The inability to say no doesn’t rule out free will

November 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

Whenever I talk about the reformed doctrine of predestination and election, I’m confronted by the objection that human beings must have “free will.” Free will is typically understood to mean the ability to say yes or no to something. This definition is assumed by our legal system where a yes that is somehow coerced is viewed as non-binding. This type of free will–the “yes or no” or bi-polar type–is axiomatic to those of us who live in modern, capitalist democracies. Intellectually, anything that is perceived to impinge on this definition of free will is said to somehow reduce our humanity and produce automatons.

There are other paradigms for free will that differ. I understand election in terms of what could be called “uni-polar” free will. God has chosen me, I cannot say no to his irresistible grace, and yet I my response is voluntary and freely made. The inability to say no isn’t–at least, not necessarily–the same thing as coercion.

Imagine the scene. War has recently–say, a year ago–broken out between the United States and Japan. Young men are flocking to join the armed forces to defend their nation. The draft has also recently gone into effect. A young man has decided that he will enlist as a Marine upon reaching his majority. The day comes. He dons his hat and coat purposing to travel downtown and enlist. As he is leaving the door, his mother hands him a letter: his call up papers. Is this young man’s enlistment decision an exercise of his free will? 

You tell me…

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