Free Will and Moral Responsibility

by John M. Frame

There are two theories of free will that are often discussed in relation to ethical responsibility. The first is usually called “libertarianism,” and it is typical of Arminian theology. Many philosophers have also argued for it, from Epicurus in ancient times to C. A. Campbell, H. D. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga and many others recently. Indeed, it seems to be something of a consensus among Christian philosophers today that one cannot do justice to moral responsibility without presupposing a libertarian view of freedom.

The libertarian view states that some human decisions and actions, particularly moral and religious decisions, are strictly uncaused. In the most sophisticated forms of libertarianism, these decisions are not even caused by our desires or character. They are very insistent on this: a truly free act is not an act which carries out our strongest desire; it rather, typically, goes against our strongest desire. The libertarian is aware, of course, that our desires are largely a function of our heredity, environment, past decisions and so on. If free decisions are based on desires, he thinks, they are not fully free. They are not in this case wholly uncaused.

The libertarian argues that such a view is essential to moral responsibility. For no one is responsible for an act unless he “could have done otherwise.” If I am strapped to a robotic machine which, using my arms, robs a bank, I am not to blame for robbing the bank. I “could not have done otherwise.” Such is the libertarian argument.

I have always felt that this position lacked cogency. For one thing, it denies the rule of God’s sovereignty over the hearts and decisions of human beings, a rule which I find abundantly attested in Scripture (see my lectures on the Doctrine of God). Indeed, in saying that human actions can be “uncaused,” it attributes to man ultimate causality; but in Christianity, only God is the first cause.

For another thing, libertarianism seems to me to be unintelligible on its own terms, for it makes our moral choices accidental. R. E. Hobart, in a famous article from the 1930s, wrote to the effect that on the libertarian basis, a moral choice is like my feet popping out of my bed without my desiring them to, and carrying me where I don’t want to go. The attempt to separate decisions from desires is psychologically perverse.

Further, libertarianism, rather than guaranteeing moral responsibility, actually destroys it. How can we be held responsible for decisions, if those decisions are “psychological accidents,” unconnected with any of our desires? Indeed, such a situation would, precisely, negate all responsibility. Certainly it is difficult to imagine being held responsible for something we really didn’t want to do.

And libertarianism would make a hash of ethical and legal evaluation. In order to prove that someone was responsible for a decision or act, we would have to prove that decision or act was uncaused! And how can you prove a negative like that? In fact, as we actually practice ethics and law, causation as such is never a factor in judgment, and indeed it could not be. Certain kinds of causation (like the robot machine I described above) do remove responsibility; but causation itself does not.

An alternative concept of freedom, one consistent with Reformed theology and held by a number of philosophers (the Stoics, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Hobart, Richard Double et al) is often called “compatibilism,” for on that basis, free will and determinism (the view that all events in creation are caused) are compatible. Compatibilism maintains simply that in making moral decisions we are free to do what we want to do, to follow our desires. As such, compatibilism is the precise opposite of libertarianism, which holds that freedom requires independence from desire itself.

Reformed theology recognizes that all people have freedom in the compatibilist sense. Adam before the Fall acted according to his desires, which then were godly. After the fall, sinners still act according to their desires, but those desires are sinful. The redeemed are enabled by God’s grace, and progressively, to desire things which are excellent; and they are free to act according to those desires. The glorified saints in heaven will have only pure desires, and they will act in accordance with those.

I believe that compatibilist freedom is the main kind of freedom necessary to moral responsibility. There are other kinds of freedom, however, which are also important theologically and ethically. For example, I believe that human beings have a certain freedom to transcend their heredity and environment, so that although these factors may constitute moral challenges, tests, even temptations, we may not use them as excuses for sin. We may not claim to be “determined” by heredity or environment so that we deny our responsibility before God.

Another important kind of freedom is freedom from sin itself. That is the usual meaning of “freedom” in Scripture, as in John 8:3236. In this sense, fallen man is in bondage, not able to avoid sinning. Only the grace of Christ can set him free. In this sense, sinful decisions are not free decisions, although they are free in the “compatibilist” sense. Does this bondage compromise the sinner’s moral responsibility? Certainly not according to Scripture.

If we have difficulty here, it may be because we fail to understand the nature of the sinner’s bondage. It is a moral and spiritual bondage, not a metaphysical, physical or psychological bondage. If, as in my robot-machine illustration, someone is physically forced to do something he doesn’t want to do, then of course his bondage removes his responsibility for the act. Confronted with his “deed,” the person would have a valid excuse: ”I couldn’t help it; I was physically forced to do it.” But imagine someone coming before a human judge and saying, to excuse himself of a crime, “I couldn’t help it, your honor; I was forced to do it by my nature. Since birth I’ve just been a rotten guy!” Surely there is something ironic about appealing to depravity to excuse depraved acts! If our defendant really is a “rotten guy,” then, far from being an excuse, that is all the more reason to lock him up! My point, then, is that although physical (and some other kinds of) bondage can furnish valid excuses for otherwise bad actions, moral bondage is not such an excuse. I can’t imagine anyone disputing that proposition once they understand it.

So there are several different concepts of freedom: libertarianism, compatibilism, moral transcendence of environment, freedom from sin. Indeed, there are many others, too. We speak of “freedom” whenever there is an ability to overcome some potential obstacle. Economic freedom is the ability to purchase and invest, despite the difficulties of achieving it. Physical freedom of various sorts exists when the body is not restrained, e.g., by ropes or prison bars. Legal freedom is the ability to do something without being guilty of a crime, and so on. It is a good idea for us to remember how ambiguous the term ”freedom” is. When someone makes an issue of it, we may legitimately ask that person to define what concept of freedom he has in mind.

And we ourselves should try harder to be clear. When you preach evangelistically, noting the proper Calvinist and biblical emphasis on the sinner’s inability, how do you present that? Simply to say that the sinner “cannot” receive Christ is misleading. In many senses he can, and should: he is physically and mentally able; he is not forced to remain a sinner contrary to his desires; nor is he “unable” in the sense that we have some knowledge that divine grace will forever be denied. The sinner’s inability is moral and spiritual; indeed, as we have seen, it is an inability for which he is himself responsible.

Simply to say “you cannot receive Christ” is to motivate a passive response at best, one which simply waits for God to do something. But that is not the response required by New Testament preaching, or by Reformed preaching at its best. The response required is “repent, believe and be baptized.” The sinner is to act, not to wait for God to make him act. Of course if he does act, then we know that God has acted too!

Another area of confusion: I don’t know how many times I have asked candidates for licensure and ordination whether we are free from God’s decree, and they have replied “No, because we are fallen.” That is to confuse libertarianism (freedom from God’s decree, ability to act without cause) with freedom from sin. In the former case, the fall is entirely irrelevant. Neither before nor after the fall did Adam have freedom in the libertarian sense. But freedom from sin is something different. Adam had that before the fall, but lost it as a result of the fall.


Free Will and Moral Responsibility


Baffled by this so-called “New Revelation”



A few mornings ago, as I sat down at my kitchen table with my coffee and the Bible, I paused myself and asked this question, “What is this new revelation or fresh revelation that I hear people talk about? What does it mean exactly?”  As I pondered this question I remembered being a part of a church in which this was the norm.  For instance, I would hear people say, “Did you hear pastor so and so?  He is teaching a new revelation!” So this is the result of my pondering.
First, what is revelation? Revelation, according to the Bible, is God communicating Himself and His plan to man. There are two types of revelation: Special and General. General revelation applies to the knowledge of God that comes from looking at nature and the universe. We can see God’s handiwork in the universe and thus know that it was created by design. Where there is design there must be a Designer and thus we see that “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Psa. 19:1) The order and design of the universe prove they were created by someone with the power to do so.

Romans 1:18-25, states that all men can see God’s handiwork and further that God reveals Himself through nature and therefore all men are with without excuse as to the knowledge of this existence of God the Creator.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen”

     (Rom. 1:18-25).

              Special revelation is God speaking directly to man, and that revelation being written under the “inspiration” of God, the Holy Spirit. (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:21) Special revelation is God’s specific information and instructions to man. The sixty six books that comprise our Bible is special revelation from God. It tells us about God, His working with man throughout history, his past and future plans and, most of all, His plan of redemption which He has unfolded through the centuries in the coming of the Redeemer Jesus Christ. From the Bible we learn how the earth and universe came into being, who were the first man and woman, how sin came into the world, of Satan’s destructive work, of what is sin, of God’s plan for the Savior, of the history and purpose of God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel, of Christ’s coming, His life and atoning death, of the being of the institution of the local church, of its history and purpose and of the future events ending in a new heavens and earth.

The question is did God stop giving special revelation and if so when? Biblical Christians believe that God completed the progress of revelation with the writing of the Book of Revelation. They conclude that in the sixty six Books of the Bible, God has said everything to man He desired to say and God’s revelation to man was completed by 95 A.D. when the Apostle John finished the Book of Revelation.

              Further the Biblical Christian believes that although God is not speaking or giving new revelation today He is illuminating His written and preserved Word for believers. Illuminating means that God is giving understanding of the principles of the Bible and these principles are totally sufficient to guide men in all matters of life and in any decisions that believers need to make. Thus there is no need of further revelation because the Bible as 2 Tim. 3:16 says, is “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” In other words the Bible is complete and adequate and reveals to us all God wants us to know.  It is vital to understand that because we have the written revelation of God, the Bible, we do not need current revelation. The revelation God has given is totally adequate to instruct us in the things of God today. Not having God giving modern revelation in no way means we are lacking anything from God. The Bible as will be seen is absolute and complete and covers any subject or circumstance a man might encounter addressing matters directly or through guiding principles.

The Canonization of the Bible Speaks Against God Giving New Revelation.

              One of the strongest evidences against God giving new revelation today is that the Bible was canonized by the early churches. The completeness of the Scriptures was recognized by the early Christians in the sixty six Books of the Old and New Testament. All other “supposed” scripture has been universally rejected as being the Word God.

              The word “canon” is a derivative of the Greek word, “kanon” and the Hebrew word, “kaneh” and refers to a “reed” or measuring rod or ruler. It is used in Christianity to mean a measuring the authenticity of Word of God, the Bible. The process of determining the “canon” of Scripture was the process of ascertaining which books that men purported to be God’s revelation that were indeed God’s revelation.

              Many books that are not found in the canon of Scripture (the 66 Books of the Old and New Testament) were alleged to have come from God. Of such books were the Apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books and the so-called “lost books.” The process of canonization was the procedure by which the churches discovered by examination which books were indeed given by inspiration of God and which were counterfeit. It must be understood that it was not the churches or church councils that by decree declared which books it thought were authentic, but Christians discovered what books God had given by inspiration through the process of careful and scholarly examining of the text of each of these works. For example, books which contained inaccurate historical or cultural statements were rejected as being inspired because if God inspired the writing there would be no such errors. Additionally, doctrinal errors or contradictory statements found in the books precluded its being accepted as inspired of God. The books such as the Apocryphal books were found to have not be written by the authors that bore the books names. These books contained gross doctrinal errors, contradictions, inaccurate historical and culture material and were all written long after the period in which they claimed they were authored and thus were summary rejected as being the Word of God.

              There are several standards that a book must have to be concerned as inspired of God and thus included in the canon. These standards are based on the very nature of God Himself in that He could not lie and thus anything written under the inspiration of God would not be contradictory or errors. The rules used to examine a supposed book of the Bible was as follows:

      1. The Book must be written by a prophet or one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. No books written after the last Apostles died are included in the canon. The criteria for determining a true prophet is found in Deut. 18:20-22, and 13:1-3.
        (1) He must claim to speak what God has revealed to him. 

        (2) The true Old Testament prophet of God must predict the future and it come to past exactly as prophesied. 

        (3) His message must be in accord or harmony with the reveled word and will of God. If the message contradicts other Scripture, even if accompanied with miracles, he is to be rejected. 

        (4) His message must be true and he must lead people toward God, not away from Him.
      In regard to the New Testament, a writer of Scripture must be an Apostle, being a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, or one who worked closely with Jesus or an Apostle such as James, Mark and Luke.

2. It must be authoritative, meaning must claim to be revelation from God such as “thus saith the Lord.” The book must show evidence of being inspired by the Holy Spirit.

3. It must be authentic, meaning written by the person who claimed to the author.

4. It must be widely or universally recognized and accepted as the Word of God. The early Christians accepted certain books as Scripture without question. They had first hand knowledge of their authenticity, were often taught by the Apostles and attested to the genuineness of certain books.

5. It had life-transforming power. The Word of God when believed will without exception transform the life of the believer. That transformation will be super natural in nature and be directed toward living by the principles found in the God’s Word.

6. The book must give evidence of inspiration. In simple terms is what it says in agreement with the other books of the Bible. In other words is the book written in the analogy of the faith. If within the book where are found contradictions or inconsistencies with other parts of God’s Word then it was rejected because God is the God of order and truth and cannot contradict Himself. The book must be accurate.

              Most Bible scholars believe that the canon of the New Testament was complete by 100 A.D. That means that those who had first hand knowledge and were eye witnesses were those who recognized the canon of the twenty seven books of the New Testament. It was 200 years later that the twenty seven books of the New Testament were recognized by all as the canon. The main reason was that during that time new books written after 100 A.D appeared and were being offered as Scripture, but in the end the early recognition of the twenty seven books was confirmed and the spurious books were rejected.

              Can modern “scriptures” compare with the Bible? The Koran, the Book of Mormon, and a host of other so called “scriptures” have been presented as being later revelation from God. However, when these books are subjected to the even the simplest of tests they are found to be instead the product of man’s imaginations, philosophy and false wisdom. None of the other false scriptures even come close to presenting God as does God Himself in His inspired Word. It is the text of each of these false “scriptures” that show them to be erroneous and this was the basis by with they were rejected.

              For example, Joseph Smith, the founder and author of the Mormon scriptures (Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price), presents God as being an exalted man, who lived on some planet out in the universe, who earned the right to godhood by being faithful and doing good works. This is completely counter to everything that the Bible says about the person, nature and character of God. Further, there are irreconcilable contradictions between Mormon scriptures, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price which clearly establishes its human authorship. God does not contradict Himself as the LDS Standard Works do. For example the Book of Mormon states that God created the heavens and the earth, yet they teach that he was born a man on some planet out in the universe that already existed and that he has a mother and father who had a mother and father and so on back in time. Yet, how then could their god be the creator of the universe in which he was born into and only after a human life was exalted to becoming a god? The contradiction in their Scriptures shows its blatant error which give proof of its human authorship. The LDS Scriptures do not compare to the Bible on any level and are proven to be historically, culturally and doctrinally to be in gross error with known history, archaeology, and science, therefore it is shown not be from God. In contrast the Bible is proven to be historically, culturally and doctrinally accurate in its statements proving it to be the Word of God.

              None of the “later” so-called scriptures can meet even one of the standards on which the canon of the Bible was established. This is an extremely powerful argument that God is not giving new revelation today.

The Statements Against Adding or Taking Away from the Bible Speaks Against God Giving New Revelation.

      Another strong reason for rejecting that modern day revelation is from God is taken from His very Word, the Bible.  Note the following Bible passages that warn about adding or taking away from the Scriptures:

Deut. 4:2,  “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.”

Deut. 12:32, “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.”

Prov. 30:6, ” Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” 

 Rev. 22:18-19, “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and [from] the things which are written in this book.”

              When the canon of Scripture from God was complete God had said all He needed to say to man. This was true throughout the process of revelation. When Moses finished the Pentateuch under the inspiration of God there was no need of further revelation at that time. They had the Law and God’s instruction to live their lives by. As time went on God through the other prophets revealed more and more truth about Himself and His plan for the World.

              This process of revelation continued until the whole of God’s plan was completely revealed with the completion of the Book of Revelation. Some would try to limit the warning of not adding or taking away from the Scriptures to just that of the Book of Revelation. However, its place as the last Book of the Bible and its revealing of what was past, present and future makes this limitation implausible (Rev. 1:19). God not only revealed the truth of John’s day in the Book of Revelation, but in 18 of its 22 Chapters reveals what the future will hold until the end of this age and to eternity future.

The Completeness of the Bible Speaks Against God Giving New Revelation.

              Another evidence for the completion of God’s revelation is that the Bible is totally sufficient for all man’s needs today. There is no need of any further revelation from God.  2 Timothy 3:16-17 emphatically attest to the completeness and all sufficiency the scriptures. There is not one situation where man needs direction from God that cannot be found in the revealed principles of the Bible. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
IV. The Source of Modern Revelation speaks against it being from God.

              Another evidence against accepting modern day revelation is the source of such purported revelation. In every case the man, group or denomination that supports accepting new revelation is in gross doctrinal error or a cult. It is a fact that every cult such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or false religion such as Islam are based on modern supposed revelation. No true Bible believing individuals or churches are offering any new revelation, but are diligently and faithfully preaching what God has revealed in His preserved Word which is the sixty six books of the Bible. One unmistakable and recognizable trait of a false preacher or church is its acceptance of modern day revelation. In every case the new revelation leads men away from God’s truth and thus into doctrinal error and away from God.

              If new revelation is not from God then where does it come from? Clearly it comes from delusions of deceived men and false prophets, but ultimately and clearly modern revelation does have a supernatural origin. However, the subtle and gross doctrinal errors of modern revelation is proof positive that its origin is the father of lies, Lucifer himself. Those who follow and purport modern revelation all claim they speak for God, but in truth will not be following God, but serving the Devil all the while claiming to lead me to God. In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus warned for these false teachers saying “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

             Deuteronomy 32:16-17, records how Israel rebelled against God and worshiped false gods. Verse 17, God says their offerings were sacrificed to devils and not to God. False revelation is false religion and false religion is of the Devil. Paul in the New Testament also plainly states this truth in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21, says, “But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.”

              Thus for these reasons all true Bible believing individuals and churches unequivocally reject that God is giving to men new revelation today.