What is Free Will Theology?

Montani Semper Liberi

This Latin phrase on the Great Seal of the State of West Virginia is translated "Mountaineers are Always Free."  The motto refers to a mentality that was born out of a history of hardship, oppression, and pride.  Although it is primarily a proud political and cultural statement, it sometimes reflects our religious beliefs. As widespread as Free Will Theology is, the motto might also reflect the prevailing belief that "Mountaineers control their own religious destiny."   

The History of Free Will Theology

Free Will Theology has a long history. Since the fourth and sixteenth centuries, forms of Free Will Theology have also been known as Pelagianism, Semi-pelagianism, and Arminanism. These forms were named after preachers who denied that human beings were spiritually dead. Instead they taught that man is either spiritually well or only spiritually sick. This led them to either of two sad assertions: 
  1. Humans possess at least some ability to choose God's salvation of their own free will. Upon their act of choosing, God then works with the sinner to bring about his salvation. 
  2. The grace of God that brings salvation is commonly available to all people so that they can cooperate with it in order to receive salvation. 
Both of these are also known as "synergism" or "God and man cooperating together for salvation." In either case, Free Will Theology teaches that man's salvation depends upon his using free will to choose salvation. According to Free Will Theology, humans possess, apart from God's sovereign choice and initiative, the power to determine their own eternal destiny.

Throughout history, Free Will Theology has developed in direct opposition to Reformed Theology. Some churches exist today with the words Free Will in their titles. Historically, these words imply that they have rejected Reformed Theology. Other churches may not have these words in their titles, but Free Will Theology has still deeply influenced their beliefs. In our state, this theology is found in churches everywhere, 
whether people know it or not. In fact, Free Will Theology might be the most prevalent theology in the State, and that is very sad.  But we are not alone.  This is true throughout the nation.

The Effects of Free Will Theology

Why is this important? Why should we care whether Christians embrace Reformed Theology or Free Will Theology? It is important for many different reasons.

Free Will Theology makes stuff up about God.  God has revealed himself and the way he works in this world.  He is the great I Am, the One Who Is, and he is never only what we imagine him to be. Therefore, to worship him as he is and not as we want him to be, we must rely entirely upon his revelation of himself to us through the Scriptures. The fact that God has revealed himself reveals that God is concerned that people understand him as accurately as they are able. God can and does receive the worship of Christians who worship in ignorance, but all his worshipers are still responsible to pursue the truth. Preachers bear the greater burden of presenting God accurately, and people who are taught the truth about God are responsible to embrace it. This is a part of what it means to be Reformed—reforming our beliefs to agree with what God has revealed about himself. To do less than this, after we have received knowledge of the truth, is to deny God and his revelation of himself. 

Free Will Theology enthrones man over and against God. It denies the complete and total sovereignty of God over all his creation. Instead, it implies that God’s authority and ability are somehow dependent upon man’s authority and ability. If any one man has the ability to deny salvation when God has purposed to give it to him, then God is less than God, for he is less than sovereign. 

Free Will Theology teaches that man is in charge of his own salvation. With its emphasis upon man’s responsibility to choose salvation, it often leads to the false and damaging teaching that Christians can lose their salvation. After all, if man is capable of putting himself in the gracious hands of God, then it stands to reason that it is his responsibility to keep himself in God's hands or that he also possesses the ability to remove himself from those hands.  If this does not lead to a rejection of eternal security, it may at least lead to unreasonable and unnecessary struggles with assurance of salvation, especially if one's assurance of salvation rests upon anything less than confidence in the eternal decree of God and the grace-given evidences of that decree in the lives of believers.  

Free Will Theology may lead to forms of legalism, i.e., the belief that one’s relationship with God is dependent upon how well one performs according to so-called “Christian” expectations. This denies the Biblical teaching that all Christians have the exact same access to God through Christ. This legalism is also connected to the paranoid embrace of religious rules and standards that God himself never laid upon the consciences of men. These imagined expectations are then presented as true religion and thus cloud the Gospel and keep people from true conversion to Christ and his religion.

Free Will Theology undermines God's grace. It leads God's people to an inadequate understanding of the grace that is necessary for both salvation and sanctification.  Those who have begun their Christian lives through some self-determined work of obedience are also inclined to continue their Christian lives under the mistaken belief that their progress in sanctification is also a self-determined work of obedience.  This leaves the people of God with no consistent or reliable access to the means of grace that produces true sanctification.  As a result, they are prone to either misery in their failure or pride in their accomplishments with no cause or reason to give glory to God for victory over sin.

Free Will Theology leads to man-centered evangelistic methods. High-pressure evangelistic methodologies appeal to man’s supposed ability to choose salvation and fail to rely upon the convicting power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish salvation. This may result in false professions of faith and false assurances of salvation. Children are led to make decisions before they are prepared, and adults are compelled through the power of emotional appeals to walk aisles and make decisions. Having made their decisions due to merely human emotional and psychological influences, they may then rest in false assurance of salvation.

Free Will Theology encourages man-centered worship. It leads Christians to the gross and idolatrous glorification of personal religious experience in worship rather than the proper, biblical worship of God alone for his greatness, glory, mercy, etc. This is evidenced in the inordinate imbalance of hymns and songs that focus almost entirely upon personal experience (what we supposedly get from God).  Frequently testimonies and "witnesses" in worship are also devoted almost entirely to the supposed personal, experiential benefits of being a Christian.  This man-centered worship is often offered uncritically and with no concept of the greater worth and glory of God as distinct from the benefits he provides.  

Free Will Theology leads to lazy theological errors. Free Will Theology does not have to be but it is frequently an easier theology (than Reformed Theology) to teach, understand, and embrace, in part because many of those who teach it do not delve into the depths of Scripture, in part because to receive it in its most elementary forms does not require rigorous thought and exploration, and in part because it appeals to mankind’s innate, psychological (and depraved) need to preserve a sense of self-determination. Because of its frequent status as an easier theology it tends to associate with other religious and theological errors. Those who are predisposed to settle for easier conclusions in one area of theology frequently settle for easier conclusions in other areas, and may in fact be trained to do so. This is not to say that Free Will Theology has no learned supporters, but that what is often presented is frequently not the fruit of the studious exploration of God’s Word. If one has embraced Free Will Theology, it should not be for lack of study, or as an accommodation to human independence, or simply because it is easier to accept than the alternatives.

The Bottom Line

Free Will Theology has led churches and denominations into error in both faith and practice. This is true wherever Free Will Theology may be found. The accurate study and presentation of God’s Word can and should lead congregations to place God at its theological center rather than man. It should lead to a more accurate, effective, and God-glorifying understanding of God's Word.