Theological Vocabulary Thursday
Free Will: Two Versions in Southern Baptist Life

By L. Manning Garrett III, Ph.D., Pastor, East Laurel Baptist Church, Jackson, TN

This article is intended to be of interest to pastors and lay persons.  I do not begin with the assumption that all of the readers of SBC Today are familiar with the philosophical discussion surrounding the issue of free will. Nonetheless, the writer’s motivation is to encourage the reader to check out his/her view about free will with regard to an issue that is foremost in the mind of every evangelical Christian: whether one who rejects Jesus Christ as Savior, Son of God, Messiah, and Lord does so by one’s own free will choice and if so to ask: what does free will mean? It is assumed that most Southern Baptists will affirm that the decision to reject Jesus follows from a free will decision. In Southern Baptist life there are and probably have always been two versions of free will that separate most NonCalvinist and Calvinist Southern Baptists: libertarian free will and compatibilistic free will.

Most NonCalvinist advocates of libertarian free will maintain that in regard to a choice or action that was exercised the agent had a real option to have wanted to do otherwise. In other words, there were genuine alternatives other than the choice and action that was made.  Most Calvinists who hold to compatibilistic free will maintain that determinism eliminates real options but determinism does coexist with a free will.  So, the choice is determined but the agent also can be said to have exercised free will.  Clearly, there is a definitional difference among Southern Baptists over what it means to exercise a free choice.

If both Calvinist and NonCalvinist Southern Baptists hold that those who reject Jesus are thereby consigned by God to Hell for eternity, then one might well wonder what all of the debate is over.  Both sides agree that the unbeliever’s irrevocable, terminal state of separation from God’s grace and presence is deserved due to the unbeliever’s free will choice to reject Jesus. Differences arise because the two groups of Southern Baptists (Calvinist and NonCalvinist) do not mean the same thing by free will choice.

It will be helpful to proffer an explanation setting forth the importance of free will relative to moral responsibility. Most people believe that free will is a necessary condition for moral responsibility.  It makes sense to hold people morally accountable (blame, punish, praise, or reward) only if those people made a free will choice to perform the action.  So, if people are going to be condemned to hell (a form of moral responsibility) for rejecting Jesus, then that decision must be the result of a free will decision.  This means that if the decision to reject Jesus was not a free will decision, then the person should not be held morally accountable for rejecting Jesus. Both libertarians and compatibilists can affirm this fact; thus the disagreement between libertarian NonCalvinist Southern Baptists and compatibilistic Calvinist Southern Baptists is not because one side believes unbelievers have free will and the other side does not believe unbelievers have free will.  The disagreement concerns what each side means by free will.

I turn to a version of free will that is probably familiar to most readers: libertarian free will.  In general, libertarians hold that free will means having real options—that is, having genuine alternatives to choose some action other than what one chose to do. With regard to the issue of “rejecting Jesus,” NonCalvinist Southern Baptist libertarians maintain that the choice to reject Jesus was a free choice because the unbeliever had the real option to choose to accept Jesus.  Since the unbeliever freely rejected Jesus and could have wanted to accept Jesus, the unbeliever can be held morally responsible for the choice to reject Jesus.  Therefore, it is the unbeliever and not God who is morally accountable for the decision to reject Jesus.

Interestingly and significantly, the Calvinist Southern Baptist compatibilist also affirms that the unbeliever is responsible for the decision to reject Jesus despite the fact that the unbeliever did not have the genuine alternative to accept Jesus.  The unbeliever made the free choice to reject Jesus because compatibilistic free will does not mean having real alternatives to do otherwise or even to want to do otherwise. The reason that there can be no real alternatives is because one’s desire, want, choice, and action were determined.  Given the determining force of a totally depraved will (due to the fall), the unbeliever cannot want to accept Jesus; therefore, the choice to accept Jesus is not a real option because of the presence of determining depraved will.  Yet, there is still room for free will—just not libertarian free will.

For the Calvinist compatibilist, free will means: being able to do what one wants to do when one’s “want to” reflects the deepest values, reasons, and desires of the individual. In essence, this means that one has compatibilistic free will as long as one can do what one wants to do. Given this understanding, it is clear why compatibilists maintain that the unbeliever can be held morally accountable by God for the choice to reject Jesus despite the fact that the unbeliever’s “want to” was determined by a depraved will.  Since the unbeliever wants to reject Jesus and since nothing forbids him/her to act based on that want to (deepest desire), the unbeliever’s choice to reject Jesus is one for which he/she must assume the responsibility.

If there is any doubt, just ask the unbeliever:  “Don’t you want to accept Jesus, come to church and worship Him, and read the Bible to find out more about His plan for your life?”   Without hesitation, the answer will be—NO!! I REALLY DO NOT WANT ALL OF THAT!! Clearly, Calvinist Southern Baptist compatibilists will affirm that since the unbeliever is doing what he/she wants to do, the unbeliever is making a free will choice; therefore the unbeliever is responsible for the decision to reject Jesus and is responsible for going to hell.

In conclusion, it is hoped that two things have been accomplished in this article regarding the important theological term: free will.  First, it should be clear that both NonCalvinist Southern Baptist libertarians and Calvinist Southern Baptist compatibilists affirm that the unbeliever has made a free will decision to reject Jesus. Hopefully this article will also serve to inspire pastors and laypersons to think seriously about free will and its implications.  What does one’s Southern Baptist congregation think it means to freely accept or reject Jesus?  Is it time for this discussion about free will to take place in one’s local church, at the Southern Baptist Convention, and surely when the Pastor Search Committee of the local Southern Baptist congregation meets with a prospective candidate for a church ministry staff position?