We make decisions everyday, from what to wear to what to eat and we have a certain amount of liberty in making those choices. If you can’t tell from those two sentences, this post is going to be about free will. However I am not going to delve into the nuances of each position (libertarian free will, compatibilism, hard determinism etc.) but rather I wish to share with you something that impacted my own thinking in this matter: Jonathan Edwards’ “Freedom of the Will”.

In my early days as a Calvinist I struggled with the many passages in Scripture that speak to choosing, and the warnings in Scripture that if a person does not in fact choose Christ (repent), they will perish. Pair that with much of the Calvinist literature I had encountered that proclaimed over and over (with little qualification) that”dead men can’t choose; that the natural mans does not receive the things of God” etc. However certain questions plagued me – “How can people choose if they don’t have the ability to do so?”, “It seems grossly unfair does it not?”. I couldn’t sort it out and all the things I was reading didn’t seem to really reflect what was in Scripture; that of people having the ability to choose Christ and if they don’t  they will perish. Yet also in Scripture we do in fact see that the natural man is dead in his sin and is unable to savingly receive, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel. But it just didn’t make sense. I knew however the error was in my own thinking, as Scripture does not contradict. I realized that because Scripture seemed to say both things I had to address both concepts in my thinking without forsaking the integrity of either doctrine.

Enter Jonathan Edwards.

When I read His “Freedom of the Will” it was as though he carried a lantern into the inky room where I sat, perplexed and bewildered. It was both sections, 4 and 5, that illuminated my thoughts. In these sections Edwards explains, among other things,  the difference between moral and natural ability with respects to the will. He carefully distinguishes between that natural capacity man possesses by virtue of bearing God’s image and the moral ability we lack as a result of being a fallen human.

The natural capacity humans possess is that capacity to know true and good things and to subsequently act on them (exercise their will – choose.) However the moral ability is missing as a result of our natures (that which we inherited from Adam) being at enmity with God. We are by nature (moral disposition) haters of God. We are also by nature (mental capacity) able to know what is true and good. It is our moral disposition however that wins the day. Our moral bent away from God it is that which we cling to prior to the Holy Spirit doing a work on our hearts and minds. Once however the spirit of God lifts the scales from our eyes, we can then see. We can see the beauty of Christ, and our moral bent is then towards Him. We freely choose Him because we have been the gift of ability to do so. This is how we can understand faith being a gift – God giving us the moral ability to believe. This is very important as well, as it helps in avoiding the error people can make when it comes to the volitional act of faith. Faith itself is an act of the will. But that is an entirely different post altogether.

Edwards’ helped me to understand Scripture better in this area. I am grateful for His love of Christ (which is so evident in the entire body of his work) and his desire to help the church better understand seemingly difficult and contradictory passages in the Bible.

The purpose of this post was simply to share with you something that had a tremendous impact on my thinking. It would be great if you were persuaded of my position but I highly doubt this little post is sufficient enough to compel you. Edwards’ work on the other hand (well click on that link above and give it a go) is pretty convincing!

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    2 replies to "Jonathan Edwards’ Lantern"

    • glenn shrom

      If time or language barriers exist for reading Edwards on this, Marsden has a good summary in his Edwards biography.

    • Carrie Hunter

      Yes I agree, Marsden is the go to guy for anything Edwards, however I always recommend consulting primary sources. I’m a stickler for that! 😀

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