Freedom of the Will

Tuesday’s with Edwards!

There is perhaps no question that has caused as much debate as the question of free will and the sovereignty of God. How far does God’s sovereignty go? How do we reconcile free will, sovereignty, and human responsibility?

My friend Michelle Styles started a discussion on her blog about this issue today. She is asking some hard questions (and has good reason for asking them). I encourage my readers to go look at her questions and the comments that have followed and to comment if you like. Only remember that she is a friend, a dear friend, and I expect that any comments that might be made will be respectful and above reproach.

Jonathan Edwards is best known for two works: his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and for his treatise A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern prevailing Notions of That Freedom of Will, Which Is Supposed to Be Essential to Moral Agency, Vertue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame (1754), which has been given the shorter title in recent publication as The Freedom of the Will.

The Freedom of the Will is widely recognized as a classic work on this topic from the Reformed or Calvinist perspective. As books on this subject go it is one of the best. But it must be admitted that like every other book on the subject of free will, personal responsibility, and God’s sovereignty it does not answer every question. It has strong points and weak points. It does not read like a James Patterson novel. It is a slow read that will make you think. But it is worth the read.

In this selection, Edwards argues that God is unable to sin or commit evil, He has an inability to do wrong, yet He is regarded by all Christians as worthy of praise for being perfectly good. If that is true, Edwards asks why is it not then improper to claim that people are responsible for sinning when they are unable not to sin.

You can read Freedom of the Will in its entirety for free at This selection is taken from The Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957) pages 277-280.


Dr. Whitby, in his Discourse on the Five Points (p. 14), says, “If all human actions are necessary, virtue and vice must be empty names; we being capable of nothing that is blameworthy, or deserveth praise; for who can blame a person for doing only what he could not help, or judge that he deserveth praise only for what he could not avoid?” To the like purpose he speaks in places innumerable; especially in his discourse on the freedom of the will; constantly maintaining, that a “freedom not only from coaction, but from necessity,” is absolutely requisite, in order to actions being either worthy of blame, or deserving of praise. And to this agrees, as is well known, the current doctrine of Arminian writers; who in general hold, that there is no virtue or vice, reward or punishment, nothing to be commended or blamed, without this freedom. And yet Dr. Whitby, p. 300, allows, that God is without this freedom; and Arminians, so far as I have had opportunity to observe, generally acknowledge, that God is necessarily holy, and his will necessarily determined to that which is good.

So that, putting these things together, the infinitely holy God, who always used to be esteemed by God’s people, not only virtuous, but a being in whom is all possible virtue, and every virtue in the most absolute purity and perfection, and in infinitely greater brightness and amiableness than in any creature; the most perfect pattern of virtue, and the fountain from whom all others’ virtue is but as beams from the sun; and who has been supposed to be, on the account of his virtue and holiness, infinitely more worthy to be esteemed, loved, honored, admired, commended, extolled and praised, than any creature; and he who is thus everywhere represented in Scripture; I say, this being, according to this notion of Dr. Whitby, and other Arminians, has no virtue at all; virtue, when ascribed to him, is but “an empty name”; and he is deserving of no commendation or praise; because he is under necessity, he can’t avoid being holy and good as he is; therefore no thanks to him for it. It seems, the holiness, justice, faithfulness, etc., of the Most High, must not be accounted to be of the nature of that which is virtuous and praiseworthy. They will not deny, that these things in God are good; but then we must understand them, that they are no more virtuous, or of the nature of anything commendable, than the good that is in any other being that is not a moral agent; as the brightness of the sun, and the fertility of the earth are good, but not virtuous, because these properties are necessary to these bodies, and not the fruit of self-determining power.

There needs no other confutation of this notion of God’s not being virtuous or praiseworthy, to Christians acquainted with the Bible, but only stating and particularly representing of it. To bring texts of Scripture, wherein God is represented as in every respect, in the highest manner virtuous, and supremely praiseworthy, would be endless, and is altogether needless to such as have been brought up under the light of the gospel.

It were to be wished, that Dr. Whitby, and other divines of the same sort, had explained themselves, when they have asserted that that which is necessary, is “not deserving of praise”; at the same time that they have owned God’s perfection to be necessary, and so in effect represented God as not deserving praise. Certainly, if their words have any meaning at all, by “praise,” they must mean the exercise or testimony of some sort of esteem, respect, or honorable regard.

And will they then say, that men are worthy of that esteem, respect, and honor for their virtue, small and imperfect as it is, which yet God is not worthy of, for his infinite righteousness, holiness, and goodness? If so, it must be because of some sort of peculiar excellency in the virtuous man, which is his prerogative, wherein he really has the preference; some dignity, that is entirely distinguished from any excellency, amiableness or honorableness in God; not in imperfection and dependence, but in pre-eminence; which therefore he don’t receive from God, nor is God the fountain or pattern of it; nor can God, in that respect, stand in competition with him, as the object of honor and regard; but man may claim a peculiar esteem, commendation and glory, that God can have no pretension to. Yea, God has no right, by virtue of his necessary holiness, to intermeddle with that grateful respect and praise, due to the virtuous man, who chooses virtue, in the exercise of a freedom ad utrumque;
any more than a precious stone, which can’t avoid being hard and beautiful.

And if it be so, let it be explained what that peculiar respect is, that is due to the virtuous man, which differs in nature and kind, in some way of pre-eminence, from all that is due to God. What is the name or description of that peculiar affection? Is it esteem, love, admiration, honor, praise, or gratitude? The Scripture everywhere represents God as the highest object of all these: there we read of the “soul’s magnifying the Lord,” or “loving him with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind, and with all the strength”; admiring him, and his righteous acts, or greatly regarding them as marvellous and wonderful; honoring, glorifying, exalting, extolling, blessing, thanking, and praising him; “giving unto him all the glory” of the good which is done or received, rather than unto men; “that no flesh should glory in his presence”; but that he should be regarded as the being to whom all glory is due. What then is that respect? What passion, affection, or exercise is it, that Arminians call “praise,” diverse from all these things, which men are worthy of for their virtue, and which God is not worthy of, in any degree?

If that necessity which attends God’s moral perfections and actions, be as inconsistent with a being worthy of praise, as a necessity of coaction; as is plainly implied in or inferred from Dr. Whitby’s discourse; then why should we thank God for his goodness, any more than if he were forced to be good, or any more than we should thank one of our fellow creatures who did us good, not freely, and of good will, or from any kindness of heart, but from mere compulsion, or extrinsical necessity? Arminians suppose, that God is necessarily a good and gracious being: for this they make the ground of some of their main arguments against many doctrines maintained by Calvinists: they say, these are “certainly” false, and it is “impossible” they should be true, because they are not consistent with the goodness of God. This supposes, that it is impossible but that God should be good: for if it be possible that he should be otherwise, then that impossibility of the truth of these doctrines ceases, according to their own argument.

That virtue in God is not, in the most proper sense, rewardable, is not for want of merit in his moral perfections and actions, sufficient to deserve rewards from his creatures; but because he is infinitely above all capacity of receiving any reward or benefit from the creature: he is already infinitely and unchangeably happy, and we can’t be profitable unto him. But still he is worthy of our supreme benevolence for his virtue; and would be worthy of our beneficence, which is the fruit and expression of benevolence, if our goodness could extend to him. If God deserves to be thanked and praised for his goodness, he would for the same reason, deserve that we should also requite his kindness, if that were possible. “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits?” is the natural language of thankfulness: and so far as in us lies, it is our duty to recompense God’s goodness, and render again according to benefits received. And that we might have opportunity for so natural an expression of our gratitude to God, as beneficence, notwithstanding his being infinitely above our reach; he has appointed others to be his receivers, and to stand in his stead, as the objects of our beneficence; such are especially our indigent brethren.

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