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?
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The concept of free will is one of the thorniest and most difficult for both theologians and secular philosophers. To complicate matters, within Christian theology, there is not just one problem of free will. There are two.
And lots of smart people who should know better regularly get them confused.
1. The formal problem of free will
The formal problem of free will is the question of how human will is related to the divine.
In philosophy, the question is whether our choices are really our own, or whether they are dictated by genetics, environment, and conditioning.
In theology, the question is how our decisions can really be our own when God is in control of everything.
In his entry on “Will” in the New Dictionary of Theology, Paul Helm states that no matter how one chooses to understand free will, “there is a prima facie problem of reconciling the activity of the human will with the divine. Those who have attributed powers of contrary choice or self-determination to the human will have often attempted to effect such reconciliation by limiting the scope of the divine decree in some respect… Others have rested content with maintaining that while God foreordains all human actions he is not the author of sin.”
The position that we have true freedom to choose any option when given a choice are often called libertarian free will.
The position that we are free only to choose according to our motives and personality is usually called compatibilist free will because it is this view is said to be “compatible” with God’s divine choice as the ultimate cause of all of our human choices.
2. The material problem of free will
The material problem of free will is the question of whether we have the ability or power to follow through on a choice we have already made.
You might choose to start a new, aggressive plan for working out. But that doesn’t mean you’re really going to do it.
So even if you are logically free in a libertarian sense, you still may lack the material willpower to follow through on my decision, a commitment to exercise for instance. Likewise, even if the compatibilist position is true and your will is logically constrained, you may still have the discipline or “freedom” to follow through on your decisions.
What does gelato have to do with it?
Let’s put it in more concrete terms.
Let’s say my wife and I decide to get gelato from the Millstone, a popular mom-and-pop restaurant in Iola. Let’s say I have a choice between chocolate and peach.
I sit and stare at the choice. I go back and forth because they both look good. Finally I decide upon chocolate.
As I’m eating my gelato, I muse philosophically, “Was I really free to choose peach, or did I choose chocolate because God wanted me to choose chocolate?”
My wife turns to me and says, “You think too much.”
That’s because whether we have free will in the formal sense is really irrelevant in our day-to-day lives. What we care about on a day-to-day basis is whether we have free will in the material sense: we all know that I could just as easily have chosen peach, but for whatever reason I chose chocolate.
The good news
Christians believe that our material will is naturally constrained because of sin. Through faith in Jesus, you can be transformed so that you are finally free in every sense that matters.
If you have been “freed from sin and enslaved to God” (Romans 6.22), you receive the benefits of true freedom, to live as God intended and designed you.
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