of human free will we should recognize that the Bible certainly assumes human beings have the ability to make meaningful choices.

Look up all the Bible verses containing the word “choose” and you’ll find that a remarkable number of them speak of God’s choices. His free will dominates Scripture. But God’s Word also speaks of humans making meaningful choices, often with the stated or implied option of choosing otherwise.

After God sent forth his laws to Israel and laid out the consequences of obedience and disobedience, Moses assured his fellow Israelites:

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not in heaven… 13 Nor is it beyond the sea… 14 No, the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may obey it.” – Deu 30:11-14 NIV

Moses goes on to implore them to:

Choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…” – Deu 30:19-20 NIV

Scripture states:

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?” – Eze 33:11 NIV

God’s heartfelt plea surely implies that he offers his people sufficient resources to make the right choice and to turn to him. Would he make such an emotional plea to those who had no choice except to refuse him?

Choose Wisely

Consider the following Scriptures from the NIV Bible:

  • Proverbs 4:13-15 – “Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life. Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way.
  • Joshua 24:15 – “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
  • Deuteronomy 23:16 “Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.”

Sinners also make real choices to sin:

  • James 4:4 – “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
  • 1 Peter 4:3 – “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.”

Hebrews 11 commends person after person for their godly choices. Paul calls upon individuals to do what lies within the general power of human choice:

  • Do your best to come to me quickly, 13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” – 2 Tim 4:9, 13 NIV

While scripture reveals truths such as sovereignty, election, and predestination, it doesn’t reveal the reality of human choice as much as it simply assumes it, but it does so repeatedly. It’s as if something so self-evident is our ability to make choices, doesn’t require a special revelation or commentary. Of course, we can choose. We do so constantly.

God Tests Us

God gives us choices to test us.  The Lord said to Abraham:

Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” – Gen 22:12

God said to Moses:

Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not.” – Ex 16:4

If loving God really means something, then the choice to follow him must be real and meaningful. Read God’s words to his people in Isaiah 1:16-20:

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.
Cease to do evil,
17 Learn to do good;
Seek justice,
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.

18 “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord,
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.

19If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;
20 But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword”;
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Ask yourself in this passage doesn’t God call upon people, appealing to their reason, to make meaningful, consequential choices for which he will hold them accountable?

Even if we lack the strength to do some things, we can do others. A rebellious child selectively obeys. He may open the forbidden drawer yet not play on the road or climb on the roof. Likewise, we may choose to obey God in some areas and not others.

To believe that God preordained everything we do creates problems. If God causes me to make all choices, then he causes me to do evil. And if I have no choice, then how do I bear his image? God sovereignly appoints governing authorities (see Romans 13:1) yet judges rulers for their evil choices (see Psalms 110:6).

If meaningful choice does not exist, then life isn’t real. Do you have the choice to read this book? Did the author have the choice to write it?

Our Own Freedom To Choose

Our own freedom to choose though restricted remains meaningful and consequential. Some affirm a far too expansive “free will.” The human sinful nature and consequent moral condition, addictions, choice-making history, and other dominant influences can greatly diminish our volitional freedom.

Treatments on free will sometimes emphasize that no one can predict future choices. But apart from radical steps of intervention, those with addictions know otherwise. Our addictions, desires, need for approval, and vulnerability two peer pressure may turn what appears to be a free choice into a “forced choice.”

Sinners by nature desire what’s sinful. In the absence of external constraints, normally they will choose to sin. They don’t have to do so however, under threat of instant death they most likely would refrain.

Jeremiah 13:23 in the NIV captures our dilemma: “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”

Limited Freedom

Our real but limited freedom is instinctively misdirected and dangerous.

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? – Jer 17:9 ESV

We may freely follow our desires; however, this is not entirely good news. Why not? Because we lack the freedom to dictate our desires. We are not innocent beings inclined to choose whatever is best. We are not evenly moral neutral beings, objectively weighing and measuring our options. We are congenitally selfish.

Jesus said of the human heart:

 “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.” – Mk 7:21-23

How free are we? Free enough to:

  • be human.
  • be morally responsible and accountable.
  • make consequential choices that matter.
  • make choices, some better some worse.

However, we are not free enough to transform our own hearts or make ourselves righteous before God.

We Live Under Restraints

Prisoners exercise limited freedom with meaningful and consequential choices. The prisoner may choose to read, watch television, lift weights, shoot baskets, write letters, pray, think about his family, or plot an escape. He can eat or not eat what’s on his plate. But he cannot leave his cell and visit a coffee shop downtown or catch a plane to London. The man in bondage makes meaningful choices, free within limits. But those limits are very real.

People who live in the “free world” also live under restraints. To love children requires imposing restrictions on their freedom. We cannot make right or wrong choices unless we can make real choices, yet we are not autonomous, always able to make any choice independently of our natures or external limitations.

Salvation in Christ

Salvation in Christ not only changes our destiny in the afterlife, but it also radically affects our capacity to resist evil in this life. Believers’ justification by faith in Christ changes our legal status before God satisfying the just demands of the law by imputing our sins to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us (see Romans 3:21-26). In regeneration, God grants to the believer a new nature that, as he draws upon God’s power, can overcome evil, giving him greater freedom of choice than he had when he was in bondage to sin.

Regeneration changes our hearts, thereby changing the inclination of our wills. Once regenerated, we choose a better way because as new people in Christ, we want a better way (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).

  • But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you…” – Ro 8:9 NLT

Regeneration empowers the formerly blind to see and comprehend the things of God:

  • Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God…” – 1 Cor 2:12-16
  • Whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them…For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – 2 Cor 4:4, 6
  • And have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him,” – Col 3:10

Regeneration renews the will, enabling us to make godly choices:

  • For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” – Phil 2:13
  • Now may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience of Christ.” – 2 Thess 3:5

God speaks of the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”.

  • He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, –  Titus 3:5 ESV

Once born again, believers cannot continue to sin as a lifestyle because of our new nature.

  • Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.1 Jn 3:9

Sin is still present in our lives:

  • 11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body… 13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin… 14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” – Ro 6:11-14
  • 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. 2.1 My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” – 1 Jn 1:8-2:2

But we have supernatural power to overcome sin, for we died to sin and are free from slavery to it (see Romans 6:6-9).

God’s Holy Spirit indwells us and helps us to obey him:

  • That good thing, which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.” – 2 Tim 1:14

Unregenerate People Can Make Good Choices

Being slaves to sin does not mean unregenerate people can’t ever make good choices. Those without Christ are tied to their sin. While they can modify many sinful behaviors, they can’t escape the sin built into their nature.

Romans 7 says that sinners can’t stop doing evil, not that they can never do good. Adulterers, thieves, the greedy, and gossipers can all risk their lives to save a child. Without Christ, we remain spiritually separated from God and cannot earn our way to heaven, but this doesn’t mean we are as evil as we could be or that we’d lack any capacity to do good.

In Closing

Alcorn states that he began the chapter with the heroic choice of professor Liviu Librescu, who saved the lives of his students on a day when an evildoer killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. He doesn’t know whether the professor was a Christ follower, but he does know that on that day in the face of death, Librescu made a meaningful and consequential choice. What made it powerful and significant is that he didn’t have to do it. He was free to have chosen differently. He made the right choice, and for that, his students and their families will always be grateful.

Maranatha! Until next time, I am Passionately Loving Jesus, the Anchor of my Soul.

ABC’s of Salvation – Repent and be saved from the Wrath of God to come.

  • [1] Martin Luther, On The Bondage Of The Will, 143.
  • [2] Luther, On The Bondage Of The Will, 159.
  • [3] Luther, On The Bondage Of The Will, 270.
  • [4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 192-93.
  • [5] Miriam-Webster Online Dictionary, s.v. “free will,” www.miriam-webster.com/dictionary/free%20will.
  • [6] Timothy O’Connor, “Free Will,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, April 14, 2005, HTTP://plato. stanford.edu/entries/freewill/.
  • [7] Jonathan Edwards, A Careful and Strict Inquiry, from Books for the Ages, AGES Software (Rio, WI: Master Christian Library Series, 2000 ), 10.
  • [8] Charles G. Finny, Systematic Theology, Lecture 2, “Conditions for Moral Obligation” from Books for the Ages, AGES Software (Rio, WI: Master Christian Library Series, 2000 ), 25.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Your respectful thoughts and opinions are welcomed.