A Biblical Look at Volition

Volition is something we possess, which enables us to act. That is, we have a will, and we exercise our will. Throughout this article I will use the terms volition and will interchangeably. Chafer states, “Will is that faculty in a rational, conscious being by which he has power to choose a course of action and continue in it.”[1] The will can be moved by reason (correct or faulty), affections, circumstances, or the coercion of others. Though there are various influences on the will, Christians are at their best when the will is governed by divine viewpoint. In this way, God’s truth takes priority over desires, which can vacillate between right and wrong.

Biblically, there are three categories of volition in existence: 1) God’s volition (Isa 46:8-11; cf. Gen 1:1-31), 2) angelic volition (Psa 103:20), and 3) human volition (Gen 1:26-28). God’s volition is sovereign, eternal, and absolute. God’s will is mentioned several times in the Old Testament by the use of the Hebrew word אָבָה abah (Deut 10:10; 23:5; 2 Ch 21:7), which means “to will, [or] be willing.”[2] In other passages, the Hebrew word רָצוֹן ratson is used (Psa 40:8; 143:10), which refers to “what pleases the Lord.”[3] Some passages in the New Testament specifically mention God’s will, where the Greek term θέλημα thelema is employed (i.e., Rom 12:2; Eph 6:5-6, Col 4:12; 1 Th 4:3; 5:16-18; Heb 10:36; 1 Pet 2:15; 4:19). God’s will in each of these New Testament passages refers to “what one wishes to happen.”[4] This speaks of what God desires from people. Other passages use the Greek word βούλομαι boulomai (Matt 11:27; Jam 1:18; 2 Pet 3:9), which denotes a “desire to have or experience something, with implication of planning accordingly.”[5] The latter term sometimes refers to what God brings to pass, such as when James writes, “In the exercise of His will [βούλομαι boulomai] He brought us forth by the word of truth” (Jam 1:18a). But sometimes it refers to what God wants, but makes contingent upon a human response of faith, such as when Peter writes that the Lord “is patient toward you, not wishing [βούλομαι boulomai] for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Context always determines the meaning of a word.

The Bible also reveals that “with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). However, they are possible only to the degree that they operate in concert with His other divine attributes, as God cannot cease to be God, or be holy, just, gracious, or loving. His will is governed by His nature, for He cannot act contrary to His other attributes, nor can He will anything contrary to His promises. Because God has integrity, He “cannot lie” (Tit 1:2; Heb 6:18), as He is bound to keep His Word. Those who live by faith know this about God, and it greatly encourages them.

But there are other wills at work in God’s universe. By means of His sovereignty, God created intelligent and moral beings—angels and people—with the ability to obey or resist His directive will. It must always be remembered that God is no bully and He never forces us to act one way or another. However, He is also not to be defeated, and if some choose to act contrary to His sovereign will, then He may restrain them from acting (Gen 11:8-9; 20:6; 31:7). Theologically, God’s will can be classified as His 1) sovereign will, 2) directive will, 3) permissive will, 4) overruling will, and 5) providential will. I addressed these in another article on Knowing and Doing the Will of God.

Angelic and Human Wills

God created angels with finite features similar to Himself. God exists, thinks, feels, and acts, and He created angels with similar personal features. Ryrie states, “Commonly, the essential facets of personality are considered to involve intelligence, emotions, and will. Angels then qualify as personalities because they have these aspects of intelligence, emotions, and will. This is true of both the good and evil angels.”[6] As volitional beings, God created all angels with the ability to obey or disobey Him. Though God created all angels as holy, there was a time—millennia ago—when there was an angelic revolt in heaven in which an angel named Lucifer—of the class of cherubim—said, five times, “I will” (Isa 14:12-14), and what he willed was open revolt against the Lord of the universe. Lucifer was partially successful, as he convinced a third of the angels to exercise their volition against God, which caused a bifurcation in the angelic realm (Matt 25:41; Rev 12:7).[7] The other two thirds of the angels, being wise in their estimation of what was happening, exercised their volition to stay with God, and these continue as holy angels to do His will (Matt 16:27; 26:53; 1 Tim 5:21; Heb 1:14).

Image of GodAs humans, volition is a feature of our humanity, given to us by God who made us in His image (imago Dei). The image of God consists of mental, moral, and volitional capabilities that were originally given to Adam and Eve to enable them to walk in relationship with their Creator and to function as His theocratic administrators within the world He designed (Gen 1:27-28; 9:6). God imputed to Adam and Eve a vocabulary bank that enabled them to understand Him, each other, and the world around them. Erickson states, “The image refers to the elements in the human makeup that enable the fulfillment of human destiny. The image involves the powers of personality that make humans, like God, beings capable of interacting with other persons, of thinking and reflecting, and of willing freely.”[8] The image of God is what sets us apart from the rest of creation and makes us special. God gave us our wills and directs us to obey. Prior to their fall, Adam and Eve were completely free to know and walk with God. However, at a point in time, Satan tempted and persuaded Adam and Eve to disobey God, and this brought sin and death into the creation (Gen 3:1-8; Rom 5:12; 8:20-22), with the result that every person is born with a sinful nature and proclivity to sin (Jer 17:9; Matt 7:11; Rom 7:18-21; Gal 5:16-17; Eph 2:1-3).

Whatever the actions of intelligent and willful creatures, God’s sovereignty is never threatened, nor His eternal plans for angels and humans ever in jeopardy of failure. Though God permits angels and people to exercise their will contrary to His directive will, He also restrains them when needed. What is implied from the biblical record is that since the time of the angelic revolt, the wills of angels and demons are fixed, bent on obeying or disobeying the Lord, and this into the eternal state. There is no record of salvation for fallen angels, nor of the possibility of holy angels engaging in a new revolt. All is fixed in the angelic realm. Such a static state shall eventually be the experience of all people when God creates the new heavens and earth. Until then, people are either positive or negative to God. Also, God is by no means neutral or silent, but seeks to influence us to act as He desires, and He stands as Judge over us, to bless us when we obey and to discipline when we don’t.

The Human Mind and Will

The human will is the command center of our soul that directs our life. God intends the mind and will to work together, like a hand in a glove. The human will operates optimally when governed by a mind saturated with divine viewpoint. Of course, having divine wisdom is no guarantee we’ll live by it, for “to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (Jam 4:17; cf. Jam 1:22). However, because we are fallen (Gen 6:5; 8:21; Jer 17:9; Rom 7:21), and live in a world currently governed by Satan (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 1 John 5:19), there are sinful influences on our will that seek to enslave and control us; forces such as Satan (1 Pet 5:8), demons (Eph 6:12), sinful desires (Eph 2:3), other people (1 Cor 15:33), and a satanic world-system (1 John 2:15-16).

And we face constant temptations. However, temptation is not sin, but the enticement or pressure to act contrary to God’s will (Jam 1:14-15). Volition brings forth sin when we say “yes” to temptation. Volition also brings forth righteousness when we say “yes” to God by learning and living His Word (Rom 6:11-14). Volition tends the gate of our soul, determining what enters, its level of activity once inside, and the duration of its stay. For the most part, we determine what we let into our stream of consciousness. Sometimes—without our being fully aware—we accept antithetical beliefs, which result in cognitive dissonance and fragmentation. The rational mind will recognize incompatible thoughts and seek correction by means of purging aberrant thoughts that cause trouble. Of course, this assumes a standard by which to evaluate our thoughts and values. For the Christian, the Bible is God’s special revelation to us to help us understand truths and realities we could not obtain by any other means. For those who lack spiritual objectivity by means rational biblical thought, their volition is controlled by faulty human viewpoint, other people, vacillating emotions, or circumstances. These are useful idiots, both to Satan and human leaders who operate in his world-system.

In the dispensation of the Church age, unbelievers are constantly under the convicting ministry of God the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11), Who seeks to convince them of one all important truth, that Jesus is the only Savior (John 3:18; Acts 4:12). Those with positive volition will accept Christ as Savior, and this as a revelation from God the Father (Matt 16:15-17; Luke 24:44-45; Acts 16:14).

Four Categories of Positive and Negative Volition

In Scripture, there are four categories of positive and negative volition. First, there are some who are positive to God and His gospel and advance to spiritual maturity by learning and living Scripture and staying the course until the end of their life (i.e., David & Paul – 1 Ki 15:5; 2 Tim 4:7-8). These are not sinless believers; but rather, those who handle their sin in a biblical manner (1 John 1:9). Second, there are some who are positive to God and His gospel, but then turn negative to God’s Word, preferring to follow Satan’s world-system (1 Ki 11:1-10; 1 Tim 1:19-20; 6:10). These believers will fail to have a positive influence on others because of external pressure from a satanic hostile environment (John 12:42-43; 19:38). Third, there are some who are negative to God and His gospel, but are favorable to the Bible as a moral system by which they seek to live their lives (i.e., following the Ten Commandments; Luke 18:18-27). These also engage in performing good deeds such as feeding the hungry, helping widows and orphans, and housing the homeless. However, such acts are performed as a means of trying to earn salvation, or to receive praise from others (Matt 6:1-2), both of which originate from sinful pride. Fourth, there are some who are negative to God and His gospel and who vigorously pursue Satan’s world-system and are hostile toward believers who are advancing toward spiritual maturity (John 8:47; Acts 7:51-58; 1 John 4:6). These suppress God’s truth (Rom 1:18). Of those who are negative to God, three times it is written that He “gave them over” to “the lusts of their hearts” (Rom 1:24), and “to degrading passions” (Rom 1:26), and “to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (Rom 1:28). Once God permits a person to operate by his sinful passions, he is given a measure of freedom to live as he wants, but not without consequence.

Humble believers with positive volition operate in submission to God. Scripture tells us to “Submit to God” (Jam 4:7), and “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom 12:1). Submission means a will surrendered to the will of another. Being in submission to God is a sign of positive volition that we’ve prioritized our relationship with Him above all else, and that we trust Him to guide and provide in all things. Like a good friend, He is naturally in our thoughts, and we live every day conscious of Him, being sensitive to what may offend, and making every effort to please Him through a life of faith. When we yield to God, His Word opens up to us, as Jesus said, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17; cf. Luke 24:45; Acts 16:14; 1 John 5:20).

BibleGod has blessed us with His written revelation, which informs us about matters we could never know, except that He has spoken, and it has been recorded in Scripture. Furthermore, as Christians, we have the Holy Spirit Who illumines us to know God’s Word and empowers us to live righteously. Chafer states, “Man’s highest end is realized when he conforms to God’s will. Even Christ came not to do His own will, but only the will of the Father. There is nothing higher for man than to find and do the will of God. Heaven always has a specific purpose for the bringing of each person into the world, and that purpose comprehends every moment of life.”[9]

Negative volition is an aspect of the Christian doctrine of total depravity. Depravity is a divine estimation of what God sees in us, not what we see in ourselves or in others. Chafer states, “Theologians employ the phrase total depravity, which does not mean that there is nothing good in any unregenerate person as seen by himself or by other people; it means that there is nothing in fallen man which God can find pleasure in or accept.”[10] Sin permeates all aspects of our being: mind, will, and desires. We are tainted throughout. Not only does sin darken the intellect, but it motivates our volition to hide from God and to expel Him from our lives.

When one turns away from God, sin will naturally gain more and more territory, much like the darkness that grows ever darker after the sun has set. A key characteristic of negative volition is to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). The one who pursues this course tends to go in one of two directions. The first denies God’s existence, as he repeatedly tells himself, “There is no God” (Psa 10:4). This is the fool. And he is a fool by choice, never by chance. The fool is not necessarily one who lacks reason, but who reasons wrongly, operating from faulty presuppositions. And the second person with negative volition pursues religion, as he “makes a god and worships it” (Isa 44:15). For the latter, this is a god of his own imagination. He has willfully “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). And, in place of God’s wisdom, he operates by a worldly wisdom that is not “from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic” (Jam 3:15).

When God’s Word is dethroned from the mind of the believer, other forces will dominate for the worse. God’s desire for the Christian is to develop his/her character so that righteousness, goodness, grace, and love flow easily and with continuity of expression. If the character is good then the behavior will be good, for it follows that a person with an honest character will easily and consistently behave in an honest manner, and a person with a loving character will easily and consistently behave in a loving manner. But good character does not automatically occur in the life of the Christian, nor does it happen overnight; rather, it matures over a lifetime as we make many good choices to walk in step with God and let His good Word transform us from the inside out. But we should be aware that it is possible to abuse our liberty and make bad choices with the result that we weaken the will and forfeit our freedoms (the alcoholic or drug addict knows this to be true). Not only that, but bad choices and abuses of freedom bring harm to others within our periphery; for this reason, Scripture states, “You were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13).

Unbelievers who love their moral depravity will naturally stand against those who are children of God and who love righteousness. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). And the beloved apostle John wrote, “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). Those who set their wills against God will not listen to God’s message; however, they will listen to false teachers. And concerning those false teachers, the apostle John states, “They are from the world; therefore, they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (1 John 4:5). That is, there are those who operate from presuppositions and values that are cosmocentric, which exclude or pervert serious consideration and discussion about God, refusing to give Him any say over their lives.

Every person confronted with Jesus is either positive or negative to Him. Those who are positive accept Him, and those who are negative reject Him. The human heart is corrupt, and naturally defaults to a negative setting. Though we are not neutral and try to persuade people to believe the gospel (John 3:16; 20:31; Acts 4:12; 1 Cor 15:3-4; Eph 2:8-9), each person must choose to accept or reject the offer. Those who believe in Jesus will spend forever in heaven (John 10:28; 14:1-4). And believers who pursue righteousness will be rewarded in eternity (1 Cor 3:10-15). Those who reject Jesus as Savior are free to do so (John 3:18). But actions have consequences, and they will forever be separated from God in the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:11-15). Such a future is avoidable for the one who turns to Christ as Savior and believes in Him (John 3:16; Acts 4:12; 16:31).

The person who operates by negative volition, whether consciously or unconsciously, aligns himself with Satan and his forces. Negative volition leads to idolatry, and idolatry leads to immorality (Rom 1:18-32), both individually and nationally. The worship of idols is the worship of demons (Lev 17:7; Deut 32:17; 1 Cor 10:19-21). Demons generally led the pagan nations into idolatry, which God’s people were not to practice (Deut 18:9-14). However, when God’s people mingled with them, they learned their idolatrous practices (1 Ki 11:1-8), and even created their own idols (1 Ki 12:26-33), which eventuated in human sacrifice (2 Ki 17:7-23; Psa 106:35-38; cf. 2 Ki 16:1-4; 21:1-9; Jer 32:30-35; Ezek 16:20-21; 20:31; 23:37).

The Battles We Face

As Christians, we should realize our primary battle is spiritual and not physical (Eph 6:12). Our responsibility is to keep ourselves unstained by the world (2 Cor 6:14-18; Jam 1:27), to pray for our enemies (Matt 5:44), and witness for Christ that others might believe the gospel and be saved (John 3:16; Acts 4:12; 1 Cor 15:3-4; Eph 2:8-9). The Bible is our sword by which we destroy spiritual and intellectual strongholds, within ourselves and others (2 Cor 10:3-5). The Christian is to get along with others, showing tolerance (Rom 12:17-18), except when it comes to something that harms our walk with God, and then we must stand firm (Rom 13:13-14; 1 John 2:15-17). At times God will give us the ear of a human ruler (Dan 3:16-18; Acts 4:19-20; 5:28-29; 26:1-29), and we must take that opportunity to speak God’s truth and pray He moves the heart of the hearer. As national citizens we should vote for leaders that promote laws consistent with God’s values (i.e., freedom, law and order, life in the womb, etc.). Just laws will align with regenerate and humble hearts. And we should always pray for our leaders (1 Tim 2:1-2), strive to be upstanding citizens (Rom 13:1-7; Tit 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13-14), help the needy in our communities (Acts 20:35; 1 Thess. 5:14), and above all, share the gospel and preach God’s Word (John 3:16; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 2 Tim 4:1-2).

As Christians, we are called to let our light shine in this world. Paul informs us we “were formerly darkness, but now [we] are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light” (Eph 5:8). This is a daily choice we make. And Paul tells us, “The fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth, trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:9-10). This is part of our calling, and it starts by learning God’s Word and then living His will. But know this: When we live and speak God’s Word, not everyone will want to hear it, and even though we may not agree with their choice, it should be respected (Matt 10:14; Acts 13:50-51). We should never try to force the gospel or biblical teaching on anyone, but be willing to share as opportunity presents itself.

At times this sharing will bring peace, and other times cause disruption and may even offend. In this interaction, the growing Christian must be careful not to fall into the exclusion trap, in which the worldly-minded person (whether saved or lost) controls the content of every conversation, demanding the Christian only talk about worldly issues, as Scripture threatens his pagan presuppositions. Having the biblical worldview, the Christian should insert himself into daily conversations with others, and in so doing, be a light in a dark place. He should always be respectful, conversational, and never have a fist-in-your-face attitude, as arrogance never helps advance biblical truth (2 Tim 2:24-26). The worldly-minded person may not want to hear what the Christian has to say, but he should never be under the false impression that he has the right to quiet the Christian and thereby exclude him from the conversation.

Christ-on-the-crossLastly, as we grow spiritually and walk with God, learning and living His Word (2 Tim 2:15; 3:16-17), we stand in opposition to Satan’s world-system and sow the seeds of spiritual insurrection in the lives of those who live and walk in his kingdom of darkness. We disrupt Satan’s kingdom when we share the gospel, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). When anyone places their faith in Christ, trusting solely in Him as Savior, they are forgiven all their sins (Eph 1:7), gifted with eternal life (John 3:16; 10:28), and given the gift of righteousness (Rom 5:17; cf., Rom 4:1-5; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9). And they are liberated from Satan’s enslaving power, as God rescues them from the “domain of darkness” and transfers them into “the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13). The gospel is the only way a person can be delivered from spiritual slavery; “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). Once saved, we seek to influence the thoughts and lives of other Christians through fellowship (Heb 10:23-25), prayer (Jam 5:16), edification (Eph 4:29), encouragement (1 Thess 5:11), love (1 Thess 4:9; cf. Eph 4:14-15), words of grace (Col 4:6), and consistent biblical teaching (2 Tim 4:1-2). As Christians, we are responsible for output, not outcomes. We control the biblical content of our thoughts, words, and actions, but the response of those who hear and see is between them and the Lord.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 309.

[2] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 788.

[3] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 1282.

[4] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 447.

[5] Ibid., 182.

[6] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 143.

[7] After his fall, Lucifer became known as Satan (Matt 4:10), the evil one (1 John 5:19), the tempter (1 Th 3:5), the devil (Matt 4:1), the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4), the accuser of the brethren (Rev 12:10), the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2), the serpent (Rev 12:9), and the great red dragon (Rev 12:3).

[8] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 470–471.

[9] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 309.

[10] Ibid., 118–119.