Trying to understand the reformed view of Free Will versus Free Agency

In a previous discussion, on Irresistible Grace, there arose the question of Free Will versus Free Agency. Free Agency is still a new concept for me, and I’m trying to understand further about this in the context of making a choice to follow God. In the previous conversation, @Lakshmi helpfully explained to me that,

I’ve been thinking about this and would be keen to hear different perspectives on this. I have a couple of queries.

1 . Using the Will to make moral choices:
Charlotte Mason, a nineteenth century British educator, who wrote 6 volumes on education, addresses the role of the Will in making moral choices, in A Philosophy of Education. She says:

The Will, we are told, is ‘the sole practical faculty of man’. But who is to define the Will? We are told again that ‘the Will is the man’; and yet most men go through life without a single definite act of willing. Habit, convention, the customs of the world have done so much for us that we get up, dress, breakfast, follow our morning’s occupations, our later relaxations, without an act of choice. For this much at any rate we know about the Will. It’s function is to choose, to decide, and there seems to be no doubt that the greater becomes the effort of decision the weaker grows the general will.

She seems to understand the Will is a given, when it comes to making moral choices, but sees that it can be compromised the more a decision requires self regulation of Will. So, the harder a choice is, the harder it is to will the right thing. Taking this further, I suppose it follows that to make a choice for God must be very hard in this context, without supernatural intervention. I’m trying to work out if the Free Agency view resolves this at all.

2. Using the Will to develop character:
I find it interesting that Mason then connects Will with character. Mason illustrates the whole concept with an analogy of a city called Mansoul, ruled by a Premier named The Way of the Will. The ruler of this city aims to create a place of moral riches and beauty, seeing the main focus as developing character. She writes:

But the one achievement possible and necessary for every man is character; and character is as finely wrought metal beaten into shape and beauty by the repeated and accustomed action of will. We who teach should make it clear to ourselves that our aim in education is less conduct than character; conduct may be arrived at, as we have seen, by indirect routes, but it is of value to the world only as it has its source in character… and with every choice we make we grow in force of character.

I see this laid out in Romans 5:3-5 where suffering can lead to formation of good character if we make choices to persevere.

Either side of the Will, writes Mason, “stands Conscience and Reason”. All these work together to make moral choices, “whether it’s object be right or wrong; it is a matter of choice and there is no choice but free choice". I’m trying to resolve this with the idea of Free Agency with regards to making the greatest moral choice of that to follow Christ.

What roles do Conscience and Reason have in the idea of Free Agency? And can Free Agency - “the ability to make voluntary choices following our natural desires” - refine our character, as Free Will is said to do?

Does anyone have any thoughts of any part of this?

(I’m sorry if this question is a little complicated; it’s certainly caused me to think hard! :slightly_smiling_face:)


Hello, @alison! I’m so glad you’re picking up on this thread again…

The first thought that struck me as I was reading your post was, “There are so many different ways to conceptualize the Will; I wonder how helpful (for lack of a better word) Mason’s conceptualization is?”

First, I’m wondering who’s saying, “The will is the man.”? I’m fascinated by that statement, and it seemed to be in the mainstream of philosophical thought when she was writing this.

But to go on, what she seems to me to be describing is not a man who does not will, but a man who seems not all that engaged with the choices he makes in life…a man who is more reactive than proactive. For it could be his will to do what is “right”…and what is “right” is to do what’s expected of him. And what may be expected of him? Perhaps to rise and do the work he is engaged to do that day. The man still has a Will and exercises that will, but for whatever reason, his will is subsumed into the larger will of his society. His will is to do the will of society (or whatever).

I think I disagree with the part that I italicized. Is it that the will in general grows weaker? Or is it that a certain part of the will grows stronger? If it’s a “hard” decision, that usually means that something of the result could be unpleasant. So, in any case, the value of keeping things pleasant (or the will to keep on the path of least resistance) may, in the end, outweigh the perceived value of having to endure unpleasantness. But still, choosing not to do something is still a choice! Passivity is just as much an effort of the will as activity. It’s not that I have a “weak” will, but a will for that which is usually considered weak – the path of least resistance.

I tend to view “the Will” of an individual as being made up of many parts…desires, even…some that can be in conflict at certain junctures. If I come to a “difficult” decision, that usually means that there are conflicting desires within me. In your own of Mason, you wrote,

I would actually say that it’s slightly different. It’s not that it’s hard ‘to will the right thing’, it’s that I’m having difficulty discerning what is “right” between my conflicting desires. For my will is to do the right thing.

So, when I speak of “my will”, I am referring to what I want overall. It is influenced by my desires. My agency, however, is tied to what I do. That is, what I choose to do. It is an act of the will…or the will in action.

But back to the initial Free Will vs. Free Agency question…just to muddy the philosophical waters even more, I would also say that it depends on what you mean by “free”. The only being that is truly free is God. Humans are contingent beings, therefore, it would be difficult to argue for a “free” will/agency in certain respects. That we have a will and that we have agency is observed and experienced. But I don’t know if I agree with Mason when she says that "there is no choice but free choice ". All choice will be influenced. I don’t know if can ever “freely” choose God, but perhaps we could be freed in a way that helps us along the path to continually choose relationship with him.

This post is not really a direct answer, but perhaps it could help unearth some things for all of us! Do push back… :slight_smile:


I am going to go simple on this; from Sunday School past:

Thoughts: Be careful of what you think for thoughts become actions.

Actions: Be careful of what you do for actions become habits.

Habits: Be careful of your habits for habits become character.

Character: Be careful of you character for your character is who you are.

Note there are a number of variations of these thoughts.

That is what comes to my mind when I think of character.


Hi @alison,

I love your question and the replies you’ve received so far.

It seems to me that it would help to define each word. The reason for this is that words often acquire what I call ‘technical’ meaning. The way one Reformed theologian might use “free will” and “free agency” could be different from another Reformed theologian, and certainly have different meanings in mind for these terms than Charlotte Mason!

I would also recommend going back to the Scriptures. What do we see in the Scriptures that can help us understand the human condition? Of course, we read these through the ‘lenses’ of our personality, culture, theology, and so on. Still, attempting to unearth what they are saying can help us ‘always be reforming’ our understanding of the human condition.

Another complication in this discussion is the debate between determinism and libertarian free will and between compatibilism and incompatibilism. These different approaches use the same kinds of words to mean very different things.

On the deterministic side, you might have a naturalistic determinist, who believes that all of our decisions are pre-determined by the laws of nature operative in our environment and biological systems. Or you might have a theological determinist who believes that God has already fixed the path of our lives.

On the libertarian side, you might have someone who believes that God has given to humanity the capacity to make free choices. You and I are given the agency to choose our own paths in life, including whether or not to love God.

I believe @lakshmi’s quote, above, is sharing one way of understanding the reformed view, which falls into the compatibilism camp. That is, we are determined (“enslaved”) to sin, therefore we lack the free will to choose Christ. Our will is in “bondage” to sin - it is not free. One analogy I’ve heard is that just as a lion “chooses” to eat antelopes, so our will chooses to sin. We voluntarily make these choices — perhaps we select which sin to indulge in - but we could not choose a sinless alternative. It is only if God changes our hearts from lions to, say, rabbits, that we would then voluntarily “choose” to eat carrots. This voluntary decision can be termed “free agency.”

From a libertarian perspective, the idea that the deterministic/compatibilist view represents free will or free agency seems like a confusion of terms. The will is restricted, limited, and constrained. Unless we have the ability to choose, then we might have the appearance of free will, but not the substance of it. From this perspective, a robot’s “voluntary” following of its script isn’t free, but determined. However, the human who chooses what kind of program to write for the robot, unconstrained from any external influence, has free will.

In a much softer way, we can also see that our wills (however we understand them) are influenced by other factors. These might include our personal history (habits), physiological capacities, economic situation, relationships, education, etc. We could also include our culture, customs, climate, laws, history, etc. - the larger environment.

Ultimately, I think what we want is for God’s Spirit to work within our spirit as we seek to be like Christ for the glory of God.


Thanks for these replies! There’s so much to think about here, that I realise that even defining the concepts of Free Will or Free Agency is much more complex than I understood. The definition that I’ve offered in my first post, is just one understanding of the Will. I’ll use this as a starting point, but I’m happy to reframe my ideas as I go.

Thanks, I see that every choice is influenced to a certain extent, but I’m not sure if influence equates to lack of freedom? What do you think? What you have written has been really helpful for me to consider, and I’ll continue to work through these ideas.

I’m so aware of Jeremiah 17:9 -

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?

And yet one of the most embedded concepts through scripture for us to seek God’s will for our lives (Mark 14:36, Matthew 6:10). So there’s this constant struggle between knowing the right thing i.e. God’s will, and yet having things we tell ourselves to justify our carnal desires. As we walk in step with Christ, the knowledge of and desire to follow God’s will grows, and the power of our fleshly wants diminishes. I think it is in this context that Charlotte Mason addresses the Will, and suggests that we cultivate our character in order to Will the right things, ultimately to follow God’s Will. Yet, we can always make reasons for the right or wrong things, if we so choose. That’s why Reason alone is not sufficient, although can be a great part of making choices if used correctly.

:sweat_smile: Give me time to think about this some more…

I’m wondering if this is a helpful analogy - what do you think? The ‘lion’ chooses antelopes (sin) because it’s a lion. The rabbit chooses ‘carrots’ because it’s a rabbit. Isn’t it the same problem - a lack of free choice, more of a programming depending on nature? Would a better representation of free choice/will be that the lion chooses to eat carrots? Am I getting carried away with the analogy? :joy: I still find Charlotte Mason’s statement “there is no choice but free choice” makes more sense in this context.

I love this. I’ve been thinking about all this in the context of teaching my children to make good choices in life and how I go about that, and I think that this is the overarching lesson that every day should focus on: to make room for God’s Spirit to work in our hearts, so that he can shape our characters. We want to be seeking His will for our daily choices, and this can require heavy practice of the right habits (as @jimmy said) , which leads to good character formation. The fullness of this practice will be a dependency to follow God’s will. But this requires an initial choice which takes us back to the original question.

What I realise then, is that there are layers to this issue: God’s will, our will and the variations of this. Perhaps I’m pulling them all together rather incoherently which is why I’m struggling to understand fully. What everyone has given me is a great starter as I continue to unpick the aspects raised in conversation.