We shall attempt now to treat a little on the subject of the will of man.

There has been a world-full of discussion lavished upon this subject; and many wise and good things have been said on it; and also some very foolish and absurd notions have been put forth, as dogmatically as if they bad been legitimate deductions from self-evident principles. I do not pretend to be able to throw any additional light upon the subject beyond what has been done by writers on moral science, or to exhibit it to the greater advantage of the reader; but I do hope to avoid nonsense and gross absurdity.

The will is said to be “the power of choosing.” I shall not undertake to give a better definition; but I will lay down one or two propositions which I would have the reader to keep constantly in view.

And first, Every responsible action of man is performed in obedience to his will. I will omit the obvious corollary. Secondly, I will state that in every case where the will of man is not in perfect unison and agreement with the revealed will of God, it is sinful–man’s will is rebellious. And this is as true in its application to what we believe, as it is to what we do.

We will proceed in our inquiries according to the definition of will as given by writers on moral science, and which we have stated above, to wit, that the will is the power of choosing. It is that faculty of the mind by which we determine or decide what we will do in any given case. One man wills, or chooses, to be a farmer; another chooses, or wills, to be a merchant. Sometimes a man is undecided in his mind as to what course he will pursue; for instance, he can not determine whether he will go abroad the next day, or stay at home. There may be a reason why he would choose to remain at home; and there may also be a reason why he would choose to attend to some business abroad. His will is, as it were, on a balance; but some consideration presents itself to the mind which induces him to determine one way or the other; and thus it is his will to do that which he does. This is plain to every mind.

It is very common for a man to say that in a particular instance he acted “against his will.” It is lawful to use such language, because his meaning is always understood; but, in strict propriety of language, it is not true. He acted against his inclination;–he desired to act otherwise, but he knows that some more important or urgent consideration induced him to choose, or will, to perform the action. We find this mode of expression used by inspired writers. All that is necessary here, is simply to note that there is a distinction between the inclination or desire, and the will. The desire and the will are often in agreement, but sometimes they are in opposition to each other.

It is proper to remark also that we are always responsible for whatever consequences may result from the choice we make, especially if we know, or have the means of knowing, that such consequences will or may ensue. If a man voluntarily exposes himself to the contagion of small-pox, he is himself responsible for the disease or death that may follow. And if a man chooses to follow a sinful course of life, whatever he may suffer in consequence is just.

The question, Is the human will free? has long been a subject of dispute. I do not claim to understand metaphysical science well enough to put the question to rest, but will submit my own views as clearly as I well can. But permit me, by the way, to make one incidental remark: I feel perfectly sure in my own mind that if God had no will, or had never revealed any part of His will to man, there never would have been one-half the controversy on the subject that has been. I admit that it is this consideration which gives the subject its greatest importance; but if there was no disposition in man to subordinate the will of God to his own will, many of those speculations about force, and contingency, and necessity, and irresponsibility, that have been advanced as sound philosophy, would never have been thought of. It is only when the question is viewed in reference to our more immediate relations to God that men differ so widely. When men speak of free-will, in what sense are we to understand the term free? If it is meant that the will of man is never forced in its decisions by physical power, there certainly ought to be no debate. I believe that to be morally impossible. And yet much of what has been urged in favor of the freedom of the will has been directed against this very principle. If the will is not free in this respect, it is not will; and to spend labor in proving this freedom of the will, is no better than laboring to prove that a circle is round. If a figure is not round it is not a circle, for roundness is an essential property of a circle. And I believe that freedom is equally an essential property of the will; so that if it is not free, it is not will. I think it may be rationally doubted whether the will is, in fact, an object of physical power.

On the other hand, let us suppose that the moral nature of man was so constituted that no reasons, or motives, or influences, could have any effect on his mind to direct his will in deciding what he would do; so that his will (so to speak) was incapable of being moved or determined in any direction. If so, then be would have no will; no such faculty as the will would exist in the human mind. But we know that man is not thus constituted. We know that we constantly choose one thing in preference to another, while at the same time we are perfectly at liberty to choose either.

It is evident, therefore, that the will is under some kind of government–that it is under control or is guided by some consideration; and it is equally evident, that it is not under a government of physical force–it is not under a government of compulsion. But the law that governs the will, is a law of moral influence; and when we choose to do a bad action, it is because we choose to yield to a bad moral influence. One thing is certain, the determinations of the will are always to be referred to moral law. By moral law they will be judged.

I shall here lay down a postulate: The will is always governed by one and the same law. This may be thought by some to be a new idea; but if the position is not true, I solicit refutation. And if this is a sound principle, and we can ascertain with certainty, in any case, what that law or principle is that influences the will to a decision, we then know by what law the will is governed in all cases. Now there can be no difficulty in ascertaining this in many instances. We know there are motives which influence our minds to choose that which we do choose. We may say the motive governs the will; but we may be influenced by a motive which is good in itself, to do an act that is very wrong.

We will illustrate by a figure the principle we assume: A man walks out a distance from his habitation, and, casting his eyes upward, discovers a storm rising, which will certainly overtake him before he can reach home; but there is a vacant house not very distant, and he hastens to it. Is he, or any one else, at a loss to know what induced him to go thither? The storm increases in violence and becomes quite fearful, and he chooses or wills to remain under his shelter. No one can fail to see the motive which governs his will. But the tempest becomes furious, and the house begins to shake and crack–he immediately leaps out into the open field, and the house is dashed to the ground. Although a moment before it was his will to remain in his place of retreat, his will is changed in a trice. No man of common sense can fail to see that in all these movements his will was governed by motives, and by nothing else. On no other view of the subject can it be strictly proper and true to say that the will is free. And every man when be decides or chooses to adopt some particular course of proceeding, or chooses to perform any particular action, is conscious of a reason or motive that determines his choice–a motive which was quite apparent to his mind at the time. And it is folly and irrational to go beyond the motive, in search of a power or faculty of the mind which governs or controls the will independently of motives.

So much has been said on the supposed connection between the Divine decrees and the freedom of the human will, that I reckon I should hardly be excused if I were to be entirely silent on the subject. But if it were not for a particular reason, I would treat the question with the neglect that I think it deserves. And the reader would probably not feel quite satisfied to be respectfully referred to what wiser men have said on the subject.

It has been contended that if God has decreed any event which involves the actions of men, those actions are necessitated by the decree; and the inference is, that in such cases, men can not justly be held responsible for their acts. There have been men who have boldly affirmed that such decrees make God the author of sin. There are others who believe that all events in the universe were decreed–fore-ordained by the Creator before the foundation of the world–and hence they infer that all the actions of men are performed under an absolute and inexorable necessity. Thus, to refer to a very common example, it is held that God decreed the fall of Adam, and, therefore, he sinned by necessity; he was obliged to sin, and could not help it. I say he sinned, speaking on the supposition that his disobedience was sin.

On the main question of the perfect freedom of man’s will, considered in regard to God’s infallible decree, there is a profound and unapproachable secret. And unless I were able to bring this secret to the open light of our understanding, it would probably be impossible to satisfy curiosity. And where knowledge is impossible, it is not wise to waste inquiry; and speculation is presumptuous. In many things God’s judgments are unsearchable, and His ways past finding out. This should rebuke our arrogant speculations, and teach us to confine our inquiries within the bounds of attainable knowledge.

Any attempt to show, by reasoning, that man is not responsible for his voluntary actions, is not only vain, but impious. That point is settled by the express testimony of God’s word; and an attempt to establish the contrary, is virtually an attempt to prove that God’s word is false.

We will now submit a few thoughts on the subject, keeping within the limits of legitimate inquiry. And we ask, Does a Divine decree necessitate the actions of men? If we look at this question in the light of cause and effect, we are baffled at the first step. When we see an effect, and would seek for the cause which produced it, we always expect to find a certain appropriate connection between the cause and effect, which will show the relation. But in this case we look in vain. No such relation can be discovered, because there is no such visible connection as would lead to the discovery. I think it may be rationally doubted whether such decree, considered merely in itself, can be a cause. There must be a power to execute the decree before any effect can be produced. Every effect is the result of power–and of power in exercise. Hence we are not to look to the decree, but to the power which carries the decree into accomplishment. If we go to a Divine decree to find the cause of our voluntary actions, we go immeasurably above all visible operative causes; but even then we do not go high enough to compass the argument. For does God will an event because He has decreed it ? or does He decree the event because it is His will that it shall transpire? The answer is too prominent to demand reflection. Whether a Divine decree necessitates the voluntary actions of men or not, there is no man who can see any such connection between them as will make those actions a necessity. And it is not rational to affirm such a connection when we can not discover it.

But it is alleged that if God decrees an event, the event is made certain; for we can not counteract his decrees. We admit that if God decrees that any particular event shall infallibly come to pass, that event is certain–absolutely certain. But the decree does not make it certain ; it would be just as certain if there was no decree. Moreover, the certainty of the event has no influence over man’s will; at least no one can see any necessary connection between the certainty of the event and the determinations of man’s will. When any man can demonstrate that a Divine decree forced him to choose to commit a sinful act, he shall be at liberty to use it in argument. The object of those who reason from the decrees, seems to be to invalidate the doctrine of free-agency; but they can never succeed on their scheme. To give their views even the appearance of plausibility, they have to identify power and decree, but they are far from being the same. There is no power, either physical or moral, in a decree; and, therefore, a decree can have no effect on the human will. That the will is under some kind of government, is too manifest to admit of doubt; but the government to which it is subject must be moral influence, for it is not accessible to physical force. Let us suppose two travelers–one a theological philosopher, the other a plain man, but little acquainted with scientific speculations: Their road leads through a country where water is scarce, and they become very thirsty; at length they come to a spring of excellent water. The learned metaphysician dips his vessel, and says: “It was unconditionally decreed before the foundation of the world that I should drink this good water, and, therefore, under the force of that inevitable decree, I choose to drink it “–and then drinks. Our common man likewise dips his vessel, and says: “I am suffering with thirst, my appetite craves this good water, and influenced by the benefit and gratification I expect to derive from it, I choose to drink.” Then, turning to his philosophical companion, says: “And I believe it was for the same reason, and influenced by the same motives, that you chose to drink; and that supposed decree to which you referred had nothing to do with your choice; for, as to any thing you knew, it might have been decreed that you should not drink.” Which of these two is the better philosopher? They were both free–they both had full liberty to drink, and they both had physical power to abstain, and the will of both was governed by the same law. I shall soon have occasion to consider this subject briefly in another point of view.

But before I do this, it is necessary to notice a ground that is taken by some over-zealous advocates of free-agency. So far as it respects the doctrine that the human will is free–free from any force or constraining power that necessitates the actions of men–I have no controversy with them. I hold the doctrine as firmly as they do, as my preceding remarks upon the subject sufficiently verify. But I see no necessity for attempting to establish a free-agency that goes beyond the will; neither do I believe the thing is possible. A simple statement of their doctrine is about this: That man’s will is free, and that he possesses in himself a power over his will to govern or direct its determinations.

I believe they do not attempt to define this power, or to explain its nature, but it is certain that they mean something more than that influence which motives of any kind are naturally calculated to exert on the will; for if this were all they mean, they would have no use for it in the argument. It may not be very easy to deal with such a subtle notion by mere abstract reasoning; but I think there is no necessity for any thing more than a mere practical application of the doctrine to any given case. If the idea were confined to the illiterate and ignorant class of mankind, I would not deign to notice it; but when it is gravely set forth by men of reputation for learning and theological wisdom, it seems to require some attention. The idea is a mere assumption, unsupported by reason, or facts, or any principle recognized by the acknowledged maxims of science. The assumption is this: That man is possessed of a free-will, and also that he possesses within himself an independent power over his will, so that his will is subject to the dictation of this supposed power. If you adopt this theory, it behooves you to show at least that it is consistent with itself. You must show how it is that the will is free, and yet subject to the arbitrary dictate of an independent power–a power that lies deeper in the human mind than the will itself does. If we possess such a power, and it is not called forth into exercise, to direct the decisions of the will, it is not power at all, in any proper sense of the word. But the actual exercise of this power is admitted, and contended for; for, on any other condition it would not be assumed. Let us follow in the direction of this argument and see the consequences–taking Lot, the nephew of Abraham, as an example.

Lot chose, or willed, to go to Sodom; it was his will to go there. He was at liberty to go or to do otherwise; and he was as able to remain where he was as to go; but it was his free-will to go. We will call this his first will, because it was in compliance with this will that he went. Now it is assumed that be had a power over this will, or this act of his will, by the exercise of which he would have been able to will (or choose) differently. This power we will call (for distinction’s sake) the first power. And (according to this theory) Lot could have exercised it over his will, and determined not to go. But as be did not, it must have been because he would not. This would require a second will back of the power–a will to exercise the power; for if he had no will to exercise the power, it would be the same as if he had not the power. And further, this would necessitate a second power to govern this second will; and a third will to exercise the second power; and so on forever, for there could be no end to these alternations. And thus Lot would be like a horse working a tread-mill–always stepping on his inclined plane, and yet never move from his first position. But the mind instinctively recoils from the pursuit of this fleeting abstraction. And the man who adopts this theory would employ himself as rationally and as successfully in running to outgo his shadow. Regardless of the sneer that the above undignified and tabular form of presenting the argument may provoke, I desired if I could to make it plain to the minds of plain readers. And intending no injustice to the reputation of those who have advanced this groundless doctrine of the human will, I shall not withhold the opinion that it is resorted to as a mere hiding-place to escape the consequences of arguments too palpable and forcible to be resisted. And whether Lot did right or wrong, and whether he willed right or wrong, we know what it was that governed his will: “And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every-where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar. Then Lot chose him all the plain of Jordan.” (Gen. xiii. 10, 11.) This is very plain philosophy, and shows by what means the human will is governed in all cases.

I have one more idea to offer in relation to this power over the will, and then I will proceed to the last point of view in which I design to consider the subject of the human will. I will not detain the reader long in this place. If I were as conversant with the writings of moral philosophers as I could wish to be, I think it probable that I could appeal to the authority of great names in what I shall now advance; but the extent of my reading is so limited, that I can not avail myself of such support as I might derive from such a privilege.

I invite your attention to the relative order of will and power, as exercised in voluntary actions. Does a man will, that is, choose, or resolve, to perform any act under the influence of that power by which he performs it? In every instance the will, or determination of the mind, to do any act precedes the exertion of the power by which it is done. To place a power over the will, or, which is the same thing, to make the will subject to power, is to invert the established order of nature. Power is necessarily exercised in obedience to will, or it is exercised at random. I will not dwell on this argument; but the principle upon which the argument is founded is utterly subversive of the theory that man possesses in himself a power over his will.

But there is a point of view in which the subject of free-agency assumes an importance that challenges the close and candid consideration of every man. And now, in the last place, I design to take a little notice of the subject in that most important respect. It is in a practical view that free-agency involves considerations of the most serious and responsible nature. That every man acts freely in obedience to the dictates of his own will, without any constraint or coercive force exerted upon his will, is so evident that there ought never to have been any question on the subject. It is known by consciousness. Every man knows that he is a free-agent, and acts freely according to his own will, or choice, and this is decisive, and properly precludes all controversy. But although man is not a mere machine, which of necessity moves, just as it is moved by force, yet it leaves the question open, whether he is not the willing slave of his unholy affections and carnal worldly propensities. I speak of the natural man. We are not driven by physical force in the ways of sin, but we are allured by temptations and enticements which we have not the moral strength to resist. The things of this world are so congenial to the fleshly appetites, the pride and selfishness of men’s hearts, that they yield a willing submission to these influences. The love of this world is dominant in the human heart and the love of God, not being there to counteract it, sin reigns, and holds in easy control of the will; so that man, though free, is led captive by Satan at his will. This is a most deplorable bondage; for, being free-agents, we are subject to all the momentous responsibilities of free-agency, and justly liable to the fearful consequences of our voluntary sins, and yet we have not the moral heroism to fight successfully against the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. And the end of these things is death. What we need is the Spirit of grace to deliver the will from its slavish subjection to the unholy inclinations of our carnal hearts.

Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts