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,
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
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
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.
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
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
understanding [intellect], affection [emotion],
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
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
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.
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
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 (H.
neshama, cf. ruach) and the man became a
living being (H. nephesh)." After the Fall, after Adam's rebellion and
"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 the humanity now
received their animating life, 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 an 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 arise 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:
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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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