There are many words and concepts in theology that suffer from misunderstanding, mis-characterization, and misinformation. “Predestination,” “Calvinism,” “Total Depravity,” “Inerrancy,” and “Complementarianism”, just to name a few that I personally have to deal with. Proponents are more often than not on the defensive, having to explain again and again why it is they don’t mean what people think they mean.

The concept of “free will” suffers no less with regard to this misunderstanding. Does a person have free will? Well, what do you mean by “free will”? This must always be asked.

Do you mean:

  1. That a person is not forced from the outside to make a choice?
  2. That a person is responsible for his or her choices?
  3. That a person is the active agent in a choice made?
  4. That a person is free to do whatever they desire?
  5. That a person has the ability to choose contrary to their nature (who they are)?

Calvinists, such as myself, do believe in free will and we don’t believe in free will. It just depends on what you mean.

When it comes to the first three options, most Calvinist would agree that a person is not forced to make a choice, is responsible for their choices, and is the active agent behind those choices. They would reject the forth believing that a person is not free to do whatever they desire (for example, no matter how much one desires, he or she cannot read the thoughts of another person, fly without wings, or transport from one location to another just by thinking about the desired location).

It is important to note at this point, there is no conflict. No matter what theological persuasion you adhere to, most of historic Christianity has agreed that the first three are true, while the fourth is false.

It is with the fifth option there is disagreement.

Does a person have the ability to choose against their nature?

This question gets to the heart of the issue. Here we introduce a new and more defined term (hang with me here): “Libertarian Free-will” or “Libertarian Freedom.” Libertarian freedom can be defined briefly thus:

Libertarian Freedom: “The power of contrary choice.”

If you ask whether a person can choose against their nature (i.e. libertarian freedom) the answer, I believe, must be “no.” A person’s nature makes up who they are. Who they are determines their choice. If there choice is determined, then the freedom is self-limited. Therefore, there is no “power” of contrary choice for we cannot identify what or who this “power” might be. I know, I know . . . slow down. Let me explain.

First, it is important to get this out of the way. To associate this denial of libertarian freedom exclusively with Calvinism would be misleading. St. Augustine was the first to deal with this issue in a comprehensive manner. Until the forth century, it was simply assumed that people were free and responsible, but they had yet to flesh out what this meant. Augustine further elaborated on the Christian understanding of freedom. He argued that people choose according to who they are. If they are good, they make good choices. If they are bad, they make bad choices. These choices are free, they just lack liberty. In other words, a person does not become a sinner because they sin, they sin because they are a sinner. It is an issue of nature first. If people are identified with the fallen nature of Adam, then they will make choices similar to that of Adam because it is who they are. Yes, they are making a free choice, but this choice does not include the liberty or freedom of contrary choice.

What you have to ask is this: If “free will” means that we can choose against our nature (i.e. the power of contrary choice), if “free will” means that we can choose against who we are, what does this mean? What does this look like? How does a free person make a choice that is contrary to who they are? Who is actually making the choice? What is “free will” in this paradigm?

If one can choose according to who they are not, then they are not making the choice and this is not really freedom at all, no? Therefore, there is, at the very least, a self-determinism at work here. This is a limit on free will and, therefore, a necessary denial of true libertarian freedom.

Think about all that goes into making “who you are.” We are born in the fallen line of Adam. Spiritually speaking we have an inbred inclination toward sin. All of our being is infected with sin. This is called “total depravity.” Every aspect of our being is infected with sin, even if we don’t act it out to a maximal degree.

But even if this were not the case,—even if total depravity were a false doctrine—libertarian freedom would still be untenable. Not only are you who you are because of your identification with a fallen human race, but notice all these factors that you did not choose that go into the set up for any given “free will” decision made:

  • You did not choose when you were to be born.
  • You did not choose where you were to be born.
  • You did not choose your parents.
  • You did not choose your influences early in your life.
  • You did not choose whether you were to be male or female.
  • You did not choose your genetics.
  • You did not choose your temperament.
  • You did not choose your looks.
  • You did not choose your body type.
  • You did not choose your physical abilities.

All of these factors play an influencing role in who you are at the time of any given decision. Yes, your choice is free, but it has you behind them. Therefore, you are free to choose according to you from whom you are not able to free yourself!

Now, I must reveal something here once again that might surprise many of you. This view is held by both Calvinists and Arminians alike. Neither position believes that a person can choose against their nature. Arminians, however, differ from Calvinists in that they believe in the doctrine of prevenient grace, which essentially neutralizes the will so that the inclination toward sin—the antagonism toward Gog—is relieved so that the person can make a true “free will” decision.

However, we still have some massive difficulties. Here are a couple:

A neutralized will amounts to your absence from the choice itself.

Changing the nature of a person so that their predispositions are neutral does not really help. We are back to the question What does a neutralized will look like? Does it erase all of the you behind the choice? If you are neutralized and liberated from you, then who is making the choice? How can you be held responsible for a choice that you did not really make, whether good or bad?

A neutralized will amounts to perpetual indecision. Think about this, if a person had true libertarian freedom, where there were no coercive forces, personal or divine, that influenced the decision, would a choice ever be made? If you have no reason to choose A or B, then neither would ever be chosen. Ronald Nash illustrates this by presenting a dog who has true libertarian freedom trying to decide between two bowls of dog food. He says that the dog would end up dying of starvation. Why? Because he would never have any reason to choose one over the other. It is like a balanced scale, it will never tilt to the right or the left unless the weights (influence) on one side is greater than the other. Then, no matter how little weight (influence) is added to a balanced scale, it will always choose accordingly.

A neutralized will amounts to arbitrary decisions, which one cannot be held responsible for.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that libertarian choice could be made. Let’s say that the dog did choose one food bowl over the other. In a truly libertarian sense, this decision cannot have influences of any kind. Any decision without influences is arbitrary. It would be like flipping a coin. I chose A rather than B, not because of who I am, but for no reason at all. It just turned out that way. But this option is clearly outside a biblical worldview of responsibility and judgment. Therefore, in my opinion, the outcome for the fight for true libertarian free-will comes at the expense of true responsibility!

In conclusion: while I believe in free will, I don’t believe in libertarian free will. We make the choices we make because of who we are. We are responsible for these choices. God will judge each person accordingly with a righteous judgment.

Is there tension? Absolutely. We hold in tension our belief in God’s sovereignty, determining who we are, when we live, where we will live, who our parents will be, our DNA, etc. and human responsibility. While this might seem uncomfortable, I believe that it is not only the best biblical option, but the only philosophical option outside outside of fatalism, and we don’t want to go there.

Acts 17:26-28
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’”

Thoughts? Do you believe in free will?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    414 replies to "A Calvinist’s Understanding of “Free-Will”"

      • Stephen Ray Hale

        I used to debate against “Calvinism,” namely the parts about election and predestination. I rejected the concept that we did not have any free will in our salvation.

        It was when I discovered the underdeveloped schema of interpretation that binds both Hebrew Scripture with Christian scripture found in two corollaries, introduced by Moses in the Torah and found even on the lips of Jesus, that had me going beyond the hobby I used against Calvinists found in 2 Peter 3:9

        9 The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is

        longsuffering to us-ward, [longsuffering the key to my change of heart]

        not willing that any should perish, [the portion that had me convinced that everyone has a good chance to repent, God not being part of the process, except for the salvation plan]

        but that all should come to repentance. [If God desired ALL, then there is no elect in the Calvinist sense, my error I soon found]

        It was in reading further into that chapter I came across a VERY interesting comment, an Apostle naming another apostle concerning a term of doctrine]

        2 Peter 3:15–16 (KJV (WS))

        15 And account that the longsuffering [a word found in verse 9]

        of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul

        also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;

        16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things;…

        So with a concordance (still a relatively young theologist) I searched out Paul’s use of LONGSUFFERING in reference to GOD and Salvation.

        It led me to the scariest chapter in the whole Bible:

        Romans 9:21–24 (KJV (WS))
        21 Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?
        22 What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with

        much longsuffering

        the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:
        23 And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory,

        24 Even us, whom he hath called, [mirroring “to usward” in verse 9 of Peter]

        not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

        You can guess my mortification, realizing that Peter was talking about ALL CHRISTIANS not all the whole world.

        But I came to here because of the following hint at why God chose our current reality to work in, and without answers, the atheist online in their memes have had a field day speaking of the horrible God of the Bible and that if He is indeed responsible for this reality He is either not powerful but a fiend.

        Paul says something quite startling, while in trying to say Jews and Gentiles are candidates for God’s absolute mercy, he used as an analogy the Jews in the land…but in a statement that implies the whole world.

        And as a geologist, this also gives me reason to believe in a young earth creation, our existence being but 6000 years to date.

        Romans 9:27–29 (KJV (WS))
        27 Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea,
        a remnant shall be saved:

        28 For he will finish the work,

        and cut it short in righteousness:

        because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth.

        29 And as Esaias said before, Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed,

        we had been as Sodoma, and been made like unto Gomorrha.

        You are aware of the verse in Ecclesiastes which says that God made man upright but they sought out many inventions.

        Also that Lucifer was created perfect but iniquity was found in him.

        So it appears that in the infinity of God’s existence He had time to ponder things and using the scenario generator of His foreknowledge He recognized something:

        The sovereignty of God implies that He has the only perfect absolute free will.

        But in a clue of how he is said to have a knowledge of good and evil, he discovered that were he to create the entities with absolute free will, like Adam and Lucifer, given time and given every free will test imaginable, even if it took billions of years, EVERY ENTITY He actually creates will eventually exercise their option to disobey and being a just God, he would have to punish them and like said in verse 29 above He would have nothing,

        God had some choices. He could have created perfect little entities without free will but have darling little robots, sort of like the angels that was said to be elect, only a third having free will in our current reality.

        OR He could create nothing and not have to worry about pesty free will failures.

        BUT if He found out a way to have a remnant, He could still have some entities to enter the balance of eternity with…and apparently he chose the garbage collecting or salvage type of reality we exist in today with all the pain involved…but only for about 7000 years or so and it ending up with righteous entities to fellowship with in the balance of eternity.

        But that requires some skin in the game, and that meant to seeing to Himself a sacrifice. Being the ONLY one with perfect absolute free will, the second person of the Trinity would be inserted in some manner into a human so that unlike Adam with HIS absolute free will test, the Second Adam Jesus WILL obey every commandment and statute of God, and the elect created in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the earth in that plan, we identifying with Him would be salvaged. But that would mean that free will will NOT be part of the salvation plan because God even has to give us a faith to. believe, but that free will in a diminished manner will have a part in our ability to do good works for rewards (other than salvation or its maintenance), and for the non elect, their free will works will be written down as testimony that will be read at the Great White Throne judgment of the evil dead then resurrected to stand before God’s throne before being sent to the lake of fire.

        And here is where it gets interesting.

        He will have a real working example of an absolute free will test in the Adam/Eve entities, Lucifer and a third of the angels he could deceive to his side.

        God in foreknowledge, for a SHORT WORK, knew exactly which entities to choose who He knew would fail their free will test the fastest. Remember He made man upright but they sought out many devices.

        Along with that he decreed a law of Like begets like for all organisms, but for this purpose to allow all the potential free will failures to enter into this salvage creation as if they already had failed the their own similar free will test God observed in His running scenarios of creatures with absolute free will He had planned to create.

        Adam and Eve could have foiled the plan by NOT failing their tests, but on cue according to God’s now knowledge of good and evil that they would fail, they did.

        God made Eve a special mate in that unlike the rest of creation those with mates were created simultaneous, she was taken directly out of Adam, God taking his XY sets of Chromosomes from that sample from his side manipulated the genetics putting a female leg onto the Y gamete creating a female directly from Adam and which would allow God to reverse the process in Mary where He takes one of the three daughter cells produced at the same time of the Ovum, and stripping the female leg giving a Y gamete and then uniting the daughter cell having the Y gamete with the OVUM having only an X gamete producing a man child that God inserts the spirit of the Second person of the Trinity into made from all female parts at this modified conception, and now a man child enters the world able to follow every commandment and statute of God,

        The thing is that when God sees to Himself a sacrifice, He has a right to pick and choose among all the potential free will failures He would have to destroy if He created every one Upright, and having a remnant that He can now salvage with this salvation plan, He will have overcome the objections of His own upright free will sense of justice.

    • SteveW

      Apologies that I am a little late to this debate!
      In my estimation, the big mistake that Calvinists make is not to distinguish between the spirit and the flesh. When man fell his flesh became totally depraved and his spirit “died”, by which I mean his spirit became disconnected from the life of God. It is true that if man is left to his own devices he will never find God. But God does not leave man to his devices, does he? God in his grace communicates with man’s spirit which enables his spirit to override his depraved flesh, IF he so chooses. Without God’s intervention/presence, his flesh will dominate his spirit (Jesus said that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak) and he will never reconnect with God. A case in point is the life of Peter: scripture says that the Father had revealed to him that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Was his spirit regenerated then? No, but the Father had “enlightened” his spirit to such an extent, that he could make that declaration. It was not until after the resurrection that Peter believed that God raised Jesus from the dead (obviously), and only then was he born-again/regenerated when Jesus breathed on him and said receive the Holy Spirit. So, the critical factor in Peter’s salvation was not his nature but firstly the presence of God (the Father and Jesus) in his life and secondly how he chose to respond to his presence once his spirit (not his depraved flesh) had been “enlightened”.

    • Fuller Ming, Jr.

      What is Free Will? We work so hard to understand the mind of God. Biblical Theology aside, we see the challenges of things written in the scriptures and then strive to systematically have it all logically explained. In principle, this seems to make sense, but if we really are creatures, albeit, made in the image of God, then as creatures we are seriously limited. The solution to this limitation is to accept the words and teaching of Jesus, the prophets, and our Holy and inspired apostles which teach us to make decisions and choose to follow God. In the Bible, people (including you and I) are told to DO THINGS that go against our nature as sinful beings as if everyone reading the text has been given the ability to make the choice. As it is written, “TRUST in the Lord…” (Prov 3:5), “WATCH OUT that you do not lose what we have worked for…” (2 John 1:8), “…CONTINUE in what you have learned…” (2 Tim 3:14), or “Do not be deceived…” (James 1:16), “repent” (Mark 1:15, Luke 13:3, Acts 2;38, Acts 3;19, Rev 3:3… and many, many other places)

      I think we can all agree that we cannot know many, many things about the unseen, supernatural realm nor the full nature of God who – theologically speaking – is beyond our comprehension by definition. So, John Calvin and our voting on official doctrine over the centuries, defining what is orthodox and what is heretical and then, often killing and burning the heretics alive just prove my point. Mankind can only know what God allows us to know which affirms God’s sovereignty.

      My point is this – from what we have been given, we are free to choose and go against our nature as emphasized above. We can make up words like prevenient grace, and others to explain this, but the human being must choose and thus the Christian must preach giving people the opportunity to choose freely. From Cain killing Abel (Gen 1:8) to Nathaniel choosing to come and see (John 1:46-47) the Word of God presents people making choices freely.

      My post is one-sided. The Bible also presents things that imply God is behind every little thing that occurs from stubborn Pharaoh in Exodus to God having mercy or not having mercy on whomever He chooses and hardening who he wants to harden as described in Roman 9:14-29. This is just as true and the fact is, we cannot fully understand this – it is purely from God’s perspective. For me, the right position to take is humility not theological specifics that I can never really know or comprehend.

      Now, I don’t want to give the atheist ammunition saying, “you Christians simply don’t think – you are anti-intellectual. If you don’t know why something works, you say it is God, just like ancient people inventing gods for weather, birth, harvest, and the motion of stars & planets.” No, I do NOT think that way at all. My point ultimately is this – just do what the Bible says and stop trying to understand things we cannot understand. There have been brilliant scholars, theologians and philosophers that have written tomes on these topics, John Calvin notwithstanding! Yet, if we accept that we are mere men in the spirit of another brilliant man, C. S. Lewis – then we can teach and preach and exercise all five types of free will which C Michael Patton described with the logical limitations as given (e.g. I cannot freely choose to transport myself by thought – and if there was a Star Trek like transported device, I wouldn’t use it!).

      We can also remind people that God is Sovereign. Just like the very real problem of evil and suffering, our theological explanations may not convince or help anyone but ourselves. Theology is very, very important and the main point of theology we all need to get is this: We are not God! This is what Eve tried and Satan tried, and Wicca and Mormonism lie about. We are human beings with incredible gifts/abilities and incredible limitations. Human exceptionalism is real, and so is aging and death. We can experience real joy and real suffering. We have free will and God is Sovereign. I may not understand why these contradicting things are all true, I may not understand how God and Jesus and the Father are one God, I may not understand why God let a murderer or disease or disaster take the lives of people I love, but I can humbly learn to accept reality as experienced by mankind for all of recorded history!

      • Robert Leonardo

        I think I grasped what you were saying; trying to marry Free-will with God’s Determinism is impossible, not that I have not tried along with the rest of us.

        I have tried to just be very simple with this as well, just because I know what my inferior dogs are going to do when I call them for breakfast doesn’t mean I determine it.

        I just always wondered if this is a Time-clock problem, I don’t understand eternity, but I do understand time, at least I am under the impression I do. There is something about God that is similar to our current understanding of Physics, there is constant interconnectivity, i.e. God is always in the Now. We were given the Sun, moon, and stars for time on Earth, but it seems like it’s more of an illusion for us while we are stuck in this body.

        Only God can reply

    • [email protected]

      The wisdom of man is foolishness. Yet so many seek to follow the “wisdoms” of man, instead of The Word of God.

      Calvinism, Armenism, Lutheranism, blah blah blah.
      There’s no ism in the Bible. There’s only Christ.
      Stick to the only book that matters and leave the theologians to their folly.

      “Thinking themselves wise, they became fools.”

    • Bryan

      Scripture must interpret scripture. All of Calvinism lives or dies on total depravity. The Bible is clear that is false. That’s why there is age of accountability. We all have the knowledge of good and evil. We have all fallen short of Gods glory, but to say one can’t act counter to their nature if false . I see atheist routinely exhibit patience , kindness, goodness, gentleness and self control. Make self sacrificing decisions but their lack of faith is what disqualifies them. All of sin for the world was cleansed and forgive, only unbelief and belief disqualifies or qualifies a person.

      The issue with Calvinism is God must choose who will be saved as Calvinists believe grace can’t be refused and Christ can’t be freely accepted . This is ideology and not theology . We have the knowledge of good and evil, the problem is accepting christ. The Bible talks about the age of accountability. Children are not sinful . We are born into sin. We aren’t born as sin. We have flesh and spirit. Scripture says it’s Gods will all men come to salvation. This tears down all of Calvinism because not all men do come to salvation and Gods will does not supersede choice.

      I will we could debate verbally. I have not the time and character space to reference all 66 books in accordance to these topics in written form

      • Alexis Charmolypi

        While I’m sure you are Protestant, we agree on this issue. Paul’s entire tirade explaining Abraham’s justification by faith destroys the concept of total depravity and the claim of acting against our ‘sin-nature’ as it were.
        The Pharisees were very much acting against their nature, doing holy things with an unholy heart – whereas Abraham did none of these things but had a holy heart.

        • C Michael Patton

          Are you Catholic? If so, they believe in total depravity. Baptism is what neutralizes it for them. In fact, unless you are Eastern Orthodox, all Christian traditions believe in it. As well, EO believes in the corruption of the will, just not imputation. They believe that we cannot come to God on our own.

    • Craig

      Without free will God cannot resolve the angelic Conflict

    • Alexis Charmolypi

      If what you claim – “we can do nothing against our own nature” – is true, there would be no such phenomenon of conversion and repentance.
      These concepts assume the possibility of choosing to be something that is against our sinful ways, and the only recourse on the part of Calvinism is to say “the Holy Spirit did it” – and yet the Scriptures testify that it is both our spirit and the Holy Spirit that bear witness together. (Romans 8:16) The Holy Spirit does not “neutralize” our will, it draws us toward Truth and the life of Faith, which we accept freely. But then you might ask: how can we accept this freely if our nature is sin?
      Well, it’s not. The Calvinist heresy teaches there is a sin nature, but fails to properly distinguish between the nature of man and the conditions of his existence (we might do well to distinguish between ‘physis’ and ‘tropos’ if we wanted to be simplistic about it). We are not sinful in our nature, we are sinful in our way of life before Christ. Often times Protestants will insert the word “nature” into biblical texts and confuse the more technical meaning (a perfect example being Romans 8:8-9, which contains neither word often translated as nature).
      The OP does, to his credit, hint at sin as a disease of sorts, and this should give pause for reflection – do you BECOME the flu every time you get sick?! No, of course not. But your thoughts, emotions, actions, and behaviors are indelibly affected by the condition – the flu-stricken body is hostile to virility, in the same way the sinful mind is hostile to God.

      But, if the cure comes along, you are free to take it. And to this end you are indeed acting against what, if only momentarily, appears to be part of your ‘nature’.

    • Eric Braun

      If we cannot choose against our nature, then can you explain how Adam and Eve, who were totally innocent and had no sin nature, chose to sin against God?

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