What Is This Thing Called “Will?”

When I was in college in the late 1950s, I became a member of a prestigious (so I was told) choral group then, The “Campus Choristers.”  And one of the songs in the group’s repertoire was the not-so-popular song (sung by Frank Sinatra, among others) titled “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

As I recall it, the song was a “blues” song [a.k.a. a “broken-heart” song, with the motif “He/She done lef’ me fer anuther!”]. It went:

What is this thing called “love?”–
This funny thing called “love?”
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?
I saw you there one wonderful day,
You took my heart, and threw it away!
That’s why I ask the Lord in heaven above,
“What is this thing called ‘love?’”

In this article I ask the question “What is this thing called ‘will’?”—particularly human will. It is not a funny thing, but it certainly is a fuzzy thing in the minds of a lot of people. A “mystery?” Definitely! And some people who have tried to explain the mystery without real help and guidance from the Lord in heaven above, as it turns out, have, in my view, made a fool of themselves!

The crux of the issue

The main issue raised by some is whether mankind really has a “free will” or freedom of choice. Especially is this made an issue in the face of God’s will being sovereign and irresistible.  As the apostle Paul asked: “Who has resisted His will” (Romans 9:19)?  [In context, Paul was speaking here of God’s irresistible will  or prerogative to show or not show mercy to a person in God’s own time.  See: The Divine Prerogatives.]  And the specific area where this has been made an issue is the matter of it being God’s desire that all men should be saved.

Paul described God our Savior as One “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3). The apostle Peter also wrote: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us , not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). In addition, Ezekiel 33 :11 quotes God as saying: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

Concerning Christ, Paul also wrote: “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue  should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). Furthermore, Paul wrote: “Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

1 Corinthians 15:26 declares, “The last enemy that will be destroyed [by Christ] is death.” Thus, as Revelation 21: 4 amplifies, “…there shall be no more death.”  Revelation 20:13 says, Death and Hades [the grave] were cast into the lake of fire.” The conclusion? Not a single human being will ever have to die anymore when death is destroyed.

There you have it — ample Bible proof! — say those who propose and believe the doctrine of “universal” salvation: that ALL [including every single human being who has ever been born] will eventually be saved, not a single one excluded from God’s kingdom and having everlasting life, which is what salvation brings.  Every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord, and therefore all will have to be subject to God so He can be in everyone, so the reasoning goes.

Mankind to be shorn of free will?

According to this view of salvation, in order for God’s sovereign and irresistible will to be fulfilled, God has to remove mankind’s “free will” so that only God’s will can and will prevail. All men, supposedly, will be saved, not because they choose to, but because God wills it.

Some quote Ephesians 1:4-14 as proof that those whom God has “elected” for salvation have been “sealed” by God’s Spirit, before the foundation of the world, as a guarantee of their sure salvation, according to  “the good pleasure of His will.” Therefore, such an elect person cannot break that “seal” by choosing to sin, thereby missing out on salvation and depriving God of His pleasure.

Some go as far as to say that salvation is such a free gift from God that He will give it even to those who don’t reach out their hands to Him – that is, seek or ask Him — for it!  To not reach out one’s hand would be to exercise one’s will or volition. And, supposedly, God cannot and will not allow this so that only His supreme and sovereign will or desire will prevail – that ALL will be saved, regardless.

Whether they know it or not, proponents of universal salvation, are denying God’s assertion, “I am the LORD, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6), and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). [See: What Does God Mean – “I Do not Change?”]

Has God now changed what He says in Isaiah 55:6, “Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near?” Or what Jesus said:  “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8)?  Paul also said of God: “And He has made of one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has predetermined their appointed times [including their time for salvation] and the bounds of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27).

Paul also wrote: “For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?  And how shall they preach unless they are sent [by God]” (Romans 10:13-15)?

A person will not call on God – will not choose to call on God – if he does not understand and accept his need to be saved!  Psalm 14:4 asks rhetorically:  “Have all the workers of iniquity [the wicked] no knowledge who…call not upon the LORD?” When Peter began to sink in the water after having walked on it a few steps, he  realized his dangerous condition and reached out his hand and cried out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” And save him Jesus did (Matthew 14:22-33)!

Jesus’ half-brother James was inspired by God’s Spirit to write: “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?  You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3).

As for God’s command to the Israelites [and to all mankind, for that matter], “I have set before you today life and good, death and evil…. blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19), has God now removed this choice from us?  What about Joshua’s charge to the children of Israel to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve”—the gods of the pagans or the LORD (Joshua 24:15)?  Is this no longer relevant to us today, when we are faced with choices between good or righteousness and increasing evil or unrighteousness?

Will God change the “rules” of His “game” just so man can and will be saved – whether man likes it or not, whether he chooses or not to be saved?  And so, supposedly, God’s “pleasure” to save all mankind will be satisfied?

Will God somehow force us to choose to do what is right or Godly?  And will He forcibly prevent us – strive or struggle though we might – from doing the evil thing we desire or want to choose?  God did not do that with our first parents, Adam and Eve. God gave them the choice to eat or not eat the fruit He forbade them to. But, as the well-known story goes, they chose, they used their human will, to disobey God, and they died. [See: “Your Eyes Will Be Opened!” and The “Stupidity” of God .]

Forcing a man to obey, simply, is not the way God’s Spirit works! [See: The Higher Law of the Spirit and Breaking Down our “Walls of Jericho.”]

In contrast to God’s way, Satan forces his will upon his captive mankind.  Paul testifies about those whom Satan has “snared”  as “having been taken captive by him to do his will” |(2 Timothy 2:26).

Satan sets up strongholds in the hearts and minds of sinners (2 Corinthians 10:4) in such a way that they are so trapped and bound as to be unable to escape, but for God’s intervention. Satan’s way is the way of bondage, whereas God’s way is the way of freedom and liberty (Romans 6:18, 22; 8:2).  The apostle Paul affirms:  “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17).  [See: Freed From Bondage and Mind Control.]

Satan’s way is the way of oppression and cruelty — with the intent to murder and destroy (John 8:44). Jesus came to heal and liberate His chosen ones who in the past were “oppressed by the Devil” (Acts 10:38).

Paul says that “The spirits [which enable the mind] of the prophets are subject to the prophets”(1 Corinthians 14:32). Paul also lists, as one of the facets of the fruit of God’s Spirit,  “selfcontrol” (Galatians 5:22-23). The human brain is not on “auto-pilot,” not needing conscious and voluntary control by a human “driver.” God has not “programmed” our brains and minds to automatically fulfill His every will, without us “maneuvering” some “control stick” or steering wheel to direct where we are going.  [See: “My Brain Made Me Do it!”]

God desires willing and “cheerful” obedience to Him, even as in the matter of giving. “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).

Obeying God cheerfully is a person’s willing choice, in the same manner that obeying God grudgingly is also a person’s willing choice! But God has no delight in a person who obeys Him grudgingly – “dragging his feet,” as we’d say.

Jesus said repeatedly: “Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). He, in fact, began His earthly ministry by preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

To “repent” is to turn from going the way of sin [disobedience to God’s law and commandments (1 John 3:4, KJV), to obeying them. To “turn” is matter of personal choice, an exercise of the person’s will. And that after God makes one realize His goodness (Romans 23:4). In walking, as in driving a vehicle, it is the person’s choice whether to turn left or right, forward or backward. God commanded His sinful people Israel: “Repent, turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations” (Ezekiel 14:8). God will not repent or turn for us; we have to do it by and for ourselves! What would be the sense of God commanding us to “Turn!” and then He turns us around without us willingly doing it by and for ourselves?  God is not a fool!

The “once saved, always saved” fallacy

This is a doctrine espoused by a number of evangelicals, notably the “Calvinists,” followers of the theologian John Calvin. The belief is that, once God has saved a sinner by grace, he cannot be “unsaved” by anything He does or may do. To “do” anything would, according to this belief, be to add to Christ’s already finished work at Calvary. “We are saved by grace through faith, not by works,” they would quickly quote Ephesians 2:8. But they fail to consider what the latter part of that passage says:  “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Verse 10). [See: Saved for Good Works and Being and Doing.]  And in the final Day of Judgment, we will be judged and rewarded according to our works – whether good or evil (Matthew 16:27; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 22:12; John 5:27-29).

That “walk” – again a choice of which path to take – requires a Christian’s exercise of his or her will!  Jesus Himself presents us with the choices: the wide and easy path that leads to destruction, or the “strait and narrow” way that leads to everlasting life (Matthew 7:14).  The latter path would entail “striving against sin.”  Jesus, in fact, tells us: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24).

To “strive” or to “seek” entails the exercise of one’s will!  Even as Christ Himself, although the Son of God, set us an example of striving against sin! (Hebrews 12:4; 1 Peter 2:21-25).

While in His human frame Jesus strove against temptation by the Devil, and His desire as a human Being. He strove victoriously with Satan, as Matthew 4:1-11 attests.  While agonizing in prayer at Gethsemane before His crucifixion, Jesus asked His Father if it were possible for Him not to drink the “cup”[symbolizing His excruciating death by the vilest of Roman tortures], but He sought not to follow His human will [which would have been a sin] but  His Father’s will (Luke 22:41-42).

Several times Christ tells us that “he who overcomes” the pulls of our sinful human flesh, the evil society in which we must live, and the strong temptations of the Devil, will be saved or have everlasting life (Revelation 2:7, 11, 26; 3:5, 12, 21).  Overcoming entails the exercise of one’s will!  And also Jesus said that a man, even a Christian, can commit a sin [as a matter of choice or exercise of the will] that will not be forgiven in this present age, and in the age to come (Matthew 12:31-32).  [See: Why Is the “Unpardonable Sin” Unpardonable?]  This belies the doctrine of “once saved, always saved!”

Paul says, echoing Matthew 7:14: “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The path back into the Paradise of God entails going through some “baptism by fire.” This calls for us to exercise our human will to “resist the devil” (James 4:7). On the other hand, we can also use our human will to resist the truth and God’s Spirit (2 Timothy 3:8; Acts 7:51).   [See: The Flaming Sword East of Eden.] The fact that one’s name, already written in God’s “Book of Life,” can be removed if one fails to overcome (Revelation 3:5) , shows the fallacy of the “once saved, always saved” doctrine!

Not altogether by sheer “willpower”

The Godly exercise of the human will is not altogether the product of human “willpower,” however. There is, after all, an extreme view of the human will that the Bible calls “will worship”[translated from the Greek ethelothreskeia, meaning voluntary piety or sanctimony that is arbitrary and unwarranted] (Colossians 2:23, KJV). Paul says that such self-imposed religion, manifested in “false humility, and neglect of the body,” [as taught by asceticism, which practices fasting and other acts of penance] “but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Same Verse, NKJV).

The human will, by itself, does not have the power to obey God’s commandments. One needs the Holy Spirit of Christ and of God to truly keep God’s law and not indulge the flesh, for “the carnal [natural,born] mind [of man] is enmity [antagonistic, contrary to] against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Man’s natural will is against God’s will.

So, how can one obey God’s will?  With the help of His Spirit, God “works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). [See: The Higher Law of the Spirit and God’s Spirit and Obedience.]  God works in a Christian in such a way that he embraces God’s will as his own will. This takes a conscious decision or volition [will!] to agree with God that His will is good and for His pleasure. God is a God who makes covenants with men.

And for God and man to covenant and walk together, both must be agreed (Amos 3:3). Agreement takes one’s will to consent or agree to the terms of the covenant. In the “new covenant,” God does not make man walk in His law by some one-sided divine fiat (Hebrews 8:10-12). Man must be willing to open his heart and mind to enable God to write His law on man’s heart.  Proverbs 3:3, in fact, tells us to  willingly write mercy and truth [NIV, “love and faithfulness”] on the tablet  of our heart. We do this by constantly meditating on and thinking often about God’s law. Man must agree to follow God’s law. On His part, God renews a man’s heart, in such a way that the man inclines himself [exercises his will] to obey God’s laws (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

True, with Satan and his demons put away in some dark prison (Revelation 20:1-4; Jude 6), overcoming by the people of God during Christ’s reign on earth will be much easier. But they would still have their human nature to contend with, and they would still have to  exercise their will to strive against sin, just as everyone else must in their lifetime in this present evil age.

Sugar-coating the truth

The “meta-narrative,” as some have called the story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, concludes with the destruction of all  who have not repented of their wickedness and have chosen to remain in it, after they will have been given their fair chance to be saved (Revelation 20:5,  11-21:8).  [See: This Is not the Only Day of Salvation and Predestination.] If we look at the whole Bible as a “drama,” the “script” ends at Revelation 22:21. To add to or to subtract from the words of this book of prophecy has God’s stern warning of dire consequences (Verses 18-19).

The apostle Paul also warns concerning thoughts and teachings about the “mysteries of God,” to “judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the heart,” and to learn [in Paul and Apollos] “not to think beyond what is written, [so] that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against another” (1 Corinthians 4:1-6).

Some, eager to judge the fate of all men – that all must be saved as God desires regardless of the person’s choice – have so gone “beyond what is written” – particularly about the wicked being destroyed forever in the “lake of fire” (Revelation 21:8).  Contrary to their belief, the promise that “There will be no more death” belongs to those who are righteous,  saved and given everlasting life on the Day of Judgment — not to those who refuse to repent of sin, who remain unrighteous.

Thus they invent the “story” [fable?] that the “second death” which the unrepentant wicked will suffer is not final and ultimate.  That somehow, these wicked have to be revived by God so He can save them according to His will. In that revived state, supposedly, they will have no human will to resist God’s will. And so they, deprived of their will or power to choose, will supposedly be saved, according to God’s irresistible will and pleasure.

That may sound like a very “sweet” proposal, for indeed it sounds more pleasant to the ear to hear that God will not destroy everyone but that all will ultimately be saved. But, when we come right down to it, this is sheer and downright flattery! An untruth – a lie!

The very idea of a person being saved regardless of his choice or will promotes the spirit of licentiousness! One could think, “Why would I strive to be good and righteous, if I don’t have to choose, or exercise my will, to do so? Jude warned that there are people who teach such falsehood: “For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).

The word “lewdness” is rendered [in the NKJV] from the Greek aselgeian, meaning lasciviousness or licentiousness [disregard for accepted rules or laws—lawlessness!]. Jude 8 – 19 describes further the attitudes and the fate of such “teachers.” [See: “Whoever Loves and Practices a Lie” and “I Never Knew You”!]

To say that there is really no such thing as human free will, is to deny the plain testimony of Scripture! If there is no such thing as “free will,” why did God command the people of Israel to give “freewill offerings” (Leviticus 22:18-23, 38, etc.)? God doesn’t deal in double-talk. He cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18)! As Paul said, “Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar” (Romans 3: 4)!

God’s destroying forever all the unrepentant wicked is a show of God’s justice and judgment, which is one of the dimensions of Christ’s love, as paradoxical as that might seem.  [See: The Four Dimensions of Christ’s Love.]

May we all come to a right understanding of God’s will, what God expects of man [the role of man in in exercising his will], and what the full dimensions of Christ’s love are, and so we can be filled with the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19)—and be saved!

Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.