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What is libertarian free will?

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Libertarian free will is basically the concept that, metaphysically and morally, man is an autonomous being, one who operates independently, not controlled by others or by outside forces. According to the Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (InterVarsity Press, 2002), libertarian free will is defined as “in ethics and metaphysics, the view that human beings sometimes can will more than one possibility. According to this view, a person who freely made a particular choice could have chosen differently, even if nothing about the past prior to the moment of choice had been different.” In the libertarian free will paradigm, the power of contrary choice reigns supreme. Without this ability to choose otherwise, libertarian free will proponents will claim that man cannot be held morally responsible for his actions.

As mentioned earlier, the word “autonomous” is key in understanding libertarian free will. The word basically means “self-government.” It is derived from two Greek words, autos and nomos, which mean “a law unto oneself.” This is libertarian free will in a nutshell. We, as free moral agents, can make our own decisions and are not subject to the will or determination of another. In any given situation, let’s call it X, we can freely choose to do action A. Furthermore, if situation X presents itself again, we can freely choose not to do A (~A).

The opposite of libertarian free will is called determinism, and determinism essentially denies free will altogether—our choices are determined and that’s that. In situation X, I will always choose to do action A, and in situation Y, I will choose to do ~A, etc. Instead of being autonomous beings, mankind is reduced to being automatons—beings who perform programmed responses to certain situations.

The first thing to take into account regarding the biblical position of libertarian free will is what the Bible says about God. The Bible describes God as sovereign, and sovereignty designates control. But what exactly is the sphere of God’s sovereignty? Psalm 24:1 makes it plain: “The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” What is the sphere of God’s sovereignty? Everything. God spoke the universe, and everything in it, into existence. As Creator, He has sovereignty over His creation. This is the image used in Romans 9 when Paul refers to the potter and his clay.

So we need to ask ourselves how does libertarian free will fit in with God’s sovereignty? Can a human being, a creature, be autonomous if God is sovereign? The obvious conclusion is that libertarian free will is incompatible with the sovereignty of God. Consider this passage from the book of Proverbs: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). This does not paint a picture of man as an autonomous being, but rather as man operating within the confines of a sovereign God.

Consider another Old Testament passage: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isaiah 46:9-10). Here again we see a sovereign God declaring to us that He will accomplish all His purposes. The concept of libertarian free will leaves open the possibility that man can freely refuse to do God’s will, yet God says all His purposes will be accomplished.

Man is not a “law unto himself.” Man is a creature in the Creator’s universe, and as such is subject to the will of the Creator. To suggest otherwise is to elevate man beyond his station and to bring God down to the level of the creature. Those who advocate libertarian free will may not come out and say this, but logically speaking, this is the conclusion that must be drawn. Consider a popular evangelistic slogan found in Christian gospel tracts: “God casts his vote for you, Satan casts his vote against you, but you have the deciding vote.” Is this how it works in salvation? Is God just one side of a cosmic struggle with Satan for the souls of men, who must resort to “campaign tactics” to sway voters to heaven? This view of God is an emasculated God who is desperately hoping mankind utilizes his free will to choose Him. Frankly, this is a somewhat pathetic view of God. If God wills to save someone, that person will be saved because God accomplishes all His purposes.

Now, we must be careful not to swing to the (equally) unbiblical view that God is the divine Puppet Master and we are merely His puppets. This is the view of hard determinism in which man is reduced to an automaton making robotic responses to situations. The Bible presents a third option between hard determinism and libertarian free will, and that is the view called compatibilism, or soft determinism. In this view, man makes real choices and will be held responsible by God for those choices. The choices that man makes emanate from his desires. God grants the creature a certain amount of freedom, but that freedom always operates within the boundaries of God’s sovereignty.

Now by embracing this view, we must avoid two errors. The first is to posit what is called “middle knowledge.” The doctrine of middle knowledge teaches that God created a world out of the infinite number of worlds He had available to Him to create, and God chose that particular world in which free creatures made the very decisions that accomplished His will. The second error to avoid is to think that God is somehow a cosmic manipulator setting up situations so that His creatures freely make the choices that accomplish His will.

There are two keys to understanding human will and how it relates to God’s sovereignty. The first is the fall. Prior to the fall, man could be said to have had a “free” will in that he was free to obey God or disobey God. After the fall, man’s will was corrupted by sin to the point where he fully lost the ability to willingly obey God. This doesn’t mean that man can’t outwardly obey God. Rather, man cannot perform any spiritual good that is acceptable to God or has any salvific merit. The Bible describes man’s will as “dead in transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) or as “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:17). These phrases describe man as both unable and unwilling to submit to God’s sovereign authority; therefore, when man makes choices according to his desires, we must remember that man’s desires are depraved and corrupted and wholly rebellious toward God.

The second key in harmonizing man’s “free” will with God’s sovereignty is how God accomplishes His desires. When God ordains all things that come to pass (Psalm 33:11; Ephesians 1:11), He not only ordains the ends, but the means as well. God ordains that certain things will happen, and He also ordains how they will happen. Human choices are one of the means by which God accomplishes His will. For proof of this point, look no further than the exodus. God tells Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that God’s glory in the deliverance of Israel would be manifest through him (Exodus 4:21). However, as the narrative continues, we see that Pharaoh hardens his own heart (Exodus 8:15). God’s will and man’s will converge.

In conclusion, we must try to understand the effort to import libertarian free will into the Scriptures. The reasoning is usually to preserve human autonomy because it is seen as the key to moral responsibility. This is also done to preserve God’s justice. God cannot be seen as just if He would condemn those who cannot choose against their depraved wills. Yet in these attempts to preserve God’s justice and human responsibility, damage is done to the Scriptures. The Bible emphatically affirms human responsibility for sin and God’s justice, but it also clearly rejects libertarian free will. Scripture clearly affirms that 1) God is sovereign over all affairs, including the affairs of man; and 2) man is responsible for his rebellion against a holy God. The fact that we cannot completely harmonize these two biblical truths should not cause us to reject either one. Things seem impossible to us often simply because we do not have the mind of God. It is true that we can’t expect to understand the mind of God perfectly, as He reminds us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Nevertheless, although we cannot fully understand all things, our responsibility to God is to believe His Word, to obey Him, to trust Him, and to submit to His will, whether we fully understand it or not.

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This page last updated: October 28, 2022