For quite some time, I have been perplexed by the concept of free will. It started early in my walk with Christ, but I’m happy to report it is starting to clear up. My first thought on the matter was, If God is omniscient, He already knows what choices I am going to make. Does that make my fate determined? If God already knows the end it seems as though we’re living out the manuscript. Well, that blew the old canoodle, and it took me a while to recover. For a while, I settled for the de facto free will stance—that I made the choice to trust Jesus of my own free will and secured my salvation. This is a widely accepted view, but I have come to understand that it is incorrect.
Today, we tend to flippantly use terms and phrases, and many times we have only a vague concept of what the word means as a result. But if we bothered to examine its definition, we would realize just how we’ve misused it…or that it isn’t even a word at all! The phrase that comes to mind is “I could care less.” People misuse this one all the time to express how much they don’t care, but the correct phrase is actually “I couldn’t care less.” The former means “I care and it is possible I could care less than I do” while the latter properly expresses what a person is trying to say—“I couldn’t possibly care any less than I do right now.” Still confused? Consult the handy infographic below!
I have come to realize that the term “free will” is one of those terms. Some folks refer to it as their “chooser.” First of all, let’s deal with the primary argument used to naysay the non-existence of free will. Typically, Calvinists and Arminians clash on this subject, but the term itself is misunderstood, probably due to decades of improper use. People who argue for the existence of free will often say of the opposition, “If man doesn’t have free will, then man has no control over his own actions and cannot be held responsible by God for them since he never had the free will to do anything but what was pre-ordained.” I completely agree with the objection, but the problem is the misunderstanding of what the will actually is. This leads to a mischaracterization of the stance against free will, resulting in a straw man argument, a logical fallacy.
I was watching a documentary called Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead the other day. When one of the men being featured in it spoke of dieting, he mentioned something that stuck in my mind. He said, “I don’t have the willpower.” Hmmm, let’s unpack that a bit. What is he actually saying here? Most of us have used that phrase, and I do believe it is at the core of our misunderstanding of free will. What we are expressing with this simple sentence is that we know in our minds that we need to diet but lack the desire to do so. Because our mind and desire are at odds with one another, we give in to the stronger of the two—in this case the desire to eat a yummy, clog-your-arteries cheeseburger draped in bacon and doused with barbeque sauce that’s paired with a huge helping of fries and a diet soda to wash it all down with. (The cola is pointless of course, but it makes us feel not so wretched about our dietary discretion…or lack thereof.)
Notice there are two other key players here: the desire and mind. (Granted, there are other underlying forces such as motive and nature, but for now let’s keep it simple.) Desire says one thing, the mind says another, and the result is a lack of willpower, or lack of will. When we say “will,” we actually mean “willpower” but leave off the “power” because it is understood. Think of it this way, when you see a child running around a playground screaming like a banshee, you tell your friend, “Wow, that kid is hyper.” You leave off the word “active” (hyperactive) because it is understood. The man in the dietary documentary could have just as easily said, “I don’t have the will to do it,” and his assertion would have meant the same thing.
The will is a power, or faculty, of the mind. What if we change the circumstances? Imagine something you really desired and made up your mind to obtain. What was the result? Oftentimes, you succeeded because your will (power) was strong. The desire and mind were in concert with one another resulting in a strong will (power). What if the desire is strong, but the mind is tougher? Then the mind wins, but the will (power) is vastly weakened by the conflict and becomes susceptible to temptation.
So the will is the power of the mind to control actions and thoughts, hence the term “willpower” But we’ve grown accustomed to dropping the second part of the term due to assumptive language, and as a result, our understanding of the term has been altered.
Well, does that mean we are not free? Certainly we are. But the mind is free, not the will. Freedom can belong to an agent, but not a faculty. To use the term “free will” is like saying your hands and feet are free when we all know they are completely controlled by the brain. We can freely think both in concrete and abstract terms. We can imagine, dream, problem solve, plot, and scheme, but that is not done by the will. These acts, as well as the act of decision making, are all functions of the mind, not the will. Once the mind is made up, the will follows; the mind wields the will in order to fully realize the decision it has made.
For further in-depth study of this topic, I highly recommend the works of great thinkers like Sir Francis Bacon and John Locke, especially the latter’s masterpiece, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.”
Luke 8:5-15 5 “The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. 7 Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. 8 Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
9 His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant. 10 And He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.
11 “Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. 12 Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. 14 The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. 15 But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.
I am a great many things. Some might use the phrase ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ to describe me. I grew up on a farm that my family still owns to this day. I am a Systems Administrator by trade, but I’m also a farmer, a plumber, a musician, a beekeeper, and I know enough about mechanics, HVAC, electrical, and general construction that I don’t need to worry about calling someone out to service my home.
With that being said I would like to offer some insight into this parable as a farmer. There aren’t many farmers around today so some folks might just gloss over this parable without truly considering it. I think there is an important part left out of this parable – and that is soil preparation. As a farmer and hunter I have planted a few things in my day, but one thing I have learned is that soil preparation is key when you are planting seeds. The soil here is synonymous with the heart – it must be properly prepared to receive the seed of faith that is Christ Jesus so that it may yield up a fruit-bearing regenerated spirit. Try witnessing to an atheist and see how that goes if you want to understand what hard heartedness is.
So we see that the heart is hard like soil in a fallow field – it is only good for growing weeds. If we sow seeds in a fallow field they may sprout, but they’ll immediately be choked out by the competing weeds. This is certainly not good. You have wasted valuable time in sowing seeds and money in the purchase of the seeds. How do we remedy this? By preparing the soil first and here’s how.
When we speak of the things of God this is often met with resentment by the unbeliever which is a symptom of heard heartedness. We must break through and soften the heart (soil) by using apologetics (plow) as a way to soften the heart. Christianity is the only religion that makes sense of the entire world, universe, and our place in it and it is logically defendable. We must be able to defend and reason our faith to anyone at any time – this is the responsibility of the follower of Christ.
I read somewhere that the average number of times a person gets witnessed to before they become saved is eight. That’s a bit odd to me because in order to convert a fallow field into a fruitful one it can take eight or more trips to make it usable for production.
Step #1 – Treat the field with a fire. Just like confronting the defenses of an unbeliever this step removes unwanted vegetation growing in the field, or heart. This step may take several applications.
Jeremiah 23:29 ““Is not My word like fire?” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer which shatters a rock?”
Step #2 – Once the vegetation has died off plow up the field. Using the word of God we tell them who God is. This chisels away at the hard heart and soil, breaking up the rocks and turning over the soil. This also aerates the soil and produces new growth.
Step #3 – Apply the fire again. Why? Because those previous weeds have had a long time to produce seeds in that field and there is now a seed bank where all those seeds have settled. You’ve broken the soil up and disturbed the seed bank which causes the dormant seeds to germinate. We need to deal with those, too.
Proverbs 26:11 “Like a dog that returns to its vomit Is a fool who repeats his folly.”
Step #4 – Now we apply fertilizer (knowledge) which adds nutrients to the soil needed for growth and lime removes the harsh acidity from the soil so the seeds can absorb the nutrients efficiently.
Luke 13:8 “And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer;…”
Step #5 – Time for the lime (love of Christ – understand that I draw this comparison based on the agricultural purpose of lime instead of Biblical context). This sweetens the soil by neutralizing the pH level. Acidic soils germinate more weeds and most desirable plants cannot tolerate harsh soil; applying lime helps to inhibit new weed growth and germination. It also allows the plants to more readily absorb the nutrients of the fertilizer contained in the soil.
Step #6 – Now we plow again. This mixes in the new nutrients and lime into the soil so that it is spread evenly and effectively throughout the soil. This will almost completely ensure that wherever the seed falls it will have a chance to germinate.
Step #7 – Now we plant. The seed of faith is the Word of God. Plant it firmly into the heart and soil of the unbeliever. Cover it with a light dragging of the soil. Seeds buried too deeply don’t germinate. Seeds left lying on the surface are eaten by birds. When you cover them with just a little soil and then pack it down gently you have given that seed every chance possible for germination. Seeds require good contact with the soil which is why the drag and roller are needed to cover and bed them down.
Step #8 – Water! Prayer and the Holy Spirit will handle this part. You have done everything you can – it is up to God to do the rest.
James 5:18 “Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.”
When the seed receives proper watering it opens up and yields new life. Because you have thoroughly prepared the soil you have increased the chances of a successful germination. In all likelihood that plant will grow and thrive and turn into an awesome fruit-bearing plant that will give you and God great joy.
You may not be the person to apply all these steps. It is not uncommon for eight or more people to participate independently of each other in this process. So if you do participate be sure to do your portion correctly and make it so the next believer doesn’t have to correct anything you did before he can proceed. Sometimes God does the preparation for us and sometimes He asks us to do it. No matter the point in the process where the unbeliever is always be ready to step in and pick up where the last brother in Christ left off. remember one thing, though, and that is that none of this work is done properly without the Holy Spirit guiding the way.