How Much Free Will Do You Really Have?
It is quite common for both Christians and non-Christians to point out their free will. But how free are we? Are we free to do anything? Why don’t believers use their free will to freely choose never to sin again? Why does no one do that? We do have free will—no disagreement here—but maybe it’s not that simple.
After explaining to Timothy how to teach and correct opponents, Paul then explains how God works:
God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Tim. 25-26)
Paul encourages Timothy by reminding him that he cannot convince a person into the kingdom of God. Before God acts, a person is held captive by the devil, and being held captive a person cannot, of his own free will, free himself from the snare of the devil by deciding for himself what is true. Like Timothy, we are to be kind teachers who correct with gentleness, remembering that it is God who may grant repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.
But what about free will?
Some Christians believe God only made it possible for humans to be saved—it’s up to us, exercising our free will, to choose the offered salvation; then God will regenerate us. Others believe humans are so blind, deaf, spiritually dead, and enslaved to sin that they are unable to turn to Christ Jesus unless God first regenerates them—God takes the initiative and a person freely responds.
There is disagreement, but part of the problem may be oversimplification—a tendency to believe there are only two alternatives—we are either completely free or we are completely determined. But what does Scripture teach us? Perhaps we need to go a little bit deeper into the nature of our choices—addressing both what we freely will and why we freely will as we do.
What is free will?
The will is the faculty of a person’s mind involved in choosing what a person desires. The human will is free in that it chooses voluntarily and is undetermined by anything other than itself.
Do humans have free will?
Yes, humans after the fall of Adam still have natural liberty, meaning they are not forced to choose either good or evil. Humans have the power of self-decision according to what pleases them, what they desire.
In other words, humans freely choose what they desire—their will is not forced by anything outside of themselves—what they most desire is what they freely choose. Consider for example, James 1:14 which speaks of how a person’s own desires affect his or her choices of will.
Does humanity’s fall into sin affect free will?
Sinful humans still retain their free will—they still freely choose according to what they desire, according to their sinful nature.
Scripture teaches us that the nature of fallen humans is that they are spiritually dead and incapable of any spiritual good toward salvation. Paul writes in Romans 8:7-8 that the carnal mind is hostile to God. The word of God does not say that the carnal mind is passive but rather that sinful unconverted persons have an active hostility (enmity) toward God.
Ephesians 2:1-3 (see also Col. 2:13) teaches that fallen humans are dead in their sin, carrying out the desires (i.e., will) of body and mind. They are by nature children of wrath. Elsewhere Scripture describes humanity’s condition as spiritual blindness and deafness (see Deut. 29:4; Matt. 13:13; John 12:40; Acts 28:26; 2 Cor. 4:4). God also describes the nature of fallen humans as being in slavery to sin and corruption (Rom. 6:17; Titus 3:3; 2 Pet. 2:19).
The unregenerate set their minds on fleshly things.
Returning to Romans 8, Paul writes that those who are in the flesh—those not regenerated by the Holy Spirit to be a new spiritual creature (see John 3:3; 2 Cor. 5:17; Tit. 3:5)—do not set their minds on spiritual things, but only on fleshly things. As a result, they have no ability to please God (Rom. 8:5-8). There are no righteous humans, there is no one who understands, and there is no one who seeks for God. No one does good—there is no fear of God in their eyes (Rom. 3:10-18 quoting Psalms 5, 14, 36, 53, 140; Isa. 59:7).
So what do sinful, unregenerate, unconverted, human beings desire—what do they freely will?
The unregenerate use their free will to choose what they desire: to sin.
Prior to the flood, God saw that every intention of the thoughts of a person’s heart was only evil continually (Gen. 6:5). Long after the flood the psalmist points out there are none who do good (Ps. 14). Isaiah 59 teaches how the sinful think only of iniquity. The heart of fallen humans is deceitful above everything (Jer. 17:5) The spiritually dead yield to the passions of the flesh and the sinful desires of the body (Eph. 2:1-3). To the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; both their minds and their consciences are defiled (Tit. 1:15).
But what does this have to do with free will? Scripture teaches that fallen humans use their free will to choose what is sinful—with a defiled and deceitful heart they freely choose what they desire. And what they desire is sin. A person is drawn away by his own lust enticing himself to sin (James 1:14-15). Their mind is hostile to God—it cannot do otherwise (Rom. 8:7). All evil comes out of their heart which desires evil thoughts and actions (Matt. 15:19). Being spiritually dead, enslaved to sin, and blind and deaf, they cannot even see or hear the good news of the Gospel (Matt. 13:13-15)
What changes our desires?
Apart from the supernatural work of God by the power of the Holy Spirit operating through the word of God, no fallen human uses his or her free will to choose to follow Christ Jesus. Scripture teaches—and experience confirms—that they do not desire Christ Jesus.
Jesus plainly teaches that no one can come to God unless God actively draws the person to himself (John 6:44). Notice how Jesus teaches us that a person has no ability to come to God. No one can come to Jesus Christ. It is not a free will that is lacking; rather, it is ability. The nature of sinful humankind is to desire only sin, so they freely choose sin rather than faith in Christ Jesus. Unless God changes their nature, they will continue in slavery to sin—freely choosing to do so!
Only a good tree can produce good fruit.
Jesus further helps us to understand these points by using the metaphor of a tree and fruit (Matt. 7:17-19; 12:33; Luke 6:43). Bad trees cannot bear good fruit (of faith). He declares that the tree must first be made good before it can bear good fruit. In fact, he goes on to teach by using the metaphor of the vine and branch—a person who is not rooted in Christ cannot bear fruit (John 15:1-6). He makes it quite clear: ‘“For apart from me you can do nothing”’ (John 15:5).
Humans have no ability to do anything good, such as choosing to follow Christ Jesus by faith, unless they are first made good by being rooted in Christ Jesus. A sinful, fallen person does not choose Christ unless Christ first chooses that person.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” (John 15:16)
God takes the initiative, and we freely respond.
We love only because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). It is because of God’s choice that a person is in Christ Jesus “so that no one may boast in himself” (1 Cor. 1:27-30, 2 Cor. 10:17-18). In John 6, Jesus teaches that ‘“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”’ (John 6:29). When his disciples become more confused, Jesus explains that it is the Spirit that gives life—our flesh is no help. Then he repeats himself: ‘“No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father”’ (John 6:65).
Notice the next verse: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). One theologian has described this as Jesus’ church shrinkage program: Jesus taught the sovereignty of God in salvation and many disciples left him.
The point is that humans still freely will according to what they desire—fallen humans desire only sin and are even actively hostile to God. Apart from being rooted in Christ Jesus they can do nothing to change their nature.
The new creation consists of new creatures with a new nature.
God, however, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through his word, recreates a person. God changes one’s nature from dead, blind, and deaf sinful flesh to being made alive in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:5). We become a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 15:17), having been born again (John 3:5-8) by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5).
Now you may ask, what about the gospel? Doesn’t God save his people by the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ? Absolutely yes!
The ordinary means God uses to regenerate his people and make them a new creation rooted in Christ Jesus is his word. As God brought this creation into existence by his word, so he brings the new creation into being by the power of his Holy Spirit as his word is proclaimed through the ordinary means of preaching the Gospel (hearing) and administering baptism and the Lord’s supper (seeing).
The gospel proclaimed makes things happen—in the power of the Holy Spirit it changes people. Though they are dead, it makes them alive. Though they are blind, it opens their eyes. Though they are deaf, it makes them hear. This is the calling of the gospel spoken of in Romans 8:29-30, granting faith that comes by hearing the word of God (Rom. 10:17; Phil. 1:29). It is God’s holy calling through the gospel that changes us (2 Tim. 1:9-10). God’s word changes us and frees us from bondage to sin (Col. 1:13; John 8:34-36; Rom. 6:6-7), as James makes quite clear:
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:16-18, emphasis added)
God frees us from slavery to our sin nature.
Until God acts, there is no freedom from sin. But once God acts by his word and Spirit, how does a person respond? God “enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch 9.4, emphasis added). It is God who works in us to will and to do his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). We are no longer slaves to sin, but God has changed us in such a way so as to desire and freely will to bear the fruit of good works that we were created in Christ Jesus to do (Rom. 6:14-22; Eph. 2:10).
We still battle sin (1 John 1:8-10), but God has changed our nature such that we freely will to follow Christ by faith in him, desiring to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and others as ourselves. God graciously continues to sanctify us by his word and Spirit, conforming us more and more to the image of Christ Jesus as we die to sin and live to righteousness.
This is the work of God—that you believe in Christ Jesus. We freely choose to believe only because God has changed our nature by regeneration—new creation—such that our desires are now inclined toward God instead of toward sin.
I was blinded by my sin
Had no ears to hear Your voice
Did not know Your love within
Had no taste for heaven’s joys
Then Your Spirit gave me life
Opened up Your Word to me
Through the gospel of Your Son
Gave me endless hope and peace.
(“O Great God” by Bob Kauflin)
For further study see the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 9, Free Will. See also Chapter 6, Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and of the Punishment Thereof, and Chapter 10, Effectual Calling. A helpful hymn is Horatius Bonar’s, “Not What My Hands Have Done” which can be found in many hymnals, including Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian.
Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will by R. C. Sproul
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