"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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  • « Billy Graham - 50 years ago | Main | Those Arminian texts? »

    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 brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord." - Philemon 1:13-16
    The 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."

    Posted by John on October 13, 2008 03:17 PM


    John, I like your answer and agree. Question: did you intend to alter the quoted passage in your reply from "free will" to "accord?"

    My apologies. The passage I posted was copied from the ESV online. Perhaps an older version.;&version=47;

    I can repost it with the current translation.

    Great answer.

    John, you write "we are free from anyone forcing (coercing) to make choices from the outside but not free of the corruption of our natures."

    But even a regenerate person sins and is thus not free from the corruption of their nature. We need to see that the new birth is the start of a process of liberation and not a binary switch from slave to sin to free from sin.

    Secondly it seems to me that the debate about free will is largely fruitless because the parties mean different things by the phrase "free will". I reject the reformed insistence that unregenerate people have no free will but I do not hold that they are free from our corrupt nature either. These 2 things are not corollaries but different senses of the word "free". A person does not have to be free of sin or x to choose freely. If that were the case then nobody, including God, is free as our decisions are formed within the bounding framework of our natures.


    Thank you for your reasoned response. But to be blunt, the reason there is a difference in the parties definition is that one definition is philosophical and one Biblical. The whole libertarian free will idea is not a Biblical concept but imported into the text. On the other hand when we speak of freedom we are sticking very close to the text and what it means by the term. Let the Bible speak about these issues rather than making the determinations ourselves, apart from revelation.

    Also you say: "But even a regenerate person sins and is thus not free from the corruption of their nature."

    With all due respect, you miss the point of regeneration. All regenerate persons believe the gospel and cannot do otherwise. It is essential to their natures. The new heart loves Christ, believes him and desires to obey him. He is no longer in BONDAGE to sin. I.e previously he could do nothing but sin and would always reject the gospel. He was hostile to spiritual things and not even able to obey them (Rom 8:7, 1 Cor 2:14). Now he is freed from bondage and for the first and only time in his life he believes the gospel, an impossible supposition for the unregenerate.

    Great answer. By the way, I love your website and plan on visiting more in the future.

    Luther said that the term "free will" may rightly apply to those things below and not in those things above. Notice Paul's use of the word applies to a situation in a temporal circumstance on earth and not to the matter of man's salvation. From the Luther's Bondage of the Will, section on the Sovereignty of God(sections 9-27):

    "But, if we do not like to leave out this term altogether, (which would be most safe, and also most religious) we may, nevertheless, with a good conscience teach, that it be used so far as to allow man a "Free-will," not in respect of those which are above him, but in respect only of those things which are below him: that is, he may be allowed to know, that he has, as to his goods and possessions the right of using, acting, and omitting, according to his "Free-will;" although, at the same time, that same "Free-will" is overruled by the Free- will of God alone, just as He pleases: but that, God-ward, or in things which pertain unto salvation or damnation, he has no "Free-will," but is a captive, slave, and servant, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan. "

    found at

    In Him,



    it seems we agree that there are 2 senses of the word "free" being employed in the debate and it would seem the solution lies in defining terms and not labelling them as "biblical" or "philosophical" as though it were obvious which is more orthodox or pious and therefore true and as though they were worlds apart.

    We have a mandate in the Bible to explain the Gospel we proclaim and it simply will not do to wave slogans with double meanings around because of the confusion which will abound resulting in, as we see all around us, people rejecting a God they do not understand.

    What I mean in conclusion is that reformed believers need to stop waging a theological war on free will in realms in which non-theologians (or even non-Calvinists) are liable to be misled. You might then find that more of this latter group are sympathetic to reformed theology.

    Hi Marc

    Thank you for you comments -- Like you, I have found that when terms are defined that many people are actually persuadable, and it is a great help to understanding salvation by Christ alone. This is why I ask the questions like the ones in my post: free from what? It reveals presuppositions and help guide the diiscussion in a particular way. So in this you and I are entirely agreed.

    The ones intrenched in their positions who have websites dedicated to overthrowing salvation by grace alone most likely will not be persuadable. But most of the readers coming to monergism are not sure what they believe and are here to explore. When they read the essays on the will and clearly show what the Bible itself teaches about it, I have discovered that there is great inteest and I have had excellent discussions with folks on this.

    Historically, one of the main purposes of the reformation was bringin people back to understanding our grace in Christ which includes the concept of the bondage of the will. In fact, all true Christians agree that apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, the will and affections remain in bondage until Christ sets them free (rom 6). So the disagreement is not over whether man's will is free. We have already determined that it is not. The disagreement rather is over whether or not God's grace in Jesus Christ is effectual (John 6:65, 37).

    You speak of this issue almost as if it is a lost cause but I believe you may be mistaken about this. I have letters from 100s of people, many of whom point to reading the articles on as having transformed their understanding of the "free will" issue and the issue of grace overall. In order to really undersatand that we are saved by grace ALONE, I believe it is helpful to discuss this issue. Again, is not here to persuade the unpersuadable. The reason I post debates with opponents of this issue, is not to persuade them, but to help others who, by God's grace, are searching.

    Again, if we look at some specific materials historically. the free will debate has mostly been about the bondage of the will, especially with Calvin and Luther who both wanted to emphasize salvation by gracea lone in Christ alone. Only recently has the debate become philosophical. The issue should focus on salvation, not whether or not I can choose to brush my teeth or not. Please read the extensive listing of short quotes I have from Martin Luther on the subject.

    When we go to what Jesus says about this subject in Roman 6, the issue of freedom is directly tied to sin, not to whether or not people have the freedom to choose otherwise. The issue simply is this: does a person have the moral ability to come to Christ apart from the work of the Spirit. Can an unregenerate person have faith?


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