Arguing a Free Will Theodicy from Scripture?

tizian-the-fall-of-manA theodicy is a defense or justification of God in light of the large amount of evil in our world. One of the most popular theodicies today is a free will theodicy. God gives humanity free will so that a genuine relationship can occur. The problem with free will is that is not only makes relationships possible but it also makes evil possible. In light of this, God is responsible for the fact of free will but he is not responsible for the abusive acts of free will. Humanity with their sinful desires is the culprit for much of the evil within the world. This theodicy argues that it is better to have a world where free will exists than a world where free will doesn’t exist. A theodicy does not necessarily have to be biblical but it helps for Christians to have biblical support in defending God. Does the free will argument have biblical support? Let’s see.

Two passages that I think have some sort of loose bearing on a free will theodicy would be Romans 5:12 and Deut. 30:15-20. Within the fifth chapter of Romans, the apostle builds an elaborate contrast between two covenant heads—the one of Adam and the one of Jesus Christ. The results of each important man’s obedience or lack thereof have epochal significance for the human race. Just as the disobedience of Adam brought sin and death upon all, so the obedience of Christ brings righteousness and life to all who benefit from it. In Romans 5, Paul writes that, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Does Paul merely mean people die because Adam sinned or is death more than the physical cessation of life? Douglas Moo writes:

But what does Paul mean by death here? He may refer to physical death only, since “death” in vs. 14 seems to have this meaning. But the passage goes on to contrast death with eternal life (vs. 21). Moreover, in vv. 16 and 18 Paul uses “condemnation” in the same way that he uses death here. These points suggest that Paul may refer to spiritual death: the estrangement from God that is the result of sin and that, if not healed through Christ, will lead to eternal death…Paul may focus on physical death as the evidence, the outward manifestation of this total death, or, better, he may simply have in mind this death in both its physical and spiritual aspects.[1]

Because of the actions of Adam in the Garden, death with all its physical and spiritual effects has spoiled and marred every part of the human family. This is directly connected with the action of Adam within the Garden in ages past (Gen. 3).

Good vs. EvilHow does Adam’s sin relate to our sinning? Is it merely an example that we follow? Are we using our free will and following in the muddy footsteps of our progenitor? Paul writes that death spread to all men because “all sinned.” What does this mean? Thomas Schreiner argues that “as a result of Adam’s sin death entered the world and engulfed all people; all people enter the world alienated from God and spiritually dead by virtue of Adam’s sin. By virtue of entering the world in the state of death (i.e., separated from God), all human beings sin…The personal sin of human beings is explained by the sway death holds over us.”[2] We sin because we are sinners. It would seem that the logic of the verse is that Adam’s sin affected all of humanity in the sense that his sin served to taint and spoil those who subsequently follow after him. His sin is the fountainhead of our own sinning.

rgtgHow this sin occurred is beyond the bounds of man’s finite mind but that sin entered the world through the decision of Adam is undeniable. Even staunchly Reformed writers have historically agreed that Adam’s free decision brought the deathly reign of sin into the world. Writing in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin notes:

…the Lord had declared that “everything that he had made . . . was exceedingly good” [Gen. 1:31]. Whence, then comes this wickedness to man, that he should fall away from his God? Lest we should think it comes from creation, God had put His stamp of approval on what had come forth from himself. By his own evil intention, then, man corrupted the pure nature he had received from the Lord; and by his fall drew all his posterity with him into destruction. Accordingly, we should contemplate the evident cause of condemnation in the corrupt nature of humanity-which is closer to us-rather than seek a hidden and utterly incomprehensible cause in God’s predestination.[3

For the Reformer, the fall of man is primarily blamed on the will of man. If God’s predestining work is behind it, it remains elusive and mysterious to sinners such as us. Even Luther remarks that, “…free-will led us into original sin, and brought death upon us: afterwards, upon sin followed not only death, but all manner of mischiefs, as we daily find in the world, murder, lying, deceiving, stealing, and other evils, so that no man is safe the twinkling of an eye, in body or goods, but always stands in danger.”[4] The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 9:2 says, “Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which is good and well-pleasing to God; but yet mutably, so that he might fall from it.” God permitted the free exercise of Adam and Eve which brought about sin’s destructive effects within the world.

bible_0_0Another verse that is relevant for the discussion of a possible free will theodicy is Deut. 30:15-20. Within that passage, the writer beckons the Israelites to choose to wholeheartedly follow Yahweh in a single-minded fashion. He says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” The author believes the Israelites ought to make meaningful decisions or exercises of their will to rely and hold fast to their covenant-keeping God. The Israelites were obligated to keep the commandments of God found within the covenant. Doing so would bring about the blessings of God and failing to do so would bring about the curses found within the book. Our decisions are not illusory or meaningless. They indeed matter and have the ability to honor and please God.

All that being said, I am hesitant to truly and honestly “argue” from the Bible for a free will theodicy. I believe that Adam and Eve’s sin brought about the death and sin we see around us. The human condition is owing to the cancer that is original sin. That is a biblical idea. But I frequently hear people appeal to the free will of man to try to apologetically explain the great suffering of the world around us. Apologists argue that “God is responsible for the fact of free will but not the acts of free will.” The free will we are said to possess is the libertarian kind which is supposedly incompatible with the foreordination of God. My problem is that Scripture never makes or builds a free will theodicy in that sense. John Frame argues against this type of free will highlighting the following issues:

Scripture does teach man is, or can be, free in certain senses. (1) He does what he wants to do, acting in accordance with his desires, whether they are holy or wicked. (2) Adam had the freedom or ability to choose either good or evil. The Fall removed this freedom or ability from us, for fallen creatures can do only what is evil (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Isa. 64:6; Rom. 3:10). But redemption restores this freedom to those who believe (2 Cor. 5:17). (3) Redemption brings us to an even higher freedom, a freedom from sin and its effects altogether (John 8:32). (4) We are free in the sense that we are not helpless victims of historical determinism. Scripture does not allow us to plead deficiencies in heredity, environment, psychological balance, self-esteem, and so on, as excuses for violating God’s commandments.[5]

Blame for evil rests exclusively on creatures when evil events occur (Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23, 4:27) yet Scripture does not teach that man’s free choices are not in any way foreordained or caused by God.[6] D.A. Carson opts for an appreciation of both the sovereignty and responsibility texts because they exist side by side in the same pericopes.[7]

gfbfSome might argue that the Deuteronomy 30:19 passage implies a libertarian model of freedom. This idea should be rejected though for the injunctions to choose Yahweh, and the tests which God administers to men and nations, are not given to evoke metaphysical definitions concerning the nature and limitations of human freedom, but to command committed assent and obedience.[8] The author did not intend for those passages to function like that. Furthermore, there does not seem to be this idea that our choices are somehow undetermined, uninfluenced, or unaffected by our state/heart within the Bible. Our actions would be coerced and therefore not free if someone held a gun to our heard (freedom from the gun) or biologically changed our neurological makeup to influence how we make decisions (freedom from the machine).[9] Yet, we do not have the freedom to transcend our own seat of choosing/willing (the heart). It also is important to appreciate that even the “choose life” passage is preceded by God’s work of circumcising the hearts of the Israelites “so that [they] may love him with all [their] heart and will all [their] soul, and live. (Deut. 30:6)” A reformation of the heart must occur for the ability to obey is actualized. Thaddeus J. Williams argues in his book Love, Freedom, and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will? that actions God commands humans to do are always fulfilled or accomplished through the help of divine assistance.[10] God gives what he commands. Because of that and other considerations, I rarely invoke a free will theodicy.


[1]Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1996), 230.

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1998), 275-276.

[3] John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1989), 233.

[4] Martin Luther and William Hazlitt, The Table Talk of Martin Luther. (London, UK.: Bohn, 1857), 119.

[5] John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction. (Phillipsburg, NJ.: P&R Pub., 1994), 160.

[6] Frame lists the following verses where God’s sovereignty extends to specifically evil choices: Prov. 16:9; Luke 24:45; John 6:44, 65; Acts 2:47, 11:18, 13:48, 16:14; Rom. 8:28, 9, Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29.

[7] D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension. (Atlanta, GA.: John Knox Press, 1981.), 8.

[8] Ibid., 23.

[9] This idea is from Thaddeus J. Williams, Love, Freedom and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will?(Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011.), 37-42.

[10] Williams, 131-158.

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