oday’s Frequently Asked Theology Question is: Will there be free will in heaven? If so, is there a chance anyone in heaven will ever sin? Adam and Eve communed with God and yet sinned, so how probable is it that millions of people with free will can refrain for all eternity?
The answer to this question depends a lot on what we mean when we say ‘free will.’ In general there are two different things we can mean:
1) “I can choose whatever I want” – Libertarian Free Will
Firstly there is what we might call the libertarian free will. The idea of libertarian free will asserts that a will is free when it is unbiased and completely unbound by any causality. This will is not determined by human nature, the environment, the will of God, or even our own desires (the will is the source of desires, not vis versa). These things may exert influence on the will, but they do not ultimately determine its choices.
The will is free in this sense when it has no decisive influences skewing it one way or the other. It has ultimate self-determination. It has the capacity to do anything, good or bad, left or right, chocolate or vanilla.
It is this notion of free will that is usually at the center of debates concerning determinism, of whether free will can coexist with the sovereignty of God or whether we are truly free if God knows the future, and it is this notion of free will that Jonathan Edwards dissects in his book The Freedom of the Will.
Part of Edwards’ argument is that this notion of the free will is counter-intuitive, that it just doesn’t make sense. As he explains, this notion of the free will “rests on the supposition that out of several possible courses of action the will actually chooses one rather than another at the same time that it is perfectly indifferent – perfectly evenly balanced between them – which is just say that the mind has a preference at the same time that it has no preference.” Edwards’ point is that we cannot say that the will has no preference and also say that it chooses, because the act of choosing implies a preference. The will, then, is determined by something; it is not free in this sense.
Rather than speaking of the will being free, Edwards posits that we should speak of the agent being free. The will is not self-determining, but is determined by the acting agent, by the person, by “the willing spirit.” The question, then, is whether the spirit is free, and what determines the preferences of the spirit.
2) “For freedom Christ has set us free” – Christian Free Will.
There is then a more Augustinian/Calvinistic – and I would argue, Pauline – notion of ‘free will’ which asserts that the libertarian notion of a free will is imaginary (or at most, only ever existed in Adam & Eve). Here the will is always biased one way or the other, towards sin or towards righteousness; the will is biased because the spirit is biased.
Whether or not the will is free, in this sense, depends on what the will is biased towards. If the will is biased towards evil, then it is not free. It is a slave to sin. If the will is biased towards righteousness, then that is when it is ‘free’, free from its slavery to sin.
In the biblical model it must be said that the will always has desires, and a will that has a desire or propensity to choose evil is not free.
The freedom of the will is thus about propensity first, not capacity. Capacity comes second, in that propensity determines capacity. A will that has a propensity to good is incapable of doing evil, and vis versa.
A ‘free will’ in biblical categories is thus a will that has been set free from its slavery to sin and which is now biased towards serving God. At present our wills are only partially free, for we are still mortifying sin. Upon glorification (that is, in the new heavens and new earth) our wills will be fully free, that is, fully biased towards righteousness. In this sense it is better to talk about a “freed will” than a “free will.” The will has been freed from its bondage to sin.
Thus, contrary to the notion of the libertarian free will where the will is the source of desires, in the biblical understanding the desires are the sources of the will. It is the heart and the spirit that ultimately matter.
Our wills will be free in that they will have no desire towards sin and therefore no capability of sinning. A will that still held the capacity to sin would be a will that still held the propensity to sin, and as such it would not be free.
Thus I would follow Augustine‘s model as laid out in his Enchiridion, which is further explained by Thomas Boston in his Human Nature in its Fourfold State. Commenting on these four states of mankind Augustine states that “the first is before the law, the second is under the law, the third is under grace, and the fourth is in full and perfect peace.”
These four states are therefore: (1) before the Fall, where we were ‘able to sin and able not to sin’; (2) after the Fall, where we are ‘not able not to sin’; (3) regenerate man, where we are ‘able not to sin’; and (4) glorified man, where we are ‘unable to sin’.
The new earth is not a return to the seemingly unbiased state of Adam, but it is a state better than his, a state where we are fully free from any temptation or desire to sin and fully desirous of glorifying God. When you have been fully made new by God – ie, glorified – such that your only desire is to glorify Him, then sin will be by definition impossible.
So far as the Scriptures are concerned, it is only this freedom – the freedom of the will from sin – that has any meaningfulness when speaking of the will. John Piper puts it well when he says that “instead of speaking of the will as free or not, I prefer to speak of people as free or not, because that is the way the Bible does… Christians are free from the bondage to sin and from the oppressive demand of having to perform our own salvation.”
It is therefore not so much that there will be no opportunity to sin, but that there will be no propensity to sin and therefore a lack of capacity for sin, and it is this lack – replaced with a desire to glorify God – that will make our wills truly free.
[For a discussion of how the libertarian notion of free will might coincide with the Christian faith in the amoral sphere (ie, regarding actions that lack a moral character), check out Sovereignty and Contingency in Christianity.]