The Reality of Choice and the Testimony of Scripture

What is Free Will?

It may seem strange to some that there even is a debate as to what constitutes free will.  The average person believes that he has free will.  Whenever he is confronted with a choice he believes that he can either choose this way or that, and that either choice is a real possibility.  In fact, this is what we generally think of when using the word choice.  We think of the power to choose between alternatives.  But the simple concepts of choice and free will have unfortunately been confused and complicated by Calvinists. As a result of their commitment to exhaustive determinism, Calvinists deny that the will is free in the sense that most people would naturally understand it to be. Yet, they refuse to jettison these commonly used terms despite holding to a theology that denies these concepts as normally understood.

They simply redefine “free will” so that it becomes essentially meaningless as normally understood.  It becomes the “freedom” to do what one must in fact do.  It is the “freedom” to do what has been predetermined from all eternity for one to do.  It is the “freedom” to do what we have been irresistibly programmed to do (and free will has essential reference to “willing” and not just “doing”, i.e one might be hindered from “doing” what he has freely “willed” to do).  It is essentially a necessitated freedom (a “freedom”  that means “necessitated”)  which betrays the inherent contradiction in the Calvinistic use of terms.

For most people this does not seem at all like freedom in the sense that people normally understand it when speaking of free will.  In fact, most people understand that a will that acts by necessity is the opposite of a free will.  Yet Calvinists want to take the opposite of free will and render that the proper definition of the term. [1]

Arminians, on the other hand, are able to work with standard definitions in using terms like “free will” and “choice”.  To speak of free will is to speak of the power of self-determinism in a person.  A person wills to either do this or that, or neither as the case may be. When we use the term “free will” we are describing the freedom the person has to choose from available options. The will is free in so far as it is not necessitated.  If the will can only move in one direction, and no other directions are possible, then the will would not in that case be properly called “free”.  Freedom of the will has reference to the will’s ability to freely choose.  A free will is free from necessity.  It has alternative power. [2]

The Reality and Meaning of Choice

It may be better to simply focus on the reality of choices.  To speak of a choice is to speak of an agent deciding between two or more possibilities.  Again, this is the standard definition that most people take for granted when speaking of choice or the action of choosing.  Where there are options to choose from there is choice.  If an option is not available, then it ceases to be an “option”, and choice, in that case, ceases to be a possibility.

But, again, things are not so simple when dealing with those who are comfortable using words in ways that are incompatible with (and often the polar opposite of) standard definitions.  Calvinists and necessitarians still often want to speak of choices and choosing (there are some Calvinists that freely admit that such language is incompatible with Calvinistic determinism, but at present they are in the minority).  But according to Calvinists all of our “choices” have been predetermined by God from before creation and before we were ever born or confronted with anything to choose from.  If this is the case, it seems clear that “choice” is emptied of meaning.

If the only course of action available for a person in any given situation is the course of action predetermined by God from eternity, then one never really has a “choice.”  The person can only do what he or she must do, and think what he or she must think.  The only course of action truly available is the predetermined one.  If that is the only course of action truly available, then there is nothing for the person to choose from and therefore there is, in fact, no “choice” at all.

This is an uphill battle for the Calvinist because we all believe that we make choices every day in numerous situations.  We recognize that when only one course of action is available, we do not in that case have a choice.  Some Calvinists who recognize this difficulty resort to focusing on the distinction between “having” choices and “making” choices.  They tell us that while we never have a choice we still make choices.  But it is at once apparent that it is quite impossible to “make” a choice without first “having” a choice.  One simply cannot choose (making a choice) if there is no choice to be made (having a choice).

The Calvinist who wants to make such illogical distinctions is then forced to define “making” a choice in an illusionary fashion.  He might argue that making a choice has reference only to one’s cognitive perception (conveniently forgetting that, according to Calvinistic doctrine, even the course of one’s cognitive perceptions is meticulously predetermined).  As long as that person believes he has a choice he can make a choice.  But this assertion betrays the need for having a choice in order to make a choice since the Calvinist recognizes that the person must at least “believe” or “perceive” that he has a choice before he can “make” a choice.  Furthermore, if Calvinistic determinism is true, then even cognitive “options” are not real options if the mind can only move in a predetermined and necessitated direction.

Truth, Choice, and the Testimony of Scripture

The more significant problem is that when we speak of choices we are speaking of the reality of the situation and not just how things may appear to be.  If I tell someone they have a choice when in fact I know that in reality only one course of action is available, then I am being deceptive in saying that the person has a choice.  The person may believe he has a choice, and even believe he made a choice, but the truth is that the person does not actually have choices as there is only one possible course of action available.  So if I told a person that he had a choice when he really (in reality) did not have a choice, then it would be seen at once that I was being deceptive and speaking lies.

Truth has to do with reality, how things really (truly) are, and not how things merely seem to be.  In fact, the word “deceptive” is most naturally employed when speaking of how things merely appear to be when in fact they are not as they seem.  To speak a lie is simply to speak of what is contrary to reality, and therefore what is also contrary to truth.  So the conclusion seems inescapable that it is deceptive and contrary to truth (lying) to tell someone they have a choice, when in fact they do not.  It then becomes immediately apparent that God would be guilty of gross deception since the Bible reveals that God both gives people choices, and commands them to make choices.  Consider the words of Moses to the Israelites,

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse [A choice is given by God, i.e. they have a choice].  So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendents [Having given them a choice, God then commands them to make a choice]. (Deut. 30:15, 19)

Clearly the Israelites are given a real choice in this passage.  God makes it clear through Moses that He has set before them life, prosperity and blessing on the one side, and death, adversity and the curse on the other.  The language is very intentional.  They have two alternatives set before them and they are called on to choose between them.  The choice is not only set before them but the gravity of the choice is made explicit, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you…”

Heaven and earth is called as a witness because they will be fully responsible for the choice they make and that responsibility lies in the reality of the possibilities set before them.  They genuinely have a choice and they are being called on to make a choice in the most urgent manner possible.  Not only does God call on them to choose but persuades them to make the right choice, “So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendents.”  God demands that they choose between the alternatives set before them and expresses His desire that they choose life rather than death.  However, despite God’s expressed desire for them to choose life, He leaves the choice to them and for that reason calls heaven and earth as a witness against them.

This scenario simply does not fit the Calvinistic scheme.  If all of their actions are predetermined by God, then there is no choice to be made and no reason to call heaven and earth as a witness against them (concerning the choice they will make and the consequences that will follow).  If their actions are predetermined from eternity, then only one course of action is really set before them and there is no alternative. They would really have no choice but to do exactly as God has predetermined, and if that is the case, then God is being deceptive in telling them they do have a choice, that they really can choose between two alternatives, and that the reality of that choice is the basis of their responsibility before God (and God’s expressed desire for them to choose life would be directly contradicted by His eternal decree of reprobation for some).  This is further demonstrated when we consider Moses’ words in verses 11-14,

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach…No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (emphasis mine)

It is extremely important to notice that Moses tells the people that they are fully capable of making the right choice (which is reinforced by God’s desire that they choose life in verse 19).  This militates strongly against any form of determinism, for according to necessitarian dogma it is quite untrue that it was not too difficult for many of them to obey.[3]  Those who disobeyed (and many surely did) could not possibly have done otherwise than to disobey if determinism is true.  However, Moses made it clear that all who heard his voice were indeed capable of obeying the divine command and firmly rebuked any who might dare to declare otherwise.

This again establishes the basis of responsibility and accountability on the reality of choice (i.e. the ability to choose between real alternatives).  If the ones who chose not to follow the divine command had been predetermined to follow after death according to the irrevocable necessity of a divine decree, Moses could not say of them that they were capable of making the right choice.  He could not say that the choice was set before them so that they “may obey it.”  To the contrary, if those who followed after death did so of divine necessity, then the only purpose for Moses’ words would be for their condemnation and not so that they “may obey it.”  The purpose of Moses’ words for them would be only so they could disobey it in accordance with God’s irrevocable and irresistible eternal decree.  But the testimony of these passages is clearly against such a view.

So we have God setting before the people two alternatives.  We have God calling on them to choose between those alternatives.  We have God calling on heaven and earth as a witness against them in making that choice.  We have God expressing His desire that they choose life instead of death.  We have God telling the people that the right choice (to obey and live) is not beyond their capability (i.e. it is not “too difficult” or “beyond…reach”).  We have God telling them that the word of promise is “very near” and “in your mouth and in your heart” so they “may obey it”,  all of which is sheer nonsense if Calvinistic determinism is true.

If exhaustive determinism is true, then for those who disobeyed there was never any alternative to choose from (they had to disobey).  Heaven and earth was called as a witness against their unavoidable act of disobedience.  God’s express desire for them to choose life, rather than death, was deceptive and contradicted by His irrevocable and eternal predetermination that they disobey unto death, instead of obeying unto life.  Moses was wrong to tell them that the choice of obedience and life was not beyond them or too difficult, for surely it was.  It was not only too difficult but impossible for them.  Moses was lying when he told them that the word of promise for obedience was “very near”, for the promise was never even a remote possibility for those who disobeyed.   Moses was being deceptive when he said the word was in their mouth and heart that they “may obey it”, since obedience was as impossible for them as creating a universe.

This passage and numerous passages like it lay waste to the Calvinistic doctrine of exhaustive determinism.  Passages like these are simply incompatible with such a doctrine, while the intentional language of such passages fits perfectly with the Arminian account of free will, and the accountability attached to the exercising of that God given power to choose.  The alternative to a libertarian view of these passages has the unfortunate and inevitable consequence of making God into a liar who deceives His people into believing they are capable of making the right choice, when in reality it is impossible for them to choose at all.  A predetermined choice is not a choice at all since it is the only course of action available.  The best the Calvinist can offer is that God gives the illusion of choice while controlling the person’s every thought and action to conform to His infallible and irrevocable eternal decree.  Consider 1 Corinthians 10:13,

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

The implications are obvious and unavoidable.  Those who fail to resist temptation have only themselves to blame, since God provided a way of escape.[4]  The verse plainly tells the believer that God is faithful, and that faithfulness is demonstrated in the fact that God will not allow the one tempted to be tempted beyond the ability to endure (i.e. resist) that temptation.[5]  But how does such a promise comport with exhaustive determinism? We know that all believers do fall to temptation at times (i.e., sin), and fail to make use of the way of escape provided for them by God in His faithfulness.  If Calvinistic determinism is true then their yielding to temptation was predetermined from all eternity, and could not possibly have been avoided.  In that case, it is simply not true that the temptation was not beyond their ability to endure, nor was it true that God faithfully provided a way of escape.  How could there be a “way of escape” for those who were predetermined to fall according to an eternal and irrevocable decree?

Again, the best the Calvinist can offer is that the believer had the illusion of choice.  He believed he could avoid temptation when in fact it was impossible to avoid.  God’s “way of escape” was nothing more than an unattainable illusion.  God merely provided the illusion of escape when no escape was possible.  He was not faithful after all, since they fell to temptation of necessity, a necessity fixed by God Himself from all eternity.  They could no more resist or escape the temptation than they could create a universe.  So while this simple passage lays waste to Calvinistic determinism, it fully comports with the Arminian doctrine of alternative choice and free will.  It also accords perfectly with the most basic and widely accepted definitions for these concepts.

Many more passages could be examined that would yield the same results.  The Calvinistic doctrine of determinism is simply incompatible with Biblical language concerning choice and responsibility.  It forces us to believe that God gives the illusion of choice when no choice is possible.  It forces us to believe that God holds us accountable and judges us most severely for “choices” we never in fact had the opportunity or capability to make.  It reduces free will to the “freedom” to do what we must; the “freedom” to do what we cannot avoid doing; the “freedom” to irresistibly conform to an irrevocable eternal decree.  Freedom is reduced to unavoidable necessity.  Thankfully, this is not the freedom and basis of responsibility revealed in Scripture.  Rather, Scripture reveals a freedom to choose among real alternatives, and holds us accountable for the choices we make because we are truly capable of making the right choice in those situations.[6]

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[1] So scholars speak of “libertarian” free will.  This is, of course, redundant as liberty means freedom.  So “libertarian free will” essentially means free free will.  And this redundant addition of “libertarian” to “free will” becomes necessary only because those who deny free will want to continue to use the term.

[2] Alternative power in the will is a helpful way to describe free will.  I first encountered this phrase while reading Daniel D. Whedon’s Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, edited by John D. Wagner.  Whedon writes, “Objective volitional freedom requires external plurality of alternatives.  But when there are two possible courses, non-action may be in fact a third course.” (pg. 52)  He gives his definition of free will as, “…a power of choosing in a given direction, with full power of choosing otherwise.” (pg. 75)  So Whedon makes a distinction between the Edwardsian view of the will, which he terms “unipotent”, and his own view of the will which he terms, “pluripotent”, which represents the will’s causal power “of putting forth either of several effects.” (pg. 67)  For more on Daniel Whedon’s view contra Edwards, see here.

[3] The objection might be raised that we are incapable of perfectly obeying the law and so these passages actually do present God calling on the people to obey impossibilities.  But God fully knew that the law could not be perfectly obeyed and for that reason instituted the sacrificial system.  The people are being called on to obey God in the context of the provision of forgiveness when the law was violated, for submission to God in acknowledging guilt by way of sacrifice was itself an act of  faith and obedience and demonstrated the desire to remain in right relationship with God.  Essentially, they are being called on to make a commitment of faithfulness to God.  For this reason Paul can quote from these passages in pointing to Christ’s sacrificial provision and calling people under the New Covenant dispensation to faith in Christ (Romans 10:6-10). Notice how Paul equates the nearness of the word to one’s mouth and heart (verse 8 ) to the ability to confess “with your mouth” and believe “in your heart” that Jesus who died and rose from the dead (verses 6 and 7) is Lord, unto salvation.

[4] Notice the “therefore” of verse 14, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.”  The practical implications are obvious.  The call to flee from idolatry is tied directly to God’s faithfulness in not allowing us to be tempted beyond endurance and His gracious provision of a way of escape.

[5] Some Calvinists try to avoid the force of this passage by pointing out that it applies only to believers.  But the objection is irrelevant because if exhaustive determinism is true then it applies to believers as well as unbelievers.  All of our actions are predetermined by God (according to Calvinism).  Therefore, the incompatibility of Calvinistic exhaustive determinism with the promises of God, expressed in this passage, remain both valid and unavoidable.

[6] This is not to say that the sinner has the capability to obey and believe the gospel without the benefit of divine enabling.  Only after God graciously intervenes by overcoming the sinner’s depravity does the choice become real (remember that without the presence of real alternatives “choice” is meaningless).  Prior to the working of God’s enabling grace, the sinner has no choice but to remain in unbelief and rebellion.  However, once God enables the sinner to respond in faith to the gospel, he or she may yet resist the call of God to his eternal peril.