Man’s will: Free or Bound?
“So then, it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Romans 9:16, ESV)
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (Jesus Christ, in John 6:37, 44, ESV)
“And you were dead in trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3, ESV)
“Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 9.3)
Do human beings have a free will? From a biblical and reformed viewpoint, it really depends on what is meant by “free will.” Certainly it is self-evident to all of us that we make decisions every day about all kinds of things (what to wear, what food to eat, our daily activities, recreational interests, etc.); and when we make decisions we are aware of making genuine choices from the options that are presented to us. So it is clear that man has a will, and that he makes choices every day which are uncoerced by outside forces. (And even when outside factors or forces are involved in seeking to influence or constrain our choices, such as social pressure or the threat of violent treatment if we don’t perform a certain action, we still are “free” to choose whether or not to comply with these outside pressures.) So, in that sense, man has a “free will.”
However, when we consider the issue of the human will from a biblical perspective, taking into consideration what the Scriptures teach about man’s fallen condition in Adam, it is clear that when it comes to spiritual things man’s will is determined by his nature. The Bible teaches that every person inherits a sin nature from Adam. In our fallen condition we are by nature dead in trespasses and sins, slaves of Satan, and children of wrath. Apart from God’s sovereign grace in Jesus Christ, we are by our (fallen) nature dead to the things of God; we hate the true and living God revealed in Holy Scripture; and we have no genuine desire for the salvation Christ offers us in the gospel, nor do we desire to “choose” the biblical Jesus as our Savior. Unless the Holy Spirit regenerates us (i.e., causes us to be “born again”), we cannot even see, much less enter, the kingdom of God (see John 3:3). Apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit we would have no genuine desire for the things of God. Indeed, as Jesus tells us so clearly in the John 6:44 passage quoted above, unless God the Father sovereignly draws him, no sinner can come to Christ in faith for salvation. This is because the fallen sinner’s will is not free to choose Christ; rather, apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit the sinner’s will is in bondage to sin. The gospel of Jesus Christ and the things of the Spirit are foolish to the “natural (i.e., unregenerate) man” (see First Corinthians 2:14-16).
Even in the natural realm our choices are determined by our desires and biases, and our desires and biases are determined by our nature and temperament. None of us makes choices in a vacuum, arbitrarily and for no reason whatsoever. A choice that is made randomnly or arbitrarily, without any reason whatsoever, is a completely empty, meaningless thing, a thing that lacks any real moral or spiritual significance. The truth is that at any given moment you and I always choose that which we desire the most at the particular point in time that we make the choice. For example, suppose I am walking down an alley in the city and am confronted by a mugger who points a gun at me and offers me this choice: “Your money or your life!” Whether or not I choose to give the mugger my money will depend upon what I desire the most in that situation. If I desire to escape this situation with my life I will choose to give the mugger my money. If I am a proud sort who would rather die than give this crook the satisfaction of forcing money out of my grip by coercion (and if I have lost my sanity), then I will choose to refuse the man my money and take the consequences of such a refusal. I have a genuine option set before me, and I am “free” to choose either option; but what I choose will ultimately be determined by what I desire the most at the time I make the choice. The same thing is true in the spiritual realm when we are talking about the question of whether or not an unregenerate sinner has the “power” of libertarian “free will” to choose Christ. The Scriptures clearly attest to the fact that in the spiritual realm a person’s decision to trust Christ or to reject him is based on whether or not that sinner has come to desire Christ and his salvation as he is offered in the gospel. Since an unregenerate sinner is in bondage to his sin, and thus he will have no desire for the Jesus revealed in the Bible, therefore no unregenerate sinner would ever choose Christ on his own. Fallen, unregenerate man has no power of will or spiritual ability to convert himself or bring himself to saving faith. If we would be saved then we must first be spiritually resurrected, “born again” by the Holy Spirit, given a new nature in Christ, before we will desire to come to Christ and embrace him by faith as Lord and Savior as he is offered in the gospel. And this is a sovereign work of God’s grace alone, not a work of man’s so-called “free will.”
Man has a will and makes choices every day in the natural realm. But fallen man’s will is in spiritual bondage and slavery to sin. Libertarian “free will” is a myth. Fallen man is spiritually incapable of “choosing Christ” by his own autonomous power. Unregenerate man has no will or desire to heed the gospel call to repent of sin and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. It takes a miraculous, supernatural work of Almighty, sovereign grace to convert a spiritually dead sinner and make such a sinner alive in Christ. The good news is that the Almighty, sovereign God is able to break the power of reigning sin, and to bring even the most wicked, vile sinner to heartfelt repentance and faith in Christ. Dear reader, he has the power to give you a new heart and a new spirit! He has the power to change your will and to implant within your soul a desire for Christ and a hunger for holiness. He is able to change your heart so that you freely and willingly come to Christ for salvation. Dear sinner, be humbled by these words of Jesus in John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (ESV) But then also be encouraged by the words of Jesus in John 6:37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Do you desire to come to Christ? Then he will most certainly receive you if you come to him in faith, and he will never cast you out if you do; for the Father has given you to his Son from before the foundation of the world. But do you have no desire for Christ as he is offered in the gospel? No desire for salvation from your sins? Then don’t blame God. You have no one but yourself to blame for the fallen condition of your sinful heart. Cry out to God for sovereign mercy. Flee from the wrath to come. Seek the Lord while he may be found! May he see fit to have mercy upon your soul.
Man’s will is bound, but God’s gracious will is absolutely sovereign and free! Praise be to God for his amazing, sovereign grace!