What is libertarian free will?

by Matt Slick

Theologically speaking, Libertarian Free Will (LFW) is the view that peoples' choices are free from prior cause and that our fallen, sinful nature does not constrain moral choices.  In other words, human free will is completely free to choose to receive or reject Christ as well as to choose to do anything among options and that such choices are in no way determined by circumstances or our nature or our desires.  Therefore, Libertarian Freedom is the ability to choose to act contrary to circumstances, prior causes, one's desires, and one's fallen nature.

Libertarians assert that moral responsibility requires true, undetermined freedom of choice. They ask how anyone could be morally responsible if their choices were determined in any way - even by our desires? 

  • "The libertarian view states that some human decisions and actions, particularly moral and religious decisions, are strictly uncaused. In the most sophisticated forms of libertarianism, these decisions are not even caused by our desires or character." (https://frame-poythress.org/free-will-and-moral-responsibility)
  • "This understanding of human freedom says that we have the ability to make spontaneous choices contrary to our dispositions and inclinations. Nothing determines our choices. We are always able to choose good or evil. Our wills are wholly neutral." (http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/what-free-will)
  • "By definition, the ability or power to choose or to refrain from choosing is what is called libertarian freedom. So a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty requires the corresponding concept of contingency, and this necessitates understanding God’s freedom in libertarian terms." (Keathley, Kenneth. Salvation and Sovereignty,  (p. 26). B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN, 2010, Kindle Edition. p. 26)
  • Radical libertarianism says that "one's actions are not determined by anything prior to a decision, including one's character and values, and one's feelings and desires." (http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/libertarianism.html)

Those who hold to libertarian free will frequently assert that we cannot be held morally responsible for our choices if God foreordained those choices or if those choices are determined or influenced by our sinful nature.

Compatibilist free will

By contrast, compatibilist free will would state a person is affected by his nature and that is desires, which emanate from his nature, help to determine what choices he freely makes. Furthermore, it states that a person cannot choose in a manner that is contrary to his nature or desires.

The Scriptures negate the libertarian freedom of the unbeliever and declares that the unbeliever is a slave of sin (Romans 6:14-20) and cannot understand and perceive spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:14). 

Libertarian free will   Compatibilist free will
  • Free will is affected by human nature but retains ability to choose contrary to fallen nature and desires
  • Free will is affected by human nature but person cannot choose contrary to the fallen nature and desires

Objections to Libertarian Free Will

Since libertarian free will asserts that a person choices must be independent of his desires and of any prior causes, then problems arise. How is it possible for a creature to act in a manner contrary to what he or she desires? After all, we do what we desire to do.  Is our will independent of what we want?  If so, then how can we be held morally responsible for what we do, if it is not according to our desires? It makes no sense.  in addition, if our will is not caused by anything but is independent, then how does it occur? A decision is in effect and effects have causes. How is it possible to have the effect of a decision be made without something influencing that decision, without something having been prior to the decision?

There are other philosophical objections that go into more depth, perhaps the most critical of libertarian free will is biblical revelation itself which states that people cannot act in a manner contrary to their natures. Remember, libertarian free will proponents assert that the unregenerate sinner is able to freely choose Christ. However, the Bible tells us that the unregenerate are deceitful (Jer. 17:9), full of evil (Mark 7:21-23), loves darkness rather than light (John 3:19), cannot come to God on his own (John 6:44), does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12), is a slave of sin (Rom. 6:20; John 8:34), cannot receive spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), is dead in his sins (Eph. 2:1), is by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3), and is at enmity with God (Eph. 2:15).

  • Jer. 17:9, "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick. Who can understand it?"
  • Mark 7:21-23, "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness."
  • John 3:19, "This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil."
  • Rom. 3:10-12, "as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless. There is none who does good, there is not even one.’"
  • Rom. 6:20, "For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness."
  • 1 Cor. 2:14, "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised."
  • Eph. 2:1, "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins."
  • Eph. 2:3, "Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest."

In light of the above Scriptures, I do not see how it is possible for Christians who affirm biblical revelation, also hold to libertarian free will.