Reflections on Edwards’ “Freedom of the Will”

This is my brief (very brief) reflection on Jonathan Edwards’ “Freedom of the Will.”

The Will is the ability to choose.
Freedom is that which allows us to choose what we want or prefer.
The Freedom of the Will then is the ability to choose what we want or prefer.

As Edwards notes, we always choose according to our inclinations and affections; and our choice is always determined by the strongest motive or what seems most favorable to us. “The will is always as the greatest apparent good is.” The ‘greatest good’ is that which most agrees with one’s inclination or affection; and these affections are determined by one’s understanding. Thus, our will is necessarily submissive to our own affections and inclinations, determined by our motives.

To clarify, the will cannot be free on its own. It most be governed by a preceding cause or motive. Logically, it cannot be self-determined (this is the Arminian notion); the will must be caused by something outside of itself. It is not an autonomous faculty detached from the mind; rather it is cooperative with the mind, affections, inclinations, etc. Indeed, the will is the ability to choose, but our will does not choose; we as the agents choose.  Thus, even the phrase ‘Freedom of the Will’ has ambiguous and perplexing connotations.

The Arminian notion of freedom argues that morality and human responsibility cannot be upheld without an undetermined will – viz. the will must be undetermined to be free. The will, however, can be both free and determined; these are not mutually exclusive. A helpful distinction provided by Edwards is in ‘natural necessity’ vs. ‘moral necessity.’

‘Natural necessity’ exposes those innate limitations in nature. We cannot defy laws of nature, mathematics, or the like. Two added with two necessarily equals four. These limitations make things naturally impossible to be otherwise.

A ‘moral necessity,’ however, is that which is necessarily tied to one’s desires or wants. A drunkard is unable to triumph his vice. An evil man is unable to love his enemies. In this case, they are free to choose, but their will is determined and necessarily tied to their inclinations and affections.

An example of Edwards may help.

Regarding a ‘natural necessity:’ a man is sentenced to prison. After being incarcerated, the King tells the man that he is free to go if he bows to him and confesses his crime. He does so, and attempts to leave; but the jail cell door is still locked. He is unable to leave, despite his desire, due to the locked door. This prisoner had good inclinations, but was not free.

Regarding a ‘moral necessity:’ a man is sentenced to prison. After being incarcerated, the King tells the man that he is free to go if he bows to him and confesses his crime. The man, however, is exceedingly bitter towards the King; and he refuses to humble himself before him.  The King unlocks the door, and tells the man he is free to go under the previously stated condition; but the man would rather rob the King his due honor and remain in the jail cell. His motivation never to obey his King determines his will. This prisoner had evil inclinations, and was free.

Pertaining to salvation, those outside of Christ do not have a natural inability to choose God; rather they have a moral inability to choose God. They do not want or desire God. Romans ch. 1 makes it clear that every man is condemned because they reject God. No one seeks after God. It is not that man is ‘physically’ or ‘naturally’ unable to choose God, it is that they are not inclined or motivated to choose God. This is what is meant by ‘Total Depravity.’ In modern terms, yes, man does indeed have a free will – i.e., the ability to choose what he wants or prefers. The calvinist has no problem with asserting man’s free will. The issue is, however, that natural man does not have the motive or preference to seek after God (cf. John 3:19; 6:63; Rom. 3:11; 8:7; 1 Cor. 2:14; Gal. 4:8-9; etc.). Being that the will is governed by the motive, the will is under a moral necessity to reject God.

Thus, it naturally intimates that God must stir in man a new affection or motive to determine the man’s will to choose grace. (Since no man ‘causes’ God to do this, the grace is unconditional – i.e., Unconditional Election). God must break through the man’s resistance, and present him grace – i.e., Irresistible Grace. Being that motives are founded on understanding, God enlightens the dead man’s mind to His truth, and consequently instills the motive to motion the man’s will to God.

The freedom of the man’s will is still intact; it is simply determined to a new motive and inclination that has been given to Him by God. As stated, the Freedom of the Will pertains to whether the will has the ability to choose what he desires or prefers; and in salvation, God’s grace presents man a new affection, preference, and desire. The man no longer considers himself to be sufficient, and delights in his dependence on God.

New affections, new delights, new desires are implanted in the man’s heart. He is now in Christ, and forevermore the Spirit will guide his affections unto that day where he is ultimately glorified with the Father – i.e. Perseverance of the Saints.


2 thoughts on “Reflections on Edwards’ “Freedom of the Will”

  1. Hi. Bro Frank here. There is no evidence to suggest that men are enslaved by their motives. I understand that it is an interesting theory touted by intelligent men, but a theory never the less and a premise that has no necessity. A bad man can certainly perform an act of kindness even although it runs contrary to his nature , the act of kindness would have its genesis in his conscience which all men are born with. This alone breaks the theory of total depravity. Calvary itself is the necessary grace given to mankind whereby they can choose. Any particular man? No, the who-soever. It is Gods will that no man should be lost and that all men would come to a saving knowledge of Him. He does not require of men that which is not possible from them. He has made it possible that all men can be saved by the gracious act of Calvary. Therefore any man that chooses to bow his knee to the King is in an overarching sense, saved by Calvary and Calvary alone. Calvary brings into being the opportunity for men to be saved, therefore without Calvary salvation would not be possible. No man aided in this, this work was Gods alone, it is a finished work, this was the will of God as confirmed by Jesus in Gethsemane. Now this grace is offered as a gift to all men, the taking or rejecting of a gift has no bearing whatsoever on the gift or the giver off the gift. The recipient merely has to choose whether to accept this gift, this finished work. If he accepts this on Gods terms, who is in total charge of the whole, then he is saved by the gracious hand of God. If he rejects this, then he is condemned by his own actions. Either way, God is not responsible, nor is the author of eternal damnation, man alone is the sole author of his own damnation.

    Tozer says that the best way to understand free will is to consider a ship sailing from New York to London. New York is the genesis, London is the Revelations. A beginning and an end. The ship and the journey is the soveriegn will of God. It cannot be altered, it will arrive at its destination at a set and pre-determined time, nothing can change this. We as humanity are passangers on board the ship and we are free to move about the ship. Before that ship docks we will choose our eternal destination that comes after the voyage, and we can choose because God has created our ability to choose and has established salvation. ……………..bro Frank

    • Hello Frank,

      Thank you for reading my post on Edwards. I would encourage you to read the whole book, as I was only permitted to present his premises, and not the methodical “necessities” for such premises presented by Edwards. Edwards is a overwhelming in his presentation of Biblical support – it is one of the distinct characteristics of His works, which is why (in my opinion) he is such a great theologian.

      Let me begin by saying, I despise going back and forth via email, paragraphs after paragraphs, because I would simply love to have this conversation over a cup of coffee with you. That is simply my preference. Nevertheless, I can speak to a few things you brought up in your comment – well, for time’s sake, I can speank to the foundation of your agrument.

      “A bad man can certainly perform an act of kindness even although it runs contrary to his nature, the act of kindness would have its genesis in his conscience which all men are born with. This alone breaks the theory of total depravity.”

      I (nor Edwards) deny that a bad man can do ‘seemingly’ virtuous things (Edwards deals more exclusively with this in his work “The Nature of True Virtue”). Say, a drunkard gives $10 dollars to a homeless man. This appears to be a virtuos act, and to the homeless man, it very much may be. The crux of the argument, however, is what the drunkard’s motive in such an action was. Why did he give the man $10 dollars? The possibilities are endless, but we cannot make any conclusive claims; we cannot judge the man’s heart. Rather than going into a long and multifaceted treatise on the Bible’s view of virtue, I will simply share a few passages of Scripture that have informed my understanding of “virtue and motives.”

      1) 1 Cor. 13: 3 – Motive does determine whether an action is virtuous: “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothinng” (1 Cor. 13:3). Notice that the lack of ‘gain’ is perscribed to the giver – the poor man still receives the giver’s possesions, thus there is a ‘goodness’ in the action, but nothing for the giver to be credited with or ‘gain.’ There is a superficial virtue, and this still has a circumstantial goodness to it.

      2) Matthew 9:13 – God desires good actions with good motives: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13). We all know this and we all know Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees – no need to linger on this point.

      3) Hebrews 11:6 and Romans 14:23 – Faith is necessary: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). These verses do it for me, becuase it is the redemptive means by which dead men come to life in Christ. We are justified by faith (cf. Romans 1-4). Our salvation is by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). In order for us to be ethically pleasing to God, we must be His child. That seems to be a pretty easy deduction to make.

      4) Romans 8:5-8 – This section of scripture appears to make a lot more sense through this lens. Those who are ‘of the flesh,’ their minds are governed by the flesh and “they cannot submit to God’s law.”

      Frank, there is a lot I would like to address in you post, but I simply do not have time. I just would charge you to think through your position a little more, see where you are self-contradictory, and maybe seek God in prayer over the Scriptures. I was not convinced of Calvinistic tendencies, I was called to submit to Scripture, and my theology falls un that head. I would ask one question: why do some men choose to receive the gift, and others do not?

      All in all, if you disagree, that is fine Frank. I am simply enrouaged to have another brother in Christ who is serious enough about the gospel that he takes time to clarify it with Scripture. I hope that we can both humbly love God, glorify Him, cherish His gospel, and live holy lives for His honor – if so, I think everything will be all right. Thank you for your time.

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