The Image of God and Free Will



Making choices?
One of the most important aspects of the image of God is our ability to make choices. Without this, creativity disappears, reason is reduced to mathematical calculations, work becomes robotic, and our role as God’s regents in the world is reduced to being an automaton. Freedom—the ability to make choices—is thus an essential element of what it means to be human. 

Free will is under attack today from thinkers who reject the idea that humanity has a non-physical side, a “ghost in the machine.” Naturalism (also called materialism)—the premise that the physical world of matter and energy is all that exists—has no room for anything beyond our physical bodies to make “free” choices, and thus routinely denies free will. At the same time, however, they also insist that we can know right and wrong and thus are morally responsible, and that we are “causal agents” and thus not bound by rigid determinism.[1] 

And yet, what is the “we” that makes us “causal agents?” To a naturalist, the “we” can only be the result of chemical processes in the brain, processes which themselves are the product of other chemical processes, and ultimately of physical laws. Nothing can change the results of these processes—that would be a violation of natural law, which the naturalist says cannot happen—and thus a consistent naturalist has to argue we are nothing more than products of physical laws, that consciousness, free will, “causal agency,” and moral responsibility are nothing more than illusions, epiphenomena of chemical processes which determine our thoughts but over which we have no control and can set no direction other than what has been predetermined by the laws of biochemistry. 

Ultimately, this is a dead end road, because it means we cannot even rely on our minds to make rational decisions, since our reason itself is nothing more than electrochemical reactions produced by our brain chemistry. 

Biblical view of freedom
In contrast, the Bible teaches that our thoughts, our desires, our values, and our choices all have meaning, and that we have genuine freedom to make decisions and to act accordingly. It is this freedom that allowed Adam to decide how to tend the garden and develop culture, to choose names for the animals, and ultimately to make the moral choice about whether or not to follow God’s instructions with respect to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. 

But how does free will work? If the naturalist is wrong in thinking the mind is only a matter of brain chemistry, then what is free will and how does it fit into the Biblical picture of humanity? 

It needs to be said at the outset that there is no clear answer to this question, and so a complete answer is impossible. Perhaps the easiest entry point to understanding free will is through a variation on the medieval theologians’ ideas of “faculty theology.” This view held that the mind (broadly understood) was separate from the body and consisted of a number of distinct “faculties” that were independent but interacted with each other. The original list was long: intelligence, perception, memory, will, etc. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the number was reduced to three: the emotions, the will, and the intellect, roughly corresponding to the Biblical categories of heart, soul, and mind. 

The dialog of the soul
Heart, soul, and mind are constantly influencing each other. The will or soul (Greek psyche, the root word for psychology) chooses what the conscious mind will dwell on. What the mind focuses on creates a track that it can follow with increasing ease and eventually makes its way into the subconscious, which is part of the domain of the heart. The heart uses the input from the mind to form desires and attachments. These desires then inform the will/soul, which then typically chooses to direct the mind to think about those desires. The heart can even bypass the will to some extent (if we aren’t paying attention) and encourage the conscious mind directly to continue dwelling on the things it desires. 

This dynamic explains the instructions in the Bible for dealing with our mental life. Philippians 4:8 tells us that we are to think about the things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise—which implies that we need to make a choice to do so rather than to allow our minds to dwell on other things. What we think about habitually shapes our hearts. And Proverbs 4:23 exhorts us to guard our heart, because from it flow the issues of life. The heart, the subconscious mind, is the seat of our deepest desires and is therefore the motivating force behind nearly everything we do. And we guard our heart by refusing to focus our minds on things that do not promote trust in God and to focus on those that do (e.g. Phil. 4:6-7). 

What all this means is that while we do have freedom to make choices, those choices are not random coin tosses—they are conditioned by our hearts’ desires, “the weight of our love,” as St. Augustine put it. 

Making moral choices
Our ability to weigh options and make choices based on what we value enables us to prioritize, to decide how to use our time, to do meaningful work, to decide what to order at a restaurant. Most importantly, however, it also enables us to make moral choices

For an action to be morally meaningful, it has to be freely chosen. Again, the naturalist denies this, but the claim that our actions have moral significance is meaningless in the face of the naturalist’s view that we are nothing more than biochemical machines. All our thoughts and actions are the products of physics and chemistry, making us little more than robots that have only the illusion of independent action. Under these circumstances, it is hard to make a credible claim that our actions are morally meaningful.[2] 

The importance of freedom for morality means that a person must be able to choose to act either morally or immorally in a given situation. As we have seen, however, our choices, made by our will, are conditioned by the state of the heart and the “weight of our love.” If we love goodness, we will choose the good; if we love something else more than goodness, we will choose that. 

So our moral actions depend on freedom, but that freedom in turn is governed by our hearts. This is why Jesus tells us that if we love Him, we will obey His commandments (Jn. 14:15, 21): our love determines our actions. Similarly, this connection between what we love and our actions explains why Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). Or as Paul puts it, love is the fulfillment of the Law (Rom. 13:10). 

Taking this idea of freedom beyond the personal level, we also see that God is vitally concerned with freeing us from bondage of all kinds. The centerpiece of Israel’s identity was God’s act of freeing them from slavery in Egypt with the Exodus; the Mosaic Law ordered that Israelite slaves be set free every seventh year; Jesus came to free us from our bondage to sin; the early Christians even went to Roman slave markets to purchase slaves for the specific purpose of setting them free.

Freedom is a central element of the biblical story, and it is therefore not surprising that medieval theologians identified liberty as an inalienable right, given by God to all people and thus out of the reach of human authorities. Thomas Aquinas even identified slavery as sin. 

Human freedom is thus an important part of the Bible’s message, and a critical element of the image of God. Unfortunately, the freedom to do good also means the freedom to choose the not-good instead. In the next article, we will explore what the choice not to do good means for the image of God that we bear. 

scandalousFor more insight to this topic, get the book, A Scandalous Freedom: The Radical Nature of the Gospel, by Steve Brown. Or read the article, “Moral Choices: Reasons and Standards,” by Charles Colson.

[1] See, for example,
[2] Considering the naturalist also rejects the idea that good and evil have any independent existence, it is unclear what would “morally meaningful” means in a naturalist system.



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