Paul J. Bucknell

I have heard the statement many times, "God will not force His way on you. God will not make you choose." I have heard it so much that it is part of the gospel. I fear we might respect this teaching of the freedom of the will more than the gospel. Why is it that we keep saying it? What if it were not true?

What if the Lord said, "If you want absolute freedom of your own will, then you could not be saved?" What would you say?

I know what I would say, "Strip me of my freedom but only let me find Christ and eternal salvation!" We want to protect other people's "freedom of will" to such a point we are reluctant to do anything that moves them to salvation. On the other hand, we want to exalt our own triumph of choosing the gospel so that grace is no longer grace, and God is no longer God. We end up tall and God sits in the dust as our servant. The Bible just does not speak of God this way. Before going on, let me explain what I think the origin of this 'freedom of the will' comes from.
free will

The phrase "free will" (1) only occurs one time in the Bible in Philemon 1:6. Here it means willingly or voluntarily. Other versions do not translate it 'free will.' Certainly this phrase does not come from the Bible!

"But without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will. (Philemon 1:14, NASB).

So where does it come from? I won't bore you with the history of church doctrine. Behind these different church teachings, lies a strong Western philosophical perspective. We have picked up a certain notion of freedom and democracy. These terms and concepts get confused and intermingled with the scriptures. Out pops a phrase such as 'free will' that shapes our thinking. Our understanding, however, in many cases has never been challenged. We are rather startled when we hear one of our favorite phrases linked with twisting scriptures.

What does 'free will' mean? Most people would say it has to do with "being able to do whatever one chooses." Let me mention three ways we normally limit our choices.

  • We live in a limited context. We have laws which actually bind and limit our freedoms. A recent AOL poll said that more than 50% of Americans would favor further restrictions of their freedom in order to obtain greater security. Freedom is illusive. We live in a limited context. Our greatest problem is how to live without interfering with the preferences of other people. Most people don't worry about what God wants!
  • We are limited in power. We can only do so many things. What I desire is not what I can do. I can wish to fly but that does not increase my ability to fly. No one stops me from flying. I just don't have the power. God, on the other hand, is all powerful and can carry out His choices. He is sovereign, not us.
  • We are limited in desire. We will only do what we desire or prefer. We are limited by what we desire and want. For example, I will not choose to buy beets. I don't like them. I don't want them. My desires shape what I choose and will.

This last issue probably doesn't seem relevant, but it is very important. The problem is that we want 'free will' to mean "to be free to choose anything that could be." But our former definition, "being able to do whatever one chooses" is correct. We slide back and forth between these two definitions and they confuse the issues at hand. For this reason I have added the third point above.

Why is it that so many people insist on another's 'free choice' when sharing the gospel? Did Jesus model this? No. Are we commanded to say this? No.

There is a strong force pressuring people to say this. This makes this discussion a very 'touchy' issue. I don't want to offend anyone. I am here to study and express the Word of God.

I have come to a conclusion that many people repeatedly say this phrase because they feel threatened or vulnerable. Usually, they will come back to the issue of salvation and say that God cannot 'force' them or anyone to believe. That language is rather 'hot.'

The scriptures do not put it that way. However, we do discover that God prides Himself in helping the unbeliever to believe. This is why the phrase "Jesus Christ our Savior" (in different forms) is repeated many times.

Let's eliminate this phrase and purify our Gospel presentation. We need God to jump start our life, or we will perish.

Can a dead man feel? Can a dead man believe? Of course not. Ephesians 2:1-3 paints a desperate picture of man.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Ephesians 2:1-3).

The summary starts at the beginning. We were spiritually dead. We were ensnared in the paths of the dark world. We were blind and just could not see. The worse part is that we, in our unbelieving state, are not simply ignorant but committed. The phrases "indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind" show that natural man does not want righteousness but expression of his lusts. The teaching of 'free will' at this point starts to become very uncomfortable for me.

My logic goes like this. Free will means I have an opportunity to choose. However, because my heart only likes to do evil, and I am totally oblivious (dead) to God's way, I will only choose evil. The implications of free will seem to mean that God cannot do something "to" us that causes us to believe. This means I am stuck with what I inherently have. The scriptures further describe our inherent self - our natural 'me' in Romans 3:9-12.

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, "THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE."

With these verses, I am stuck more than ever with my free will. If by natural inclination I do not want to choose God, then I will not choose God. It is impossible to choose God. "There is none who seeks for God." They say, "God cannot force Himself upon us." I don't like this kind of free will. It would make me constrained to follow my old self forever.

If the choice came down to it, I rather have a redemptive plan in which God can show His grace, love and favor to me in such a way that I can be "awakened" or "called" or "born from above" and respond to Him. I love the way He called me from my sin and darkness. He changed me. He regenerated me. I am now born again. I have a new nature. I am a new creature by His grace and for His glory. I take great comfort in a God who causes new life to come in to me. This is what the scriptures say. (2)

"But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, [even] to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." (John 1:12-13).


God comes and touches a heart by regenerating it and enables the person to humble himself, repent, cry out for salvation, see Christ and be saved. Salvation is a process with which God opens up our choices to life eternal. God changes our hearts enabling us to choose Christ.

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, NASB).

Mercy is when God interferes with the otherwise judgment that we would suffer. We need more mercy. Let's not encourage people's pride by insisting God has no right to work in our lives. We need Him to make the right decisions in life especially salvation.

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Biblical Foundations for Freedom

NASB Bible used

(1) A person's will is different than his choice. A person's will is comprised of a person's ultimate choice regarding some matter. A person might want to talk to a girl but is shy and in the end never does. He has several choices, but his will in the end was not to talk to her. Often, though, the two are so closely wrapped together, they become synonymous. God on the other hand always does what He chooses. His will is His choice because of His Sovereign power and ability to make things occur that He desires to happen.

(2) I fear a world in which God cannot interrupt the plight of mankind. A world where man exalts his decision above his Creator's. This world would be filled with many Gods contesting the attention and power. Most would hardly go this far with their logic, but it is where it takes me.