Is the Will Free by Nature or by Grace?

By John Hendryx

Many persons may reason that if the will is voluntarily choosing something and not coerced, then it is free. Well, we all make voluntary choices but there is still another sense in which the will is not free. When we speak of freedom of the will we need to ask, freedom relative to what? Historically speaking, Biblical scholars have understood a "free will" to be one which has in its power the moral ability to choose good or evil. So when we ask whether man has a free will, we are asking if his will is free (or in bondage) relative to sin and evil. In this respect, of course, the will is not free because through man’s innate wickedness, due to the fall, he is of necessity driven to what is evil, that is, unable to do any redemptive good (Rom 8:7). The natural man's many good works, even though in accord with God's commands, are not well pleasing to God when weighed against His ultimate criteria and standard of perfection. The love of God and His law is never the unbelievers' deepest animating motive and principle, so it does not earn him the right to redemptive blessings from a holy God. And if a choice to do evil is made out of necessity (since the love of God is never the unbeliever's motive), then it is not free, because it cannot choose otherwise. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, the natural person of uncircumcised heart is stiffnecked (of necessity) and will refuse to obey the commandments of the law and the gospel. And if the natural man chooses to sin of necessity, there is no sense in which he is free that ultimately matters to God. All choices we make are ethical ones, since, in them, we either glorify God or we do not, and God holds us accountable for these choices. And because God holds us accountable for every choice and thought, the ethical nature of each choice is of primary concern in determining whether the will is free or not.

Bad behavior itself, however, is really only a symptom of a much greater core concern. The natural man chooses/wills only what that inner principle desires most. But if the acts of his will are not determined by his internal nature, but rather are choices unconstrained by our nature and desires, as libertarians claim, then in what sense can it be said that those decisions are the results of a decision of the person himself? So any idea of a neutral will is absurd since our will is always driven by its moral nature which direct our desires (either we love God in our choice or we do not). Jesus said, "a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bad fruit." Thus, he is saying that it is the nature of the tree determines the kind of fruit it produces. Only by "making the tree good", Jesus says, will the fruit be good. In other words, unless Jesus redeems us from the bondage to sin (Rom 6; 2 Tim 2:25), we have no hope in the world to make any right (redemptive) choice, including believing the gospel (see John 6:65). Again, in what sense are we in bondage (slaves) to sin if not by our affections or wills? Our affections and desires drive the choices we make binding our will over to certain choices. Jesus said to Nicodemus,

"...men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light ..." John 3:19-20 (emphasis mine)

According to this, and many other passages, people exercise their will, of necessity, according to what they love and hate. The reason anyone does not come into the light is because he hates it and his affection is exclusively set on something else. The natural man, without the grace of the Holy Spirit to open his blind eyes and turn his heart of stone to a heart of flesh, loves darkness and hates the light. His will is then exercised within the constraints of the affections, desires and passions of his nature. In Romans chapter 6 when it says we are slaves to sin, in what sense is the natural man a "slave to sin" if not by the will and affections? This is a legitimate question.

The subject of whether or not man has a free will is a more easily understandable than most Christians imagine. The fact is, it can easily be proven from Scripture, that man has no free will (to choose good or evil), and while many already hold to this idea inconsistently, all true Christians really do embrace this idea without consciously knowing it. Ask most evangelicals, whether man has a free will, however, and most will automatically answer, "yes of course", without showing scriptural evidence, but many other beliefs they already confess flatly contradict this assertion. Let me attempt to show you where this inconsistency exists. Here are two simple questions to ask anyone which will remove all false presuppositions and prove, once for all, that the natural man has no free will:

1. Do you believe that the Holy Spirit plays any role in the sinner coming to faith in Christ? (Because the Bible affirms this, all true evangelicals will answer 'yes')

2. Do you believe that, apart from any supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, the sinner, by nature, has the will, ability, affection and desire to come to Christ?
(Because the Bible denies this all true evangelicals will answer 'no')

Thus you have, in two simple questions, completely disarmed any and all argument against the free will of man. Here is plain proof that all Christians, without exception, believe that no man is found NATURALLY willing to submit to the humbling terms of the gospel of Christ. The natural man, apart from the Holy Spirit, has no desire and affection for Christ and thus no free will to believe the gospel or do any redemptive good, because, of necessity, due to a corruption of his/her nature, fallen man is in bondage to sin. If the Holy Spirit is necessary to make us love God, then it follows that we had no ability to love him before the arrival of the Holy Spirit. It also means that the Holy Spirit is not given because we chose to love God. We chose to love God because the Spirit is given. Grace, not a virtue in man, takes the initiative. When we say a person is in bondage it simply means they have no freedom to choose otherwise, left to themselves. Through the centuries, Augustine (Anti-Pelagian Writings), Luther (Bondage of the Will), Calvin (Bondage and Liberation of the Will), Edwards (Freedom of the Will), etc... discussed the free will controversy in terms of sin (bondage) and holiness (freedom). And why did these Reformers all discuss the issue this way? Because this is how the Bible defines bondage and freedom. Using a word picture, when God redeems Israel from Egypt the idea is in their deliverance from bondage to slavery which God had accomplished for His people in the exodus (Exod 6:6). Christ now likewise redeems his people, the true Passover Lamb sacrificed for us so that God, seeing the blood on our doorpost, so to speak, passes over our sins, But now, instead of being delivered from physical slavery in Egypt Christ sets us free from the bondage of our wills to sin, enabling us to believe. He died for the reign of sin that once mastered us. So when Reformed Christians now and through history discuss whether or not we have a free will, they are usually pointing to the fact that man's will and affections are broken and, due to fallen nature, "will not come into the light" (John 3:20). The libertarian, on the other hand, asserts that we have the innate ability to choose otherwise, that is, contrary to who we are by nature. But Augustine, finding more support in the Bible, asserted that prior to the Fall, (1) man was able to sin or not sin. (2) But after the Fall, unregenerate man is not able not to sin. (3) Fallen, but regenerated man is able to sin or not sin, and (4) Glorified man is not able to sin.

The Scripture describes fallen man as those who are hostile to God (Rom 8:7; Col 1:21) are in bondage to sin (Gal 4:3; 6:17, 20), and taken captive by Satan to do his will (2 Tim 2:25), until the Son sets them free (John 8:36). Why would the Son need to set them free from sin unless they were not free, i.e. slaves to sin? When we speak of man having no free will we are not saying man's will is not self-determined, because it is. But self-determination is not the same thing as free will, because, we can only choose what we desire most, and that which we desire is in bondage to who we are by nature. As fallen creatures, then, we will only choose according to our corrupt nature, and cannot choose otherwise, so the outcome of our choice is determined. The natural man will always choose reject Christ due to the effects of sin on his affections. John Calvin said there is a great "difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity [will exercise his] will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined. (John Calvin, BLW pp 70)

Indeed, God sovereignly directs our wills to a particular outcome that is certain, but there is no Scriptural evidence that says this goes against what we want most at that moment. Rather, the Scripture simply says that the will is evil by a corruption of nature, but only becomes good by the grace of Jesus Christ applied by the Holy Spirit. It is not because of natural strength that we believe. We do not, in our unregenerate state, convert ourselves. By our own efforts, apart from the Holy Spirit, we cannot achieve this for Jesus says 'apart from Me you can do nothing.' The Scripture further testifies that "no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3) and the natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit, because they are spiritually appraised. They are foolishness to him (1 Cor 2:14) and he acts only as he is acted upon, in accordance to the measure of grace he has received. While the preaching of the gospel is necessary to cast forth the seed of the gospel, it will not fall onto good soil unless the Spirit plows up the fallow ground and germinates the seed (so to speak). The soil is not good by nature but is made good by grace.

But people still tend to confuse coercion with necessity. Recently I heard Ron Rhodes interviewed on a local radio station and he said God did not create us as robots ... and this is correct, and then he said, God gave us free choice [between good and evil]... which is right when applied to Adam (since his will was not yet corrupted or in bondage)... But when we say Adam was free we do not mean that he was free from the eternal decrees of God, but we mean free, as the Bible defines freedom (free from bondage to a sin nature). but then Rhodes commits a fatal error is when he said that "our will is free just like Adams'" ...which is nonsense. Our will is corrupted and in bondage till Christ sets us free. What Rhodes means to say, I believe, is that we are not robots, which is true ... but this is not how the Scripture defines the will which is not free ... so it is wrong to teach that man has a free will. It destroys the very gospel we preach.

The unregenerate or natural man, who is by nature hostile to God, loves sin, and thus, apart from the grace of regeneration, will not seek God on God's terms (1 Cor 2:14, Rom 8:7). He will invariably use his boasted "free will" to flee from, and suppress the truth of God (Rom 1:18). The regenerate (those the Spirit has quickened), on the other hand, are granted a renewed sense or disposition which has new understanding, desires and holy affections for God. As such, our natural hostility to God (John 3:19, 20) is disarmed and so we freely exercise our will to trust in Jesus, who now holds our supreme affection over all other idols. The Scripture gives clear witness to the concept that our nature drives what kind of choices we make:

"It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe ... And He was saying, "For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father." ( John 6:63-65)
[note: "the phrase "come to Me" is a synonym for "faith" or "believe" so no one can believe unless God grants it and verse 37 says "all that the Father gives me will come to me" so we have a syllogism which say none will believe unless God grants it but all to whom God grants it will believe. ]

"Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. "[note: a person produces fruit in accord with his nature] (Matt 7:16-18)

" Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad. You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. " (Matt 12:33- 35)

"Can the Ethiopian change his skin Or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good Who are accustomed to doing evil." (Jeremiah 13:23)

"But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and know them, and they follow Me." (John 10:26-27)

34Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin..."If you were Abraham's children," said Jesus, "then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41You are doing the things your own father does...44You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don't you believe me? 47He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God." John 8:34-47

In other words, water does not rise above its source. Apart from the work of the Spirit, we cannot lift a finger toward our own salvation. It is about as likely as your ability to create a world.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Arminian theology defines and affirms freewill as an inalienable power to do otherwise [ that moral decisions are strictly uncaused, independent of all our desires], whereas the biblical position (The texts of which were quoted above) defines and affirms freewill as a voluntary or uncoerced decision [according to our greatest desire]. On the latter definition, freedom and determinism are consistent (compatibilism). Reformed theology denies freewill in the Arminian sense. There are several specific respects in which Reformed theology denies freewill. It denies that (i) an agent is free to thwart the divine decree; that (ii) the unregenerate are free to believe the Gospel; that (iii) the regenerate are free to commit apostasy, or that (iv) the glorified are free to sin. The Arminian version attacks the Reformed version on ethical grounds whereas the Reformed version attacks the Arminian version on exegetical and philosophical grounds. - Adapted from Steve Hays
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Note: Some theologians speak of freedom of the will in relation to God's absolute sovereignty (i.e. whether we are free from God's control), which is, of course, absurd since any existence of chance in the universe would mean that God could somehow be taken by surprise by some choice we make. Foisting such ignorance on God is unscriptural to say the very least. Eph 1:11 clearly states that God has predetermined all things after the counsel of his will. But human choices in the is never spoken of in the Bible in terms of slavery or freedom from God.... and this is why we do not use the term "free will" in this way when we speak of it. God clearly controls all things and directs our wills how He pleases, but in so directing our wills are still voluntary (not coerced), that is, not against what we desire. This falls under the question of meticulous providence, not freedom and bondage of the will. For it would be absurd to speak of the sinners will as being on bondage to God. The only place where this is spoken of in the Text is Romans 6 which says that we were set free from our slavery to sin and made slaves to righteousness. But here our slavery to righteousness is actually how the Bible defines freedom.

Related Essays
The Unregenerate Will: Self-Determined But Not Free: Coercion vs. Necessity by John Hendryx New!
Free Will and Synergism Email from Unhappy Visitor with John Hendryx
The Bondage of the Will By Dr. Martin Luther (opnline books)

John Hendryx

More Essays