To Will or Not to Will

Published on May 28, 2010 by CT in Blog, Thoughts


I love books.  Books allow us to enter the hearts and minds of others with different experiences in different times and think our own thoughts through theirs.  Sometimes we find words that we’ve felt but could not describe; other times we’re faced with thoughts we’ve never thought before.

I’ve been reading The Sovereignty of God by A.W. Pink (1886-1952), and the book is giving me a lot to think about.  Pink speaks with the royal, editorial “we,” which is always a good time.  But he is also diving deep into the nature of God as revealed within the Bible and painting a portrait of the way man respond to this sort of revelation.

Here’s one section I’ve been wrestling with:

“What is the human Will?  Is it a self-determining agent, or is it, in turn, determined by something else?  Is it sovereign or servant?  Is the will superior to every other faculty of our being so that it governs them, or is it moved by their impulses and subject to their pleasure?  Does the will rule the mind, or the mind control the will?  Is the will free to do as it pleases, or is it under the necessity of rending obedience to something outside of itself.”

He goes on to say:

“The will is the faculty of choice, the immediate cause of all action…In every act of will, there is preference—the desiring of one thing rather than another…To will is to choose, and to choose is to decide between alternatives.  But there is something which influences the choice; something which determines the decision.”

Ultimately, Pink says it is the heart which is at the core of humans and that the heart is inclined towards good or evil.  This inclination, or tendency, drives the impulse which guides the will in choosing what it chooses.  He builds on the notion that the will is bound, either by sin, or by righteousness.

So what do you think about all this?  And should we care?

  • Jim Kane

    We need to help people understand the impact and the place of the will in life. Emotions/feelings are a part of our humanity. But we still have the all important and significant ability to chose this day whom we will serve.

  • bethyada

    Heart is being used metaphorically here. And by heart we variably mean emotion (English) or will (Hebrew). Our will is our will, or our desires. It is variably acted on by good and evil desires in all men (being imago dei, yet fallen) but our will is what we choose to do. That part of us that God made that allows us to make decisions. Yes God influences that will for good, and there are other influences for evil, yet we have to choose whom and what we obey.

    • Chris_Tomlinson

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. Help me out a little more–I think I'm following you but want to understand where you're going. Are you saying the heart, emotion, and will are essentially the same? Or is our will "acted on" by our desires (heart? or something else?) as you noted–which makes me think there may be a distinction between the two?

      Experientially, it seems as though my will, or my capacity to choose, is a war zone between competing forces (again desires, heart, something else?), which makes me think there's something deeper than the will. Of course, I'd be a fool to think my experience creates truth =).


  • Mike

    Without having given it much thought up to this point in my life, I guess I'm inclined to believe the "will" and the "mind" are virtually indistinguishable. The Bible tells us the enemy is in a battle over our minds and exhorts us to capture every "thought" to the obedience of Christ. Our thoughts influence our actions (and our actions probably influence our thoughts in return), revealing that our minds and our actions are intricately woven together. I, therefore, see both thought/mind and action as matters of the will (will power to avoid that jelly donut is a matter of the mind AND the body). difference between soul and spirit). The Bible tells me my will (mind, heart, whatever one wants to call it) is NOT good at all, but desperate for and bent on wickedness…and I need the Spirit of God to capture it and transform it into the likeness of Christ, because I cannot do it alone.
    My recent post THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD:

    • Chris_Tomlinson

      Good thoughts, Mike. Will and mind do seem to be closely tied, if not indistinguishable. I'm wondering if the heart, mind, and will are different ways of saying the same thing or if there are distinctions between them. Pink seems to be saying the heart is something deeper than the will–that the heart actually impels the will which then chooses according to the inclination of the heart. Unregenerate hearts bent towards evil are in a sense enslaved to evil, and the will follows. Regenerate hearts bent towards righteousness are enslaved to Christ, and the will follows.

      The tough thing for me to grasp is the dynamic of the latter–it seems as though I have volitional choice between sin and righteousness–even as a new creature in Christ. But I also have the deep sense that choosing righteousness in each decision requires submission to the Spirit's power working through me. I have plenty of experience seeing what happens when I don't submit in this way.

      I think you make a great point about the cooperation of the internal and external–resisting the jelly donut requires the participation of the will and the body! Thanks for sharing your thoughts…

      • 5MinutesPlease

        Chris and Mike–please do say more.
        I know that the Bible tells me, as Mike said, that I am "NOT good at all, but desperate for and bent on wickedness." I also agree with Chris, "choosing righteousness in each decision requires submission to the Spirit's power working through me."
        I still struggle with this idea. I truly want to believe that I and all humankind are created good. If we were created in God's image–doesn't that define me as good? I'm not snooty/conceited or think that I am almighty. I deeply believe that God created all things beautiful. Therefore, it is the "gift" of free will that "causes" me to be disobedient. Again, as Chris said, submission (or obedience) to the Spirit. Perhaps it is truly wanting to align oneself with the coming of God's Kingdom on earth. For when we have altruistic brotherly love (and equally), we will see th Kingdom Come. (Which is a topic in itself.)

        On another angle, how do you grasp the idea of a person who is "generally" "good" yet is not a Christian? How does that play in to the argument that "man" is inherently sinful from birth?
        My recent post Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Mother’s Dedication

  • Jeff Patterson

    Always good when you can find a paragraph in Pink's writings that others can understand! Good words here, Chris.

    The ancient Greeks used to say that what we think about is what we talk about leads to our actions, and what we will become (character). I think they were on to something there. One might ask, "What about the heart; what about desires?" Exactly, as our minds/thoughts cannot be separated from our heart desires. That's because (bethyada is right) the ancients generally saw heart and mind as interchangeable (or at least interdependent), not just in emotions, but overall volition. Perhaps it is both more complex and simple at the same time; simplex.

    Maybe the question isn't, "do we have free will?" but rather "how free is our will?" And by freedom do we mean we can do whatever we please? Or that we are limited by our nature, our bent. We're not neutral, or even fully rational beings. Try being cut off in traffic and see how free your will becomes :-)

    • Chris_Tomlinson

      Simplex. Nice =)

      I think you are asking the right question–the Scriptures seem to clearly testify to God's sovereignty, our bent towards evil, the necessity of His justifying and sanctifying grace right alongside our responsibility for our own choices and actions. But neutrality–or complete moral sovereignty over our own hearts/minds/souls doesn't seem to be in the cards. I like how you phrased your final question: how free is our will?

  • 5MinutesPlease

    I think our will is a servant. It plays a large role in our "drive." I agree with Pink that our will "is under the necessity of rending obedience to something outside of itself.” We do need to tame our will.

    I also think that our will can be a good thing. It can drive us to do "good" in our personal daily lives, in the lives of others, and the life of (may levels of) community.

    (This is a big one, Chris. Looks like I have another author/book to add to my list.)
    My recent post The Good News of the Gospel: You Are Not a Dog

  • bethyada

    Are you saying the heart, emotion, and will are essentially the same? Or is our will "acted on" by our desires (heart? or something else?) as you noted–which makes me think there may be a distinction between the two?

    No, I am saying that heart is a metaphor that may refer to different things. In English we tend to use heart to mean emotions." I love you with all my heart" does not mean "I choose to love you" (ie. will); to most English speakers it means "I feel overwhelming affection toward you" (ie. emotion).

    My understanding is that heart in Hebrew carries the sense of will (though this may be nuanced). Emotions may be connected to kidneys or bowels (I think). From the NET Bible notes on Jeremiah 11:20:

    Heb “Lord of armies, just judge, tester of kidneys and heart.” The sentence has been broken up to avoid a long and complex English sentence. The translation is more in keeping with contemporary English style. In Hebrew thought the “kidneys” were thought of as the seat of the emotions and passions and the “heart” was viewed as the seat of intellect, conscience, and will. The “heart” and the “kidneys” are often used figuratively for the thoughts, emotions, motives, and drives that are thought to be seated in them.

    So all I am saying is that when reading books in English about the Bible one needs to know what the author means. I don't know Hebrew, and Pink possibly does so he is probably writing with the Hebrew understanding in mind, especially given the words of his you have quoted. I was just pointing out the importance for the reader.

    Experientially, it seems as though my will, or my capacity to choose, is a war zone between competing forces (again desires, heart, something else?), which makes me think there's something deeper than the will.

    Why deeper? The war zone is the result of those emotions, thoughts and external factors that act on the will, but it does not mean these are deeper. God has the capacity to choose as he so wills, our will is that part of us God created which can make choices. Though we do not have the same capacity to choose as broadly as God, we choose within constraints.

  • Wilberforce

    These are all very interesting comments and thoughts but I am not sure any have addressed the most fundamental question for many of us: at the moment of decision in a particular moral choice in your life, do you have the ability to choose to do right or wrong or are you caused to do either one or the other by another will, be it God, Satan, or something else?

    • Chris_Tomlinson

      Wilberforce, thanks for your question. That's a tough one that I've thought through quite a bit. I'm thinking the answer is different based on whether the person is regenerate or not–or at least the "ability to choose" may be different. What are your thoughts on the question you posed?

      • Wilberforce

        I guess my first thought in response is another question: when you say "regenerate," do you believe a person's will is actually re-generated, i.e. created again? If so, what exactly is changing? If you assert that it is God Who regenerates the will, and your will was not involved, then did you have a will initially? If you had a part in willing God to re-generate your will, does that not mean you did not require a will regeneration? Is the old creature completely obliterated? Clearly our body, mind, and soul remain even after Christ changes us. Clearly our will can choose good and evil after Christ changes us. If God has re-created our will upon salvation, why can we still choose evil? Do you believe we can only choose evil before Christ changes us? If so, I am unable to conceive of how we have a will with no choice. It appears to me that choice is inherent in the definition of will. I think the answer I usually hear to that question, "Anything that appears to be choosing good is actually evil because it is not motivated by a desire to glorify God in it" has several difficulties. One of the key ones appears to be that Christ does not ask us to do things for the glory of God, but rather out of love, more often that not. Christ asks Peter if he loves Him, not if Peter desires His glory, as an example. If someone does something out of love who is not saved, is that evil? It seems to me the only way out of this is to just define with prejudice all acts before salvation as evil rather than having a standard. I.e. All acts before salvation are evilly motivated. How do we know they are evilly motivated? Because they were before salvation. There is no real differentiator there. If we are always evilly motivated, and God tells us He will judge us based on our deeds, how can He hold us guilty for doing the only deeds He has enabled us to do? Had he not said He would judge us based on our deeds, He would have every right to send us wherever He wants, but once He has said that that is the criterion for judgement , doesn't that imply unavoidably that He had to have given us at least one personal shot at choosing good?

        • Chris_Tomlinson

          Wilberforce, you have asked a lot of good questions and have shared a great deal of insight into the implications of this topic. Thanks for the investment of your time. I have a feeling I will be referring back to this comment in the future as I continue to wrestle through these thoughts.

          My first thought was that regeneration is more about the spirit and less about the will. Here, I am making a distinction between our immortal spirit, the part of us that is dead in sin before we are justified, and our will, or our capacity to choose. Whether the will also includes the emotions or the mind is not necessarily relevant at this point; I think it is still distinct from our spirit.

          Pink would say that the heart is "deeper" than the will and inclines the will either towards good or towards evil. In this line of thinking, the regenerate spirit would be inclined towards good while the unregenerate heart would be inclined towards evil. I believe this line of thinking would also include the understanding that the Spirit of God, who indwells and makes alive a man's spirit, would be acting in and through a man, prompting his will towards righteous works.

          A good number of your questions and comments were based on a slightly different assumption that what I've discussed above, so I will pause for the moment to see if you have other thoughts. Thanks again for your probing questions–I appreciate it.

          • Wilberforce

            "[T]he regenerate spirit would be inclined towards good while the unregenerate heart would be inclined towards evil." Taking this statement and based on what you are saying above, it is therefore possible to choose good when unregenerate, am I correct? The word "inclined" means having a preference, disposition, or tendancy, but is not compulsive, i.e. "I am inclined towards eating too much dessert" does not mean I have no choice in eating too much dessert, just that I prefer to and likely choose to eat it often. This does not sound to me like will is restricted here, just that it is non-compulsively influenced.

            "Here I am making a distinction between our immortal spirit, the part of us that is dean in sin before we are justified…" If our spirit is dead, then it is not alive if it goes to hell? Would this mean after physical death, God revives all spirits only to send them to hell in judgement? What would be your Scriptural support for this?

            Thank you very much for your dialogue

  • Chris_Tomlinson


    Thanks again for your well-reasoned thoughts and questions. In speaking of "inclination," you've brought up a good question–is an unregenerate heart compelled towards evil, or is it inclined towards evil. I'm not sure I've fully resolved this in my own mind, though Romans 3:10-12 is a passage that suggests the former. It says:

    "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one."

    This passage is in the context of all being under sin and is later contrasted with the righteousness of God that comes through grace. Could you contend that these verses are more general in nature–that common grace may produce some good, even in an unregenerate heart? I'm not sure, although I do think it's clear that the unregenerate spirit cannot produce good in terms of righteousness or seeking after God. At a minimum, the unregenerate spirit is compelled towards evil in that sense.

    As for being spiritually dead, this is contrasted with being spiritual alive–or born again–or brought into the light. In Ephesians 2:1-2, 4-5, Paul writes:

    "And you were dead in the trespasses and since in which you once walked, following the course of this world…but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even while we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved."

    We could say that being spiritually dead is not being made alive together with Christ–that we do not share in the new life He brings. We could also say spiritual death is separation from God. It may be helpful to say that spiritual death does not mean spiritual non-existence, nor does it mean a lack of consciousness (for the Ephesians were "walking" and "following," though they were dead in sin.

    Please continue to probe and question as the thoughts arise!