Free Will and God’s Love


Free will is defined as: “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion” (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary). Confusion about free will often derives from a misunderstanding about God’s love. This confusion usually comes from the accusation that a God that allows mankind to suffer sin or the evils of other men is not a God that exhibits true love. Of course, the logic of such a charge makes the charge itself untrue. Allow me to explain: If there is a God, and if He did hear such an argument being voiced against Himself, if He should act against every evil, wouldn’t that mean He should obliterate every critic that speaks against Him? Of course, this does not happen (at least not on a normal basis) due to the fact that God loves His critics enough to allow them the free will to disagree with Him. Thus, man’s free will is derived from God’s grace and His love.

God’s “grace” is often said to be “unmerited favor.” This definition is not entirely correct, for grace, though unmerited, is more about the influence God extends to man, and how that influence is exhibited through man by being reflecting back to God. Such opportunity to display God’s grace is purely given on the basis of God’s love. Thus, God’s grace is not about God extending an opportunity for man to do whatever they want, but rather it is an opportunity for men and women to choose to do as they ought. Paul speaks of this opportunity here: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Notice grace (opportunity) leads to salvation that is reflected through one’s faith (faithfulness) to God (See Habakkuk 2:4John 3:36Romans 1:17Galatians 2:16Galatians 3:11-12Hebrews 10:381 John 5:10-12). Some men take advantage of this gift and choose God and His salvation. Others do not and instead choose a path that leads to destruction. The Bible does promise that God causes His “sun to rise on the evil and on the good,” and that He “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). But only those who are made “good” and “just” through Jesus Christ enjoy the fruit that grows from a relationship with God. That fruit is available to any who chose to allow it to grow (see Galatians 5:22-25).

Unless a person can see how free will is based on love, they will never understand its purpose. The question that commonly accompanies a discussion of free will asks why God allows men and women to fall into sin, and also why He allows people – especially “good” people – to experience suffering and loss.

A Jewish Midrash I heard somewhat puts that into perspective. The story speaks of a dad that was carrying his son on his shoulders through a busy marketplace. As they walked the son kept squirming and pointing to this table and that table, all the while complaining that he wanted down. After a time of this the father walked to an area of the market where he carefully lifted his son off his shoulders to place him near a merchant’s table. Once down, the boy approached the nearest table where, unbeknownst to him, a dog was tied. As the son came near the dog charged at him, growling and showing his teeth. The shortness of the rope was the only thing that kept the dog from reaching the son. The boy screamed in terror and turned to seek the protection of his father’s shoulders. To his dismay, his father was nowhere to be found. He then began searching and frantically calling out to his father for help. Again, the father was nowhere in sight. What the boy did not know is that his father was actually standing very close by. He had positioned himself in the crowd far enough where his son could not see him, but close enough so he could see all that transpired with his son. The son did not know it, but his father purposely sat him down at that specific merchant’s table because he knew that dog would act exactly as it did. He also knew where to safely place the boy so the shortness of the dog’s rope would keep him from serious harm. Once the father knew his son had sufficiently learned his lesson, he reappeared. The son saw his father and ran quickly into his arms. The father lovingly lifted the son again to his shoulders where the boy happily—and contently—stayed.

I hope you can see how the above Midrash applies to free will and the questions above. The father’s idea of a day at the marketplace differed greatly from his son’s. The son’s lust for more caused him to see his father’s shoulders to be more like a prison than a place of safety. Because the father loved his son, he allowed his son to pursue his own self-will instead of the will he had for his son. Because of the father’s wisdom, he knew what was best for his son; the father also knew that unless he allowed his son the chance to pursue his own will, the son’s feelings about being imprisoned would be correct. Such wisdom led the father to place a test before the son. This test’s purpose was to lead the self-willed son into a more perfect way. Hence, it was for the son’s need rather than for the father’s, and it came from the depths of the father’s love for his son. Once the son was placed where he wanted to be, this lesson began to take place. The son acted as the father had hoped, and, in the end, ran to the very thing he needed most – his father. This lesson caused the son to mature to where he viewed his father differently, which meant he now correctly saw his father’s shoulders as a place of safety, not imprisonment.

After suffering many things, the apostle Paul came to see distress as a necessary thing in his walk with God.

2 Corinthians 12:6-10 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. (7) And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. (8) For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. (9) And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (10) Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

Paul sounds like he learned the same lesson that the son did in the earlier Jewish Midrash. They both came to realize that their tests ultimately led them to turn to God’s will. The Bible teaches that we can learn much from a child (Matthew 11:25Matthew 18:4Matthew 21:16). Instinctively, children see a parent’s clearly defined boundaries as love. They may not always react as such when their parents tell them to do this or that, but without parental restrictions, children will show signs of suffering emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

One study I heard about tested the effects set boundaries had on children. In this study, the researchers wanted to see how children reacted to the fenced boundaries of a daycare’s playground. They first watched to see how the children played within their fenced area. What they found is the children happily played within the defined area of their playground. Then one night the researchers took that daycare’s fence down to see how the children would react. When they went out to play, the children quickly realized the fence boundary was missing. To the observers’ amazement, with the fence now missing, the children huddled in small groups and acted confused, agitated, and frightened. The researchers had expected the children to go wandering off to explore their newfound freedom. Instead, the loss of their set boundary caused them to lose the freedom they normally enjoyed. Then the researchers reinstalled the fence. Once the set boundaries were again clearly defined, the children returned to freely playing as normal. Similarly, to live within the set boundaries that God has established in His Word does lead to a sense of peace and safety. However, unlike the daycare’s fence, God’s boundaries are only there if a man or woman chooses to live within them. It is their choice. So, for a “loving God” to force control over all of mankind so that they would never hurt each other, steal from each other, discriminate against each other, kill each other, lie to each other, or do whatever evil men do to one another would require God to first remove man’s free will so they could never stray from His will. This would thereby remove humanity’s right to make their own choices, thus taking away many of the life experiences that God uses to mature His people into the image of Christ. Thus, God allowing men and women the right to choose to stray from the confines of His will is in itself an act of God’s love.

Biblical love is not founded on emotion or passion, but is instead established on commitment. Such commitment is like that which is found in the wedding vows of a husband and wife. The covenant they enter into is not to be kept for as long as they feel the same toward each other. Rather, the man and the woman agree to be committed to one another for better or worse, no matter their financial status, their health status, or whatever else may come their way until death. Love being based on commitment is the reason why there really is no such thing as love at first sight. People can experience attraction at first sight, but not until they make a commitment to one another can they truly say they share love. So, since it requires mutual commitment, no human can be forced to love another human. Similarly, God cannot force men and women to love Him either. I am sure you’d agree that forced love is in no way a position based on mutual commitment. Consequently, God cannot accept praise and adoration coming from people who are stripped of their free will since worship without commitment is a lie. God is not a liar. He also cannot tempt anyone to do evil. Thus, God allows mankind to have free will so they can choose their way of life, which God ultimately hopes will lead them to being committed to Him. This is why biblical salvation is based on the work of Jesus Christ and is manifested in a believer’s commitment to obey God’s word.

The faith that every Born Again believer is to exhibit is very similar to biblical grace. In today’s “churchianity,” many get their “faith” from what they “feel.” It basically goes like this: their Feelings produce their FAITH, which then becomes their FACTS! This is not the correct formula from which a believer is to derive biblical faith. They are not to follow feelings but to follow the Word of God! To achieve biblical faith one must use the proper formula, which is: Facts (God’s Word) produces Faith (not in selfish opinion or man-inspired traditions, but in Jesus’ Word) and that produces Feelings (the expectancy that comes from confidence in God). We see Paul teaching this formula in the next verse:

Romans 10:17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

So, faith in God’s Word produces a man’s faithfulness, which then leads to their commitment, which then produces feelings and emotions. A good example of this is found in the following passage:

1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

So, from this promise (FACTS), I know that I can trust Jesus to forgive me of my sins after I confess my sins (FAITH). This fact frees me of condemnation and brings me joy (FEELINGS). This type faithfulness is why upon hearing that a person “must be Born Again” of the “water and of the Spirit” (see John 3:3John 3:5), believers act upon that by being baptized in Jesus’ name and by receiving the Holy Ghost (see Acts 2:37-41). After being “Born Again” most people report feeling jubilation and freedom. Thus, God’s Word led them to faithfulness, which then led them to feelings. Free will plays a significant role in making these things happen.

So, concerning the issue of free will, why does God allow people to sin and do “bad things”? Jesus told a parable about a farmer who wanted to cut away the tares that were growing beside his wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). The farmer had planted only wheat, but afterward an enemy came and sowed tares. Normally, weeding a garden is a good thing, but tares look so similar to wheat that even the most experienced farmer could easily cut wheat down with the weeds. Jesus said in this parable that He wanted the wheat and the tares to grow together until the harvest was complete. Once this time arrived the tares and wheat would look differently and that distinction would allow the reaper to better separate the weeds from the wheat. So, we see how this works with plants, but how about with people? Free will can, and sadly does, lead some folks to make some pretty evil choices. However, I can also give you both biblical and firsthand examples of how men and women who made such choices were later changed and received a new life in Jesus Christ that included new – and better – choices. These individuals then had a testimony of how God intervened in their bad choices, thus allowing them to begin a new life in Christ. The Bible says:

2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

This means that the liar, the thief, the adulterer, the fornicator, the witch, the murderer, the blasphemer, and all other types of sinners can find forgiveness and eternal salvation if they turn from their wickedness and turn to Jesus and His salvation. Once they choose Jesus, they can be changed into a “new creature.” This newness makes them a new babe in Christ. However, they are then called to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). In other words, they are to pursue spiritual maturity that reflects the image of the one from whom they were fashioned, i.e. the image of God, which is Jesus Christ (see Genesis 1:27John 14:9Colossians 1:13-15). Such change is a direct result of the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ (see Romans 1:16), and it is only available to those men and women who forfeit following their own will in preference to following the will of God…hence, the power of free will.


Copyright © 2009 TK Burk. All Rights Reserved.