This is a question that might not appear to be apologetic in nature, but you have to remember that apologetics is not only for answering unbelievers, but it’s also for answering questions that believers have. This particular question tends to come up most often in discussions with someone who has just realized that a friend of theirs is of the Calvinist/Reformed persuasion.
The assumption is that if you believe in election/predestination, then nobody has free will, we’re all just robots, and love is forced. This is a pretty bleak outlook! Thankfully, it’s not at all true. The Reformed understanding, which is consistent with the Bible, is that we are not able to choose what is contrary to our nature. So while we have complete freedom to pick Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew, which church to attend, which music to listen to, or what movie to see, we can never do things that are against our nature as humans. Naturally, this all goes back to our understanding of Scripture, the fall of man, the nature and sovereignty of God, and so on. However, I’m going to break it down following the Westminster Confession of Faith, since Chapter 9 of that confession deals with Free Will specifically.
I. God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined good, or evil.
II. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.
The first two sections are dealing particularly with man as he was created in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden. Ecclesiastes 7:29 mentions that God made man upright, originally. However, we know from Genesis, that things didn’t go so well, and so the confession continues:
III. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.
Now we get into the meat of the discussion. Ultimately, nobody really cares about whether or not you chose matching clothes or whether you were determined by God to do so.
What we really want to know, is whether or not we had freedom of will in salvation. Given what we have so far said about the will/freedom of man, the confession tells us that after the fall, man is averse to God, a rebel. His will is always against God, and spiritual good. The writers of the confession cite several passages from Scripture to support this position. Namely, Romans 5:6, 8:7, 3:10-12; Eph 2:1-5,5; Col. 2:13; John 15:5, 6:44, 65; 1 Cor. 2:14; and Tit. 3:3-5. I would also add the fact that Psalm 51:5 tells us that we are born in sin. With all that backing, we can move safely into the next point of the confession.
IV. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he does not perfectly, or only, will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.
This refers back to the definition of free will that I mentioned at the beginning. We are unable to do what is contrary to our nature. As section III pointed out, our fallen nature is unable to turn to God, and do any spiritual good. However, once the Holy Spirit changes our nature, we are then able to turn to God, and do so quite freely. However, we recognize (and the Bible affirms) that even when God saves us, we are still not perfect. Therefore, though we are freely able to do spiritual good, we do not always do that. Ultimately, the perfection of our will only comes after we reach heaven, and thus the final section concludes.
V. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only.
If you want to look into all the Scripture proofs used to back each section of the confession, feel free to click the link above or here. Have your own translation handy, as they use the KJV on that site, and that may be harder to read for some.
Finally, I want to mention briefly the idea of compatibilism. Put within the context of Christianity, this is the belief that Divine sovereignty and human freedom/will/responsibility are compatible. I believe this is the position taught in Scripture, and while I believe it is reasonable to hold this position, it can be a bit squirrely or seem unsatisfying because it answers the question “Did God will or did man will” with “yes”.
The main places I find this taught in Scripture are in the life of Joseph, and the crucifixion of Jesus, both stories that will be very familiar to you, but you may not have noticed this common aspect of them. In the case of Joseph, we know that in Genesis 37, he starts having dreams, and his brothers hate him for it (along with his position as the favorite child). They plot against him, steal his cloak, throw him in a well, and leave him for dead. Then they get a better idea, and decide to sell him to a band of slave traders, so they can make some money off the deal, and still have the advantage of telling their father that he’s dead. Here’s where it gets interesting. In Genesis 45:4-5, Joseph (already more or less running the show in Egypt, and is dealing with his family, who come for aid from the famine) tells his brothers to not be distressed or angry because they sold him into slavery because “God sent me before you to preserve life.” and in Gen. 50:20 he says that “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,”. So who did the willing, the brothers of Joseph or God? Both did.
Secondly, in Acts 4, we read about Peter and John before the Jerusalem Council. They are recounting for them why they preach that Jesus is resurrected, and in doing so they talk about His crucifixion. We know from reading the accounts of the crucifixion in the Gospels that both the people, and the religious leaders were rather united in their desire to kill Jesus, but in verses 27 & 28 of Acts 4 we read that “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” This is another clear example of God sovereignly predetermining events along with people freely willing those same events.
There are more cases like those in the Bible, but those are two of the clearest. Like I said, this isn’t exactly a simple or fun answer, but I believe it is the answer that the Bible gives us. It’s our job to wrestle with it, and the implications of it. However, I hope that this post has given you some things to chew on, and ultimately give you some ground to stand on when dealing with the difficult topics of how we think about free will and the sovereignty of God.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28