I'm referring to this article: What Is Free Will?, which is a transcript of a sermon by Reformed Theologian R.C. Sproul (a video recording of the sermon is available in the same article). I highly recommend reading the article (or watching the video) before posting an answer.

The article contains the following sections:

  • Spontaneous Choice
  • No Moral Significance
  • A Rational Impossibility
  • The Mind Choosing
  • The Strongest Desire
  • Your Money or Your Life
  • “What I Want, I Do Not Do”
  • Free and Determined
  • Sinners Want to Sin
  • In Bondage to Sin

Notice that Sproul doesn't exactly use the term "libertarian free will", but he argues against what he calls "Spontaneous Choice", which for all practical purposes appears to be equivalent to the libertarian understanding of free will.

Question: How do Christians who believe in libertarian free will respond to R.C. Sproul's critique in the article "What Is Free Will?"?

Related questions

Appendix - Quotes from the article

Below relevant quotes from the article (emphasis mine):

If God predestines people to salvation, then what about free will? Doesn't the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination override human free will? What about choice? Considering the doctrine of divine election in this message, Dr. Sproul discusses some of the fundamentally wrong assumptions people have when they think of free will.

I want to direct our attention to an examination of what we mean by the words free will. What does it mean to have a free will? What does it mean to be a free moral agent, a volitional creature under the sovereignty of God?

First of all, let me say that there are different views of what free will comprises that are bandied about in our culture. I think it’s important that we recognize these various views.

Spontaneous Choice

The first view is what I’m going to call the “humanist” view of free will, which I would say is the most widely prevalent view of human freedom that we find in our culture. I’m sad to say that, in my opinion, it’s the most widely held view within the church as well as outside the church.

In this scheme, free will is defined as our ability to make choices spontaneously. That is, the choices we make are in no wise conditioned or determined by any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Let me say that again: this view says that we make our choices spontaneously. Nothing previous to the choice determines the choice—no prejudice, prior disposition, or prior inclination—the choice comes literally on its own as a spontaneous action by the person.

I see at the outset two serious problems that we face as Christians with this definition of free will. The first is a theological, moral problem and the second is a rational problem. I should really say that there are three problems because the whole lecture will focus on the third one, but, at the outset, we immediately see two problems.

No Moral Significance

The first is, as I said, a theological, moral problem. If our choices are made purely spontaneously, without any prior inclination or disposition, then in a sense we’re saying that there is no reason for the choice. There is no motive for the choice; it just happens spontaneously.

If that is the way our choices operate, then we immediately face this problem: how could such an action have any moral significance at all? This is because one of the things the Bible is concerned about in the choices we make is not only what we choose, but also what our intention is in the making of that choice.

We recall, for example, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. When he has this reunion with his brothers many years later, and they repent of that former sin, what does Joseph say to his brothers? When he accepts them and forgives them, he says, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). God made a choice in the matter. God had chosen, at least, to allow this to happen and to befall Joseph. His brothers made a choice about what to do with Joseph. Their inclination in the making of that choice was wicked. God also made a choice in allowing it to take place, but God’s intention in this activity was altogether righteous and holy.

So God, in considering a good deed, not only examines the outward deed itself (the action), but He also considers the inner motivation (the intent behind the deed). But if there are no inner motivations, if there is no real intentionality (to use the philosophical term), then how could the action be of any moral significance? It just happens.

A Rational Impossibility

Even deeper than that problem, the humanist view immediately faces the question of whether or not such a choice could actually be made. That is, the question is not simply whether it would be moral if it were made, but whether a creature without any prior disposition, inclination, bent, or reason could even make a choice.

Let’s look at this by way of a couple of examples. What is attractive about the idea that I have no prior inclination or disposition is that my will would be neutral. It is inclined neither to the left nor to the right. It is neither inclined toward righteousness nor toward evil but is simply neutral. There is no previous bent or inclination to it.

I think of the story of Alice in Wonderland when Alice, in her travels, comes to the fork in the road, and she can’t decide whether to take the left fork or the right fork. She looks up, and there is the Cheshire Cat in the tree, grinning at her. She asks of the Cheshire Cat, “Which road should I take?” And the Cheshire Cat replies by saying: “That depends. Where are you going?” Alice says, “I don’t know.” Then what does he say? “Then I guess it doesn’t matter.”

If you have no intent, no plan, no desire to get anywhere, what difference does it make whether you take the left or the right? In that situation, we look at it and think, “Alice now has two choices: she can go to the left, or she can go to the right.” But really she has four choices: she can go to the left, she can go to the right, she can turn and go back where she came from, or she can stand there and do nothing until she perishes from her inactivity, which is also a choice.

So, she has four choices, and the question we’re going to ask is: Why would she make any of those four choices? If she has no reason or inclination behind the choice, if her will is utterly neutral, what would happen to her? If there is no reason to prefer the left to the right, nor to prefer standing there to going back, what choice would she make? She wouldn’t make a choice. She would be paralyzed.

The problem we have with the humanist notion of freedom is the old problem of the rabbit out of the hat, but without a hat and without a magician. It is something coming out of nothing, an effect without a cause. A spontaneous choice, in other words, is a rational impossibility. It would have to be an effect without a cause.

I would add that, from a biblical perspective, man in his fallenness is not seen as being in a state of neutrality with respect to the things of God. He does have a prejudice. He does have a bias. He does have an inclination, and his inclination is toward wickedness and away from the things of God. I just say that in passing as we look at various Christian views of the freedom of the will.

  • My prejudices and beliefs have a great effect on how I exercise my God-given free will. Nothing I choose to do is spontaneous.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented May 20, 2022 at 19:17

6 Answers 6


The first view is what I’m going to call the “humanist” view of free will, which I would say is the most widely prevalent view of human freedom that we find in our culture. I’m sad to say that, in my opinion, it’s the most widely held view within the church as well as outside the church.

In this scheme, free will is defined as our ability to make choices spontaneously. That is, the choices we make are in no wise conditioned or determined by any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Let me say that again: this view says that we make our choices spontaneously. Nothing previous to the choice determines the choice—no prejudice, prior disposition, or prior inclination—the choice comes literally on its own as a spontaneous action by the person.

Does anyone actually believe this definition of free will? Like literally anybody at all? He asserts, with no evidence provided, that this absurd strawman is "the most widely prevalent view" but I'm not aware of anyone who holds to it.

Sproul seems to be claiming that if choices are not deterministic then they must be purely random, effects without causes, which reads as a ridiculous strawman based on the fallacy of the excluded middle. I don't think anyone denies that past experiences create "prejudice, disposition or inclination" that influences choices. (If they didn't, everything we know about human psychology would be worthless.)

The idea of free will is not that past experiences do not play a part in determining choices, but rather that their influence is not absolute, that a person can choose to be something other than what an outside observer looking at the variables would predict.

The response from those who believe in free will to a question like this is to observe that a false premise invalidates everything built upon it, and dismiss the argument in its entirety.

  • 2
    This is precisely what I thought. Free will is not spontaneity. Free will is just "having the ability to have done otherwise". In any circumstance where rational humans are involved, we have the ability to do any number of things, whether that be physical or mental choice. Also, we do know that spontaneity exists when we examine quantum particles who move with no deterministic procedure. So yea it's a bad foundation.
    – Luke Hill
    Commented May 20, 2022 at 17:41
  • 3
    It's not a straw man. The critical word is 'determine'. No previous anything determines a choice; there is at least one truly free volitional element (see: immanent causation). This is at least a fairly common academic characterisation of free will / metaphysical libertarianism; I encountered it as teaching in a secular philosophy class before I ever saw it in any Christian source. I'm not a Calvinist, fyi. Commented May 21, 2022 at 3:19
  • 2
    I'd say RC Sproul is technically correct. If we really have libertarian free will, then it much be the case that some part of the choice is completely spontaneous. If not, then everything about the choice can be completely determined by what came before.
    – yters
    Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 2:18

As someone who holds to libertarian free will, I can immediately spot that what Sproul describes in "Spontaneous Choice" is not, in fact, libertarian free will, but goes beyond the accepted definition. Libertarian free will only states that our choices are not determined by anything external, or our own predispositions. They are certainly conditioned, or influenced. If I really like ice cream, hate avocado, and am presented with a choice between the two, my immediate pick of the ice cream is by no means random or spontaneous. Some people hold to a false dichotomy between determinism and total randomness, without allowing for non-deterministic influences.

His incorrect starting premise flows on into his other arguments, with the emphasis being placed on spontaneity which advocates of LFW do not hold to. I would agree that such a view of free will would be problematic and wouldn't make sense when contrasted with what we see in the world around us.

TL;DR - Christians who believe in libertarian free will would not need to offer much response to Sproul's critique, as his critique is based on an alternate (and rarely held) view of free will and focuses on an aspect that LFW does not share.

  • Interesting answer, although it would be helpful if I you included an explanation of what you mean by "total randomness" and "non-deterministic influence". For example, would you consider a Normal Distribution (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_distribution) as an instance of "total randomness" or as an instance of "non-deterministic influence"?
    – user50422
    Commented May 15, 2022 at 20:52
  • By the way, speaking of probabilities, I think you may find the probability aspect of this related question of interest: How do Christians who believe in libertarian free will explain the large imbalance in the ratio of people saved vs. condemned?
    – user50422
    Commented May 15, 2022 at 20:58
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator by total randomness I mean what Sproul describes: "the choice comes literally on its own as a spontaneous action by the person.". By nondeterministic influence, I mean my liking of ice cream and dislike of avocado; such a liking influences me to choose the ice cream, but doesn't compel me to deterministically - I am still able to choose the avocado Commented May 15, 2022 at 21:35
  • I don't think bringing probability into discussion about libertarian free will is helpful or even makes sense most of the time Commented May 15, 2022 at 21:38
  • 1
    @SpiritRealmInvestigator It's not a complicated concept - if an elastic band is exerting a small backwards force, I am still able to walk forwards. If I like ice-cream, I am still able to not eat ice cream. A normal distribution is not an instance of anything I've discussed - it's comparing apples to French bulldogs. We choose not to do the things we are are influenced to do all the time, for example any time a Christian (or non-Christian) resists temptation Commented May 15, 2022 at 22:26

Sproul's argument is what I will loosely refer to as a "false trichotomy". When presented formally, it looks like this:

  • Let A = No free will
  • Let B = What Sproul calls "humanist free will"
  • Let C = Sproul's view on free will, based on his theology of the Fall

P1: A v B v C

P2: ~A

P3: ~B

C: therefore C

I reject the conclusion because I reject Premise 1--Sproul has presented 3 possibilities as if there are only 3 possibilities. On this matter I disagree. I will review A, B, & C, and offer another option.


Option A - No Free Will

Sproul expends little effort on responding to this view, probably because he knows his audience does not believe it. I will respond to the most popular "scientific" argument against free will.

Informal presentation: atoms do not have free will, and people are made of atoms, therefore people have no free will.

When presented informally, this argument looks compelling. The trouble is, it is not a valid argument; to show the conclusion deductively one more premise is needed. The trouble is, when the 3rd premise is added and the argument is presented formally, it falls apart faster than political promises the day after election day.

Formal presentation:

P1: Atoms have no free will

P2: Humans are made of atoms

P3: Things made of atoms do not possess characteristics that atoms do not possess

C: Therefore, humans have no free will.

(parallel arguments can be made replacing "atoms" with other materials)

This argument is self-refuting. I take no issue with premises 1 & 2, but if premises 1 & 2 are true, premise 3 is demonstrably false. We can show this by plugging other statements into premise 1--this deductive argument is a simple engine for negating human possession whatever is given as the direct object in premise 1.

Atoms also have no consciousness and no memory. If we plug either of them into premise 1, the very same argument used above will conclude that humans have no consciousness and humans have no memory.

Aside from the obvious difficulty that we think we do have these things, there is a far more fundamental problem here. We may think we remember learning that in 1905 Einstein used Brownian motion to demonstrate that atoms exist...but if memory is an illusion, we don't really remember that. And in fact, even if Einstein had worked out such an argument, he wouldn't have remembered it in order to record it for future readers. If we toss memory out the door, we toss out everything we think we know about science along with it, including premises 1 & 2 of the original argument.

The conclusion of the argument negates two of its own premises--this means the argument is not sound. Therefore, at least one of the premises is false. As noted above, I suggest premises 1 & 2 are pretty secure statements. I reject premise 3 as self-refuting.

Fundamental to the discipline of philosophy is the view that we are rational in believing our perceptions in the absence of a defeater. We perceive that we have free will, and there is no good defeater (one was discussed above, happy to discuss other failed candidates elsewhere). Thus, we are rational in believing we have free will. This stands in opposition to Option A.


Option B - "Humanist" Free Will

I am quite comfortable with the belief that outside forces can influence our decisions without determining our decisions. This happens all the time when people agonize over conflicting advice and ultimately reject some of it. This stands in opposition to Option B.

Although I think this definition of free will could be further sub-divided into additional, non-identical theories of free will, I do not see any compelling reason to accept or defend "humanist free will". While I think Sproul has over-simplified the topic, for sake of argument I'll grant ~B.


Option C - Sproulian Free Will

Sproul's view of free will derives from his theology of the Fall generally, and the belief in Total Depravity specifically. Since I do not accept the doctrine of total depravity, I do not accept Sproul's conclusions that follow from it either.

Total depravity is based upon a theology of original sin; while there are varying degrees/interpretations of what is meant by "total depravity", a few relevant statements on the theology are listed below:

We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin. (source)

a state of corruption due to original sin held in Calvinism to infect every part of man's nature and to make the natural man unable to know or obey God (source)

every person born into the world is morally corrupt, enslaved to sin and is, apart from the grace of God, utterly unable to choose to follow God (source)

In his total rebellion everything man does is sin (source)


A 4th Option

More than 4 options could be listed, but to defeat a "false trichotomy" only 4 options are needed.

I do not believe in total depravity; I believe the following:

16 And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.

17 And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.

18 For behold he judgeth, and his judgment is just; and the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy; but men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.

19 For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:16-19)

In response to the 4 quotes on total depravity listed above:

  • I believe we are (at least) dual beings. Our body has natural tendencies in opposition to God; our spirit has spent eons learning to obey God, and there is tension between them. The world entices through bodily desires; God inspires through communication to the spirit; we must choose which voice to yield to.
  • I do not believe in the common understanding of "original sin". I believe that "men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression" (see Articles of Faith 1:2)
  • I believe children are born into this world pure and clean.
  • I believe people can choose of their own free will to do good (see Doctrine & Covenants 58:26-29), and that grace is not a handout, but a covenant, which we must choose to accept and in which we play an active part.

This stands in opposition to Option C.

The Book of Mormon has an entire chapter devoted to the Fall and human agency. I'll cite two segments from it:

14 And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.


16 Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other. (2 Nephi 2:14,16)

Humans are creations to act, not creations to be acted upon. Part of exercising that ability to act is to be enticed by competing options. We cannot truly claim to have moral agency if we walk a path upon which there is never a fork in the road. The presence of competing options, far from demonstrating determinism or "humanist" free will, makes possible the morally consequential exercise of libertarian free will. We have competing options and are able to act upon them.

26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.

27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. (2 Nephi 2:26-27)

Jesus Christ overcomes all of the effects of the Fall; though full redemption from the Fall is not promised until the time of the resurrection, at which point we overcome physical death (body & spirit reunite), and overcome spiritual death (brought back to the presence of God to be judged). For a more extensive treatment of this theology, see my video here.

God has given us a plan that is all about what we become. We can choose to accept or reject the transformative power & covenants He offers us. We may be "enticed" and encouraged and exhorted, but we will not be forced. We have been given the moral capacity to use the atonement of Jesus Christ to become something better than we are right now. Becoming is a process, not an event, and I believe full transformation into everything we can become (see 1 John 3:2-3) is a process that will carry on well beyond mortal life, but it is marked by major milestones, such as the one described by King Benjamin's people in Mosiah chapter 5:

2 And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually. (Mosiah 5:2)

These people did not suddenly cease falling short, but there was a fundamental change in their desires. They were more godly people after that experience than they were before; they were moving in the right direction. And when eternity is your x-axis, moving in the right direction is what counts: the slope of the line matters far, far more than where you are today.



I believe in a Savior whose atoning sacrifice has the power to make me better not only at some distant time in the future, but can start the process right now. Every step of creation, commandment, destruction, or renewal recorded in scripture proceeds line upon line (see Isaiah 28:10), accumulating the results of what came before. I believe the same is true with God's transformation of a human being. God can and does change us, a little at a time, if we choose to yield to His voice over competing options.

I believe Sproul incorrectly conflates our "free will" with our "desires". We may desire many things, some of which conflict with each other. We may desire strongly something in the short-term and something else in the long-term (indeed many of our choices pit short-term gain vs. long-term loss & vice-versa). Free will gives us the capacity to act, to choose which voice we will yield to. So while I don't necessarily contend with Sproul's view that humans pick the desire that is the most compelling in the moment, I suggest the analogy would be better cast in different words:

We choose which voices to listen to; we choose which influences to entertain. Many voices compete for our attention; we control which speakers get turned up and which speakers get turned down. While we may well follow the voice that speaks the loudest, we set the volume.


Several thoughtful, competing views have suggested that a Christian belief in libertarian free will necessarily collapses into Pelagianism. I respectfully suggest this is a false dichotomy.

Pelagius held that humans could attain perfection on their own, suggested the expectation that humans live sinless lives, and that babies are born innocent. Accepting the 3rd of those propositions (which I do) does not require accepting the first two. Although children regularly experience consequences (good & bad) from their parents' choices, I do not accept the doctrine that infants are born into this world bearing guilt for the actions of progenitors.

That there are some things we are unable to do does not mean there are no things we are able to do--this is unnecessarily reductive. If we accept for sake of argument that I have free will, it neither relieves me of the consequences of my choices nor permits me to do literally anything. I can choose from among a finite set of options where I wish to live, but I cannot choose to live on the surface of Proxima Centauri.

If 2 men with free will are standing on a cliff and one chooses to jump off, they both still have free will, but one now has a much smaller set of options to choose from than the other. Our options today can certainly be increased or reduced by our (or somebody else's) actions yesterday. From scriptural texts I agree that there are clearly some things we cannot do unaided, but the aid is being offered and we can choose whether to accept it.

  • "We perceive that we have free will, and there is no good defeater (one was discussed above, happy to discuss other failed candidates elsewhere). Thus, we are rational in believing we have free will." Doesn't 1 Corinthians 2, culminating in verse 14, provide a good defeater ... there is a whole set of things which a person cannot do, know, or understand without the Spirit therefore making a whole set of choices (which may be possible for a human to make) unavailable. Commented May 15, 2022 at 12:22
  • 2
    @MikeBorden I don't believe free will means we can do literally anything, but that we can choose from among a set of options. If 2 men with free will are standing on a cliff and one chooses to jump off, they both still have free will, but one now has a much smaller set of options to choose from than the other. Our options today can certainly be increased or reduced by our (or somebody else's) actions yesterday. From 1 Cor 2, I agree that there are clearly some things we cannot do unaided, but the aid is being offered and we can choose whether to accept it. Commented May 15, 2022 at 20:31
  • @HoldToTheRod: Since I do not accept the doctrine of total depravity, I do not accept Sproul's conclusions that follow from it either. - I'm a bit curious about what exactly about total depravity (as a starting premise) is logically inconsistent with option 4. Why can't total depravity and option 4 be both true at the same time? What logical contradictions would be entailed by that scenario? Otherwise, a good thought-provoking answer :-)
    – user50422
    Commented May 15, 2022 at 20:44
  • It may be worth noting that a large proportion of Christians would reject the book of Mormon as an authority or valid source for an argument Commented May 16, 2022 at 0:46
  • 1
    @SpiritRealmInvestigator I expanded my post to show differences between total depravity & my beliefs about human moral agency. Commented May 19, 2022 at 4:12

Short Answer

R.C. Sproul's sermon presents a Biblical view of the human will, which is systematized by St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, etc. into a theology of the human will connected with the doctrines of providence, grace, predestination, original sin, depravity, etc. As such, his sermon is consistent with mainstream Christian theology and empirical observation, that at the moment of choice the strongest inclination at a given moment wins, which unfortunately shows how oftentimes our inclination to sin is stronger than our inclination to obey Christ. Even when we want to obey Christ, oftentimes we fail to carry through that internal order of the mind. Sproul proposed in jest his own "Sproulian view of free will" that the will is both free and determined because we do observe the interplay of self-determination to do what we want and the existence of external forces that influence us toward what we don't want.

R.C. Sproul contrasts that view with the libertarian view which presumes how one can always choose the contrary at any given moment, denying any form of determinism. But in the process of defining the libertarian view, he distorts the libertarian view into what he calls "spontaneous choice" that according to him has no "real intentionality" and logically leads to his charge of this view as having "no moral significance" as well as having "no plan, no desire to get anywhere." But while this characterization may hold true for a subdivision of libertarian that is materialist, he doesn't address another subdivision of libertarian that believes in Agent-causal theories whose ability to choose the contrary doesn't depend on physical indeterminism.

Therefore, non-physical libertarians have cause to charge R.C. Sproul with the strawman argument fallacy, although since the context is a Christian sermon, R.C. Sproul still presents a legitimate warning to libertarians that overconfidence of our ability to choose a contrary is unrealistic.

The longer answer expands on the Biblical & Christian view of the human will and proposes a "Freedom of Excellence" model via a paper that does present the libertarian view faithfully, that should be appealing to libertarian Christians as well as other Christians of the Compatibilists persuasion.

Long Answer

Defining Libertarians

Libertarians believe that

metaphysically and morally, man is an autonomous being, one who operates independently, not controlled by others or by outside forces. According to the Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (InterVarsity Press, 2002), libertarian free will is defined as “in ethics and metaphysics, the view that human beings sometimes can will more than one possibility. According to this view, a person who freely made a particular choice could have chosen differently, even if nothing about the past prior to the moment of choice had been different.” In the libertarian free will paradigm, the power of contrary choice reigns supreme. Without this ability to choose otherwise, libertarian free will proponents will claim that man cannot be held morally responsible for his actions.

Source: GotQuestions article What is libertarian free will?, emphasis mine

Not all Libertarians are naturalists, some are interactionist dualists:

Accounts of libertarianism subdivide into non-physical theories and physical or naturalistic theories. Non-physical theories hold that the events in the brain that lead to the performance of actions do not have an entirely physical explanation, and consequently the world is not closed under physics. Such interactionist dualists believe that some non-physical mind, will, or soul overrides physical causality.

Source: Wikipedia article Libertarianism (metaphysics)

The reality of our broken will

Most mainstream Christians adopt St. Augustine's understanding of "free will", that although we have liberum arbitrium (power to choose), this power is different than libertas (liberty, or what the Bible calls "moral liberty"). What's the difference? Our power to choose (liberum arbitrium) is not completely free to choose good. When we have been fully sanctified we will truly be free and able to choose good with pleasure, a condition named libertas. St. Augustine famously conceived our broken will as incurvatus in se ("turned/curved inward on oneself") rather than directed "outward" for God and others. Following this, Martin Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards (as R.C. Sproul pointed out) also agree that our "free will" is in bondage to sin.

This self-centeredness is graphically exhibited by the "eat cake scene" from the famous 1993 movie Groundhog Day where Phil (before his conversion) is directly drinking coffee from the pot (0:31) and stuffing the entire slice of cake into his mouth (0:52), prompting Rita to quote a poem by Sir Walter Scott (1:04):

The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

Source: last 5 lines of Canto 6, Stanza 1 of Sir Walter Scott's 1805 poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Phil then responded with a laugh, "You think I act like this because I'm egocentric?" (1:37), to which Rita replies "I know you're egocentric, it's your defining characteristic!" Similarly, we are reminded that left to our own devices, our desires overpower our will to choose self over others and God.

Libertarian Christians vs. mainstream Christians

All mainstream Christians believe that we have souls that have some degree of independence (and thus making "free will" possible) from the physical realities that are governed by natural laws. So physical determinism is out. In this, mainstream Christians agree with libertarian Christians who are interactionist dualist.

In addition to forgiving our sins and making us righteous and adopted sons/daughters of God, a major aspect of salvation is God's action to free us from this incurvatus in se, by giving us grace not only for faith, but also to aid us in sanctification, healing our broken "free will". Thus to make room for this critical involvement in our will by an external agent (namely God), (as well as to make room for providence), most Christians believe in some form of theological (not physical) determinism, mostly in the Molinism (middle knowledge), compatibilism, or Thomistic Freedom of Excellence camps.

There is a nice table from Chapter 2 ("A Tour of Contemporary Views of Free Will") of a 2021 MA in Theology thesis for the University of St. Thomas by Keith E. Willard: Freedom of Excellence: A Thomistic View of Free Will and its relationship to the Contemporary Free Will Debate that summarizes the key features of various camps of free will:

Key features of various camps of free will

Christian libertarians' claim that "the power of contrary choice reigns supreme" has problems in 2 ways:

  1. It falls flat in the face of empirical evidence that our "free will" is very much influenced by internal forces caused by our previous evil actions that caked into bad habits as well as our disordered desires that existed from birth (witness how even 2-3 year old toddlers are already selfish).

  2. It doesn't make room for an external agent influencing will, which is necessary for salvation to make sense.

That is why even if there are mainstream Christians who believe in libertarian free will, I think they are outliers and they are not internally consistent with major Christian doctrines such as providence and sola gratia. At best, they can be Christians who commit some form of the Pelagian heresy.

How Christian libertarians would respond to R.C. Sproul

They would say that R.C. Sproul's characterization of libertarianism in his No Moral Significance section is a strawman argument because he directs his criticism only to the "physical" camp of libertarians. Because Christians have to be dualist (i.e. the seat of free will is in the soul), then he is not addressing the Christian libertarians who are "interactionist dualist". Secondly, one key plank of libertarians is their placing a high value for moral responsibility, which is why they first and foremost reject all forms of determinism, even the theological determinism variety that mainstream Christians necessarily believe in order to preserve the doctrine of Providence and God's active involvement in our sanctification. Both assertions contradict the premise of the "No Moral Significance" section, and that's why another answer also proposes that R.C. Sproul commits the strawman argument fallacy.

A better choice for Christian libertarians

One central thesis of the "Freedom of Excellence" camp is the centrality of sanctification to heal our desires and will so they are purely directed to God as our final/last end. In the Groundhog Day movie, after being dissatisfied with various pleasures in the world, Phil later experiences a conversion. He chooses Rita to be the prime object of his love, and proceeds to reform himself daily to win the approval of Rita, who becomes Phil's chief motivator for sanctification (which lasts thousands of days), similar to how we need to direct our will to God as our true last end as well as our prime motivator and source of grace so we can be saved.

When looking at the table above, I believe that the Thomistic understanding of "Freedom of Excellence" will be very appealing to Christian libertarians because:

  • It fully preserves moral responsibility
  • It agrees with libertarianism that there is no determinism external to the mind, while the external influence (from God alone) maintains "coherency" in our freedom to choose.
  • It corrects the Pelagian error
  • It fully accounts for our bondage of sin PLUS the grace to heal us that we FREELY receives into our being so we can participate with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, growing our virtues to choose and do good (virtue ethics). Thus it preserves the all important "power of making contrary choices" between "passively letting God" or "actively rejecting God".

There is another table from Chapter 6 of the paper I referred to above, showing how the Libertarian and the Compatibilist camps differ from the Freedom of Excellence camp, showing which key aspects of free will that the Libertarian camp need to adjust:

  1. Agree not to insist that "if same past, different outcome must be possible for freedom to exist"
  2. Agree to conceive freedom as "constituent of individual's final end"
  3. Agree not to insist the possibility of reversion after obtaining beatific vision

Crucial differences between camps

The Groundhog Day movie ends with Phil having changed permanently that the small town which was repellant for him and which he used for his selfish ends before his conversion, now becomes a place he calls "home". We as audience will naturally feel that there is no possibility of reversion (a key plank of Freedom of Excellence) as we feel that the directionality of the final end is so convincingly consistent with a fully sanctified human nature who loves his neighbors (symbolized by the town people he served with acts of love during the day) and Jesus (symbolized by Rita). That is why I think the Freedom of Excellence model of free will fits both mainstream Christian theology and reason more so than the Libertarian and the Compatibilist camps.

For more details, I refer you to chapter 4 ("Finding Freedom of Excellence in Aquinas"), chapter 6 ("Freedom of Excellence as Response to Contemporary Debate"), and chapter 7 ("Final End").

  • Very insightful answer (+1). I'm curious to see what other libertarian free will advocates have to say on this answer.
    – user50422
    Commented May 20, 2022 at 14:46
  • Great answer (+65 :-)). Just one question, how would you classify Trent Horn's position on free will? (Relevant videos: video1, video2)
    – user50422
    Commented May 21, 2022 at 16:24
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator Thanks. To avoid clutter, I'm responding in this topic based room for Free Will. Commented May 21, 2022 at 17:56
  • I strongly disagree that Christians who believe in LFW are outliers or not mainstream and your 2 'problems' you present make the same mistake Sproul does. I'm surprised the bounty went to someone who doesn't actually hold the view in question. Commented May 21, 2022 at 20:42
  • @IsaacMiddlemiss Let's discuss this in your chatroom Commented May 21, 2022 at 23:14

I interact here from a compatibilist perspective: https://philosophical-theology.com/2022/03/26/moving-beyond-sproulian-compatibilism/

  • 1
    Hello, Ron DiGiacomo. This is considered a "link-only" answer. It would be helpful for future visitors to this question if you would edit in a summary of that page. Links can become broken or outdated so a summary would still provide the necessary information.
    – agarza
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 22:13
  • While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. - From Review Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 13:36

I haven't read all that stuff, but I have encountered many persuasive arguments against free will, and the most persuasive are all the same, whether it is an atheist materialist or Calvinist making the argument.

The argument is the following.

Premise: the will is either determined, undetermined, or some combination thereof.

  1. If the will is determined, it is not free.
  2. If it is undetermined, then it is random, then it is not a will.
  3. Combining determinism and undeterminism merely combines problems #1 and #2.

Conclusion: since all pieces of the disjunction do not give us free will, and the disjunction is exhaustive, therefore free will is not a logically coherent concept.

I find this argument very persuasive, and was persuaded for many years. Then, I discovered the argument is logically flawed.

The flaw in this argument is #2. While all random things are undetermined, this does not entail that all undetermined things are random. Assuming all undetermined things are random is basically smuggling the conclusion into the premise. It is logically possible for there to be undetermined things that are also not random, i.e. precisely the concept of libertarian free will.

Therefore, the basic argument against free will is logically flawed, and libertarian free will is a logical possibility.

What would be an example of libertarian free will? I submit God as a example of a being that must necessarily have libertarian free will. God's will, by logical necessity, is not determined by anything outside of Himself. If His will were determined, then that thing would be more powerful than God, which is a contradiction. Libertarian free will is a will that is not determined by anything outside of itself. Therefore, God must have libertarian free will.

Conversely, if libertarian free will is not a logically coherent concept, then God is not a logically coherent concept.

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