This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 2 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
I grew up in a context in which the notion of libertarian freedom (freedom of the will)1 was routinely undermined. I can still remember sitting in our family pew listening to our pastor preach a sermon on predestination. I no longer recall the exact words; I do, however, remember the essence of his message.
It was the dictum of John Calvin. That “by predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”2
The dogma of fatalistic predeterminism so unnerved me that at an early age I walked away from the faith and, for all practical purposes, embraced philosophical naturalism. In time, however, I began to realize that I had merely traded in one form of determinism for another. For, “in a world where physics fixes all the facts,”3 our choices are not free — they are fatalistically determined by brain chemistry and genetics.
Thankfully, in time I came to embrace the patristic tradition, which refutes the notion that I have been predestined ahead of time to this or that fate. Second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr said it well:
We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it be fated that this man [will] be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions.4
So does free will affect faith? Absolutely! And in at least three dramatic ways. To begin with, it affects our view of God. Suppose a terrorist strapped a bomb to the body of a child, placed the child in the middle of an orphanage, and blew up a thousand children along with a hundred mission workers. Who would be the author of that horrific terrorist attack? The terrorist or the child? The answer should be obvious. Similarly, if, as Calvin opined, “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it,”5 God might rightly be said to be the author of evil; and if God is the author of evil, it is theologically tricky to distinguish God from evil itself.
Furthermore, free will, or the deprivation thereof, affects faith in the reality of love. Patristic tradition acknowledges that God created the potential for evil in that God created us with the freedom to choose. Human beings, however, actualized evil through their choices. God is neither a cosmic terrorist who forces His love on humanity, nor a cosmic puppeteer who forces humanity to love Him. Rather, God, the personification of love, grants us freedom of choice. Without such freedom, love would be rendered meaningless. Said St. John of Damascus, “We ought to understand that while God knows all things beforehand, yet He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that there should be wickedness nor does He choose to compel virtue.” John further contended,
Bear in mind, too, that virtue is a gift from God implanted in our nature, and that He Himself is the source and cause of all good, and without His co-operation and help we cannot will or do anything good. But we have it in our power either to abide in virtue and follow God, Who calls us into ways of virtue, or to stray from paths of virtue, which is to dwell in wickedness, and to follow the devil who summons but cannot compel us.6
Finally, the reality of free will trains the focus of our faith on the felicities of eternity. While at present we are bombarded by the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, in eternity the problem of sin and Satan is forever resolved. In heaven, we will be actualized in righteousness, free to be what God designed us to be. Far from robbing us of freedom, such actualization is the quintessence of freedom. We freely give up the freedom to sin in exchange for freedom from sin. In His infinite wisdom, the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors of Scripture to illustrate the unwaveringly faithful relationship between the Lord Jesus and His church by way of the analogy of marriage. Jesus is the church’s singularly sinless and freely faithful Bridegroom. Likewise, in heaven the church will be His “holy and blameless” bride.7 A bride freed forever from enslavement to sin. Free to enjoy paradise restored.
So, how does free will affect your faith? It provides a proper perspective on the goodness of God, heightens our perception of God as the personification of love, and provides a proper perspective on the promise of an eternity in which we will be free to be what God designed us to be.—Hank Hanegraaff
Hank Hanegraaff is president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the daily Bible Answer Man broadcast and the Hank Unplugged podcast. Hank has authored more than twenty books, including Truth Matters, Life Matters More: The Unexpected Beauty of an Authentic Christian Life (W Publishing, 2019).
- By libertarian freedom, I mean freedom from causal determinism that originates from sources outside one’s self and freedom to act otherwise.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.21.5, trans. Henry Beveridge, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxii.html. The Reformer goes on to say, “Since the arrangement of all things is in the hand of God, since to him belongs the disposal of life and death, he arranges all things by his sovereign counsel, in such a way that individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify him by their destruction” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.6, www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxiv.html).
- Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 94–95.
- Justin Martyr, First Apology, 43, trans. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Early Christian Writings, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyrfirstapology.html.
- Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.7, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxiv.html.
- John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 2.30, trans. E. W. Watson and L. Pullan, ed. Kevin Knight, New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/33042.htm.
- See Ephesians 5:25–27 NIV.