Does “Free Will” Grant a License to Sin?

By Wayne Jackson

A frustrated libertine writes:

“We are supposed to have free agency here on earth, but the God who is presented in the Old Testament destroyed people who did not keep his laws. How can it be said that we have ‘free agency’ when people are killed for living the way they choose to live?”

This question reflects a serious misunderstanding of what “free agency” is about. Over the centuries there has been great controversy — both in the secular world, and within the community of “Christendom” — as to whether or not human beings actually possess freedom of choice.

Atheism

The late Bertrand Russell, one of Britain’s prominent atheists (though at times he claimed mere agnosticism), theoretically contended that man is void of the power of free will. He wrote:

“When a man acts in ways that annoy us we wish to think him wicked, and we refuse to face the fact that his annoying behavior is a result of antecedent causes which, if you follow them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth and therefore to events for which he cannot be held responsible by any stretch of imagination” (Why I Am Not A Christian, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957, p. 40).

This explains why Russell could argue: “Outside human desires there is no moral standard” (p. 62).

Several years later, Russell’s daughter, Katharine Tait, wrote a book titled, My Father Bertrand Russell (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975). She had been tutored by her celebrated father, but could not stomach his teaching in her more mature years. In her book she raised this question: “Do we have free will?” Then, citing her father: “He said ‘no,’ writing philosophically; but he wrote ‘yes’ when his moral passions were engaged” (p. 184).

As an example, Russell felt that there should be no restraints on his promiscuous philandering, yet, at the same time, he argued that children should not be conceived of such unions (pp. 101-104)! If man has no free will, how is that admonition relevant? Consistency is a rare jewel indeed, and it becomes extinct altogether when error is being advanced.

Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney who saved teen-murderers Leopold and Loeb from the gallows, once addressed the inmates of the Cook County Jail in Chicago. He told these bank robbers, rapists, and murderers that they were not responsible for their crimes. “The people here can no more help being here than the people outside can avoid being outside.” He affirmed that the inmates were there “on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control and for which they are in no way responsible” (Arthur Weinberg, Attorney for the Damned, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957, pp. 3-4). Darrow employed this very line of defense on behalf of Leopold and Loeb.

After that trial, a New York judge, Alfred J. Talley, in a newspaper interview, responded to Darrow:

“It is not the criminals, actual or potential, that need a neuropathic hospital. It is the people who slobber over them in an effort to find excuses for their crimes.

“The demand of the hour in America, above all countries, is for jurors with conscience, judges with courage, and prisons which are neither country clubs nor health resorts . . . There are lots of sick people who concern themselves with crime, but the criminals are not among them” (Weinberg, p. 89).

Religious Error

Augustine, and then John Calvin after him, contended that humanity has become so enslaved by sin that we simply are unable to exert any real “freedom of choice” in exercising the quality of faith that manifests itself in obedience to Christ. Thus, allegedly, man is hopelessly in sin — unless he is divinely enabled (by a supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit) to act in submission to the will of God.

The necessary conclusion from this premise, of course, is that if one never believes and obeys, it must be because he was not enabled, hence logically, the responsibility would not be his, but God’s! This conclusion contradicts the scriptures in a legion of particulars (cf. John 7:17; Revelation 22:17).

Free Will Defined

Exactly what is “free will,” or “freedom of choice”? It is not the liberty to do whatever one wishes, with no accountability attached. “Free will” is simply the ability to choose between options. To make decisions between “right” and “wrong.” To choose to “do,” or “not do.” Any parent who fancies that his child has no free will, hence, opts to leave the youngster to himself, is merely providing society with one more criminal with which to deal ultimately (cf. Proverbs 29:15).

Is this the way an orderly society flourishes? How many employers operate on the basis that their employees have no ability to make decisions? Does the judicial branch of our government address the robber or the rapist with this rationale: “You are not responsible for your actions; you had no ability to choose. Go, act as you wish — with legal approbation”? Only the insane are judged in such a manner.

When God granted free will to the human family, he bestowed upon our kind something more than innate instinct (an inherited pattern of behavior); rather, he gave us a genuine gift; the power to make moral and religious choices. This is a quality no mere animal possesses.

But with “ability” comes also “responsibility.” Responsibility is what a person with choices “ought” to do, and the fact that each of us frequently does what he knows he “ought not,” or else he fails to do what he knows he “ought,” does not nullify the choosing power resident within our souls. If there is no “ability to respond,” there is no responsibility!

“Responsibility” also implies “accountability.” Will a man act responsibly if he knows there is absolutely no accountability for his actions? Ideally he should, but the reality is, he won’t — in many instances. Paul once touched upon this principle when he admonished Christians not to use their “freedom” as an occasion to indulge the flesh (Galatians 5:13; cf. 1 Peter 2:16).

Free will, then, is not a license to sin. This fact our critic has grossly misunderstood. We trust he has learned better.

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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.