MAN’S FREE WILL
Free will is one of those doctrines that need to be wrestled with before the blessing of understanding comes. It’s reminiscent of Jacob not wanting to let go the Man he wrestled with all night until that Man blessed him. That Man, of course, turned out to be the pre-incarnate Sovereign Lord Himself!
There are many in the churches today that on account of the view they hold on free will have, as it were, snatched God’s sovereignty from Him without even having wrestled with Him. In other words, they presuppose that man is sovereign in his own right! And because they view man as sovereign in his own right, when, e.g., it comes to salvation, they don’t believe that it is God, so to speak, who enters the ring and wrestles with men in order to save and bless them. And so we’re left with the strange spectacle today of “Gospel preachers” proclaiming a God who is waiting patiently in the sidelines for you to decide to let Him save you!
This is a “Gospel” in which you are being urged to invite God into the ring, or the centre of the football stadium, or into your heart, so that you can embrace Him! Do you see the picture? There you are sitting in the sidelines listening to a message. Then you’re invited to leave the ringside and enter the ring to give God a hug as He patiently waits in the ring for you. What’s wrong with this picture? Well, it has put you in sovereign control of your own salvation – it’s all left up to you!
To be sure, God holds each of us responsible for our own actions, but the Gospel is not about you inviting God into your heart, but rather it is about God genuinely inviting you the rebel to repent of your sins and believe in the Gospel. You see, in salvation, as in all other things, it is God alone who is sovereign. It is God who takes the initiative.
Therefore, the teaching that God won’t intrude on your “airspace” unless you invite Him is a false one! And it all stems from a faulty understanding of man’s free will. Yes, man always has free will, but don’t confuse free will with ability. We are free to choose good over evil, Heaven over Hell, but this freedom doesn’t necessarily mean that we are always able to refuse the evil and to choose the good.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” Genesis 1:1. In this opening verse of the Bible we see that God is the ultimate source of all created things. Man is a thing created by God. Therefore, it was God who took the initiative to create man.
It’s very important that you hold on to the distinction between God and man. God alone is the Creator. Man is a creature. Therefore, there is no equality between God and man. God is sovereign over all creation. Therefore, God is sovereign over man, who is an aspect of God’s creation.
The sovereign LORD God created man in His own likeness: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” Genesis 1:27-28.
So, we see then that man is a sovereign of sorts. He has dominion over fish, birds, and every thing that creeps on the earth. But, man’s sovereignty is a derived sovereignty. It is a sovereignty granted or gifted to us by God. So, again we see that God alone is sovereign over all things, including you and me. Therefore, whatever sovereignty we have over any thing, it has been granted to us by God.
When He made man in His image the sovereign LORD entered into a covenant with us (mankind) as represented by Adam. “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree in the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” Genesis 2:15-17.
In this we see that God had given man a test. This test was a test of man’s will. The man was to decide whether he would be willing to refuse or shun the evil and do the good that God had commanded him to do. Therefore, man was to exercise his will – his freewill. Would man will to do the good things God commanded him to do? Or would man will or choose the evil and disobey God?
At this point you need to see that God has endued or equipped man with a free will, which is to say that when God created man He created him with a natural freedom. Thus man by nature is free – free to exercise his will whichever way he chooses. In other words, when God created mankind He created us in a way that we are not forced or determined or compelled to good or evil by anything inside or outside of us. There was no inner compulsion and there was no outer compulsion for man to do good or evil. To be sure, the subtle serpent was very enticing. But the decision to choose either good or evil, life or death, Heaven or Hell rested in the very nature of man as he was created.
Man before the Fall was able of himself and by himself to choose one or the other. The sovereign Lord had designed man with this freedom of will. Therefore, by free will we mean that man is able to will or choose only those things that are in accordance with his nature. And we know that God had created man with a good nature, because when God saw everything He had made, including man, indeed it was very good (Genesis 1:31). So, man was a good-natured soul in the beginning. Therefore, he wasn’t created neutral. Rather man was created good with a tendency toward good. Pre-Fall man tended toward good because God created man with a good nature.
But what happened next? Well, as you know man exercised the free will God had given him. But, for some reason he chose evil over good! He chose death over life; Hell over Heaven! Why? Well, I’m afraid we’re left with a bit of a mystery as to why. But we do know that man of his own free will chose to disobey God. And didn’t that throw the proverbial spanner into the works, i.e., the works of man!
But, did God lose His sovereignty over man when man sinned? Did man somehow snatch God’s sovereignty from Him? Of course not! God came seeking the man and his wife in the garden, didn’t He? In other words, the sovereign LORD God stepped into the ring with Adam and Eve. And He graciously promised them that He would take care of the mess they had made! He promised that He would send One to crush the serpent’s head. And He sovereignly pronounced judgment on the serpent, and Adam, and his wife, Eve. And He cursed the ground for man’s sake. Then He made tunics of skin and clothed the man and his wife.
But what happened to the freewill that man had been created with? Nothing! Nothing happened to man’s free will. But what happened to man? What happened to that good nature he had been created with?
“And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” Genesis 3:8. Adam and Eve exercised their God-given freewill and sinned against God by eating the forbidden fruit. Therefore, they both failed the outward test God had set for them, which is to say that Adam broke the covenant God had made with Adam as humanity’s representative (Hosea 6:7; Rom 12:5f. etc.), i.e., the Covenant of Works.
But notice that the man and the woman still had freewill post-Fall. But they did not exercise that freewill and decide to seek after God in order to find forgiveness – which would have been good. No, they both decided or chose to hide themselves from God among the trees. Therefore, after the Fall they chose only the evil. Why did man after the Fall choose not to refuse the evil and do the good? Well, it was because man’s nature had become corrupt. He was no longer “good-natured” but had become “bad-natured.”
And because man has a God-given freewill, man can only ever act according to his (now corrupt) nature regarding God. Therefore, if man is corrupt by nature, then that which springs from his nature will be corrupt. It’s as Jesus says in Matthew 7:17&18, “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.”
Man by his Fall became a bad tree bearing bad fruit, which is another way of saying that he became dead in his trespasses and sins, Colossians 1:13. And because we’ve become bad trees bearing bad fruit we are deserving only of the fires of Hell as just punishment. As John the Baptist says, “And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” Luke 3:9.
So, what are we to do? Mankind has been hiding from God among the trees as it were since Adam and Eve sinned. Why wouldn’t we just come out into the light and beg God for mercy? Well again, we will not do that because that would be a good or an unfallen or spiritual thing. And man in his fallen or spiritually dead state is not able to do any such good spiritual thing! It says in Genesis 6:5, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” And if you think that man has somehow changed in nature from this, then just read Romans 3:10-12: “As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.’”
So, we see then that things haven’t changed since Adam and Eve were hiding in the bushes from God. There is still none who seeks after God. There is still none who does good. Now, the type of good that is being spoken of here is spiritual good, of course. It’s not saying that mankind does no good deeds whatsoever. But rather it’s saying that man has lost all ability to do any spiritual good regarding salvation. Man, by his Fall, is not able to save himself, nor is he able even to contribute one iota to his salvation. This is where the confusion lies among Christians today. Those who are confused think that freewill means ability. They think that if you are free to do something then you must have the ability to do it.
Is an eagle free to rise up and soar in the sky? Yes? If its wings are clipped, is it still free to rise up and soar in the sky? Of course the eagle is still free to fly. But is it able with clipped wings? Well, so it is with you and me. We are free to will whatever we will, but we are not able to do any spiritual good. God clipped our spiritual wings when we sinned in Adam in the garden. Therefore, we killed ourselves spiritually when in Adam our representative we transgressed God’s everlasting covenant. However, unlike the eagle with its wings clipped, which, because of its nature wants to fly but is unable, we, because of our fallen natures are not only unable to choose God, but we do not want to! In other words, we are at enmity or war with God!
Spiritual death is an aspect of the penalty for our breaking the Covenant of Works: ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ Romans 6:23 (see also Genesis 2:17). God’s Law and Gospel are spiritual things. Therefore fallen man is dead to these things because he is spiritually dead – he is carnally-minded. He is dead to spiritual things – the things of God, which includes His Law and Gospel! It’s as the Apostle Paul says under inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:7, “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.”
Therefore, in order for a man to respect God who is Spirit, and respect His spiritual Law, the nature of a man would need to undergo a change. The bad tree would need to somehow be changed or transformed into a good tree. The eagle would somehow need to regain its wings. And that’s what the Gospel is all about, isn’t it? It’s about God bringing the spiritually dead back to life! It’s about a gracious God giving you the ability and the will or desire to mount up with wings as eagles! God needs to restore and renew our fallen and unwilling nature.
As it was in the Garden right after the fall, so it is now. As BB Warfield put it: “The Gospel is the seeking love of God.” Yes, the Gospel is about God seeking fallen men. Hence it has nothing to do with fallen men seeking God. For “…there is none who does good, no, not one” Romans 3:11b. Yet, you’d think it’s about fallen men seeking God, were you to look at today’s so-called gospel where it’s thought, given the right atmosphere and conditions, man will choose or decide to follow God! What a distortion of the true Gospel it is when fallen men are no longer viewed as they really are: i.e., “…dead in trespasses and sins…” and “by nature children of wrath…” Ephesian 2:3.
Listen to Ephesians 2:1-3 if you don’t believe me, “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.”
Notice that God is the One who makes alive. And notice who He makes alive, i.e., those dead in trespasses and sins. And notice how those who are dead in trespasses and sins conduct themselves. They walk according to the course of this world; not God’s kingdom. They conduct themselves in the lusts of sinful flesh, fulfilling its desires even of the mind. And look at who they are by nature. They are by nature “children of wrath.”
So we see then, that though the freewill of man was left intact after the Fall, man is dead in trespasses and sins. And as such he desires only those evil things, which is to say that he is averse all spiritual good. Therefore he is not able to convert himself, or even able to prepare himself for conversion. He is a ship without a rudder, heading for the rocks of destruction. He is a cloud without water, carried about by the winds. He is a late autumn tree without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots, (see Jude 12).
Yes, mankind in our lost and fallen condition is by nature “children of wrath.” Think about it: if the unregenerate did not have freewill God could not hold them accountable for their sins! Therefore, it is because we have a freewill that God holds us all accountable (i.e., responsible) for our sins in the first place!
But the good news is that God is gracious!
Freewill Under Grace
Man is not able to bring himself back to life. But God is able to bring dead things back to life, even to everlasting life. But He doesn’t meet you half way in order to give you everlasting life. It’s not “God has done His bit, now you need to do yours. So hop down to the front so you can invite Him into your heart and get saved!”
Can’t you see that this is teaching you that you are somehow able to save yourself? If you are able to decide to follow Jesus then the Bible must be wrong when it says that it is God who makes us alive! Because, by definition, in order to be able to decide to follow Jesus you would need to be spiritually alive already! And if you were spiritually alive already you wouldn’t need a Saviour! Because the Saviour was sent to save those who are spiritually dead, i.e., sinners! And if you are not spiritually dead, then you are a good tree producing good fruit. And if you are not a bad tree producing bad fruit, you are not in need of salvation! And yet they continue to fill whole football stadiums with this false teaching about man! And it’s mostly to do with a wrong understanding of man’s freewill.
Left to his own, fallen man is not able to choose the good and refuse the evil. That’s what the Bible teaches cover to cover! It’s like a child being given the choice of liver and onions or ice cream. The child is free to choose either, but will choose the ice cream every time! Martin Luther wrote a book about the bondage of the will. The will is in bondage to our own sinful nature. But there is this good-news-teaching in the Bible about grace – God’s grace! “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” Ephesians 2:8&9.
If any unconverted sinner is able to decide to follow Jesus then he is, by definition, saved by his own works. But the Bible teaches that it is God who saves sinners by His grace alone. His grace is a gift, a free gift – it’s not of works. If we were able to do any work, no matter how small, towards our salvation then we would have grounds to boast. But we have absolutely no grounds for boasting because we are saved by God’s grace alone. He is the One who raises us, who are dead in our trespasses and sins, back to life. As Jesus says to His disciples, even you and me, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain…” John 15:16.
But, let’s say that you have been raised to life spiritually. Let’s say that you who were once a bad tree have now become a good tree. What kind of fruit would you now be producing? Good fruit? Well, is boasting about something you didn’t do, good fruit? Yet how many millions that have gone forward at altar calls (whether in football stadiums or in church buildings, wherever) have been taught that it was they who decided for, or chose, Jesus?
As well-meaning as this decisionistic teaching is, how many in the churches today, because of it, believe that bad trees can produce good fruit? Chaos! For that’s what you’re teaching if you believe that fallen men are able to decide (without God’s having first regenerated them) to follow Jesus of their own free will, or even that they are able to decide with the assistance of God’s grace. But the Bible teaches that fallen man will only decide in accordance with his fallen nature. It’s from this fallen nature, i.e., that God-avoiding, God-despising corrupt nature, that God converts us.
When Adam and Eve sinned they became corrupt by nature, didn’t they? They became bad trees producing bad fruit, didn’t they? Okay, if Adam and Eve were bad trees producing bad fruit, what kind of offspring would they produce? They would be bad trees producing bad fruit all the way down to you and me! And if we are all children of Adam and Eve, what kind of trees are we? We are bad trees producing bad fruit. As Jesus says in John 3:6-7, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. So we see then that it is the Spirit of God who gives birth to spiritual people. And, as we ourselves didn’t give birth to ourselves when we were born physically, neither do we give birth to ourselves when we are born spiritually. The Holy Spirit must work savingly in our heart before we can be born again. Therefore, as we don’t decide to be born physically, neither do we decide to be born spiritually.
Those who are invited to decide for Jesus cannot decide or choose to follow Jesus unless they are already born again! For only those who are born of the Spirit are able to do any spiritual good. Only the recipients of God’s saving grace are able to choose the good and refuse the evil. Have you got that? Man before the fall was able to choose the good and refuse the evil. But man after the Fall was only able to choose the evil but not the good. However, those who have been born again by the Spirit of grace are once again able to choose the good. But the trouble is that they are able also to choose the evil and sometimes do! As Paul says to the Galatians in Galatians 5:17, “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things you wish.”
So the Christian has a wrestling match going on within. It’s as the Apostle says in Romans 7:18-20, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to perform what is good I do not find. For the good I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” The Apostle is saying then that there is corruption remaining in the heart of those who have been born again. Man before the fall was spiritually alive. Man after the Fall was spiritually dead. Man after saving grace is spiritually alive, but still suffers the effects of sin. But in each of these three conditions man’s freewill is intact.
You who have been born of the Spirit of God, do you not still sin? And when you sin are you not conscious of the fact that you have chosen or decided or willed to sin? Of course you sin! And of course you are conscious of the fact that you choose to sin. But when you sin it’s like the dog returning to its own vomit, isn’t it? You wonder why you sin when you find it so repulsive! Well, you sin because there remains in you a residue of what you used to be like by nature before God brought you back to (spiritual) life!
In your old nature you used to choose only evil continually. You were not able to choose the spiritual good at all. But now that you are born of the Spirit you are able to choose the spiritual good and to shun the evil. But the trouble is that you don’t always refuse the evil, do you? Sin still clings to us like cigarette smoke long after the cigarette has been extinguished!
But the good news is that in Glory we will not be able to sin, which is to say that there will be absolutely no residue of sin within us in glory. In Glory we will have a perfect good nature and unchangeable freewill forever. This is because in Glory He who has begun a good work in you will have completed it.
A.A. Hodge puts it like this: “Adam was holy and unstable. Unregenerate men are unholy and stable; that is, fixed in unholiness. Regenerate men have two opposite moral tendencies contesting for empire in their hearts. They are cast about between them, yet the tendency graciously implanted gradually in the end perfectly prevails. Glorified men are holy and stable. All are free, and therefore responsible.” (The Confession of Faith, p. 166).
We have seen above that freewill and ability are two different things. A person with a corrupt nature, like a bad tree, is not able to produce any spiritual or good fruit. Nor does the person with the corrupt nature wish or will to produce spiritual fruit. For that, when you think about it, would be to go against his nature – his fallen or sinful nature. This would be to violate that person’s freewill!
A person’s freewill is violated if that person is forced to go or to do anything against his will, whether good or evil. Therefore at no time, past, present, or future does God interfere with man’s freewill. But this does not in any way suggest that man is sovereign in his own salvation. For God alone is sovereign in all things, including salvation. Nor does it mean the God will not change a man’s nature. But it does mean that God holds man accountable for the exercise of his freewill. He holds man accountable, i.e., responsible for all the deeds done in his body whether good or evil.
Therefore, God is inviting you to repent and believe in the Gospel while there is still time. If you will not repent and believe in the Gospel then you have proven the Bible true when it says that you are not able to refuse the evil and choose the spiritual good. And if you are repenting and believing in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then you are proving that you are able to refuse the evil and choose the spiritual good. But either way, you are testifying that it is God by His grace alone who saves us, because only He can give you a new nature and a new spirit.
Doesn’t Scripture ask: “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to evil” Jeremiah 13:23.