Understanding Free Will
from the archives - by John Samson...
Why are you reading this? Yes, this particular sentence? There are billions of sentences out there just waiting to be read, in many different languages, but right now, you are reading this one. Why?
Well, it could be that some reformed and crazed individual has put a gun to your head and told you that if you did not read this article he would shoot you. He would definitely be what I refer to as a "caged stage Calvinist," when after coming to understand the doctrines of grace, for a period of a couple of years or so, he needs to be locked up in a cage. That's the best thing for everybody concerned!! His zeal for reformational truth needs to be augmented with sanity in human relations! He sends books, tapes, CD's, DVD's, and e-mails to all unsuspecting victims, regardless of whether or not they have ever shown an interest in these things. Christmas is his favorite time of the year, for he's been eagerly waiting for this opportunity to send R. C. Sproul's book "Chosen by God" to everyone he knows. He's on a mission alright, but the best thing would be for him to cool down for a couple of years in a cage!
However, even with the crazed reformed nut with a gun scenario, you are still making the choice to read this blog article rather than face the contents of the gun. You prefer to read this rather than to feel the impact of the bullet. Even now, you are reading this because you want to - right now you do, anyway. In fact, because this is your strongest inclination, there is no possible way for you to be reading anything else at this moment.
You are still reading this? Well actually.. it is impossible that you would be reading something other than this right now, and this will continue to be the case until you have a stronger desire to do or to read something else.
So what exactly is free will? Do people have it? Does God have it? How free is God's will? Can He do what He wants? Can we do what we want?
These kind of questions are not new of course, but have been the source of countless conversations and debates amongst ordinary folk and the chief theologians of the Church throughout history. Martin Luther, in looking back over his ministry considered his book on the subject of the will to be his most important work. In Luther's mind, to misunderstand the will is to misunderstand the Reformation doctrine of sola gratia. He said, "If anyone ascribes salvation to the will, even in the least, he knows nothing of grace and has not understood Jesus Christ aright."
I don't believe the issue is particularly complicated, which is why I am attempting to write a brief article on it here. This is not an entire treatise on the will. Blog articles are a lot shorter and simply open the way for further discussion. However, I think enough can be said in a short time to get all of us thinking.
Coming to an understanding of the human will, though not complicated, is often times hampered by our firmly held traditions and man centered tendencies. We are all born Pelagians at heart, thinking we can be anything we want to be, do anything we want to do, whether or not God has a will in the matter. Human beings have wills. God has a will. But what exactly does it mean?
Can man do everything he chooses? Can man fly to the moon unaided by machine? Can man go to the North Pole and survive with just a T-shirt, shorts and shoes on? Can man take a deep breath and live under water for a day without oxygen? No, man's free will is limited by his nature. It is not within man's nature and ability to fly to the moon unaided, to survive extreme cold without being sufficiently wrapped up, or to survive in water without oxygen. The problem is not the will - it is the nature of man. Because it is not man's nature to do a thing, he is not free to do the thing.
Have you noticed, though the term "free will" is banded about every day, you don't actually find the phrase in scripture? That's because man's will has suffered a radical corruption in the Fall. Because our nature as unregenerate human beings has no interest in seeking after God (Romans 3:11), our will chooses, 100% of the time, to turn from God rather than towards him.
This is not due to some physical handicap, you understand, but rather a moral one - and one we are all responsible for. Adam's sin brought the Fall, which had radical consequences from his progeny. As our federal head and perfect representative, Adam sinned on our behalf. But before we say it is not just for God to declare the entire human race guilty in Adam, we need to understand the other side of the coin. That is the wonderful truth that all who are in Christ are declared not guilty, and reckoned righteous with Christ's perfect righteousness. We can't believe in one of these imputations and not the other and still be biblical in our thinking.
We were all perfectly represented by Adam. He was a literal human personality, not a legend or myth. All of humanity are represented by Adam and are reckoned guilty because of Adam's sin (Romans 5:12, 19); all those in Christ (the Last Adam) are reckoned just because of Christ's righteousness (Rom 5:17; 2 Cor 5:21). As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22)
Pastor Steve Weaver writes, "A good definition of free will is the ability of the mind to make choices in accordance with our natures. This definition of "free will" also applies to God's free will. He too is bound by His nature. Therefore, He cannot sin! Why? Because it is not His nature! But God does have a free will and, unlike human beings, He has an accompanying good and holy nature."
Jonathan Edwards said that the will is the mind choosing: though there is a distinction between mind and will, the two are inseparable in action. We do not make a choice without our mind's approving that choice. We always act according to the strongest inclination at the moment of choice. We choose according to our strongest inclination at a given moment.
Why did you put on the particular clothes you are wearing today (I am assuming you are not naked as you read this)? It was because the things you put on had more of an appeal to you than anything else in your closet. Now, it may have been that there was nothing else available to you. Even so, your desire to wear something was greater than your desire to wear nothing, hence your choice. Again, we choose according to our strongest inclination at the moment of the choice.
When we commit a sin, at that moment our desire to sin is greater than our desire to obey Christ. I think that is the most haunting thing about the sins I commit. That at that particular moment when I sinned, the sin was more appealing to me than obeying my Lord. This is the godly sorrow I believe, that works repentance.
The Bible teaches that I'm not free to choose God because it is contrary to my nature. That's why we need new natures that are given to us by the Holy Spirit at regeneration. Unless a man is born again he cannot enter or even see the kingdom of God (John 3).
Though man is commanded to seek the Lord while He may be found, and to come to Christ, we watch in vain for man to do so. Romans 3:11 literally reads, "There is no God seeker." John 6:44 says, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him and I will raise him up on the last day." Literally, the verse says, "no one is able."
Just like man is not able to fly to the moon unaided, the clear words of Christ here show that man is not able to come to Christ without Divine intervention. Here are some insights from Dr. R. C. Sproul concerning this verse:
"First, we notice that Jesus said "no one." This is a universal negative statement. It does not mean that some cannot come unless the Father draws them. It means absolutely no one can come unless God does something first. Mankind is so depraved in fallen-ness that, apart from the irresistible grace of God, no one would ever turn to Christ.
Second, we notice that Jesus said "can." Remember the difference between the words can and may. Can means "is able," while may means "has permission." Jesus is not saying that no one has permission to come to him. Rather, he says that no one is able to come to him. This is the biblical doctrine of man's total inability.
Third, we notice the word "unless." This introduces an exception. Apart from this exception, no one would ever turn to Christ.
Finally we come to the word "draw." Some have said that draw only means "woo" or "entice." That is not the case, however. In James 2:6 we read, "Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?" In Acts 16:19 we find, "They dragged them into the marketplace." The same Greek word is used in all three verses. Obviously, enticement is not in view here in John 6:44. Gerhard Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says that the word translated draw in John 6:44 means "to compel by irresistible authority." It was used in classical Greek for drawing water from a well. We do not entice or persuade water to leave the well; we force it against gravity to come up by drawing it. So it is with us. We are so depraved that God must drag us to himself." (Chosen by God)
The beauty of the gospel, however, is that, at the same time, the Spirit's work is to make His elect willing to come. He changes the disposition of rebel human hearts, taking out a heart of stone, and putting in a heart of flesh so that we willingly come. Jesus states, in John 6:44, that all who are drawn in this way are raised up at the last day, signifying that they are raised to eternal life with Christ in heaven.
John 3:3 Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
John 6:36-37 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
John 8:33-34 They answered him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?" Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
John 8:47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.
John 10:26-27 but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
Martin Luther: The Bondage of the will
Jonathan Edwards: The Freedom of the will
R. C. Sproul: Willing to Believe; Chosen by God