Faith questions – Does a believer have free will?

Many people, especially westerners, think they have a free will. Also many believers think that. It even became the cause of fierce quarrels in Christianity, like in the Reformation. But what is it, ‘free will’? Can it go together with the obligations of faith? Mustn’t the believer completely and voluntarily submit to God and obey the hierarchies of power that God put in place? Isn’t that at least a limit to ‘free will’? What is written about it in the Bible?

By Marco van Putten

Free will stands for freedom of thought and of action of a person. However, it doesn’t mean freedom in general. Still this is often seen as one and the same. By putting the word ‘free’ before ‘will’ it is suggested that the will is totally free. Unhindered and unlimited. But that would cause many (big) problems, since whatever someone’s free will wants would ultimately only exist at the expense of someone else. Free will finds itself bound to the interaction between man and Creation. So, it can’t do without rules and arbiters. Freedom of will is thus scoped. But even the will itself is scoped. That is, through what it wants, is able and allowed. Does free will then really exist?

‘Free will’ in the Bible
This concept is not Biblical. In the Old Testament (OT) the Hebrew word ‘nefesj’ has been used in connection with it, but this word is commonly understood as ‘soul’. It represents the whole of someone’s (inner) personality. Its intentions, feelings, thoughts and also the will [1]. However, the ‘will’ is just one of the characteristics of a personality. A more to-the-point word is ma’an – meaning/purpose, that originates from the verb ‘anah – answering (to)/declare. Other relevant Hebrew words originate from the verb ‘avah – to want/agree with. These express however different aspects of the ‘will’.
In the New Testament several Greek words are translated as ‘free will’, but these also only express some aspects of it. Words like thelo – want/mean or boulomai – decide/actively pursue. This shows that in ancient times the ‘will’ was not seen as a concept on itself.

Does free will exist?
Many people want to be free to do whatever they like. This would be a guarantee for the highest happiness and self-realization. But the concept of free will emerges out of prosperity. Most people however live in a world full of (external) limitations. Some even have to deal with limitations within themselves (internal) [2]. Even when people have all the luck in the world, even then their free will requires space in physical sense, but also in other ways, like money, chances and means. That space is however always limited. Despite the fact that the world seems to offer such an enormous amount of space. Parents, the work environment and governments all impose rules and restrictions. But no man can escape the restrictions of its personality. No one can be more free then the limits of for example its body, character, self-confidence or willpower. People tend to follow habits and fixed patrons, are often lazy, fearful, overconfident or conservative. People who put emphases on free will do not want to be confronted with such limits, so they reason these away or trespass them. Is that not possible, then they become angry and can even start to use violence. Who studies these limits and finds answers to their existence will come to the realization that the concept of ‘free will’ is an illusion. Discovering that can be disturbing for some people, but for others it can be quite reassuring!

That ‘free will’ is a myth doesn’t mean however that man has no will and that it cannot be used to pursue something, like a maximum of freedom. The question however remains what freedom is. Even more important is the question whether freedom should be someone’s main striving as if there are no more pressing things. Striving for freedom always involves manipulation [3] of a society, since no one escapes being involved in it. But it always ends up in a temporary compromise. Freedom can only be gained in a very limited and relative way [4].

Freedom of believers
Some believers think that God gave them a free will and that they have to use it to strive for a maximum of freedom. They suggest that their faith and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit make it possible for them. In the Bible however the following limits, amongst others, are specified:

God’s Almighty will

Believers recognize that God exists and the He is ‘above’ mankind (Is 55:9). Thus His Will is mightier (Job 40:4 (9)). Still, they tend to want to bend God’s will to their own will.

Corrupted Creation

In de Bible it is stated that Creation came into a fallen state. Man therefore likewise. This ongoing corruption determines life. Still, many believers have a positive view of Creation and of themselves.

War against God and His people

There is an even stronger opposing force; satan who gathers up conspirers against God to join him. There is a war going on against God and His children (Rev 13:7). Still, many believers think that the almighty God has all those opposing forces in His power. Since God eventually will win the war, this fact is seen as already completely realized today [5].

God joins Himself only conditional

His conditions (of the Torah) are not so much caused [6] by the corrupted state of Creation and the existence of satan, but these aim to be instructions for man about God’s will. So, even before Adam en Eve lapsed from their faith, Torah existed. The will of God however is often conflicting, elevated and reject able to the will of a human (Gn 3:6, 12). Torah serves as a measuring stick to learn how much the will of a human needs to change. But also these conditions and His reference are put aside by many for the benefit of a more generalized understanding of God’s mercy [7].

Voluntary submission to God

God demands that a man submits to Him voluntarily by accepting Him as its Lord and King. In so doing believers become owned by God. Thus, there is freedom of choice [8], but immediately following that choice the will is put under the joke of God’s will. This justifies the punishment or the blessing of God. But even about this point some believers state that God only wants people to be free. This points to the fact that even believers are caught by the illusion of ‘free will’ and that God seemingly allows that to happen [9].

Faith confronts believers with these restrictions. Denial of these will mean hindrance to growth in faith, despite that their faith demands growth. Thus, denial is a sin [10]. This confirms that God is right when He claims that humans by nature always miss out on their target, that they are corrupt and evil and that they ruin themselves (Gn 8:21; Jh 3:19). That humans from their conception are slaves [11] of carnality, aimed to please satan and doing evil.
Faith should reveal the truth about the limits of what is desirable and change believers through it (Jh 14:15; 1 Cor 6:12). Then it would become clear that humans are incapable to know out of themselves what freedom is, even less likely what free will is. Still, humanism has become the philosophy of today’s society; man, who it puts in the center, determines the norm of Creation. This asks for an idealized view a man; the super man. The aim of Evolution theory [12]. The ‘lesser man’ must make way for the super man, so their king, the divine human (the antichrist), can reveal itself.

Predestination and election
God seems to act in a planned way [13]. Intention precedes a plan. An idea and a goal. This plan would for a large part explain why things happen according to His will. In the Bible the Greek word ‘prosthesis – intent/determine’ is used regarding God (Rm 9:11). Sometimes this word is preceded by the word ‘aioon – constantly/originally’ (Ef 3:11). That suggests that a plan was in execution, but it could also suggest that it was ‘waiting in store’ or ‘(long) before was prepared’. Also, a plan can be made up of different parts of which some await their moment to go into execution, while others are in motion or have finished. It seems that God’s plan is in execution for a long time [14] already. Question is whether there is any room to anticipate when a situation asks for it without changing the larger picture of His plan. In other words, how detailed is God’s plan?

Some regard the plan of God as ‘destiny of fate’ [15]. Believers regard it as the election mentioned in the Bible. This can take very extreme forms [16]. Some think that is impossible to escape it [17]. God is supposed to have preordained (predestined [18]) everything. Predestination or election [19] would in any case make free will impossible or irrelevant.
But does predestination, determining all God’s actions, exist? This is not so described in the Bible, since that would be an inevitable hindrance to unfeigned and sincere love. In the Bible only election is mentioned in the sense of being loved, put separate, protected and blessed [20]. Election is more a dynamic then a static given. It is the consequence of the relationship of God with the believer that is scoped by His Covenant (and its Torah) aimed at growth of faith. Election in this way is dependent on being faithful to that Covenant, but is not a willful decision made only by God in advance [21].

God directs His Eyes on (the heart of) believers who are obedient to His word and submit to Him voluntarily. Exactly that choice makes the favor, instruction and blessing of God grow [22]. He is not involved with believers who seek freedom of their own will.


[1] The ‘soul’ cannot be separated from the person and thus it is not a separate entity. Still, most people think this is so. The ‘soul’ originates in a person at birth and is not pre-existent.
[2] The mental and/or physical handicapped.
[3] Some seek to find that in hidden powers; the World of esotery and magic. But this has its own rules, limitations and price. God commanded not to get involved with that (Rm 13:12; 1 Cor 10:20).
[4] Striving for freedom is idleness.
[5] The thought that the final victory of God would have the same meaning for today is a very naïve view on the reality of God, which, without realizing it, mocks God. It also gives great risks and harm to believers.
[6] Torah is not aimed at lifting the corruption of Creation and the existence of satan. It is not able to do that (Rm 8:3). It thus however expresses it and reckons with it. Still, it has a different aim and purpose. Namely, the Messianic recovery and the appreciation of God’s will.
[7] The majority thinks wrongly that the will of God is unconditional and that (the juridical part of) the Torah stands in the way for the grace of God.
[8] But that requires first that man is ‘set free’ from bounds of the world. Thus that precedes it. No one just chooses God. Every man is by nature His enemy (Rm 5:10)
[9] This is a mistake. God judges the way humans take responsibility for themselves.
[10] Not all believers are ‘spiritual’ and reborn.
[11] Humans have from birth conception a ‘bound will’ instead of a ‘free will’.
[12] According to this theory humans originate for animals, but the animal realm is not free. An instinct is per definition a scoped and impulsive will which is not free.
[13] The plan of God is separate of His daily control over Creation.
[14] At least from the calling of Abram forward, but probable already since the birth of Sjet (Gn 4:25).
[15] Some, like the Calvinists, have made destiny of fate the basis for their doctrine.
[16] Some think everything is predetermined.
[17] Going against it is even regarded as doing sin.
[18] Predestination is part of destiny of fate. It precedes election. God is supposed to decide in advance who is elected for what.
[19] The Greek word eklektos stems from ekloge which is a word combination of ex – out (of it) and lego – calling.
[20] Election is in that case the conditional choice of God (on a certain moment). This is thus something different then predestination.
[21] Like in Calvinism, in which the Covenant is a result and expression of destiny of fate.
[22] Believers submit more and more until their whole life belongs to God.