Free Choice in Reformed Theology

The critique that in Reformed theology there is no free will is a great misunderstanding. Chapter IX of the Westminster Confession of Faith is entitled “Of Free Will”. Usually this misunderstanding is based off a different definition or lack of understanding of how free will/freedom is defined in Reformed theology. Therefore in the beginning we must define “freedom”. John Murray gives a helpful definition

Freedom is thus defined negatively and affirmatively, as the absence of compulsion and self-determination respectively.

In other words, freedom exists when the act with not from force and the person acts as they desire. This freedom is also the basis of accountability. Murray argues that a person is responsible for their actions because those actions are the outworking of the person’s will (or volition). Persons are responsible for their volitions because volitions are given energy by the person they belong to. It therefore follows that a person’s volition is an expression of who they are. It reflects their mind, their heart, their biases, and their prejudices. 

When discussing the freedom of a person we should not limit freedom only to actions and will. We ought to look behind the will and see that freedom is also applied to the heart of a person. In this post I discussed how the root of free will was the heart. We understand the condition of the heart after the Fall is corrupt. Therefore the person is depraved and this depravity is their own.

The critic would say this is not true freedom because the person is not given the opportunity to a contrary choice (choose good or bad). Yet we argue that the power of contrary choice is not the essence of free agency. It is important at this point to distinguish between “contrary choice” and “alternative choice”. Murray defines:

Contrary choice – is the ability to choose between alternatives that are morally antithetical, between good and bad regarded not relatively but absolutely in terms of God’s judgment.

Alternative choice – is the choice between alternatives that are ethically of the same character, alternatives that are both good or both bad.

In order to understand that a contrary choice is not necessary for the essence of free agency to exists consider:

1. It is false to say, “There is no situation where a person has had the power of contrary choice.” This would deny the choice made by Adam. If it were true that the power of contrary choice was never available, then it would follow that Adam needed to sin. However, that would be false because Adam was created “upright and holy”. Yet in regeneration the person has the power of contrary choice. They now have the ability to do good because of the righteousness they possess while the ability to sin is still present due to indwelling sin.

Rom 7:25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

2. It is false to say, “Fallen and unregenerate persons are without the power of alternative choice.” The unregenerate is in a state of sin. Scripture affirms they cannot do those acts that are righteous and pleasing to God. Righteous acts that would flow from an unregenerate heart are impossible.

Rom. 8:7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

It is proper to understand the unregenerate person has the power to alternative choice, for clearly there a numerous choices within their reach, though they lack power to a contrary choice.

3. The foreordination of God is not dealt with in the issue of the existence of contrary choice. Truly all acts and choices are foreordained by God, and only those foreordained acts come to pass, yet this is a separate (though important) discussion. The critic will attempt to leave the discussion of “contrary choice” to discuss foreordination but this changes the conversation. It becomes (rather by intention or not) an attempt to remove the category of “contrary choice” and force upon us a type of determinism we do not hold. It severely warps human agency and possibility particularly that foundational aspect affirmed of Adam. To remove contrary choice from Adam is a grave error and this we must maintain unequivocally. Foreordination does not remove agency, voluntary decision, or responsibility.

4. In a state of holiness or unholiness, regenerate or unregenerate the absence of the power to make a contrary choice does not interfere with free agency (as defined above). Those unregenerate persons are unable to love God and make those holy righteous acts that are pleasing to him. Yet simply because they are unable, it does not follow the person is not a free agent. When the unregenerate is depicted by Scripture as being in bondage to sin, it is in light of the fact that they are freely choosing sin. This can be understood by looking at those in heaven who are in their glorified state. In heaven the saints all have free agency. They are not offering praise to God under compulsion but freely because they are acting according to their nature. This is an important point as Murray points out the essence of free agency is “we act without compulsion according to our nature.”

Thus it is proper to understand that in Reformed theology freedom is affirmed and critical to be understood properly. The unregenerate person freely makes choices. They may not be able to make choices that are contrary but they can make alternative choices with their agency maintained.