The question of why God gave humans a free will often comes up in a discussion about the problem of evil. Someone will ask why there is so much evil in the world, and the answer is that human beings have chosen to do evil things. God is not to blame. The follow-up question is, if God knew all the evil things that people would choose to do, why would He give us free will?
The “standard” answer seems to be that, for love to be real, it must not be coerced. If we did not have the ability to reject God, then neither would we have the ability to truly love Him. Some theologians even go so far as to say that human freedom is the highest good and that even God will not violate it. Genuine love and genuine good can only exist in a world where there is an opportunity for genuine rejection and genuine evil. Some add that, since God knows all possibilities past, present, and future (foreknowledge), the world He created must be the one where the greatest amount of good would result. Out of all possible worlds, the one He made is the best. The problem with this line of thinking is that, although it may be somewhat satisfying intellectually, it is never articulated in Scripture.
What follows are a few more thoughts that may help us formulate some conclusions as to why God gave us a free will. At least they will give us the full weight to the biblical evidence.
First, we have to admit that “free will” is limited by physical possibilities. “Free will” cannot mean we are free to do anything we want to do. Probably a lot of people would like to fly like Superman or be as strong as Samson or teleport from one location to another, but physical limitations prohibit them from doing it. On one level, this may not seem to be an issue of free will, but it is not completely extraneous, because God created a world in which people desire to do these things but have no ability to do them. In this sense, God has curtailed “free will”—it is not truly free as popularly defined.
When we pray for something, we often are praying that another’s “free will” will be curtailed by outside circumstances and physical limitations. If a brutal dictator invades a neighboring country, and we pray for his defeat, we are certainly praying that the dictator will be unable to do what he wants to do. In this case, the person praying is asking God to intervene with another person’s will to prevent a person from accomplishing what he has chosen to do. In the way God created the world, He has built in many limitations that stymie our wills and limit our choices. Likewise, He may intervene to further limit our choices by circumstances beyond our control.
With this in mind, perhaps we might define free will as the ability to choose whatever we want, within the bounds of physical limitations. This brings up the second problem, which has to do with what we want. To deal with this issue, Martin Luther wrote his treatise The Bondage of the Will. The problem is not that we are not free to choose what we want, but that what we choose is severely limited by our desires. We freely choose to disobey God because that is all we want to do. Just as we cannot fly like Superman due to our physical limitations, we cannot obey God due to our spiritual limitations. We are free to choose all sorts of ways to disobey God, but we simply cannot choose to obey God without having our desires radically reorganized (some would say regenerated)—and we are powerless to do this on our own. Apart from God and left to our sinful selves, we will choose sin (Psalm 14:1-3, 53:1-3; Romans 3:10-12).
Romans 8:5–8 identifies the spiritual limitations to our “free will”: “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God” (emphasis added). From the context, it is clear that those who “live according to the flesh” are unbelievers. Their wills are in bondage to sin, and so sin is all they want to do. They cannot submit to God’s law.
If this is the case, who then can be saved? “All things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). The Lord so works in some to energize their spirits and give them a desire to repent and believe (see Acts 16:14). Sinners do not do this on their own but only under the convicting power of the Spirit. If it were otherwise, the saved could boast that they possessed some wisdom or moral superiority that caused them to choose to repent and believe when confronted with the facts, even while so many others continue to reject the gospel. But we are saved by grace, and no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8–9). God is not obligated to save anyone (He has free will), yet He desires that all would be saved and come to repentance (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). He offers salvation to everyone (Titus 2:11) yet He will not force anyone to come to Him. By His sovereignty, unchanging character (Malachi 3:6), foreknowledge (Romans 8:29, 11:2), love (Ephesians 1:4-5), and plan and pleasure (Ephesians 1:5) He predestines some to salvation. Others He allows to continue in rebellion—which is exactly what they want to do. In either case, people make real, uncoerced choices.
Coming to faith in Christ frees our will to obey God, to desire the things of God, yet Christians still have an old nature that pulls them in the other direction. Romans 6:12–14 says, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” One day, believers will be confirmed in holiness (glorified) and will no longer be able to sin—yet their love for God will be genuine. They will be free to do what they want, but they will not want to do anything that displeases God.
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.
God created a world where people could choose to disobey, and He allows people today to continue to rebel against Him In the process, God’s power and forbearance are clearly seen: “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory?” (Romans 9:22–23). The whole plan of redemption is to the praise of God’s glory (Ephesians 1:14). As should be expected, this doctrine is wholly unsatisfying to those who are in rebellion against God and have no desire to give Him glory. When we engage in evangelism or apologetics, we are often tempted to offer another, more “satisfying” answer that focuses salvation on the benefit to humanity. We should resist that temptation and keep the focus on God’s glory.
God does not coerce people to reject Him; He simply allows them to do the only thing they want to do (sin), and He allows them to do it with a great deal of variety and creativity. God does not coerce people to accept Him, but He persuades them with tactics that cannot be refused. God is in control, but humans make real choices. Somehow, God’s control and human freedom are perfectly compatible.
In the final analysis, there are questions that simply cannot be fully answered or fully understood, and we must never put ourselves in the place of judging God by declaring what a loving God “should do” or a just God “should have done.”
After finishing a long section on God’s control and human choice (Romans 9—11), Paul concludes with this:
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?’
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:33–36).
And Paul ends the letter to the Romans with this: “To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Romans 16:27).
God created the world as He did and gave humans the freedoms they have in order to bring glory to Himself. The glorification of God is the greatest possible good.