Thoughts On The Will


J. H. Oliphant



The Will is not "self-determining." If the will be determined, it is absurd to say it determined itself, for this would be like saying anything is the cause of itself and for anything to be the cause of itself, would involve the absurdity of a thing existing before it existed.

Whatever exists, be it matter or mind, physical or moral acts, it is certain there was and is a cause for it.

So for every choice of the mind, or volition, there must be a cause. Whatever a man's choice may be, there is a cause for it. The power to act either in body or mind, is of the Lord, as men could not move the body only as their lives are sustained by the Lord. So neither can they will anything, or reject anything but as they are upheld by the Lord.

But we must distinguish between the power by which men will, and the reason why they will any particular thing, why the choice embraces one thing in preference to another.

The cause of a body's moving may be one thing, and that which determines its motion in one direction rather than another, may be a different thing. Edwards says: "It is that motive which as it stands in the view of the mind, is the strongest, that determines the will." I think this is correct. In our inquiry as to why any man's choice is what it is, we must consider, first, the state or nature of that man ; and second, his environment. A place of sin would look pleasing to one man and repulsive to another, and so it would please a man at one time, and displease him at another time. Affinity is an important element in every act of choosing.

If the carnal mind of man be "enmity against God," then the element of affinity would be lacking, and there could be no choice. Let me explain a little on the last words, "There could be no choice." Ordinarily when we say a man "can not" do a thing we suppose he may try to do so, or make an effort to do so, or desire to do so, and is hindered, but in this case he is not supposed to desire to love God, for the desire to love Him would be to love Him. We can not conceive of an effort to love Him, for there would be nothing in him to create the effort to love Him.

The clear rays of the sun are hurtful to the eye, and nothing would cause the sun's rays to be agreeable to the eye, but the change of the nature of the eye, and so the doctrine of regeneration is the basis upon which men choose the Lord. Without being born again, God and his service is not agreeable to men, and so we may say they can not choose the Lord and his service, and we do not use the words "can not" to intimate that men may desire to do so, and are hindered.

It is safe to say that men will choose that which is most agreeable to them. Men are ever choosing that which is worthless instead of that which is good. Some men, and most men, prefer the house of sin to the house of prayer, but this is because it is to them most pleasing, and agreeable.

Put before a man a penny and twenty dollar gold piece, and let him understand the value of each, and he could not prefer the penny, because there is more in the gold to please than in the penny. Men do ever choose that which to them at the time of the choice, is most agreeable to them. To say otherwise is to say a man can choose what he does not prefer.

Ordinarily when we say a man "can do anything," we mean he can, notwithstanding all opposition, and in spite of all difficulties, but when we say a man can choose that which is pleasing to him we do not use the word "can" in that sense, because there is nothing to hinder a man from choosing or wishing. Such a thing as a forced choice cannot be imagined. The body can be forced in this way or that, but not so the desires. It was from this consideration that Gill said, "The will can not but be free." We know no way to hinder one's will or desires. Men may be slaves in body and serfs. The body may be laid in chains, but not so the will or desires. No chain or prison can interfere with the voluntary motions of the will.

In the way of argument, &c., we may seek to change the will or choice of men, but if we be successful in our arguments or persuasions, we do not in this interfere with the voluntariness of the will, but where the choice is transferred from one thing to another it is still the choice embracing that which at the time of choice is most desirable. Such a thing as a forced choice is absolutely inconceivable. We can understand how the body may be forced but not the desires. The choice forever embraces that which is most pleasing at the time of the choice.

The choice or will can not deal with matters not perceived by the mind. Perception is essential to choice. If men in nature can not perceive divine or spiritual things, there could be no choice of them nor desires after them.

As the fish in the water could not choose the life and liberty of the bird, for the reason: first, it knows nothing of it; and second, it is content with its own home, it has all the liberty it desires. So in order that we choose divine things we must perceive them and have some knowledge of their value, and also we must be so changed as to have affinity for them. But still when thus changed and enlightened, we still choose that which is most desirable and pleasing

The notion that the will, or choice, is capable of embracing that which, at the time, is hateful, and rejecting that which is pleasing, has no foundation in sound reason. One may choose to have a tooth pulled, or to take a bitter medicine, or to submit to a painful surgical operation, and he may do so most voluntarily, but in these cases ease and health are laid in the scale with the suffering, and the disease and cause of trouble is put in the other end, and so the mind is not simply choosing between the painful operation and the refraining from it, but from the painful operation and life on one side, and the refraining from the painful operation, and death, on the other side.

I am satisfied that no one can conceive or imagine a circumstance in which the choice is forced or compelled.

We sometimes speak of arguments being such as to compel assent and approval, but the word "compel" is not used here as it is used when we speak of an army being compelled to submit. Our brethren who are printing books and papers expect to determine the wills of those who read them, if they do not it is hard to tell why they print them; but they do not expect to compel them any other way than by putting truth before the mind so as the mind will see more to please and benefit in their views than elsewhere, and thus choose their views and ways because they are most agreeable to them.

It is plain to me that the will or choice is not "self-determining," and also it is plain that the will follows the strongest motive. I will conclude by a quotation from Buck's dictionary. While Buck was not sound in practice he has ever been regarded as sound in doctrine. "Free agency is the power of following one's inclination ; or whatever the soul does with full bent of preference and desire.

"Many * * * have been the disputes on this subject ; not that man has been denied to be a 'free agent,' but the dispute has been in what it consists. A distinction is made by writers between free agency and what is called the Arminian notion of free agency."

"The Arminian notion" referred to was that the will is "self determining." Buck continues, and correctly, too, "The one consists in the power of following our prevailing inclination, the other in a supposed power of acting contrary to it, or at least of changing it." Buck and Gill and Calvin and all sound thinkers held that the choice or will follows the strongest motive, while Arminians held then, as they do now, and as they must hold, to sustain their doctrine, that the will may change itself, or that it may leave a stronger motive, and embrace a weaker one. Buck goes on, "The one predicates freedom of the man, the other of a faculty in man."

Gill held that man is capable of choosing that which is agreeable to him, and all Calvinists, so far as I know; and so held that man is a free agent in this sense, while Arminians held that the will is free in the sense that the will can act independently of motives, that the will may choose what it pleases. But there is no sense in saying the will may choose what it pleases, as Edwards and Locke have shown, and I will mention this in a future chapter. Buck continues, "The one goes merely to render us accountable beings, the other arrogantly claims a part, yea the very turning point of salvation ; according to the latter we need only certain helps * * * to enable us to choose the path of life, but according to the former * * * we need an almighty and invincible power to renew us."

According to this Buck and other clear thinkers contended for such a freedom of will as would render men accountable, and so make a distinction between men and animals; while the Arminians contended for such a freedom of will as would make the will, or choice, independent of all motives, and as would give to the will the "turning point" in the matter of salvation.

On p. 646 Hassel's history: "If there be not free grace in God how can he save the world, and if there be not free will in men, how can the world by God be judged?"

This last question is worthy of a serious consideration. Hassel then quotes Bernard: "Abolish free will, and there is nothing to be saved. Abolish free grace and there is nothing wherewithal to save." We must take such a view of "free will" as will make man an accountable being, and Buck clearly shows that all sound thinkers of his times contended for such liberty of will as was agreeable to the accountableness of man, and the final punishment of the wicked, and not for such a liberty of will as would make the will independent of all motives and capable of deciding the turning point in the matter of salvation.


Thoughts On The Will. J.H. Oliphant. Press of Moore & Langen Printing Co. Terre Haute, IN. 1899. Pages 10-17.