Ask almost anyone, especially in America, whether or not mans will is free and most likely they will tell you "yes, of course." This is no less true, and perhaps even more true, when it comes to the majority of Christian "evangelicals." Let me pause a moment to ask you this same question. Is the human will "free?" Some Christians seem to think that this belief in human "free will" is crucial to the gospel message. The reformed position (that which I hold to) would argue quite the opposite.
Good questions to ask at the beginning of this discussion might be, "Where does the belief in human free will come from?" And "Is it in accordance with Biblical teaching?"
To answer these questions up front I would say:
1.) This belief stems from apparent truth rather than actual truth.
2.) Depending on what you mean by "free will" it may or may not be Biblical.
Let me start with question one and give a little more depth to my simplistic answer. People tend to believe in free will because it appears to be true. For instance, if you are hungry, you decide whether or not you are going to go to Applebees or Pizza Hut. It's your decision... right! It certainly seems so. If you are faced with a decision between doing what is moral and what is sinful, it's up to you, right?
In some sense, this is absolutely true. I think we are Scripturally safe in saying that we as human beings are not forced to do anything against our will. We do that which we most want to do. However, does this necessarily mean that our will is truly free?
As Christians we must submit to the teaching of Scripture. So what does the Bible have to say about the issue of mans will?
While we do not have a specific discourse, persay, on the issue of human will in the Bible, that is not to say that the Bible doesn't reveal the state of the human will.
Consider with me if you will Pharaoh, king of Egypt in the exodus account. I've been reading this account recently once again and something I find interesting is the "hardening" of Pharaoh's heart. Sometimes it very clearly says that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" and other times it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. How should we understand this?
I suggest that we should understand this to mean that Pharaoh, a sinful man who did not fear God, did that which he most wanted to do. He hardened his heart. We could, as many theologians foolishly try and do, simply leave it at that. But what then does it mean when it says that God hardened Pharaohs heart? It's nonsense to say that God hardened Pharaoh's heart because Pharaoh chose to have a hardened heart. This is especially nonsense in light of the following passage:
"But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. 17 You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go."
God says that He raised Pharaoh up for the purpose of showing His power, so that His name would be proclaimed in all the earth, and yet God says that Pharaoh is exalting himself against God's people. So we see that God made Pharaoh for the purpose of making an example of him and yet He doesn't have to force Pharaoh to do evil, He does it of his own desire. But clearly it is the will of God that Pharaoh's heart be hardened, and it is God who initiates this hardening, not the other way around.
Romans 9:18 adds to this discussion "So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills." It is God's choice to harden hearts and to show mercy.
So though Pharaoh did that which he most desired to do, could he have done anything else? No, he couldn't have because he was doing what the LORD willed him to do, although God did not have to force Pharaoh. Interesting, is it not? And lest we think this is an isolated case, here is another prime example: Judas Iscariot.
Have you ever thought to yourself, "What if Judas hadn't betrayed Jesus?" What a thought. If he had not done so Christ would not have died on our behalf becoming sin for us on the cross and propitiating our sins. We'd be in some trouble to say the least. But could Judas have not betrayed Jesus? No, he had to.
As Jesus said in John 17:12 in His high priestly prayer for his disciples "While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled."
Judas had to do what he did for the Scriptures to be fulfilled. Consider Acts 2:23 in Peters sermon at Pentecost when he says "this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." Clearly the plan of God was for Jesus to be crucified, but it was done by the hands of lawless men doing lawless deeds. They were not compulsed by God, they did as they desired to do, yet according to God's "definite plan", according to the will of God.
Some will surely say, "Perhaps God does this with certain people, but not all." Can this be true? Look at Ephesians 1:11.
"In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will."
It seems that the Scripture teaches that God "works all things according to the counsel of His will." This is pretty inclusive I would say. When you put this together with verses like Daniel 4:35,
"all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?"
And Proverbs 16:33
"The lot is cast into the lap,but its every decision is from the LORD."
There are many more verses we could look at that carry similar idea's about God's total sovereignty over all creation and yes even the will of man. It is clear that mans will is subject to God's will, and yet in practice we see only what we desire to do, giving the appearance of "free will."
There is more to consider on this subject as well concerning issues such as being enslaved to sin. When Romans 3:10-12 says "10as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God.12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." Can we really say that our will is free when we are so in bondage to sin that we cannot even "seek for God" or do "good" in the sight of God?
Then the other side of the coin is that even when we become Christians, we become slaves to Christ. The Spirit of God comes into our life and influences (to say the least) what we do. And as Paul speaks of, even then we struggle between our old nature that we have died to in Christ and our new nature that we have received by the Spirit of God through faith in Christ.
"15For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me."
So it seems that our will is not so free after all. In fact it seems that our will is subject ultimately to God's will, and below that it is subject to the effects of sin for both non Christians and Christians fighting their old nature.
Clearly if God allowed true "free will" and allowed us always to do that which we would do on our own, no one would ever choose Christ and be saved because all have sinned (Rom 3:23) and due to that sin "no one seeks for God" (Rom 3:10-12).
It would seem that the belief in human free will is indeed a great Christian myth based on a faulty understanding of the things we perceive and the decisions we make appearing to be freely made. There is much more that could be said on this subject, but it is clear that the human will is not free, at least not in the sense that most people mean when they use such terminology.