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The master work of America's greatest theologian.
on July 14, 2003
Jonathan Edwards is one of the greatest thinkers in American history, and while "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God" has become his most famous work, "The Freedom of the Will" is his best. Two and a half centuries after Edwards wrote it, this book is still the premiere and most thorough argument for the complete sovereignty of God.
"The Freedom of the Will" is a challenging read and might be too hard for people new to the debate between Calvinists and Arminians. It would take too long to outline the entire argument Edwards makes or recap every point he touches on, but what follows are some examples of the ideas and questions raised by Edwards in this book.
1) It is alleged by Arminian belief that a person or action cannot be morally good (or bad) if the agent performing the action is incapable of doing otherwise. But can God be evil? The Bible teaches that He is not only holy, just, and perfect, but that He knows everything that has happened and everything that is to come. So can He do or be evil, or is His will and nature necessarily determined to be perfectly good? If God is capable of doing evil, and not necessarily good, then how can He assure us that He will be perfect for all eternity (if one day, He might choose not to be)? And if He is necessarily determined to be perfectly good forever and cannot be otherwise, does this make God any less holy, perfect, and morally virtuous? As a corollary to this, if He is no less praise-worthy by being necessarily holy, are we, as fallen human beings born into sinfulness, any less blame-worthy if we are necessarily inclined to evil, incapable of willing what is truly good?
2) Another area Edwards focuses on is discussing the Arminian contention that the will actually is free. Edwards takes this idea on by challenging what exactly is meant by the will, and therefore our actions, being "free". His reasoning would lead to questions along these lines: If a starving man is placed at a table with an appetizing pizza on his right, and an utterly foul concoction (insert your own horror) on his left, is he really free in what he wills to eat? What could possibly make this man choose to eat what was on his left rather than the pizza, other than some overriding, external threat? The only way this man might choose what was on the left, barring the overriding threat, would be his will being utterly indifferent to the two choices, and in this case, what kind of man would this be? (Imagine him eating the concoction with no care in the world, much as human beings so often can be seen going about sinning.)
Now, say humans were deceived and fell into a state where what appeared to be appetizing to us was really what made us sick whereas what was truly holy and good, appeared as unappetizing to us as the horrible concoction. (This deceptive state is what we fell into with the Fall of our original parents through their sin.) What would ever make us will to eat that disgustingly wretched concoction on the left? Even after we've tried it and seen how wonderful it is despite how it may appear to our sinful natures, we still go back to the poisonous pizza of sin over and over again. (And whereas the pizza and the concoction of this analogy are so clearly different, sin and God's holiness are infinitely more opposite to each other.) Why do we continue returning to what makes us sick? Why do we continue to see these things as beautiful and appetizing while the holiness of what God has commanded appears so unattractive? Someone says, "Just eat the nasty thing... you know it is good for you, ignore its appearances," and I cry out, "But I just can't!" (Or, as the Apostle Paul put it, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" - Romans 7:24)) Not only can't I eat what is so repulsive to me, but in actuality I don't want or will to, whereas I will to eat the "pizza" because I delight in my sins. It is only by some supernatural changing of my heart and mind that I will ever choose what is truly holy and good. But, oh, how wonderful to know that there is someone who makes this change for us, contrary to our corrupted will.
These questions touch on just a few of the topics concerning the human will and God's sovereignty that Jonathan Edwards discusses in "The Freedom of the Will". I've heard it explained that the Calvinist doctrine on these matters is like a candy with a hard exterior but a soft, delicious center, and I believe that's an accurate way to put it. With this book, Jonathan Edwards comes as close to helping Christians break through that hard exterior as any man ever has.