As we continue to try to understand what the Bible teaches regarding human free will as it relates to God’s sovereignty, I’d like to pick up right where we left off. Remember that last time we were introduced to the more popular conception of human freedom, referred to by theologians and philosophers as “libertarian freedom”. Libertarian freedom states that I am only free if when I choose “A”, I am equally able to choose “not A”. (For this reason, libertarian freedom is also referred to as “freedom of contrary choice.”) We began to look at biblical reasons to reject that definition and I’d like to continue that discussion today. But before we do, let me give the definition of “compatibilist freedom,” which I believe to be the more biblical concept of human freedom.
Compatibilist freedom states that I am free when I do what I most want to do. Simple. The difference between compatibilism and libertarianism is that compatibilism does not insist on a theoretically possible contrary choice in order for an act to have been freely chosen. Compatibilism considers any act free that came as a result of one’s strongest inclination.
That being said, let’s turn our attention back to libertarian freedom. There is a serious logical problem with insisting that a contrary choice must have been equally possible in order for an act to be freely chosen. According the definition of libertarian freedom, in order for me to have a genuine choice, the factors that led me to choose option-A must be the same as the factors that might have led me to choose option-B. If these factors were not identical, then the factors for choosing one caused me to favor that option over the other. That would mean that I was not equally able to choose either option, but was influenced to choose one over the other. Therefore, in order for the choice to be completely free, all the factors leading to option-A, must be identical to the factors leading to option-B.
Let me give you an example. I had McDonalds for lunch. (Don’t judge me.) According to libertarian freedom, in order for my choice to have McDonalds to be a free choice, I must have had the equal opportunity to choose something else, like Subway, Burger King, etc. But for those other choices to have been equal options, every reason I had for going to McDonalds would have to be the identical reasons for going to Subway, Burger King, etc. Otherwise, I would have been influenced to choose McDonalds over those other places, which according to libertarian freedom, would mean that my choice wasn’t completely free. The choices must be equal in order for there to be freedom.
You may have already started to see the problem with this. Other than the fact that common sense and life experience tell us that the factors for choosing one option are rarely if ever equal to the factors for choosing differently, libertarian freedom fails to provide any explanation at all for why a person chooses a certain option. If the factors for choosing option-A are identical to the factors for choosing option-B, there is no explanation for choosing one over the other. That is why some conservative theologians refer to libertarian freedom as the “freedom of indifference.” Further, if you dig deeper, even with someone who believes in libertarian freedom, and ask him why he chose option-A over option-B, he will say, “I wanted to,” which is actually the definition of compatibilist freedom.
The factors influencing me to choose McDonalds today simply were not identical to the factors influencing me to choose some other place. First, McDonalds was in a location that allowed me easy access to Cox Road, where I work. All the restaurants on the south side of Tylersville were excluded, since it is difficult even to turn right onto Tylersville out of their parking lots during the busy lunch hour. Second, it was almost noon, which is the busiest time to try to get food anywhere – of those restaurants on the north side of Tylersville, McDonalds had the shortest line at the drive thru. Third, it sounded better than anything else. All of those factors influenced me to go to McDonalds. All of the possible options were not equal to me. The factors for choosing McDonalds were more persuasive than the factors for choosing something else. In the end, the reason I went to McDonalds is because at that moment with the given circumstances, it was my strongest inclination. Was I forced to go to McDonalds? No, I wanted to.
If libertarian freedom was true, there would be no reason for my choosing McDonalds over anything else and I would most likely still be sitting in my car trying to make up my mind. Libertarian freedom makes no sense logically.
Now lets see if it makes sense Scripturally. Those who believe in libertarian freedom do so, not only because they view it as the only basis of true free choice, but also because without it, in their view, there is no basis for holding a person accountable for his actions. In other words, it is unjust to punish a person who committed a sin when he did not have the realistic option of doing otherwise.
One of the first noted libertarians was a 4th century monk named Pelagius. Pelagius looked at the Bible and saw all the commandments of God and the accompanying punishments for disobeying those commandments. Since Pelagius believed in libertarian freedom, he surmised that it would be unjust for God to punish people for disobeying commands that they were unable to obey. Therefore, he deduced that man must be equally capable of obeying or disobeying God’s commands.
As the early church rightly responded, this is impossible in light of the teaching of Scripture. We know that the law was not intended to demonstrate man’s ability to keep it. The opposite is true:
(Rom 3:20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Further, as Paul writes in Gal 3:21-24, if man was capable of keeping the law, there would be no need for faith. But the law was not intended to justify man. Its purpose was to show us our sin and therefore our need for a Savior:
Gal 3:21 For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
Our inability to obey was the point of the law. Prior to salvation, we were slaves of sin (John 8:34, Rom 6:17). We were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1-3). So it cannot be said that a person has libertarian freedom, since in his natural state he cannot but sin, and yet Scripture clearly teaches that those who sin are the objects of God’s wrath (John 3:18, 3:36; Rom 5:9-10; Eph 2:3).
How then is God just in condemning us? Because we have compatibilist freedom – each and every time we sin, we do so because it is what we most want to do.
Hang in there. I know these are difficult concepts to understand. But whether we all understand it or not, my goal is simply to establish that there is no contradiction between God’s meticulous sovereignty on the one hand and human freedom on the other – provided we have a biblically accurate definition of freedom.
Next, we’ll continue with our biblical argument, but in the meantime, consider whether or not God Himself has libertarian freedom. What does the Bible have to say about that?