The Free Will of Man According to the Holy Orthodox Christian Church

Venerable Andrew Rublev the Iconographer

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


God and Lord of the heavenly powers of Angels and Creator of the whole universe, out of the depths of Your unimaginable loving kindness, You sent Your Only-begotten Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, for the salvation of our human race. Through His precious Cross, Christ tore up the written accusation against our sins, and He triumphed upon the Cross against the principalities and authorities of darkness. Receive now, O Loving Lord, also from us sinners, these prayers of petition and thanksgiving, and redeem us from every destructive and evil transgression, and from all visible and invisible enemies who seek to harm us. Through the salutary fear of You, O God, transfix our flesh upon the Cross and do not incline our hearts to words or thoughts of evil. Uphold our souls with the desire for You, so that looking intently toward You always, being guided by Your Light, and seeing You, the Uncreated and Unapproachable Light, we may send up to You an unceasing confession, and thanksgiving, to you the Unbegotten Father without beginning, together with Your All-Holy, Good and Life-creating Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.



[By offering the above prayer of our Lord, we indicate our trust in Him, and we surrender knowingly and willingly our human will to the Divine Will of Our Almighty God, Creator and Savior. As often as we offer this divine prayer, we, as His sons and daughters, invite Him to take charge of our lives and to lead us back to His Eternal Kingdom.]



Image and likeness. According to most of the holy Greek Fathers, the terms image and likeness do not mean exactly the same thing. 'The expression "according to the image," wrote Saint John of Damascus, 'indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression "according to the likeness" indicates assimilation to God through virtue (On the Orthodox Faith, 2, 12 (P.G. 94, 920B). The image, or to use the Greek term the icon, of God signifies man's free will, his reason, his sense of moral responsibility--everything, in short, which marks man out from the animal creation and makes him a person.

Grace and free will. As we have seen, writes His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, "the fact that man is in God's image means among other things that he possesses free will. God wanted a son, not a slave. The Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of grace which might seem to infringe upon man's freedom. To describe the relation between the grace of God and free will of man, Orthodoxy uses the term cooperation or synergy (synergeia); in Saint Paul's words: "We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God" (1 Corinthians 3:9). If a man is to achieve full communion (fellowship) with God, he cannot do so without God's help, yet he must also play his own part: man as well as God must make his contribution to the common work, although what God does is of immeasurably greater importance than what man does. The incorporation of man into Christ and his union with god require the cooperation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will. (A Monk of the Eastern Church, Orthodox Spiritualit, p. 23). The supreme example of synergy is the Mother of God (see p. 263).

The West (The Latin Church), since time of Augustine and the Pelagian controversy, has discussed this question of grace and free will in somewhat different terms; and many brought up in the Augustinian tradition--particularly Calvanists (Protestants)--have viewed the Orthodox belief of 'synergy' with some suspicion. Does it not ascribe too much to man's free will, and too little to God? Yet in reality the Orthodox teaching is very straightforward, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in" (Revelation 3:20). God knocks, but waits for man to open the door--He does not break it down. The grace of God invites all but compels none. In the words of Saint John Chrysostom: "God never draws anyone to Himself by force and violence. He wishes all men to be saved, but forces no on" (Sermon on the words 'Saul, Saul...). 'It is for God to grant His grace,' said Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386 A.D.); "your task is to accept that grace and to guard it" (Catechetical Orations, 1, 4). But it must not be imagined that because a man accepts and guards God's grace, he thereby earns 'merit'. God's gifts are free gifts, and man can never have any claims upon his maker. But man, while he cannot 'merit' salvation, must certainly work for it, since "faith without works is dead" (St. James 2:17).

God gave Adam free will--the power to choose between good and evil--and it therefore rested with Adam either to accept the vocation set before him or to refuse it. He refused it. Instead of continuing along the path marked out for him by God, he turned aside and disobeyed God. Adam's fall consisted essentially in his disobedience of the will of God; he set up his own will against the Divine Will, and so by his own act he separated himself from God. As a result, a new form of existence appeared on earth--that of disease and death."

"The Orthodox teaching of salvation is based on the doctrine of free will. In his fall man did not lose his free will. Man could still choose to be with God or without Him--he just could not move by himself back towards God, as the path was closed by the "ancestral" or "original sin."

Christ cleared that path, and now our salvation is the matter solely of our choice. God honors our choice--whatever it is. This is the reason God does not make demons disappear: God respects their free will, as free will is a feature of divinity (that, unfortunately, can be misused.) We are saved through cooperation of our will with God's--called synergy in Orthodox Christian theology--the doctrine famously expressed by Saint Athanasius the Great as "God does not save us without us." Christ Himself promised His response to those seeking His help: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (St. Matthew 7:7-8).

On the other hand, God does not force salvation on anyone: otherwise, this would not be "salvation" but rather His re-making us into something that contradicts His Own original design of us. First He made us in His image and now He "saves" us by taking His image away from us and essentially equating us with all other living creatures? When Saint John Chrysostom was asked why not everybody is saved, he said, "Because you yourselves do not want to [be saved]. Even though the grace is indeed the grace, and it saves, it only saves those who desire it, but not those who do not want it and turn away from it." Likewise, the Dread Judgment is dread not because someone will be put in hell against his will--but because that will be the final self-determination of each human.

"The grace of God does not enslave the conscience and freedom of man-but, having revealed to him the love of God and the horror of sin, it leaves it up to man to strive towards this love and...communion with it."

Philosophers commonly disagree about the definition of free will and the human capacity to use it. Some have said that man is a machine, who must follow the laws of his nature, therefore, he is neither free to choose between good and evil (whatever they are) nor even between things. Even if he could overcome the laws of nature, he would, as some ancient Greek philosophers said, be subject to "fate" whose decisions be fulfilled. Thus, choice is a delusion.

Augustine, the 5th century Bishop of Hippo, seems to have adapted the Greek idea of fate. When discussing "predestination", that is, before the creation of the world, God decided who would live with Him forever, and those who would dwell in penal fire for eternity. Augustine called those whom God has predestined to heaven, the Elect, and to hell, the Reprobate. Thus, only the Elect have the ability to choose between good and evil, for they alone have been given the grace to make such choices. This belief of Augustine is contrary to the teachings of the Church which teaches, in the words of Saint John of Damascus, that God "knows all things beforehand, but He does not predetermine them. Although He knows what is in our power, He does not predetermine it." Man is free because he was created in "the image of God."

Augustine of Hippo taught that "original sin" makes it impossible for us to choose between good and evil and, therefore, to take any part in our salvation. Before the creation of the world, God knew that Adam would fall and plunge his posterity into sin, death and corruption. Knowing this, God predestined some to salvation, others to damnation. Why He decided to save some and not others, we cannot know. To the chosen few, the Elect, He imposed grace irresistibly. They have the ability to choose between good and evil. The rest of the human race deludes itself by thinking that it has the same choices. Augustine of course was wrong and his belief was and is in error.

Contrary to Augustine, the Grace of God is not arbitrarily forced upon some and denied to others. Grace is freely given, freely received. To quote Saint Faustus of Riez:

"We, however, maintain that whosoever is lost is lost by his own fault; yet, he could have obtained salvation through grace had he cooperated with it; and, on the other hand, whoever through grace attains to perfection by means of cooperation (synergy), might nevertheless, through his own fault, his own negligence, fall and be lost. We exclude, of course, all personal pride, since we insist that all we possess has been freely received from the Hand of God." (Concerning Grace, 1)

And finally, Saint John Cassian asserts:

"These two, namely, grace and free will, although they seem opposed, in fact are complementary...Were we to deny the one or the other, we would appear to have abandoned the Faith of the Church." (Conversations with the Desert Fathers, 18)

Philosophers cannot help us know whether we have free will. They do not agree among themselves. Their theories, based on unproven assumptions, are open to serious criticism. Also religious doctrine about predestination and fate only put the blame for evil on God and deprive human beings of praise and blame for their choices, for their vice and virtue. The knowledge of free will comes by faith and experience. God created man in His Image, which means that man has free will. The freedom which has been implanted by God in created human nature is curtailed only by sin and ignorance. Without freedom life is meaningless. (Father Michael Azkoul, "An Introduction to the Orthodox Christian Understanding of Free Will).


The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George