BiblicalTraining's mission is to lead disciples toward spiritual growth through deep biblical understanding and practice. We offer a comprehensive education covering all the basic fields of biblical and theological content at different academic levels.
Read More


WILL (אָבָה, H14, רָצָה, H8354; βούλομαι; θέλω). Neither the principal terms used in Scripture to indicate acts of human will, nor the less frequently used terms, indicate a “faculty” of will, or a specific “power” of willing. The Bible does not speak of will in such an abstract manner, nor does it present any critically or systematicaly developed psychology, least of all a classical faculty psychology; nor does it discuss the philosophical problem of freedom and determinism. Since it is rather a literary record of God’s dealings with men than a psychological or philosophical treatise, the Bible speaks in simple fashion of human acts and agents, of decisions and desires, of commands and intentions. Yet what it says has implications for the more theoretical questions.

Biblical conceptions.


It becomes evident (1) that the two verbs have no clearly distinct meanings, (2) that they depict man as an agent with responsibility for his acts, rather than denoting a discrete faculty, “the will,” and (3) that it is accordingly the man who chooses or desires or refuses, rather than “his will.” In fact, “the will” of one’s enemies is a tr. of נֶ֫פֶשׁ, H5883, or “soul,” i.e. the person (Ps 27:12; 41:2; Ezek 16:27). This wholistic conception of personality is fundamental to any Biblical characterization of man.

Moral freedom.

The metaphysical problem of freedom, like a faculty psychology, is not in the Biblical purview. Rather man is a responsible agent, capable of certain self-determining acts. There are limits on his freedom, not only environmental and hereditary but even more significantly moral. That is to say, man has lost the freedom not to sin and so in measure has lost his capability of moral self-determination. The things he wants to do he finds himself unable to do. He is the victim of temptations from without and within, he unavoidably corrupts his physical and social environment, and he creates for himself needlessly complex tangles of emotion, rationalization and circumstance which shut him into hopeless despair. Man’s lostness is seen in the lostness of moral freedom, not (as with contemporary nihilism) in the meaninglessness of human existence. God’s grace in response to man’s sin therefore sets about restoring moral freedom. Christian liberty means that one obeys God’s law of his own will, that is to say, of himself, heartily, not that one is freed from such obligations (John 8:31-36; Rom 7 and 8; Gal 4:1-9; 5:15-24).

It is not possible within this article to handle adequately the theological and philosophical problems connected with will. Some of them are handled in articles on related topics. In what follows an attempt is made to indicate a direction for inquiry to take in the light of the Biblical conceptions.

Theological problems.

Is freedom of will destroyed by the Fall?

At first glance outright disagreement appears on this question but the difference is partly that writers address different questions. Augustine (354-430) was aroused by the Pelagian claim that men would have the moral freedom to obey the law fully were it not for the bad example of Adam and his descendants and that Jesus Christ provided a new example to reinforce the good resolve of the human will. Augustine replied that men are no longer able not to sin, no longer morally free, but need divine grace to enable them to trust Christ and do His will. Man in sin is drawn by concupiscence, love of this world, whereas man in grace is drawn by charitas, a love for God that affects all else. Love of either sort is the dominating attitude of a life. Augustine speaks of it as an attitude of the will, that is, an act of the whole person. A man makes one kind of love or the other his own: the one draws him away from God and the good, robbing him of his freedom in those regards, whereas the other draws him toward God and the good, freeing him to obey God and to do the good.

Aquinas (1223-1274) was concerned more with metaphysical than moral questions. Since man is by his essential nature a rational being, an act of will requires purposeful deliberation as well as decision, and the will is free insofar as it is rationally guided toward its ends. Concupiscence does not destroy freedom and make an act involuntary, but it inclines the will toward the object of concupiscence just as the love of God inclines it toward good ends. Fear and ignorance damage freedom of the will, not corcupiscence.

It should be recognized that freedom of the will is an ambiguous notion, varying with its object. Augustine himself recognized this. A person may be free to choose clothing or to perform certain moral acts, but not at all free to obey God’s law from the heart or to trust the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Generalizations about free will tend to gloss over such differences and to sidetrack that closer analysis which the problem requires.

Is freedom of will compatible with divine election?

Discussions of predestination and free will frequently employ a mechanistic model for cause and effect, as if a man acts in response to efficient causes and behavioral stimuli. This hardly does justice either to human personality or to the creativity of God, and Scripture uses a more personalistic model. God prepares hearts, He loves men, He calls them and draws them to Himself. Here is the language not of mechanical determinism, but of interpersonal relations, after the way of a man with a maid or a father with his son. The problem, then, is not whether the human will acts independently in coming to faith, not whether faith is determined or undetermined by God, but rather how in the dynamic interaction of the divine person with a human person God preserves the personal freedom of the man while leading him to faith. The combination is possible in interpersonal relations, while it is not possible with more mechanical causes.

One clue is found in Aquinas’ classic treatment of the will, in which he points out that a man differs from animals in that while the latter attain ends non-deliberately, involuntarily, and “by nature,” men attain ends deliberately, voluntarily, and “by choice.” A man makes an end his own, he is often led to do so by rational considerations, and he acts to achieve that end for himself. He establishes purposes and pursues them. Even though he is powerfully influenced in the process by other people and by the providence and grace of God, both the purpose and its pursuit have become fully and freely his own.

Philosophical problems.

Is freedom of will compatible with behavioral science?

The problem of freedom and determinism was hardly discussed in ancient or medieval philosophy, where freedom of will was regarded as a datum to be accounted for rather than a hypothesis with which one can dispense. The problem arose following the scientific revolution, when the methods and concepts of physical science were extended to the study of man and his behavior. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), viewing man as totally material and matter as subject to mechanistic laws, regarded deliberation and decision as mere epiphenomena produced by physical forces at work in the body. Behavioristic psychology of more recent days employs similar explanations; for from an empirical point of view human acts must all be explained in terms of heredity and environment that is stimulus-response mechanisms. It is assumed that free acts, if they occur at all, are uncaused acts, and that all causes are of the sort which behavioral observation describes.

The problem is first epistemological, for to assume that all aspects of human existence are empirically describable by behavioral science begs the question regarding the nature of man. It assumes that human activity is a complex behavioral response and that man is totally a physical being. These are precisely the points in question. If, as Descartes argued, the soul is another ingredient of human nature of a different sort than the body, then it is not necessarily subject to those causes which control bodily processes, nor are its acts empirically observable. One need not accept Descartes’ problem-strewn interactionism to benefit from this insight.

The problem is secondly that a mechanistic model drawn from mechanistic physics is imposed on the discussion, so that freedom is equated with physical indeterminism. But freedom of will does not imply unrestrained and undirected independence; it is not uncaused activity but self-caused. Freedom is the ability to initiate action, to transcend what circumstances would otherwise produce, to be creative. Creativity, initiative and transcendence are subject to influences of many sorts, and require both physical and psychological preconditions. When freedom is conceived in terms of the consciously purposive activity of creative individuals, it becomes evident that behavioral science only defines the conditions under which individuals operate. It cannot deny individuality to men. Yet it is the purposive individuality of man as an agent which epitomizes the Biblical concept of will.

These aspects of freedom of will have been more effectively captured by recent idealism and phenomenology than by earlier indeterminism. William Temple, for instance, points out that a man does not possess freedom of will from birth nor when intoxicated. He is free insofar as he is self-determining. This is a mark of maturity and of rationality; he is determined by the values he has made his own rather than by purely external forces. Freedom is a kind of determinism that is not amenable to either physical or behavioral science.

Is freedom of will possible in an ordered universe?

We live in a universe of laws, one marked in the large and in every detail by rational order. Does freedom exempt man from cosmic law and order? Is it then possible?

This contention fits the viewpoint of the mechanistic materialist, for whom all nature can be explained by the operation of fixed forces (laws of motion). Such a conception of natural law is untenable, and philosophies of science recognize it as a product of 18th-cent. physics. The same contention, however, fits any monistic metaphysic. It was associated with the emanationist theories of both ancient Neo-Platonism and modern Spinozism. If all things are fundamentally one both numerically and in their nature, then what room is there for freedom of will and action on the part of men?

The Early Church properly developed the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in response to such contentions, for the Biblical conception of the free agency of man presupposes Biblical theism as a whole. A monistic metaphysics admittedly subjects each individual to the necessities of the whole, but theism regards all creation, both individuals and the cosmos, as contingent being dependent on the Creator. The creation operates according to its own regularities, it is true, exhibiting a rational structure for men to examine. Part of this rational order is the purposive activity of free human agents who exist ad extra with regards to God, and so are not parts of a whole whose inner necessity controls them.

Some medieval writers confused the intelligible regularity of the created order with the impersonal determinism of eternal forms, and it took some time for Christian thinkers to purify their understanding. Thomas Aquinas did so by rejecting the Gr. view of God as the essence of all being, pure form, and defined him instead as the act of being on which all other beings depend. But William of Occam finally rejected the reality of forms altogether, asserting that they represent the determinism of Gr. monistic metaphysics rather than the Biblical theism that ascribes absolute freedom to God and free individuality to men. The Reformers accordingly conceived of human individuality in relation to creation ex nihilo, rather than in relation to the Gr. theory of forms. Rightly so, if the theory of forms is part and parcel of a monistic metaphysical scheme.

It is essential therefore to understand the Biblical conception of will and of moral freedom if one is not to be confused by the pseudo-problems created by either science or nontheistic metaphysics.


Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter; Aquinas, ST II. i. Q. 6; J. Edwards, Freedom of the Will (1754); C. Hodge, Systematic Theology (1871), vol. II, 280-309; V. H. Stanton, “Will,” HDB (1898), IV, 918-923; W. Temple, Nature, Man and God (1934) lec. ix, xv; E. Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (1936), ch. xv; Bultmann, Kittell and Quell (eds.), tr. G. W. Bromiley, A Theological Dictionary of the NT (1964), “Boulomai,” vol. I, 629-637, and “Thelō,” vol. III, 44-62.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(’abhah, ratson; thelo) boulomai, thelema: "Will" as noun and verb, transitive and intrans, carries in it the idea of "wish," "purpose," "volition." "Will" is also used as an auxiliary of the future tense of other words, but the independent verb is frequent, and it is often important to distinguish between it and the mere auxiliary, especially in the New Testament.

In Apocrypha, for "will" we have thelema (1 Esdras 9:9 (of God); Ecclesiasticus 43:16; 1 Macc 3:60; Ecclesiasticus 8:15, "his own will"); boule (The Wisdom of Solomon 9:13, the Revised Version (British and American) "counsel); boulema (2 Macc 15:5, "wicked will," the Revised Version (British and American) "cruel purpose"); "willful" (Ecclesiasticus 30:8) is proales, the Revised Version (British and American) "headstrong"; "willing" (The Wisdom of Solomon 14:19), boulomai, the Revised Version (British and American) "wishing"; thelo (Ecclesiasticus 6:35); "wilt" (The Wisdom of Solomon 12:18), thelo, the Revised Version (British and American) "hast the will" (compare 2 Macc 7:16).

The Revised Version (British and American) has many changes, several of them of note as bringing out the distinction between the auxiliary and the independent verb. Thus, Mt 11:27, "willeth to"; Joh 7:17, "if any man willeth to do his will"; 1Ti 6:9, the American Standard Revised Version "they that are minded to be rich," the English Revised Version "desire," etc.

The words employed and passages cited show clearly that man is always regarded as a responsible being, free to will in harmony with the divine will or contrary to it. This is further shown by the various words denoting refusal. "Ye will not come to me, that ye may have life" (Joh 5:40). So with respect to temptation. We may even choose and act deliberately in opposition to the will of God. Yet God’s counsel, His will in its completeness, ever prevails, and man, in resisting it, deprives himself of the good it seeks to confer upon him.

In modern psychology the tendency is to make will primary and distinctive of personality.

See also

  • Testament