Thoughts on the Bound Will

I was talking with a friend the other day about the bondage of the will, […]

Sean Norris / 1.12.09

I was talking with a friend the other day about the bondage of the will, and I was struck by the fact that often times when we talk about the concept of “free will” and the lack thereof, we compromise. We both agreed that there is no such thing as the free will, and yet we also began to “back off” a little when we thought about our everyday decisions. We said things like, “Of course I can decide what shoes to wear in the morning or what to eat for breakfast, but when it comes to issues of salvation we cannot choose.”

I thought about this for a while and I realized that we were wrong. There is no compartmentalization when it comes to the bondage of the will. It is either bound or it is not. We may think we are making decisions about the mundane without anything influencing us, but it is not true. When I think about what to eat in the morning all sorts of thoughts influence or force, which is not too strong a word, my decision. I think about my weight. I think about what’s healthy for me. Or if I am in a depressed mood, I throw the health stuff out the window and eat what makes me feel good, which always makes me feel worse later on.
The same is true when I am trying to decide what to wear. All I think about then is: “What looks good? What will make me look good to world today? What will make me feel better about myself today?” There are also the days when I just wear sweats (like today) because I am so sick of trying so hard to decide what to wear. BUT the fact remains that the decision is not free. My choice is being forced by outside pressures or internal sinful pressures (it’s hard to know the difference sometimes).

My point is that the ability to make a decision does not equate freedom. Our decisions are always forced or pushed by something that we cannot control. More often than not the thing that is pushing our choices is our sin. We are slaves, and most of the time we don’t even know it. The very fact that my friend and I began to find areas where we thought we could make free choices was evidence to the sin in me trying to deflect and deny my true helpless and bound state.

SO, where is the hope? Well, it is outside of us too. The good thing is that God also forces the issue with us. He comes to us. He pushes on us where we think we are strong, where we think we are free, so that we might see our desperate situation, and in that moment all we want to do is call out to Him to save, and He always does.
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15 responses to “Thoughts on the Bound Will”

  1. Aaron M. G. Zimmerman says:

    I can already hear people disagreeing with you in their minds. Something like, “I used to be bound, but now I don’t care what people think and I make good choices about what I eat, wear, etc.” But I think your point is right about the subtle influences. For many folks who think they’re making good choices, they are influenced by the need to maintain the identity of “mature Christian who makes good choices,” which is pride, which is sin. Self-righteousness (which is present EVERY time you are aware of doing a good thing or making a “good choice”) condemns any “good” works to which it attaches itself.

  2. Sean Norris says:

    Thanks Aaron. You said it in a much more concise way. As always, I am humbled in your presence, even your virtual presence:)

  3. Trevor Giuliani says:

    I dig this post Sean. If you don’t mind, I’ll add that even in the writing of your post, and in all subsequent comment(er)s, is the demonstration of a people fully bound to their egos (apparently the ego, in which lies our Individualization from God, is an actual place in the left hemisphere of the brain – has anyone read something like this?). Self-righteousness (however masked) is the rule on internet message-boards/blog comments.

    I had a thought after reading this and also JAZ’s explanation of his Astronaut Gospel. Here is a quote regarding the second image of the Astronaut now in place of Christ on the cross,
    “God as a both an outside (extrinsic) savior who simultaneously identifies entirely with the plight of the astronaut (fully human). The consequence is a completely new vantage point on the world (photo 2) as one lives hidden in Christ and in the midst of the experience of God’s grace as it is revealed on and through the cross (i.e., not glory)”
    If our Identity is found with Christ on the cross, who himself, as a man, was emptied completely of Individuation from God, Self-righteousness, and even the illusion of piety, do we not share in the Identity of God who is the ultimate Free Will? Are there not moments when the Spirit of God moves us to true freedom in good works that we are not even aware of, that flow so naturally that there is no chance for the Ego to step in and self-congratulate (as few and far between as they might seem)? If our lives are truly “hid with Christ on High” and this is our new Identity then we are OF God and made up of His essence…it’s not the same as “free will” in the context of this post but it’s definitely no longer bondage.

  4. Joshua Corrigan says:

    Great Post. Great Comments (however self-indulgent we may be)

    Great thoughts Trevor. I would put it this way: We are bound to do what we WANT to do. Even in my moments of spontaneous freedom, I am actually (thankfully) just bound to the will of Another. I decrease, He increases. I die, He lives. Thanks be to God!

    And, when God blesses us with the chance to see this “holy hijacking” of the eternally bound will, our response is all knees and tears. Thank goodness He doesn’t always tell us when He works!

    Thanks for the post Sean

  5. JDK says:

    Joshua-wonderfully put!

  6. dpotter says:

    Sean, yes. The pictures of fresh pancakes and Stillers [sic] sweats make the case perfectly. The difficult bit, in all seriousness, is the fact that I cannot acquiesce to the reality of the bound will. Not in the sense that I’m a Pelagian of any shade, but that I am at once aware of my frailty and yet still kid myself about the permanency of that frailty by any number of devices (low-fat syrup on the ‘cakes, for example).

    Luther’s genius lies in the fact that he was aware that the ‘problem’ has a solitary solution. This is quite different from much of what fills the shelves of Christian book stores today, where the authors are more or less aware of sin (though underestimate its ubiquity), but offer extra ‘tricks’ or ‘life skills’ to help us help ourselves. The fact that I still plan to slowly shift my entire wardrobe selection to Vineyard Vines is evidence enough of my complicity. Anyway, smart post.

    P.S. This is also one topic where Jonathan Edwards got it absolutely right (piggybacking on Augustine): see his ‘The Bondage of the Will’.

  7. Sean Norris says:

    Hey Trev!

    I think Josh’s answer was wonderful, but because I am an ego maniac I will offer my two cents. It comes back to simul justus et peccator. Our identity is indeed now found with Christ, and we are justified, but we are still sinners. I think Luther put it best when he basically said that we should assume that we are sinning constantly so as to never think we do not depend on the cross completely. We are completely justified by the cross of Christ, and therefore free from any condemnation. AND we are completely sinful waiting for the resurrection of the dead.

    Thanks. I hear you about Vineyard Vines. It’s good looking stuff:)

  8. Nick L. says:

    I like that Dylan was so bound by his desire for us to think that he can spell as to put [sic] after “Stillers.” Ah, bondage…the source of so many good jokes. Go STEELERS!

  9. dpotter says:


  10. Colton says:

    At risk of assuming the role of party-pooper, I’m going to disagree with your original post, Sean. There IS compartmentalization, in a sense, when it comes to this issue.

    It is in fact a common misunderstanding that what theologians refer to as the “bound will” means that we are not free to choose what we eat or what we wear each day. We ARE free to make those decisions. What a “bound will” means is that we are not able to choose righteousness over sin. We are slaves to sin. Whether we choose pancakes or granola, sweatpants or dress slacks, that action is born in sin (which has fully corrupted our nature since conception) and is abominable in the sight of God. Some refer to this as the distinction between the practical will and the spiritual will, but you get the idea.

    The type of bound will that you are referring to, the one in which even my choice to read Grisham or Tolstoy is not a free choice but is pressed upon me by forces outside my control, is the product of materialistic and deterministic worldview. This worldview denies the existence of the soul and the will and instead proposes that humans are nothing more than the sum of their physical parts. Who we are is completely a product of atoms, circumstance, and experience. Consciousness and free choice are illusions. This worldview is very common among those of the atheist/secularist/humanist/science is my religion variety, but it does not cohere with a Christian worldview, which asserts the existence of the soul as a separate non-physical entity that is part of every person.

    I think we need to be very careful about taking the doctrine of the bound will, which Luther himself understood only in spiritual terms, and exporting it into all areas of life. I agree with you that our actions are affected by our sinful state, but this does not mean that the freedom to make “mundane” everyday choices is an illusion. It just means that no matter what we chose, we will be choosing it sinfully.

  11. burton says:

    I’m with you on this one. Luther, influenced by Augustine, seems to sum it up this way:
    We are free to make any choice we wish to make, save the right one.

  12. Sean Norris says:

    Colton and Mike,

    I hear what you are saying, and I do not think my post is in disagreement with your ultimate point. How are we free if we can make only the wrong choice? To say that “we are free to make any choice we like, save the right one” seems to agree with my point in my post. That does not sound like freedom.

    I do not deny the ability to make choices in my post, I simply make the observation that they are never free. They, even the mundane choices, are bound, as you both argue correctly, to our sin. The ways in which our sin distorts the decision making process varies, hence the comments on outside pressures and our own distorted inner monologues.

    The pressures outside of you that I refer to in my post only have power to influence you because of your sin. So, I ultimately was arguing that it is sin that rules the roost even in the mundane. I don’t think we disagree, but I must have failed to articulate my point in a clear fashion.


  13. burton says:

    Hey Sean,

    I’m not sure, but maybe the only real difference is how it “preaches” or relates.

    I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity to talk about this stuff with folks and, if you’re like me you’ve probably not gotten too far past “You don’t have a free will.” It seems folks put up quite a fight when you hit ’em with that.

    I’ve found that, from a ministry vantage point, it’s a little easier to get in the door with, “Yeah, you can make all of the choices you want! You can choose what to have for breakfast, what to wear, whether or not you’ll go to church on Sunday or sleep in, any choice you wish to make, you are free to do so.”

    “But, you haven’t made the right choice.”

    For what it’s worth, I’ve found people to be a little more receptive to this approach. It usually ends in an honest dialouge about intentions, motives, etc., and sounds alot more like real life than some obscure doctrine that I’m throwin’ around just to prove a point.

    Anyway, take it for what it’s worth.

  14. Sean Norris says:

    I agree Mike.

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