What Part of “Free Will” is Free?
The contemporary concept of freedom pertains to the capacity to objectively decide on a single, particular course of action, out of a numerous array of possible actions. Freedom is the ability to do whatever one pleases without limitation, having recognized and understood all possible actions and inevitable consequences. To an extent, however, this freedom does not exist. All human action is influenced by feeling and emotion, subjective experience and influence, particular worldviews and value systems, and all human action is held in tension with laws, societal customs and norms, common etiquette, etc. We cannot simply do whatever we please if it is forbidden by law, or previous experience tells us it results in negative consequences. Of course, we can do this, but reason compels us to do otherwise.
But if feelings and experience influence our reasoning capacity – a wholistic view of the human, as opposed to Hellenistic division between psyche and soma – doctrines of sin and anthropology, and inevitably soteriology, are affected. It’s clearly biblical that at our core, humans are sinful and in fact hostile toward God (Rom. 5; Eph. 2). James tells us that what is at our core will come out in our actions and speech (James 2). In other words, our innermost emotions influence our cognitive processes. What we think to be reasonable is determined by what we have learned. What we think is reasonable, therefore, is determined by sin; we are all slaves to sin (Rom. 6; John 8). Hence, humanity cannot be anything other than hostile toward God, thus we do not – we cannot – have the freedom of will to turn toward God.
The debate between Erasmus and Luther reflect similar perspectives, but I have difficulty with both. Luther’s perspective leads inexorably, despite Forde’s objections otherwise, to a deterministic perspective of God’s divine will. Luther makes a distinction between the will over those things that are below us, such as time and money, etc. and that which is above us, such as God and the life he offers. The former is under our free control, the latter is not. For Luther, we, as humans, literally do not have the strength to break our bondage, for we are prisoners of sin and of Satan. We are justified, not by our own merit, for we have none, but through God’s gift of righteousness. Furthermore, we are justified, not on our ability to trust God, for we cannot, but on God’s calling and creating within us the capacity to respond.
It is that last little part of Luther’s argument that bothers me tremendously. He argues that we are slaves either to Satan or to God, and it is entirely up to God to decide which, for even Satan is under God’s control. You cannot deny it: Luther’s God elects some for salvation, and elects others for damnation. This I believe is a serious problem. John 3.16 says God loves the world and 1 John 2.2 says Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Luther’s absolute rejection of free will leads him to an abhorrent God. And he defends this position as an attribute of God’s love by essentially arguing we should ignorantly put our heads in the sand; God’s hidden purposes are not to be questioned, and we cannot know these purposes until the end of time. This to me seems to be a copout. Barth argued vehemently against this dualistic nature of God; there is no hidden purpose to God, for God is revealed fully in Christ. The picture we have of Christ is one of love, whose teachings underscore the universal scope of his activity (not a limited atonement theory).
Either none of us are elect, or all of us are elect. Either we are all permanently bound to reject God, or we all have an opportunity to respond to God’s gift of righteousness. Our will, clouded by darkness, will always shrink away from the light. Like gazing into the sun, our eyes adjusting to the brightness, we can uncomfortably allow the light of the Son to overcome us until it is no longer uncomfortable, or we can turn away, retreating back into the darkness that we for so long have found so comfortable.
Forde, G. O., The Capitvation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 47-59.
Packer, James I., “Luther Against Erasmus” Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. 37 no. 4 (1966), 207-221.
Rupp, E. G., “The Erasmian Enigma” in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation (Library of Christian Classics Vol. XVII; London: SCM, 1969), 1-28.
 Forde recounts part of Luther’s argument, arguing that we cannot accept God’s predestination and election, for as humans our inability prevents us – we are bound to say no to God, (Gerhard O. Forde, The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005). 50).
 Forde, The Captivation of the Will. 47-59.
 James I. Packer, “Luther Against Erasmus” Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. 37 no. 4 (1966), 207-221.
 NB: I use that term cautiously, for Luther was an incredible man and an excellent theologian.