REFLECTIONS ON JONATHAN EDWARDS’
VIEW OF FREE WILL
by W. Tullian Tchividjian
Is the human will bound or free? Can man choose freely between each and every option presented to him? Is man’s will neutral or has it been internally affected in such a way so as to influence his choices? How far did man fall when he sinned? Was it a mere stumble, or was it total? If it was total and we are unable to incline ourselves toward anything righteous, then how can we be responsible for our unrighteousness? In my opinion, there is no better theological contribution to this issue than that of Jonathan Edwards. His rigorous yet clear articulation of the issue sheds tremendous light on a thorny and controversial topic. It is his contribution that I want to briefly reflect on. But before I do, I want to take a brief look at how this issue first arose in its most prominent form.
A Brief History
There does not seem to be any record of a major controversy concerning man’s freedom in the decision-making process prior to the Pelagian controversy of the 5th century. To be sure, there were debates concerning “free will” prior to the Pelagian controversy (Chrysostom, Origen, Jerome, and others opposed determinism), but none that took center stage the way the Pelagian controversy did.
Pelagius, a British-born monk who resided in Rome before it fell in 410, was “roused to anger by an inert Christendom, that excused itself by pleading the frailty of the flesh and the impossibility of fulfilling the grievous commandments of God. [Pelagius] preached that God commanded nothing impossible, that man possessed the power of doing the good if only he willed, and that the weakness of the flesh was merely a pretext".1 This frustration with the church of his day led Pelagius to the conclusion that man’s chief problem is not his inability to do what God commands in and of himself, but rather his refusal to do that which he is capable of doing, namely, righteous works. Man can achieve in and of himself, according to Pelagius, whatever is required of him in morality and religion. Human nature remains uncorrupted and the natural will free to do all good. He was unable to see how responsibility could reside in us without free will. In fact, for Pelagius, there is no need for a Redeemer-Christ, for what is it that we need redemption from if we can do all things righteous on our own? This position led Pelagius to eventually deny the universality of sin, for which he was condemned in 418 AD at the Council of Carthage.
It was St. Augustine who, at this time, rose to challenge the position of Pelagius and argued fiercely for the bondage of the will. Augustine was undoubtedly Pelagius’ most outspoken opponent and he stressed that grace is an absolute necessity from beginning to end. Sin has, according to Augustine, so affected our nature that we are naturally inclined toward sin and sin only. “It was by the evil use of his free will that man destroyed both it and himself”, said Augustine. Man is truly “dead in his trespasses and sins”, and in a desperate situation. Apart from grace, according to Augustine, no one can be saved, much less, do that which is righteous before God. For Augustine, it was an undermining of the gospel to say that man has the power in and of himself to incline himself godward. Justification is entirely of God.
In defending these views, it was Augustine who won the day, but the issue did not go away. It comes up again and again throughout church history. In 1525, Martin Luther wrote Bondage of the Will in response to Erasmus’ book entitled Diatribe Concerning Free Will. Luther echoed Augustine by asserting that if one holds to a view that sees the will as completely free and able, in and of itself, to choose that which is righteous, then man is able to take partial credit for his salvation. Does God get all the glory or just some of it? Luther vehemently argues that unless sovereign grace intervenes we can do nothing righteous before God in and of ourselves. We are hopeless!
The other Reformers (Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Knox) were one with Luther in these convictions and went on themselves to articulate it further, most notably Calvin in his Institutes. And while many of the Puritans, one and two hundred years later, agreed with and held to the view that man’s will is bound by sin so that sin affects his decisions, there was none who articulated it better than Jonathan Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards’ Background
Born in 1703 into a pioneer family on the frontier of East Windsor, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards was the only son of twelve children. His father, Timothy, was a pastor. At the age of thirteen, Edwards went to Yale College and graduated in 1720. After a few years of teaching in New York and at Yale, he became an assistant pastor to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, at a Congregational Church in Northampton. After Stoddard died, Edwards became the pastor. A series of conversions took place at his church, which coincided with the conversions taking place under the preaching of George Whitefield, an English evangelist, in the same area. Conversions began to sweep the area and a spiritual revival like none other took place. We know it today as the First Great Awakening.
It has been said of Jonathan Edwards that he produced one of the most thorough and compelling bodies of theological writing in the history of America. More commonly asserted is the statement that Edwards was “the greatest intellect that America has ever produced”. Perhaps this is seen best in his book Freedom of the Will.
Freedom of the Will
A glancing at the title might lead some to think that Edwards and Luther differed. This is not so, essentially. The title illustrates Edwards’ thesis that we are free to choose that which we most desire. The truth, though, according to Edwards, is that because by nature we are dead in our trespasses and sins, we desire only sin. Our natural inclination is not toward righteousness, but toward sin. All mankind, according to Edwards, are “by nature in a state of total ruin, both with respect to the moral evil of which they are the subjects, and the afflictive evil to which they are exposed, the one as the consequence and punishment of the other”.2
According to Edwards, proof of original sin is easily demonstrated. Aside from the supernatural biblical proof found in Romans 1, 3, 5 and Ephesians 2, there is plenty of natural proof as well: All people sin! All of human history testifies to this. And we have more proof today, following two World Wars and one Cold War, than Edwards had in his day. Because we are free to choose that which we most desire, and because what we most desire is to destroy ourselves, it is our freedom that turns out to be our greatest enemy.
The Will as the Mind Choosing
Edwards defines the will as “the mind choosing”. This is unique for the simple reason that up until this point, nobody had bothered to refine a careful definition of the will. Everyone assumed that “will” was self-defining. Our choices, according to Edwards, are not determined by the will itself but by the mind. Our choices are determined by what we think is most desirable at any given moment. But why does the mind choose one thing over another? This is where Edwards introduces the idea of “motives”. We choose one thing over another because our mind chooses what it thinks is best. John Gerstner sums up Edwards’ point well:
Your choices as a rational person are always based on various considerations or motives that are before you at the time. Those motives have a certain weight with you, and the motives for and against reading a book, for example, are weighed in the balance of your mind; the motives that outweigh all others are what you, indeed, choose to follow. You, being a rational person, will always choose what seems to you to be the right thing, the wise thing, the most advisable thing to do. If you choose not to do the right thing, the advisable thing, the thing that you are inclined to do, you would, of coarse, be insane. You would be choosing something that you did not choose. You would find something preferable that you did not prefer. But you, being a rational and sane person choose something because it seems to you the right, proper, good, advantageous thing to do.3
This is precisely the point that Edwards makes with regard to motives. We choose according to that which we desire most. The problem, however, as we noted earlier, is that because the fall was total and not partial, and as a result we are all dead in our trespasses and sins desiring only sin by nature, what seems to us to be right, proper, and good is often wrong, improper, and bad. Sin has made us God-haters at the core of our souls so that we are all by nature at enmity with God. In order for us to do what God would have us to do, we need to be who God wants us to be. And in order for us to be who God wants us to be, we need new natures. And because we cannot change our own nature, no more than we can push a bus while we are riding in it, we are in need of the sovereign hand of grace to change it for us. We cannot do what pleases God because we will not do what pleases God. And the reason we will not is because we don’t want to
“Natural Inability” and “Moral Inability”
We remember that what plagued Pelagius was the paradox of human responsibility to follow God’s holy commands and human inability. According to Pelagius, the fact that God commands us to obey him implies that we are able to obey him. If inability reigns, than God would be unjust to command our obedience. This problem, as we have seen, eventually led Pelagius to deny the universality of sin. He was unable to deal with the paradox. Edwards’ contribution to this issue is perhaps his most profound. Edwards distinguished between what he referred to as “natural inability” and “moral inability”. “We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing, when we can’t do it if we will, because what is most commonly called nature doesn’t allow it… Moral inability consists in the opposition or want of inclination”.4 In other words, I am said to be naturally unable to do a thing, no matter how hard I desire it, if nature doesn’t allow it, such as flying or walking on water. In this sense, we are all naturally able to do what is right. After all, we have all of the natural capacities to understand the law of God. We have a mouth that is physically capable of uttering praises to God. We have a will that enables us to choose to do what we want to do. Original sin does not eradicate our humanity or ability to make choices. The natural ability remains intact. God has endowed us with the natural ability to do what he requires of us. What we lack, however, is the moral ability. What was lost in the fall is the want or inclination to do that which is righteous. We have no desire to obey God. We have, in fact, no desire for God at all. Fallen man has the natural ability to choose God but he lacks the moral ability to do so. For this reason, God can justly command our obedience (because we have the necessary faculties of choice), and at the same time hold us responsible for the choices we make. A.W. Pink says, “By nature [man] possesses natural ability but lacks moral and spiritual ability. The fact that he does not possess the latter does not destroy his responsibility, because his responsibility rests upon the fact that he does possess the former”.5 Without a righteous inclination to do good, no one can choose good. Our decisions follow our inclinations. Sin has rendered us hopeless, according to Edwards, but this is precisely what makes the gospel so great.
The Greatness of the Gospel
“For Edwards, the greatness of the gospel is visible only when viewed against the backdrop of the greatness of the ruin into which we have been plunged by the fall. The greatness of the disease requires the greatness of the remedy”.6 As someone once said, “The worst word about us as sinners is not the last word”. It was the gospel that Edwards was interested in, not some theoretical debate. He knew that what made good news good was that it was preceded by bad news. Our fallen nature due to sin is bad news. Our natural inclination to sin is bad news. Our inability to incline ourselves godward is bad news. Our self-destruction as a result of our sin is bad news. The grace of God in redeeming man from this desperate state and changing his nature so that he will be free to serve God is not just good news, it’s great news
In summary of Edwards’ view of free will, he believes that man is free in that he can and does choose according to his strongest inclinations — his desires. But because of original sin and the resulting corruption of humanity, no one is naturally inclined godward. In fact, we hate God by nature. We have the natural ability to please him but we lack the moral ability. Our nature has to be changed if we are to seek God and do what he pleases. And only God can liberate the sinner from his captivity to that which is destroying him, namely, his freedom! This is nothing more and nothing less than the gospel that Edwards so committed his life to.
1. Adolph Harnack, History of Dogma, part 2, book 2 trans. James Millar (1898; New York: Dover, 1961), pg. 174
2. Jonathan Edwards, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, in Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 10th ed., 2 vols. (Edinburgh/Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth, 1979, 1:1)
3. John H. Gerstner, A Primer on Free Will (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1982) p.4-5
4. Edwards, Freedom of the Will, pg.159 as quoted in Sproul, Willing to Believe, pg.162
5. A.W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984) pg. 154
6. R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will (Grand Rapids, MI: 1997) pg. 148
I believe this is the worst doctrine in the church today. I know that this is a shocking statement and is near blasphemy to some people, but the way sovereignty” is taught today is a real faith killer. The belief that God controls everything that happens to us is one of the devil’s biggest inroads into our lives. If this belief is true, then our actions are irrelevant, and our efforts are meaningless. What will be will be.
If we believe that God wills everything, good or bad, to happen to us, it gives us some temporary relief from confusion and condemnation, but in the long-term, it slanders God, hinders our trust in God, and leads to passiveness.
THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
The word “sovereign” is not used in the King James Version of the Bible. It is used 303 times in the Old Testament of the New International Version, but it is always used in association with the word “LORD” and is the equivalent of the King James Version’s “LORD God.” Not a single one of those times is the word “sovereign” used in the manner that it has come to be used in religion in our day and time.
Religion has resulted in the invention of a new meaning for the word “sovereign,” which basically means God controls everything. Nothing can happen but what He wills or allows. However, there is nothing in the actual definition that states that. The dictionary defines “sovereign” as, “1. Paramount; supreme. 2. Having supreme rank or power. 3. Independent: a sovereign state. 4. Excellent.” None of these definitions means that God controls everything.
It is assumed that since God is paramount or supreme that nothing can happen without His approval. That is not what the Scriptures teach. In 2 Peter 3:9, Peter said, “The Lord is…not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” This clearly states that it is not the Lord’s will for anyone to perish, but people are perishing. Jesus said, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat” (Matt. 7:13). Relatively few people are saved compared to the number that are lost. God’s will for people concerning salvation is not being accomplished.
This is because the Lord gave us the freedom to choose. He doesn’t will anyone into hell. He paid for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:10), but we must choose to put our faith in Christ and receive His salvation. People are the ones choosing hell by not choosing Jesus as their Savior. It is the free will of man that damns them, not God.
People virtually have to climb over the roadblocks that God puts in their way to continue on their course to hell. The cross of Christ and the drawing power of the Holy Spirit are obstacles that every sinner encounters. No one will ever stand before God and be able to fault Him for withholding the opportunity to be saved. The Lord woos every person to Him, but we have to cooperate. Ultimately, the Lord simply enforces the consequences of people’s own choices.
God has a perfect plan for every person’s life (Jer. 29:11), but He doesn’t make us walk that path. We are free moral agents with the ability to choose. He has told us what the right choices are (Deut. 30:19), but He doesn’t make those choices for us. God gave us the power to control our destinies.
Typical teaching on the sovereignty of God puts Jesus in the driver’s seat with us as passengers. On the surface that looks good. All of us have encountered the disastrous results of doing our own thing. We desire to be led of the Lord, and teaching that nothing happens but what God wills fits that nicely. However, the Scriptures paint a picture of each of us being behind the wheel of our own lives. We are the one doing the driving. We are supposed to take directions from the Lord, but He doesn’t do the driving for us.
Man has been given the authority over his own life, but he must have the Lord’s direction to succeed. Jeremiah 10:23 says, “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” God created us to be dependent upon Him and our independence is at the root of all our problems. As if it wasn’t bad enough for man to try to run his affairs independently of God and His standards, it has been made even worse by religion teaching us that all our problems are actually blessings from God. That is a faith killer. It makes people totally passive.
James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” This verse makes it clear that some things are from God, and some from the devil. We must submit to the things that are of God and resist the things that are from the devil. The word “resist” means, “Actively fight against.” Saying “Whatever will be will be” is not actively fighting against the devil.
If a person really believed that God is the one who put sickness on them because He is trying to work something for good in their life, then they should not go to the doctor or take any medicine. That would be resisting God’s plans. They should let the sickness run its course and thereby get the full benefit of God’s correction. Of course, no one advocates that. That is absurd. It is even more absurd to believe that God is the one behind the tragedy.
Acts 10:38 says that Jesus healed all those who were oppressed OF THE DEVIL. It was not God who oppressed them with sickness. It was the devil. It’s the same today. Sickness is from the devil, not from God. We need to resist sickness and, by faith, submit ourselves to healing, which is from God through the atonement of Christ.
I know someone is thinking, What about the Old Testament instances where God smote people with sickness and plagues? There is a lot I could say about that if I had the space, but a simplified answer to that question is that none of those instances were blessings. They were curses. God did use sickness in the Old Testament as punishment, but in the New Testament, Jesus bore our curse for us (Gal. 3:13). The Lord would no more put sickness on a New Testament believer than He would make us commit a sin. Both forgiveness of sin and healing are a part of the atonement Jesus provided for us.
Deuteronomy, chapter 28, should forever settle this question for all who believe the Word of God. The first 14 verses of Deuteronomy 28 list the blessings of God and the last 53 verses list the curses of God. Healing is listed as a blessing (Deut. 28:4). Sickness is listed as a curse (Deut. 28:22, 27-28, 35, 59-61). God called sickness a curse. We should not call it a blessing.
Knowing that God is not the author of my problems is one of the most important revelations the Lord has ever given me. If I thought it was God who killed my father when I was twelve, and some of my best friends before I was 20, if it was God who had people kidnap me, slander me, threaten to kill me, and turn loved ones against me, then I would have a hard time trusting God, if He was like that.
On the contrary, it is very comforting to know that God only has good things in store for me. Any problems in my life are from the devil, of my own making, or just the results of life on a fallen planet. My heavenly Father has never done me any harm and never will. I KNOW that.
I am not saying that there is nothing to learn from hardships. Most of you reading this article have come to the Lord because of something in your life that overwhelmed you and caused you to turn to the Lord for help. That situation was not from God regardless of the results. It was you turning to the Lord and the faith you placed in Him that turned your life around, not the hardship.
If hardships and problems made us better, then everyone who has had problems would be better for them. Those who have the most trouble would be the best. That simply is not so.
Let me illustrate this with a story about my son, Joshua. When he was only a year old, I was loading lumber on a large truck in the heat of a Texas summer. I had Joshua with me, and he was having a big time playing in the lumber yard. By mid-afternoon, he was tired and sleepy and started to lie down in the dirt for a nap. I knew his mother wouldn’t like that, so I put him in the cab of the truck to lie down and take his nap.
He had been wanting to get into that truck all day, and when I put him in there, he revived. I had to roll the windows down because it was hot, and Joshua was leaning out the windows and waving at me in the side view mirrors. I told him to lie down and even gave him a spanking, but he didn’t take heed. He leaned out the window too far, fell out of the cab, hit his eye on the running board and landed on his head.
I ran up to him, prayed over him, and held him until he quit crying. Then I told him that was why I told him to lie down and go to sleep and not lean out the window. I used that situation which caused him pain, to teach him, but if Joshua would have been like the sovereignty teachers of today, he would have gone out and told all his friends that his father made him fall out of that truck to teach him to obey. That’s not so. I did what I could to restrain him. I would be very hurt if that’s the way Joshua thought I was.
Likewise, I don’t believe it blesses our heavenly Father for us to blame Him for all the problems that come into our lives. Sure, He will comfort us when we turn to Him in the midst of our problems, but He doesn’t create the negative circumstances that hurt our lives.
God is sovereign in the sense that He is paramount and supreme. There is no one higher in authority or power, but that does not mean He exercises His power by controlling everything in our lives. God has given us the freedom to choose. He has a plan for us. He seeks to reveal that plan to us and urge us in that direction, but we choose. He doesn’t make our choices for us.
In many instances, it is our wrong choices that bring disaster upon us. In other cases, our problems are nothing but an attack from the devil. In some cases, natural forces of an imperfect world cause us pain. Our tragedies are never the judgment or correction of God. Jesus came to give us abundant life. The devil came to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). Don’t ever get that confused. If it’s good, it’s God. If it’s bad, it’s the devil.
This is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity that must be understood properly if you want victory in your life. Believing that God controls everything renders a person passive. Why pray and believe for something better? Whatever God wants will come to pass. That simply is not true.
The Lord is the answer to all our problems. He is not the problem.