The Free Will of Man / Braxton Hunter, Ph.D.

by Braxton Hunter, Ph.D.
Evangelist with Trinity Crusades for Christ
visiting Professor of Philosophy & Apologetics at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Ind.
former president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists

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Article 8 focuses on what the Traditional Statement means by the term “free will” because one’s view of free will determines one’s view of soteriology. Since Traditionalists believe that anyone can be saved, then anyone must be able to respond freely for or against the offer of the gospel. It is not uncommon for laymen and theologians alike to misunderstand the terminology and philosophical implications of free will. This chapter will attempt to bring some simplicity and clarity to this issue. Affirming the reality of a robust view of free will in no way jeopardizes an equally robust view of God’s sovereignty. As Article 8 notes, a view of free will that accords to human beings the ability to accept or reject the gospel is actually an expression of God’s sovereign purposes for His creation. The charge that Traditionalists deny, limit, or reduce the sovereignty of God has been answered in previous chapters. Indeed, if the intention of Article 8’s affirmation is properly understood, the charge will be completely laid to rest.

The Calvinist and Traditionalist Understandings of Free Will
Chapters on previous articles have briefly addressed the question of what free will actually is. Here, we will flesh it out in greater detail. Typically, Calvinists hold to what philosophers refer to as “compatibilism.” On the compatibilist view, man is free to do whatever he wants, but not free to want whatever he wants. That is to say, man has freedom to exercise his will in accordance with his desires, but he has no control over those desires. Since man cannot manipulate those desires, and man is not naturally inclined toward God, the compatibilist maintains that man will never freely respond to God on his own. If he responds to God, it will be because his desires have been acted upon by God such that his “decisions” will follow from those desires. So long as a man’s actual decisions are not directly determined (only his desires) he is said to be free. In response to Article 8 of the TS, Tom Ascol explains,

This is exactly what we do in evangelism. We call spiritually dead people to come to life. We call on those who do not have spiritual ability to repent and trust Christ. As we preach the gospel, we know that the Word of the Lord must be accompanied by the power of the Lord or no one will be saved. When God graciously does this saving work, it is not a vitiation of man’s will. It is a gift of resurrection.[1]

Without a careful eye, one is likely to miss Ascol’s point. God coerces man’s desires so that man’s will is now inclined toward God.

What is troubling for Traditionalists is that there is no difference between compatibilism and determinism. On determinism, most common among philosophical naturalists, free will is illusory. One may experience the various events and actions of his life as though they represent genuine choices; however, this is a byproduct of living in a closed system of cause-and-effect. No choice of any kind actually exists. Reconsidering compatibilism with this knowledge in mind, we must conclude that to say man is free to do what he wants, but not free to want what he wants, is to say that man is not genuinely free to make undetermined choices. It is for precisely this reason that compatibilism is often referred to as “soft-determinism.” On these grounds, William Lane Craig asserts,

Determinists reconcile universal, divine, causal determinism with human freedom by re- interpreting freedom in compatibilist terms. Compatibilism entails determinism, so there’s no mystery here. The problem is that adopting compatibilism achieves reconciliation only at the expense of denying what various Scriptural texts seem clearly to affirm: genuine indeterminacy and contingency.[2]

Since Scripture so frequently gives the impression that man is not only free, but responsible, it seems to support some version of libertarian freedom. If this were not the case, then a number of biblical passages (such as those documented in the statement) become awkward. If man is bound by his will to only choose according to his sinful desires, then he simply cannot choose godliness. Worse still, he is punished for choosing A rather than C when, in fact, only A, B, and D were available to him. Such a proposal seems absurd. One might retort that this is precisely the beauty of Calvinism. God breaks in and draws the lost individual out of the bondage of his will and into a grace that is, quite literally, irresistible. This does not resolve the problem. Realizing such an existential transformation would be, indeed, a cause for exuberance for the most appreciative new believer. Grace would render him undeniably grateful. Nevertheless, placing the emphasis on the glorious salvation of the convert does not answer, but sidesteps the conundrum. When one considers the future citizen of hell, the difficulty emerges. On such a view, God is found punishing, and in some cases angry with, individuals for choosing wrongly among a set of all wrong options. This is one of several reasons most Southern Baptists find compatibilism to be an unsatisfactory theological explanation of the nature of reality.

Traditionalists typically hold to some form of libertarian free will. According to this model, man has, as a special gift from God, the ability to transcend cause and effect and actually make real decisions. These decisions may be influenced by outside factors, but not to the point of coercion.[3] Libertarian free will is consistent with the language of Article 8 in the phrase “actual free will (the ability to choose between two options).” However, it is not our position that man can freely ascend to God without the offer and work of “the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.” The view that man can freely act without the in-working of God or can make the first move toward God can be understood as “hard-libertarianism.” This is the view of the will accepted by Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism but is explicitly rejected by the TS. Rather, the offer of the gospel and work of the Holy Spirit is available to anyone and is necessary for salvation. The denial “that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person,” means that, although God is responsible for the salvific work and offer, man is responsible for receiving or rejecting the gift. This view is known as “soft-libertarianism.”

Soft-libertarianism is not only consistent with Scripture but seems to be suggested by it directly. In his article, “When a Christian Sins,” Paul Himes argues that in 1 Cor 10:13 only a soft-libertarian free will comes into view. In this passage, the Apostle Paul explains, “No temptation has overtaken you but such is common to man: and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” After making a powerful case on several fronts, Himes claims,

Under the compatibilist view, then, at situation (x), faced with temptation (y), agent (w) cannot desire to choose not to sin, for his desire is already determined by his value scale, which is already determined by factors out of his control. If (w) cannot desire to choose not to sin, then he is not able to choose not to sin, hence he is unable to endure temptation. Thus, for the compatibilist, “in situation (x), faced with temptation (y), (w) cannot endure” (and “could not have endured”). Thus compatibilism has not adequately explained 1 Cor 10:13…[4]

The Problems with Compatibilism
The Questionable Status of Scriptural Support
Indeed, the proof-texts typically offered as evidence of compatibilism hardly suffice upon close examination. Ephesians 1:11 states, “In Him we were also made His inheritance, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will.” Traditionalists certainly agree that God “works out everything in agreement with the decision of his will.” What the passage does not say is precisely how this predestination occurs. Is it with respect to conformity to the image of God’s Son? Is it those who God knows will be saved? Is it with respect to the church in general, in other words, corporate election? Is this predestination as the Molinist understands it? Each of these is a possible understanding of predestination held by Southern Baptists. As Malcom Yarnell points out, “Southern Baptists affirm diverse understandings of divine election.”[5] The goal of the TS is not to speak authoritatively for all Traditionalists on all texts. The point is that there is no good textual reason to favor a compatibilist view of this passage. Thus, this verse makes a poor proof-text in that it hardly necessitates compatibilism.[6]

John 8:34 declares…*


[1]Tom Ascol, “Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, Part 11,” http://tomascol.rocketrepublic.info/response-to-a-statement-of-the-traditional- southern-baptist-understanding-of-gods-plan-of-salvation-part-11/ (accessed December 24, 2012).
[2]William Lane Craig, “Molinism vs. Calvinism,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/molinism-vs-calvin- ism (accessed June 11, 2012).
[3]This definition of libertarian free will is Christian-specific. By this I mean that a secular philosopher might not refer to God in a similar definition. In defining the libertarian position, I have focused the con- text on the issue at hand.
[4]Paul A. Himes, “When a Christian Sins: 1 Corinthians 10:13 and the Power of Contrary Choice, in Relation to the Compatibilist-Libertarian Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54 (June 2011): 342.
[5]Malcom Yarnell, “The TULIP of Calvinism in Light of History and the Baptist Faith and Message,” http://sbctoday.com/2012/06/11/the-tulip-of-calvinismin-light-of-history-and-the-baptist-faith-and-mes- sage/ (accessed August 30, 2012).
[6]In order to serve as a fitting proof text for compatibilism, the compatibilist interpretation would need to have greater plausibility. By plausibility I mean that it would need to be more likely the case than not. Yet, there is no prima facia reason to assign greater plausibility to such an interpretation.
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*Click HERE to read the rest of this post by downloading the FREE, 2-volume NOBTS Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry.
SBCToday reprinted with permission the above excerpt.