"Free will" has become a popular phrase that occurs in just about every theological or philosophical discussion, especially those involving God's salvation of sinners. It doesn't take long when someone talks about the biblical terms predestination and election for the phrase to enter into the conversation. Several times I have taught on Romans 9 where Paul argues that God has chosen certain individuals from among the nation of Israel to be a part of His promised plan of redemption while excluding others from that plan (Isaac and not Ishmael, Jacob and not Esau) when someone will politely remind me that "man has a free will" or that "man's free will must have factored into God's decision." Paul explicitly states that the choice had nothing to do with the actions of the chosen but because of Him who calls (v. 11). Later he says So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy (v. 16). In fact, Paul is not concerned in this chapter about man's will at all but instead God's sovereignty in His dealings with Israel. Yet, many often read the idea of "free will" into the passage. The assumption is that since man clearly makes choices, he then must have the freedom to choose to do good or evil and to choose to accept or reject Christ. However, such a concept actually goes against what Scripture teaches concerning man's freedom.
The Bible's Description of Man"s Nature
The Bible does not describe man as free in the sense that many people argue. Instead, Paul describes man as a slave. He tells the Roman Christians that they were slaves of sin at one time (Romans 6:17). The verb to be in the Greek of this verse is in the imperfect tense. This tense describes a continual action that occurred in the past from the perspective of the author's writing. This slavery was not just their condition whenever they sinned but was a constant ongoing condition that they found themselves in. Such a condition they are born with as part of their nature. Paul says in Ephesians 2:3 that the believers were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. David affirmed this as well when he recognized that Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, / And in sin my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5). They sinned because they each were a slave to sin. This explains why sin is universal (Romans 3:23); all are born sinners with a desire to sin.
By definition a slave is not free. In introducing the analogy of slavery, Paul explains Do you not know that when you present yourselves slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin to death or of obedience to righteousness? (v. 16). A slave is bound to his master. He will do what his master commands. Paul informs us that we are slaves but the question is to which master. We either are obedient to sin or to righteousness. Thus, if our master is sin, we will be obedient to sin. As it has been shown, our default position is being a slave to sin. We are born into this slavery. The only way that one can be freed from this constant slavery to sin is by the power of God. Paul mentions that this group became obedient from the heart to the type of teaching you were given over to and having been set free from sin you became a slave to righteousness (vv. 17-18). The Greek verb for set free here is in the passive voice which indicates that the "freeing" happened to them and that they did not do it themselves. The passive voice communicates that the subject receives the action of the verb while the active voice describes the subject performing the action. This becoming free from this slavery to sin was not something that this group were able to do but had to be done for them. Paul certainly has God in mind as the one who frees man from this slavery as He is the One thanked for this change of masters for the group (But thanks to God) (v. 17). Paul's point in using this analogy and its application to the Roman Christians in the greater context is to answer the anticipated objection that since the believer is no longer under the burden of meeting the requirements of the Law but saved by God's grace that he can then freely sin. Reminding them that they once were slaves to sin but that God has made them a slave to righteousness and the results of each, he encourages them to act as the new slave to righteousness that God has now made them and not the slave to sin that they once were (vv. 19-23).
Jesus uses this same analogy of slavery in a discussion with the Jews who believed in Him. He explains to them the evidence of genuine conversion to be the continuing obedience to His Word. If you continue in My word, you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (John 8:31-32). This statement about the truth making one free sparked a question as to the Jews' own freedom. We are Abraham's descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, 'You will become free'? (v. 33). Jesus answers them by telling them that they were enslaved to their sin. Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who does sin is a slave to sin (v. 34). The verb do is in the present tense and thus indicates an ongoing practicing of sin. The one constantly in the state of sin shows that he is a slave to sin. He is just following his master. The only way one can be free from this slavery to sin according to Jesus is if the Son sets you free, then you will be free (v. 36). The Son must be the One to set one free for them to be free. The implication here is that we are not able to free ourselves but the Lord Jesus has to be the one to break our bondage. According to both Paul and Jesus, man is not born with a "free will" but instead is in bondage to sin and unable to break away from his slavery unless God or Jesus comes to his aid to free him.
Man's Nature Leaves Him Unwilling and Thus Unable to Come to Christ
The reason that man is enslaved to sin as both Paul and Jesus describes is due to the sinful desires that he has as part of his nature that he is born with. Every decision that we make is always based on our greatest desire or inclination at the moment. Our choices are in essence determined by our desires. For instance, I am choosing to write this article right now instead of sleeping (it is around 2:00 in the morning), reading, or watching TV since my greatest desire at the moment is to explain to many who are confused about the issue of "free will" just what the Bible says concerning the matter. The time that I have right now, my being a "night owl" who functions well in the late hours, and the burden on my heart to write this article, all factor in this being my most desirable option to me at the moment. My desire to write this article is greater than the desires for the other options available to me presently. Also, to use an illustration that I am beginning to become famous for (my Sunday School class just loved this last week!), we can see this principle illustrated with our choices concerning the different flavors of ice cream. If you would place strawberry and chocolate ice cream both in front of me, I would inevitable choose strawberry because it is my favorite flavor and I find chocolate ice cream detestable. Because I do not desire chocolate ice cream, I therefore will never choose it; especially when strawberry ice cream is an option. I am unwilling to choose chocolate ice cream because I do not like it. The only way for me to be able to choose chocolate ice cream over strawberry would be for my tastes for the two of them to change. Strawberry ice cream would have to become repulsive to me and chocolate ice cream would have to become delicious. Otherwise, strawberry will always get my vote.
We see this principle of our choices being determined by our inner desires spiritually. The Bible teaches that man is unable to come to Christ without the inner work of God's grace. Jesus said that No one is able to come to me unless the Father who sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day (John 6:44). God must draw someone to come to Christ because man is not able in and of himself to do so. This drawing should be understood as effectual since the same one that the Father draws, Jesus promises to raise him up on the last day. Jesus certainly would not be raising up those on the last day who do not come to Him since He stated that He is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). Likewise, Paul states that Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:8). Those who are in the flesh refer to unbelievers who have not been converted as Paul points out that this is what the believers in Rome once were but that now they have the Spirit, indicating that they are saved (v. 9). Furthermore, the prophet Jeremiah told the people of Israel Can the Ethiopian change his skin / Or the leopard his spots? You also can do good / Who are accustomed to doing evil (Jeremiah 13:23). Just as the Ethiopian cannot "choose" to change the color of his skin and the leopard cannot "choose" to change his spots to stripes, sinners cannot "choose" to do good because of their evil nature. The reason for this inability spawns from man's unwillingness. He cannot come to Christ because he is not willing to take steps in that direction. Speaking to a group of Pharisees, Jesus says and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life (John 5:4). This unwillingness results from a strong desire for sin and a lack of a desire for God.
John tells us that This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed (John 3:19-20). The reason that man rejects the Light, which is Christ, is because he loves the darkness and hates the Light. In other words, he has a desire for the darkness and not for the Light. The unregenerate man loves his sin and hates God. He runs towards his sin and away from God. Quoting from Psalm 14, Paul states that There is none who seeks for God; / All have turned aside, together they have become useless (Romans 3:11-12). While man may seek the things that only God can give, such as the peace that passes understanding and full satisfaction, he does not desire God Himself. He would much rather sin than come to God. In relation to my analogy of ice cream, the unregenerate man would view God as the chocolate ice cream which appears repulsive to him and sin as the strawberry ice cream which he loves. He will always choose the strawberry ice cream of sin because it is more desirable to him and not touch the chocolate because he lacks the desire for it. He cannot choose Christ because he does not desire to do so. The only way for man to be able to come to Christ would be for his nature with his desires to be changed. In fact, this is exactly what happens in conversion or being born again as Jesus calls it (John 3:3). This being born of water and the Spirit (v. 5) more likely refers to God's promise through Ezekiel to cleanse His people and give them a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-27). While originally directed to Israel, this prophecy would also apply to select Gentiles that God draws to Christ as He has included Gentiles to share in His salvation and the New Covenant promises through Israel's rejection (Romans 11:11-18; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 10:15-18). The description of a new heart and a new spirit indicates that these are different than the old ones that the people had. Unlike the old heart and spirit with their love of sin and hatred towards God, these new ones would have a hatred toward sin and a love for God. The difference between the two can be inevitably seen by the actions that follow from their desires. Paul points out the deeds of the flesh which are characteristic of an unbeliever and the fruit of the Spirit which are the qualities that shine forth from a genuine believer (Galatians 5:19-24).
Forgetting the Fall
"Free will" proponents actually appear to forget that the Fall occurred and that it affected all mankind. They portray man as being in the same state as Adam and Eve were before their act of disobedience. Several times I have heard someone say, "man was created with 'free will' just like Adam and Eve." While Adam and Eve did have "free will" in the sense that they had the ability to choose to sin or to choose not to sin, they lost that "free will" upon their disobedience. The Fall affected all men and not just Adam and Eve. It was through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men (Romans 5:18; emphasis mine). through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners (v. 19). The sin nature described above, man inherits from Adam. He is not born originally righteous as Adam was created. He does not have the ability that Adam once had to choose to sin or to choose not to sin. Instead, he is born a slave to sin who can only choose to sin but is not able to choose not to sin. (For a more in depth look at why the good that man does is not viewed as good in God's eyes, see my previous post, "The Disappearance of Depravity") It is not until Christ frees the sinner through the granting of him the new heart with the new desires that he is free in the sense that Adam and Eve were. The born again believer can choose to sin or choose not to sin. This is why we struggle with sin and still trip up often. When our sanctification is complete and we are glorified, we will no longer be able to choose to sin. The only option we will have will be to choose not to sin. Those who hold to the concept of "free will" discussed in this article have to admit that there cannot be such a "free will" among those who are in heaven. The "free will" that they claim that man naturally has only applies to the one that Christ frees from their natural slavery to sin and that only after His work of doing so.
What About God's Commands?
Those who hold to the popular modern perception of "free will" argue that the reality of God's commands indicates the "free will" of the individuals to whom the commands are directed. They reason that God would never command someone to do something that he or she does not have the ability to do. Following this logic, they conclude that if God commands us to repent and believe in Christ, then that must mean that man has the capability to respond either positively or negatively. In fact, this claim served as one of the foundational arguments for Pelagius. He took issue to Augustine's prayer, "Grant what You command and command what You desire." He thought it was ludicrous to pray that God needed to give one the ability to obey His commands. However, a command in no way necessitates that the one whom the command is directed contains the ability to respond. In fact, we find a few examples in Scripture where a command is given which is impossible for the recipient of the command to obey without God's divine intervention.
In Ezekiel 37, God instructs the prophet Ezekiel to command dry bones to hear the word of the LORD (v. 4). Hear is in the imperative form in Hebrew, indicating that this clearly is a command. Dry bones are dead, lifeless bones. Because they are dead, they are not able to hear anything. However, through the power of God's word that He will breathe life into these dry bones, they came together and became covered with skin (vv. 7-8). God then commands the prophet to call on the wind to breathe into these men and it is so (vv. 9-10). The bones would not have been able to hear God's word until after He brought them to life. The life-giving of these dead bones resembles God's promise to restore the people of Israel. Another command given which was impossible for one to obey without God's divine assistance can be seen with Jesus' command to Lazarus. Jesus calls a dead Lazarus to come forth (John 11:43). Lazarus had been dead for four days. He in no way had the ability to respond to Jesus' command to get up and come out of the tomb. God had to give him the life needed for him to be able to respond. In both cases, a command is given to a recipient that lacks the ability to obey.
Actually, all of God's commandments are impossible for one to obey without God's grace. If we are honest with ourselves, we would recognize how incapable we are of never placing any other "gods" before the one true God. John Calvin put it well when he stated that "the human heart is a factory of idols . . . Everyone of us is, from his mother's womb, expert in inventing idols." Jesus equated hatred with murder (Matthew 5:21-22) and lust with adultery (vv. 27-28). He commanded perfection (v. 48), which is certainly an impossibility for everyone of us.
While faith and repentance are commanded (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 16:31; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20), they also are described as a gift that God gives (John 6:65; Philippians 1:29; Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25). Although the people of Israel witnessed the mighty works of God during the Exodus, Moses states that Yet to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear (Deuteronomy 29:2-4). God commands that Israel love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5). Later Moses instructs that God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring (Deuteronomy 30:6). The purpose of this "circumcision of the heart" is so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. If the people are able in and of themselves to respond to the command to love the Lord with their entire being, why then does God have to change their heart for them to do so? The commands of Scripture do not indicate that man has a "free will" but only that man needs God's full assistance to obey these commands. As Martin Luther pointed out, God's commands do not imply man's ability but only his duty.
Upon an examination of Scripture, the popular view of "free will" cannot be found. Instead, the Bible portrays man as a slave to sin due to his sinful nature and thus unwilling and unable to come to Christ. Man's only hope is for the Lord Jesus to free him from his bondage and draw him to Him. Let's make sure that we describe man the way that the Bible does and not man-centered philosophy or secular culture.
Soli Deo Gloria!!!
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. ~2 Timothy 2:15
- I am a young man who is following God's call into pastoral ministry. I have been so blessed with the privileges which the Lord has granted me. I am blessed to serve the Mt. Joy congregation in Mt. Pleasant, PA. I am constantly humbled and amazed at what the Lord is doing in my life.