Do We Have Free Will?

Question from a Site Viewer
I just want to know what your take is on free will. I know that God gives us free will and yet He knows what we will choose before we choose it. How does that work? I have done research in about 4 different books including “The Case for Faith”, and “Bible Answers to Life’s Tough Questions” and their answers are sort of satisfying but I want to know your take on this question. There are just some things that have to be accepted on faith as to how they work. Maybe this is one of them. Sort of like the mystery of the Trinity and how God exists both inside and outside of time at once. It’s just a mystery.

Tim’s Answer
You question how it can be that humans can have a “free will” if God knows what we will choose before we choose it. Your question has been the subject of a great deal of debate down through the centuries.

Some resolve the debate by insisting that we do not have a “free will.” They argue that our sin taints and subjugates the will so that our will is not free. And I am in sympathy with the view that if “free will” means an untainted will, none of us have free wills. But as used in common parlance, the term “free will” means the ability to make a decision when faced with a choice. Stated another way, our decisions are not pre-programmed. We have the power through the exercise of our will to choose good or evil. (This does not mean that we are good as that is a different issue.) But Jesus Himself taught us that evil people can do good. He tells us in the Sermon on the Plain that even sinners do good to those who do good to them (Luke 6:33). He says in Luke 11:13 that fathers who are evil know how to give good gifts to their children. While such goodness will never get us to heaven, we have the ability, even in our fallen nature, to choose what is good.

Stated another way, most people do not always make bad choices. At some point in life, they have helped someone, loved someone, been kind to someone, spoken well of someone, or done some other action that would be deemed good, even if it is only to those who do the same for them. Most people have the ability to choose not to murder people, even when they feel like doing so. This ability not to always choose murder and theft and the most horrible evils is part of what generally is defined as “free-will.” Our choices are not set for us. We get to make them.

Further, the many calls of God in Scripture for us to come to God are all based on at least some ability we have to choose. Some would say this ability is supernaturally supplied by God. Others would say that it is part of the divine image placed within all humanity. Still others would say it is a result of the cross. But the fact that God appeals to our wills to make a choice for life, good, and Jesus Himself is demonstrated repeatedly through the pages of Scripture. I accept that we have the ability to choose, an ability that I join with many others in terming “free will.”

At the same time I acknowledge that the choice is influenced by the force of sin, other people, and of God around and within me. I note that in the Romans 7:14-23 passage, there is a sense that for those who are sold under sin (verse 14), which I take to be a reference to a carnal person, they can still will to do good (verse 21) but they find themselves, even after so willing, doing evil. There is a sense that the will can act independent from the desire to sin.

Having accepted the concept of free will, I return to your question. Is it possible to have a free will if God already knows what I will do? Stated another way, if God knows that tomorrow I will shower love on a stranger, when tomorrow comes do I have a choice to get mad at the stranger instead? Do I have a choice since God already knows that will happen? I answer the question as follows.

Knowledge of the past does not affect the free will of people in the past. I can know what happened in the past without causing it or affecting the choices of people who caused it. I can know that Hitler invaded Poland without in any way affecting Hitler’s choice to invade. I know it because it happened. My knowledge did not cause it to happen.

Knowledge is a separate idea from causation. There are things in the past that I know happened which I also caused to happen. There are things in the past that I know happened that I played no role in their happening. There is no necessary link between the knowledge of one and the free will of another. Knowledge is not opposed to the exercise of free will.

Since this is true of the past, why should we think that it is any different with respect to future happenings? The mere knowledge of something in the future does not mean that I play any role in the causation of that thing. Let me illustrate. Although I do not have perfect knowledge, I know with reasonable certainty that the sun will come up tomorrow. Yet, I play no role in that event happening. I know with reasonable certainty that my nephew will arrive at the airport tomorrow evening. I did not cause this to happen in any way. My nephew exercised his will to come out to see me. And he told me he was coming. My knowledge does not infringe on his free will to meet me at the airport tomorrow.

And, the more I know a person, the more certain I can be of their future actions, without ever impacting their free will. If I know the way someone thinks, then I can anticipate what they will do. Yet no matter how much I know a person, I cannot know with perfect knowledge and there will always be surprises. God, on the other hand, has perfect knowledge. He understands my thoughts afar off (Psalm 139:2). Thus, where I can know with varying degrees of certainty, God having all knowledge can know with absolute certainty what will happen in the future. With some things, He knows what will happen in the future because He will be the cause of those things. But with other things, such as my choices to sin or not to sin, He knows and does not cause. His knowledge of the future is not necessarily causative, any more than my knowledge of past or future events is causative. His knowledge does not mean that I cannot exercise my free will in making the choice. And if I were to choose some different choice by my free will, God would have known that as well. He knows not only what will happen, but also what might have happened. There are several passages in Scripture that illustrate this. Let me provide two. In 1 Samuel 1:11-12, David asked the Lord if the men of Keilah would deliver him into the hand of Saul and God said that they would. God knew this would happen if David stayed there, even though it never did happen. Based on God’s word of what would happen, David left. It was a contingency known to God that never happened. Jesus, in Matthew 11:21, said that the Tyre and Sidon would have repented if they saw the works of Jesus. Again, this illustrates that God knew what might have happened even though it was not what did happen. Yet, God in no sense caused Tyre and Sidon to remain in their sins. They exercised their own choice not to repent. And, yet, we are told that they would have exercised their choice to repent if Christ had done the works in them that He did in Israel. God knows what will happen and what might have happened, though He did not cause their sinful inclinations and actions (James 1:13-14).

All of this is a long answer to your brief question. The bottom line is that knowledge is neither necessarily causative nor an infringement on the free will of those making the choice. God knows the future because He knows us. But it is largely our choices, not His knowledge, that determines what will happen in our lives.

Yet, we also affirm that sometimes God knows because He will be the cause of the future events. For instance, He knows that the world will come to an end because He will cause that to happen. Accordingly, I do not want at all to imply that God is somehow helpless in this world and solely dependent on our choices. Such is not a Biblical view. But, in my view, God’s knowledge of the future and our free wills are not incompatible matters.

My the Lord Jesus guide you into His truth,

a fellow servant,

tim

Related Articles:
Predestination – Do We Have a Choice?
Predestination (in a nutshell)

One thought on “Do We Have Free Will?

  1. David

    Greetings.
    Just because someone knows what you are going to do before you do it, does not mean you did not have a choice in the matter. If I went in a time machine and watched Booth kill Lincoln does not mean I took Booth’s free will away. I just knew he was going to do it. That’s all.

    Reply

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