Is Man A Free Moral Agent?

“I know, O LORD, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23, NIV).

It is said in most theological schools as well as Evangelical Christian circles, that MAN IS A FREE MORAL AGENT. Nonetheless, you must understand that, the phrase “free moral agent” is not a Scriptural one. Free moral agency is simply a theological expression coined by man for his own convenience, and like most human inventions and extra-biblical terminology, is not scripturally verifiable. Who is a free moral agent? To perfectly understand who a free moral agent is, the term ought to be broken down:

  • An AGENT is an actor; one who is able to act or perform.
  • A FREE agent is one who can act as he pleases without any restraint of any kind placed upon him.
  • A free MORAL agent is one who is free to act as he pleases and without any restraint on all moral issues, i.e. all questions involving the qualities of right and wrong.

Scripture does not advocate the notion that man is a free moral agent. In fact, the Bible teaches the exact opposite. It tells us that, “…it is not for man to direct his steps.” The Good News Translation puts it aptly: “LORD, I know that none of us are in charge of our own destiny; none of us have control over our own life.” (Jeremiah 10:23, GNT). Romans 9:16 also says, “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” If we will impartially allow the scriptures to speak for themselves, it will be very easy to conclude that indeed, man is not a free moral agent. On the matter of free moral agency, it is abundantly clear that man’s seeming freedom to act is clearly within the confines of the choices presented to him by divinity in His sovereign will. For instance, in the early days of man on earth, he was clearly presented with two options in the Garden of Eden:

  1. To eat of the trees for food and tree of life
  2. Not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Is man free? Certainly not! Man always functions under the rule and instruction of one entity or another. From the inception of man’s stay on the earth, he was under the rule of God and subjected to his laws and outcomes.

Man’s actions contrary to the order of God, was what resulted in his fall from grace. And when he fell, he was not ushered into a realm of absolute freedom; it rather brought man into the servile bondage of Satan and the elements of this world. Man just changed masters, from God to Satan; he was never free. Jesus insinuated this in His discourse with the people of His day; “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”- (Matthew 11:28-30). The people were already under a yoke. Jesus did not assure them of a yokeless existence with Him. He made them know that so long as you are on earth, you required a yoke but His was light and easier to bear.

This stands to reason that there are principally two kinds of men on earth; believers and unbelievers. Concerning unbelievers, Scripture iterates, “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death WERE ALL THEIR LIFETIME SUBJECT TO BONDAGE” (Hebrews 2:14-15). Romans 7:14 also declares, “For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.” The unbeliever is a slave to sin and to Satan, as well as his own carnal mind and abominable desires. A man that is a slave of Satan cannot be a free moral agent. “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.” (Ephesians 4:18). Paul reveals that the unbeliever is seen as blind and ignorant of the life of God. He is not one who knows about and has refused the saviour’s grace. He is one who is ignorant of the saviour’s provision, for when his heart is truly opened, he will receive the saviour’s love. The apostle, Paul, writes in Romans 5:12, 19 “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” You had no choice but to be born under sin because of the actions of Adam. He did not consult you in the matter. Hence, you were not a sinner by choice. David affirms that he was shaped in iniquity. (Psalms 51:5).

Concerning believers, the word of God says, “For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men” (1 Corinthians 7:22- 23). Scripture proves that man, at every point in time of his life, is not free; he is under the influence of one entity or the other in a certain way.

Even practical observation shows that man’s freedom has very narrow limits. One is able to wish or desire as he pleases, but when he comes to carry out his wish or desire, he finds out that there are confines that have been set by the Creator. In the physical realm, one is not free to jump off the earth and land on Venus. Gravity has been predetermined to influence the earth and such a rule cannot be changed by man. Man cannot put H2O together to produce another substance save water. Man’s life neither begins nor ends by his choice – he is not considered in the matter. The sovereign Lord ordained the path of man without consulting him. It was God who created man and planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, and commanded man not to eat of that tree. It was God who created the serpent and allowed him to tempt man. But the most important thing is that God is responsible for the fall of man and its outcome.

Even if we assume that Adam was a free moral agent, God is responsible for what happened in the Garden, for whatever a free moral agent may do, He is responsible for it who made him a free moral agent! If God made man a free moral agent, then God created within man the propensities for either good or evil, which determined his choices. If God made man a free moral agent, He knew beforehand what the result would be, and hence is just as responsible for the consequences of the acts of that “free moral agent” as He would be for the act of an irresponsible machine that He had made.

On the matter of AGENCY, the question of whether man possesses the instrumentality to bring about a specified effect in accordance with his own dictates is examined. Our opening scripture says, “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23). Man lacks the inner power to direct his own steps or chart his own course in the journey of life. This truth is further emphasized in Proverbs 16:9: A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps. The ultimate determinant of a man’s course is not within the man; he thus lacks the power to stand as an agent acting of his own will.

The discourse on agency must put into perspective two cardinal principles; Supremacy and Sovereignty. Sovereignty in the Christian theological context sees God as the supreme authority, and all things are under His control. God is the “Sovereign Lord” of all by an incontestable right as the Creator; the owner and possessor of heaven and earth. Sovereignty is an attribute of God based upon the premise that God as the Creator of heaven and earth has the absolute right and full authority to do or allow whatever He desires. God’s sovereignty is revealed in the absolute right to do all things according to his own good pleasure. This is obviously one key ingredient that is lacking in the definition of man being a free moral agent. Man does not possess the ability to determine the complete outcome of his destiny. God consistently and solely shows that such honours reside with him. “Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isaiah 46:10). The counsel of God is indeed the blueprint of all things and determines the eventual outcome of all happenings in the universe. God cannot be Almighty if His will is ever frustrated. If His plans can be changed, then He is not all-wise and immutable. If God is all-wise and all good, then all things, existing according to His will, is working towards an end He alone has determined. Man has no such rights reserved to him. He thus cannot be a free moral agent. Man may have the air to make choices in minor things pertaining to his personal conduct but when it comes to his eternal destiny, it only lies within the Creator’s power.

Man will contend that he is a free moral agent and can accept or reject the Lord by his own will and initiative, but our Lord Jesus says, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:44). The apostle Paul, also says, “There is none righteous, no not one. There is none that understands, there is none that seeketh after God” (Romans 3:10-11).

What of morality? Morality thrives on the principles of right and wrong behaviour. It is built primarily on belief systems, the culture of a society as well as the ethics that drive conduct in an organised environment. Many assume the end of the faith of Christ is to make a person morally sound; inasmuch as moral uprightness is a by-product of the Christian faith, it is not the end of it. In considering the origins of man on earth, we come to the understanding that the ethics that drive morality and its judgment are a far cry from the pre-determinate counsel of God for mankind. Man was NOT created to function as a moral being per se: morality relates to being right or wrong in one’s conduct. “Now, the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:8-9, 16- 17). God’s instruction was explicit in revealing how He wanted man to live on earth. Man was to function in the realm of life only; He was to eat solely of the tree of life and the trees for food. Man was not made to meddle between right and wrong; between good and evil. Man was not made to be a moral being; he was made to be an organism pulsating with the life of God. He was to operate in the realm of life and not in the realm of good and evil.

The significance of this knowledge is beyond telling. We must not make the Almighty God seem to be a victim of the will of His own creation by robbing Him of His omnipotence. The teaching that man is a free moral agent implies that God gave his Son that through Him, all the world might be saved and then, renders His sacrifice hopeless by leaving the greater chunk of the world in the hands of the devil for all eternity. Such a doctrine belittles the power of God. The work of Jesus on the cross was not a failure! The desire of God for the ages is playing out! Let this light brew in your heart as you peruse the verities in this month’s Shofar. Order for a copy of the previous month’s edition for a foundational understanding of the salvation plan of God for the ages. Shalom!