FREE WILL vs. VOLITION

Dan R. Smedra

In philosophy and theology, the terms free will and volition are often NOT used synonymously, but do convey related ideas.  Unless misused, the term free will communicates a sense of absolute, autonomous, 'libertarian' or unbounded freedom, whereas volition simply implies power of choice.

For example, a prisoner locked in a 8' x 8' concrete cell would not be considered to be free by most standards, but could still exercise the choice to either lie down, sit, or stand, etc.  The prisoner has certainly lost a large portion of his freedom, but has not been stripped of his volition, as demonstrated by his power of choice, albeit bounded.

Consider a second example.  A citizen of some particular country is detained at customs and not allowed to travel outside that nation's borders.  Is the citizen free or not?  Freedom is not black or white; it must always be compared to some benchmark.  The citizen is certainly free compared to the prisoner, but may not enjoy the freedom(s) extended to some other citizen of another nation who is allowed passage to several adjacent countries or even to roam planet Earth at will.

So, the concept of "freedom" is always relative to what it's being compared to.  We always need to keep in mind that there are degrees of freedom.  Again, it's never black or white.  It is erroneous to characterize the issue in terms of either having free will or being a "puppet".  It is this need to recognize degrees that has led philosophers and theologians to differentiate free will from volition. 

The conjunction of the words free with will is actually very misleading--albeit intentionally so.  The notion of free will suggests a state of ontological being which has never existed...in God, in angels, nor in man.  As John Darby clearly stated, "I believe we ought to hold to the Word; but, philosophically and morally speaking, free-will is a false and absurd theory.  Biblically speaking, free-will is a state of sin [i.e. rebellion]."

The creature's will or volition is always subject to the propensity (aka: bent, nature, etc.) of the creature's ontological being.  While God is omnipotent, His will remains consistent (bounded) by His essence--who He is in all His full-orbed attributes.  For example, He cannot will to be unjust or unloving.  He cannot will to act or be unlike Himself--a self-referential contradiction, philosophically speaking. 

The Christian church has suffered much confusion and possibly unnecessary division due to those, who through ignorance or other questionable motive, seek to use the terms free will and volition interchangeably.  An awareness of the difference between these terms is an essential prerequisite for correctly interpreting and understanding Holy Scripture--the Bible.  If one approaches Scripture with the fictitious concept of the creature's unbounded free will, the true meaning of the verse, the chapter, or the entire Bible is altered and a pseudo-version of Christianity is spawned.

The following quotations, shown in italics, are from the booklet FREE GRACE VERSUS FREE WILL, W. E. Best, 1977, Baker Book House.  Pastor Best explains the foundation of the compatibilist view of determinism.  His sound teaching in this area (in italics type) has been invaluable to many.

In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with purpose of His will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of His glory.  Ephesians 1:11,12

The Biblical idea of freedom of the will can only be understood by studying it from the beginning of the Bible.  But then, a study of any Biblical truth must begin in this manner.  Just as the wrong stops pulled out on an organ bring disharmony, a few isolated Scripture verses taken out of context appear to teach things that do not harmonize with all the teaching of God's Word.

Absolute [i.e., highest] freedom of the will can belong only to God.  No law restrains God's will, because He is His own law.  Since God is sovereign, no power can overcome His will.  He is omnipotent.  He "...worketh all things after the counsel of his own will" (Ephesians 1: 11).  God's will is irresistible, fixed, and everlasting: "...For who hath resisted his will?" (Romans 9:19).  It is everlasting because God does not change: "For I am the Lord, I change not..." (Mal. 3:6).  The Lord Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Godhead, is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).  With God there "...is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17).  God's will cannot be changed for the better because God cannot be better.  It cannot be changed for the worse because God cannot be less than He is.

God's will is subject to no one, but the will of every man is subject to God.  God did not determine to save men on the basis of their will to be saved.  Had He so resolved, man's will would determine God's will.  But that is impossible (and heretical)--God's freedom indicates that He is under no compulsion outside of Himself.  He acts according to the law (nature) of His being.  God is self-moved, and unable to sin.

The more intense the power of self-determination, the more intense the freedom.  Consequently, freedom of the will is attributable to God alone.  Every creature is responsible to Him.  A will self-determined to absolute holiness--God's will--is marked by the highest freedom.  Freedom in God is immutable self-determination; conversely, freedom in a finite being--[the First] Adam before the fall--is mutable self-determination.  The truth that freedom in God is immutable self-determination is the key to the remainder of the discussion of the freedom of the will.

God's will is the law of the universe, not man's will.  If there were no such being as the supreme, determining Jehovah, the universe would quickly become chaotic.  If there were no free-electing love, every minister would close his lips, and every sinner would sit down in mute despair.  Scripture records no instance of a limitation to God's will.  His will of purpose is supreme, and it is accomplished without defeat (Romans 9:19; James 1:17).  But we need to distinguish between God's will of purpose and His will of command.  Men are responsible to fulfill the latter, but God's will of purpose is not fully revealed to man: "The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever..." (Deuteronomy 29:29)

But what about Adam's will and self-determination?  Adam was created in a state of uprightness.  Uprightness is a higher state than innocence: "...God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions" (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Some refer to Adam's uprightness as "original righteousness"; others call it "created righteousness"; and some label it "holiness."  Adam's uprightness was righteousness and holiness in a sense, but it was not absolute.  Adam's holiness, righteousness, or uprightness was mutable, because God cannot create God.  Whatever God creates must be less than Himself.

At this point, it is important to keep in mind that the creation of the First Adam was to set the stage for the Last (not Second) Adam--the Lord Jesus Christ.  In the Father's plan, immutability would not be directly imparted to the creature; rather the creature would share in God's immutability through being made a new creation in Christ Jesus via a spiritual birth.  "You were taught with reference to your former life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth."  Ephesians 4:22-24

Some believe that Adam was created in a state of equipoise, or indifference.  He was inclined toward neither good nor evil.  Hence, he could turn to either the Creator or the creature.  Since he turned to the creature, he made the wrong choice.  This erroneous view has been refuted by great scholars [e.g., Luther, Edwards, Gill, Darby, etc.] of the past.  Scripture disproves the assertion that Adam was created in a state of indifference.

An actual state of indifference has never been found to exist; an uncommitted will has never occurred within human consciousness.  In any event, it is unnecessary to assume absolute indifference to holiness and sin to account for Adam's fall.

Innocence does not sufficiently describe Adam's condition of uprightness.  Original uprightness consisted of positive qualities.  Adam's positive intellectual and moral qualities before the fall were manifested in his ability to name the animals (Genesis 2:20) and in his fellowship with the Creator (Genesis 2:15-25).  Some knowledge of the animals' characteristics was necessary to name them.  Furthermore, positive uprightness was necessary to enjoy positive fellowship with God.

The fact that God created Adam upright means that Adam had knowledge of God.  This is explained as follows: The three faculties or powers in the human soul are (in this order) understanding [intellect], affection [emotion], and will.  The order cannot be reversed.  Eve's sin verifies the order of the powers of the soul.  She gained knowledge of the forbidden fruit by seeing it.  Her affection went out to the fruit of which she had gained knowledge.  She then exercised her will by taking the fruit.  Therefore, since Adam was created with an understanding of God, an uncommitted will was impossible.  Consciousness always reports an inclined will, not an indifferent will.  This is why Adam's uprightness was beyond mere innocence.

Uprightness includes several characteristics.  Adam was created upright, an adult, a spirit and with a will.  He did not come into the world as all others have.  The first man was created mature, without the necessity for physical and mental growth and development.  The idea that Adam had advancing stages in growth and learning contradicts the thought of created maturity.  Adam's maturity proves that he had an inclined will.  He was not in a state of equipoise, but his will was inclined toward God, his Creator.

In created maturity, Adam's intellectual faculties contained innate ideas and patterns.  Therefore, his maturity enabled him to not only name the animals but commune with God.  Adam was created a spirit (Genesis 2:7).  The creation of a finite mind, or spirit, implies the creation of uprightness.  Spirit must be distinguished from matter.  Furniture is matter and must be moved by force.  Adam was self-determined from within.  His ability to move from within signifies his freedom.  He was self-motivated and not moved by external force.  Self-motion is self-determination, and self-determination is the act of the will.

Adam's will was a [so-called] free will because it was [i.e., only to the extent] self-determined.  That which is not forced from without is free--but not absolutely.  Adam was responsible to God.  He was free in the sense that he was unconscious of any necessity imposed upon him.  God's freedom is immutable, but Adam's freedom was mutable self-determination.

By the creative act, Adam's will was inclined to God--and that before it made any choice.  He was created a spirit, and was self-determined the instant he was created.  His self-determination was created with his will.  Adam could not have been created un-inclined.  Adam's holy creation in original righteousness (or uprightness) was both created and self-determined.  Viewed with reference to God, it was created.  Viewed with reference to Adam, it was self-determining, self-ruling, and unforced from without.

Adam came into the world inclined toward God.  That holy inclination was at once the Creator's product and the creature's activity.  Adam did not find himself in a position to choose either the Creator or the creature as an ultimate end.  He was inclined toward the Creator.  His very uprightness was God-given, and did not proceed from his own ability.  In fact, Adam's mutable self-determination led to his fall, and after the fall his will was enslaved to sin.

While there exists a deep mystery here, God's creation of both angels and mankind as mutable creatures is part of His sovereign plan which He framed before the foundations of the universe.  "He [Christ Jesus] was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake."  1 Peter 1:20

After his fall, Adam passed from inclination toward God to inclination toward sin.  The radical change of his will cannot be accounted for by an antecedent choice from an indifferent state of the will.  The radical change could not have occurred if Adam had been created in a state of equipoise.  He fell from a state of mutable uprightness.  To fall from a state of indifference would not have been such a tragic fall.

Since Adam's fall, the will of every person is inclined toward sin by nature.  It remains so until the Spirit of God regenerates him.  Then, his will is inclined toward God by grace.  The work of regeneration in an individual produces as radical a change as the fall caused in Adam.  A regenerated man has been created anew in Jesus Christ: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works..." (Ephesians 2:10).  The new man "...is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him" (Colossians 3:10).  "And you hath he quickened, who were dead..." (Ephesians 2:1). "...God ... worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).  God gives a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek. 36:25-27).

We have reached a critical point in the narrative and it will be important that we proceed slowly.  While Pastor Best has done an excellent job explaining the condition of Adam before his Fall, he didn't go far enough. The First Adam was created in the "image of God" and directly animated--i.e., given life by the Creator.  In Genesis 2:7 we read, "the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Hebrew: neshama, cf. ruach) and the man became a living being (Hebrew: nephesh)."  After the Fall, after Adam's rebellion and ontological spiritual "death", we find in Genesis 5:3 that "he [Adam] had a son in his own likeness, in his own image".  At the Fall, mankind did not cease being nephesh with finite similarities of complex intellect, emotions, will, etc. (corresponding to the Creator's infinite attributes), but humanity now received their animating life force, neshama, directly from their sinful progenitor--Adam. Relative to this animating life-source, we are born in the image of Adam.  We congenitally receive life from the First Adam and the "nature" of that life is fallen--i.e., sinful. Some inaccurately refer to a sin nature as some internalized 'object' or 'thing', but the term nature simply refers to the propensity of the animating life. In discussions of Scripture (e.g., Gen. 9:6b, Acts 17:29, 1 Cor. 11:7, etc.), error often arises when speaking of mankind being "in the image of God," due to failure to maintain the corresponding distinction of neshama and nephesh. We would rephrase Pastor Best's initial statement like this, "Since Adam's fall, the will of every person is subject to the nature of the fallen, sinful life inherited from the First Adam." 

Best states, "The work of regeneration in an individual produces as radical a change as the fall caused in Adam."  This is technically incorrect.  Regeneration does not change or ameliorate the nature of the life which we inherit from the First Adam.  While regeneration may produce in an outward sense a "changed" man or woman; it is brought about by the impartation of new life--the very life of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The animating life is not "changed", but the source of life is exchanged.  "So it is written: 'The first man Adam became a living being', the last Adam, a life-giving spirit."  This is the essential weakness of Reformation soteriology--i.e., regeneration.  While Reformed theology correctly posits a forensic justification, it's concept of sanctification is a 'reformation' of the First Adam--the source of life God rejected at the Cross.  "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:"  Romans 8: 3.  In The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Reformed author Leonard Verduin (1897-1999) states:

We meet in Luther, to put it theologically, a very heavy emphasis on the forensic aspect of salvation and a correspondingly light emphasis on the moral aspect.  Luther was primarily interested in pardon [for sins], rather than in renewal [of life].  His theology [Reformation] was a theology that addresses itself to the problem of guilt [of sins committed], rather than to the problem of pollution [of life inherited from the first Adam].  There is an imbalance in this theology between what God does for man and what He does in man.  [Bracketed comments mine.]

Again, W. E. Best:

Adam's original uprightness was self-determined but not self-originated.  His fall however, was both self-determined and self-originated.  The doctrine of concurrence--cooperation--cannot be connected with Adam's sin or his fall.  God is the author of neither Adam's sin nor his fall.

The first existence of a virtue could not have come from man, for God is the original cause of all things.  However, God uses second causes.  Adam, the second cause, was created in a state of mutable self-determination, which allowed the possibility of his fall.  And he did fall when he went from an inclination toward God to a selfish, ego-centered inclination.  Sinful inclination is the [fallen] creature's product and activity.

Mutable Adam, unlike his immutable Creator, could and did lose his uprightness.  Adam was able to persevere in his holy self-determination, but he was able also to begin a sinful self-determination.  His self-determination was to an ultimate end and not to a choice of means to an end.

Inclination differs from volition as the end differs from the means.  Adam fell in his heart [mind] before he ate the forbidden fruit.  Eve, the weaker vessel, was deceived but Adam was not.  He was self-determined; that is, he desired to eat that he might be with his wife.  The inclination preceded his choice.  Eve also had sinned in her heart [mind] before she sinned externally.

It is not the committing of a sin that makes one a sinner.  He is already a sinner before the act is committed.  The Lord Jesus Christ identified sin as that which proceeds from the heart [mind]: "...whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:28).  The desire that precedes the volition is sin.

Eating the forbidden fruit did not originate Adam's inclination, but it did manifest it.  His will inclined to an end, and he chose the means to accomplish the end result.  The will chooses because it is already inclined.

This is the reason there is no compatibility between the social gospel and the gospel presented in the Word of God.  Those who proclaim a social gospel contend that men are not responsible for their acts of sin.  They attribute sin to environmental or social conditions, which relieves sinners of their responsibility in committing sin.  But this is nonsense.  Sin cannot be attributed to another person or thing.  Adam blamed Eve for his sin, and subtly put the blame on God Himself, who had given him Eve.  But Adam's rationalization did not alter the facts.  He had sinned responsibly.  He had gone from inclination toward God to inclination to satisfy his own evil desire.

Adam's sinful determination originated within himself.  God did not cooperate in Adam's evil self-determination.  He created Adam a free person.  Arminians [and all humanists] maintain that a man cannot act freely unless he has the ability to cancel his act.  This is not valid, however.  If a man jumps from a building to commit suicide, even though he may change his mind on the way down, he cannot return to the top of the building.  His self-determination is a free act, but he cannot reverse the act.  In this same way, once Adam sinned he could not return to his original state.  He fell-body, soul, and spirit.

The fall of man has been compared to the collapse of a dilapidated three-story building.  Man's spirit may be compared with the top story, his soul with the second story, and his body with the basement.  The first to be affected by the fall was his mind, or spirit.  His emotions were influenced, and both intellect and emotions influenced his body.  The top story fell into the second, and both fell into the basement.  The whole man was affected in the fall.  That is the reason people die physically (Rom. 5:12).  Once Adam was self-determined to turn from God and satisfy his own desires, he could not return to his original righteous state.

A volition can change a volition, but it can never change an inclination.  One choice can change another, but it cannot change the original desire.  A person may choose to commit murder, and before pulling the trigger of the gun, change his mind.  He has made a choice.  His second choice has counteracted the first, but it did not erase the evil inclination of murder that was in his heart.  The inclination can be removed [supplanted] only by God's grace.  The power of God alone can overcome and do what man cannot do for himself.

So, therefore, the potential to reverse a sinful inclination is not necessary to make a person responsible for the inclination.  The only thing necessary is that he originate it.  Adam did originate his sinful self-inclination.  He was not only the originator but was active in the origination. Before the fall, power to self-determine evil was unnecessary to Adam's self-determining holiness.

It is important to realize that Adam's understanding was unalterable, but his will was mutable.  Certain facts, such as rudiments of arithmetic, cannot be unlearned.  However, the will can be radically, totally changed.  The fall of Adam's will was a revolution, not an evolution.

Let us summarize.  In his fall, Adam did not choose between God and the creature.  Adam's sin in the garden of Eden was not committed in a state of indifference, as though God was on his right and evil desire on his left.  He was in a state of uprightness, inclined toward God, but by self-determination he turned from God to evil.  That was not a choice between the Creator and the creature.  He went from an inclination toward God to an inclination toward evil, and that was his fall.

Spontaneity in an animal is mere physical instinct, but spontaneity in a man is based on a capacity to reason and understand.  He is a rational being and does not act from mere instinct.  Inclination precedes man's act.  Something appeals to his understanding, his affections are influenced, and his will acts accordingly.  Arminians, on the other hand, assert that the will is both the determiner and the determined.  That would indicate that the will is both cause and effect.  But we have seen that the will is the last of the three ordered faculties of the soul.  It does not cause an inclination.  If the will causes understanding, we can as easily say that the tail wags the dog.  If a person has a spiritual mind and has heard spiritual things, his affections are moved toward those things, and he acts accordingly.

After the fall, Adam's will was enslaved to sin and had lost its natural liberty.  Let us state here that moral liberty is not essential to natural liberty.  A man may choose his wife, profession, home, and so forth, but he does not have the power to choose that which is spiritual.  It is not necessary for a man to have spiritual ability in order for his will to act naturally.

Man's acts of will are of two kinds: (1) Actions of the soul that are manifested in physical acts.  One decides to do something and makes movement in that direction.  Many follow an act of the soul when they walk the aisle, or stand before a church congregation asserting that they are following Jesus.  (2) Actions of soul that occur within the soul itself.  This happens when one wills to love God.  It cannot be accomplished by the natural man who hates God (Romans 3:8-18; John 3:19-21).  If a person's desire to know the Lord is genuinely motivated by the Spirit of God, he does not seek the Lord in vain (Matthew 7:7).  He who sincerely seeks the Lord gives evidence of the inworking of God's grace; we do well to remember that God does not begin anything He cannot bring to completion.

Since the fall, man by nature can do only evil.  When a person is born again, however, he has the potential to do good.  Although he is strongly inclined to good, he is still tempted and sometimes does evil.  In a state of glory this will no longer be the case and man will be inclined only toward good.

[Bracket comments mine.]  DRS

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