We answer this question with a resounding yes. Not only can man choose what he wants, man actually does choose exactly what he wants. However, there is an additional question that needs to be asked and answered. What does man want? This question will take a little more time to answer than the first one. Often times when people consider the matter of what man wants in reference to his will and its freedom, the defining idea that is often offered to summarize these matters is that man has “the ability to choose between good and evil.” This phrase is offered to identify the will’s ability and man’s desires. For many people, this wording defines the moral capacity of the human will and summarizes the essence of human morality and responsibility. However, does this particular understanding of the human will and the matter of human freedom stand up to the scrutiny of Scripture, the comparison of God’s will with that of man and angels, and the consistency of the will across every state of man’s existence?
First, let us make note of the consistency of the will across all states of man’s existence. It is clear from the grand scope of Holy Scripture that man, at the end of time, will have existed in four different states of existence. The first of these states may be defined as a pre-fall state. The only human beings who have existed in that state of life were Adam and Eve. The second of these four states is described as the post-fall state. Every human being, since Adam and Eve, has been, is, and will be definable by this state of existence. The third state is known as the post-conversion state, which is the state of existence after one is converted to Christianity. Of course this state is only made up of Christians. The fourth and final state of existence is post-glorification, which is the believer’s state in heaven. Now, these are the four unique, but related states of human existence. However we define freedom of the will, our definition must fit each of these states. Since freedom is a part of human existence, it must be true of man in each state of his existence. For example, man does not cease to have a free will in heaven. Therefore, does the ability to choose good or evil properly define the human will in all four states of his existence?
Secondly, we should make note of how the will of God compares with that of man and angels. When God created man, the Bible is very clear that He made him in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). In other words, man is uniquely like God in that in his very essence he is a rational spirit. As a rational spirit he has the capacity to think, to express emotions, and the ability to will or make decisions. He is therefore like God and is a person. In this sense, we as evangelicals also believe that angels are also persons who can do those same things. In fact, the Bible teaches that these things, thinking, willing, and emoting, are true of angels whether they are good or evil angels (Job 38:7; Mt. 28:5; Lk. 8:28-31; 15:10; 1 Pet. 1:12; Mt. 28:5). Since this is the case, it should be expected that freedom of the will would be true of all persons who have wills, and this includes angels. In creating men and angels in His image, God used His will and its functionality as its pattern and thus we are like Him in reference to His will in a limited sense. We are also like Him in our thinking and expression of emotions, although the likeness is in a limited sense. Therefore, the same question is raised as before: does the ability to choose good or evil properly define the human will in all four states of man’s existence? To this question, we might also add, does the ability to choose good or evil define the will of God and the will of angels and demons?
As we now come to the third facet of our brief study of this reality, we must see what Scripture affirms about these matters. As a result of the fall, mankind became completely corrupted, with his nature being described as sinful. All mankind was plunged into the state which the Bible refers to as death, spiritually speaking (Eph. 2:1). For people who are spiritually dead, biblically correct and divinely motivated decisions and actions are impossibilities. Notice that so dominate and controlling was sin that God said of man “that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). In fact, the apostle Paul said the following regarding the unsaved person’s moral ability, “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Rom. 8:7). Not only is that the only thing that an unsaved person can do, it is also the only thing that he wants to do, because he always desires darkness, not more than the light, but rather than the light (Jn. 3:19).
The point being made by the biblical authors is that man’s will coincides perfectly with man’s nature. Because of the fall, man is no longer able to submit himself to God, since his will is bound to his nature, which is the nature of how the will operates. This should be no surprise, because a will cannot will against the very being of which it is a part. So, for example, God, in exercising His will, cannot will against His own nature. God is perfectly righteous, so when presented with the options of doing good or evil, God can only choose to do good, for choosing evil is impossible for Him, yet He possesses a free will. Let me illustrate. When faced with the decision between telling the truth and telling a lie, only one of these options is a possibility for God. After all, Titus 1:2 declared of God that He “cannot lie.” Lying is an impossible option for God. Yet He is still free, because He is choosing within the boundaries of His nature in an unforced manner. Simply put, the boundaries of the will are determined by the nature.
The understanding of freedom of the will as the ability to choose within the bounds of one’s nature in a way that is unforced is the biblical view, and it is true of all rational beings – God, angels, and men. Understanding this reality helps make sense of such statements in Scripture as 1 Corinthians 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.” Unsaved man’s refusal to receive the things that come from God, including the gospel, is tied to his inability due to his lack of possession of the Spirit who provides the means of spiritual discernment (cf. 1 Jn. 4:1-6).
Now, someone might well reply, “Why does God still command moral behavior, like holiness and repentance, from man if man cannot respond to it? This line of thinking, however, is faulty. Why? Because it fails to take into account that when man fell, while it changed his nature and thus his capacity, it did not change his responsibility. In other words, now that God was dealing with a sinful humanity, did not mean that He was going to lower His standards to where man could reach them. If that was the case, rather than say, “You shall not steal,” He would have said, “Keep your stealing to a minimum.” Rather than “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” He would have had to lower His standards to something like, “Try to only lie if it is going to be to your advantage.” Can you imagine commands based on what the Bible identifies as human moral capacity (cf. Rom. 8:7)? You can see how ludicrous it would be for God to make a set of commands and issue a set of calls that were based on man’s ability or capacity. God’s commands and calls are based on His character, “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). By basing them on Himself, it forces man to need God to fulfill them, because man is unable in and of himself to do so. However, that fact is for another question.
Let us summarize by clearly affirming that man is free to choose whatever he wants. Also, just as God chooses that which He wants, which is only good, the demons choose that which they want, which is only evil, yet both are still free. Man, according to the Scriptures, only wants that which is darkness, for he loves the darkness rather than the light, and so he will always choose that which he desires to choose. The greatest desires in the heart of man are often not the desires that he voices, but the desires for which he longs within his heart. The darkness of his heart assures the fact that he will always desire the darkness of his own heart and make decisions that align themselves with that darkness.