Thursday, September 3, 2009

On Free Will

An non-reformed friend of mine recently asked me what I believe about "free will".

I wrote out a response to him.

This is in response to your question to me as to what I believe about free will.

Free will is the ability for a person to make choices that determine some or all of his actions. Human choices are real and make a difference in the outcome of events. The will is only as free as its nature permits it to be free. We cannot violate our own natures and our will is part of our nature, and our will is directly related to and affected by our nature. If our nature affects our ability to choose, then what the Bible says about our nature will effect our ability to choose. The unbeliever is a slave to sin (Rom. 6:14-20, John 8:34), has a heart that is desperately sick (Jer. 17:9), is full of evil (Mark 7:21-23), loves darkness rather than light (John 3:19), is dead in his sins (Eph. 2:1), does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12), it does not submit to God's law—indeed it cannot—and it cannot please God (Rom. 8:7-8), it is not able to come to Christ (John 6:44, 65), and cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). A sinful will is not able to choose contrary to what the Bible clearly states concerning its nature, which is in pretty bad shape. If someone is a slave of sin, is dead, does not seek for God, is full of evil, and does not understand spiritual things, it makes sense to say that his choices are limited to the scope allowed by the description set forth in the Bible. This is what Genesis 6:5 means when it says that every intention of the thoughts of man's heart is only evil continually.

Now the only question left after a group of texts like that is if that inability, that "cannot," is blameworthy or not, whether it gets us off the hook or puts us deeper on the hook.

I think the Bible is pretty clear that the corruption of our own hearts, being so great that we can't do good, intensifies our guilt rather than relieves us of it. My inability to do good apart from the Holy Spirit is not an exonerating inability. It is an inability that is rooted square in my rebellion.

So what I believe about free will is that I am free to do whatever I please, and what I please is to sin. Therefore I'm going to be damned by my free will. I must be rescued from the bondage of my free will in order to see and hear God for who he is.

Does that make me an automaton or diminish the glory of God? I don't think so, because what God does is come to me and free me from the bondage of my blindness and deafness and hardness so that, finally, I become rational and can act as a truly free human being. This is called being "born again".

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter IX, puts it this way.

"I. God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined good, or evil.

II. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.

III. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has 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.

IV. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he does not perfectly, or only, will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.

V. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only."

If any man doth ascribe of salvation, even the very least, to the free will of man, he knoweth nothing of grace, and he hath not learnt Jesus Christ aright.
Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will.


Nick said...

Thanks for this careful response. I appreciate the time you put into laying this out.

So it sounds like you believe in the free will that follows Christ's redemption of our nature (I'm looking at the tiny paragraph you wrote before quoting the Westminster Confession) and that before we are joined to Christ, our sinful natures restrict our will to that which is sinful. Am I understanding you correctly?

Matthew said...

In essence yes, you are understanding me correctly. Before regeneration our sinful natures restrict our will to that which is sinful, and more specifically, from anything having to do with salvation. This is the reason for the nessessity of regeneration.



Nick said...

Could you unpack the phrase "anything having to do with salvation"? Would you say that prior to our full regeneration in the cross that there is nothing good that is accessible to man (either in recognition or action)?