‘FREE-AGENCY’ AND ‘FREE-WILL’ – THE DIFFERENCE
compiled by Michael Jeshurun
It is often asked if there be a difference between ‘free-agency’ and ‘free-will’. C.H. Spurgeon said long ago, “Free agency we may believe in, but free-will is simply ridiculous!”
Loraine Boettner wrote in his ‘Reformed Doctrine of Predestination’ –
“Man is a free agent but be cannot originate the love of God in his heart. His will is free in the sense that it is not controlled by any force outside of himself. As the bird with a broken wing is “free” to fly but not able, so the natural man is free to come to God but not able!”
FREE AGENCY DEFINED
Funk and Wagnall’s Desk Standard Dictionary defines free agency as “the power or capacity of acting freely, i. e., without constraint of the will”.
Webster’s New International Dictionary, in defining the term “free,” in its application to the acts of a moral being, says: “Not determined by anything beyond its own nature or being; not necessitated by an external cause or agency; choosing or capable of choosing for itself; as a free agent.”
N. L. Rice says:
“Free agency is nothing more nor less than acting without compulsion, and in accordance with one’s own desires and inclinations” (God Sovereign and Man Free, p. 58).
J. M. Pendleton repeats the definition of Andrew Fuller, which is as follows:
“A free agent is an intelligent being who is at liberty to act according to his choice, without compulsion or restraint” (Christian Doctrines, p. 104).
A. H. Strong says:
“Free agency is the power of self-determination in view of motives or man’s power (a) to choose between motives, and (b) direct his subsequent activity according to the motive thus chosen” (Systematic Theology, p. 176).
Luther denied “Free-will,” as it was used by his great opponent, Erasmus, and also by the Pelagians and Sophists; and, with all his profundity of understanding, mistakingly supposing that the use made of “Free-will” by the above errorists was the only sense of the expression, opposed its use. Nevertheless, he attributed to the will a freedom such as is attributed to it by others here quoted; and he defined that freedom in the following words:
“Will, whether divine or human, does what it does, be it good or evil, not by any compulsion, but by mere willingness or desire, as it were, totally free” (The Bondage of the Will, p. 41).
John Gill, who is often falsely accused of antinomianism says:
“A determination of the will to some one thing, is not contrary to choice, for the human will of Christ, and the will of angels and glorified saints, are determined only to that which is good, and yet they both choose and do that good freely . . . Besides, neither the disability of man, nor the efficacious influence of grace, at all hinder the freedom of human actions. A wicked man, who is under the strongest bias, power, and dominion of his lusts, acts freely in fulfilling of them; as does also a good man, in doing what is spiritually good; and never more so, than when he is under the most powerful influences of divine grace” (Cause of God and Truth, pp. 184, 185).
Jonathan Edwards viewed free agency as the “power, opportunity or advantage that any one has to do as he pleases” (Freedom of the Will, p. 17).
We have purposely reserved until last the definition that is the most explicit of all because it sums up all the others and states them in greater detail and in a more easily understandable way. This definition is from E. Y. Mullins:
“Freedom in man does not imply exemption from the operation of influences, motives, heredity, environment. It means rather that man is not under compulsion. His actions are in the last resort determined from within. He is self-determined in what he does. Some hold that freedom in man means ability to transcend himself and act contrary to his character. (This is the erroneous sense of free will, as believed by all Pelagians and Arminians, and as opposed by Luther and many others.) The will is thus regarded, not as an expression of what the man is in his essential character. It is free in the sense of being capable of choices unrelated to past choices, acquired traits, and hereditary tendencies. This is an untenable view of freedom. It makes the will a mere external attachment to man’s nature rather than an expression thereof. Freedom excludes compulsion from without, it also excludes mere caprice and arbitrariness. Freedom is self-determinative” (The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression, pp. 258, 259).
MAN AS MUCH A FREE AGENT AS GOD.
We have noted that A. H. Strong says: “Free agency is the power of self-determination.” Others define it as the power one has to act according to his choice, to do as he pleases. We have seen that free agency does not imply ability to transcend oneself and to act contrary to one’s character. It does not exclude determination to either good or bad. It does exclude compulsion and restraint from outside of ones nature, and it also just as surely excludes mere caprice and arbitrariness.
What more than this can be affirmed of God? What less can be affirmed of man? God is self-determined. So is man, and at all times. God always acts according to His choice; He does as He pleases. So also does man. God cannot transcend Himself and act contrary to His character. Neither can man. God is ever determined to good. Natural man is ever determined to that which is spiritually evil. A regenerated man is determined, in the main, to that which is good. When he commits evil, he is, for the moment determined to evil. The will of God is never compelled or restrained by anything outside His own nature. The same is true of man. God never acts capriciously or arbitrarily, that is, without sufficient cause. Neither does man. God always acts according to His preference, considering things as a whole; but not always according to His preference in things, considering them separately and apart from His perfect plan. For instance, God immanently prefers holiness at all times, but, in consideration of His plan as a whole, He purposed to permit sin; because it, in some way, is necessary to the working out of His plan. This is analogous to the fact that man has conflicting preferences, but he always follows his strongest preference; and in doing so, his will is wholly and absolutely free.
The position of God’s will, and the nature and laws of its action, are the same as in the case of man’s will. Each is subject to the nature of its possessor. Both express the nature of their possessors in view of motives. Both man and God are free at all times to act out their most dominant desires and inclinations. God is not more truly a free agent than man is.
FREE AGENCY OF THE NATURAL MAN
Man cannot do otherwise than continue in sin so long as he is in his natural state (Jer. 17:9; Prov. 4:23; Job 14:4; Jer. 13:23; John 6:65; Rom. 8:7, 8; 1 Cor. 2:14). But his continuance in sin is not due to outside compulsion or restraint, but to his own character which causes him to choose darkness rather than light (John 3:19). He continues in sin for the same reason that a hog wallows in the mire. He continues in sin for the same reason that God continues in holiness. Thus he is fully a free agent.
FREE AGENCY AND DIVINE HARDENING AND BLINDING
In the hardening and blinding of sinners, which is unmistakably attributed to God in the Scripture (Rom. 9:18; John 12:40), there is no outside force brought to bear upon the will of the sinner. While God is said to blind and to harden the sinner, the sinner is said to blind and harden himself. John 12:40 is a quotation from Isa. 6:10, where the prophet Isaiah is commanded to shut the eyes of the people. Then in Matt. 13:14,15 there is another free quotation from this same prophecy, and in Matthew the sinners are said to have closed their own eyes. Then, still again, in 2 Cor. 4:3,4, we have the blinding of sinners attributed to the devil. All of these passages refer to the same thing, and all of them are true because they are in the Word of God.
We have the blinding of sinners attributed to God, to the devil, to the prophet, and to the sinners themselves. It is ours to find, if we can, the harmony between these statements. Here it is: The blinding is attributed to God because He decreed, whether permissively or efficiently, all the circumstances that render the sinner blind. The blinding is attributed to the devil because he is the author of sin by which the sinner is blinded. The same blinding is attributed to the prophet because his preaching of the Word brings out and makes the blindness of the sinner active in his rejection of the Word. Then, finally, the blinding is attributed to the sinner himself because he loves darkness rather than light, and manifests his choice of darkness by rejecting the Word. This leaves the natural man a free agent. If God, or the devil or the prophet, by a power outside of the nature of the sinner, could compel the sinner against his choice to reject the Word, the sinner would no longer be a free agent, and he would be no longer responsible for his unbelief. Responsibility and free agency go hand in hand.
What has been said of the blinding of the sinner is also true of the hardening of the sinner. The hardening of the heart of Pharaoh is attributed to God (Rom. 9:18; Ex. 4:21; 7:3; 7:13; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10). But it is also attributed to Pharaoh himself (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34). The explanation is the same as for the blinding treated above.
FREE AGENCY AND CONVERSION
Man is unable to turn from sin until he is quickened by the Spirit of God. For proof of this see the passages given in proof of the fact that man cannot do otherwise than continue in sin so long as he is in his natural state. The new nature, therefore, must be implanted logically (but not chronologically) prior to the exercise of repentance and faith. This is the meaning of the New Hampshire Declaration of Faith when it says that repentance and faith are “inseparable graces wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God.” This is also the teaching of Eph. 1:19, 20.
But when a man turns to God in repentance and faith he acts voluntarily and is thus a free agent. He is not compelled to turn by a power outside of his own nature. For, in implanting the new nature, the Holy Spirit operates “in the region of the soul below consciousness” (Strong). Then that new nature, when implanted, becomes as much a part of the man as the old nature was; and it moves the will in strict conformity to the nature, laws, and normal action of the will. Thus man is a free agent in conversion; and, of course, remains a free agent, although God continues to work in him “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). But this work, like the work of quickening, does not coerce the will.
FREE AGENCY AND CHRISTIAN FREEDOM
Some become confused in regard to free agency because of the statement of Christ in John 8:32—”Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Christ here referred to the freedom of the nature from sin’s bondage and not to free agency. This will become evident to any thoughtful student upon a consideration of the foregoing treatment of free agency. The position of the will and the nature and laws of its action, are the same before conversion as after. In both cases man is self-determined in view of motives. Both before and after regeneration the will expresses one’s character.
The difference between the unregenerate and regenerate states is not in regard to the freedom of the will but in the fact that before regeneration man is the “bond-servant of sin” (John 8:34), while, after regeneration, believers are, through the power of the new life, “bond-servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). In both cases men are bondservants, and the will is subject to the character, being as free in one case as in the other.
FREE AGENCY AND THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
Without the least reserve or hesitancy we subscribe to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith in its declaration that “God hath decreed in himself from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably all things whatsoever comes to pass.” This includes evil as well and as fully as good, though in a different sense; and is supported by both reason and revelation. See chapter on “The Will of God.” Also see Dan. 4:35; Isa. 46:10; Rom. 9:19; Eph. 1:11.
When men say that the absolute sovereignty of God cannot be reconciled with the free agency of man by finite minds, they betoken a misunderstanding either of free agency, or the workings of God’s sovereignty, or both. Free agency is in perfect, full, and manifest harmony with the absolute sovereignty of God. The bond of union between the two lies in the fact that the will is subject to the character of its possessor. God has determined the character of each man, through either His positive or permissive decrees—positive in the case of all good, and permissive in the case of all evil. And God, having determined all circumstances, controls the motives that influence the will. Thus God controls the actions of men, and yet men act at all times as freely as God Himself does. If there were no God, man could not act more freely than he does.
We see this harmony between the sovereignty of God and the free agency of man strikingly exemplified in the crucifixion of Christ. God determined that Christ should be crucified (Acts 2:23; 4:27,28). And He determined that certain ones should do it, but He did this permissively. All that took part in the crucifixion were only acting out their own natures, and were never freer in any act, nor was God ever freer in any act. Through wicked motives they chose to kill the Lord of glory. They killed Him because they hated Him. They killed Him because He rebuked them for their sin. They killed Him because He took away the glory that had been theirs. God did not cause them to do it, but He decreed to permit them to follow their own inclinations and desires in doing it.
FREE AGENCY AND THE POWER OF CONTRARY ACTION
It will he noted that the expression on free agency quoted from J. P. Boyce implies that the power of contrary action is essential to free agency. This is true if the power of contrary action is defined as Boyce defines it, that is, as the power that one has to do otherwise than he does, had he so pleased. This is only saying that man is free from outward necessity and compulsion in his actions. If at any moment, one had not pleased to act as he did, he could have acted differently, for one is always free to do as he pleases. This means, of course, as he pleases on the whole. He follows his strongest desire.
Or if the power of contrary choice is used to mean the power of the soul to make choices contrary to its previously ruling purpose, it is still implied in free agency. Motives awaken latent tendencies in the soul, and thus the soul may act contrary to its previously ruling purpose. In conversion the soul acts contrary to its previously ruling purpose. But in this case, it is not due to the awakening of latent tendencies, but to the implantation of the new life.
There is another form of contrary action. One may and often does put forth executive volitions contrary to his ultimate choice or immanent preference. This is consistent with free agency.
But if one supposes that the power of contrary action means that it is possible for one to act at any moment differently from the way in which he does act, the individual and the motives remaining the same, he is supposing a contradiction and an absurdity. This is supposing that one may choose that which he does not choose. All action is the result of an inward necessity of consequence; but not of an outward necessity, nor a necessity of compulsion. In other words, the action of any individual at any time could not have been different without the individual or the motives being different. Otherwise there would be no cause for the will’s action. And all common sense forbids the supposition of a finite thing without a cause. Thus the acts of the will proceed from an inward necessity. But the individual is free and unconstrained. There is no power compelling the will, for the will is simply the soul’s faculty of choice. In fact, no power can compel or coerce the will. It is necessarily free. It would not be will without this.
[Much of the above is gleaned from the works of Thomas Paul Simmons]