Does Free Agency Nullify Personal Responsibility?

By Wayne Jackson

“According to Christian teaching, we are supposed to have ‘free agency’ here on earth. But the God in the Old Testament destroyed people who did not keep His laws. It is not free agency when you are killed for living the way you want.”

So wrote one of our critics recently. The very manner in which the comment was framed, however, reveals that the querist does not understand the nature of the expression “free agency.” It further indicates that the gentleman would impose his own definition of “freedom” upon society for the implementation of his personal, self-centered ambitions.

Free Agency

“Free agency” is not the right to do as one wishes. Rather, it is the ability to make choices, to decide between opposites. It involves the innate opportunity to exercise one’s will to “do” or “not to do” something.

It is the opposite of such indefinable, non-existent forces as “fate,” or what the skeptic Bertrand Russell called those “resistless forces that control [man’s] outward life” (Russell, Dictionary of Mind, Matter and Morals, p. 78). “Free agency” is antagonistic to certain modern notions that one’s actions are determined irrevocably by material and/or physical forces beyond his/her control, e.g., the movements of the planets (astrology), or genetics (socio-biology).

True “freedom” stands in opposition even to certain religious ideas, e.g., Calvinism (the notion that human choices are manipulated by God so that really all decisions are divinely directed). Though Calvin occasionally used the expression “free will,” he hesitated to do so. He had formulated his own definition of “free will” and felt that an unrestrained use of the term would lead to considerable misunderstanding. He wrote:

“How few are there who, when they hear free will attributed to man, do not immediately imagine that he is the master of his mind and will in such a sense, that he can of himself incline himself either to good or evil” (Institutes, 2.2.7).

“Free agency” is a gift from God, bestowed as a part of that wonderful “package” of being created in his “image” (Gen. 1:26-27). It is an honor bestowed, allowing us the option of making responsible choices between good and evil. We do not deny that some environments may facilitate good or evil choices; nonetheless, such do not utterly negate human volition.

Free agency is taken for granted in the Bible. In the Garden of Eden the first woman, Eve, acknowledged that she had the choice either to “eat,” or “not eat,” of the fruit of that special tree in the middle of the garden (Gen. 3:2-3). Joshua, Israel’s great leader, urged his people to make proper choices as to whom they would serve (Josh. 24:15). Christ affirmed man’s “will” power (Mt. 23:37; Jn. 5:39-40; 7:17), as did likewise his apostles (Rev. 22:17).

One of the enigmas of modern religion is how a man can “will” himself to sit down and write a book arguing the case for “non-free will.”

Responsibility

“Free agency” and “personal responsibility” are not adversarial propositions, as any clear-thinking person knows. In this “land of the free” we do not say to a man, “You are at liberty to do whatever you please.” One is not permitted to live the lawless life under the guise of “freedom.” No responsible parent says to his child, “Do as you’d like; there are no rules in this household. And should you decide to break the rules, there will be no consequences.”

No employer says to his staff, “You are free to do as you will with this company. Come to work at your leisure. Confiscate property from the premises if you so choose. Do not worry; you have complete freedom, with no accountability.”

It is, therefore, a totally irrational proposition to suggest that just because God holds human beings accountable for their conduct, this somehow nullifies their freedom of choice, or vice versa.

Bible critics are some of the most uncritical thinkers on the planet.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.