Breaking the Idol of Free Will

Marionette puppet vector icon

Iconoclasm (“idol-breaking”) is a longstanding tradition in the church. It refers to the practice of destroying anything that becomes too important in the life and worship of God’s people. Our spiritual forebears diligently guarded themselves against idolatry. To our shame, we have not imitated their diligence; we have allowed idols to infiltrate the modern church.

One such idol is not an image but an idea. This idea has taken the church so captive that it cannot even be questioned. Scriptures are deliberately ignored or misinterpreted to uphold it. Indeed, it has become the controlling principle of many Christians’ theology. This idol is the idea of free will.

Setting up an Idol

The debate over free will is as old as the church itself. It began in the fourth century with a heretic named Pelagius. He taught that Adam’s sin in no way affected our free will. We are perfectly capable of choosing and obeying God on our own, without His help. He was opposed by perhaps the church’s greatest theologian, Augustine.

In 1524, Erasmus of Rotterdam published Of Free Will to oppose the teachings of Martin Luther. Luther denied free will and upheld God’s total sovereignty over creation and salvation. Erasmus argued that God foreknows everything and allows it to happen, but that doesn’t mean He causes or predestines it.

Also in the sixteenth century, a Dutch pastor named Jacob Arminius began to oppose the teachings of John Calvin. Arminius believed God makes his saving grace equally available to all people. Each person may decide for themselves to believe and be saved or not.

Christians today have woven these strands together into a modern doctrine of free will. Like Pelagius, they believe children are innocent of all sin until they reach the “age of accountability.” Like Erasmus, they believe God predestines us based on His foreknowledge of our future decisions. Like Arminius, they believe every person is equally free to choose God or reject Him.

According to them, God endowed humanity with free will and will never EVER violate it. To deny this is tantamount to denying the gospel itself.

Breaking down an Idol

The Bible never uses the words “free will,” nor does it suggest the concept. The idea that we are free to make our own choices without any influence from external factors is simply not biblical.

The Bible implies we are guilty of sin from the moment life begins. David confesses, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). In fact, we are guilty from before our lives begin: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, for all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

We are complicit in Adam’s sin and born guilty of it. Contrary to Pelagius, there is no time of innocence or “age of accountability.”

Neither does God predestine us based on our future choices. Paul says God “predestined us…in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5; cf. 1:11). He compares us to Jacob and Esau. They “were conceived at the same time…yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad,” God chose Jacob over Esau (Romans 9:10-11).

God chooses us based on HIS will, not ours. He doesn’t merely know in advance who will believe. Contrary to Erasmus, He decides who will believe.

Nor has God given His saving grace equally to all people. Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (John 6:44; cf. 6:65). He also claims to reveal God only to certain people: “No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27).

When someone rejects God, it isn’t because they refuse His saving grace. Contrary to Arminius, it’s because He hasn’t extended His saving grace to them (yet).

The Bible is clear: we cannot choose God on our own. Paul says we “were dead in our transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). He also says, “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7). We are free to make our own choices. But our freedom itself is in bondage; our free will is not free from sin.

Less Free Than You Think

Many Christians claim that denying free will reduces humans to something inanimate, such as puppets or robots. God pulls our strings or writes our programming by predestining every decision we make. By this logic, God is unjust in judging us because we cannot make our own choices. How can He condemn us for sins we didn’t choose to commit?

They solve this dilemma the only way they can – by embracing free will to an unbiblical extent. Like Pinocchio, they claim God created us and gave us the freedom to do whatever we want, no strings attached.

But this overreaction is based on a misunderstanding. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, “God from all eternity did…freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures” (3.1). God has given us free will and allows us to exercise it. But we may only exercise it within the boundaries of His will.

Think again about a puppet. Imagine that a puppet comes to life but remains attached to his strings. He has free will; he may think, speak, or act as he chooses. But his strings will only let him go so far. His choices are limited by the fact that he is still attached. The same is true for a robot. A robot that comes to life may have free will, but his choices are limited by his programming. This perfectly illustrates how the Bible portrays free will.

Paul uses the image of slavery. He thanks God that “though you used to be slaves to sin…you have been set free from sin and become slaves to righteousness.” He exhorts us, “Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity…so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness.” He reminds us, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God” (Romans 6:17-18, 19, 22).

Slaves are free to make their own choices. But their choices are limited by the will of their master. Paul is saying we have traded one set of strings for another. God snipped our strings from sin and attached them to Himself. He erased our sinful programming and reprogrammed us according to His will. By God’s grace, another set of choices is now available to us.

More Free Than You Think

The Bible says you are less free than you think. In fact, you’re a slave. But that shouldn’t bother you. Our free will shouldn’t be the principle that controls your theology anyway. What should control it is a much more biblical principle: God is freer than you think.

Paul affirms God’s right to make His own choices: “Who are you, a human being, to talk back to God…Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:20, 21). God is free to do as He pleases. If He chooses to save some and not others, that’s His decision.

The Bible never says God gave us “free will.” It also never says He promises not to override it. Rather, it says He has free will. Only God can make decisions without being affected by external factors. When we claim that for ourselves, we make free will an idol. And idols must be destroyed.

Christians today make an idol of “free will.” They also make an idol of how we express our choice for God. Subscribe to receive the next post in this series: Breaking the Idol of Baptism!


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