How does the Bible define ‘free will’? Is there a difference in the sense in which believers are ‘free’, compared to those who haven’t believed? Is there a difference in the sense in which Adam and Eve had free will as compared to us?
Thank you for your question. While the implications of this question touch on many areas, I will keep my answer specific and concise.
The Bible does not define ‘free will’ per se. No chapter or verse gives us a comprehensive and explicit explanation of the term. However, what Scripture does is that it describes the condition of man and the extent of the freedom of his ‘free will’.
Free will is simply defined as the ability of man to make choices that arise out of his own desires and without coercion. “…[they] did to him whatever they pleased…” (Matthew 17:12). “…each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Our actions are always the result of our desires and motivations (or intentions). We will not choose what we do not desire. So the question is: what is it that man desires?
The Bible clearly identifies that, though Adam and Eve were made upright (Ecclesiastes 7:29), they were deceived (Genesis 3:1-7) and willingly chose to disobey God (Genesis 2:16–17). Consequently, all mankind inherited this fallen sin nature. That is evidenced by our sinful actions which are in accordance with our evil desires (James 1:14–15; Matthew 15:19). Everything a fallen man desires is evil (Romans 1:18-31); it is all against God (Romans 8:7)—and hence, all mankind is ‘unrighteous’ (Romans 3:23).
In Christ, we can do things that please God
If that was the end of the story, there would be no hope for us. We would all be condemned and under the bondage of sin forever. But God, by His grace in Christ, through the work of the Spirit (John 6:44; Titus 3:3-5) gives us a new heart (John 3:3-8)—with God-centred desires—and sets us free from the bondage of sin and hatred (Colossians 1:13; John 8:36).
In Christ, we can do things that please God (Philippians 2:13). We remain capable of making sinful choices (Romans 7:23). But we will keep growing in our ability to obey God, “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). This is why Christians implore each other to always be watchful and be ready to repent.
So—to answer your question—yes, there is a difference in the sense in which believers and unbelievers are ‘free’. Unbelievers are under the bondage of sin and hence their ‘free’ will is always inclined to make choices that are in accordance with their sinful desires. But believers, because of God’s grace, have been set free from this bondage and can now make God-glorifying choices.
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).
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