Is the Ability to Sin Essential to the Definition of Free Will?
Sin and Involuntary Acts
In one sense the ability to sin seems to be essential to the free choice of the human will. Because, unless a person has free will, a person cannot sin. The reason for this contention is that free choice is a necessary element in all moral acts. By contrast, there are human acts that are not done by free choice. For example, there are involuntary acts that occur automatically under the control of a person’s autonomic nervous system. Heart rate, body temperature, breathing, and many hormonal and neuromuscular reflexes are non-volitional acts. These acts are not under the free choice of the human will. Therefore, since these acts are not freely chosen acts, they are not in the domain of moral choice. It is not a sin to have a particular body temperature or heart rate. Animals illustrate this principle too, because animals have no behavior that is freely chosen by their will. Therefore, it is impossible for an animal to do a morally responsible act and, as a result, sin.
Sin, Free Will & God
So, free choice does seem to be the ability to sin or not to sin. Because it is only possible to sin, if a person has the ability to make a free-willed choice. So, it is natural to define the liberty of the human will as the power to do good or evil. Yet, this definition presents a problem with respect to God and the elect angels. Historic Christianity accepts the belief that God has a free will and that He is sovereign in all His blest ways. He chooses sovereignly and freely after the counsel of His own will. God is under no external force or compulsion. In addition, it would be blasphemous to claim that God ever wills to do sin. Therefore, if free will were defined as the ability to sin or not to sin, God would not have a free will. Yet, it would be blasphemous to claim that God did not have a free will, so the definition of being able to sin or not to sin seems fatally flawed. This definition of free will could not apply to God, elect angels or the redeemed in glory who will never sin.
God & Free Will
Classically, the free choice of the will has been defined as a choice of the will as guided by a person’s rational mind. As can be seen, there is nothing in the classic definition that states that free choice is the ability to sin or not to sin. It is simply the free choice of the will directed by a person’s mind. The classic definition of free will applies appropriately to God who freely wills according to His rational and omniscient mind. In deed, the Apostle John in the first chapter of his gospel states that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Word. The Greek word used is, Logos, from which the English cognate comes, namely, logic. A logical mind is a rational mind. The ontological basis of logic is the mind of God. So, the classic definition of free will is eminently compatible with the Christian view of God’s will.
St. Anselm (1033-1109)
St. Anselm discussed whether the ability to sin was essential to the definition of free will in his literary work entitled, De Libertate Arbitrii. He wrote,
FREEDOM OF CHOICE1
(De Libertate Arbitrii)
That the ability to sin does not belong to freedom of choice.
Student. Since free choice seems to be opposed to the grace, predestination, and foreknowledge of God, I desire to know what freedom of choice is and whether we always have it. For if freedom of choice consists in being able to sin and not to sin (as men say) and if we always have free choice, how is it that we sometimes need grace? But if we do not always have free choice, why is sin imputed to us when we sin without a free choice?
Teacher. I do not think that freedom of choice is the ability to sin and not to sin. Indeed, if this were its definition, then neither God nor the angels who are not able to sin would have free choice. But to say that they have no free choice is blasphemous.
S. What if we were to say that the free choice of God and of the good angels is different from ours?
T. Although the free choice of men differs from that of God and of the good angels, nevertheless the definition of this freedom ought to be the same in both cases, in accordance with the name "freedom" which is used in both. For example, although one animal differs from another either accidentally or essentially, the definition is the same for all animals insofar as it defines animal. For this reason, we should give such a definition of "free choice" which is neither too broad nor too narrow. Now, since God and the good angels are unable to sin by free choice, the "ability to sin" does not belong to the definition of free choice. Therefore, neither freedom nor a part of freedom consists in having the ability to sin. Pay attention to what I am going to say in order that you may understand this clearly.
S. I’m here to learn.
T. Which will seems the more free to you: the will whose ability not to sin is such that it can in no way be turned away from the uprightness of not sinning or the will which can in some way be turned to sinning?
S. It does no seem to me that the second will, which is able either to sin or not to sin, is the more free.
T. But don't you see that someone who possesses what is fitting and advantageous in such a way that he can’t lose it is more free than someone else who possesses the same thing in such a way that he can lose it and be drawn towards what is unfitting and disadvantageous?
S. I think no one doubts this.
T. And is it any less doubtful that sinning is always unfitting and harmful?
S. No one of sound mind thinks otherwise.
T. Then, the will which is not able to turn away from the uprightness of not sinning is more free than the will which can desert its uprightness.
S. This seems the most reasonable thing that can be maintained.
T. Now, do you think that something which, when added, decreases freedom and which, when subtracted, increases it is either freedom or a part of freedom?
S. I don’t see how it can be.
T. Then the ability to sin, which, when added to the will decreases the will's freedom and when taken away from the will increases its freedom, is itself neither freedom nor a part of freedom.
S. Nothing follows more logically.
So, the freedom of the will does not consist in being able to sin or not to sin. The more a person wills contrary to truth and goodness, the more his will becomes enslaved to lusts and passions and loses its freedom. The will is most free when it chooses according to truth, goodness, and love. The redeemed in glory will have their thoughts and wills freely fixed in the truth, goodness, and love of God forever.
1 Anselm(1033-1109), Truth, Freedom, and Evil: Three Philosophical Dialogues, Translated by J. Hopkins and H. Richardson, Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, NY, 1967, p. 122-123.