The “standard” answer seems to be that, for love to be real, it must not be coerced. If we did not have the ability to reject God, then neither we would have the ability to truly love Him. Some theologians even go so far as to say that human freedom is the highest good and that even God will not violate it. Genuine love and genuine good can only exist in a world where there is an opportunity for genuine rejection and genuine evil. Some add that, since God knows all possibilities, the world He created must be the one where the greatest amount of good would result. Out of all possible worlds, the one He made is the best.
The problem with this line of thinking is that, although it may be somewhat satisfying intellectually, it is never articulated in Scripture.
What follows are a few more thoughts that may help us formulate some conclusions as to why God gave us a free will. At least they will give us the full weight to the biblical evidence.
First, we have to admit that “free will” is limited by physical possibilities. “Free will” cannot mean we are free to do anything we want to do. Probably a lot of people would like to fly like Superman or be as strong as Samson or teleport from one location to another, but physical limitations prohibit them from doing it. On one level, this may not seem to be an issue of free will, but it is not completely extraneous, because God created a world in which people desire to do these things but have no ability to do them. In this sense, God has curtailed “free will.”
When we pray for something, we often are praying that another’s “free will” will be curtailed by outside circumstances and physical limitations. If a brutal dictator invades a neighboring country, and we pray for his defeat, we are certainly praying that the dictator will be unable to do what he wants to do. Many who hold human free will as the highest good also have no problem with the idea that God could intervene in a case like this and prevent a person from accomplishing what he has chosen to do. In the way God created the world, He has built in many limitations that stymie our wills and limit our choices. Likewise, He may intervene to further limit our choices by circumstances beyond our control.
With this in mind, perhaps we might define free will as the ability to choose whatever we want, within the bounds of physical limitations. This brings up the second problem, which has to do with what we want. To deal with this issue, Martin Luther wrote his treatise The Bondage of the Will. The problem is not that we are not free to choose what we want, but that what we choose is severely limited by our desires. We freely choose to disobey God because that is all we want to do. Just as we cannot fly like Superman due to our physical limitations, we cannot obey God due to our spiritual limitations. We are free to choose all sorts of ways to disobey God, but we simply cannot choose to obey God without having our desires radically reorganized (some would say regenerated)—and we are powerless to do this on our own.
Romans 8:5–8 identifies the spiritual limitations to our “free will”: “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God” (emphasis added). From the context, it is clear that those who “live according to the flesh” are unbelievers. Their wills are in bondage to sin, and so sin is all they want to do. They cannot submit to God’s law.
If this is the case, who then can be saved? “All things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). The Lord so works in some to energize their spirits and give them a desire to repent and believe (see Acts 16:14). Sinners do not do this on their own but only under the convicting power of the Spirit. If it were otherwise, the saved could boast that they possessed some wisdom or moral superiority that caused them to choose to repent and believe when confronted with the facts, even while so many others continue to reject the gospel. But we are saved by grace, and no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8–9). God is not obligated to save anyone (He has free will), but He has chosen to save some by freeing their wills to choose Him. Others He allows to continue in rebellion—which is exactly what they want to do. In either case, people make real, uncoerced choices.
Christians are the only people who have the “free will” to obey God, yet they still have an old nature that pulls them in the other direction. Romans 6:12–14 says, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” One day, believers will be confirmed in holiness (glorified) and will no longer be able to sin—yet their love for God will be genuine. They will be free to do what they want, but they will not want to do anything that displeases God.
Perhaps Adam and Eve were the only humans to truly have free will. God knew exactly what they would choose, yet He allowed them the choice. However, He did not cause them to do it; God does not tempt anyone to do evil (James1:13). Adam and Eve had the ability to obey God and not to sin, yet they chose to sin. The Bible never says that God gave them this choice so that “love would be genuine”—that’s a logical explanation for why God gave us a free will, but not an explicitly biblical one.
Why did God do all this? Certainly, He could have created people who would simply not be tempted. Scripture only gives one reason: for God to glorify Himself. The whole plan of redemption is to the praise of God’s glory (Ephesians 1:14). In fact, before creation, God had already determined a plan of redemption. Ephesians 1:4 says that God had chosen to save some before the foundation of the world, and Revelation 13:8 says that believers’ names were written in the Lamb’s book of life before the foundation of the world—before they even existed. It is all for God’s glory. The eventual punishment of those who freely reject Him and the salvation of those who believe work to His glory. In the process, God’s power and forbearance are clearly seen: “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory?” (Romans 9:22–23).
God created a world where people could choose to disobey, and He allows people today to continue to rebel against Him in order to bring glory to Himself. One way He does this is that He mercifully saves some and graciously allows them to share in His glory while giving others the punishment they deserve. As should be expected, this doctrine is wholly unsatisfying to those who are in rebellion against God and have no desire to give Him glory. When we engage in evangelism or apologetics, we are often tempted to offer another, more “satisfying” answer that focuses salvation on the benefit to humanity. We should resist that temptation and keep the focus on God’s glory.
God does not coerce people to reject Him; He simply allows them to do the only thing they want to do (sin), and He allows them to do it with a great deal of variety and creativity. God does not coerce people to accept Him, but He persuades them with tactics that cannot be refused. God is in control, but humans make real choices. Somehow, God’s control and human freedom are perfectly compatible.
In the final analysis, there are questions that simply cannot be fully answered or fully understood, and we must never put ourselves in the place of judging God by declaring what a loving God “should do” or a just God “should have done.”
After finishing a long section on God’s control and human choice (Romans 9—11), Paul concludes with this:
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?’
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:33–36).
And Paul ends the letter to the Romans with this: “To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Romans 16:27).
God created the world as He did and gave humans the freedoms they have in order to bring glory to Himself. The glorification of God is the greatest possible good.