Freewill as Taught in Scripture
by Brian H. Wagner, Ph.D.,
instructor of church history,
theology and biblical languages
at Virginia Baptist College
How often have I read in various Facebook theological discussions the declaration of a Calvinist – “Freewill is not taught in Scriptures”? Of course, the freedom of will to go against one’s nature, even for God, is not possible. It is impossible for God to lie or to deny Himself (Titus 1:2, Heb 6:18, 2 Tim 2:13). And it is impossible for me to fly by just flapping my arms. But the ability to freely make decisions commensurate with the limits of one’s nature and with the opportunities provided for such decision making is logically part of God’s and man’s nature and experience. The exercise of that ability by God and by man is also well documented in Scripture. And I can fly… if I decide to get on an airplane and allow its power to transport me through the air!
The following is an attempt at a rather thorough study of words used in the OT and NT that teach aspects and examples of the exercise of freewill. The reader will hopefully become convinced, contrary to Calvinistic dramatic false statements in opposition, that freewill is clearly taught in the Scriptures –
The Hebrew word [verb] נדב naw-dab’ is a primitive root that means – to impel; hence, to volunteer (as a soldier), to present spontaneously…primarily translated as an adverb “willingly” which indicates free motivation or voluntary decision. It is used 17 times in 15 verses throughout OT Scripture [also 3 times in 3 verses using the same root in Aramaic – Ezra 7:13, 15, 16]. (Most of definitions for this paper are adapted from Strong’s Concordance lexical definitions.)
Here are all the verses that translate this word, נדב naw-dab’, with the translation of it underlined. The ESV translation for each verse was chosen to accommodate Calvinist readers, so they won’t have to keep running back to their favorite translation, which is deterministically flavored. 😉
Exod 25:2 ESV “… From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me.
Exod 35:21 ESV And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him….
Exod 35:29 ESV All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the LORD had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the LORD.
Judg 5:2 ESV …that the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the LORD!
—-[The verbal form in this last verse is an infinitive, on the Hithpael stem, which is reflexive in meaning, thus the word “themselves” is added. This Hithpael verbal stem is used 16 other times in the same reflexive way – Jg 5:9; 1Ch 29:5, 6, 9(2x), 14, 17(2x); 2Ch 17:16; Ezr 1:6, 2:68, 3:5, 7:13, 15, 16; Neh 11:2]. The reflexive action only helps to emphasize the non-compulsory action of the person’s will in the decision made in each context—-
The noun נדבה ned-aw-baw’ is used 26 times in 25 verses, mostly in connection with a voluntary – “freewill” – offering to God. With all these verses one cannot help but ask “How can you have a freewill offering without a freewill?” Calvinists reject its normal meaning, but the Bible literally uses the word 26 times. Even the Calvinist translators of the KJV and ESV freely chose “freewill” as a suitable translation. Their translation choice is telling of what they believed this original word meant.
Here are the verses in which this noun is used:
Exod 35:29 ESV All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the LORD had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the LORD. —-[The idea in this verse of a sacrifice made as a free-will offering, one not commanded as an obligation, is also found in – Ex 36:3; Le 7:16; 22:18, 21, 23; 23:38; Nu 15:3; 29:39; De 12:6, 17; 16:10; 2Ch 31:14; Ezr 1:4; 3:5; 8:28; Ps 54:6; 119:108; Eze 46:12(2x); Am 4:5]
Deut 23:23 ESV You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.
2Ch 35:8 ESV And his officials contributed willingly to the people, to the priests, and to the Levites….
Ps 68:9 ESV Rain in abundance, O God, you shed abroad; you restored your inheritance as it languished;
Ps 110:3 ESV Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours.
Hos 14:4 ESV I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.
—All these OT verses clearly confirm that man, even an unregenerate man, can exercise a free-will in a manner pleasing to God. Even God is said to exercise His freewill in Hos 14:4. The translation in Ps 68:9 was obviously determined with some subjectivity. It could easily be translated – “A shower of freewill gifts, O God, you have shed abroad…”
Here are some NT words and verses to consider that also speak to the issue of the freedom of the will. A Calvinist may try to attribute all of the following examples as a result of regeneration, but that does not seem to fit this first example –
Acts 17:11-12 ESV Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.
—-[from προθυμια proth-oo-mee’-ah, meaning predisposition. See also – 2Co 8:11, 12, 19, 9:2;] The Calvinist may endeavor to suggest this willing predisposition of the Bereans was a result of regeneration, which they think is before faith is expressed. It is very difficult to convince them otherwise when their loyalty to Calvinism is so strong that they refuse to see the gospel of John clearly teaches light is freely received before faith which is before new birth life is given. See John 1:4-13, 12:35-36, 20:30-31.
Other NT verses to consider that speak to the issue of freewill are these –
1Cor 7:37 ESV But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. —-from μη ἔχων ἀνάγκην , literally – “not having a necessity”, which would be impossible if everything was predetermined eternally and immutably, making every event a necessary result of God’s decree. Notice also the verse says this man “having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart.”
1Cor 9:17 ESV For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. —- from εχων hek-own’ meaning willingly.
2Cor 8:3 ESV For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, and 2Cor 8:17 ESV For he not only accepted our appeal, but being himself very earnest he is going to you of his own accord. —-from αυθαιρετος ow-thah’-ee-ret-os – meaning self-chosen, and by implication – voluntary.
2Cor 9:7 ESV Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. —- from προαιρεομαι pro-ahee-reh’-om-ahee – meaning to choose for oneself before another thing, to prefer and by implication, to intend.
Phlm 1:14 ESV but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. —- from εκουσιος hek-oo’-see-on – meaning willingness.
1Pet 5:2 ESV shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; —-from εκουσιον hek-oo-see’-ose – meaning willingly.
The existence of a free will, even post regeneration, runs counter to the idea of an eternally immutable divine will that had completely determined everything forever into the future before creation began. Calvinism is based upon that philosophical premise, making the exercise of any free-will for God or man impossible, before creation and especially after it. That premise makes a falsehood out of these clear Scriptures shared here. These Scriptures and many others clearly show that free will does exist and is being exercised by God and man.