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What is Free Will, and Why Do We Have it?

Answers | Justin Martz | 12 mins

In the movie “Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail,” there is a scene in which Indiana finally reaches the grail. There, he comes across the knight that has been guarding the grail since the crusades. The knight’s counsel to Indiana is simply to “Choose wisely.” This is the heart of free will; to choose wisely. Amongst the various options we have as humans, some align with God and lead to life, love, joy and peace etc. while others will lead to hurt, pain, guilt, etc. While much can be said about free will, this article will focus on what it is, why it is necessary, and what it means for us.

Created with Free Will 

In Genesis 1-3, we can read about the origins of free will. Humans were created in the image of God, and this image included the ability to choose. In Genessis 2, God gave humans the choice of life and death, of good and bad. In Hebrew, this is tov and ra. These represent the difference between trusting and obeying what God says is good versus doing what we decide, as humans, is good. God gave humanity a good garden, direct access to Him, and the ability to be His representatives and partners in caring for creation. Along with this He also gave them the real ability to make a choice, to exercise free will. That is seen in the tree of good and evil. Genesis 2:15-16 states:

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."

Even in that perfect environment, humanity chose their own way. They chose evil, and the consequences were exile, pain, and death. Biblically speaking, exile is separation from God without a relationship with Him. Paul states it like this, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Adam’s sin now permeates our nature and influences our decision and actions. Paul summarizes it by saying, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

The story of the Bible is about how humans, by nature, will tend to choose bad over good, death over life, our way over God’s way. However, God, in His goodness and mercy, worked within fallen humanity to restore the relationship that was designed between Him and us.

Why Free Will? 

If free will is the cause of sin, pain, and death, then why the need for free will at all? For there to be real love, there must be real choice; there must be free will. That means we not only have the choice to genuinely trust and accept what God says but also to deny and reject it. This includes the choices to do truly good things and truly horrible things. C.S. Lewis said it this way: 

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can't. If a thing is free to be good, it's also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”

Having a real choice means we can choose right that leads to peace and well-being for self and others, or we can choose evil that leads to harm of self and others. This is the challenge with free will. Everyone wants it, but no one wants to see it used for evil. Free will allows for that choice. 

Human Nature and Free Will 

A key concept of free will is nature. Nothing can choose to do an action outside of its nature. Our nature creates limits to our free will.  As an example, humans are not birds. So, we can’t choose to fly like a bird because it's not in our nature. If we try to fly (without help from an external means) we will soon understand this lesson along with a lesson on the nature of gravity! Similarly, since the fall, humans have a corrupted nature; a sin nature. That nature means that humans are enslaved to sin and death and influenced by our sinful tendencies, the world’s appeal, and evil influences. This leads to humans choosing bad, going against God’s plan and what He wants for us.  According to Scripture, humans are born with sin and are enslaved to it (John 8:34, Galatians 5:1, Romans 6:6, 6:23). 

“The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good.2 God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.3 They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
- Psalm 53:1-3

The story of Scripture mirrors this point. No matter who someone is or where they are, humans tend to choose sin, even if they are in a perfect garden with God. Whether they’re God’s chosen person like Abraham, Moses, or Joshua, His nation like Israel, or great kings like David or Solomon, no human can choose to only trust God and do only good. Our nature is fallen, and our choices are enslaved to that nature.

Now, this doesn’t mean that humanity can’t ever choose to do good things. Humans still hold the Imago Dei, the Image of God. So, in life and throughout the world we can still see the qualities of love, kindness, joy, self-sacrifice, etc. being exhibited and yearned for. Although our nature is fallen, there is a yearning for what is good. 

The Need for Jesus

While humanity was enslaved to sin and death, separated from God and trapped in their sin nature, God had a plan to redeem and restore humanity, to give new life and a new nature. The plan was Jesus. Jesus called this being born again in John 3: “Jesus answered him, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Paul says it like this in Romans 8, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” Jesus is the only way to a new nature, a rebirth, and true freedom. 

"So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." They answered him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?" Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." - John 8:31-36

True Human Freedom and Free Will 

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” - Galatians 5:22-23

As Believers, we still have free will and desire to sin. We still face all the influences leading us to sin, but now we have a new nature; a new birth in Jesus. We are alive in Christ, and can make choices to exercise free will in a real and new way. Paul tells us, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” (Galatians 5:1) and further, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Our new life in Christ is a life led by the Spirit. As Paul goes on to say, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

In Christ, humans can be truly free. We can overcome our sinful nature and live a life led by the Spirit. The ultimate freedom of free will is the ability to be, choose, and do what we were meant to. In his book “Live No Lies,” John Mark Comer puts it simply: “We already have all we need to live a happy, free, beautiful life – access to life with the Father, through Jesus, by the Spirit. That, honestly, is it. Everything else is bonus."

Written By

Justin Martz

Husband and father. “The Professor” and teacher of Sun Valley University, and in my DMIN program. Love to read, listen to podcasts, and watch movies. I am also an associate at Rayhons Financial Solutions.

Published on Oct 27, 2022