Free Choice, Free Will, Freedom, Something Has to be Free. . . Right???

Written by Victor Stanley Jr.

In Confessions VIII, 8, 20 through VIII, 10, 22 St. Augustine wrestles with the dichotomy of man’s seemingly divided will. While he advocates for freewill, his thought processes, as presented in the text, strongly suggest a lack of freewill. This is evident in lines such as, “The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed; the mind commands itself, and meets with resistance,”[1] or “When the mind issues its command that the mind itself should will something, it fails to do so.” Throughout this section of the book Augustine is lamenting over the anguish he feels in not being able to will himself to give his life to Christ, and repeatedly questions God as to why in certain instances, such as commanding the movements of his body, his will and his actions are in sync, but in other instances, like attempting to accept the gift of salvation, he is unable to convince or will himself to take action.

The debate over freewill has been going on for the better part of a millennium, at the least, and it should be noted that the modern concept of ‘freewill’ originated with St. Augustine himself, although he later backed off of freewill, at least with regards to man being able to choose salvation. However, in Confessions Augustine merely concludes that man has two wills: “There are two wills, then, and neither is the whole: what one has the other lacks.” This conclusion is reminiscent, and no doubt pulled directly from Romans:

[14] For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. [15] For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. [16] Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. [17] So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. [18] For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. [19] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. [20] Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:14-20 ESV)

Indeed this passage of Scripture reveals that there is an internal battle within man between his desires, and his actual actions.

What I see in all if this is a distinct difference between what I would call free choice, and freewill. Scripture says that we are in bondage to sin[2], and that upon being regenerated we become slaves to Christ[3]. So in both cases our wills are not sovereign, or outside the influence of external forces, thus every inclination of our wills is commanded by either the flesh and sin working within us, or the Holy Spirit working within us. In neither situation is a person generating desires outside of the persuasion of these two forces, however, I would say that while our desires are subject to either sin or the Holy Spirit, our choices are freely made based on these desires that drive our actions. In Romans 7 Paul clearly states that he desires to do one thing yet his actions are opposite of that desire, so it seems that his will and his choices are working against each other. What I gather is that the choices we freely make stem from desires controlled by the flesh and sin, or desires controlled by the Holy Spirit; either way they do not come from a will that is operating with sovereignty.

[1] All quotes are taken from: Maria Boulding, trans., The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century; The Confessions, ed. John E. Rotelle (New York: New City Press, 1997)

[2] John 8:34, Romans 7:14

[3] Romans 6:15-23


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