Free Agency

by John Murray


In dealing with this topic it is helpful to begin with human action and to proceed from action to that which determines action. By this progression we may arrive at a more satisfactory analysis of what is involved in free agency or, as it has sometimes been denoted, natural liberty (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, IX, i). In the matter of terminology it is necessary at the outset to distinguish between ‘free agency’ and ‘free will’. No necessary objection can be made to the latter term. A term denotes the concept understood by it, and a proper connotation can be given to the term ‘free will’. But frequently this designation has been used to express that concept of the will whereby the ‘will’ of man is regarded as autonomous and undetermined, and capable of volition good or bad, apart from any previous conditioning by our moral and religious character.

1. The Reality of Human Action. The thought hereby expressed is that man is endowed with power to perform certain actions within the realm of his created and dependent existence. In other words, man’s agency is not illusory; within the all-embracive providence of God he is possessed of agency which is exercised in action.

2. The Responsibility of Human Action. Man’s acts are worthy of blame or approval. Moral law, law of obligation, applies to him. His acts are within the sphere of ought and ought not. This obtains because he is made in the image of God and his actions must be in conformity with the likeness that defines his identity. God’s likeness is the pattern in accord with which man’s action is to be performed. The law that prescribes action or forbids it is the transcript of God’s perfection, the perfection of God coming to expression for the regulation of conduct consonant with it.

3. The Freedom of Human Action. The responsibility referred to above rests upon the fact that the action is the result of volition. Man wills or chooses to act. If he does not will to act, or if the act is contrary to his will, then the event occurring through his instrumentality is not in reality his action. He is the victim of some other power or agent over which he is not able to exercise control, and so he is not responsible for the event. We sometimes use the expression, ‘I did it against my will’. This is not correct. We may do things reluctantly, do things we detest. But if we do them, it is because we will to do them. We will to do the distasteful rather than not to do it. Something may be done against our will and, strictly speaking, we are not the agents. But when we do something, it is always because we willed the same.

We are responsible for our acts because they are the result of our volition, and volition is the choice thus to act.

4. The Determinant of Volition. It is a platitude to say that we will because we have the power to will. But the power of volition does not explain why we exercise this power in a certain way. Two men have the power to earn a livelihood. One does it by honourable labour, the other resorts to theft. What explains the difference? It is not the power of volition, for both are endowed with this quality. It is apparent that we must go beyond the power of volition and the mere exercise of this power in actual volition. This that lies back of the power and its exercise is the character. And because there is a radical difference of character volition is exercised in totally different ways. The character is the habitus of the person, the whole complex of desires, of motives, propensions, principles. This may conveniently be called the dispositional complex, and the complex comprises all that goes to make up the distinguishing moral and religious bent, aim, purpose, and propension. Scripture calls this the heart. ‘Out of the heart are the issues of life’ (Prov. 4:23). Our Lord expressed it in this manner, ‘Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of the good treasure sends forth good things, and the evil man out of the evil treasure sends forth evil things’ (Matt. 12:34, 35). ‘For from within, out of the heart of man, procced evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries’ etc.

(Mark 7:21, 22). The Scripture throughout is replete with this emphasis upon the heart as the fountain of both good and evil. Volition then is determined by the inward disposition. Dr. Shedd calls the one, immanent volition, and the other, executive volition. But whatever terms are used, the upshot is that much more belongs to a man than his meta-physical constitution and the series of volitions registered, and this is the determinant of the moral and religious character of his actions and course of life.

5. The Self-determination of Volition and Action. If volition is determined by the dispositional complex, in what does freedom consist? We are not free because the will or power of volition is in a state of indifference or indeterminancy. It is not an autonomous power or agent that can register any series of volitions by virtue of its unconditioned prerogative. Volition is causally determined by what the person most characteristically is. The liberty or freedom consists in the fact that the series of volitions is determined by the self; in the sense relevant to our topic, volition is self-determined. Action is self-action, volition is self-volition, determined by what the person is, and not by any compulsion or coercion extraneous to the person. ‘God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.’1 James 1:13, 14 enunciates this description of the process of human action. ‘Every man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed.’ This principle applies to all human situations in good and evil. It holds true in the fall and in regeneration. In the fall man’s disposition changed and this resulted in the overt act of transgression. In regeneration a new disposition is given and new volitions are the result. In no case is the volition contrary to the immanent exposition of heart and mind. Nothing can make a man will against the immanent disposition of heart and mind. Such a supposition would amount to a violation of the nature with which we are endowed.

This is not to deny the influences brought to bear upon man for good or for evil, influences of suasion to good or of temptation to evil. The consideration is simply that the person must come to acquiesce in that which the solicitation involves. The disposition of the person is affected, not by compulsion, but by adoption or acceptance.

Freedom is thus defined negatively and affirmatively, as the absence of compulsion and self-determination respectively. A man is responsible for his acts because they are due to his volitions. He is responsible for his volitions because they are self-propelled, exercised without compulsion and expressive of what he is in the innermost bent, bias, and disposition of heart and mind. Understood thus, freedom is rational spontaneity.

6. The Inclusiveness of Freedom. This freedom is not restricted to the sphere of volition and action. It applies to the heart, the dispositional complex. The heart of man is his own. Man is depraved, but this depravity is his and he is responsible for it. In the fall the disposition of man became unholy. Though great mystery surrounds this change, yet the unholy disposition was his, and for all its movements he was responsible for this reason. In regeneration God gives a new heart. But once given, it belongs to the person regenerated and, though efficaciously imparted, it is not a disposition compulsively imposed so that the new disposition does not violate that which is most characteristically his. In other words, whatever the immanent disposition is, it is his with consent, and not by compulsion contrary to his will.

7. The Power of Contrary Choice is not of the Essence of Free Agency. In dealing with this proposition it is necessary to distinguish between contrary choice and alternative choice. Contrary choice is the ability to choose between alternatives that are morally antithetical, between good and bad regarded not relatively but absolutely in terms of God’s judgment. Alternative choice, on the other hand, is the choice between alternatives that are ethically of the same character, alternatives that are both good or both bad. The proposition applies only to contrary choice. We may examine the proposition and define it both negatively and positively.

(1) Negatively. It does not mean that there are no situations in which man had the power of contrary choice. Adam in his state of integrity had the power of contrary choice. To deny this would mean that sin was a necessity of his nature. Adam sinned. But he was able not to sin because he was created upright and holy.

Regenerate man has the power of contrary choice, the ability to good in virtue of the holiness implanted in regeneration, and the ability to sin because of indwelling sin. Romans 7:25 is explicit to this effect.

(i) The proposition does not mean that fallen, unregenerate man is destitute of the power of alternative choice. He is under an unholy necessity of sinning. He is totally depraved and cannot choose what is good and well-pleasing to God (Rom. 8:7; Eph. 2:1). But within the realm of bondage to sin there are numberless alternatives from which he is able to choose. Likewise regenerate man, although he cannot will certain things because of his confirmed state of holiness (cf. 1 John 3:9), yet there are many situations in which he has alternative choice in the categories of both good and evil.

(ii) The proposition is not dealing with the determinism arising from foreordination. It is true that all our choices and acts are foreordained, and only foreordained acts come to pass. But this is not the factor or consideration contemplated in the proposition. To suppose that it is, confuses two things that must be kept distinct. If this were the consideration, then the power of both alternative and contrary choice would be eliminated from the realm of human agency and possibility. The power of contrary choice would not be predicable of Adam in the state of integrity, a position that must be maintained without any equivocation. The distinction to be borne in mind is that Preordination, though all-inclusive, does not operate so as to deprive man of his agency, nor of the voluntary decision by reason of which he is responsible for his actions. Similarly foreordination does not rule out the power of contrary choice in those cases where this obtained or obtains. Just as foreordination does not conflict with or rule out human responsibility, so it does not conflict with or rule out the power of alternative choice, nor does it conflict with or rule out the power of contrary choice where this power is necessarily posited.

(2) Positively. The proposition is concerned solely with the truth that, in a state of confirmed holiness or unholiness, the absence of the power to choose the morally opposite does not interfere with free agency in the sense defined in the foregoing analysis. In the state of sin we are unable to love God and choose what is well-pleasing to him. This inability does not deprive us of free agency. In fact it is only in virtue of free agency that the indictment of bondage to sin could apply. Likewise, in the regenerate state, and particularly in the glorified state, the holy necessity of doing good and the impossibility of the opposite, does not interfere: with free agency. Again, it is the feet of free agency that makes the characterization possible and relevant.

The proposition has respect to moral and religious condition exclusively, and to the necessities belonging to a condition of confirmed goodness or badness, not to the necessity arising from God’s foreordination. Every proposition has its own universe of reference and is applicable only within that universe. The anthropological importance of the proposition appears particularly in three connections:

i) The prelapsarian power of contrary choice was not a necessary condition of Adam’s free agency. If Adam had been confirmed in his integrity he would still be a free agent. The power of contrary choice was for purposes of probation.

ii) Total inability for good in the state of sin does not rule out free agency. Inability for good is one thing; responsible agency is another.

iii) In grace relatively, and in glory completely, confirmation in holiness does not make us automatons. It is in such confirmation that free agency achieves its highest expression and realization.

The essence of free agency is that we act without compulsion from without, according to our nature or character. Free agency thus construed applies to all conditions of men and angels.

8. Free Agency is Consistent with Certainty. The principle here asserted is that an act may be certain as to its futurition, but free as to the mode of its occurrence. The proposition goes athwart every position which supposes that uncertainty and contingency are necessary to freedom, that certainty of occurrence is incompatible with the nature of a free act. This position is analogous to that which would deny fore-ordination in favour of human responsibility. The answer is that, although we are not able so to analyse the relations of God’s fore-ordination and human agency that we can discover and perceive the perfect concursus that obtains, yet we must maintain both without any infringement upon the province, reality, and integrity of each. The foreknowledge of God presupposes certainty of occurrence; his fore-ordination renders all occurrence certain; by his providence what is foreordained is unalterably put into effect. Only within the realm of all-inclusive providence is our free agency a fact, and only thus is it maintained. In God we live and move and have our being. Providence in fulfilment of foreordained purpose is not only compatible with the freedom indispensable to our being; it is indispensable to the existence of our freedom and never functions so as to interfere with it.


  1. Confession of Faith, IX, i.


John Murray was a graduate of the University of Glasgow (1923) and of Princeton Theological Seminary (1927), and he studied at the University of Edinburgh during 1928 and 1929. In 1929-1930 he served on the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary. After that he taught at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia where he served as Professor of Systematic Theology.

He was a frequent contributor to theological journals and is the author of Christian Baptism (1952), Divorce (1953), Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955), Principles of Conduct (1957), The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (1960), Calvin on the Scriptures and Divine Sovereignty (1960), and The Epistle to the Romans (1968). This article is taken from his Collective Writings, vol 2 "Systematic Theology", pp. 60-66.

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