Free Will

No, this teaching is not about the popular children’s movie starring a porpoise that was popular a few years ago: “Free Willie.” It’s about our human will, roughly defined as “the power of choice.”

About 20 years ago I began keeping a file labeled “Human Free Will” in which I jotted down some of my own thoughts as they occurred to me, some thoughts Holy Spirit gave to me, and some thoughts I gleaned from various books and other literature I read. I failed to write down the names of some of those writers and their literature in which I read their thoughts about this subject. 

I’ll begin with this thought:  As commonly understood, we do not possess free will, the power to freely choose! On the contrary, our will is finite, limited, stubborn and rebellious toward God, self-centered, and self-absorbed. However, during the coming eons of time after Jesus returns, our will shall slowly become completely blended with God’s will, until at long last our will shall finally be untethered, unfettered, and unlimited—totally and truly free!

So, this teaching is a compilation of my own thinking, Holy Spirit’s thinking, and the thinking of unnamed other people over a period of about 30 years. I cannot take full credit for what you will read in this teaching. That’s my confession to you.          

I’ve been very hesitant to write this teaching about so-called human “free will” because I know how sacrosanct this subject is among most people who believe in the Bible. The prevailing “orthodox” view is that the Bible clearly teaches that human beings have been given completely free will by our Creator. To question that view is to question a very widely held, supposedly inviolable view. Well, I’m questioning that view, and here’s why…

First, bear in mind that the two-word term “free will” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible—except for a few places in the context of “free will” financial offerings to God. It’s a two-word term that was contrived and formulated by theologians and Bible students through the centuries of Church history in an attempt to explain theologically the interaction between the sovereign purposes of God for humans—and human responses to those purposes. It’s a human-devised “theological construct”—if you need a theological term for the concept of “free will.” The term is taught only in theological circles, not, for example, in business, economic, psychological, or sociological circles, or the like. It is an entirely human-contrived theological teaching!   

If God is really God—totally and completely sovereign over all creation (every thing and every being)—then He is the only Being who possesses “free will” in the absolute sense of the term. It logically follows, then, that any sentient (meaning self-aware, such as humans) beings within God’s creation can possess free will only in a limited sense of the term. Yes, if humans have free will in any sense, it can be only limited free will.

In one sense, even the sovereign God is limited in the exercise of his will. How can that be? The Bible clearly teaches that God is love—not that God has love or exhibits love or possesses love. No, God is love. His essential character and nature is love. Thus, God is not free to do anything that doesn’t flow from his essential nature of love. That’s the only sense in which God doesn’t have unlimited free will; He can’t do anything that is not totally loving.

The human soul (mind) is “wired” like a vast switchboard, perhaps not all of the time or even most of the time, to make possible the exercise of free choice, or at least an extraordinarily large range of possible choices—but not an unlimited range. Yes, there is such a thing as a vast range of free choices, but humans do not have absolute, unlimited freedom of choice (free will) as only God possesses.

Because of the presence of sin in the fallen human condition, often overpowering instincts (such as fear, along with what we have been taught and how we have grown up as fallen, sinful beings in a certain era, society, and culture) predetermine our responses, choices, decisions, and actions. Humans are never completely free of such “background forces” in our makeup every time we make choices and decisions. 

Here’s an example of such limiting background forces in our lives: Think of the way in which we who live in the 21st century might make a certain choice about a given matter as contrasted with how a lowly serf in feudal Europe 1,000 years ago might make a choice. We are “products” of our culture and thus limited in any choices we might make. Here’s another simple, kind of “hokey,” example: While we may have free will to jump unassisted to the moon some 243,000 miles away, we are prevented and limited in doing so by physical limitations of space, gravity, our own limited physical strength, etc. 

We always make choices and decisions based upon a “tempered” version of such limited free will. God’s choices and decisions are never limited in any way because He “sees all and knows all.” We don’t. Thus, the choices all humans make are always limited in some manner; we always “see through a glass darkly,” as the Bible puts it. God has the liberty of always making his choices and decisions based upon full and complete knowledge. We don’t.

We always make our choices and decisions based upon our current states of awareness and present levels of understanding—which are always limited and incomplete at any given moment when we make our choices and decisions. That’s all we can ever do: make our choices and decisions based upon our current states of awareness and present levels of understanding. We always make only the best decisions we can make at any given time.

Let me illustrate in the following manner—in another way—what I’ve been attempting to write… For any human being to make a completely free will choice at any given instant in time, that person would need to have total and complete information about the matter about which the choice or decision needs to be made. Just as God has complete and total information when He makes choices and decisions. Without total and complete information at the time, any human’s choices could not be complete and total free will choices.

At any given instant in time, our five senses are assaulted with about 14,000,000 separate bits of information every second! The “bandwidth of human consciousness” can take in and process only about 18-20 bits of external information per second. In fact, there is a web-shaped group of cells at the base of our brains called “the reticular activating system” with which we were created in order to “filter” incoming sensory information—otherwise, we would go on “overload” and our brains would be “fried” instantly by those millions of bits of incoming data every second. 

Thus, any free will choice we make at any given moment in time is based, first, upon our very faulty and untrustworthy memory of past events and information we have stored in our conscious and subconscious “memory banks” in terms of images and remembered experiences. Second, such a free will choice is based upon only 18 bits of data available to us at the moment we make our decision, not upon the 14 million bits of data we would need to process in order to make a full and complete choice or decision in that given situation. 

The only factors that assist us in making the “best” choices and decisions in given situations are that if we are followers of Jesus, we are continually coming to know the truth more and more as we come to know Jesus progressively more intimately—because He is THE Truth. Knowing Him helps us make better, more informed decisions and choices, but they will always remain limited because we will always remain finite, limited beings. Only God is infinite and unlimited, and only God can make genuine “free will” choices and decisions.

Here’s sort of a bottom-line statement about this entire matter: We humans feel we’re completely free to choose; on the contrary we’re probably not nearly as free to choose as we like to convince ourselves—and tell ourselves—we’re free to choose.

God is absolutely sovereign over the affairs of his universe and everything in it—including you! God, as Creator, is “owner” of all things (Psalm 2: 8; Ezekiel 18: 4; Colossians 1: 16; Hebrews 1: 2, for example), and that includes you and me. He has never relinquished his sovereign ownership of all things. Only God has absolute “free” will over the “property” He “owns.” 

Many believe God’s hands are tied; as much as He would like to save us, deliver us, keep all of us, and preserve all of us, He is unable. But, is our power to destroy His property really greater than His power to preserve or restore it? How “free” and powerful are we? What role did we play in controlling our life experiences that have made us who and what we are? What faulty, limited intricacies of our reasoning processes, which determine our decisions, do we fully control?

Is the Bible correct in stating no one seeks after God, that our natural mind is at odds with Him and not subject to His law? “Indeed it cannot be subject,” said Paul (Romans 3: 11; 8: 7). How can a naturally hostile mind, that cannot subject itself to God, of its own limited will subject itself to God? Only God can give us faith and draw us to Himself; we cannot muster up faith and draw ourselves to Him by our own efforts. (Romans 12: 3; John 6: 44 and 12: 32, for example) 

To idolize free will as though it were the crux of our salvation contradicts the Bible and fosters a boastful attitude that it is we who save ourselves! What are we implying when we infer that God is helpless in the face of human free will? It intimates that our salvation depends on human power, not God’s power. Thus God is stripped of His power and glory, leaving the blood of Jesus powerless to save all humanity for whom it was shed.   In fact, it negates the very definition of God as “Almighty,” leaving us with no real God at all. 

The Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt pictures God powerfully working behind the scenes influencing the wills of people. Who of these people thought their will was not solely their own? Yet God, in His infinite power, was at work accomplishing His purposes through their decisions (Genesis 45: 5). Even while Pharaoh resisted Moses, God was at work fulfilling His purposes. Where was Pharaoh’s “free” will?

What about such Bible references as the following (and many more)?

  • The king’s heart is a stream…in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He will (Proverbs 21: 1).
  • The way of a person is not in himself; it is not in people who walk to direct their own steps (Jeremiah 10: 23).
  • He does according to His will among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand (Daniel 4: 35).
  • Those…were born…not of human will, but of God (John 1: 12, 13).
  • No one can come to Me unless the Father…draws [drags] him (John 6: 44; 12: 32).
  • Without Me [Jesus] you can do noth­ing.
  • You did not choose Me, but I chose you… (John 15: 16).
  • It does not depend on the person who wills or the person who runs, but on God who has mercy (Romans 9: 16 )
  • You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” (Romans 9: 19).
  • [God] predestined people…to the purpose of Him who works all… according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1: 11).
  • God works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Philippians 2: 13).

What are we saying to God in “deifying” the will of humans, making them all-powerful instead of God? 

  • You [God] cannot have what is yours (Romans 11: 36).
  • You cannot find what you have lost (Luke 15: 4).
  • Isaiah was wrong about your hand not being so short it cannot save (Isaiah 59: 1).
  • The Bible exaggerates in saying nothing is too difficult for you (Jeremiah 32: 17).
  • People have robbed the keys of Hades from You (Revelation 1: 18).
  • He who is in the world [Satan] is stronger than You, God (1 John 4: 4).
  • Your sacrifice for all the people of the world is really only for a few people (1 John 2: 2).
  • Your promises to reconcile all things are just exaggerated hopes (Acts 3: 21).
  • Your hands are tied. You cannot accomplish all your will. (Isaiah 55: 11).
  • All creatures will not really worship you as You “hope” they will. (Revelation 5: 13; Philippians 2: 10-11).

Given that Bible translators are human, they are naturally inclined to conform the text they are translating to their own worldview; it’s just human nature. Since most have believed in the sovereignty of human will, they must weaken the sense of phrases such as “to will” and “to purpose” with “to desire” and “to wish” when referring to God. Thus, God is seen as merely “desiring” things instead of “willing” them.

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; Who will have [“desires”–NKJV] all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time (1Timothy 2: 3-6 ).

Tradition has taught that God will not save a person against their will. I agree. However, He has the power to orchestrate whatever circumstances are necessary to cause one’s will to change. No one has complete or perfect knowledge of God. So when a person “rejects” a given concept of God, they are not in truth rejecting the true God, but only their partial or flawed understanding of Him. Only Jesus truly knows Him, and the person to whom He chooses to reveal Him (Matthew 11: 27; Luke 10: 22; John 6: 46). If Jesus has not “revealed” the Father in truth to someone, can that person be held accountable for rejecting what was not really made known?

Once a fuller understanding of God is given each of us in the ages to come (Ephesians 2: 7), all humanity will bow and confess Jesus is Lord, just as Isaiah and Paul prophesied (Isaiah 45: 21-25; Romans 14: 11; 1 Corinthians 12: 3; Philippians 2: 9-11). Who would want to continue in active and persistent rebellion knowing God only wants what is best for them? Knowing the great goodness and love of God, along with Holy Spirit working in their hearts, these hardened hearts must eventually soften in the face of God’s great love for them. 

It is impossible that an omnipotent God can fail in His purposes, and that some humans would forever resist unconditional love, opting, instead, for suffering and loss. This would be totally irrational. And even if one were that irrational, such resistance would not arise out of a “free” will, but an “enslaved” will, a will in bondage to a mind of limited thinking, understanding, and comprehension.

“Free” will? Have you really thought it through? Are God’s hands really tied by it?   Your belief or disbelief in “free” will must inevitably be determined by your view of God’s sovereign will and His unlimited power. The biggest factor overlooked by those who say God will not violate man’s “free” will, is the fact that man does not own himself.   Can man’s puny, limited will “trump” God’s sovereign will? 

Please think carefully about this. Do you really think God would place a higher value on man’s self-destructive “free” will than He does His own loving and gracious will for a person whom He “owns”? Such freedom would in effect be an illusion, for such absolute freedom would be bondage of the worst kind imaginable. Why is it that our tradition will only accept human will as “free” if it leads someone to age-lasting destruction, but cannot accept it as “free” if it leads a person to have God’s own eternal LIFE in them, though God’s LIFE for everyone is God’s will (Philippians 2: 9-11; Romans 14: 11)?

                Do YOU really have unlimited free will that is stronger than God’s will?

Bill Boylan
Revised and Updated February 2023

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