Historical discussion has made “free will” a systematically ambiguous phrase. It is used to mean:

1. Free agency, that is, ability to make and execute one’s own decisions, thus incurring accountability for what one does. All Western philosophies and theologies assert free will in this sense, except behaviorism that sees mental and volitional acts as by–products of physical processes. The assertion means we are not robots, nor are we programmed by some other mind, as computers or persons under hypnotism are, nor are our actions mere conditioned reflexes like those of Pavlov’s dogs. But we are moral agents expressing our authentic selves in our conduct.

The will is here conceived psychologically and dispositionally, as the directedness of human nature whereby preferences, resolutions, and impulses come to be acted out. Free agency is entailed by the scriptural insistence that humans are answerable to God, the judge of all.

2. Ability to trust, obey, and worship God, that is, power to respond to God heartily and happily in service that shows a loving desire for God’s company and a purpose of exalting and honoring God. Reformed theology, following Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, unanimously denies the existence of free will in this sense in any except the regenerate, in whom this capacity is partly restored now and will be perfected and confirmed in heaven. Augustine first schemed out the fourfold state of humans as freedom in Eden to sin (Lat. posse peceare), no freedom in our fallenness not to sin (non posse non peccare), partial freedom in the present life of grace not to sin (posse non peccare), and full bestowal in the future life of glory of inability to sin (non posse peccare)—which for Augustine meant perfect freedom from all that is truly evil for all that is truly good. In English–speaking Reformed theology of the past four centuries’ idiom, the denial of free will to the unregenerate is correlative to the assertion of total inability to merit, due to total depravity (total not in degree, as if all are as bad as they could be; but in extent, meaning that all human activity is morally and spiritually flawed at some point, so none are as good as they should be). This in turn is correlative to assertions that sin has dominion over fallen humanity, that original sin is the universal human condition, and that monergistic regeneration through sovereign grace is the necessary and sole source of such faith, repentance, and godliness as emerge under the Word.

Against this, Pelagianism ancient and modern holds that free will in the defined sense remains intact in all humanity despite the fall, and semi–Pelagianism sees it as diminished but not destroyed. Semi–Pelagianism, viewing humanity as essentially good though weak through sin rather than essentially bad but restrained by common grace, appears substantively, if not under that name, in Arminian and liberal Protestantism; in Eastern Orthodoxy, which follows the free will teaching of the Greek Fathers; and in pre– and post–Tridentine Roman Catholicism, which sees human merit as decisive for salvation.

The conception of Free will throughout this debate is narrower than in the “free agency” (no. 1 above) view. Free will here means, quite precisely, being able to do what appears good, wise, right, and pleasing to God, out of a heart that rejoices in it just because it has these qualities.

3. Metaphysical (ontological) indeterminism, that is, the state of not being fully controlled by one’s insights (i.e., one’s understanding of what is best to do), nor by one’s character, nor (some would add) by God. Free will here signifies power to act irrationally and at random, which is certainly a fact of life: it is sometimes dignified with the name of liberty of indifference or the power of contrary choice.

Does this fact, which makes everyone’s future acts unpredictable to a degree so far as humans are concerned, imply that God’s predetermining foreknowledge of each person’s future behavior is in any respect incomplete, so what is done is not always God’s will? A spectrum of semi–Pelagian positions, from classical Arminianism with its concept of God’s selflimitation to process theology with its doctrine of the finitude and relative impotence of God, say yes; Reformed theology, with the Bible, asserts that no future event is unknown or indeterminate to God and that contrary views err by conceiving God in humanity’s image. There seems to be no need to buttress this scriptural position by claiming that the will (i.e., the agent) is always moved by the strongest motivational drive operative at that moment, as Edwards did. This claim seems to deny the reality of random action, which is implausible.


Augustine, Enchiridion; and On Grace and Free Will; D. and R. Basinger, eds., Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom (1986); Calvin, Inst 2.1–4; J. Edwards, Freedom of the Will, in Works, vol. 1 (1957); M. Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. 1. Packer and O. R. Johnston (1967).

Donald K. McKim and David F. Wright, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.; Edinburgh: Westminster/John Knox Press; Saint Andrew Press, 1992), 143.

© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.