Clarifying Some Confusion About "Free Will"
Have you ever heard anyone ask something like "How do we reconcile the fact that God is sovereign but man has a free will"? We need to take a close look at the question itself because it has assumptions that may or may not be be in the Scripture.
First we must ask those who pose this question what they mean by the phrase "free will". We can reveal this simply by asking them, Free from what?... What is it that people are free from?" "Are people free from sin?", are they "Free from God's decree?" No ... in both cases people are not free. Natual people are not free from sin and there is nothing you do that takes God by surprise for He has ordained all things that come to pass (Eph 1:11) There are no maverick molecules which act independently from God, as R.C. Sproul says, where God might say "I did not know such and such would take place". Nor does anything happen by chance, as if chance were some other competing force in the universe that is outside God's control.
So what do you think people actually mean when they boldly assert man has a free will? Perhaps what persons mean to say is that man is free from external coersion. That his choices are voluntary. In this people of all sides of this issue can agree (even hard determinists), but just because someone is free in one sense (from coersion in this case) does not mean his will is free in another. He is not free from sin nor is He free to do other than what God has determined he will do. Yes, man voluntarily chooses what he will do, but this is compatible with God's sovereignty and meticulous providence (Gen 50:20; Acts 2:23).
Consider, if the natural man sins by NECESSITY (not coersion) then he also lacks freedom. The will or affections are not free from the bondage of sin. Also we must, above all, consider whether the Bible uses the expression 'freedom' to describe any fallen, unregenerate man. Since the Bible never uses this expression or even alludes to the concept that man has a free will (but actually teaches the opposite), the question originally posed has false assumptions which are alien to the text (our only authority in such matters). Here's why:
According to Scripture no man is free (Rom 6:6) UNTIL Christ sets us free (Rom 6:18). Jesus clearly affirms that prior to His regenerating grace (which disarms the hostile disposition of the heart toward Christ), persons are 'slaves to sin'. And, by any definition of the word, a slave is not free. Therefore, If man is in bondage to a corruption of nature causing him of necessity to sin, as the Scripture affirms, then he is not, in any sense, free as the Bible defines it ...that is, until the grace of God in Christ sets him free. Freedom as defined by the Bible is freedom from sin or holiness. In this sense only God is completely free. It would indeed be correct to say man HAS A WILL and that his choices are VOLUNTARY (not coerced) but this does not make the choices free. Fallen man chooses sin of NECESSITY due to a corruption of nature, and this is just as much a form of bondage of the will as any, and a more properly biblical way of expression.
But take note, when we make choices of necessity (since we cannot use our will to act sinlessly), this does not, therefore, alleviate our responsibility to be holy or obey God's commands. Example: If we borrow $5 million to establish a new company and then go squander it in a week of wild living in Las Vegas, our inability to repay the debt does not alleviate us of any responsibility to do so. Inability, therefore, does not alleviate us of responsibility. God often commands us to do things we are morally unable to do apart from the grace of Jesus Christ. And like the above example, our debt to God for breaking his law cannot be repaid by us, yet this does not in any way alleviate us of responsibility to repay that debt. I am not making this up, Scripture affirms this:
"Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Romans 3:19, 20)
In other words, the purpose of the divine legislation is not to reveal our ability, but our inability. Its' purpose is to strip us of all hope in ourself that we might flee to Christ.
So I would contend that whenever speaking about the concept of "free will," because of the confusion surrounding it, we should only define freedom as the Bible does: that man's will is not free, but rather is in bondage to sin. Clearly the Bible affirms that, apart from a supernatural and merciful work of the Holy Spirit to change our naturally hostile disposition to God, no person would ever willingly receive Christ (John 6:65). And Just as water does not rise above its source, so unspiritual men do not think or act spiritually (1 Cor 2:14).
May Christ be exalted.