Libertarian free will – What is it?

Essentially, libertarian free will holds that people are individually independent to make decisions autonomously—not controlled by any outside force but rather fully self-governed. Each person has choices and is free to make whatever choice they want to make.

Those who believe in libertarian free will say that people cannot be held to accountability for choices they make unless they are free to make those choices themselves without any outside influence. In any given situation, people can choose option A, not option A, option B, not option B, and on and on, they believe. Presented with the same situation again, a person could choose a different option.

The opposite of libertarian free will is determinism. Determinism holds that our choices are not really choices at all, but that our actions are determined beforehand by some outside source—often referred to as God. In this view, rather than having autonomy, humans are automatons programmed to respond to any given situation in a particular way.

Neither libertarian free will or determinism is biblically accurate.

As to libertarian free will, it denies the truth of God's sovereignty. The Bible says that everything that is belongs to God and was created by God for Him (Psalm 24:1; Colossians 1:16). Romans 9 uses the analogy of the potter and the clay: God is the Creator and is sovereign over all He has created.

Proverbs 16:9 says, "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps." This suggests that people are not fully autonomous, but are controlled by God. The Bible is replete with passages that say God's plans will not be thwarted (for example, Psalm 135:6; Proverbs 16:4; Isaiah 46:9–10; James 4:15; Revelation 4:11).

Yet this does not mean that God is some kind of cosmic puppet master. There are ample passages giving us reason to believe that humans are responsible for our actions and are not mere robots in God's divine plan. Hard determinism is just as unbiblical as libertarian free will.

A more biblical approach is known as compatibilism or soft determinism. In this view, each person has the free will to make real choices and will be subject to the judgment of God who allows such free will, but within some boundaries. The creature is free within the confines the Creator has set.

In embracing the compatibilist view, we must be careful to avoid a couple errors. First, we must not intimate that God chose this creation out of an infinite number of options because in this world free creatures would accomplish His will (middle knowledge). Second is the error of thinking God manipulates situations so that people are boxed in to choose only the options that line up with His will.

We must remember that the Bible tells us humans had free will before the fall—they could obey or disobey God. Now, however, that will is flawed and each person's ability to please God is corrupted by sin to the point that none can obey God without God's help. We are described as "dead" spiritually (Ephesians 2:1) and as beholden to sin (Romans 6:17).

In a way we do not fully understand, God's sovereignty works together with each person's will to accomplish God's desires (Psalm 33:11; Ephesians 1:11).

Can we believe in God's sovereignty, in His ability to accomplish His will, and at the same time believe in each person's ability to choose God or reject Him? We think the answer is "yes." The Bible shows us that each person is accountable for rejecting God and that God is in control of all of His creation. These ideas seem to be incompatible, but we must remember that ideas we cannot fathom or even harmonize are possible, even probable, for God.


Related Truth:

Is God sovereign or do we have free will?

Does humanity truly have free will?

Can man live without God?

What was the effect of the fall on humanity? How did the fall affect our world?

Is God omnipotent? What does it mean to be omnipotent?


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