Free Will in Philemon 1:14
Visitor Question:Hey John - my name is Paul - and I am a regular visitor of your websites - Monergism and Reformationtheology. I love your articles on regeneration - and I appreciate your ministry very much. Thank you for your faithfulness to truth. I do have a question though - about the ESV.
In Philemon 1:14 the translators wrote: "I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will."
For one who holds to Reformation Theology - how does one respond to this passage? If I encourage people to use the ESV, and yet affirm Reformation Theology - what do I say to those who read this passage, and come back to me with their questions? Do you think that this passage was traslated faithfully? If so - how do I explain myself?
Thank you for your time, Paul
Hi Paul -- Thank you for your inquiry of the usage of "free will" in Philemon 1:14. First of all, it is important to remember that believers have been set free from the bondage to sin. Total Depravity is the condition of the unregenerate person. When Christ sets us free from the the bondage to sin in regeneration we freely (i.e. voluntarily") choose to folllow Christ because we have a new heart which desires to do so. It is because God has done a work of grace in us, turing our heart of stone to a heart of flesh that we gladly exercise our will to believe the gospel.
When non-Reformed people use the terms "free will' it is always good to define terms by asking, "Free from what?" Free from sin? Free from God's eternal decree? No. Of course not. Rather, what many of these persons mean by the phrase "free will" is that mankind is free from external coersion. On this we can all agree with other Christians. But just because we are free from coercion does not mean that we are free from other things such as sin. Consider the statement: we are free from coercion but not free of necessity. What do I mean by this? I mean we are free from anyone forcing (coercing) to make choices from the outside but not free of the corruption of our natures. By necessity does an unregenerate person feel hostile toward Christ. Apart form the work of the Holy Spirit people will always reject Christ and they cannot do otherwise. The Scripture says in no uncertain terms that "no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' apart from the Holy Spirit." But with the Holy Spirit giving me a new heart, my will is free from such bondage.
For this passage in particular, consider who the passage was written to in context?
"I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brotherâ€”especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord." - Philemon 1:13-16The passage is obviously spoken to a believer about making good choices. This just means 'voluntarily' and since it is directed toward believers who are already free from sins' bondage, of course they can 'freely' or voluntarily chose to do right. All people who already have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are free from the corruption of nature - so in Biblical terms (see Rom 6) they have already been set free. Freedom in the Bible is not defined as the freedom to do otherwise, but freedom from bondage to sin. God is the most free since He cannot sin. So in conclusion, this passage in Philemon is not referring to the innate spiritual ability of unregenerate persons, but of regenerate ones. Hope this helps John H.
Note: The newest version of the ESV has updated its translation of verse 14 as follows: "but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord."