Home > Theology > 3 Ways to Think About the Problem of Free Will

3 Ways to Think About the Problem of Free Will

Brother Jed open air preaching to college students

Are students free to respond to the gospel when Brother Jed preaches on their campuses?

When someone is presented with the gospel and asked to respond, is that person really free to accept or reject the message?

Well that depends on what you mean by “free.”

We could ask whether we are really free to do anything. This the question of free will in the “formal” sense, and it is primarily a philosophical question. But it is not really a very useful question. Even if it were not logically possible for any human to ever make a “free” decision, we would still be presented with choices, and many of these choices have the appearance of requiring a free will decision.

Ultimately the real question is: Are we free to respond to the gospel in the same sense as we are free to choose chocolate rather than peach gelato? This is the question of free will in the “material” sense.

Historically there have been three major families of theological answers on this topic.

1. The Calvinist answer. Following John Calvin (1509-1564), this position fully accepts the implications of Total Depravity. God chooses or elects some individuals to receive grace which empowers them to receive the gospel. God’s grace is said to be both irresistible and efficient, meaning that it always accomplishes salvation in the individuals God chooses. On this view, you are not free to accept or reject the gospel in the same sense as you are free to make other kinds of day-to-day choices.

2. The Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian positions.   The Pelagian option is to deny or temper what we have said about Total Depravity. Pelagians, who derive their name from Pelagius, a fifth century British ascetic, deny the doctrine of Total Depravity altogether. Semi-Pelagians argue instead that humans are only partially depraved. For Semi-Pelagians, individuals have a real choice when presented with the gospel, but they are predisposed against it. Their choice, though free, is perhaps more like choosing between chocolate gelato and rice patties.

3. The Arminian answer. Following Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), Arminians also fully affirm the doctrine of Total Depravity.  The effects of depravity can only be overcome by God’s grace, but on the Arminian view, this grace, called prevenient grace is given freely to all of humanity. In contrast to the Calvinist view, God’s grace can be resisted but it empowers people to be able to respond to the gospel despite the effects of Total Depravity. The final result is to affirm both material free will and Total Depravity.

Can I ask you for a favor? I’m really trying to restart this blog, and what makes blogging exciting is the comments. You’ve taken the time to read the post, so now please take an extra minute and leave a comment.

What do you think? Which answer makes the most sense to you? Have these three exhausted all the options?

Photo by madmannova

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  1. Gary
    October 15, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    Glad you’re intending to restart the blog, although I only just discovered it serendipitously. (But truthfully, I don’t believe in coincidence.)

    Your #1 option you’re calling the Calvinist answer, but the way you’ve described it it could just as well be a sketch of the Lutheran answer. Lutheran theology differs from Calvinist theology in that Lutherans do NOT affirm Limited Atonement and/or Double Predestination. But orthodox Lutherans would agree that we (paraphrasing Luther’s Small Catechism slightly) cannot by our own powers of reason or strength come to Christ or believe on Him, but only as a response to the Spirit calling us by means of the Gospel message. (Explanation of the Third Article.)

    Or as I’d rather rephrase it, when you reach the point where you want to be saved and want a share in redemption, it’s only because God has already begun the work of saving you. We believe in Christ (and finally choose to identify with Him) because God is saving us; He doesn’t save us because we’ve believed. We come to Him only because He first comes to us.

  2. December 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Thanks Gary. I got my reply in during the same calendar year, so I’m pretty excited about that. Sorry for the delay. I have plans to restart my restart in the new year. :)
    I agree with everything you are saying about the Lutheran position. Since I’m not dealing with Limited Atonement or Double Predestination in this post, I could probably just call it the Lutheran position, or perhaps the Augustinian position. But since my primary contrast with with Arminianism, I just decided to stick with Calvinism.
    Please come back and join me this year. I really appreciate your comments!

  3. September 21, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    “When someone is presented with the gospel and asked to respond, is that person really free to accept or reject the message?”

    Duh. To suggest otherwise is to say that the whole universe is a fake, a sham. Its to say that God is some insane little loser in his mommy’s basement playing with sock-puppets to impress himself. If there is no freewill, there is no God. This is why Calvinism tends toward atheism and the more Calvinism that exists in a society, the more atheism you get along with it. Why did Europe go atheist after the Reformation? Duh. Calvinism. The State Churches forced it down people’s throats, persecuting and burning at the stake anyone who rejected it. As a result of being forced to believe in Calvinism, or die, people became atheists. After the resurgence of Calvinism began in the US (i.e. New Calvinism), we all of the sudden got New Atheism, a more virulent and loud-mouthed strain of atheism, and atheism exactly matching the Calvinism that spawn it, so far as its arrogance and its appeal to angry teenagers. Why does it seem like the same people are in both movement? Because they are. They pass from Christianity into New Calvinism, then out the door into New Atheism.

    • September 22, 2014 at 9:15 pm

      Well, first off, I was not asking this question for myself, but rather to introduce the topic. Second, you equate Calvinism with Atheism, and on your blog, you say that both are trying to bring about a New World Order. I suspect that this will sound like a strange conspiracy theory to most folks. Personally, I’m unconvinced about the connection between Calvinism and atheism… I would need to see more than anecdotal evidence.

      If by Free Will, you are talking about formal free will (which I described above) then I completely agree with you. When Calvinists make the case against formal free will, I get very nervous, and for exactly the reasons you state. But I am uncomfortable with the tone of your critique, which seems mocking and disrespectful towards them. I have several Calvinist friends who are faithful Christians and love the Lord from a pure heart.

  1. September 21, 2014 at 10:29 pm

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