I've been enjoying the discussions over at Joe Missionary and semper reformanda recently about free will and feel compelled to put my own thoughts on the subject into words just for the sake of organizing them, if for no other reason. As my hero, Jonathan Edwards says, "The subject is of such importance, as to demand attention, and the most thorough consideration. Of all kinds of knowledge that we can ever obtain, the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves, are the most important."
First of all, I'm a solid 5-point Calvinist (or 7-pointer if you prefer). I believe that God is absolutely sovereign over every thought, word, and action of man and I believe that man's will is absolutely free, both before and after conversion. This is not a contradiction. I don't hold these two beliefs as some irreconcilable mystery that can't be solved until we get to heaven. I think the answer is pretty simple if we are willing to be honest with ourselves.
We are free to choose according to our desires. We all desire pleasure as our chief goal in every decision that we make. Pleasure or happiness is the ultimate motive behind every other motive that we could possibly have. Nobody can choose contrary to what they see as their highest happiness. Nobody can prefer what they don't prefer or desire what they don't desire. In this sense, the will is absolutely free to move towards whatever man desires at the time of the choice according to the understanding of what is most pleasing. And it is absolutely impossible that it should do otherwise.
In Freedom of the Will, Jonathan Edwards says, "There is no such thing as freedom of the will in the sense of ultimate self-determination. Rather, the will is determined by that motive which is strongest in the mind, and motives are given, not self-created." It is the motive that determines the will, not an imaginary self-determining power of choice. For example, if I came over to your house and you offered me something to drink and you asked me if I wanted Coke or Pepsi, I would freely choose Coke. My motive for this choice would be that, according to my experience and my understanding, Coke tastes better than Pepsi and will therefore give me more pleasure to drink it. Here someone would object and say "You could freely go against your desire and choose the Pepsi." It would not disprove my point, for in this case, there would be a stronger desire to prove my own self-determining power that would give me more pleasure than drinking the Coke. Or perhaps I just got back from the dentist and got a stern lecture about drinking too much Coke. In this case, I might find more pleasure in avoiding cavities than I would find in the sweet taste of Coke and just ask for a glass of water. My apparent act of self-denial is really an attempt at securing what I see as the highest possible pleasure at the time of the choice according to my understanding, and there is no way I could do otherwise.
Now imagine I am an unregenerate man and as I am sitting there in your house drinking your Coke you begin to share the gospel with me. I think you are a very nice person because you have invited me over to your house and offered me a tasty beverage which has given me much pleasure so I listen attentively. You tell me that I will go to hell forever if I don't repent of my sins and trust in Jesus for forgiveness. You're such a nice person that I don't want to offend you so I close my eyes as you lead me in a short prayer. You assure me that I am now on my way to heaven as you lead me out the door.
My motive here was the same as it is for anybody--pleasure. I saw that it would give me great pleasure to comply with your desire to convert me because I wanted to be your friend. I am still dead in my sins and have no desire for Jesus. My happiness was found in making a new friend and drinking his Coke. I kept my thoughts to myself about how foolish your beliefs were because that might jeopardize our new friendship and thereby end my source of happiness.
Now imagine I am the same unregenerate man sitting in your house drinking a Coke. I am still seeking happiness as my highest goal. As you begin to share the gospel with me I start checking the clock and thinking about how much pleasure it would give me to be at the local pub right now drinking a Coke with some Bicardi in it instead of drinking this warm Coke and listening to your foolish religious fantasies. My desire for strong drink grows stronger than my desire to listen to you as the minutes pass. Jesus cannot compete with my desire for frivolity. I see a trip to the nudie bar as offering much more pleasure than a life of repentance and self-denial. I get up and curse you for a fool and walk out the door, slamming it on the way out which appears to me at that time to offer much more pleasure than simply closing it softly.
Once again, imagine I am the same unregenerate man sitting on your couch, drinking your Coke. Once again, our conversation turns to religion. You begin to explain to me that I am a sinner and cannot possibly make it to heaven on my own merits. You tell me that God is a holy God who cannot allow sin in his presence and therefore there is no hope for me no matter how good I try to be or how often I go to church. You tell me that God demands perfection and I admit that I am not perfect. I begin to tremble with fear as you open your Bible and show me verse after verse pointing out the holiness and justice of God. A tear falls from my eye as I contemplate the reality that I now see.
Then you begin to flip the pages of your Bible until you get to the Gospels. You begin to tell me who Jesus is as I listen intently. You point out that he is the uncreated Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, fully God and fully man who was sent by God to live a perfect life that we could not live and put to death on a cross to satisfy the infinite wrath of this holy God against sinners like you and me, and that he was physically raised from the dead for our justification. You explain to me that this righteousness that satisfies the wrath of God is imputed to all who put their faith in Christ.
What you don't realize at this point is that the eyes of my heart have been opened and my desire for pleasure has been transfered from sin to Jesus. I see the glory and justice of God in condemning sinners like me and I see the glorious way of salvation that he has provided. I see a life lived by faith in the One who God looks upon with pleasure as more pleasureable than any possible pleasure that I could ever obtain on this earth. It is my pleasure to bow my head as you lead me in a prayer to ask God to forgive me of my sin and submit my life to Jesus. Indeed, I cannot do otherwise.
What is the difference between the third scenerio and the first two? In all three my chief end was the same--pleasure. In the first scenerio I sought my pleasure in making a new friend and concealing my disbelief. In the second scenerio I sought pleasure in openly sinning and declaring my disbelief. In both of these scenerios my understanding was darkened and I sought pleasure in things that would not give me the most pleasure ultimately. But in the third scenerio my understanding was enlightened by the preaching of the Word and what I once saw as pleasurable could no longer compare to the infinite pleasure of knowing and enjoying and infinitely holy God who has forgiven all of my sin.
At this point the non-Calvinist might say that I could have chosen Christ in either of the first two scenerios if I wanted to. I agree. But I didn't want to. I couldn't possibly want to nor could I force myself to want to, and if I could force myself to want to, what possible motive could I have for wanting to want to? How can I believe what I don't believe or desire what I don't desire?
So where does this understanding that there is more pleasure in God than anything else come from? Was it a self-created motive? Did I say to myself, "Self, you will now see Jesus as more to be desired than all other things."? If I did, what was my motive for doing so and where did that motive come from?
My conclusion is that we can only choose according to our desires and no matter what the choice, whether it be choosing to serve Christ or choosing a beverage, nobody has the power to self-create their own desires. In our natural state we are dead in sin, meaning we can only see sin as our highest pleasure. Christ does not hold out any promise of pleasure to the natural man's eyes and therefore he cannot possibly seek him. The only way he can seek him is if something changes within. And the only way that change can take place is if God gives him "eyes to see and ears to hear."
Objection 1: God is insincere to give commands contrary to our desires if we can only choose according to our desires. How can God justly condemn us for choices we make when we have no power of ourselves to choose other than what we desire?
The purpose of God's commands are to reveal what we are, not as a means of making us righteous. "If it had not been for the law I would not have known sin." (Rom. 7:7) The holy law of God reveals the sin in our heart. Trying to keep the law only reveals what we really are. But when our desire is for God, we will seek to obey his commands out of pleasure rather than duty thereby giving evidence that our pleasure is in God.
The righteousness of the motive determines whether an act is good or bad. All would agree with that. And it is impossible to self-create a motive. Would it be better if we could be in a complete state of indifference and randomly choose right or wrong without any prior inclination? Would it commend us to God if we chose righteousness over evil when they both looked equally desirable to us in a complete state of indifference?
The whole point of salvation is to show that we are completely dependant upon God so that God gets all the glory from beginning to end. God forgives only on the basis of perfection and he provides that perfection that is the basis for our forgiveness, namely, Jesus. It is only because people think God's commands are possible to obey that they think God is unrighteous to condemn us for our desires. God's commands simply reveal what we are--sinners. Or they reveal that we are truly his, if we keep them and grieve when we don't.
Objection 2: If all of our choices are predetermined, why bother to get up in the morning? Everything is going to happen just as God intended anyway so what can I do to make a difference?
I really don't understand this question but I get it all the time. If a person really didn't want to get out of bed in the morning because all of his choices are predetermined, what he is saying is that his greatest source of pleasure can come from doing nothing rather than enjoying God with all of his might, and he thereby shows himself to be a poor judge of pleasure.
Objection 3: You make God the author of sin!
God is not the author of sin in the sense that God is a sinner. But God is the author of sin in the sense that sin would not need to occur if God had not seen fit to use it for his own glory. No sin was ever commited that was as horrible as the murder of the Son of God and yet we know that God predestined it to take place (Acts 4:27-28). God does not sin when he ordains that the sinful actions of man take place because even though people have sinful motives behind their actions, God does everything for the ultimate purpose of glorifying himself. "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." (Gen. 50:20) "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen." (Rom. 11:36) Jonathan Edwards says it better than I can:
It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth. And for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God's glory should be complete. That is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionately radiant, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested and anther not at all. Thus, it is necessary that God's awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness should be manifested. But this could not be unless sin and punishment had been decreed so that the shining forth of God's glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine foth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness and love and holiness would be faint without them. Nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all. If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God's holiness in hatred of sin or in showing any preference in his providence of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God's grace or true goodness if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed he would not be so much prized and admired , and the sense of it would not be so great. So evil is necessary in order to the highest happiness of the creature and the completeness of that communication of God for which he made the world because the creature's happiness consists in the knowledge of God and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionately imperfect.
There is really no other way it can be. Even God seeks pleasure in his choices and since he is infinitely holy and infinitely glorious, he finds pleasure in nothing else but to glorify himself. To say that it could be otherwise is just nonsense. It's like the old "can God make a rock that's too big even for him to lift" argument. Attributing nonsense to God doesn't make God any less God. God can't desire what he doesn't desire because it's a meaningless proposition. And since God knows all, he knows that he is more to be desired than anything so he spends his infinite energy supply in glorifying himself. He loves himself infinitely and loves whatever reflects his own glory to the degree that it reflects it. And since Jesus is the perfect reflection of himself, he loves Jesus infinitely. His infinite love for Jesus is so perfect that it takes on full personhood as the third person of the Trinity. Therefore, by God's giving somebody the Holy Spirit, he is giving him the same love for God that God has for God. And nobody can truly love God as they ought without the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit IS love; the perfect love that God has for the perfect reflection of himself who is Jesus. Soli Deo Gloria.