Responding to False Ideas About Freedom and Free Will

The Rt. Rev. Patrick S. Fodor

“Jesus said…‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, “You will be made free”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Amen, Amen, I say to you: whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed’” (John 8:31-36).

It is a common bedrock assumption that “freedom” means the ability to think and do whatever one pleases. This is utterly false. What gives the only genuine freedom is the ability to think and do what is good. Freedom means acting according to God’s will in thought, word, and deed. Only God’s grace can empower us to such freedom. Conversely, to act contrary to God’s will, in ways which misuse our ability to choose, is to be enslaved to sin.

To understand human freedom, it is necessary to understand the nature of the will and different sorts of wills. The unfallen natural will is in harmony with God’s will. What is natural for man is to exist in complete harmony with God, Who created man “good.” Human persons are then also called to be raised to a higher level, to be deified, made partakers of the divine nature, filled with all the fullness of God, glorified by sharing by grace in the life of God. As the highest of His creatures, we are made in His image, designed to be conformed to His likeness.

The Fall of man into sin moves in the opposite direction. It wounds the human body, soul, and will, making us slaves to sin and death. It cripples the natural human will. It introduces what is called the gnomic will. Rather than being rooted in unfallen nature, the gnomic will is rooted in the misuse or corruption of the natural will. The gnomic will, as St. Maximus the Confessor explains, is “willing…in relation to some assumed good” (Disputation with Pyrrhus Par. 85). This is a way of saying it is the process of evaluating and deliberating over different possibilities, both good and evil, rather than simply knowing goodness and choosing it without having to deliberate. The gnomic will considers various choices, both good and evil, and finally chooses one. This way of thinking did not precede the Fall. Adam had a will which exhibited “natural stability.” He did not deliberate over various possible choices, good and evil, as if choosing contrary to God’s will was a real contemplated possibility to be chosen. The will of Adam and Eve before the Fall was not gnomic, not a deviation from nature, not broken so that it had to deliberate what to do rather than simply following the goodness of God. At the same time, the natural unfallen will was not yet what the mature natural human will was meant to be; they had not yet attained to greater maturity via obedience to God. The natural will was in between the two. The moment Adam and Eve DID will in a way that tried to deliberate, “the fall of free choice” occurred, and free will was corrupted.

To clarify: a natural will is a property of nature. The gnomic will is only a mode (a manner or way) of willing that belongs to fallen humanity, with deliberation (either based on ignorance or sinful inclination). The unfallen natural will does not pause to deliberate. It is does not struggle between good and evil choices. It is simply oriented to what is good and right. The deified will goes beyond the natural will. It uses the natural will properly, engages in genuine selfless love, and advances to a higher level, with perfect cooperation and reliance on God so that deliberation over evil, and choosing to do evil, is no longer possible. This is the true freedom of the New Heavens and the New Earth where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).

It is to bring us back into that genuine freedom that God became incarnate. As the New and Second Adam (1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49), He did what Adam should have done. The eternally existing Person of God the Son took into His Person a second nature: an unfallen human body, soul, and will. In His Incarnation, Jesus united in His Person the divine and human natures, each with a sinless will. Jesus has no inclination to sin, no gnomic (deliberating) will. Christ’s humanity is, instead, deified. The true human will and divine will in Jesus Christ exist in perfect harmony. What He always chose was self- sacrificial love. He did not have to deliberate. He freely chose a perfect life and then carried away all human sin and death, taking them upon Himself. He did the will of God, which is perfect freedom.

So do we have free will? Apart from Christ, no. We have a fallen gnomic will, which deliberates over (and is captivated by) fallen urges, vices, and all kind of things contrary to God’s goodness. It is inclined to evil (cf. Rom. 7:15-25). The “flesh,” in the sense of our fallen corrupted human nature with evil inclinations and desires, is (and acts) contrary to God. Jesus, by the right use of His human will, puts to death that flesh in order to raise us up new and restored. In Christ the “true me” arises (Eph 4:20-32). We are restored to God, “Whose service is “perfect freedom.” Beginning in Baptism Christ plants in us freedom. By the life given in and through Word and Sacraments, He will eventually perfect in us the deified freedom to choose God Himself and His will always. The deified human will is incapable of choosing contrary to God’s good will. It is truly free, because it is not threatened by inclinations to what is broken, wounded, distorted, evil. Christ our God bring us to that blessed End, that we may show forth His praise always!