Concerning free will…

In my last article, I began to address a couple of questions posed by a reader in response to a previous article entitled “Rethinking the Garden.” His first question dealt with the subject of irresistible grace. I attempted to answer that question in an article entitled “Relentless.” I am not sure I answered his questions sufficiently, but I pray that I at least wrote enough to help with understanding such a controversial subject.

His second set of questions dealt with an equally controversial subject: free will.

Separately, why was Adam’s decision not to obey not an exercise of free will? Are you separating “will” (choice) from “free will”? That is because you can’t choose something without receiving consequences then your will is not truly “free”? Why is freedom predicated on the results of your choices being beneficial to you?

ice-cream-865126_1280This is another biblical subject for which there appears to be no definitive answer. There are probably as many opinions as there are theologians, but I will once again make the effort to address the question.

Before launching into a discussion of free will, let me share a story I once heard that went something like this:

A man approached an ice cream vendor and said, “I would like to have a double cone of chocolate.”

The vendor answered very clearly, “Sir, I am so sorry, but we have no chocolate ice cream. We only have vanilla and strawberry.”

As if the vendor had spoken in a foreign language, the customer replied, “That’s ok. I’ll take a single cone of chocolate.”

Once again, the vendor explained the situation to the customer, “Sir, we have no chocolate ice cream. Your only choices are vanilla or strawberry.”

Determined not to be disappointed, the customer placed his order once again. “Ok, then I’ll have a cup of chocolate ice cream.”

With great exasperation, the vendor asked the man, “Sir, can you spell the ‘van’ in vanilla?”

The customer said, “Sure. It’s v-a-n.”

The vendor asked, “Can you spell the ‘straw’ in strawberry?”

With confidence, the customer answered, “Easily. It’s s-t-r-a-w.”

Finally, the vendor challenged the customer, “Can you spell the ‘stink’ in chocolate?”

Confused, the customer replied, “There ain’t no ‘stink’ in chocolate.”

To which the vendor cried, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. There ain’t no stinking chocolate!”

Despite the customer’s clear expression of his will, he could elicit no chocolate ice cream from the vendor, because chocolate was not a choice. Therefore, the customer’s will was only free within the limitation of the choices available – the choices the vendor had revealed to him.

In the creation story, God told Adam that every fruit-bearing tree in the garden was good for food.

Genesis 1:29 God said, “Behold, I have given you (Adam) every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.

Genesis 2.8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil… 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

When we examine the question of free will within the perspective of the entire Garden, Adam appears to have had an almost unlimited number of choices of fruit from which to choose for food, and could, therefore, exercise his will freely and without restriction.

However, in the context of decisions that directly affect eternity, the Bible narrows the focus of the discussion to the center of the Garden where the Bible says (Genesis 2:9) there were two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (TOTKOGE – Yes, I am being lazy!).

Read the verse carefully, as well as the verses of the context, and you will discover that God did not give Adam a choice, but a commandment. While at first making all fruit-bearing trees available as food, God then clearly eliminated the TOTKOGE from the field of choices through His direct commandment not to eat of that particular tree.

Therefore, Adam’s will was not limited and restricted by consequences, but by commandment. His will was  free, but only within the limitations and restrictions set by God’s law.

Adam’s will was free in the sense that he apparently had the ability to disobey. Yet his will was not free in the sense that he was limited in the choices available – just as the man who wanted chocolate ice cream.

God did not tell Adam and Eve they had free will – the serpent did. The right to freely express that will derived, not from God, but from Adam’s willful surrender to his own pride and selfish desire.

In light of all things eternal and in relationship to righteousness and godliness, at best, Adam had two choices. The Tree of Life offered righteousness and eternal life, while the TOTKOGE represented unrighteousness and death according to the instruction of God, yet the serpent convinced man that this was not true. The serpent convinced Adam that, by partaking of the TOTKOGE, he would have both God-type knowledge as well as life.

The serpent convinced Adam that his will, though limited by his present condition under the restrictive and unjust rule of God’s law, could be made free by eating of the TOTKOGE. Adam would then be like God, the restriction against the TOTKOGE along with its consequences would be moot, and Adam could freely express his will as he chose.

Utilizing his will now made free by man’s rebellion against God, man made the unrighteous choice. The problem here is that this choice is only an illusion created by Adam’s pride and encouraged by the temptation of the serpent.

In reality, Adam only had one choice, and that was the Tree of Life. When in chapter three of Genesis the woman and the man were tempted by the serpent to eat of the TOTKOGE, they chose to choose instead of to obey.

When Adam rebelled against God and chose to eat of the TOTKOGE, he purposefully chose death over life. As a consequence, God, realizing that man’s will was now corrupted by sin, prevented Adam and Eve from having access to the Tree of Life, which added even more limitation to Adam’s will.

Gen. 3.22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

The moment that man surrendered himself to disobedience, he died. Yet we know that Adam lived to be over 900 years old. So what died? The thing that died was Adam’s access to the Tree of Life. Man was forever banned from the Garden as well as access to the Tree of Life until the day of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:14).

From the moment that man partook of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, every choice, whether good or bad, was an unrighteous choice because it was made within the domain of unrighteousness, so that every decision made – whether good or evil – would result in death. It is important to notice that the TOTKOGE was not the tree of the knowledge of evil – but the tree of the knowledge of both good and evil.

This is one reason why righteousness, justification, and eternal life could never be achieved by keeping the Law of Moses (Galatians 2:16). The Law was about making good choices as opposed to evil – choices derived from the TOTKOGE, from which the consequence is always death and never life (Galatians 3:21).

Even if man could live a life filled with nothing but good choices, he would still be expressing his will in the domain of unrighteousness. Even good people die because of the sin of Adam. Even the best person that ever lived who dies without Christ will find himself in the pits of hell after death because he did not – he could not – eat from the Tree of Life.

As a result of Adam’s rebellion, not only is man’s will not free, but it is eternally corrupt. That is why man can never be good enough to please God or to earn righteousness or salvation. That is why man, in his fallen condition, is considered “dead in trespasses and sin” (Ephesians 2:1). This “deadness” does not result from trespasses and sin, but from having inherited the fallen condition of Adam.

This is, at least in part, what the Bible means when it “the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). Apart from the grace of God, all members of the human race are bound as “servants of sin” (Romans 6:20) – able to express their will, yes, but a will that can only be expressed within the limitations of the bondage of sin and unrighteousness, with every choice eventually leading to death.

It is the negative of Romans 8:28. “All things work together for death for those who are outside of God’s grace and who have never experienced His call to salvation.”

As a result of Adam’s application of free will to the commandment of God, he could no longer choose to eat from the Tree of Life, because he could no longer see the Tree of Life. Because of his sin, he forfeited for eternity the ability to choose righteousness willfully. Apart from grace, therefore, all mankind was forevermore blinded to righteousness.

This is part of the meaning of total depravity. Every man that has ever been born since Adam is totally and completely blinded to the choice of righteousness that leads to eternal life (Romans 5.1, 17-18). There are no exceptions (Romans 3.23; Galatians 3:22). Because of his blindness to righteousness, man also lost the desire to pursue righteousness.

In fact, since the fall of Adam, the Bible explains that no man has ever sought after God or the righteousness of God by his own will or desire.

Psalm 14.2 The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. 3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.

Rom. 3.10 None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.

The message in this article is somewhat gloomy, and may leave a person asking, “If man’s will is so absolutely corrupt, and if man cannot see righteousness, and if he is unable to seek after God, then how can a person come to choose Christ?”

That will be the subject of the next article.

Picture credit:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s