A Step Toward the Relationship between Free Will and Evangelism

*Posted by Barry Creamer

I believe in free will; not determinism-disguising compatiblistic free will, but real, creative, libertarian, potentially self-denying (and, I must also admit, most often unused) free will.

Some people dont believe in such a free will because they cant figure out what it would be. In short, they are determinists because they cannot see how libertarian freedom could be less than something coming from nothing, which seems nonsense to them. My belief in Gods sovereignty dictates to me that such freedom can exist, even if only in Him. My beliefs about scripture and my beliefs about ethics imply to me that God has also given that kind of freedom to human beings, albeit only within the domains of His choosing.

Some people dont care about the previous paragraph. That is, they dont care about determinism qua determinism. So they dont care whether a person who eats a hamburger for lunch could really actualize a world in which she instead eats a cheeseburger for that lunch. But they do care about the nature of salvation. And so they cannot accept the idea that a person who receives the grace of God could really actualize a world in which she rejects that grace. In the discussions Ive had with people who believe this way, their case regarding this very small portion of their system (the doctrines of grace) comes back to one of two arguments.

One argument is based on psychological egoism, the basis of the compatiblism mentioned above. On this view, once a person understands what she wants, wants it, and is offered it, she cannot but accept it. It is, after all, what she wants, and people cannot do other than what they want. This view stems from a prior rejection of libertarian freedom. It is not based on a problem with the doctrine that one person in one circumstance could actually either accept or reject salvation, but with the metaphysical presupposition that such an event is no more possible than a round square or a married bachelor. It is one basis and form of determinism.

But I hear the other argument far more often. In this argument the issue is the nature of grace. Salvation is all of grace. Two key ideas follow. The work of salvation is all accomplished by God. Granted. There is no merit for salvation on the part of the recipient. Also granted.

Importantly here, though, not only do I believe in a libertarian free will, but I also believe that God has given it a place in the domain of salvation. That is to say, humans can accept or reject salvation once a simple set of conditions is metonce God has prepared and called them and the gospel has been presented to them. So on this view the faith of the person is also essential to salvation. It is logically prior to regeneration. And, most importantly here, it is a volitional acta commitmentwhich any person may embrace or reject once the previously mentioned conditions have been met.

That kind of voluntary, contingent faith as a necessary cause in conversion seems untenable to reformed thinkers precisely because in their view it assaults the two outflows of the nature of salvation by grace.

On the first outflow, the objection is that if people have the freedom to reject or accept salvation, the work is no longer all of God. It would be some sort of partnership between Gods work of grace and mans work of will or faith.

But that objection is defensible only if a persons will (as agent) is somehow independent of God or if the persons will (as an expression or choice of the agent) is independent of God. But neither is the case. Any theist would have to believe that even the most radically enabled free will is created by God and exists as such an agent only at His pleasure. So the agent is a product of God. But what about the expression of that agent? That is, what about the choice itself. If the choice is made by God, then the libertarian part of the freedom is lost and the point is moot. But if it is notthen what? Scripture clearly depicts a truth lost on Pelagians and championed by Calvinists, but with plenty of room for non-Calvinists like me. It is only the gracious work of God which works over a persons will (agent) so that it is capable of choosing Him. The grace of God which brings salvation, which has appeared to all men, does precisely this work.

But with all of that work doneand done by God through the general and specific revelation; directly through His Holy Spirit and indirectly through natural and supernatural, mindless and intelligent agentsthe person in which it has been done can still say no. They will not say no because Gods work is somehow insufficient to bring conversion, but because of the freedom inherent in the nature of their will, a will free finally to say yes or no only because God created it with the ability to do so, and because God has brought it to a place where it must exercise that ability.

But what about the person who at that point says yes. Here is where the objection regarding the second outflow becomes important. If she says yes instead of no, then she has presumably merited salvation and grace is no longer the sole and sufficient cause of her salvation. My immediate response to this idea is simple. If the person says no to salvation at this point, it is that persons own fault. She has no one to blame but herself. After all, God did everything necessary to bring her to saving faith. But if she says yes, she can claim no credit herself, since it was God who did absolutely everything to bring her to saving faith. The commitment of faith is entirely responsive to the work of God. The will (agent) which acts to choose faith is a product of God. And the expression of that will as faith is a product of Gods work. The merit is all Gods. The act of faith is, actually, by part of its definition as faith, an acknowledgment of personal insufficiency and dependence on God instead. To say it somehow merits salvation is not only to abuse or ignore the New Testament relationship between faith and works, but to invert the nature of faiths content as a commitment of self-insufficiency (an acknowledgement of being without merit) and therefore as a commitment to dependence on God (instead of personal merit).

But, saith the reformed thinker, if she had the freedom to say yes or no, and said yes, then her decision itself is a moral act resulting in salvationa scenario smacking very much of meritorious salvation. Ironically, the reformed thinker has acknowledged a basic tenet of libertarian thinkers. One of the bases for defending free will is that moral responsibility implies free will; that is, a person is only morally culpable for something wrong or praiseworthy for something right if she could have done otherwise. Real freedom is a prerequisite to real morality. By claiming that the liminal converts libertarian freedom implies her moral merit or culpability, the objector has actually embraced the libertarian-avowed directly proportional relationship between freedom and moral responsibility.

Even more ironically, suppose the reformed thinker says he only acknowledges that there would be a directly proportional relationship between freedom and moral responsibility if there actually were such a thing as libertarian freedom, but then adds that such a thing does not actually exist. Then he must presumably embrace the idea that compatiblistic freedom is sufficient to explain moral responsibility. In which case the person who succumbs to irresistible grace and says yes to faith is actually performing a meritorious act essential to salvation. It is important here, that it will not suffice to say that since a reformed thinker puts regeneration logically ahead of faith, the merit of the faith does not matter. Faith is no typical working- out-of-salvation product of grace. Faith is, even in the lingo of those who are reformed, essential to the moment of conversion. If it is to be evaluated as an indicator of meriting salvation at all, then it must be considered just as meritorious in the reformed system as in the libertarian one.

Of course, it is not meritorious, as clarified two points above.

How strong is the free will I believe in? No stronger than God creates it, and no more capable of acting in a given circumstance than God allows it. How weak is the free will I believe in? Sufficiently weak that I have doubled my targeted word count for this post and have not even arrived at the question I actually intended (willed) to address.

What is that question? This. Is it actually possible that a person who could have been saved (whom God has prepared and called and desires to save) would be eternally condemned because I did not witness to them? The discussion, God willing and me obeying, next time.

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