Free will has been variously defined.
1. It has been called the freedom of indeterminacy, which holds that man’s will is independent of all previous conditions. This is the claim that free will in man is a total freedom, unaffected by anything that occurred in the past, such as the fall. This is the theory of most Bible deniers, particularly those of the existential school.
2. Free will in man has also been called the freedom of self-determination, or spontaneity. That is, man’s free will consists in his ability to choose according to the disposition, inclination, or bias of his own will. This is the scriptural doctrine.
Because of the fall, man’s will is inclined away from God and disposed toward self and sin. Man cannot choose against the bias of his will. And the bias he has toward self and sin is a voluntary bias; it is not imposed upon him by God. Therefore, his choice is truly a free choice, one which carries with it the responsibility for making it.
When free will is understood in this way, it is easy to see how Reformed theologians can on the one hand teach the Biblical doctrine of predestination while on the other hand maintaining that man is a free and responsible moral agent. Similarly, we can see how we can speak of free will, while holding with Luther the doctrine of the bondage of the will: man acts according to the inclination of his will, but that inclination is ensnared by Satan and sin. In truth, unregenerate man’s vaunted freedom of will is freedom to sin, freedom to become an ever greater slave to sin.
3. A third definition of free will, held by Arminian theologians, goes beyond self-determination to include what is called the power of contrary choice. It is argued that to say that a sinner freely chooses to reject Christ and remain in sin implies that he has the native capability of choosing to receive Christ.
This theory is based upon a fallacy. The power of contrary choice is not of the essence of free will, as may easily be shown. God is supremely free. He can choose to do good, but He cannot choose to do anything sinful. His freedom consists in choosing and acting according to the disposition of His will, without the power of contrary choice.
Self-determination alone then is the essence of free will. It is the sinner’s free choice. Free choice is a choice in full accord with and proceeding from the voluntary disposition of his will. The moral responsibility for such a choice is derived, not from some fancied ability to make the opposite choice, but from the fact that it springs from the voluntary disposition of his will.
Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.
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