Are We Free to Make Moral Decisions

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Are We Free Moral Agents?

In our bible study the thought was presented that we humans are free moral agents. I questioned that in my mind and shared that I did not believe that we are free moral agents. My thoughts put me to wondering how we humans really fit into God’s purpose and plan for His creation. So I want to share with whoever reads these thoughts about the concept of free moral agent.

I have heard in one form or another most of my life, I’m an old dude by the way, that we are free moral agents. I have never disagreed with that and believed it to the extent that I would go to bat for anyone to be free. While serving for over two decades in the military, I always saw the U. S. Constitution as a document that came from our fore fathers as my reason for being in the military. I wanted people to be free and govern themselves as a nation or community. People were and are precious and each has the right to be free from tyranny.

But how does the above fit into the idea of being a free moral agent? Does the U.S. Constitution gives us a right to be free moral agents? It only states in the preamble “. . . secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity . . . .” I don’t read in it that we are free moral agents. Maybe the Declaration of Independence will help here. It seems to be reflecting the right of people to govern themselves and not be governed by a despot or some other entity. Here is what I found. “. . .all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I cannot find anything in that which indicates that man is a free moral agent. It does say that we have a right to life, liberty and a right to pursue our own happiness. God does not speak of us this way in His Word however. Notice moral is not mentioned at all in the Declaration. I suppose that a person could stretch or read into those statements something moral but I find nothing that alludes to moral freedom. It does speak of being free from control of others and being able to pursue happiness and one’s life as to be determined by themselves, not someone else. So all this does relate to freedom. But this seems to focus on a freedom that comes from only external control. Still the question is, “Is man a free moral agent.?”

Just a little side note about where the founding fathers got many of their ideas.  They were mostly Puritans who left England in order to be free to worship God in Christ. Their belief in God had a major influence on the Founding Fathers but many of their ideas for building this nation came from John Locke. One of the major concepts that was passed on through American psychology to education was that the mind was a blank slate or “tabula rasa” at birth. He believed there was no original sin within the mind. It was blank at birth which is absolutely opposed by God in His Word. Locke did not believe in original sin nor the Trinity, which is a belief in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. He seemed to be a cultural Christian. Now back to our reason for this writing.

Let’s define moral first. In my college teaching years, one hour of a course called Human Growth and Development, was devoted to ethics. Ethics and morals are closely related. Webster’s dictionary of 1911 defines moral as:

1. Relating to the practice, manners or conduct of men as social beings in relation to each other, and with reference to right and wrong. (In today’s society the concept of right or wrong is up for grabs. My words.) The word moral is applicable to actions that are good or evil, virtuous or vicious, and has reference to the law of God as the standard by which their character is to be determined. The word however may be applied to actions which affect only, or primarily and principally, a person’s own happiness.

(. . .reference to the law of God as the standard. . . . “ comes into play regarding man’s mental state of “morals” and discussed last in this writing. The question to be answered is: “Can man born in sin know what the law of God and right or wrong is prior to an internal change whereby one comes to know God?”)

So moral has something to do with conduct of a person in social relationships regarding right or wrong. A major consideration is that there must be a reference point for what is right and what is wrong. Is the reference in one’s self or others or laws written in books? Just where is the reference point. Is it inside or outside ourselves in a Supreme, Sovereign God? This point is where religion gets involved in a society. Is “moral” floating in the environment or passed on by parents? If so then what is right or wrong will change from person to person and over time. Is that good? The major point to be wrestled with is just who or how right and wrong is determined. There will be a point of reference always. Otherwise right and wrong will just float around with little certainty. We could say that relativism is a good example of right and wrong floating from person to person in that it is determined by each and having no relationship outside the person.

Maybe we need to examine the term, free, because each of us has a definition and it may differ from others. An assumption that I will make here is that when free is used in referring to the state of humans that one is considering that the person is autonomous which means to be self governing. I will agree with that. But in trying to define free the implication is that a person is not only self governing but has no restraints of behavior, period. This cannot be.

Webster’s dictionary gives a number of definitions in trying to explain what free means. Here is the number one definition.

“Being at liberty; not being under necessity or restraint, physical or moral; a word of general application to the body, the will or mind, and to corporations.”

Notice that the word, moral, is included here. So is Webster, in listing moral, indicating that society may restrain a person from making certain decisions and thus determining the freedom of a person? There must be of necessity limits on each person whether limits are imposed from without or those which come from within. Maybe we as individuals are not as free as we would like to believe.

Here is number five definition of free from Webster.

“Unconstrained; unrestrained; not under compulsion or control. A man is free to pursue his own choice; he enjoys free will.”

In this definition we have the concept of free will. Now for the definition of will from Webster so we can get to the heart of this thing called free moral agent.
Here is Webster’s definition of free will.

That faculty of the mind by which we determine either to do or forbear an action; the faculty which is exercised in deciding, among two or more objects, which we shall embrace or pursue. The will is directed or influenced by the judgment. The understanding or reason compares different objects, which operate as motives; the judgment determines which is preferable, and the will decides which to pursue. In other words, we reason with respect to the value or importance of things; we then judge which is to be preferred; and we will to take the most valuable. These are but different operations of the mind, soul, or intellectual part of man. Great disputes have existed respecting the freedom of the will. Will is often quite a different thing from desire.

Notice words such as judgment, understanding, reason, importance of things and preferred. Webster here admits that the concept of the will is a disputed human characteristic. In areas of psychology the will is considered an operation of the the mind where the reasoning, understanding, and judging of the person takes place. In those operations of the mind, what is good, bad and important are determined. All of these operations within one’s mind then determine choices or direction of motion. All of these operations of the mind; emotions, reasoning, understanding, and judging have not developed nor exist in a vacuum. Something outside the mind and something in the mind influences these operations. The good. bad and important in our thinking are not determined in complete isolation within the person. They are determined by our mental processes but their roots are from our past and have been embedded in the brain. We came into this world with a genetic foundation and then grew up in an environment. The genetics and environments differ but there is a common thread which connects them and determines how we would think and understand our world. I’ll get to the common thread later. We came into the world with a specific mental functioning foundation determined by genetics. The environment then built on that foundation due to the way we are told to think, reason, feel (that which sets us into motion), and choose. A simple question to help us grasp how the environment effects our thinking is, “What kind of food do you like? Would you choose shrimp where another would choose steak?” Our genetics keeps us from grazing like a cow for our food. These preferences are rooted in our past whether it be in early childhood or of an experience a month ago.

Now there is one other component that must be considered in order to decide whether we are free moral agents. By the way the word, agent, we have not defined. Webster helps us here in defining this word. It gives us three definitions and there is a relationship between them. The relationship is in having power to act or accomplish something.
Here they are.

1. An actor; one that exerts power, or has the power to act; as, a moral agent.
2. An active power or cause; that which has the power to produce an effect; as, heat is a powerful agent.
3. A substitute, deputy, or factor; one entrusted with the business of another; and attorney; a minister.

Notice the words moral agent in the first definition. That seems to fit in with, We are free moral agents.

Now to the one other respect as mentioned earlier and one that, I believe, comes from God’s Word. What does God have to say about our being free. The concept by the way, free will does not appear in God’s Word. The question remains, “Are we free moral agents?” I think we’ll find the answer in God’s Holy Word. I’ll give some scripture here and if you believe in God’s Holy Word, (All of us called Christian should), you decide whether we humans are free moral agents.

Just to set the stage let’s refresh our minds regarding God’s creation of man and then go from there to see what He says about our freedom to choose and function in this world. In Genesis 2:7 God says this:

Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (NASB)

What a paradise! Man was given a garden to tend and eat and live a life of Riley. He had a “help meet” and all the food he needed and all he had to do was take care of the garden but one restriction was applied. “Don’t eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil or you will die.”, God told Adam. At this point in man’s existence the question of moral or moral freedom did not exist. Good and bad did not exist in the head of Adam for him to even consider making choices that required him to think of the goodness or badness of some choice. There was no social relationships except with Eve and he still was a companion with his Creator, God, in the cool of the evening. But God plants a thought in Adam’s mind about something he is not to do. So what did Adam do?  He did eat of the tree. And this was rebellion (sin) against God. Adam then got acquainted with good and evil of life and things. At that point things changed for the human race. Man (Adam) then lived in a world that was cursed and his slavery to sin was absolute. Adam could not escape the curse. Because of Adam we humans have no escape from sinful thoughts and decisions as a person. Why? Adam passed sin to us through his genes. God’s Word tells us that we have sin in our physical body. It tells us we are born with sin and that the flesh is sinful. Our minds now are bent toward sinful (rebellious) thoughts against our Creator and we cannot do otherwise. Where is the freedom?

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. (Ps 51:5  NASB)

Question: If we are born with sin as part of our genetics, how can we be free moral agents?

Lets go to the New Testament and see what is said there about the moral state of man. In Ephesians and Colossians we find that we are dead in our trespasses and sin before we are born into Christ and in order to throw off this sinful state we must be born again (born from above).

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, (Eph 2:1  NASB)
. . . even when we were dead in our transgressions, (God) made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), (Eph 2:5  NASB)
When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions. (Col 2:13  NASB)

So we are told in the New Testament that us humans are dead in sin before we are regenerated in Christ Jesus. Dead means we have no moral aliveness. We are not a free creature. We cannot make a moral choice. Now you and I know that people make choices regarding behavior but scripture says we either make choices while dead in sin or alive in Christ. There is no total, abosolutely free state from any influence. We are either influenced by the sin within that came from Adam or the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.

If that is true, ( I believe with all my being it is.) then there is no way that we can be free moral agents. Every thought that I think and every decision that I make is tainted with my sin state. I am born with that state of mind in my nature. It is in my genes. I got it from Adam. I am a slave to my state of mind. All my thinking, reasoning and choosing will be tainted or shaped by sin. Paul makes clear in Romans chapters 1 and 2 the state that we are in before becoming a believer in Christ Jesus. And then we read this:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned– (Rom 5:12  NASB)

Now I am not saying that an unbeliever cannot make some good decisions because most do to some degree based on what they learned from their environment as a child and by God’s grace in the providence of His creation.  Graeme Goldsworthy says there is something called by Christians,common grace. He says this,
“. . . non-Christians have an understanding of meaning and a sense of right and wrong which is the result of the goodness of God and of being created in His image. The fact that the non-Christian repudiates such a notion is not the point.”1

The point that I am trying to make is that just because a non-believer can have some knowledge of right and wrong does not make them a free moral agent. All truth of right and wrong resides in God not man. Thus unbelievers are still enslaved to sin and dead in their trespasses unless they know God. Paul in Romans 1 makes this very clear. He says:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom 1:21)
For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.  (Rom 1:25)

(In Romans 1:21 above, the word, knew, in the Greek can have many meanings as in English also. As used here it means an awareness of God and not an apprehension or knowing God. It is a knowing of or about and not a knowing in an intimate fashion.)

In Ephesians 2:1 we read, “And they were dead in trespasses and sin.” Paul is talking about the soul/mental state of the Ephesians before they were born again or regenerated by God.

Jesus tells us that we will only be freed from the sin state when we know the truth. He is the truth. Knowing Him (intimately) is knowing the truth. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is what we will know in Christ our Lord.

John tells us of our Lords glory, truth and grace in 1 John 1:17.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14  NASB)
For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17  NASB)

So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32  NASB)
In the above statement Jesus is saying that we are not free before we come to Him to get the truth. We are enslaved until know Him intimately and cannot be a free moral agent until we do come to the truth  that resides in Jesus, the God Man.

The question remains, “Are we a free moral agent?” Can we truly make decisions that come from an unbiased and completely neutral state of mind? Some will say “Yes we can even though our mind is biased toward or saturated in badness. We don’t have to be a new creature in Christ. We are free from external influences and constraints.” I will concede that we may emote (have an emotion) and do make decisions toward external objects (people, places, things) without some external influence or constraints but the internal influence does not allow freedom of our mind unless we have the Truth which makes us free to make moral decisions.

We must always remember or think about external influences also because we are never free from them. We are influenced by our peers, parents, fellow workers, politicians. news media, and all the things from our society that we take into our mind such as TV, church, school and work.

Are we humans moving through life as a free moral agent on this planet from conception to death? Do we come equipped at birth with the freedom to always choose what is good? To think good? Can we be free from any influence upon our decisions and choosing? I think of it this way, “No Virginia there is no freedom in our sinful social and moral state.” You decide!

Here is what I have decided. I cannot find anywhere in God’s Word that I am free unless I am in Christ Jesus. That is where real freedom lies. BUT I do find in God’s word many times that I am accountable to our Great, Almighty God for what I think and how I behave. How we live our life whether a believer or unbeliever is commanded by Holy God. Therefore we are accountable to Him. Along with that accountability I have a grave responsibility to Him who created me. Accountability and responsibility were given to me starting in the Garden of Eden. There is a Creator/creature relationship that falls under the providence of God which does not allow us humans to be autonomous. However we were from the beginning given self awareness and reasoning ability to know reality in order to live a life that would honor the Creator.

Here are God’s words:

Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”  (Gen 2:15-17  NASB)

God does not discuss freedom with Adam. You may see the word freely in the above BUT this is not in the Hebrew. The word, freely, is the exact same Hebrew word as eat in the above translation. The best translation is the ESV or English Standard Version which says, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but . . . .” The literal translation of the Hebrew would be “eating you do eat.” Nothing is said about freedom. God is giving permission to eat except of one tree’s fruit. Responsibility and accountability are given to man. The responsibility to be productive and care for what God had given him. He is held accountable to God the Creator for choices of what he eats. Adam had no control over the consequences of his choosing. If one has no control over consequences how can one be free?  We are like men/women on board a raft floating down a river where we have no means of determining where the raft goes. We only can determine where and how we move around on the raft. If we can’t see the river we believe we have a lot of freedom. If we see beyond the raft we know we are trapped. So where is the free moral agent to determine the future of one’s existence? Adam was not in control (free) to determine what consequences he would experience. God had given him permission to choose but the consequenes of his choice were determined by God. I am not in control of the outcome or direction of my life. I may think I am. My wife will tell you that I think I am because I have a “bent” toward  controlling  all that goes on in my life. My thinking comes from a belief that I can control my life. But I live an illusion if I am not in Christ. To live an illusion is to be a slave to one’s illusions especially the illusion that humans are not influenced by forces we cannot see, hear, smell or touch.

I recall a statement made by a pastor over 40 years ago that fits with the idea that we are free moral agents. In a sermon he said, “God has a vote, satan has a vote and you’ve got the deciding vote.” I’ve heard that statement many times since then and I’ve said that because it sounded so good at the time I heard it. It was brief and to the point which I believed. It indicated the freedom of us to make our choices for God. Since 2001 I’ve come to another conclusion based on God’s Word and not human driven assumption. We don’t have a vote in the matter of being free to make choices for or against God. We are born in sin and that is where we’ll be and continue unless God Almighty through Jesus Christ whom God in His counsel tells us we are His. Ephesians 1:3-12 tells us that God in His Great Majesty chose believers before God created the world and then made it known to us.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.  (NASB)

May the Sovereign God of the universe through His Son, Christ Jesus, touch your inner being and set you free. Free to live as a FREE person who is loved by Him for all eternity so that you can love freely yourself and others. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Soli Deo Gloria

In Him,

Dewey Wise
Mar 1, 2010
(All underlining is mine.)

1 Goldsworthy, Graeme, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p. 17.

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